Epilogue: Loose Ends
. . .
Coulson closed the last tab on his director-level data entry page, an anticlimactic but formal enough way of sealing the file on the Sovel matter. He was satisfied enough for business hours, seeing that Daisy had led the team through another hugely unconventional situation with enough firmness and sense of duty that it left him, as ever, proud of her.
Wakanda was also satisfied enough to consider the matter finished. The vibranium that attempted to enter the market was secure and there was a low probability of another incident. The King offered both SHIELD and the CIA another glowing recommendation on Agent Ross, which meant the poor guy was probably going to have some wicked heartburn for another month. Coulson could read the same undertone as Ross, and had done so with no small amount of joy. If more SHIELD/CIA interagency hijinks happened - or they needed a guy who could pilot weird shit on extremely short notice - they had a phone number they could call. Whether Ross acted like he wanted it or not.
Deep down, Coulson suspected he was touched by all this in a way that made it difficult for the man to emotionally handle. He also knew it would be a bad idea to request a transfer of the agent to his own crew, which Coulson had considered for at least an hour. Ross was, certainly for now, at his best where he was. A trusted, feisty, intensely reliable member of the CIA. They needed that, thought Coulson. They needed that very much.
Loki sat across from him, his face saying that, no, the matter wasn't formally closed. Not for him. And that there was little either of them could do about that fact for now, except deal with it. Coulson understood. That's just how it was, sometimes. He would have agreed with Tam, and suspected he would have liked the cagey blockade runner much the way Daisy had. There was a lot of room in the universe for colorful ruffians, and that, Coulson decided, was the way he liked it.
Loki pulled Coulson aside after the briefing a couple of days prior, saying it would be necessary for them to talk. After the file's close, he specified. Coulson, able to read the barest bit of tension on the smooth forehead, hadn't forgotten. There was a bottle on the desk, with two shots of whiskey already poured. He looked up from the screen and studied his weird, old friend, seeing the same tension under the surface of his skin. He closed the lid of his laptop and reached out to push one of the shots across the desk. "Okay, hit me. What's the dark secret you're sitting on?"
The whiskey was drunk first, downed in a smooth swallow. The white face's tension read more easily now, like an animal being freed to pace around. "We talked over the holidays, I'm certain you recall."
"I did. You said you would tell me what was bothering you if and when something actually, firmly did. If you thought it needed to come up. I'm paraphrasing, but you know I heard you." Coulson leaned back in his seat, still holding his glass. He didn't need it yet. "We there?"
"I'm wondering how close we are." Loki set the glass down with a soft thunk, contemplating the flaws in its glass with narrowed eyes. "Today it's nothing more than a hunch. At the Ends, it was a whisper. I thought it was only my own… weariness. The recognition that so much of the rubble from Thanos's fall still lingers around us, haunting us. Me. But. I cannot shake the sensation that we are being targeted in a terribly direct way." He looked up at Coulson, no longer dancing with his words. "At Halloween, assisting Strange, I discovered that a very specific distant acquaintance has been monitoring this world. Monitoring me. I left it alone to consider, hence part of my distance at Christmastime. And now? A strangely specific operation designed to scatter and upset this very same world, directed by people that would have no interest or care in this planet otherwise. That were paid to - and we lost the trail that would say by whom, but I cannot stop my hunch that there's something dangerous growing here."
This was a good time for a drink. Coulson bolted his, then poured them both a second one. "At this point, I trust your hunches more than I do some official reports. Who'd you nail behind the Strange thing?"
"An enemy sorcerer." Loki looked away, visibly and nakedly uncomfortable. "Not a being I knew personally. Thanos…" He trailed off, the name still difficult to speak aloud. "Thanos stole all of his children to serve his own ends. A rare few of them, I have since discovered, grew, I suppose you could say. He felt no need to keep these weapons close, granting them freedom to range free so long as they ravaged faithfully under his name. His generals. A dark order of most favored servants. Some pieces of this were in the Nova Prime's report to us after the fall at Sanctuary. I didn't have all of this then - you asked me about Corvus Glaive's widowed mate at the time. I didn't know about her. I should have, perhaps, but Thanos kept certain things compartmentalized. Some of this, I have been quietly seeking information on my own in the years since. It is not easy. I didn't expect it would be. And I hoped it wouldn't be relevant."
