Epilogue: There's Always Another Tale

. . .

Aggie watched Damien confer with her boss, wondering what that was going to be about. The conversation seemed pretty calm for one involving Loki, although being that he still looked about as wrung out as a wet cat, maybe it wasn't all that surprising. She stuck her hands in the pockets of the light jacket she wore, her fingertips picking at each other. Seattle had turned cool and rainy yet again, and they were wrapping up final details outside Montesi's curio shop.

The proprietor herself gave the two men a glance as she stepped out the front door again, coming to Aggie. "What's all that?"

"Don't know yet. Expect I'll find out later." Aggie shrugged. "Nobody's throwing a fit, so, hey."

"Hmm." Montesi let that hang in the air. Then silence hung a little bit longer, edging towards awkward. "So, I've got a question for you."

Aggie was still watching the pair talk, not really thinking about much. Her head still ached from trying to figure out how she'd ended up carrying around a God for a while. It beat the shit out of dying, so it wasn't that she minded, exactly. Just a bit of strangeness in her life even she couldn't have predicted. "Sure."

"Are you… ah…" Montesi trailed off and paused long enough for Aggie to give her a look. "Do you want to have dinner together sometime? Tonight, whenever. Um."

Aggie's hands stopped fidgeting around in her pockets, slowly catching up to the question. "Hm?" Montesi was studying her expression with a worried raptness she couldn't figure out. Then she grasped it. "Oh!"

Montesi stepped back at the startled noise. "If you're not interested, that's completely fine, I just thought I'd ask."

"No it's… I haven't really gotten out much since my husband died."

Montesi cleared her throat and nodded, seeming to already accept that as a gentle refusal.

"It's not like that! He killed himself a few years ago, so it's-" Aggie grimaced, awkward, at the way Montesi whipped around to blink at her. They stared at each other like that for a minute. "Well if you thought you were screwing up, let me just make it all kinds of worse." She managed a nervous laugh, trying to put them both at ease again. "No, it's… I mean, I'm not sure where I am, Vic, but I also haven't thought about my life like that in a long time, so… I mean. It's not that you're throwing me that far, I just… have the social life of a dead rat. But yeah. Yes. Let's… get dinner."

Montesi was still studying her face, making sure it really was okay. "Doesn't have to end as a date. Could turn out we just make a pair of good friends."

"Might." Aggie shrugged. "Might work out, I don't know."

They looked at each other, a little embarrassed, a little confused, but also a little more comfortable with each other. Across the road, Damien threw up his hands, shook his head, and stormed away from Loki. "Fine!" he roared. "A contractor job! Whatever. God, you're a weird asshole."

Aggie nodded, suddenly feeling tired all over again. "And so we adopt another one."

"Is that a thing at your job?"

"Look at me, Vic. Think about the cat. Have I got stories for you. It is definitely a thing at SHIELD. We won't be lacking for dinner conversation." Aggie laughed. "I can stay in town a couple nights. I've got time off coming, and Loki doesn't give a damn anyway."

"Good Mex place up the street. I know the guy that runs it."

"Sold," said Aggie, starting to grin again as Damien disappeared down the road with a rude gesture and an expression that said he was actually sort of touched by being wanted for something instead of chased out of town. "I am starving."

. . .

A few days later ~

Wong kept his hands clasped behind his back, looking over the rows of silent books and pointedly not looking at one of the lecterns that was once the occasional nest of the Book of the Vishanti. He understood. Agreed, even, with the judgment of the Gods, not that they required his permit. But he supposed was a Keeper of such tomes in his own way, and it was sorrowful to see one leave his care.

"They're resting?" Strange let himself into the hall of sentient tomes, seeing Wong's hands drift free and then one came forward to lay on the spine of the tome that carried a dragon within its pages.

"They are, but less deeply than before." Wong snorted. "The ancient Long found the new world a fine thing, and she liked fighting for it very much. I will have to make it a point to visit. Perhaps help her - and the others - see a little more of the future they are part of." His lips settled in a faint smile. "A book is truly only as powerful, in the end, as the mind that takes it into itself. As they rest here, they do us little good, and there is much to learn. I could live forever and not have a chance to listen to all of their secrets. But it might be nice to try."

Strange nodded, silent. Then he spoke again, thoughtful. "I wonder why I was chosen as the sorcerer supreme, when it's you that has the most connection to everything Kamar-Taj has to offer."

