Chapter 1: Melody
(Alternative Universe to Nightingale)
By: Lalaith Quetzalli
A bird with no song, a doctor without hands, the light of hope and the master of chaos, they've all chosen to walk new, harder, paths to protect the world, paths that will lead them to unexpected people and unforeseen places. When the Guardians come together, much will change, and Fate itself might have to be rewritten...
Music is a language understood by all, even those who cannot speak it.
Consciousness came to Helena slowly at first, and then, as her brain processed the fact that she wasn't in the place she'd called home for the last number of years (a great many years for sure), her instincts kicked in and she was fully awake in seconds. She discovered what it was that had woken her up so abruptly just a moment later: it was her father. Laying on the bed beside the armchair where she had fallen asleep the night before (or had it been earlier that day? She just wasn't sure, time didn't have the same meaning in a realm like Helheim as it did in those of the living; and in the Abyss... well, she wasn't sure time as such actually existed there). He was asleep, but not really resting, she could see the way his body kept shifting, his moves more frequent and sharper every moment; that was what woke her up. He was probably having a nightmare, not surprising really, all things considered... after all, it was not every day that one died...
It was one of the worst things Helena had ever witnessed, one she wished with all her soul had never happened, and yet it had been beyond her. At least he was alive, at least this time she was able to save the life of one of her parents... and that was one thing she'd definitely rather not think about. Still, she couldn't help but think back to the moment where she found her father: body bruised and broken, mind almost shattered, he'd been unconscious, not quite breathing, his heart barely beating at all. It would have been so easy... so terribly, horribly easy, to just let him go. A part of Helena couldn't help but wonder if he'd have preferred that. And yet she couldn't do it, couldn't stand back and let him die. She'd already failed at protecting Mama, she couldn't lose him too... she wouldn't! It might make her selfish, but she just couldn't take another loss...
There were muffled noises outside the room they were in. Only to be expected, after all, they weren't the only inhabitants of the house (manor, more like). Helena still didn't know what had prompted their hosts to take them in, to aid them... she knew the picture they'd made, with her Father's body broken in ways that were impossible to hide, even with magic, and her... it'd taken so much of her own power to keep him among the living she had had nothing left to put into her own glamour, and she knew the deep scars covering about half of her body must have been far more shocking than the dirt, grime and even blood staining her clothes (which, being black and of stern cloth, made such things less obvious, for the most part). Yet no comment was ever made, about her appearance, or the scars, their hosts had offered a room with an en-suite bathroom, help to bathe her unconscious father, and even a change of clothes, promising to get someone to see to their own. (And they had, Helena eventually realized, their clothes had been cleaned, mended and piled on a table, a tray with tea and toast beside it, both under a spell to keep them warm).
The woman's mind kept running in circles, trying to understand what was going on. The day before (or earlier that day, whatever) she'd been too exhausted, too weary to think much on it, but it couldn't be normal, for people to take complete strangers in. Fortunate as they might have been... Helena couldn't help but think she was missing something. Of course, that could be her own shock talking, the shock she had been unable to fully push aside since first laying eyes on one of her hosts...
"Stephanos..." The name escaped her lips without her being quite conscious of it.
It wasn't obvious at first sight, it wouldn't be. He looked nothing like any of the past incarnations of her match; but then that was pretty normal, new bodies and all that. But the eyes... those never changed, no matter how many years, lifetimes and even worlds passed. And Stephanos had always had very particular eyes, a mix of blue, green and a small hint of gold... they'd always fascinated her. Sure as she was that no one else in the whole universe could possibly have such eyes... Which was why there was no doubt in her, the moment she saw him: Doctor Stephen Strange, that was how he'd introduced himself, he was a Master of the Mystic Arts and in charge of the New York Sanctum. He was Stephanos's reincarnation, her match's reincarnation... and he probably had no idea.
It hadn't always been like that, of course not. For many years (thousands upon thousands) the two of them had gone through lives and worlds together, as matches ought to. It got harder the more time that passed, to the point where they wouldn't always meet, and even when they did, they weren't always together. Midgard's medieval era was the worst, as far as she was concerned, so few opportunities, the few with power always forcing their will upon those who had less... at least she didn't always have to be human. Though even then, most beings had their own limitations and rules. Also, mortal creatures couldn't process the kind of knowledge other beings possessed, especially where it came to matters like life, death, reincarnation, eternity... meaning that, in life she hardly ever remember who she'd once been, remember Stephanos. If they happened to meet, and if magic was involved (which, to be fair, most of the time it was) that could help. But they had spent more than a few lives apart, almost always having never met each other, having been ignorant to the fact that there was someone, anyone, subconsciously waiting for them.
That had all changed upon her becoming the person she was in that moment: Helena, daughter of Loki, second prince of Asgard, and Tinúviel, princess of Alfheim and Asgard (and whom no one outside of Alfheim but Helena herself even remembered had ever existed... it was a long story). Being Helena had brought many things to her, both good and bad. She had had a family, a family that had loved her more than any other she could remember, in all her lives... a family that had fallen apart upon the death of her Nana (elvish for mom) and her unborn sister almost nine centuries prior. The loss had driven her Papa more than a little insane, he'd grown despondent and self-destructive; which was actually normal for a matched pair, the loss of their other half caused them, if not outright death, at least a wish for it. Helena knew all of that, of course she did, Nana had warned her about it and yet... she just loved her Papa too much to give him up.
Looking at Loki laying on that bed, moves becoming more frantic in the midst of dreams, possibly even nightmares, Helena could only wonder if her selfish desire to keep her Papa with her hadn't made things worse for him. Who knows? Perhaps if she'd let him go he might have been able to find Nana, they might have been together again... Of course Stephanos was the reason behind such line of thought. As a goddess (or, a half-Ljósálfar, half-Jotun) Helena's life-expectancy was measured in millennia (an average of five), which was much longer than almost any other race in the galaxy. Ever since becoming Queen of Helheim, she'd managed to meet a few of Stephanos incarnations, short reunions as he passed through her realm between the end of one life and the beginning of the next. She'd even used magic to look in on him sometimes. Not during his latest life, though.
She wasn't sure what had happened exactly, but something had made her Papa become almost frantic in the last twenty years or so. It worried her, enough that she stopped looking for Stephanos, deciding one mortal life would make no difference... of course when she decided that she wasn't expecting to come face to face with him later on!
Helena had been despairing ever since learning of her Father's fall off the Rainbow Bridge. And when learning of the circumstances surrounding such tragedy... Well, she and Uncle Thor had certainly had words. The worst of all was seeing how little most of the Aesir seemed to care about what had happened to Loki. Only Grandmother Frigg seemed to honestly mourn him; and yet that, right there, was a problem too, for she'd already given up on him. Helena would never do that. She might have been too young, when Nana was lost to them, too young and not experienced enough to save her, to fight Amora... but nearly nine hundred years had passed since; Helena's power had grown, and so had her will.
It took her months, but eventually she caught a trace of her Papa's essence, in the Abyss of all places! It was six months after his fall from Asgard that she finally found him, body broken, mind nearly shattered; it had almost been too late. She managed to stabilize him enough to be sure he'd live, and then... then she'd sensed the approach of darkness, an enemy far too strong for her. She did all she could think of, holding her Father tightly and diving into the Shadow Plane, moving as fast as she could, as far from the encroaching darkness as was possible.
She must have been more exhausted than she thought, for she couldn't control the moment they dropped out of the Shadow Paths, and straight into Midgard. To the foyer of a grand mansion... the magic surrounding them completely different from theirs, yet still strong enough that Helena took notice of it, and of the humans rushing to them, some of them conjuring weapons as they went, probably startled at their sudden appearance.
The unexpected stand-off had been broken as fast as it had come, by a shrill whistle, one that sounded almost like an off-tune bird. And a moment later a relatively short figure was rushing to them. A young looking woman, considerably shorter than both her and Loki, wearing a square-necked, long-sleeved, floor-length mauve colored dress with a slit on the front, the lower half, gray leggings and leather boots underneath. Upon closer inspection Helena had also been able to notice that she looked young, late teens most likely, her hair was a dark auburn, which curled slightly near the tips and reached to her shoulder-blades, and her eyes looked odd, like they constantly changed between brown and green...
The girl waved her hand above her head, and then there he was. Standing tall and imposing, in a set of robes that mixed a dark, earthly-brown with the dark-blue of a clear-night-sky, leather boots on his feet, thick yellow gloves on his hands and a regal-looking dark-red cloak on his shoulders. The first thing that hit her was that she recognized that cloak, she'd commissioned it herself from the last known member of the Miller's Clan, a gift for Stephanos's then-incarnation to pass onto his protege, a young would-be King of the Britons (who'd gone on to become such a legend mortals in the modern age could not seem to decide if he'd been real or not... then again, they regarded Stephanos's and her own incarnation from that time in the same way...).
He introduced himself as Doctor Stephen Strange, Master of the NY Sanctum; he was also the one who introduced the girl still doing her best to help Loki, using mundane medicine rather than magic for some odd reason, she was his assistant: Silbhé Salani.
Helena didn't quite realize who he was, until he looked straight at her, and then she saw his eyes, the shock was so great she couldn't quite tell what happened afterwards; only that she and Loki somehow ended receiving the help they so sorely needed.
And there they were, hours (a day?) later. And she still hadn't the slightest idea of what exactly had made Strange decide to help them at all. She knew she'd need to ask him that, as well as warn him of the possible consequences; Asgard was unlikely to know what had happened just yet, but they would not remain ignorant forever. She had no idea how to have any conversation with him without giving away what she knew of his soul; and how would he even believe her if she told him?!
In any case, Helena didn't get the chance to twist herself any more into knots, for just a moment later her thoughts were interrupted as Loki sat up abruptly, gesturing so violently that he'd have probably destroyed something if he weren't so drained that nothing more than green sparks appeared at his fingertips; though the most shocking perhaps was the soul-rending cry that left his lips right then:
Stephen Strange was pacing, pointless as he knew the whole endeavor was, he just couldn't help himself. He'd been pacing for hours, the reasons, surprisingly enough weren't the two unexpected visitors staying in one of the guests suites; at least not directly. While he had no way of explaining it to anyone other than Silbhé, as no one but she and perhaps his apprentice, Sachiko, would believe him, much less understand his reasoning, he trusted them. Or at least he trusted her, Elaine... he'd no idea what name she might have in her latest life, his memories hadn't settled enough for that just yet, but he knew who she'd been, especially who she'd been for him, his match, his Elaine, the light of his life, the love of his existence, the other half of his soul...
Stephen's story began almost two years earlier... well, actually it began much earlier than that, he was thirty-four years old, after all. But his old life wasn't something he liked to ponder much on anymore. Once he'd been Doctor Strange, the most talented neurosurgeon in the world (he'd also been a world-class bastard, one needed only ask anyone who'd known him...); he had money, fame, people approaching him to sing him praises, to ask for his advice, his assistance, to beg him to take cases... and he had been so good he could turn them away whenever he chose to, whenever their cases weren't good enough, or there was risk he would fail, he refused to allow anything that might break his perfect record. He hadn't understood how awful a person he truly was...
And then the accident, that terrible, horrible accident. His hands damaged in every way they could be. The doctor became the patient, and then he was the one begging for others to take his case, and being turned down and away for the very same reasons he'd once turned away to many others. Those who treated him managed to save his life, which was certainly commendable (even though, at the time, he failed to see even that), but they couldn't save his hands, leaving him with serious nerve damage which caused intermittent tremors and chronic pain. Later on a surgery had managed to treat the pain, at least partially, enough for him to have a life at the very least, but part of it was still there, as were the tremors...
And yet, as bad as the accident might have been, and the months that followed it, in the end it was the start of a whole new life. Cliche as that might sound; a life that ended giving him so much more than he ever could have asked for, than he ever knew he needed.
When Western medicine proved not to be enough for him, he'd begun looking for alternatives. One of the nurses who worked with him on his PT had directed him to a man called Johnathan Pangborn, who'd become quadriplejic years prior in an accident, a man for whom no doctors had been able to do anything at all... a man who was somehow able to walk again. Strange wanted that too. So he sought the man, and then followed his directions to the other side of the world, to Kathmandú, Nepal. Selling almost everything he'd left (almost everything he hadn't already sold and pawned to finance a number of experimental treatments and drugs, none of which really worked), leaving his old life behind. It wasn't easy, not finding the place, Kamar-Taj, and especially not convincing the one in charge of it, to take him on. The Ancient One hadn't believed in him, not at first; Stephen is quite sure that if it hadn't been for Karl Mordo, his life would have probably ended that way. He'd been on the streets, with no money left, no home, no friends and hardly anything to eat... yeah, he wouldn't have lasted long.
But Karl had seen something in him, he'd convinced the Ancient One to take him as a student. And it was there he met her: Silbhé Salani. So young, one of the acolytes, or so the Ancient One called her. Stephen just thought it was an elegant way of saying servants. He knew that, before the accident, he'd never have looked at her twice; but right then he did. He wasn't attracted to her, not at all, and not only because she was so young compared to him (15 years younger) no, there was something about her, about her kindness, her compassion, that drew him in. Even when he lashed at her (he lashed at everyone), she never stopped smiling softly, never stopped trying to help.