He was still looking away. "The Maw left an eye on Earth until Strange blinded it with my help. I'm to understand he's true fanatic, a master of pain. I heard a whisper of him when I was bound to service. That sometimes he went ahead to evangelize, and to scourge no few civilizations of his own. I barely remember the name from then, it's lost in memories I don't fully have and would prefer not to plunder. But an unpleasant, sibilant whisper tells me I know he existed. And there are others, Coulson. The widow, Proxima. The Cull. The Maw. I know of those. There may be more. They keep secrets well."
"And you think one of them may have financed the hit on Earth."
Loki arched an eyebrow, downing his second shot without any other expression. "I don't know. Maybe. Likely."
Coulson nodded. "Is there anyone that would know?"
Loki shook his head. "I wish I had the answer to that. If there is such a person, may we cross their paths before it's too late and I am again proven correct in the worst of ways."
Coulson put his empty glass down and folded his hands atop his desk. "Then for now we'll do what we always do, Loki. We'll do our best, and we'll watch the skies." He smiled, knowing that his endless optimism drove Loki crazy while also being a comfort. "Keep your ears open. When we know we've got to do something, you know we will."
"I know," said Loki. He looked out the window again, somewhere else for a moment. "But I can't help but wish that these old haunts would stop before we reach that point."
"They never do. We just keep marching on. Surviving. Kicking ass." Coulson took a gamble and reached out to pat at the back of Loki's hand. He smiled, wry, at the surprised glance. "You've gotten used to that part of humans, so you might as well keep trusting in it."
A faint smile crossed Loki's face, not a willing acknowledgment, but an understanding all the same.
One last detail occurred to Coulson and he cocked his head, curious. "Ross got his package, by the way. What was it?"
Loki gave one of his silent laughs. "A bottle of Racassone, a blood rum from one of the rim worlds. He seemed to like it. I decided it would be fitting, for a memento. Perhaps we'll need him again sometime."
"Maybe." Coulson snorted. "Probably."
. . .
The planet Sakaar
High above the vulgar tower hung an array of worryingly visible wormholes, sundered space, and floating garbage that ensured any normal transit to this distant world was unpleasantly difficult. Beyond all that gleamed Tayo, a subgiant star cooling its way towards its next great phase of existence. The master of the palace could remember when the star was smaller and brighter, a cute little bit of button light in a gleaming and heavenly clear sky, but nowadays he barely bothered to glance up to it at all, much less down to the litter and mud that covered the once-green fields that had been there when he took his first steps through a young universe.
The Grandmaster was busy enjoying a hot foot massage, chortling gleefully as stony tentacles further exfoliated his already perfectly soft, aristocratic heels with deliberately tickly gentleness. The row of attendants stared dutifully ahead, waiting to be needed. The newest girl stood close by the gold-robed elbow, a stack of clean towels resting in her arms as she did her best to ignore the immortal's delighted writhing. Probably with the same dead-eyed expression as the person on the other side of the Grandmaster's call. It was not an empathetic moment she cared to share.
Yes, the attendant groaned internally as the giggling continued. Grandmaster En Dwi Gast was absolutely the kind of man to sit distractedly on an important business call, making everyone in hearing range suffer.
"Yes, but, sweetie, consider this," said the Grandmaster into his handheld comm. "It was boring. I'm, I'm bored. I financed your little game just the way you wanted, and even threw in a bunch of rocks I didn't care about, and, well, you get what you pay for." He started laughing again, anyone's guess as to whether it was at his conversation, or the way the tentacles were slithering between his toes, or both.
The attendant decided she didn't need lunch that badly, and also a meteor wiping out the entire damned trash planet would be pretty good right now. Her face remained professionally blank, made-up to the point where if she smiled, it would crack like a plate.
"I know you didn't get the results you wanted. That's, uhhhhh, that's just how it is sometimes. Topaz? Topaz, darling, baby, go tell my guys I want to take the party ship out later." He looked up from the comm to flap a wave of dismissal at the implacable, unsmiling tank of a woman. Topaz was the only person that seemed to legitimately care for the man and was happy to execute his commands. She left without hesitation, content to have something to do. "So you try something else. Have a little fun. Change it up. No, I don't care. I won't care, exactly, until you tell me I'm going to get what I want. Which is my money back. My win. My… moment."
