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A Measure of Mercy

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At the core of every great story there are three constants--the hero, the villain, and the prize they both sought after. The names would differ, the places and the faces would change, but at the heart of the each fanciful tale those three things remained. He adored those stories once, when he was a child and ignorant of how merciless reality could be. Being isolated from others he found a sad, comforting solace in those stories no matter how impossible they seemed. He would run to them for a bit of hope, seeking small reminders that things would get better with a little magic and a lot of faith. The princess will be rescued, the prince shall be revealed, evil will be destroyed, and those with good souls awarded eternal bliss.

But that time was long gone, those stories nothing more than rotten memories of his lonesome childhood. Tales of rescue, chances, fate, and everlasting promises--all of it was little more than a comforting deception.

And as Baron Mordo stood before the cavernous path before him, he understood what his role was in this sick, cosmic fairytale. And he was neither prince, nor hero, nor beloved. He belonged with the creatures lurking in the shadows. The stranger in the forest, the wolf at the door, the dragon at the stony steps breathing destruction upon the world.

He cast a soft, somber light to illuminate the thick darkness before him. Soundlessly he crept down the narrow, sloppy steps, deeper into the dungeon where the captive was locked away.

The air was damp, heavy, the wetness of it sticking against his skin. It was as if he entered the mouth of giant, living beast rather than a prison of stone and steel. His boots treaded silently on the miserable ground. As the light from his hands pushed against the darkness he wondered if the wretched place ever saw light before.

The image crossed his mind of Stephen, no doubt bound and robbed of magic, being dragged along these very same steps. Surely the man would try and fight, and surely he would lose, be hurt, be punished for his insolence. A part of Mordo’s heart leapt to realize that he felt nothing at the thought. That grim truth soothed his spirit. It would make his mission easier to bear.

When the conflict over the infinity gems ignited to full blown war he found himself on the winning side. His grandfather’s teachings, ironically enough, ensured his survival amidst the slaughter and chaos. His alliances were with the strong and the ruthless. They shared the philosophy that in order to live sometimes one must be willing to kill. And by the gods did he kill. With each fallen sorcerer his power grew and flourished till even the greatest champions of Asgard feared to meet him in combat. With every fallen Avenger, Defender, and kingdom the infamy of his allies spread further through the cosmos. The panic and turmoil of the war spread like poison throughout the Nine Realms, bleeding and festering to worlds beyond what any mortal could imagine.

Those who survived and resisted fled far into other galaxies, seeking sanctuary and help from benevolent worlds. It mattered not. They would all fall. The might of a single gem could melt an entire planet. They could not run forever. Those that were captured were given a harsher sentence than a quick death. They were banished to prisons hidden away, monuments of torture and pain designed specifically for the unfortunate souls who foolishly thought they could rob Thanos of the infinity stones.

As he ventured deeper into the belly of the dungeon, Mordo found himself both disgusted and impressed by the measures Stephen took to defend a lost planet. His efforts were all in vain in the end. With the time stone gone, Earth had nothing to protect it from the onslaught of Thanos’ forces. Not even Stephen, with all this cleverness and compromises could save their world. Now he didn’t even have the power to save himself. The last of the Sorcerer Supremes. The title, knowledge of the Mystic Arts, the memory of Kamar Taj, all of that would die with him.

Mordo descended down the winding steps, the light on his hand struggling to pierce the immense darkness.

He understood his allies to an astonishing degree. He knew what stirred in their minds, what hardened their hearts, what disturbed their dreams. And he knew that Stephen, aside from being a trophy prisoner, was being used as bait. That Asgardian prince would come, rushing in all his roaring, furious glory to take back what was stolen from him.

Mordo stoppe and felt the heavy darkness seep into his lungs as he took a sharp breath. The air sat like cement in his lungs.

For a moment he allowed himself to count the chances he lost forever. He could have mended it, back when he merely sought to find some peace after Dormammu's defeat. And yet he didn’t. Every choice they made after that night only forced them further apart. They changed, with every broken law and every rejection of forgiveness. Slowly the pleas for reconciliation morphed into declarations of hate. Choice upon choice was made to hurt the other. With each turn of their vicious game, whatever kindness they once shared thinned and waned. Now they were worse than strangers.

And while Stephen drew further and further away from him, another was there to fill his space. Mordo couldn’t fault what happened next. He wasn’t surprised at all to learn that the prince of Asgard would develop a deep attachment towards Stephen. Strange wasn’t difficult to love. Mordo understood that better than most. Despite his flaws and challenging nature, Stephen had a determined, fierce spirit that could allure any man. And as Thor proved, even the gods.

