4. Defending Your Life

. . .

"What is death and Death to you, Hela?" Death watched the exiled princess stalk towards her, watching the porcelain angles of her face shudder under the weight of the answer. Watching the way something slipped and surged under the flesh, some old rage coming back to the dead light. "What have you to answer to my riddle?"

"Hypocrisy," said Hela, the sound of her voice eerily calm. "Just that."

Death smoothed the folds of her long dress, fine brown hands laid on her knees, and she watched Hela. Waiting for the porcelain to smash to pieces, waiting without saying if it was the 'right' answer or not.

"Hypocrisy," said Hela again, as if the problem might have been that Death hadn't heard her. She stared down at the stoic, silent figure, looking for the reaction that wasn't coming. Silence hung between them, another dead figure on a noose, stretching, waiting, unchanging. "Do you hear my answer, Death?"

"I heard you," said Death, and her voice was pure calm.

"That's all you've to say to me?"

Death looked into Hela's glittering green eyes, seeing the way they flashed. Bright and alive, like the flecks of mica in her palm. And she said nothing, and she kept saying nothing as Hela's breath began to shallow, the hyperventilation of someone about to frenzy. She only waited, ceaseless and eternally patient. When Death chose to be.

"You sit there on the stones of this dead world and tell me scant tales of lives you chose to live, where death comes as a mercy, alongside hope, alongside some form of gentleness and you say you learned from these, that change has some miraculous value, that your empathy taught you to care about such brief lives that you send on into the void." The words in a monotone that belied the rasping breath under them, a true rage kept barely controlled.

"You dare tell me this after I must tell you for your game what death has been in my life, a shadow that's been with me since I was small, the ghost of what my family should have been, you took from us a child, our poor Baldur, a baby that should have been king, and instead left me behind to carry his lifeless future, a future that Odin couldn't possibly bear with me on the throne. I've had to become what you won't speak of, the Death of War, the monster of the battlefield, to prove my place when the place should never have been meant for me.

"You dare talk to me about change when I never had a chance, I was born to force myself into another's shape, and you sit there and judge me when I have been what you won't talk about and yet also still are - the men in the machines, thrown to the grinder, the ones that choked to death on a dying world, the ones that saw fit to worship your words carelessly lost and follow you for the darkness that lays in your wake. You sit there and act like all this is no part of the lessons you come to share with me today."

Hela's voice had been rising, rising, not a shriek, but the controlled fury of a long-waiting storm. "You sit there and suggest change is what I wanted all along, but how could I have possibly ever known, when all I had was limned by the boundaries of you, how can I seek what I never knew existed? You know what I wanted, Mistress Death? I wanted understanding, I wanted to be heard for who I was, to find some crack where I could shape myself, to have the freedom of a wolf pup born in some alien wilderness.

"But I can have none of this, I am an exile on a dead world for the things I did, the things I never believed I had a choice in, for I was Hela, someday Queen of Asgard, and its power lived in me. I am part of it, that part Odin All-Father wanted to change and didn't know how, so he hid it all instead when the blood I spilled for his kingdom cooled to black. I fought for the Asgard that was, because I knew no other way to be. I was what Asgard made of me. His two sons, those poor bastards, I saw them in scant glimpses and knew they lived, and you come to me and say they found change. Bully for them! They had the chances I never did! A living king who could not ruin them entire, and here I am, forever I learn, trapped with the ghost of my dead brother. Even my father's death will not free me now."

Death watched Hela fall apart, the cracks under her skin now shattered wide, and her face remained calm. Without judgment.

"You want my answer to your riddle? Gods, I'll tell you it. Not just hypocrisy you're here carrying, but a false hope. You speak of change, but what irony it is that you come carrying it as some great flag, some beacon. You, you, for when you come there's no more change save the way the light fades in our corpsed eye. Death is where change ends, and there's no more hope for that given life. Irony, hypocrisy, the end of it all. A door that shuts behind each of us, with no more hopes to pray for."