Heat entered the Grandmaster's voice for a single second, flaring and hostile. Then it was gone as quick as it arrived, drowning in that affable, half-mad giggle. He fluttered his hand off to the side, beckoning for a towel.
The attendant peeled one off and handed it to him with a bow that showed off her cleavage nicely enough. He beamed approvingly at her and then promptly forgot she existed. On the screen, the attendant stole a glance as the already semi-permanent frown crease more deeply across Proxima Midnight's face. She was looking away, to mutter to someone else. The attendant didn't know to whom.
"So, uhh…. Unless you have something else you want to set up today, I want to finish my spongy bubbles here and take some me time. I think you should do the same, sweetheart, you've got so many wrinkles coming in. I know… I know you grieve him, he was a hell of a guy, but-"
Proxima said something the attendant didn't catch.
"Well, look, I already told you, I'm… I'm not going to fight my brother like that. He's your problem. We've got rules, in this mixed up little family we made. Just like you." He half turned around and began flapping at his attendants, freshly irritated. "Do you have another game? Then we're done for now, bye-bye." He silenced the comm and threw it across the floor with a disgusted sigh. "Harsh my vibe, honestly, the woman has no taste." He flapped at his attendants again, the fingers whipping fast. "This is the go away signal. I know lots of you are new, so I'm not going yell or get the angry stick this time. Go away. I'll call you when it's time to come back, okay? All right? Mwah!" He blew an air kiss towards them and then flopped hard into his chair with a giant uggghh. The tentacled masseuse delicately resumed its work, a longtimer that knew the Grandmaster's dramatic turns of emotion well.
The attendants collectively looked at each other, sharing a single moment of exhausted sisterhood. And then they scattered, as ordered.
. . .
An attendant in the Grandmaster's hedonistic court barely rated a name, much less the acknowledgement of some individual identity. Regardless, the newest attendant had one she kept tightly to herself. It was Kara, and she loathed the job, frankly, having no small amount of previous and much superior handmaiden experience to compare it to. Fortunately, her engagement was going to be extremely temporary.
The one 'nice' thing about Sakaar was that its general trash planet attitude gave one an unusual amount of privacy. Mostly because nobody gave a good godsdamn about anyone else. Letting herself into the small private quarters she'd been assigned gave her a rare amount of freedom most infiltration jobs didn't allow. She snapped the gilded band out of her hair, tore off the stupid metallic shift that itched in places no loving deity would permit, and threw on a comfortable tunic of fine-woven Asgardian cotton, the only item she'd brought that could give her ruse away, yet she risked it happily. After that, she poured herself a glass of bad wine and dug up the hidden deck from where she'd stashed it in a weak portion of the wall.
It took half the glass and a good facial scrub before she got connection, the vidfeed coming in nice and clear for all the effort. "Tam?" She smiled at her old friend, slumped and equally tired looking in her captain's chair. "So, how was your week?"
"They took me to the local Ends, Kara. I couldn't say no. The girl's got that puppy eye thing humans do." Tam's eyes rolled around the cockpit for dramatic flair. "You know how I get involved for a good sob story and a beer."
Kara put her glass down, turning deadly serious. "Tam, it was a rescue call. Just a rescue. What in the hells…" She pinched at the bridge of her nose, worried and annoyed all at once. "Did you have to lie to them? Gods, I'm sorry, you didn't have to-"
"No, no. They were great. The man himself's truly unfucked a bit, so I glossed over a ton and nobody called me on dip. Got a new hire out of the deal, too. A good one." Kara looked up at the sound of the giantess shifting comfortably in her seat. "I actually had a pretty terrific time. It's just…" Tam shrugged. "I might've come close to outing the game once or twice."
"I think the Daisy gal just assumed stuff translated, like, how do I tell her I know what Uber Eats is? And, well, I might've let on that I know a 'security' person with a little bit of reputation."
Kara, with slow and dramatic effect, dropped her face into her hands.
"I didn't name names! I'm not some blazin' arse murderspy to noble houses, woman! That's your job!" Kara could see the flailing through her fingers. "And nobody else in the galaxy can make a good pizza! We don't have pepperoni back home."
"Oh, my gods."