Every night after training she'd look after whatever injuries he might have acquired during the day (she knew Stephen would never go to the infirmary), she also treated his hands with all sorts of herbal mixes, doing her best to lessen the tremors and the pain (some of her mixtures actually worked, at least enough to allow him a night's rest, something that had seemed impossible once). She never saw him as less, as damaged; even argued with those who might imply it. At first the doctor-turned-sorcerer had thought it was naivete, she was too young to understand the harsh reality of the world... and then he learned more about her:
"I have cancer." She told him one day. "Leukemia. It should have killed me years ago, yet it didn't. Wanna know why? Because I didn't let it. Doctors told me I didn't stand a chance, but this is my life, not theirs, I'm not the kind to just lay down and let death have me. When she does come for me, I won't be making it easy, I won't be going without a hell of a fight."
Even then Stephen had thought the words were the ramblings of a little girl. And then he met Kathryn. The woman was the chief nurse in Kamar-Taj, an actual nurse, rather than a healer. She was also Silbhé's aunt, and the reason the two of them lived in Kamar-Taj. She'd told him part of their story, even showed him a copy she kept of Silbhé's medical records. The girl had really had blood cancer, technically she still did. She'd been sick as a young child, then gone into remission, and then it'd gotten bad again, worse than before. Even the harshest treatments wouldn't have given her more than a few months, perhaps a year. But Kathryn Salani wasn't the kind of woman who gave up, she was willing to do anything to save Silbhé, the only family she'd left. And so they'd ended in Kamar-Taj (it kind of reminded Stephen of his own journey).
The thing was, the Ancient One couldn't heal, not really. And the things some people, like Johnathan Pangborn did, to channel dimensional energy in order to bypass his injury, didn't work for her. And not only because her sickness was worse than broken bones could ever be, it was also the fact that Silbhé simply couldn't use magic. No one knew why exactly. Her body simply rejected it. The Ancient One had tried to teach her, but it never took. So in the end they'd gone a different way: indenture. Silbhé had signed a contract, a magical contract, to serve the Ancient One, and the Mystic Order, in exchange, she got to live, the magic allowed her to survive even with the cancer in her blood. Magic could at least do that much for her. It was why she was an acolyte, why she'd been serving for more than five years and wouldn't leave. Most of the acolytes only stayed as such until they could become sorcerers, or were ready to get back on their feet and make a life for themselves; Silbhé was unlikely to ever leave, not when her life depended on it. And yet she didn't see it as a burden; in her own words, she loved being in Kamar-Taj, being able to help people... it might not be the life she'd once dreamed of, but it was one she enjoyed nonetheless.
Of course that was before their whole lives spun out of control. Kaecilius and his zealots, the destruction of the London sanctuary, his unintended trip to the NY Sanctum, the battle in the Mirror Dimension, the Ancient One's death, the council of war, the mess in Hong Kong, and of course the thrice-damned bargaining with Dormammu...
The quiet sound of a door opening and then closing very softly pulled Stephen abruptly out of his musings. He spun around to see Kathryn standing just outside her niece's bedroom. He didn't even need to ask any questions, she knew what he was thinking, even without any magic:
"The same still." She murmured, voice betraying the degree of her stress. "She sleeps but she's obviously not resting, muttering broken phrases and words in a mix of languages, some I wasn't aware she knew... some I had no idea existed even."
English, Old English, Gaelic, Norse, what might be Ancient Norse, some old form of Arabic and a liquid language that sounded a bit like Gaelic, but not quite. At least to his last count. It didn't really surprise him, the thing in Hong Kong hadn't just changed him, she too had come out differently on the other side. Even if she hadn't been there with him, for the confrontation with Dormammu, she had insisted on being in Hong Kong, on doing anything she could to help... even when so many of the Order saw her as nothing more than a servant, as less for not being able to wield magic... she still wanted to help them. Stephen spent many, many nights castigating himself for giving in, for taking her along... she had almost died! For all intents and purposes she did die, was only alive due to his own actions, to the Eye of Agamotto... and even then, even when her death had technically never happened, because he had turned back time to make it so... somehow it'd still changed her, in ways even he, with all the ways his dozens (hundreds) of deaths in that accursed time-loop had changed him, couldn't fully understand. And it wasn't just because she told him so little about what was really going on inside her head.
Silbhé was holding back, from him and Kathryn and, Stephen was beginning to suspect that even from herself... something told him she wouldn't be able to continue that for much longer.
The cry broke the silence with the same finality as a stone shattering glass; but before either Kathryn or Stephen could so much as think about moving, another cry, one that was soundless, and somehow all the more blood-freezing for it, made them turn the opposite way.
Neither of them needed to think about it, in less than two heartbeats they were inside Silbhé's chambers. She was there, sitting on her bed, eyes shut tightly and mouth wide open in a voiceless scream... one that couldn't be heard with ears, but was still echoing on a psychic level, and probably would for a long time yet.
Loki was barely beginning to calm down, with a lot of help from Helena. And wasn't that the worst joke in the universe? For centuries her mere presence had hurt him, a reminder of the fallen princess, the dead wife, the perfect match he'd been made to forget, in the hope that taking away the loss would somehow heal the void... it hadn't, but it had allowed everyone to ignore it, at least whenever Helena wasn't around to unwittingly remind him that something was missing. Which was how they came to the worst joke in the universe, because in that moment that reminder was the only thing that managed to calm Loki whenever the sharp, jagged edges of long lost memories threatened to swallow him whole.
It was a consequence of nearly dying (or really dying, he'd been dead, for all intents and purposes, until Helena forcefully pulled him back to the living). The magic that had once blocked all the memories that someone called Tinúviel had ever existed were unraveling, faster and faster with every heartbeat. Forcing Loki to deal with his recent near-death experience, the loss of his wife and the loss and return of those memories, all at the same time. Just one of those things would be enough to take almost anyone out, it had almost been enough to make Helena go crazy, when first getting back her own memories, about Stephanos, and about Elaine (about herself, her past selves); and yet he was dealing, he was holding on, to his sanity, to his daughter, to all he'd left of the one woman he'd loved more than his own life...
The sorcerer had managed to stop trembling when the door abruptly opened, allowing in one of their hosts. Dr. Strange (Stephanos) in his brown and blue tunic, red cloak wiping even without a breeze on his shoulders. Except there was no compassion, no acceptance, not even reluctant welcoming, no, instead there was stoicism, coldness, an unmovable stone. Helena had no idea what kind of switch had been flipped, but suspected there was something they were missing. She'd briefly (and vaguely) sensed something earlier, around the same time her Papa had woken... but he'd been her priority, and whatever had happened, she'd been able to understand what it was; not surprising, considering all the shields a place like the Sanctum must be covered in.
"Dr. Strange..." Loki murmured, voice a bit hoarse (and Helena so did not want to think about why he sounded like that... the thought of her Ada screaming himself hoarse... it was almost too much even for her). "I understand my daughter and I owe our current state of being to your kindness and hospitality. You have my sincere gratitude."
They were practiced words, the kind one would expect from a well-trained diplomat, but Helena could also sense the undercurrent of sincerity... she hoped Dr. Strange could as well. If he did, it did not change his stance any.
"That is correct." He nodded, giving away nothing. "I was convinced by someone whose judgment I value greatly to give you a chance... I'm still not convinced if it was the right choice..."
Helena tensed. Some things were easy to make out. The 'someone' had to be the girl in the purple dress, the one who'd seen to her father's injuries... Helena had no idea when she'd communicated with Strange, but that wasn't as important as what had happened exactly in the last few hours to suddenly make him think of going back on his offer of sanctuary...
"I want to know who you are, exactly." Strange stated. "What you are doing here, and the kind of trouble you might be bringing to my door. I'm responsible for more than my own life here, and if helping you will put us in someone's crosshairs I'd rather know now. More importantly, I want to know why your presence is hurting Silbhé!"
"What...?!" Neither Aesir were expecting that one.
Truth was, at first Helena had thought him to be speaking to her, but no, his attention was fully focused on Loki.
There was no time for Loki to actually give an answer, or even think of one. Next thing they knew the door was being opened again (less forcefully, thankfully), and the very girl they'd been talking about stepped in. She tried to call Strange's attention several times, and when that failed she pulled out of a pack on her hip something that looked like a pan flute and blew into it in what at first seemed like a rather discordant manner; though on second thought Helena realized it was actually a very specific combination of notes. The instrument sounded nothing like a traditional pan flute, Helena had heard those before; instead it seemed like each tube made the sound of a different bird. It was a code...
"Silbhé!" Strange exclaimed, finally turning his attention towards her.
The girl said not a word, she didn't play the flute again either. At first Helena thought she was just trying to stare Strange into submission, and then she noticed, the way her hands were moving, forming shapes and signals... Sign Language!
Some of the signs were actually delivered sharply enough that Helena suspected she was chastising him or something. It was almost enough to make her chuckle, almost...
It ended eventually. The girl turned in their direction, made a number of signals, waited, then she poked at Strange's middle and repeated the signals, prompting a response from him.
"I apologize for my harsh words." He finally said, though he didn't sound quite honest. "Silbhé wants you to know that breakfast is being prepared and will be delivered soon. After that she'll be coming back to see to your injuries, if you'll allow it."
"Of course, we're thankful for all the help." Helena responded immediately. "And regret any trouble we might have caused."
There was another signal, more silence, yet another poke and after a slight roll of his eyes Strange translated again.
"It's not your fault." Helena was quite sure neither of them truly believed that.
Silbhé bowed her head once respectfully then and left the room, for a moment no one spoke and then, before Helena could find a polite way to ask the questions, the answers were given to her:
"Silbhé cannot speak." He said quietly. "Hasn't been able to for nearly two years now. It hasn't been easy, but we've adapted. When she needs to call someone's attention she can use the flute, and a few of us know ASL." He made a pause before adding. "She was right. It's not your fault, what's going on. It's on us. Things have been quite stressful for a while, and I wrongfully tried to take that out on you, my apologies."
He was halfway out the door when Helena opened her mouth again, she didn't plan it, it just slipped out before she could really think about it:
He turned to look at her over his shoulder, an unreadable expression on his face, and then he nodded once, just once, and walked away. Helena had no idea what to think about that. Did he remember her? And if he did, why had he walked away? Her heart hurt...
+Why are you doing this?+
Stephen followed Silbhé practically through half of the Sanctum. Sachiko had immediately agreed to see to their guest's meal. Truth was, none of the others sorcerers knew much sign language, and even among the few who did, the chances of them doing something Silbhé asked were small; after all, as far as they were concerned, they were the sorcerers, while she was the acolyte (just an elegant title to give to people they saw as servants... simply because they didn't have magic).
A sharp whistle pulled Stephen's full attention onto Silbhé. It was about the only sound she seemed to be able to make without aid.
They were in their personal study. It was supposed to be the private office for the Sanctum's Master, but Stephen had insisted from the beginning on Silbhé working there with him. He'd taken her in since taking over the place, insisting on her being seen as his PA, rather than an acolyte, a servant. Not everyone liked that, she didn't have magic, and while she wasn't completely useless, she was still just human, and one with a disability at that. There was also Sachiko, Stephen's apprentice, and whom most expected to act as Stephen's assistant, if such a thing were truly necessary; though instead he most of the time had her keep an eye on the novices training in the Sanctum, make sure they were alright, and getting those injured to Kathryn when necessary. They all worked well together, had a good dynamic, even if it was one not many fully understood.
+Why are you doing this?+ Silbhé repeated, her hand-signs somehow more forceful than they'd been the first time.
"I have no idea..." Stephen began, until another whistle cut him off.
+Why are you punishing her? Even more, why are you punishing yourself?!+ Silbhé pressed. +This. What's happening to me, it's not your fault, and it's not hers, or her father's. My fucked-up dreams are no one's fault, not even mine. There has been something in my head I cannot quite reach for over a year now. The mess in Hong Kong showed us it's there, but not what it is.+
"That's something I don't understand." Stephen babbled somewhat. "Why is it that I got actual memories, things I understand, and you didn't?"
+Who knows? Maybe it's because your other half is on the same page already?+ Silbhé shrugged.
"How can you possibly know that...?" Stephen was shocked.
+Please!+ Silbhé raised her eyes to the ceiling in exasperation. +You cannot tell me you don't see it! It's right there. Like ribbons made of light, shining in every color of the rainbow. The two of you are bound together. Have probably been bound for a long time...+
"More than you could imagine." Stephen finally imagined. "Thousands upon thousands of years, more lifetimes than you or I could possibly count, longer than this world has even existed... as long as the universe as we know it has existed..."
+Then why are you here and not with her?!+
"Because you're important to me too Silbhé. You're my friend, as good as a sister to me... and you know I do not say those words lightly, not after Donna..." He shook his head, pushing the memory away. "The Ancient One... she asked me to look after you. But it's more than that. You were there for me, from the very beginning, since the day I arrived to Kamar-Taj, you acted as my nurse, and my friend. I may not be able to break the binds that tie you to the Order, as they are, right now, all that keeps you alive, but I promised to never treat you as a slave, or allow others to treat you in such a way. I promised to be there for you..."
+And you've fulfilled all your oaths to me Stephen, you have.+ She assured him with a warm smile. +But that's still no reason to turn your back on the love of your existence, the other half of your soul... Do you know what I'd do if I had someone like that? Someone who loved me as much as I knew she loved you since she laid eyes on you? You're being given a huge opportunity here Stephen, one I do not think people get often, do not let it go...+
Stephen let out a breath, closing his eyes briefly... or he thought it was briefly; when he opened them again Silbhé was gone, and not only that, but there was someone else standing before him. A very beautiful someone, tall (as tall as him) with skin like pale alabaster, unblemished but for the slight silver markings, old scars that where everywhere he looked on the left side of her, hair was dark, raven-wing black, in shiny, loose curls that fell almost to her waist in a half-undone braid that she seemed to have pulled over her shoulder at some point, and her eyes... her eyes were what drew him in the most, pale green, with the slightest hint of clear blue, they shone with a light that revealed (to anyone with the slightest amount of wisdom) that its owner was no human...