"Hela," said Death, her voice becoming kind. "You are not dead yet."

Hela stopped her fury and looked at the girl, her eyes widening in shock at the obviousness of the words. Then she burst into bitter laughter. "But I am here, and I will never leave."

"Would you tell your father some of what you told me? Would you speak to him, accuse him, instead of lash your swords, of the pain your life carried, that you felt no other way to be but Asgard's weapon?"

Hela's laughter didn't stop, wild now, and not a little desperate. "As if he would listen to me."

"He might try now. He is old, and fading, and his changes have taught him to understand the gravity of his great mistakes. That much of the pain of Asgard today comes back to him, and though responsibility is a heavy thing all must carry, so much of it started with his choices." Death cocked her head. "You don't need his forgiveness, nor must you forgive him. I am not the fool that would suggest that. But some understanding, that is the crux of that change the living seek."

"I say again, I am here, and I will never leave."

"Poor Hela. You needed one in your family that could hear your cries. Frigga missed so much of your spirit in her grief, and Odin spent his hours wrestling with his kingdom's identity in the wake of an all-father that would never be. Your brothers are no part of your life, and me? I am a poor sister, a shadow that can seldom do more than offer haunts and whispers. I was not there, and yet I was always there, as part of you. As that violent, bloody part of your wars, just as you accuse, and I was the usher of the deaths you parceled out, for you knew no other life and threw yourself deeper into it to cope. To hide. Since you would have no understanding, nor way to change."

Hela looked away, and she sunk to the bone sands, her legs folding under her. Not a kneel. Even weary and near broken, she would never kneel. "You don't argue my charge."

"Of my hypocrisies? Say I understand your point of view." Death looked up at the grey, broken sky. "I am one of the universe's first immortals, and I will be its last. It is too small of me to say I might be so flawed as you suggest, for I am Death, and death is not bound to give all its answers, even to a corpse. But I have also learned such lessons as we've spoken, and sometimes I choose to use them. I understand, Hela. I have empathy, hard learned. And I would offer you mercy, equally gentle, and now, earned. I appreciate your answer, Hela. It was truthful, and truth was the answer to my riddle. This was your truth. It cannot be denied, and mercy is my reward."

"Mercy," said Hela, empty and tired now after her rage. "What mercy can you give me in this place?"

"A chance to cling to, a moment to wait for. But not for long. Too long a wait is no friend to one who's waited this much already. This conversation will help open a door for you, for better you spill this rage you've carried onto one that has the time to hear and empathize. Next you'll have a little space to study the things you've said to me, things I know you've never said aloud, never dared to acknowledge. The cup's overflown and shattered. Now to rebuild. A time to scab a few of those wounds, for your sake and no one else's, and to steady yourself. To next say what you will, as you will, as you choose."

"And what moment is coming?" Hela eyed her, untrusting, exhausted, but curious again.

"Your youngest brother will come to you in need, Hela, him you tire of and think you hate. He's no fool, and the spear that binds you now will be gripped tightly in his hands to remind you both of the geas. The way you once gripped his youthful neck, and he will feel similar fear as he did then. You've been nothing more but a ghost and a secret to him, and Odin knows almost nothing of what you feel, so Loki will come to see the Hela That Was. But will you be the same Hela, or the one that understands herself a little bit better now, the one who knows that her life was as unjust to her as she was to others?"

"What will he seek?"

"Your help." Death watched Hela's expression shift, from distrust to surprise to almost painful hope. "Not only for his own sake, but for friends and family and for much more. For the universe, and for Asgard. It cannot be doubted that while your flaws are true and impossible to ignore, and neither can one doubt your loyalty to your home. It was mistaken in its shape, but it was true. You tried to do your best, with the broken tools you had been given, and he is one that knows the worth of a second chance when the first was gamed and lost under the weight of such a loaded die."

Second chance. Hela couldn't say the words aloud. She mouthed them instead, like they were from some lost language. When she did speak, it was masked with the same, familiar distrust. "And if I say I do not regret what I did? That I do not think I need such a thing?"