Wong chuckled, that dry and knowing laugh he had that meant what he said might be a jest - but it also might not be. "Because only you deserve the honored fate of having to speak with our Gods directly."

Strange rolled his eyes, used to his 'jokes.' "Honored. Yeah. I'm sure that's it."

"Speaking of Gods." Wong let go of the ancient Chinese grimoire and turned to his friend.

Strange flapped the edges of the red and living cloak, illustrating his annoyance. "He's fine, he's moody, he sent me a note this morning suggesting I drop dead, and also added those notes on jotun deepcave magelight structures I asked about last month. His people have him on desk rest, which means he's probably going to roll up in a Lambo he stole from Stark's parking garage and get around to kicking my ass by lunch. He keeps his promises, I guess."

"I'll put out a charcuterie board if he does." Wong began to lead Stephen out of the library and back towards the New York Sanctum, feeling content in a way he hadn't in a long time. Perhaps that was going to be part of the lesson he took from this. Elder gods and primordial magic had their place in the universe, but there had been something glorious and true seeing the dragon take her stand, and she was solely part of their world. "Asgardian goat milk makes an excellent cheese, as it happens. I'm glad we were able to get some from Thor. I think you'll both enjoy it."

"Still got some of that old Tonsberg mead? I might make it out nearly intact if you bribe him with it."

"I'll see if I have time to check," said Wong blandly, only for the look on Stephen's face. Of course he had some, and of course it would be out for the two sorcerers later. "We wouldn't want you to be in too much trouble again quite so soon."

. . .

Aggie was in the lounge when Loki did the thing where he abruptly showed up at the stove with a teapot in his hand without any noise or ceremony, nearly dropping her phone mid-text. "Hey, boss."

The pale face came up to regard her with a pointed and deeply meaningful glare. On the far side of his broad shoulders a latched-in flerken rose just enough to let Aggie see the gaping - way too gaping - maw stretch in a galactic-sized yawn. "Don't make me say it again."

"How was Strange?"

A wordless, generically hostile grunt was her first answer. "Lunch was decent," was the second. "He lives another day, I do grudgingly permit. Did Processing get the Hellstrom paperwork I sent them?"

Aggie finished her text and shot it off to Vic. "You can pretend you hate Stephen all you like, but your rivalry's got nothing on how Agent Ellis feels about you down in HR & P."

"Agent Ellis likely sleeps with an outdated copy of the old SSR handbook under his pillow and has the chin of a weak bird under that stupid goatee. He can feel what he likes. Is the paperwork going through?"

"Technically."

"Good enough." Loki took the whistling teakettle off the burner and filled a mug. "I want Hellstrom sent out on the next few idiotic Scooby-Doo jobs they try to fob me onto. If they're going to waste my department's time, they can do it on billable contractor hours. He won't mind, and my mood will improve immensely. Agent Peters can handle the liaison work. She also won't mind, I already saw her checking out Hellstrom's arse this afternoon." He looked up at Aggie, his eyes narrowed into wry hostility. "And that, in time, will show our good Agent Ellis in Processing that I can make a decent managerial decision. When I care to."

Aggie nodded, seeing the point. The question came back to her, and she tried to let it go. Loki gestured brusquely at the cabinets where the rest of the mugs were kept, his own question unsaid but clear. Tea for her? "Please."

He pulled a second mug down to set up another batch of sweet smelling Vanaheim herbal tea. "Ask."

Aggie started at the abrupt address. "I wasn't-"

"Yes, you were. Get it out of your system."

She inhaled, the words stuck in her throat. Why did the Vishanti intervene through me? Why is the curse lifted from my family? Did you do that, somehow? She swallowed them all down. She suspected the answer, at least to the last one, was yes, and that somehow answered the others. She didn't understand why, however, and he wouldn't appreciate the attention, much less any form of gratitude. So she dodged. "Are you glad it's over? The book being taken away, all of that?"

"Am I glad the Darkhold will not torment this plane again in my lifetime? That it has fucked off for, as far as I'm concerned, a relative eternity, and its keepers will be no part of me, much less any of you, ever again? Am I glad?" Loki shot her a sideways look, one loaded with all sorts of quick flashing emotions. Easy to read for once, and at least not as hostile as he could have been.

"See, that's why I wasn't going to ask." She picked up the mug and gave it a sniff. The only thing she knew about this particular blend of tea was to never ask about this particular blend of tea. There was a chamomile base, recognizably enough, but it was a specific, strange mix with a label she'd seen exactly once - Queen's Whisper - and that told her more than she needed to know.