"Elaine..." The name escaped his lips before he could think even once about it.
"So you do know me..." She murmured, and there was sadness in her voice, and a slight hint of anger as well.
"I do." He admitted, knowing he'd have to own up to his actions. "Leaving as I did... I meant not to hurt you, I swear... Silbhé... She's my friend, the dearest friend I've ever had. She's done so much for me and I've tried to do the same but right now... She's not well."
Helena's expression softened, as if she could understand what he meant, and maybe she did. She'd always been a very empathetic person, from what Stephen (Stephanos) could remember from their previous lives...
"She's the one that screamed earlier, is she not?" The goddess inquired quietly. "The psychic scream. I heard nothing but I could feel a slight tremor, even through the shields I'm sure must be in place."
"Yes." He nodded. "No one has ever understood how it happens. She has no magic, is absolutely incapable of it, and yet there are times when it seems to almost... bend to her. Relics protect her, shields have never been able to stop her, and she seems to just... just know things, especially when it comes to how a person is feeling, without any need for questions or answers."
Helena blinked, and for a moment Stephen wondered if he'd said something wrong.
"You really believe that..." She murmured, in unexpected disbelief.
"What do you mean I believe that?" He asked, confused.
"Your friend, Silbhé, she's not incapable of magic." The goddess explained. "She has power, or a great potential for it, at least."
"But... we would know!"
"No, you wouldn't. Because it's not your kind of magic it's..." Helena broke off, as the facts suddenly caught up with her. "It's mine."
"You think she's like you...?" Stephen's brow furrowed. "But that's impossible, Silbhé's human."
"In this life. You haven't always been human, and she probably hasn't either."
Things began falling into place for Stephen then. Especially concerning what had happened before dawn, and many other late nights and early morning during the last twenty-two months or so...
"She's half of a match..." He blurted out.
"What...?" Even Helena wasn't expecting that.
"Yes. Her dreams, her mutterings in more than half a dozen different languages, some which haven't been spoken in this world in centuries... some which I'm quite sure aren't even from this realm..."
"She speaks?! I thought her to be mute."
"She is..." Stephen ran a hand through his hair. "It's complicated."
Helena didn't say a word, instead choosing to wait for Stephen to put his thoughts in order and explain things to her. It took a while, as it seemed like he couldn't decide where to begin exactly, though once he'd made up his mind it seemed obvious even, after all, he himself had pondered not long before on the point where his story truly began...
"Two years ago next January, I was in an accident." He began. "Was in my car, driving way too fast, not paying enough attention to the road... ended going off the highway... and off a cliff too. Suffice it to say it was bad."
Deciding it was better to show her he extended his hands before his body. Off-duty as he was, he wasn't wearing his yellow-leather gloves; the scars were quite obvious, as were his tremors. Helena still didn't speak, though she used a single finger to trace his scars, and he could almost sense the compassion coming off her in waves. Compassion, empathy, not pity... thank the stars! The side of him that was Stephanos had known she wouldn't pity him, Elaine didn't do pity... but the part of him that was Dr. Strange, and still trying to deal with the new twist to his life (hadn't magic been enough to make his life crazy?!) needed a moment to catch up.
"From what Christine has told me... Christine's a friend, a doctor in the same hospital where I used to work." Stephen knew he probably wasn't explaining things very well, but he was sure Helena would keep up. "You see, before all this happened I used to be a neurosurgeon. The best in the world. I was also, I realize now, not a good man. I believed I had everything: looks, talent, money, fame... I went out with the most gorgeous women I could find, and if none of them lasted more than a night, or two at most, it was my own choice, it's not like I was interested in anything long term. The only true relationship I had was with Christine, and then we couldn't make it work, in the end I wasn't the kind of man she deserved..."
"You're a good man." Helena interrupted him, even though she knew, objectively, that she had no way of really knowing... but he was Stephanos, and he was a good man.
"I wasn't then." He insisted. "Anyway. I had that accident, when I woke up I was in the hospital. Christine told me they barely managed to save my life. I was left with permanent nerve damage in both of my hands, even after the bones, muscles and everything else healed, the tremors and the chronic pain were still there. I spent practically my whole fortune on experimental surgeries, obscure drugs and treatments; they managed to take the chronic pain away, but not the rest. So there was no way I could go back to being a doctor... I was at the end of my tether... and then I met Pangborn. A quadriplegic man who found a way to walk again... I wanted some of his miracle cure." He laughed at himself, at his own naivete. "I found my way to Kathmandú, Nepal, to Kamar-Taj and the Order. The Ancient One, the leader of the Order, didn't seem to like me much at first, but Karl convinced her to give me a chance. It was there I met Silbhé, she's technically an acolyte, though she mostly works as my PA nowadays..." He shook his head. "She's sick, has been since she was young. Her aunt took her to Kamar-Taj hoping to find a cure for her sickness, it didn't quite go the way either of them were expecting. The rest of that story is really hers to tell. In any case, she couldn't use magic, so she stayed as an acolyte instead. She assisted the Ancient One, her aunt the nurse Kathryn, and Wong, the librarian of Kamar-Taj as necessary... she was also a great help to me, seeing to my injuries, and helping with my hands during my training. We became friends." He took a deep breath. "Then there was Kaecilius. He was a member of the Order who... turned traitor. He made a pact with Dormammu..."
"Dormammu?!" Helena interrupted, almost screeching... of course she knew who Dormammu was. "Was he insane?!"
"Probably." Stephen shrugged. "I didn't actually know who Dormammu was back then. Aside from the fact that he was a being from the Dark Dimension and bad news for ours. Kaecilius intended to pretty much hand our world to Dormammu, believing that doing so would give him, and us all, eternal life... or something like that."
"That's absolutely idiotic." The goddess scoffed.
"Indeed." Stephen nodded. "I don't know if Kaecilius was tricked, if he was absolutely insane, or if he just did not care at all. In any case, he set out to destroy the Sanctums, which form the shield that keeps this world safe. He did that with London and tried it with NY. I happened to be here at the time. Managed to fight him and his zealots off, twice. The second time with a lot of help from Karl, the Ancient One and Levi."
"It's what I call the Cloak. She's become a lot more... sentient since her creation." He shook his head. "It was also then that the Ancient One died... Karl and I went to Hong Kong, knowing that if that Sanctum fell all would be lost... we were too late. Much too late... until I turned back time. The Eye of Agamotto... it's powered by the Time Stone, though I did not know that at the time. I'd been experimenting with it before ending in the NY Sanctum, and still had it on me when we got to Hong Kong. I turned back time, hoping for a second chance to fight Kaecilius and his zealots. It didn't quite work like that. To make a long story short I ended in the Dark Dimension myself, bargaining with Dormammu in order to keep Earth safe..."
"Stephanos..." Helena gasped, unable to keep the growing horror from her voice and expression. "What did you do?"
"What was necessary." He said simply. He knew they would have to talk more about that later on, but not just yet, he wasn't ready yet. "In the end things worked out, we won. Dormammu is never coming back, Kaecilius and his zealots are gone. Even then, the events there changed us, all of us, but especially Silbhé and I. We... we died back there."
"Yeah, the Eye... it's a good thing I had it. She actually died right after we got there. Before I actually used it. She sacrificed her life to save mine..." And if she hadn't, he would have never had the chance to use the Eye at all! "Kaecilius pierced her throat with a conjured blade." He drew in a sharp breath. "It's why she doesn't speak. There's nothing wrong with her throat, or her vocal chords, not anymore... but she died, and somehow she remembers it. We don't know how, but even after I turned back time, even when she was alive again... she did not forget that she'd died. It's left her traumatized. While awake you'll never hear her say a word, or laugh, nothing at all; and yet, while asleep she mutters, broken words and phrases in more than half a dozen different languages..."
"Some not from this time, or this world." Helena finished for him.
"Exactly." Stephen nodded tiredly. "I've been trying to help. I know that dying changed me, it unlocked the memories of my past lives. If the same is true for her... it still doesn't explain the rest. The nightmares, the psychosomatic mutism..."
"Unless she's blocked." Helena offered. "If she's somehow stopping herself from fully remembering, from acknowledging what's in her soul."
"Why would she do that?" Stephen didn't understand, while it hadn't exactly been easy for him, it hadn't been bad at all!
"It's not easy for everyone to admit that their lives, that the universe as a whole is far more complex than they knew it to be." She told him with a small smile. "There's a reason why mortals usually do not remember past lives, do not know about the Other Side... most cannot really comprehend things like that. They're beyond them."
"I don't think it's that. Silbhé is so open minded, she wouldn't let something like that stop her."
"There's another option, of course. The possibility that whatever is in her past, whatever her past life might have been like... that it wasn't good, either the entirety of it, or the end. If it wasn't good, if it was traumatic... that may be what's blocking her. A piece of her soul trying to protect her current self from her past one..." She shook her head slowly. "If it is that... it won't last forever. Her soul will need to be whole, and sooner or later something will have to give."
She was right, so right... yet they'd no idea that it'd be sooner rather than later.
The following two weeks passed by, slow in some ways, fast in others. It didn't take long for the people in the Order to grow used to their two guests, especially when they began helping both novices and more experienced sorcerers improve. It was said that they'd even managed to earn the respect of the Wanderer, Master Karl Mordo, who hadn't set foot in Kamar-Taj since the fight with Kaecilius and Dormammu, and only dropped by the NY Sanctum every other month, briefly. It also didn't take long for the sorcerers, not just in the NY Sanctum, but in the whole Order, to learn about Helena's history, and the fact that she was Doctor Strange's perfect match.
Not everything was perfect, of course. Tamara Walker, one of the most experienced and talented sorcerers in NY (the favorite to become the next Master of the Sanctum, until Strange's naming by the Ancient One herself... and also Sachiko's previous teacher) did not like Stephen. His insistence that, even if he didn't act as such, he was still a doctor, his refusal to even learn any battle magic that would serve to kill his opponents (he always chose to fight with shields, whips and staves instead); (The last straw would come years later, in late Spring of 2015, with Strange's decision to allow Sachiko and a number of other volunteers to go to London and help deal with the situation being caused there by the Convergence. It was Walker's belief that if the events weren't magical, they shouldn't be their concern. Stephen disagreed. Tamara would walk out not long afterward.)
Eventually Samhain came, Helena's birthday. She outright refused to give anyone her exact age, but it didn't matter, Sachiko and some of the other novices still organized a birthday party for her. It was great fun for everyone, they'd all come to love Helena dearly. Loki wasn't as loved, though that was perhaps because he didn't mingle with the members of the Order as much as his daughter did. Everyone understood that he was busy dealing with stuff, and thus didn't pressure him.
"Helena..." Sachiko called, near the end of the party.
Aside from having planned everything beforehand, the young Japanese-American hadn't done much during the party itself, instead keeping herself mostly to a side of the room, only moving to help Silbhé attend to Stephen, Helena, Loki and Kathryn... she'd also taken some food, drinks and cake to Karl when he arrived (though he pretty much parked himself in a corner of the room, not interested in mingling with anyone else).
"Yes Sachi-chan?" Helena asked with a smile.
She really liked Stephen's young apprentice, and it showed in the way she helped the girl train, treated her almost like a little sister or a favored niece.
"I heard Stephen say once that you had a beautiful voice, would you sing for us please?" The young woman asked.
The question took Helena completely by surprise. Stephen had, indeed, said that she had a good voice, though she hadn't actually sung in almost a lifetime, certainly not since her Nana's death. For so long her voice had carried a grief so great... well, there was a reason why she was known as the Goddess of Grief... and yet, she was also the Goddess of Hope. And never had she felt as hopeful as she had ever since laying eyes on Stephanos again.
"It'd be my pleasure." She finally told Sachiko.
There was no music, and no need for any. Ljósálfar had always been good at singing acapella, and Helena would be no exception. It also didn't take her long to decide on a song. One that had been on her mind for a long, long time; though only in pieces, until very recently... So, without further ado, the goddess took a deep breath and, like her beloved Mama all those years before, she let go, losing herself in the music, letting her voice fill with all the emotions in her heart: grief, hope, love...
"There's no time for us,
There's no place for us,
What is this thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us."
"Who wants to live forever?
Who wants to live forever...?
"There's no chance for us,
It's all decided for us,
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us."
"Who wants to live forever?
Who dares to love forever? (ever)
When love must die."
It was a beautiful song. Beautiful and also sad in ways that only those who'd heard at least parts of Helena's history could understand; and even then it wasn't fully. They could never fully understand it because they were mortals, and most mortals could never begin to comprehend the kind of existence the goddess had lead, and could actually remember. And yet, it did not end there, it did not end in sadness, because while the grief was still there (it had been there for too long to ignore it, to pretend it wasn't) there was also hope, and love, so much of both. Because forever was no longer a curse...
"But touch my tears with your lips,
Touch my world with your fingertips,"
"And we can have forever,
And we can love forever..."
"Who wants to live forever,
Who wants to live forever,
Forever is our today,"
"Who wants to live forever,
Who wants to live forever,
Forever is our today,"
"Who waits forever anyway?"
Silbhé did not wake up the next morning, or the one after that. No one had the slightest idea of what was going on, and all who knew her, who cared about her were extremely worried. Master Turner, one of the most talented in mind magicks, said it was his belief that she was 'trapped' in a dream or a memory, something so powerful she either couldn't get out of, or she simply didn't know how to. And as the power holding her there was unlike anything the Order dealt with, there was nothing any of them could do to get her out.