"Anyway, it's still a damned good thing you got wind of the play out there, that call what came in. I picked up the distress the moment I got into local Earth space." Tam sighed. "Sixty godsdamn jumps from start. Sixty. You know, it took me twenty minutes to find their vapor trail from signal cutout, and it was a close thing for their sakes, and yet I'm a little tiny bit glad, because they never guessed I was busy chundering hot soup the whole time. I have never envied a Druff more. They don't have stomachs like we do, so they're not hosing down Engineering every time I do something crazy."
"Tam. I am so sorry." Kara still had her face in her hands.
"Made me look a little more standoffish than usual at first, so that worked out, too. Your prince forgot to question me about that bit, when he later tweaked my ship's a good one under the rust. Aghhhhh. It was worth it, I think. Anyway, our end got tied off best as it could. They're back home safe. Gods, get your hands off your face, is Sakaar that bad?"
"I hate it." Kara took her hands off of her cheeks and picked up the wine, feeling freshly exhausted all over again.
"The Ends miss you. You'd like it right now, big new feckin' hole in the side of the scum ring. Docking teams remember you."
"I hate them and the Ends, too."
"Yeah, they know. Okay, Sakaar sucks, but where you at with the big show?" Tam leaned forward into the vidscreen view, curious. "We lost trail here, and I didn't tell them anything because I didn't know anything. You get payoff after the call?"
Kara reached over to splice in the recording she'd stolen out of the docking files. Wordlessly, she let Tam watch what she'd already studied more than a dozen times. The arrival of the anonymous looking shuttle through one of the wormholes, a couple of months ago. The departure of its cargo - two women, side by side. One was immediately recognizable as Proxima Midnight, the current leader of Thanos's remaining generals. The other, the look on Tam's face said she didn't recognize her. She seemed cut from dead white marble from hair to toe, swathed in a thin layer of black, with a cold and clinically beautiful face.
She waited until Tam leaned back. "They stayed for four days, striking up a deal with the Grandmaster to send some of his vibranium to Earth in the hands of a disposable mercenary crew. It wasn't a difficult meeting, apparently, but he wanted the other one to stay a while."
"Can see why. Not to my basic bee hot buns preferences, but she's a looker. He'd never pass that up, not from what you've told me." Tam frowned. "Who is she?"
"Not entirely certain. I think she's the Swan, she fits a profile I found that suggested Thanos had a secret, well, counterpart to the Maw." Kara made a seesaw gesture to illustrate. "An actual diplomat, not merely his final messenger."
"Someone with the temperament to handle the Grandmaster."
Kara nodded. "And I finally know how they pushed him." She gave up one of her rare smiles at Tam's look. "Prince Loki's never been what we'd call impoverished, but we also know he financed part of his final push against Thanos out of some secret pocket that's not on Asgard's books. Proxima figured out at least part of how, and went to the Grandmaster to pressure him to her side with it." She leaned forward, almost grinning. "The sly bastard caught wind of a major arena game a few years back, a set-up between the Grandmaster and the Collector. The Collector arranged for a Makluan space dragon to break a winning streak in the Arcade, was supposed to be this big secret twist. Reset the whole arena season. The Grandmaster stood to make millions of credits off the turn, refresh his reputation throughout the quadrant. But someone set up a shell account and played the longest odds, swiping the majority of the winnings and taking off with it all before the money got traced."
Tam stared at her, then began to slowly shake her head back and forth. "You know, after a point, you can't help but admire the madman."
Kara rolled her eyes, refusing to ever admit such a thing. "In any case, the one thing you never want to suggest on this world is that the Grandmaster can lose." She leaned back and finished off the dregs of her wine. "He doesn't focus easily. But Proxima's given him an actual enemy. And having any immortal as an enemy is bad ruddy news, much less one of these elders."
Tam pursed her lips. Then she dropped back into her chair again, scratching a finger along her tight hairline. "All right. I'm picking you up yet?"
"Give me another week out here. I've got a few loose ends I want to chase." Kara shrugged at the look she got. "I still don't know why Prince Thor took a holiday here of all places. I know who he talked to, sure, but not why."
"Right, the scrapper woman." Tam looked at her fingernail before dropping her hand to the console. "Is it important?"
"Don't know." Kara sighed. "But if I do know anything, it's that when the princes move, the galaxy follows. Whether it's important right now or no, it'll matter. I don't want to be caught flatfooted when it does."
"Don't get too caught up looking for clues when the trail suddenly wends behind you." Tam put a hand up before Kara could protest. "I know. I know you've done this work a long time. But this is gone personal for you, and personal means the color of things change."