"I am absolutely ecstatic." Loki paused as they both heard her phone bing with a new text. "Take another holiday, go visit your new paramour, I don't give a damn."

"It's not necessarily-"

"Go have a life, Harkness, and quit protesting at me. Time to be done with dark pasts and unending consequences. They bargain roughly, and not as fair as some." He sighed and stuck his hip against the counter, looking off elsewhere as Aggie jerked at the answer to her real question hidden in his words. The flerken was already back to her doze, settled in like a small and hairy pauldron. Was Frej glowing slightly? Aggie blinked before she turned her attention back to Loki. Magical flerkens. All right, then. "Well, that's what I would say. Someday it might even actually be true." He looked back to her, rueful and tired and slightly amused. "There's always another bag of madness waiting for me to carry it off to new and beshitted lands."

She took a sip with a frown, her mind still working to absorb the week's events. It was like dollar store paper towel versus wet cat barf, honestly. "What's going on now?"

He shook his head and straightened back up, cupping his mug within one long, pale hand and preparing to leave again. "I've received a message from an interesting acquaintance, one who's decided, accurately I think, that she has quite the career in galactic intel. Seems a mutual friend of ours is looking for some attention. She suggests staging an intervention. I happen to agree with her assessment."

"Interesting acquaintance? Do you know anyone boring?"

"Coulson isn't exactly what one would consider a disco superstar." Loki glanced back at Harkness, already almost out of the lounge. "But Nebula, like myself, is fated to never have a dull moment." He arched a single black eyebrow before he disappeared. "And our pasts, it seems, can't be shunted off with a handwave from a God."

. . .

Zofia Kovacs was a rarity in Hungary, a kind old woman who went out of her way to be exactly that. She owned her own truck and left her husband behind at the farm to make her long, ranging deliveries along the western border. She sold her fresh wares cheap enough for poorer families to make do, she left toys with her deliveries where she could, and she knew all the old roads and old ways. Zofia sang out her truck's open window from spring to autumn, so the people knew she was coming and would be glad to see her. Police knew Zofia, and military, and all of them knew she was no trouble to anyone at all.

It allowed her a kind of freedom that most people in her neighborhood couldn't imagine, and no one questioned her about where the money came for those little toys and cheap deliveries. She was old and kind, and obviously scrimped and saved to do these things. Obviously.

That morning she let herself into the little shop by the highway, the one that always gave her a freshly boiled egg and warm toast with cheese, where the old man, Josef, was already giving her a knowing nod as he disappeared into the kitchen. The shop only had one other visitor today, the one she expected. But Zofia paused, because the girl she was here to meet looked very young, and very Western-styled under a shocking veil of pure white hair.

The girl looked up at Zofia with a brilliant smile and lifted a hand. It was warm today, despite the dense forest that overtook the border only a few miles away, but the girl was wearing a clean black glove. The outfit, too, was black, a thick shift with a cloak tossed over her shoulder, and the girl's skin was so white that Zofia almost crossed herself, thinking of the legends of blood drinkers. But that was foolish of her. The morning was young and the sun was rising clear and high in the sky. "Zofia?" said the girl, breaking her out of her surprise. The voice was crystalline, with an accent she couldn't place. Not an American after all.

Nonetheless, English was usually a safe way to start. She couldn't keep the hesitation out of her voice as she approached the table. "I am Zofia, miss. You are my passenger today?"

"I am!" Another gleaming, perfect smile. All her teeth straight and cared for. A model, perhaps, or some rich man's child. Why would such a person want her services? "Breakfast here was so good, I haven't eaten anything like this in forever!"

Another chill passed over Zofia. Something was odd about this young woman. The food was good here, but plain, hearty farmer food, and the girl looked well-kept and healthy. "Josef's wife makes the bread herself. Every day," she said carefully.

"A treasure." The girl leaned forward, across the table. "Where I came from, things like this were so rare. Chemical nutrition instead of things we cooked. Light from our machines, not the stars." She shook her head. "But I'm sure I'll never see anything like that again. No one will. So it's very important to me that we get on our way as soon as possible, Zofia. And don't worry, I'm being expected." Another smile, this one sharp and knowing. "Even if they don't understand that yet."

Zofia realized her hands was shaking, and she put them behind herself, covering the move with a delicate bow of her head. "Of course, of course."