Death shrugged. "I judge less than you believe. You will make your own decisions in that regard, when you have more information in your hands. Help him or no, that is your next fateful choice. I do not make it a bargain, I only lay it plain. What you choose - willingly - in that hour, why you make such a choice, then, perhaps, you will begin to understand some of the grace I have learned over millennia. Listen to him. And then decide."

Hela frowned, considering what the future was going to bring her. A chance at fresh air, at an open sky, a chance to confront her father, her king, her maker. It was almost incomprehensible, not a miracle, perhaps, but some new curse. And the rage lurked, suggesting she tear free with that future chance, and become again what she had been - a Death of the Realms, a Queen bound for a monstrous throne.

Or someone else. A possibility, true. She resettled her legs, and her palms, dirty now as opportunistic sand settled into the creases of her skin, rubbed against the sleek, black dragonleather armor she always wore, and she mused. "You are right on one thing, at the very least. I will need time to think."

"Of course."

Hela looked up, her eyes narrowing. "You said this serves a debt of yours. To my brother, I presume. How does this conversation, this truth suit that goal?"

Death smiled.

"Am I to become your weapon? Is that it? You think I'll save a life who is owed by you and roundabout grant him this earned gift of yours?"

She shook her head and laughed. "No, Hela. I'm trying to save yours." Death caught Hela's uncomprehending stare and leaned forward. For the first time, Death reached out and gently touched Hela's face. "Because no one else has known how, I choose to open a door. Because my friend, yes, to whom I owe a debt, would like it, once he understood a little more of was laid bare in this conversation. And Hela, he would understand you, if given a chance. If you choose to give him one. Because Asgard and the realms deserve a stranger, better future built upon a foundation Odin might never have imagined. Because together you could do better - but only if you choose. Because all life deserves a family - whether born to, or found."

"I don't understand."

"That's all right. In time, you will." Death let go of Hela's face, rising to her feet and glancing away. "I must move on. There's nothing else for us to speak of."

"There's eternity to speak of. A thousand questions will always linger."

"And all of them hidden behind a shut door. But not unkindly done." Death looked back at Hela, her face turning impish. "I've got to keep some secrets, little sister."

"Some," said Hela, hearing what she had been called and furrowing her brow at it.

Death fished deep into the hidden folds of her dress, and came up with a small, black book. On it was a sigil that seemed to change shape as Hela watched, but it often came back to iterations of the same thing - a loop, and a trio of lines, like a figure stretching their arms wide to something unknown. An ankh, and not. She tossed it to Hela, who neatly snapped it out of the air. "There's a few notes in there you might find of use, if you care to search for them. And whether you do or no, it's also message to your brother, to say we spoke and that my word has vouched for yours. You can do with that what you like, too."

Hela turned the book over in her hands. It was unremarkable otherwise. No magic aura dressed it beyond the secret of its mark, no scent of blood or the dustiness of some old corpse. Just a smooth leather spine holding together impossibly thin sheafs of various material, from flexible metals to parchment. She opened it to a random page, and saw tiny script in languages that meant nothing to her eye. She flipped to another, and saw a different language that was almost familiar. "A risky lend to a hand like mine."

"Maybe."

"And what will I do with it when our part's done? Toss it to the skies?"

"Oh, it'll find its way to me again, I've no doubt, don't worry about that." Death adjusted her skirt again, and now she seemed cloaked by the growing dark that slipped across the dead desert plains, the edges of her hijab catching a stray breeze, making a hood that hid her features deep within. She looked back once to see Hela still studying her words, the script changing throughout aeons, always small and fine, and almost always speaking of some new mystery. "Most everything does, eventually."

Hela snapped her head up to see if the words were meant as another wry joke, and saw that she was again alone on the world she had once been named for. All to appease the dead that had come before, and might yet come again. Then she resettled herself on the sand, hungry for what the future might have waiting for her, and began to read.

. . .