Helena was afraid of hurting her. Loki refused to even try, stating that if she was really trapped in a corner of her mind, going in to try and get her out would require actual mind-melding, that wasn't a one way street, and there was no way he was allowing any of his memories to filter into Silbhé's mind, there was no way he was putting that kind of burden on her. Especially the memories of his time in the Abyss (which, regretfully, were still at the forefront of his mind, and probably would be for a long time yet).
In the end no one needed to do anything. It took six weeks, but eventually Silbhé did return to the world of the living... in a manner no one could have ever expected.
By the end of the first week the whole Order knew what was going on, and it didn't take even three more days before people were dropping by, from Kamar-Taj and the other Sanctums, even Karl returned sooner than he usually did. All who could do anything, tried to help; and those who couldn't even think of something to do, would send prayers for Silbhé, leave small tokens of their honest appreciation for the young woman. It had taken years, but they were finally seeing the girl as more than an acolyte, a servant, or even a PA... Stephen liked that, and he was sure she would too, once she woke up and realized it.
It was the day of the Winter Solstice, when Silbhé returned to the world of the living... or not quite the day, the night... the moment the sun began setting, Silbhé sat up in her bed (they didn't know that at the time, that it was the exact time of the sunset... that they only realized later on). Kathryn was in the room when it happened, and she immediately called to her niece, but there was no response, Silbhé's eyes looked empty. She just slipped out of bed, foregoing a robe and slippers completely, seemingly not noticing the cold floorboards beneath her bare feet as she walked silently out of her room, in nothing but her off-white nightgown. Several sorcerers saw her and soon enough more than a few were dropping by, wanting to know what was going on. A couple tried to talk to Silbhé but she ignored them too... or no, not ignored, she wasn't pretending like she wasn't hearing them, it was like she honestly couldn't. Like her mind was elsewhere...
It took no time at all for them all to make it to the music room. The sorcerers did not go in, not wanting to intrude, though Kathryn and Stephen did, while Sachiko and Helena stood at the door (no one knew quite where Loki was). Still saying nothing at all, acknowledging no one, Silbhé went straight for the grand concert piano in a corner of the room. She sat before it and began playing straight away. A melody no one recognized. There was no music sheet, no aids, she just set her fingers on the keys and began playing. And then kept at it. It took a while, but eventually people began noticing that she was pretty much playing the same four minutes or so, over and over again, with slight variations here and there, but basically the same four minutes or so... and she didn't stop.
There were slight variations, minute changes in notes, sometimes in rhythm, or the speed of her playing; but the basic melody remained the same. For nearly fifteen hours straight.
It was actually shortly before dawn that Karl noticed that particular detail, the fact that Silbhé had spent the longest night of the year, literally the whole night, playing the same melody over and over again. And then something changed, finally... it wasn't the melody itself, no, but suddenly there were words. Everyone did a double take at that (and the number of sorcerers hanging out just outside the music room had only grown through the night, rather than decreasing...); it had been so long since anyone had heard a word from Silbhé... and not just any words, she was singing...
Those who'd heard Helena Lokidottir sing days before could have never imagined anyone having a more beautiful voice than her... just a few words into Silbhé's song they were having to rethink that:
"In this world you tried
Not leaving me alone behind
There's no other way
I prayed to the gods let him stay"
"The memories ease the pain inside
Now I know why"
"All of my memories keep you near
In silent moments imagine you here
All of my memories keep you near
Your silent whispers, silent tears"
"Made me promise I'd try
To find my way back in this life
I hope there is a way
To give me a sign you're ok"
"Reminds me again it's worth it all
So I can go on"
"All of my memories keep you near
In silent moments imagine you here
All of my memories keep you near
Your silent whispers, silent tears"
"Together in all these memories
I see your smile
All the memories I hold dear
Darling, you know I love you
Till the end of time"
"All of my memories keep you near
In silent moments imagine you here
All of my memories keep you near
Your silent whispers, silent tears"
"All of my memories..."
The silence that followed the end of the melody was sudden, and very tense, yet no one dare break it for what seemed like forever. Outside dawn was breaking, yet none of them acknowledged it at all. It was as if everyone in the NY Sanctum were waiting for something else... and then it came; in the way and from the person no one could have ever expected:
All heads turned then, and great was their surprise when they found none other than Loki Friggson (he'd insisted on that name being used, on him being Odinson no more), standing in the opposite end of the music room, staring at Silbhé like he'd never seen her before.
"A'maelamin (My beloved)..." He breathed out, eyes fixed straight on the pianist.
The word was followed by a very long string of words in a language none of the humans knew, though they all agreed they sounded very beautiful, almost magical in a way...
"It's one of the languages Silbhé has been muttering every night." Kathryn murmured quietly.
"It's elvish." Helena informed her. "The more formal version of it, quenya..."
"That's important somehow, isn't it?" Sachiko guessed.
"Elvish is, as can be guessed, the language of the elves, the Ljósálfar." The goddess clarified. "I'm half-elf myself. Quenya... it's the dialect the royals speak." She made a pause, seemingly thinking something over before adding. "Mama was Lalaith Mirloth, crown princess of Alfheim, would have been Queen, before she gave it all up to marry Papa... he gave her a new name..."
"Tinúviel..." Several voices finished for her, beginning to understand the implications.
"How is that even possible?" Kathryn inquired, shocked.
"The same way we're here." Stephen murmured, signaling to Helena and himself. "Many are the souls who choose to live again, rather than seek eternal peace. And all matches will always seek to remain together..."
The implications were clear for all, even those who didn't really comprehend things like soulmates and reincarnations.
"Wait a second..." Karl, who was somehow the last of their little group to catch up, did a double-take at that. "You mean that Silbhé is..."
"My mama..." Helena finished for him, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes, voice quiet and watery. "Papa's only love..."
For several minutes, neither Silbhé nor Loki spoke, they just stood beside the piano, holding hands, looking into each others' eyes, as if that alone were enough for them to communicate. When they finally did speak though, the first words to come out of their mouths were some only two of the others recognized, and no one had expected hearing, especially not without any warning...
"I promise you that from this day on, you will be my only one. I shall look at no other the way I look at you, I shall think of no other the way I think about you, I shall talk to no other the way I talk to you, I shall desire no other the way I desire you, and I shall with no other the way I lay with you. I shall be with no other for you are now and forever shall be my one and only; my friend, my lover, my partner, my match..."
They all could see the explosion of light and color, the moment it took shape, in the form of a dozen or so ribbons of multi-colored light that bound the two together.
"What was that?" Sachiko asked, curious and awed by the display.
"The Ancient Vows." Helena informed her. "As far as magic and the higher powers are concerned, the two of them are married now..."
They had been before, of course, that was the whole point of the match, but the bond had been at least a lifetime old and in disrepair... not anymore.
"Something tells me things are going to get really interesting around here." Stephen quipped with a hint of a smile.
He was right of course, he just had no idea how much.
Loki and Silbhé took a few days to themselves, to reconnect and allow their new/old memories to settle, their bond to stabilize. It was after Christmas dinner (which they all shared in the Sanctum, even if not everyone actually celebrated Christmas) that the group conformed by Loki, Silbhé, Kathryn, Helena, Stephen, Sachiko, Karl and Wong gathered together in one of the sitting rooms to talk about things.
"Why didn't you remember your past when I did?" Stephen asked, curious.
"How is it that you can speak now and you couldn't before?" Karl made his own question at the same time. "Is there anything we could have done to help you?"
As close as Stephen was to her, sometimes he forgot that others had been there first, and while the Ancient One might be gone, and Karl might not be in NY all the time (though he'd been recently been dropping by more often), Silbhé still cared, as did they.
"There's nothing you could have done Karl." Silbhé assured him kindly. "The problem with my voice was in my head, not in my body." She turned to Stephen before adding. "And it was the same with my memories."
"The trauma..." Helena said softly, sadly. "What Amora did... Nana I..."
"Oh cala amin (my light)..." Silbhé slipped into elvish briefly without quite noticing. "It wasn't your fault not at all. You tried, and nearly died yourself because of it. That was the real trauma. Not dying myself, I always knew that was a chance, with the life I lead, with the choices I made... but being unable to protect you, to protect your unborn sister, and then being, in a way, the cause of your own suffering... that brought more pain to my heart and soul than my current self was ready to deal with." She shook her head. "So every night I remembered, and my soul tried to embrace that past, and every morning I'd forget when I found myself unable to do it. And my voice remained gone, because it is my voice, my songs, that carry so much of who I am, who I used to be..."
"Tinúviel..." Loki murmured almost reverently, kissing her hair.
"What does that mean?" Sachiko asked, curious.
"Nightingale." Loki answered. "It's elvish for nightingale. The name I gave her, for she possesses the most beautiful and perfect voice in all the realms."
"You're just biased." Silbhé giggled just slightly.
"I'm not." Loki defended, though his smile gave it all away.
"Well, all of Alfheim, and a good percentage of the inhabitants of the remaining realms support his belief so..." Helena offered with a mischievous smile.
"So you're together now, or back together." Kathryn said serenely. "What does that mean? Long term, I mean."
"Not much will change, at least not right now." Her niece assured her. "I am Tinúviel's reincarnation but that doesn't mean I stop being Silbhé Salani. I'm still your niece, auntie. And I am still Stephen's personal assistant, and an acolyte for the Order."
"If you have a way to preserve her life, I'd break that particular bond." Stephen offered, looking straight at Loki. "I've never liked the idea of indenture."
"I will see into it." Loki nodded. "But my love has insisted on remaining here, working for you. And I have nothing against that. You're a good man Stephen, and I do not just say that because my daughter loves you. You took me in, even knowing nothing at all about me, even when suspecting that my presence might be hurting one you called friend, family even. And you've done right by your people, I can see that. It'd be my pleasure if you allowed us to remain, to help, in any way we can."
"You do need to understand though, the downsides to this." Silbhé added. "When Asgard finds out about us, about all of us... and lets not kid ourselves, they will, sooner or later. Things might get complicated. The Allfather's not a bad man, but time has not been kind to him, his judgment is skewed, especially where it concerns his children." She let out a breath. "It didn't use to be this bad, I have no idea how things got this far..."
"I have no idea either." Loki admitted. "For the longest time I believed things had always been this way, but now... Now I know better, and it makes me wonder."
The humans had no idea what they were referring to, but others did.
"You think the spell that made them forget you ever existed might have affected them in other ways." Stephen said, surprised at the idea, even as his mind worked around the concept. "That it might have, what? Altered their behavior?"
"Not precisely." Silbhé clarified. "But it must have dealt with more than memories, if they couldn't see there was something missing. And then, the fact that none of them ever seemed to wonder about my match's attitude, his actions. In their eyes the change must have been sudden, and without a reason, yet they never asked what was wrong. Not him, not even themselves. Even if it was just a fail-safe, to prevent the block from failing, it was more than a mere memory blocker should have done. And from there..."
"From there it's a slippery slope, impossible to tell where the spell truly ended and each person's attitude took over." Stephen finished for her in understanding.
"So what, if it was the spell, we won't have trouble because it will have broken?" Wong was trying to understand, but the magics they spoke of were like nothing he was familiar with.
"No, because the spell did not break." Helena shook her head.
"I died." Loki deadpanned. "Even if Helena did everything in her power to revive me, I effectively died, and that's why the blocker ceased to have a hold on me. My love's own death allowed her to reach such memories as well, and our proximity pushed her soul into dealing with the revelations sooner rather than later. But in the end, for all that we know, the spell still exists, we're just not subject to it anymore."
"So... we're still potentially in trouble with Asgard." Karl summarized.
"Yes, and that's something you all need to keep in mind before you decide to allow us to stay." Silbhé stated softly but authoritatively.
"What's there to decide?" Stephen asked, honestly. "You're family, family doesn't give up on one another. If there is really trouble with Asgard, we will face it in due time." His expression turned almost self-deprecating as he added. "Besides, chances are we'd have been in trouble anyway, all things considered..."
"Why?" It was Loki and his match who did not quite understand things then.
"The Eye of Agamotto." Stephen explained. "It's the vessel for the Time Stone... something tells me Odin Allfather will not much like that."
Loki knew he wouldn't. The Allfather saw Midgardians... humans, as less, he always had. He'd never be able to accept a group of humans being in possession of one of the Infinity Stones, much less making use of it. Them being spell-weavers really wouldn't make things much better, probably not any better at all.
"So, we have two potential troubles coming our way, from the same direction, and individual." Karl summarized. "A man who, from what you've told us thus far of your history, isn't the most compassionate or understanding..." He looked at Stephen. "You really love getting into trouble, don't you Stephen?"
It would have been taken as an offense, if he hadn't been half-smirking even as he said the words.
"Oh come on Karl, it's not like I get into this situations myself, they just... sort of fall on me!" Stephen tried to defend himself, though his own laughter didn't help his case either.
It was insane, truly; there was some very real, potential trouble in their future, and yet none of them had ever been the kind to run away from such situations. They'd rather stand together and face them head on, and that was exactly what they'd do, always.
A few more things changed slightly in the following days. Like when Loki finished creating a pair of bracelets he named deamarkonian, which were meant to preserve Silbhé's life by sharing Loki's life-energy with her; they also had the side-effect of allowing her access to his magic. Her own gift was also revealed eventually: healing. She was no longer an acolyte, but she was still Stephen's PA and proud of it. She also took great pride in helping the Order in every way she could, they were her family after all, the family she had chosen... the family they all had chosen. Whatever might be in their future, they'd face it together.