The fact that Thor could fall in love with Stephen wasn’t what hurt. It wasn’t even the fact that Stephen returned the Asgardians affections. What sent an ache through Mordo’s numb heart was this agonizing truth--that this was how it was always destined to be, and there was no magic in the world could ever undo destiny.

The prince of Asgard and the Sorcerer Supreme. Both bright, fierce, commanding attention and awe from anyone who saw them. The Asgardian couldn’t hide his strength even if he tried. He couldn’t conceal that pride, or that foolish courage, or his affection for Stephen Strange. Thor was like lightning, loud, grand, and intimidating, burning whatever he touched. He was as relentless in battle as he was in his love for Stephen. And it was that foolish, thoughtless, open affection that lead to the sorcerer’s downfall.

How do you defeat a god? How do you hurt someone so untouchable? The same as you would hurt any man with a beating heart. You destroy whatever they treasure above their own lives. Their kingdom. Their family. Their love-

At the end of all things, even gods have their weaknesses. And for the mighty Thor it was a sorcerer with the galaxy in his eyes.

The Baron’s steps slowed as he arrived before the sealed gate. There was a sudden tightness in his chest. He dreaded to think of what awaited him beyond. He was unsure now, being this close to seeing what was done to Stephen, if he wanted to proceed. His allies were clever enough to keep Stephen’s whereabouts unknown to him, knowing he would lay claim to the fallen Supreme before anyone else could have their turn.

His heart was numb when he heard of Stephen’s abduction.There was emptiness where emotion should have been. There wasn’t any pity or delight, anger or joy. There was simply nothing. It was as if their descriptions of torture and pain was meant for some nameless figure in a grim tale. It would have been so predictable if that were the case. Thor should have rescued Stephen by now. The gate should be broken, the cell empty as the hero and his distressed lover flew off to their ever after.

Yet here Mordo stood, the gate as intact as ever with Stephen locked somewhere beyond it.

With a simple spell the door moved with the lightest touch. The numerous, twisting locks unwound themselves like snakes retreating between crevices of stone.

Before the gate fully opened he conjured a thin, sharp blade. He rehearsed the scene in his mind countless times. He would bid farewell and drive the blade deep into the Supreme’s heart. He would grant him the swift death no one else would give, a final measure of mercy.

He stepped through the gate. The pungent smells felt as suffocating as smoke. The cell was immense, damp and hot. The metallic scent of blood mingled with the distinct stench of sex. Mordo cast a spell to clear the air enough for him to breathe. He opened his palm and allowed the soft glow from his hand to raise, covering the room with a thin film of light

The rocky ground was slick, the stickiness of it clung to the bottom of his boots. As he walked further into the cell the shadows against the wall stirred, and for a moment he swore they were alive, slithering away from him and the light.

Then finally there was breath, not of his own, that ended the terrible silence.

Mordo approached the sound cautiously, his eyes fixed at the figure leaning against the wall.

He wanted to speak, to whisper the name, to feel it tumble from his lips. But his words were cut, held back by the sudden weight that threatened to crush the steel around his heart.

The figure slumped against the wall was once a beautiful man, intelligent, resourceful, and determined. There was nothing of that here. The hands still shook, bound tightly by shackles against the wall. His ankles were bloody, and the sharp barbed ropes around them dug deeper into his flesh with the slightest motion. A filthy cloth was tied around his mouth, pressing back his bruised lips. The eyes Thor desperately worshipped were veiled by a heavy blindfold. For a moment Mordo wondered with painful dread if Stephen even had his eyes at all.

Mordo made the mistake of breathing too quickly, too sharply. Stephen’s body stirred, his voice barely audible against the dry sobs. His body tried to pull itself in, shrinking as much as it could, a weak attempt at defense.

The Baron never took his eyes off Stephen. He knelt beside the broken man, his legs and knees suddenly soaked by the bloodstained floor. He looked down. There was so much of it. It was impossible to come from just one body. He inspected Stephen, his eyes surveying the battered formed of the man he once adored.

He reached out for the blindfold but he did not pull it away. He only touched it softly, a ghost of a touch against the wet cloth.

Stephen shuddered, his weary head flinching away from the touch. A whimper of pain broke from his mouth. Mordo undid the length of cloth that was tied around Stephen’s mouth. His former student gave a terrible moan, lips bruised, cut and blue, quivering as he pleaded.

“Kill...me.

Mordo’s couldn’t touch him. He didn’t want to. The Supreme’s body was an exhibition of pain. Dark imprints marked his pale neck. Bites of every size were littered across him from the bottom of his ear to the inner curves of his thighs. There were streaks there both old and new, remnants of Stephen’s blood and the seed of other men. Mordo couldn’t turn away from it.

