Characters: Loki, Clint Barton, Phil Coulson
Warnings: NOT A HAPPY. Apocalypse AU, Dark, Dystopia
WIth grateful thanks, as always, to my fabulous beta readers rexluscus, schemingreader and Jep.
The fate of the world sometimes hangs on the flip of a coin, the want of a nail, or the choice of an ally. From that point on, the timelines diverge and can, on occasion, end up in very different places.
In this 'verse, at the fateful moment, Loki didn't choose Hawkeye...
They say it wouldn’t have been so bad, if it had just been Loki.
They say that he would have gotten bored and moved on, that he would have found the endless minutiae that come with ruling a whole planet - four billion people, since the Pacification - impossibly tedious, and not worth the effort of his quicksilver mind.
They say we would have had a chance.
But it wasn’t just him, was it. It was him and the first man he brought to his cause. Loki’s grand vizier, his charge d’affaires, his majordomo. The man too important to have an official title. The Steward of Gaia.
The one everyone just calls the Man in Black.
They say, before Loki turned him, that he worked for the FBI, or the CIA or something, back when there was still a United States. That he was brilliant - one of the finest logistical minds in the country, a head for detail and strategy, able to think through the next fifty steps and plan accordingly. That he was a good man.
He controls all the people of the Earth. He makes the planet run smoothly. It’s what his master requires, in this brave new world, and so that is what he delivers. With every fiber of his being. Loki may have made himself king, but it’s the Man in Black who keeps the crown on his head.
In some ways, it’s better. Nobody goes hungry. The crime rate is incredibly low. The trains run on time. The biggest employer on the planet is the entertainment industry, churning out an endless stream of vapid books and shows and games and movies for every taste. (They say “Survivor” is a lot more interesting now that they’re actually encouraged to kill people. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t watch it then, and I don’t watch it now.)
But anything too serious, anything that makes you think too hard about humanity’s proper place in the world? It’s on the banned list. Only there isn’t really a banned list, it’s just stuff that’s become impossible to find. And if you’re caught with anything on the nonexistent banned list, you’re not punished and you’re not sent to jail.
You’re just taken in the middle of the night, and you come back with the ice-blue eyes of the Thrall.
They say that the use of the Thrall is the Man in Black’s most insidious innovation - if you’re loyal to Loki without the Thrall, you get more privileges: better food, better housing, better everything. The Thralled bow their heads to you and defer to you in all things. I’ve always found it unsettling, to have a whole class of people that wholeheartedly kowtows to you gladly, but mine is not a common reaction, I’m sorry to say. It’s not a mark of shame though, or so they try to tell you. They say that the Man in Black bears his Thrall proudly. But sometimes I think that the unchanged people don’t fear loss of agency so much as they fear loss of caste. If you don’t have the Thrall, you have can a good job, a nice house, lots of opportunity, all the trash you can consume, and the Thralled will do whatever you ask of them. And if you have the Thrall, you stick to your place. It’s what Loki demands of you, and so you’re happy to do it.
My mother took on a Thralled girl as a housemaid. I tried to talk to the kid about it once, and she told me all about how great the sense of freedom was, and how they all dreamt of a day when the Thrall wouldn’t be necessary at all, when everyone was loyal to Midgard’s King, the Asgardian Prince.
Mom flipped her lid and threw me out of the house when she caught us, scared that we’d get turned in. (Mind you, snitching these days can be a double-edged sword. A borne-out accusation of disloyalty earns the accuser honors and privileges and wealth, but a knowingly false accusation earns the perp a pair of blue eyes faster than anything. They don’t really need informants anymore, not when they have surveillance everywhere.)
I couch-surfed for a while, after that. The un-Thralled under-age can’t get hired anywhere, and documentation is now nearly impossible to fake. (There are no homeless anymore, either – vagrancy is punished by enThrallment. Basically, if you can't find something to do, they'll do it for you.) Which is how I fell in with the Resistance – I was cashing in on the kindness of a friend of a friend of a friend who, after he decided I was trustworthy and right-thinking, brought me into the New York cell.
The first I event I went to was a movie night, in a subterranean guerrilla theater deep under the streets of the city. They showed a bunch of Captain America films against a sheet on the wall, on an old-style film projector – the celluloid strips were fading and cracked, held together by tape and a prayer, and the movies were cheesy and bombastic and hackneyed, but they brought the audience to tears.
(For all that anything Captain America is on the Disappeared List, they say that Captain America stuff is the Man in Black's one weakness, that he’s got an enormous secret collection of memorabilia. They even say that after the Day of Glorious Victory, he couldn’t bring himself to have Steve Rogers killed, that he just froze him in a block of ice and keeps him in a clear freezer case built into a wall of Loki’s Palace. I don’t know if that’s true or not, though. It’s just what they say.)
I can't declare that we were spectacularly effective. Our group's mission, as far as we knew it, was to take out as many of Loki's mages as possible: if we could stop the enThrallments, we could dry up Loki's unending well of cannon fodder. We understood ourselves – or, at least, we hoped ourselves – to be one small cog in a large machine, but that, for security reasons, none of us could know anything about the over-arching plan. Loki's army had orders to bring in as many alive as possible, and as soon as any of the captives were Thralled, they fell all over themselves to provide all the intel they possibly could come up with. One live captured Resistance fighter, and everything – everything! Names, locations, plans, patterns – had to be changed.