Chapter 2: Symphony
As promised, here is the second half of this AU, the first of this set. Since I'm going into Dr. Strange I decided to take the chance and go a bit more into things I didn't get the chance to fully explore in "Ethereal Gift", you'll see what I mean in the story itself.
In the past I stated I chose Rosamund Pike as she was in Wrath of the Titans for Amora... I've recently changed my mind. On the one hand because I prefer Rosamund Pike as Harry Watson (which I decided while writing Fate and Destiny), on the other because I've realized that 'Andromeda' just didn't do justice for how I picture Amora (a mix of a beautiful lady, a dangerous spell-weaver, an evil woman), so I've chosen Sophia Miles, picture her as she looks in Tristan and Isolde, particularly the red dress.
Also, warning for some serious violence (more than usual) dealt mainly by Loki towards one of our villains.
The songs for this chapter are: "Overcome" as sung by Within Temptation and "When you Believe" as performed by Mariah Carey and Whitney Huston.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sometimes a melody grows so much it's no longer just a moment in time, but a lifetime...
The Upper East Side of Manhattan was a mess. It wasn't exactly the first time, but still. The real problem was the bunch of everyday, ordinary men fighting the superheroes the world knew as the Avengers. And that wasn't even the worst part. No, the worst part was that it wasn't the first time that particular scene took place, in fact it was the fourth in the last three weeks, and if that weren't bad enough, they weren't even doing it by their own will. No, they were being controlled, by an enchantress (and how Iron Man was coming to hate magic and all who used it!).
What they certainly weren't expecting was when two people jumped right into the middle of the battle. The first an African-American man in his late thirties or so, with very short dark hair, dressed in green and brown tunics and leather boots; the second a Japanese-American woman in her early twenties or so, with shoulder-length brunette hair, dressed in maroon robes with a hint of dark red and flats with ribbons tied around her calves and tiny wings behind her ankles.
And while most of the Avengers were still somewhat shocked at the newcomers' arrival, the two went into motion; in tandem they began taking down the enchanted men so fast it took several seconds for the others to believe it was for real.
"No!" The enchantress, green-eyed, red-haired, Lorelei practically screeched. "You cannot take away my toys!"
The young woman seemed to do a double-take, something one of the still-possessed men took advantage of to hit her; she stumbled a bit, cursed under her breath, and then she was back to taking men down left and right.
Lorelei, for her part, went straight for the man in green. Several of the Avengers called warnings to them but it seemed to be too late, because then Lorelei placed a hand on his shoulder. He turned slowly in her direction, and Iron Man let out a groan... yeah, things were about to get dicey...
"Karl!" It was the young woman crying out then.
She ran straight for the two magic users, but before she could reach them, they were gone, leaving nothing behind but a shower of bright orange-red sparks.
"NO!" The girl practically screamed.
No one said a word for the longest time, not even Stark dare make a bad joke about what had just happened. He didn't like magic, or those who used it much, but those two had literally saved their asses, and one of them had been taken over. The girl kept screaming into the empty air where her partner had been, until she suddenly collapsed, knocked out, courtesy of Black Widow...
"What the hell?!" Hawkeye blurted out.
"Why did you do that?" Captain America demanded.
"We need to go, she needs to come with us, and there was no way for us to be sure she'd cooperate." The Black Widow explained with a light shrug, as if it were the most logical thing in the world.
"So what?" The youngest member of the team, Spider-Man asked as he landed beside them. "You expect us to actually kidnap her? What happens when others come looking for her?"
"Who says they will?" Widow arched a brow at her.
"Who says they won't?" Spider-Man closest friend, the Goblin, demanded. "This is a bad idea."
"This is a very bad idea." Spider-Man semi-corrected.
In the end there was nothing they could do. While not all of the Avengers agreed with Back Widow, or her methods, they weren't okay with leaving the girl where she lay either. So in the end they left for Avengers Tower, and took her with them. Spider-Man just knew things weren't going to end well... he just hoped they hadn't just taken on yet another enemy. Lorelei and her partner, whoever that might be, were bad enough already.
Stephen sensed the moment something went wrong with Karl. Despite all their differences and the disagreements there might have been between them, the two men had always been good friends, and Helena truly believed they might share a bond as well, one of brotherhood. When he later on sensed that something had gone wrong with Sachiko (this through their magical bond as master-apprentice) Stephen was about ready to pounce on whoever dare hurt the young woman.
"Stephen... Stephen calm down!" Loki and Helena kept trying to reason with him, but to no avail.
"Don't tell me to calm down!" The Doctor/Master almost snarled. "Something happened to Karl, and to Sachiko and..."
His rant was cut off rather abruptly by a sudden bird-like-whistle. Everyone turned instantly to find Silbhé with the pan flute in hand. Not a word was said for several seconds, until the young woman nodded and put it back inside the leather back she always carried with her.
"There, now that you've all taken a moment to at least breathe..." She drawled a bit, before focusing completely on Stephen. "I know you're worried about Karl and Sachiko, we all are. But you need to remember two things Stephen: one, they aren't children, and two, they're strong and quite capable of looking after themselves." She raised a hand before he could interrupt her. "I'm not saying we won't be looking for them, helping them, just that they're not defenseless."
Stephen nodded, admitting Silbhé was right about that.
"Now, we can track Sachiko, that will be no problem." She went on. "Though I'm also sure we all suspect already where she'll be..."
"Avengers Tower." Helena finished for her.
"Precisely." Her reincarnated-mother nodded sharply. "We all knew this day was coming, have known ever since the Avengers made their first appearance."
Back in 2013, when the skies had opened and an honest-to-god alien army had poured through, intent on taking over the world. Christine had practically wailed at Stephen over the two days later, demanding to know if he had something to do with it. It had nothing to do with magic; though, on Stephen's insistence, the Order had still done their best to help without being noticed. It was how they all found out that Thor, of all people, was part of the team of 'superheroes'.
That was the reason why they'd tried so hard to keep their distance for the longest time. They'd known, of course, that it wouldn't last forever. Sooner or later Thor (and through him Asgard) would know about Loki and Helena, about Silbhé and Stephen... and potentially about the Eye of Agamotto and the Time Stone in it. But they weren't the kind to let risks define them, or limit them. And they certainly wouldn't allow them to keep them for helping their friends.
"We knew they would learn about us sooner rather than later." Helena said with a slight shrug. "What with what Lorelei's been doing... the Avengers and SHIELD have tried their best, but they just aren't spell-weavers. It's not their forte."
"And don't forget the rogue helping Lorelei." Wong, who had stayed out of the argument until then, reminded them all.
"You still think it's one of ours?" Stephen asked, grimly.
"The traces of magic are there, it's our kind of magic." Wong's displeasure was obvious. "We need to find this rogue Stephen."
"I know, and we will." The Sanctum's Master assured him. "But first we need to get Sachiko back, and find out what happened to Karl."
"You think he might have gone rogue on us?" Wong asked unexpectedly.
"No!" The response was automatic, and came from everyone else in the room.
"Ok... alright." Wong raised both hands in a placating gesture. "You better go get your apprentice then. Time's a'wasting."
Everyone nodded. Plans were made, and some discarded just as fast. In the end they decided to do something relatively simple to get Sachiko back. Simple, but they knew it'd work; the ball would then be in the Avenger's hands, and they'd seen how things went. It wasn't a perfect plan, but the best they had under the circumstances. They knew what they had to do, and how far they were willing to go to do it; they had no idea how the Avengers might react to them (though it was no secret that at least some of them did not like magic-users), and of course there was Thor; but they'd deal with it. Everything else would fall into place, it had to. So with that in mind, the quartet gathered their things, prepared themselves, and off they went.
The Avengers were in the main floor, discussing (more like arguing) the situation. The young woman in maroon was still unconscious, hands tied to the chair she was sitting on; not too tight, just enough to make sure she wouldn't run away; to that same effect they'd made sure to take away everything she'd had on her person, which wasn't really that much.
Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), former agents both of them, were all for interrogating the young woman the moment she woke up; Bruce Banner (Hulk) had been quite vocal about how insane and ridiculous he thought that idea was; Tony Stark (Iron Man) thought that questions needed to be asked, but didn't really agree with the former-agents' likely methods, an opinion Steve Rogers (Captain America), Thor Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and Harry Osborne (Goblin) all seemed to share.
"How do you even know she'll answer your questions with the truth?" Barton asked.
"Not having her wake-up as a prisoner would be a good start." Banner deadpanned. "Not that any of you have paid much attention to me regarding that."
"Do you honestly believe she'll stay long enough to say hello, much less answer questions, unless we force her to?" Romanoff asked in disbelief.
"You're not giving her a chance." Rogers pointed out. "You're treating her as an enemy from the get-go, simply because she uses magic."
"Yeah well, excuse me for choosing to take precautions." Romanoff retorted. "Considering our track-record with magic-wielding people..."
"Not all spell-weavers are the same..." Thor offered.
"Have you known any not to be enemies?" Rogers hoped that might help convince the others.
"My brother..." Thor answered very softly. "Loki... he..."
"Wait a second." Stark interrupted. "Wasn't your brother the one who sent that freakish metal-monster to New Mexico when you were there five years ago?"
Rogers let out a breath, deciding it'd probably been a pointless thing to hope for.
"Yes..." Thor admitted, still very quietly. "But it wasn't quite so simple my friend..."
The mere fact that he was being so quiet when Thor was usually so... well, boisterous was actually an understatement of how he usually was; so him being quiet was enough to make everyone realize he was being very serious.
"It took me a long time to understand... too long... too late." Thor admitted, still in the same tone. "My brother... we were so different. We used to be so close when children, and then something happened and we grew apart. I thought nothing of it at first; and when I had to, I would convince myself it had been through no fault of mine. He was the one who chose pursuits that were meant for women, rather than men. Who chose silly tricks instead of glorious battle... and yet, looking back on it, he was always there, with my friends and I, and his tricks saved our lives a great many times. We'd all probably be dead a hundred times over if it hadn't been for Loki."
"That's... well, that's something." Rogers didn't seem to know what else to say. "But what does that have to do with anything Thor?"
"I didn't value my brother, or his magic, was blind to all the good it did, that he did." Thor shook his head, mostly to himself. "And it wasn't even just his magic. Loki himself... I didn't pay attention to him, didn't listen. Thought that because he wasn't like me, his opinion was somehow worth less, his words not as important as my own. It was of no help that most of the time the things he had to say, were things I didn't want to hear..."
"Like what?" Stark suspected, he also suspected they weren't going to like it.
"Like that I wasn't ready to be King." Thor finally confessed. "That I was too wild, too enamored with war, too irresponsible... I refused to see it. And it cost me. He tried to help me, but I refused his help, refused to listen to his words. I know not if Father made the same mistake, or if perhaps my brother decided there was no point to trying with him. I saw not the wisdom of his words, the truth behind them, until it was far, far too late..."
They knew the story for the most part already. How his coronation had been interrupted, the ill-fated trip to Jotunheim, his loss of temper, the exile to 'Midgard', Loki's unexpected rise to the throne, and then the fights: in New Mexico, and back in Asgard once Thor had reclaimed his birth-right. The last of which had ended with his brother falling off the edge of the rainbow bridge and into the black abyss, to his sure death.
A groan broke the heavy silence: their guest was waking up.
"What's your name?" Natasha asked, in the softest tone she could.
She was probably hoping that, not being quite awake yet, the girl wouldn't be able to stop herself from answering them. They were half-right, what they weren't expecting was the accent she spoke in, or the language.
"What did she just say?" Rogers asked, cocking his head, confused. "The language sounds familiar but I just cannot place it..."
Before anyone could answer him, there was an unexpected interruption.
"Boss, you have a Mrs. Salani-Hvedrungr wishing to see you." Friday called right then.
"We're a bit busy here FRI, tell her to come back later." Stark muttered absently.
"She's pretty insistent sir." Friday told him then. "She's in the elevator."
"What?!" Tony really wasn't expecting that. "Who even let her into the Tower at all?!"
"I don't know boss, it'd appear she had authorization." Friday answered, though she sounded quite confused herself.
Stark cursed loudly and colorfully the fact that he and JARVIS had chosen that of all days for him to update. It was something that they had to do every few years, and it usually wasn't so bad. With FRIDAY 'growing up' it was supposed to be even less of a problem, as she was 'mature' enough to handle things in the Tower on her own for a single day; she had even proven to be a very capable co-pilot when he was Iron-Man. Still, a complete unknown had just gotten past her. Tony would never blame her, of course not, FRI was his baby girl, the only female among all his creations...
The floor's doorbell rang right then.
"Just what's going on Stark?" Barton demanded.
"Someone's just arrived, whom none of us invited, vetted, or have ever even met." Tony retorted sharply. "What can we assume from that?"
"You think they're enemies...?" Harry Osborne (Goblin) inquired, confused.
"But that's not logical." Peter Parker (Spider-Man) pointed out. "The people we've been fighting the last few weeks have magic, they don't use doors, or need them for that matter."
When the rest of them realized he was right, it only confused them further. Which was why they all stuck close when Stark went for the door.
"Hello?" He asked opening the door.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Stark?" The young woman at the door asked.
She was wearing casual clothes: a dark-top with flowers printed, black-jeans, boots and a cropped jacket; long dark-auburn hair fell around her shoulders in light waves and bright hazel eyes stared straight at them all.
"My name is Silbhé Salani-Hvedrungr." She said in a tone that sounded half-shy and almost-eager all at the same time. "I'm Dr. Strange's PA, I'm here to talk to you about the Stark Industries medical collaboration you proposed..."