Wordlessly he entered Stephen’s memories. The sorcerer’s resistance was a strong as wet paper and Mordo fell right into the memories he sought. He withdrew after mere seconds. Indeed the blood beneath them was too much for one man. Several were killed in this room. People Stephen cared for. People he was given the privilege to see once more before their throats were slit in front of him.

Mordo closed his eyes tightly. One of them was Christine, the lady who gave Stephen the watch he so treasured.

The other one’s death was too much for Mordo to see all the way through. But he wasn’t surprised by his defiance. Wong was the most steadfast of them all, even when that blade sliced against his throat.

Stephen was a man who could take pain, who embraced death so much he refused to let go til Dormammu relented to his bargain. But to see others suffer and die in his place? That would break him faster than any death.

There were fleeting memories of the assault on his body. An endless parade of sadistic men taking him like a whore for their pleasure. Cruel mouths, brutal hands, merciless bodies forcing themselves on him as he bled and cried for someone who never came to save him. Mordo shook the images away from his own mind. Without thinking of it he grabbed the blade he conjured before, ready to end both of their stories in an instant.

Then he waited.

He sensed Stephen’s heartbeat, rapid, terrified, weak, so desperate to be freed from this torment. There was a certain morbid comfort in knowing that with Stephen’s death their endless conflict would end. And he would follow afterwards. There was nothing else for him once that blade pierced Stephen’s heart. There would be no victory or satisfaction. Just the agonizing burn of regret, the grief of another reality completely lost to them forever.

Mordo took the blade. He looked at the blindfold on Stephen’s face. He remembered those eyes when they first met. They were ever-changing, a galaxy within a glance, expressive in every emotion and passion. Those lovely eyes once looked at him with trust and perhaps at one time, even love.

“Thor,”

Stephen’s voice faded like vapor. Tears seeped from the space beneath the blindfold.

“Thor-”

Mordo listened. The name was like a prayer. So full of fragile hope and trust. But there was no deity to hear it. Only him. And he felt his heart scream at the sound.

The blade went down, not through the heart, but down to the barbs that wrapped around Stephen’s ankles. He was careful. The sharp edge sliced through the wire without much effort. Even with the tension gone Stephen’s ankles were still stuck together, as if the time spent locked that way melded his feet into one limb. Mordo eased the pain with a silent spell. He plucked the barbs from the flesh, slippery, oozing and filthy.

Stephen gasped with a haggard breath. Mordo nearly soothed him, an old instinct from their more amicable days. But in the end he didn’t utter a word of comfort. He merely continued to unbind Stephen’s body from the torture inflicted upon it.

When he was finished tending to the ankles he moved to the hands. Stephen’s wrists were shackled against the wall and hoisted above his battered head. The hands trembled weakly, fingers bent, bloody, and broken. When the shackles opened under Mordo’s command, Stephen’s arms gracelessly collapsed like a stringless puppet. A sharp intake of breath, a faint curse and a sigh of relief broke against the Sorcerer Supreme’s lips. Against wisdom Mordo took Stephen’s hands, inspecting the wounds on the wrists. Angry red stared back at him, the deep grooves appearing like dark shackles of their own that would scar and stay with Stephen forever.

Stephen’s lips trembled. His weak, mutilated hands still shook in Mordo’s own. There was a terrible silence between them, the dreadful moments that slipped away so long and lonely. Mordo didn’t pull away. He felt his heart kicking violently against his chest, urging him to leave at once before he made another mistake.

But then Stephen’s fingers, bruised and broken as they were, curled around Mordo’s hand.

And the touch, fleeting and faint, overcame the steel of Mordo’s heart. It took all of the Baron’s resolve not to make a single sound as he wept. His hot tears fell over their joined hands, the kindest warmth Stephen ever felt in that dark, evil cell.

Mordo reached out to wipe the tears that seeped from beneath Stephen’s blindfold. The Supreme flinched for moment, then he eased at the touch. The tears mingled with the metallic scent of blood. The fingers on the Supreme’s face were gentle, strong, until that strength faded away to an awful, uncontrollable tremble. Mordo’s hands now shook more violently than Stephen’s. And as he cried and heard Stephen’s fading breath Mordo felt a part of himself awaken, a part that he believed died long ago.

He took Stephen into his arms, as careful and gentle as his own trembling hands could manage. Stephen’s body settled with barely a struggle. Mordo buried his face against the matted hair, his tears mingling with Stephen’s blood and sweat. His lips hovered over Stephen’s face, his tears falling onto that blindfold that separated their gaze.