The girl got up from the table, leaving a little wad of crisp new money behind. Too much for such a small breakfast, but she didn't seem to understand or care. She was average in height, her features elfin, and even those eyes, now that Zofia stood close, were so light a blue they seemed ice-white. "You don't have to be afraid of me, Zofia," said the girl, touching her arm. Even through the black glove, that hand was terrifyingly cold. "All you have to do is take me across the border, like you do, and all those nice children will soon have plenty of toys from their grammie."

The money. The girl gently slipped an envelope into Zofia's jacket, and it was thick and heavy. Too much money for a simple Latverian border crossing where the lost king's robots knew her and let her pass, too much money for breakfast. How had the girl come this far? Zofia shivered again, and wished she could pray without being rude. "I thank you, miss," she said instead, reverting to the safety of her manners. "What may I call you while we ride?"

"I am the Swan," said the girl, studying her face with those old, white eyes, and Zofia saw there was nothing human left there after all. No emotion. No care. Only that precise, cutting interest. "Only that. And I need to go meet an old friend for the first time."

~Fin

"It is the tale, not he who tells it." ~ The Breathing Method, Stephen King

9/18/19 All rights to Marvel, all blame to these jackasses that I can't stop writing about

Notes:

I wish I knew why every time I put Loki and Stephen in the same room their conversations turn into the verbal abuse equivalent of sweaty ball punching, but I can't say I mind. They're friends, of course, by this point. They'd murder each other for admitting it, and murder me for writing it down again, but it's true. They're each other's one phone call from the drunk tank and they know it. Meanwhile, Wong is just happy to have Stephen fighting someone else instead of bothering him while he's in the library.

Damien Hellstrom (Daimon, fine, fuck), naturally, got signed for a Hulu series just as I kicked into high gear working on this fic. I look forward to seeing how he turns out on screen. I hope he's hot, I won't lie. Meanwhile, you can assume that, for a while, he'll be doing odd jobs for SHIELD that Loki would have a fit about doing, being the sexy Fred to Aggie's stoic Velma, although now we have Victoria Montesi as a guest star version of Daphne and I guess I ship Velma/Daphne after all, huh?

Vittorio and Victoria's histories are adapted with large details wholly made up, though they're indeed Marvel characters with old connections to the Darkhold and Chthon. Victoria, created by Chthon although not quite like this, was one of the first acknowledged LGBT characters in modern comics, although her partner gets basically fridged in their first appearance in The Darkhold #1. The hell with that.

Rennes-les-Chateau, referenced vaguely by Varnae in the first Codex and seen onstage here, is the scandalous setting of one of the late 20th century's favorite conspiracy theories - the blood of the Merovingian princes irrevocably and secretly linked to the blood of Christ. It made headlines all over again as Dan Brown brought out the corpse of this theory to flog for millions of dollars in his famous novel (and Tom Hanks flick) The DaVinci Code. I think that's enough editorializing from me on the topic, but if you'd enjoy reading more about the story behind the story, I recommend a tour through the book that set it all off, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (with a drink at hand), and then, not directly connected but thematically important, Umberto Eco's novel, Foucault's Pendulum. It's a tough read but an excellent one. I think about that book a lot.

The mixed history of Atlantis referenced here is somewhat accurate to comics - Namor's Atlantis today bears little relation to the Conan the Barbarian-linked (yes!) magical land long since lost to the whims of dark gods. And in one of those fun little trivia treats, R'ylleh with the double L is very much a Marvel thing and made a useful setting for Loki's showdown and silent realization that this is how it has to end.

I assume the 'actual' R'yleh is still nice and quiet somewhere else, with dark Cthulhu having a nice dream about the KFC donut chicken sandwich.

And the Swan is, specifically, Marvel's Black Swan. Featured heavily in the Battleworld comics event from a few years with ties to Thanos and Doctor Doom and a lot of time travel, she's complicated to explain, so we're just going to keep introducing her our way. We first saw her in the Codex through a stolen vidfeed image on Sakaar a couple of stories ago, but clearly, she is about to be up to something in Latveria….

Halloween is coming, and I have plans. I have a plan built around a classic but fitting Ingmar Bergman joke, and I hope you'll be happy to read it. It's about Hela and Death, and what being the god of death really means and who has the true right to that title. And then after that will be a little break, probably through the holidays - but when I come back, Nebula's bad family news will be waiting for us. We'll likely meet her adopted flerken, too, come to think of it.

As always, thank you so much for coming along for the ride!