Tony blinked at her, as if not quite following.
"The implants for people with heavy neural damage?" The young woman asked, cocking her head sideways, as if trying to guess if he was ignoring her, or honestly did not remember what she was talking to him about.
"The implants, right." Tony nodded several times. "Miss... such business should be addressed to SI's CEO: Miss Potts, not to me."
"Oh..." The young woman's eyes widened in what looked like surprise. "My apologies Mr. Stark! It was never my intent to go about this the wrong way! I just... well, my boss is aware that he's taken a long time in responding to your proposal, it would seem I've gone about all this the wrong way. My sincerest apology Mr. Stark."
"Yes, of course." Tony nodded dismissively. "If you return to the elevator, floor 57 you can talk to Miss Pott's secretary, you'll be able to arrange an appointment there."
"Of course, of course." The girl nodded, walking backwards towards the elevator, the perfect picture of chagrin. "Once again, my apologies Mr. Stark."
The moment the elevator doors closed Tony practically slammed the door closed and walked back towards the sitting room, right in time to hear Parker call:
"Guys! The witch's gone!"
"What?!" No one was expecting that.
"Are you thinking..." Clint began, looking at his partner of more than a decade.
"The girl... she was a distraction." Natasha finished for him.
"FRI!" Tony practically barked instantly. "Stop that elevator!"
"I did boss, but she's no longer in it!" FRIDAY sounded honestly despaired by the whole thing. "I don't know where she got off. Or how!"
"Exactly the same way she got in, I suspect." Osborne pointed out.
"Magic." Rogers finished for him.
"FRIDAY." Tony called, forcing himself to keep control, least his baby girl think he was angry with her. "I want all the security footage of the last fifteen minutes sent straight to my tablet, then I want you to comb through SI's projects and find anything about implants meant for neural damage... also, find out who this Dr. Strange is."
"Right away boss." The AI sounded almost chagrined as she said that.
Not many understood it. All the ways Tony Stark's AI's were more than just glorified machines or programs, the fact that they could learn, could 'grow', the fact that they could almost feel. Not quite the same way humans did, but the learning eventually pushed them into reacting to that knowledge, and to any new input, and not all reactions were entirely objective; some were caused by the kind of input that couldn't be quantified, that couldn't be truly explained other than to say that they 'felt'. It was perhaps the greatest wonder of all, and also the most dangerous of all.
In minutes most of the Avengers' suspicions had been confirmed: Mrs. Salani-Hvedrungr had never entered the tower, not as such, she'd appeared straight into the elevator (which was why FRIDAY had no registry of her arrival), she also disappeared from there after having distracted the 'heroes' long enough for the 'witch' to vanish (or someone to get her).
"What about what she was talking to you about?" Natasha wanted to know.
"That's actually the most interesting part." Tony admitted as he went through files in his tablet. "The implants she mentioned do exist... well, not as such, but the project. Only when she said that the response was being given a big late, that was a serious understatement; because it's like six years late!" He shook his head, ignoring the shocked exclamations from his team. "That's actually where Dr. Strange comes in."
"So he's real then?" That one surprised Banner.
"He is." Tony seemed to reconsider. "Well, he's not practicing anymore, but still." He brought a file up in a nearby screen for all to see (like he'd shown them the security footage). "Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange, famous neurologist, neurosurgeon to be precise, said to be the best in the world. Went off the road back in January of 2010, the accident nearly killed him; he also lost use of his hands for the most part, making it so he could no longer practice."
"The implants..." Parker began, connecting the dots.
"The project actually started before his accident." Tony pointed out. "It was one of the first projects the medical branch of SI came up with, only we were having a lot of trouble because no one knew enough on the topic to make them actually work. They sought Dr. Strange, but he wasn't interested in such a thing, claiming to be a neurosurgeon, not a researcher. A second approach was made the next year, several months after his accident... apparently someone thought his own situation would make him more open to it. Not sure if that was absolutely brilliant or terribly crude."
"Probably both." Bruce quipped.
"Probably." Tony agreed absently. "Ah... according to this we never got a direct response, the best anyone knew Dr. Strange had left the country in search of better options when all doctors here and even in Europe declared his hands a lost case."
"And what then?" Natasha wanted to know. "You cannot tell me he vanished into the ether in 2010 and no one has seen him since."
"Not quite." Tony admitted. "FRIDAY found footage from him in NY. He's living here again, has been at the very least since halfway through 2011... though there's a notorious lack of footage during several months. Apparently he took a plane to China in the Summer of 2010 and wasn't seen again for a good few months... also, might I point out that there are no records of him getting on a plane, or a ship for that matter, back?"
"There wouldn't necessarily be records if it was a private flight, would there?" Harry suggested.
"Probably not." Tony shrugged, admitting the younger rich-heir could be right. "Still doesn't explain where the hell he was for that half year and what he was doing..."
"What?" Peter arched a brow. "You think he went to Hogwarts and came back a wizard?"
"Hogwarts is in Scotland, not in China..." Harry pointed out in a drawl.
"What does that have to do with anything?" Rogers asked, not getting it.
He had seen the Harry Potter movies (the others had pretty much made him...) but he just did not understand what the connection was supposed to be.
"It's obvious, isn't it?" Peter asked. "The girl said she's his assistant. And she was a distraction so the witch could either escape or be rescued. They're both magical, so Dr. Strange probably is too. I'm sure if he'd been a wizard before someone would have noticed, so that would mean that something happened when he went to China..."
"Ok, so Chinese version of Hogwarts aside, if you're right, why would Mrs. Salani give us Dr. Strange's name?" Natasha didn't understand that part. "She must have known we could use that to track her, and her employer."
"Maybe that's precisely what they want..." Stark muttered.
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Peter honestly wasn't sure of that.
"No idea kid." Tony admitted. "But we're gonna find out."
Peter didn't bother telling Tony he wasn't exactly a kid anymore; it's not like being 21 was being old or anything, instead he chose to focus on the task at hand.
"So, are we going?" Harry wanted to know.
"We are." Rogers decided. "But until we have as much on Mrs. Salani, Dr. Strange and the young Miss who was here, as we can get."
"We better get on it then." Tony decided. "FRI, you heard the Capsicle, get me everything."
"Yes boss." FRIDAY answered immediately.
The AI didn't sound quite so down anymore. Learning that it wasn't her fault an unknown had gotten too close helped. It meant she hadn't failed, and she wouldn't fail at her new task either. No matter how hard it might be, she wasn't going to let the Boss down, it simply wasn't in her programming.
Sachiko and Nightingale (the name Loki called Silbhé by most of the time, in honor to both her voice and her past-life as Tinúviel) stepped out of the shadows and into the attic of the NY Sanctum with practiced ease. They didn't even use a sling-ring, since they didn't actually work for Loki and Nightingale, and while they worked for the others, those that could actually shadow-walk without them preferred it, as it was easier and more stealthy. And their girls' most recent mission had been all about stealth...
"So, everything's ready on that front." Nightingale commented with a low sigh.
She didn't much like some parts of the plan, but she knew it was necessary, and everyone involved had volunteered for their respective parts; also, it was a tad late to turn back, all they could do was finish what they'd begun and hope it'd work out.
"Christine called an hour or so ago." Stephen commented evenly. "She's about had it with people stalking her, apparently. She also seems to believe it's my fault..."
"Not like she's that far from the truth..." Loki drawled.
"Then I suppose it's time for me to get going." Sachiko nodded, mostly to herself.
"Wait until tomorrow." Helena stopped her. "We don't want to arouse their suspicions."
"That would be terribly inconvenient." Stephen agreed. "The faster we can proceed with the next part of the plan, the faster we can bring Karl back."
"It could never be fast enough..." Sachiko murmured very quietly.
"Oh Sachi..." Nightingale threw an arm around the younger woman.
It was a bit odd, while neither of them were exactly tall, Silbhé was still shorter than the younger sorceress. Nightingale also looked younger, and yet her attitude showed someone far beyond her years, it always had.
"The good thing..." Silbhé paused, as if taking a moment to ponder her words before continuing. "Well, I'm actually not quite sure if it's a good thing or a bad one. But we found out two things: first, the rogue... it's... well, it's Tamara Walker."
Stephen wasn't the only one to yell at that, Wong, and several others who had been waiting nearby for news couldn't help but react the same way.
"Yeah..." Silbhé nodded, a hand on the back of her neck, making her look almost sheepish. "I have no idea what in the name of the stars she's thinking, but she's the one helping Lorelei... that's not all though. We finally know what it is they're trying to do. The books and relics that were stolen, they're all meant for a single ritual." The hazel-eyed did her best to swallow the knot in her throat, but it wasn't easy. "They intend to bring someone back from the Other Side, from the dead, they..."
In the end she couldn't say it, and that was enough for everyone to know it had to be really, really bad. They'd never seen Silbhé so affected...
"Amora." Sachiko was the one to finish the explanation in the end. "Lorelei and Rogue-Walker intend to bring back the Enchantress Amora."
"I Will Kill Them!" Loki practically roared.
No one could help the chill that ran through their bodies. Even if all but Helena (and Silbhé through dreams and mind-melds) had thus far only known Loki as a strong, kind, understanding, generous, honorable if somewhat mischievous man... his words in that moment, and the aura that flared around him showed a warrior ready to destroy anything and anyone that dare step between him and his goal. It probably shouldn't have been surprising, considering they were talking about the Enchantress Amora... the very woman who had already destroyed his family (and in many ways his life) once; who'd murdered his wife and unborn child... Yes, perfectly understandable all things told.
"This cannot be allowed to happen." Stephen declared, an edge of steel in his voice.
"We won't allow it." Helena agreed completely.
She might have been too young the last time an Enchantress had threatened her family, that wasn't the case anymore. She'd fight for her loved ones, she would make sure they were safe. Killing might be against her oaths, but she did not have to murder her enemies to make sure they could never again threaten one of her own. They would deal with the upcoming threat, they would protect their family, there was simply no other option.
It was an hour long walk from Metro-General Hospital, north of Hell-Kitchen, all the way to Greenwich Village. None of the Avengers made a comment, they just followed the young Japanese-American girl in the floral summer dress with leggings underneath, and still wearing the same leather sandals with ribbons up her calves and tiny wings. Some of the girls (most of them wives or girlfriends of the current Avengers) had actually wondered if it was some sort of fashion; Peter had suggested it being something magical, but no one paid it much heed.
They didn't think she'd noticed they were following her ever since she'd accompanied Dr. Palmer to a small cafe a block or so from the Hospital, told her something none of them were close enough to hear, and then began to walk south. Their belief came from the fact that she'd never turned to look over her shoulder, stopped, searched the streets, changed directions, nothing at all.
"Can someone be that oblivious?" Natasha asked quietly into her comm.
No answer was forthcoming. Some might believe that she was young, wasn't experienced enough to know better; others couldn't help but wonder if they were actually missing something. But in the end their belief that they knew better, won.
They followed the 'witch' as they all kept referring to her, all the way to Greenwich Village and a big townhouse stacked in the middle of what looked like several condos.
"The guy must be rich to be able to afford this big a place, in this neighborhood." Parker said with a bit of an exaggerated whistle.
"You mean like someone, or rather two someones elses?" Natasha deadpanned.
Peter actually had to do a double-take at that. She was right, of course. He knew two people with actually a lot of money and seriously big places in pricey neighborhoods in NY. Still, it didn't make the house before them any less impressive.
"So... are we actually going in or what?" Harry asked, curious.
"Usually I would say we need to wait, stake out the place, make sure it's safe but..." Steve cut himself off with a shake of the head.
"But we don't have that kind of time." Tony finished for him. "Not when our little evil-piper could orchestrate yet another attack at any moment."
"We need to know who these people are, and where they stand, and we need to know now." Natasha agreed completely.
"Then I suppose we better go in." Clint decided, heading straight for the door.
Even then, none of them were really expecting for the door to be unlocked, or the lobby to be empty, or the staircase...
"Anyone else feel like there's something off in here?" Peter asked, tense, as the group walked down a completely empty corridor in the second level.
No one answered him out-loud, but there was no need, he knew they agreed.
None of them could lie and said the place wasn't interesting. The paintings and tapestries adorning the walls told a story they found hard to believe, and the way some of the things moved... more than one of them was left wondering if they were imagining things, or if many of the objects around them might somehow be... alive...
There was only one noise they could track down in the building. A piano playing, and they followed it, eventually finding themselves in what looked like the second level of a huge three-floor library (the second and third level seemed to actually be made almost entirely of catwalks and small niches, connected to the other levels through ladders. On the lower floor, half of the room actually seemed to serve as music room, rather than a library, and it was the huge space which explained the way the sound seemed to carry through the halls.
Sitting on the bench before the concert grand piano was the same young woman who had gone looking for Tony in Avengers Towers just under a week before: Silbhé Salani-Hvedrungr. She was wearing a long off-white skirt, lavender long-sleeved peasant blouse and white flats. Before any of the Avengers had the chance to call to her, to get closer, to demand her attention and to know what exactly was going on, something else happened they weren't expecting... she started to sing...
"Where are the heroes
In my time of need?
Is my cry not loud enough
Or have they gone all numb?"
"They just tend to stand
Out of the rain
Thinking but not acting
That they're not to blame"
"Falling and crawling
A fight to stand up
Memory still haunts me
In the dead of night"
"Over and over, I felt so small
But one day I'll be stronger
And you better watch out"
"I will overcome, your violence their silence
Although it can't be undone
I will overcome, knowing that I'm not the only one
I will overcome, it's the only way to carry on"
"Where are the saviors?