Director Phil Coulson saw the shadow appear outside the clouded glass of his door just before it knocked lightly enough to tell him for certain who it was. He let the letter he'd re-read for the fourth time fall back into folded thirds, then tossed it onto his desk, as if it didn't matter and wasn't worthy of any notice. "Daisy?"

She poked her head in. "Party's just starting to get into full swing out here."

"I can hear it." He could, too. Someone had gotten at the sound system and decided instead of the usual corny Halloween fare, it was time for their Rob Zombie playlist. "What caused the cheer a little while ago?"

"Apparently," said Daisy in a cheerful way that suggested 'apparently' meant 'we all damn well know how and it involved Loki,' "Doctor Strange lost a bet or something so he decided to crash the show. He's taking balloon animal requests."

Phil laughed and shook his head.

"You okay in here?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Dunno." Daisy slipped the rest of the way into the room and crossed over to him, furrowing her brow in that thoughtful, sometimes uncomfortable way she had. For a second, her gaze stopped on the folded letter with its thick paper that suggested some Very Official document from somewhere inside the agency. Then it moved on until it came back to his face. "You seem a bit quiet today."

Phil shrugged, casual and offhanded. "Little tired, that's all. Change of season, probably got my allergies up."

"'Kay. May sent me to get your butt out there before some sort of weird drama happens. Loki's already in the corner insulting the Doc."

"That's not unusual."

"No, but I want to get him to finally tell the story of whatever the hell happened a few years ago, when he went out to that abandoned school." Daisy crossed her arms and slouched back a few inches, remembering. "It's gotta be a good one, but he won't tell it if he and Strange start combat dancing all night."

Phil snorted and pushed himself back from his desk. He took a moment to get up, wondering if that was a trace of dizziness he felt, or just allergy fog, or just him being oversensitive and overaware of everything right now. He made himself stop focusing on it, his mind wanting to keep focus on the letter from SHIELD medical despite himself, before Daisy gave him another look. "Then we better listen to Agent May. There still candy left?"

"Dude. Dude." Daisy grinned and took his arm, an adopted daughter that got away with too much, because she could. "We still got dozens of full-size everything, and Wong sent, like, an industrial pallet of Rice Krispie treats with Strange."

"PB ones?"

"Hell yeah, with chocolate drizzle like little cat faces." She led him out the door, and Phil chuckled at the delighted tone of her voice. "It's gonna be a great party."

"Especially once we get there," said Phil with a growing smile, and this time, he didn't look back. Only forward, to whatever time was left.

~Fin

. . .

"Death's a capricious thing, innit?" ~ Neil Gaiman, The Sandman

. . .

I had a lot going on in my system to work through. Thank you for putting up with it, next time out will be much lighter. And since I'll very likely still have one more Halloween to get through, I'm thinking cryptids.

Hela will, of course, return. Not in the next fic, but soon.

The next fic will explain exactly what was in Phil's letter, but the end of first arc of the Codex already gave a hint there. But for now, Phil is fine, and we're going to keep having some fun. I promise. Everyone earns their happy ending.

Baldur's fate was previously explained in An Ocean Deep and Cold, a child simply gone at a tragically young age. In real world myth, Baldur is another of Odin's sons, the one Loki sort of accidentally but mostly douchebaggingly murders with a spear of mistletoe. Before that, Baldur was beloved by all the gods, though like his father, he was a god of war and came well to it. In Marvel comics, he appears as Thor's half brother and vaguely follows the myth. And in the MCU, he seems to be gone entirely, with Hela as a secret sibling instead of the result of some complicated Lokean heritage. This is part of my headcanon about how that might work.

Mistress Death's stories are entirely made up. Kawans are an obscure Marvel race I picked off a list. Hela's stories are also my invention, although Fenris being a female wolf pup in this incarnation comes from an interview done with the SFX team that worked on Thor: Ragnarok.

Thank you for coming! I'll be giving NaNoWriMo a shot this year and taking a break through the holidays, so the Codex will return in, holy frick how is this real, 2020, with the promised story of what Nebula is up to.