We were issued pills to suicide with, in the event of capture.
I was with the cell for three months when I met Ronin. He was a legend amongst the Resistance fighters – the best assassin on our side, maybe even in the world. There were nearly as many rumors about him as there were about the Man in Black – that he was there the day Loki stole – sorry, “reclaimed” – the Tesseract; that he had nearly died when the Helicarrier crashed into the ocean; that he and the Man in Black had been friends in the time Before, and that he was the one person that the Thralled had orders not to kill, even at the risk of their own lives. He looked old and tired when I first met him, with an enormous red scar that crossed his face on the diagonal.
He didn't talk much.
A lot of the old-timers didn't. They generally didn't acknowledge the new recruits' existences until they'd been around for a bit. It never paid to get attached too quickly.
The first time he ever said anything to me, we were talking about the newsfeeds blathering on about this year's Liberation Day festivities. The talking heads were breathlessly anticipating Loki's Speech to the World, not that he ever said anything new, and every year, they speculated as to whether the Man in Black would finally make an appearance.
Every year, they were disappointed.
The rest of them were coming up with theories as to why, which I thought was entirely pointless. “Who cares whether or not he shows his face? He’s a monster!” I said.
“He’s. Not. A. Monster.” Ronin materialized out of the shadows and bore down on me, his eyes flashing with rage. “He’s not a monster. You don't call him that. You don’t ever call him that. He was a good man.”
“Yeah?” asked Winston, who was always a bit slow on the uptake. “What do you call someone who sold out his entire species?”
“You get hit by the Thrall, you see how loyal you manage to stay!”
It was a bitter irony that, on his very next outing, Winston got caught, and couldn't quite bring himself to pop the pill. We raced as fast as we could to clear the hideouts where we had everything stashed, but we weren't fast enough. They filled the tunnels with sleeping gas and brought us all in.
They don't bother sweeping these cells very often, apparently. I found the paper and pencil I'm writing this with under the pallet in the corner.
“Is there anyone else here? Did they get all of us?” I shouted as soon as I awoke, hoping for some other contact.
“Does it matter? If they haven't, they will soon,” came the voice in the cell next to mine. I'd been put next to Ronin. I went to the door and opened the slit in the front. All I saw was the black hallway.
“I'm not ready to give up yet!”
“I know the man who designed these locks. We're not getting out of here.”
I searched the cell, checked the door and the walls, and came up with nothing. I'd like to say I didn't break down in tears, but if I did I'd be a liar. “It can't last forever, can it?” I asked between sobs. “You know, they say that Asgard will come to our rescue...”
“Asgard has been hip-deep in their own problems, kid, ever since the Chitauri got the Tesseract. We've been on our own for years.”
“But they can't just...” I stopped as the sound of the cellblock door opening echoed down the hallway.
I angled to look out as best as possible, and my jaw hit the floor. There was Loki himself coming down the hall – a face that every human knows from the currency, the documentaries, the speeches and the posters, that thin pale visage staring out from every vertical surface. I wouldn't be surprised if most people know his face better than they know their own in the mirror. And trailing a couple of steps behind him was a Thralled man in his early sixties, wearing a black suit. They were flanked by some really intimidating guards.
My first thought was, “No, it can't be.” I mean, really, you'd think the Terror of the Planet would at least look a little more threatening. If I'd run across the Man in Black in a crowd, I very much doubt I would have given him a second glance.
“I felt that his particular skill set was too valuable to chance his enThrallment to anyone but the expert,” said the Man in Black mildly.
Loki's lips curved up into a smile. “Yes, I've no doubt that was the only reason. Fear not, you'll get your archer...”
Ronin started swearing. The guards opened his door and went in. There was a brief scuffle, presumably until he was secured, and then Loki and the Man in Black went in. Ronin began to shout. “This isn't you, Coulson! I know it isn't! I was there, I remember! I know you're stronger than he is! Fight it! Fight it.... Augh!” The man's voice trailed off in a horrible scream.
And then there was silence, and a shuffling noise, like someone had started to fall and was caught just in time. Loki hurried past again, with half the guards, headed out of the cellblock. I couldn't help but hear the conversation in the cell next door.
“It's all right, Clint, I've got you. I've got you. You're safe now.”
“I was wrong... I was so wrong. I'm so sorry.”
“None of that matters anymore. You're here with me.”
Through the window in my door, I saw them come out. Ronin's eyes were ice-blue, and he was leaning gratefully against the Man in Black. They stopped for a minute, letting Ronin regain his balance, and that's when I saw it.
Ronin cupped the older man's chin with one hand, and the Man in Black's thin lips smiled.
“I can't believe it took me this long,” said Ronin. “I should have known from the beginning. I've always been safe with you.” And he pulled the Man in Black into his arms and kissed him.
I shut the window. I couldn't bear to watch any more.
I keep looking for a way out, but Ronin was right: there isn't one. And in a few hours, I won’t care. They’ll come for me, and I probably won’t get the same personal treatment Ronin did, but I’ll get Thralled all the same. I’ll probably tell them where I hid this, and how all its treason should be destroyed. After all, by this time tomorrow, I’ll be one of them.
I’ll love Thor’s brother.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a black Bruno Magli Rufino stamping on a human face…