Afraid of the toll
Sorry, do my nine inch nails
Slash your soul"
Straight at the one
Who is standing alone"
"Twisting and turning
It's always the same
Truth is never honest
When you're to blame"
"Pushing and pulling
Never give in, one day I wish
You'll see you're not so beautiful within"
"I will overcome, their violence your silence
Although it can't be undone
I will overcome, knowing that I'm not the only one
I will overcome, it's the only way to carry on"
"Run and run
Run and run"
"I will overcome, their violence your silence
Although it can't be undone
I will overcome, knowing that I'm not the only one
I will overcome, it's the only way to carry on"
"I will overcome"
Several seconds passed, as the song wound down with several notes in the piano. As if that were some kind of cue, they all began moving instantly. Several of them even jumped down the level, forgoing the ladders completely. There was no doubt that the girl heard them, though she did not comment, instead just turning on the bench to look at them in silence.
They all stared at one another for at least a full minute; Stark was the first to break:
"Who are you lady?" He demanded, allowing the face-plate to open so he could look at the young woman directly.
"My names is Silbhé Arianna Kinross Salani-Hvedrungr." She answered serenely.
She got on her feet slowly and almost elegantly; the moment she did, it was like her image had been washed off, or like a spell had fallen; she was no longer wearing the skirt and blouse set from before but instead a long-sleeved, floor-length square-necked mauve dress with a slit down the front and leggings underneath, she was also wearing boots, and from her neck hung a silvery pendant of a bird with its wings spread.
"You may call me Nightingale." She finished as she looked straight at the blonde hunk of a man standing at the back of the group.
"The Lady Nightingale...?!" The blonde gasped in shock.
"Thor...?!" They all turned to look at him, surprised by his reaction.
"Do you know her Point-Break?" Tony asked him, curious.
"Not... not as such." Thor answered, obviously struggling with the revelations.
"I am Loki's match and consort." The hazel-eyed woman clarified.
That made all eyes turn back to her instantly.
"You must mean you were, my lady." Steve pointed out. "Loki's dead..."
"Are you sure about that?" Nightingale arched a brow in a mix of mischievousness and defiance.
No one got the chance to answer, as someone else intervened.
It took nearly five full minutes to convince the Avengers not to blow a gasket after they learned that Loki was alive, always had been, and had been living in New York ever since October, 2011. It wasn't until Sachiko pointed out how the world was still standing and if Loki were the kind of monster half of them believed him to be, they would have noticed his presence much sooner, that they all finally shut up. Then the next shock came: in the form of Helena.
Two hours later the story had been told (everything except where past-lives and reincarnations were concerned, none of the sorcerers believed that was any of the Avengers' business).
"So, what now?" Tony asked once they were all in the same page.
"Now we prepare to fight against our enemies." Stephen said seriously.
Arrangements were made. Loki would know the next time Lorelei acted and then they'd team up to take her and Tamara Walker down, once and for all; and of course to get Karl and the rest of the men under Lorelei's spell back (a number that included a SHIELD Agent who'd been part of the team that had first come across the Enchantress: Grant Ward).
It was really no surprise that no one showed any interest for staying once the talks were finished. Avengers and Sorcerers might have agreed to work together against the current foe, but that did not meant they trusted one another. Still, the time for that might yet come...
The true surprise came when Thor did not leave with the rest of them:
"Brother..." He murmured, eyes fixed straight on Loki.
"I'm not your brother, I never was..." Loki almost hissed, refusing to meet Thor's eyes.
They were alone, which was probably the only reason why Nightingale did not intervene right then. She didn't like it when Loki said such things, believing that despite all the things that had gone wrong during the last nine centuries or so, Loki and Thor were still brothers, Odin and Frigg still his parents. Adoption, loss of memories, secrets and whatever else may have happened between them, that did not change the fact that they loved each other. They had in the past, and love didn't just disappear, it didn't stop existing... which meant that love was still there, they just needed to be ready to take the risk again...
"You were, you are, and you always will be." The blonde murmured quietly.
He was gone before Loki could insist on his denial.
Two days later the attack happened. Even though there hadn't been more than a few video-calls between the two groups and none among them could really say they trusted the others, they didn't do too bad at the whole 'teaming-up' thing. They'd discovered that a pulse of magic could break the sort-of hypnotic bond that kept the men under Lorelei's control; knocking them out (what Natasha called 'cognitive re-calibration') worked as well but Kathryn had been very vehement when telling them how bad an idea that was, how much they could end up hurting the men. So they chose to go the magic-pulse way instead.
The plan was pretty basic. Spider-Man and Hawkeye did their best to restrain the men, allowing for the sorcerers to get close enough to use the pulse on them, while Goblin and Captain America covered them, Hulk was fighting an odd creature-like man that called himself the Scourge, while Natasha had chosen to go after Lorelei herself (being a woman, her magic didn't work), Iron-Man had her back.
It was a bit of an experiment. Iron-Man had put complete control of his sensory input into FRIDAY's virtual hands. Which meant he only heard, see, etc. what she allowed him to. It was meant as a measure to make sure Lorelei couldn't take him over. He'd considered JARVIS, but decided to cover all his bases (no idea if Lorelei's freaky trick would work on AIs, even male ones, but Tony would rather not risk it, and he trusted FRIDAY). It was working thus far.
By the time the group realized someone was missing it was almost too late.
"Sachi!" Nightingale screamed abruptly, sensing the upcoming danger.
It was too late for her to do anything about it, it was too late for almost anyone to do anything about it. And then the one thing none of the Avengers could have ever expected: the sorcerer Lorelei had taken over during their last fight, Karl Mordo, as they'd been told the man's name was (whom Iron-Man had been keeping an eye over to make sure he wouldn't try to blindside Hulk, and surprisingly enough hadn't seemed interested in getting involved thus far) moved then.
Sachiko spun around at Nightingale's cry, allowing the winged sandals on her feet to carry her backwards, even as she knew it was probably too late for it to make much of a difference. Her brown eyes widened as she saw the conjured crystal-looking spear coming at her, it really was moving too fast for her to conjure a shield in time... and yet it never touch her, it shattered before it could. And then there was someone standing before Sachiko protectively.
"You will not hurt her." The protector stated, completely serious.
"Karl!" Several voices called in unison.
"It's impossible." Tamara, the one who'd just tried to murder Sachiko (her own former apprentice) hissed in disbelief.
"It is not." Karl stated calmly. "Did you honestly believe that witch could control me? In your rush to turn your back on everything you once swore to defend, you forgot something very basic Tamara. Your forgot that no matter her powers, there's no way she could ever take over a matched man..."
"You lost your match before you ever came to Kamar-Taj." Tamara snapped, she knew that for a fact, could remember hearing him and the Ancient One talking about it.
"Doesn't mean she had to stay lost." Karl replied.
Tamara's eyes strayed towards Sachiko as she understood. She couldn't believe it. She'd never been much of a believer in things like soulmates, really. Had always thought it was just how some people justified doing stupid things about/for people they claimed to love. And yet the truth was staring her in the face in that moment, the fact that, despite Lorelei's actions, Karl wasn't under her control. Had he ever been? She honestly had no idea. Truth was, she'd never known Karl that well, he'd always been a warrior, and more inclined towards violence than she considered acceptable. It was probably why she hadn't liked him, yet she'd considered him useful when the opportunity came for taking him over during the last fight.
"You may have protected her now." Tamara stated coldly. "But you cannot do so forever..."
"Maybe not." Karl agreed stiffly. "But what makes you think that I'll allow any threat against her to stand? That I will allow you to threaten her and walk away?"
He was moving before the last word had fully left his lips, and by the time Tamara understood what he meant, it was too late for her as well. She wasn't a warrior, had never been. She tried jumping backwards, putting space between her and Karl, but in the end it was pointless.
"You will not threaten her, or Silbhé, or Stephen, or anyone else again Tamara." Karl declared coldly. "I will not allow it."
Coldness was the first thing she noticed, like all the warmth was being forcefully pulled from her body. She tried to fight back, to conjure a weapon, a shield, a portal, anything! But nothing worked. She realized what was going on when she saw the sphere of light gathering at Karl's fingertips.
"You cannot take my magic!" She practically screeched, furious. "It's mine!"
"Not anymore." Karl denied, then closed his fist, destroying the sphere, allowing the magic to dissipate, be absorbed into the world.
The wail that abandoned Tamara's lips has such that more than one person flinched. She was so livid, so lost in her rage she seemed to forget where they were standing: on a rooftop in East Manhattan. She fell over fifteen floors, hitting the ground before anyone could even think to try and save her (and even if they'd thought about it, most of them were still busy with their own fights).
Lorelei was the next to begin screeching. Helena and Stephen wondered if that meant she couldn't implement her own plan (bringing back her sister) without Tamara. Which would be a good thing, none of them wanted someone like Amora Enchantress back among the living; not after what she'd managed to do, all the pain she managed to cause, the last time.
They were wrong. While Lorelei had needed Tamara, that did not mean she didn't know of a way to do it on her own. When Lorelei pulled out an intricately engraved dagger everyone raised their guard. Her army was gone; most of the men were unconscious, except for Grant, who'd chosen to stand and fight with them. Even Scourge was gone, destroyed by Hulk when he (it') tried to attack Iron-Man instead. No one was expecting it when she turned the blade upon herself instead, stabbing her own heart with it. A string of words abandoning her lips in a pained gasp before life left her.
"What the...?!" Hawkeye, Iron-Man and Goblin cursed in unison.
Nightingale, Sachiko and Spider-Man were simply horrified.
And it only got worse. Lorelei's body seemed to decompose at an accelerated rate, disappearing before it could even hit the ground, forming a cloud of awful-smelling smoke...
"It smells like sulfur." Black-Widow commented thoughtfully.
"It smells like Muspelheim." Loki half-corrected.
"And feels like death." Helena and Silbhé added almost in unison.
The reasons became clear a second later, as a figure stepped out of the dark smoke: wearing a red, heavily embroidered and bejeweled velvet gown, golden slippers on her feet, golden-blonde hair in a thick braid down her back and reaching to the small of her back, rosy, perfectly unblemished skin, clear-blue eyes and blood-red lips... four people recognized the woman instantly:
Silbhé froze, completely and absolutely, she even needed Sachiko's prompting just to remember to breathe. Karl rushed to them, covering them, just in case, while his match took care to guide the older (but smaller) woman to a side, where she might be safe(r).
Loki let out an almost feral snarl as he threw himself at the Enchantress.
"Back down!" Stephen ordered loudly before any of the Avengers could think of doing the exact opposite of that.
"Why?" The Captain wanting to know, vaguely realizing they had to be missing something. "She's just one person, we can take her down!"
"She's an Enchantress, no, she's The Enchantress." Thor corrected, half absently. "Lorelei might have been called that when people turned it into a sort of clan-name rather than a title. But it is and always has been Amora's title. And she's not 'just' anything."
"How bad can she be?" Black-Widow asked, she still did not get it.
"She's the one who killed Mama." Helena informed her quietly. "A long time ago... she wanted Uncle Thor, for his name, his position, his power, was even willing to use underhanded means to achieve her objective."
"Underhanded means?" Clint parroted, confused.
"Love spells." Karl said promptly.
"Exactly." Helena agreed. "Nana discovered her, stopped Amora's plot, and the Enchantress swore revenge... it took her three tries, and others died or were badly hurt in the process. She never got what she really wanted: Thor, but she did kill Nana, my unborn sister, and almost myself as well. Why do you think she was dead?"
"Loki's probably the only one with enough power to keep up with her." Stephen admitted.
He was strong, but he wasn't a Warrior, not the kind that killed, it went against his instincts; and while Helena was powerful, she had that oath keeping her from killing... and of course Amora pushed all the wrong buttons for her, which made doing battle against her dangerous. Not that Loki wasn't reacting the same way, or worse, but at least he still had Nightingale in his head, in his soul, and that helped balance him out, at least some.
"Why don't I remember all that?" Thor's question surprised everyone.
"What...?" Stark was the one to voice the question in everyone's heads.
"I remember pieces." Thor went on, ignoring the others, eyes focused only on Helena. "I remember Amora, his attempts at seduction... I remember that Sif almost died once due to one of her plots... she was still blonde back then. But I don't remember your mother, no matter how hard I try. She..."
"Tinúviel, her name i... was Tinúviel." Helena clarified.
"Princess Tinúviel of Alfheim?!" Thor exclaimed, shocked. "But she... the lady's a legend!"
"Only to those who don't remember her." Helena stated evenly.
"Why wouldn't he remember her?" Romanoff demanded, not liking the lack of information.
"He didn't either, did he?" Thor asked, a sudden burst of insight. "Loki, I mean. She did not remember her for a while either."
"How could a man possibly forget his wife Thor?!" Osborne really thought that was insane.
"The same reason I did not remember my sister-in-law?" The Asgardian prince half-deadpanned before turning back to Helena. "It's strange because, you're standing here before me, and I know I don't remember your mother, and there's something very wrong about that, and at the same time it's like a part of me keeps trying to pull my attention away from that. Away from the fact that my brother was once married and I cannot even remember what his wife looked like, or that I hardly remember you at all... and so many other details that make no sense at all..." He shook his head. "Why did we all forget?"
"It wasn't done in bad faith." Helena had to admit at least that much. "Ada suffered greatly at her loss, and some individuals came to believe that if the memory of her was taken away, the pain would go as well. It didn't exactly work out. The void was still there, in his soul and heart, but no one remembered why, he still acted out, and no one understood him anymore; and I couldn't stay around, because my mere presence seemed to only make things worse!"