Kara grimaced. "It's hardly personal, Tam-"
"It's personal when the King of Asgard, a man I know damn well you've never loved, apologizes directly to you and asks you to keep his prodigal son out of the deep end of the shit." Tam relaxed, knowing she sounded too forceful. "It's personal. Watch your ass, little systir."
Kara understood well the things that weren't being said, softening a little. "Why? You're always watching it for me."
Tam smirked. "Yeah, I suppose I am." She jutted her chin at the screen. "All right. Ping me when you're ready to get out of that mess."
"I'll be at the dock with my travel kit and a gang of angry shooters behind me."
Tam laughed, reaching for her comm control. "Every time, systir. Every damn time." She tipped a wink. "More fun that way, eh?"
"Always. Safe flight, Tam. Pet the lass for me when you get back to the fleet."
Tam copped a salute and canceled the feed, leaving Kara in relative peace and the company of the rest of a bad bottle of wine. She kicked her feet up onto the desk and stared at the ceiling for a while, wondering, as she did, why every choice in her road sooner or later led right back to home. A wish from a lost Queen, maybe, a sorceress's final unbreakable spell. To see her family safe, whatever weapon it took to ensure it.
Well, reckoned Kara to herself. She could be that.
Confidence is about knowing you can make it right.
~ John Scalzi, The Consuming Fire
. . .
03-12-19, all rights to Marvel, etc, and all blame to relevant parties.
I think it's pretty clear now that the Judicium arc is meant to be like the original Codex arc, in that if I do my job right you can enjoy any story as its own tale, but that I've also left pieces of an overarching story around to wrap up by the time it's all over. And when it is, that will be it for this incarnation of the Codex. Because the characters will have said and done what they needed. If I do this right. Some big 'if' there.
Kara was introduced in The Shadows of Asgard and has been referenced once or twice since, and that originally semi-codex-continuity fic is now very much part of the ground floor for this arc. I would be lying if I said she wasn't an OC, but she is layered, if slightly, on the mythology of the Valkyrie Kara, referenced in the Poetic Edda, where it is revealed that the Norse myths have some room for reincarnation. She was imagined by me at the time and as Ragnarok hit theatres as a kind of counterpart to Brynnhilde - and that's apparently going to matter, isn't it? Good ol' Scrapper 142.
So, yes, an OC, which always worries a few people, but I have zero intentions of letting any one character override the entire series. At least, not since Loki took over a Coulson-centric plan back in the day. We will also not be changing genre into a ship-fic. You know me by now. My OTP is character/emotionally run over by a bus.
Tam is also new but steeped in certain worldbuilding we've had in place here for a long time. I have wanted to introduce Tam for ages and she was part of what got dumped when I first decided I wasn't going to do this arc after Infinity War derailed me with the introduction of the Black Order. You may have some guesses by now about who and what Tam is in relation to the other characters. They will be paid off in time.
When I make OCs for an established world, it's because I think I need something no canon character can efficiently provide. Hopefully I don't screw that, or your trust, up too much.
The Grandmaster's hijacked arena event referenced in the epilogue is told in Darwin's Dragon, from the original Codex run.
Sovel Redhand and Jat are throwaway X-Men characters (Sovel turns up in a Danger Room storyline that would hurt everyone's head for me to explain so I won't), and even Dexam, the Quists, Druffs, and the Calurnians are borrowed from cosmic Marvel. Jat was meant to be a toss-off, a nobody Kree cyborg that rates like one comic mention. We have adopted Jat. Jat will be on Tam's ship for now.
As stated by Coulson, I toyed with the idea of bringing Ross to SHIELD, but as entertaining as the idea is, he really is better at the CIA, where in my mind he is continually shooting memos upstairs informing people that we do not fucking torture and also please eat his ass, and because of seniority and the fact that Wakanda 100% LOVES HIM, he will never suffer any political consequence for being the conscience of the entire agency.
I am sure we will find an excuse to see him again.
I have plans coming up for the next several fics, although they'll take some time before you see them. Tentatively, the next major story you'll see will bring some of the horror elements of the series to a close - and that won't even be the annual Halloween fic, which has its own plan.
Meanwhile, as ever, thank you so much for coming along for the ride and for your support, and we can assume that a couple weeks after this story, Loki does indeed have to go back to Jordan with Quinn in tow…