He cupped one side of the bruised face, fingers slipping beneath the blindfold right by Stephen’s ear. Just a simple tug on the cloth and he would be revealed. Just a simple a confession and they might start to reconcile, even if this is how it must end, even if it wasn’t enough to amend what they lost.

Mordo stopped suddenly. He didn’t pull the blindfold away.

There was another presence at the door.

The Baron turned his face to see the intruder. His arms still clung around Stephen.

What greeted his sight stopped his heart.

There, standing at the door was Thor. The Asgardian looked far from the glorious prince he usually presented as. His armor was stained with blood, whether it was his own or another’s Mordo wasn’t certain. His helmet was gone, easily revealing the wound that started at his forehead and ended at the right cheek. The rest of him was worn and weary, hands strangely void of his infamous hammer. Those blue eyes were just as bright, though not from anger or of the hunger for a fight. They were bright and brimming with fear.

And so they were, hero and villain, staring at the other in silence as Stephen laid unaware in Mordo’s arms. Thor said nothing but his eyes spoke with unmistakable grief and desperation. Mordo could almost imagine his voice, begging for confirmation that Stephen was alive. The Baron’s eyes closed. He felt the moment and committed it to memory. He took in the soft rise and descent of Stephen’s breaths, the feel of the tortured body resting in his arms. With great care he guided Stephen’s body to lean against the wall. He dipped his lips down and kissed Stephen’s forehead, allowing his tears to connect with the Supreme one last time.

He took the blade off the blood stained floor. Then he stood, turned, and faced the Asgardian. The boots were perfectly silent as they lead him closer to Thor.

The prince of Asgard looked at him with both distrust and wonder. Mordo cast a spell over them to keep the next words from falling on Stephen’s ears.

“No one must know,” Mordo whispered. “Not even him.”

Thor barely nodded in reply, his eyes flickering to the blade Mordo still held. The Baron gripped his hold on the weapon tighter.

“Take him away from here. Now. Before I alert them of your escape.”

And with that warning Mordo vanished from sight. But his presence remained, cloaked beneath an invisibility spell as Thor fulfilled his part of the story. From a distance he watched as the prince took Stephen in his arms. The blindfold came off beneath Thor’s touch to reveal frightened eyes, red and wild from exhaustion and tears.

Stephen blinked. Thor cupped his face and rested their foreheads together.

“You--you’re late.”

The sound of Stephen’s broken whisper felt so loud to Mordo’s ears.

“My love-” Thor held Stephen as if he could fall apart with another breath. “Forgive me-”

Stephen’s sobs were faint but to Mordo they overcame the loud beating of his own heart.

Thor kissed Stephen’s cheek and whispered against his ear. The sorcerer smiled even as his tears fell. Thor lifted him up from the ground effortlessly. He carried Stephen with one hand beneath the sorcerer’s knees, the other on his back. Stephen’s arms wrapped around Thor’s shoulders. He closed his weary eyes and buried his face against the Asgardian’s neck.

As Thor carried him out of the cell Stephen looked up, turning as they passed the spot where Mordo hid. The fallen Sorcerer Supreme lifted his eyes. For a moment Mordo’s heart leapt, fearing that Stephen saw through the spell which concealed him. Their eyes met in a brief, coincidental glance. It was nearly nothing, a fleeting connection that was barely even there.

Stephen saw nothing but darkness. And in the same instant, Mordo saw the last light of his world being carried away.

Thor kissed Stephen face. The moment was over. Stephen closed his eyes and laid his head against the muscular shoulder, never knowing of the other man grieving in the dark.

This is how the beloved stories go. There was the hero, his reward, and their happily ever after while the monsters were left in darkness.

When he was completely alone Mordo found that he couldn’t even summon light anymore. It wouldn’t make a difference even if he could. His hands held the blade in a numbing grip. He imagined it deep within his heart. He wanted to feel nothing, and how easy it would be to do so. A few agonizing moments and then nothing. It was a cruel thought made kind by his desperation to escape this terrible cycle.

And yet-

“Stephen,”

The infinite possibility that was Stephen Strange stopped stilled his thoughts. The blade crumbled like ash in his hand. He spoke the name in the dark, his voice as broken as the man he once held.

He fostered a sick hope that all their hatred and bitterness would have burned the love out of him by now. It didn’t. Underneath all that turmoil it still remained, an incurable, steadfast longing that would never ease.

He knew how the story would go. He would summon the guards. Alert his allies of Stephen’s rescue at the hands of Thor. Then it would start over again. Whether it be his freedom, peace, power, or Stephen, the reward will never be his.

Rewards were for the heroes after all, and he was far from the knight Stephen needed him to be.

Perhaps this was his fate, to forever be in pursuit of something he could never obtain. And forever for a heart such as his was a long sentence to endure.