"Why would he react like that?" Stark suspected that was the crux of the matter.
"Because they are a match." Helena answered in barely a whisper.
All heads turned instantly, they could all remember the words a certain someone had pronounced just two days before: "I am Loki's match and consort..."
A pained groan abandoned Loki right then as he pressed a hand to his shoulder, where one of Amora's attacks had just hit him. She really was much different from her younger sister, a battle-mage in ways Lorelei was never interested in being.
The Avengers were trying to find the right way to get into the fight, without getting themselves killed, but someone acted first. None of them could miss the arrow that flew straight across the street to pierce Amora on her shoulder, stopping her from delivering a follow-up attack on Loki.
"What the...?!" She turned towards them, only to break-off in shock halfway through.
Everyone followed her line of sight to find none other than Nightingale, bow in hand, she'd been the one to fire that arrow. It was a shock for all the Avengers. While no one had failed to notice the weapons the sorceress carried, they hadn't paid that much attention either.
"Who are you?!" Amora shrieked as she pulled at the arrow in her shoulder, only managing to make the wound worse.
"I once made the mistake of giving you a warning shot." Nightingale said for all answer as she notched another arrow. "But don't worry, I'm not the kind to make the same mistake twice."
"That's impossible!" Amora wailed. "You're dead!"
"So were you." Silbhé deadpanned, as she let the arrow fly.
Amora, either by choice or accident, happened to move to the side enough that the arrow didn't go through her head, no, instead it cut open her cheek and temple, much like yet another arrow had, a lifetime prior.
"I'm going to kill you!" She shrieked, insanity evident in every word.
"No, you're not..." Another voice murmured coldly.
Amora had made a mistake. She'd allowed her rage towards Tinúviel's reincarnation to distract her, she'd forgotten completely about the man who'd been laying at her feet. A man who, the moment he heard her threaten to kill the love of his existence (again) rose to his feet, allowed his hand to shift into that of his true-self (dark blue, living ice), then used that hand as a weapon as he punched it through the Enchantress's chest (much like he had once before...).
Amora gasped, a line of blood appearing on the edge of her mouth. She didn't even have the breath to cry. No one said a word about Loki's actions, though a few of the Avengers cringed and Sachiko looked away, burying her face in Karl's chest. She understood why Loki had done that, better than most (she knew at least some of what Karl had done after losing her...), but while she'd not hold it against Loki, it did not mean she had to watch him take his vengeance, his justice.
Nightingale for her part slung her bow on her back and walked slowly but purposefully towards where her match and once-killer were still standing.
"It... cannot... be..." Amora half-gasped, half-gurgled.
"But it is." Nightingale retorted calmly. "You might have destroyed me, destroyed us once Amora, but in the end the stars have chosen to smile upon us, upon our love." She, very deliberately, brought her right hand to her middle, tracing figures on her covered stomach. "We win, you lose."
For a moment it looked like Amora might try and shriek again, but Loki chose that very moment to pull his hand back; his hand which was the only thing keeping her from fully bleeding out. Amora dropped to the ground like a puppet, the light vanishing from her eyes but seconds later.
"My love..." Nightingale murmured softly, moving to touch Loki.
"Don't!" He snapped, harsher than he ever intended. "Don't touch me Nightingale, I'm a monster..."
"We are not having this argument again." His beloved stated in a tone that showed how much she really wouldn't allow it. "You fought for me, for us, that's not the making of a monster, but of a Protector, that's what you are. A Guardian... just like the rest of us."
She said nothing more, instead she called quietly on magic, a little water to wash away the blood from her love's hands. Nightingale knew that wouldn't make anyone forget about it, not even her Maverick, but it helped prove her point. The fact that she loved him, that she accepted him, that no one would be allowed to consider him a monster as long as she lived. Then, to reinforce the point further, she took those same hands and pressed them against her belly. It was still quite flat, but no one had any doubt of the significance behind the gesture.
"I'm here... We're here... and we're not leaving you." Silbhé told him softly, full of so much love the rest could have sworn they felt it too... and maybe they did.
"Nana!" Helena's near-shriek broke the moment, just a bit, as she threw her arms around her mom, absolute delight in ever inch of her body.
"Congratulations." Stephen, Sachiko and Karl told her softly.
No one questioned her on her choice of going to battle being pregnant, no one dared ruin the mood. After all, they'd just obtained a victory that, just a week ago, had seemed impossible, the rest were just minor details.
The group were forced to move to the Tower when the emergency services approached. Nightingale had made sure no one was too badly injured and Stephen had rung Christine to warn her about the possible incoming. Tony had had FRIDAY call Phil Coulson to inform him that Lorelei had been defeated and his agent (Ward) was with them.
Of course, once in the tower Tony insisted on making a party to celebrate their victory. The sorcerers weren't exactly fans of the idea, but Stephen had decided that since they'd probably be working together in the future, it was better if they got used to being together.
It took no time for the quinjet with Phil Coulson and his team to land. A young woman with honey-brown hair, chocolate eyes and tanned skin, dressed in jeans, a purple top and light-jacket practically rushed down the ramp before throwing herself into Agent Ward's arms. They could all hear her mumbling a mix of thanks and threats if he ever 'scared her like that again'.
The rest of the team joined them, and the party soon enough, and there were introductions all around. The girl who'd rushed out first: Skye (no last-name) was a hacker and the junior member of the team, she was also Grant's girlfriend and Phil and Darcy's protegé. Phil Coulson and Darcy Lewis-Coulson were the joint leaders of the team (a team that had been top-secret, working to take out a group working on a new super-soldier serum; until the mess with Lorelei forced them to reveal their existence to the Avengers); the other members were Agent Melinda May (who was both a field agent and the pilot), Agent Mike Peterson (who had actually been subjected to the Centipede serum at one point, and been rescued by the team, before choosing to join them), and the scientist duo FitzSimmons (Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons).
Things actually went pretty well. Silbhé got another round of congratulations when the Avengers' wives and girlfriends learned of her pregnancy; and while at least two of them (Jane Foster, Thor's girlfriend, and Mary Jane Watson, Harry Osborne's wife) seemed at least a bit scandalized at the idea of her having gone into battle while pregnant, in the end there was no need for Silbhé to defend her own choice; since the rest all agreed that they'd have done exactly the same thing if they had the chance. After all, the baby needed his/her father.
"Do you know...?" Gwen Stacy (Peter Parker's fiancé) began, unsure of her own question.
"It's a girl." Silbhé said with a smile. "We're calling her Rose Alfdis."
"It's a pretty name." Darcy offered right away.
"What does it mean?" Skye asked, curious.
"Well, Rose is obvious enough, I've always loved such flowers." Silbhé explained. "Alfdis is Norse and has two meanings: spirit and elf goddess. It was Helena's idea and Loki and I thought it fitting."
She did not tell them that Rose in elvish was Meril, the name they'd chosen before for the baby that had been lost along with Tinúviel herself (at Amora's hands), as well as a simpler form of the name of Tinúviel's sister (Merilwen Mirloth), a princess of Alfheim who'd lost her life during the Bloody-Night (a terrible tragedy during which many elves had been murdered by Jotun invaders, including the Queen, the Sisterhood of Princesses and the legion of warriors chosen to protect them). Such details were unimportant for them, as well as too personal and playful for the family.
"So, let me see if I understood this correctly, you're Loki's second wife..." Jemma murmured thoughtfully. "You're also reincarnation of his first wife?"
"Yes." Silbhé nodded.
"And Amora was responsible for your... loss." Jemma broke off as she realized how awful it all was.
"Yes." Silbhé nodded, swallowing the knot in her throat. "But I'm back, and that's all that matters."
"How are you back?" Jane blurted out. "I mean, no offense, I just... I don't understand."
"Not many mortals can." Nightingale nodded, and before her comment could be misinterpreted she clarified. "It's nothing against humans. Just... our minds aren't wired to understand some truths of the universe, like how big it truly is, the kind of beings that exist in it, the realities of things like the soul, like eternity, like life and death. We cannot understand them, but that's not a bad thing, we simply aren't meant to."
"How can you then?" Darcy wanted to know.
"I don't, not really." The hazel-eyed woman admitted. "Not beyond what concerns to me, at least. I know I was dead, though I cannot remember what that was like. I know I'm alive again now, that I was reborn a human, rather than a Ljósálfar, but I know not why. I'm also unaware if this is my first life since being Tinúviel, of if there have been others I cannot recall, it's been over nine hundred years, after all. But none of that matters, not really, not right now. In this moment all that matter is that I'm here, and so is my match. We're together, as we're supposed to be. Helena is with us, as is her match. And I'm being given another chance to be a mom, to bring my beautiful baby into the world. I will not fail her this time..."
No she wouldn't. Amora was gone, she would no longer be a threat, Loki had made sure of that. Also, unlike the last time, Nightingale was a fighter, she might not choose to go to war, but like she'd told her love, they were all Guardians, they'd protect their loved ones.
Silbhé was also half aware that while the girls conducted their 'friendly interrogation' her Maverick was talking privately with Thor. The blonde prince kept trying so hard to understand how he could possibly have forgotten so much, and not only that, but the fact that his brotherly-bond with Loki had been lost, and he never realized it, or how wrong that was. It was probably a good thing they'd talked about the apparent side-effects of the memory spell between them in the past, otherwise the sorcerer probably wouldn't have believed a word of what Thor was saying.
Still, theirs wasn't a relationship that could be fixed in a few hours, days, maybe not even a few years. And yet there was hope, because even with everything he still couldn't remember, Thor refused to give up on his brother. He loved Loki, and through him he loved Nightingale and their daughters, and that was something they all appreciated. There was only one thing they still disagreed on: Asgard, more precisely, a return there.
"I'm not going back to Asgard, Thor." Loki stated slowly, purposefully, it wasn't the first time he'd said those words since the beginning of their conversation.
"But why not?!" Thor still didn't get it. "Brother..."
"Thor tell me, what's the penalty for betraying Asgard?" The sorcerer tried a different approach.
"But you would never do that!" The blonde practically snapped.
"That's how some people will insist on seeing my actions five years ago." Loki told him calmly. "They will not see someone afraid for their realm, someone who felt you weren't ready to be King. They will believe I was jealous, that I was petty, that I did everything in my power to get rid of you, provoked you into going to Jotunheim, into initiating the battle that nearly caused a war, that got you exiled so the throne would be mine; and then, as if that weren't enough, I sent the Destroyer to Midgard, to cause destruction and mayhem, and to murder you..."
"But you did not do that!" Thor hissed. "You never meant to hurt me, or anyone at all. All you wanted was to do right by our family, by Asgard!"
"Yes, but no one will ever believe that." The green-eyed reminded him. "I am the God of Lies, remember? I am a... well, I'm not a monster, but that's all they'll see. Heimdall opened the way to Jotunheim for us, but was he ever punished for that? No, it's far easier for them all to blame me, to see me as the bad guy. They've been doing it for so long now... I'm quite sure they wouldn't know what to do if they couldn't do it anymore..."
"That's not right." The blonde was almost pouting as he said that.
"No, it's not." Loki agreed with a shrug. "And in the past I'd have complained and raged about it, about the unfairness of it all... I have better things to do now. I have my match, a daughter, a son-in-law, soon another daughter, and a whole magical order to focus on. I belong here now brother... and I'm quite happy with that."
"And I'm happy for you, brother. I just wish things were different."
"Who knows? Perhaps one day they will be."
He did not really believe that, and Thor knew it, but chose not to call his younger brother on it. Who knew? Perhaps life would surprise them one day...
Things became less tense after that, and the two began chatting more amiably. Thor telling stories about learning how to be a good prince and future king (taking things seriously this time), and Loki offered some of his own stories, of his time since joining the Mystic Order.
It was growing late and the party was winding down when something unexpected happened. The loud music that had been on until that moment cut off, and before anyone could think of voicing a complaint, or asking what was going on, a new melody began: a lone violin first, low and deep, and then, at the same time as a piano joined, a voice began singing: it was Helena (Loki and Stephen were the ones providing the music, with help of a few spells they knew and had used in the past).
"Many nights we've prayed
With no proof anyone could hear
In our hearts a hopeful song
We barely understood"
"Now we are not afraid
Although we know there's much to fear
We were moving mountains long
Before we knew we could (oh yes)"
"There can be miracles, when you believe
Though hope is frail, it's hard to kill
Who knows what miracles you can achieve
When you believe, somehow you will
You will when you believe"
Helena's voice was beautiful and everyone could attest to that. Even those who'd never heard her before, who hadn't the slightest idea of why she'd decided to sing, and that song in particular, they knew it was special, that Helena was special. And then the next surprise came, as Silbhé took over:
"Hmmyeah... In this time of fear
When prayers so often prove in vain
Hope seems like the summer birds
Too swiftly flown away"
"Yet now I'm standing here
My heart's so full I can't explain
Seeking faith and speaking words
I never thought I'd say"
"There can be miracles, when you believe (when you believe)
Though hope is frail, it's hard to kill
Who knows what miracles you can achieve (you can achieve)
When you believe, somehow you will
You will when you believe"
By the end of the second chorus Helena was echoing her mother, their voices slowly but surely beginning to mix together. The two women had never before sung together, not even a lifetime before when Silbhé had been Tinúviel. Back then Helena had simply been too young and not quite confident enough in herself to try her hand at singing, much less singing with the woman who was said to possess the most beautiful voice in all the realms... and yet in that moment it came to them both as natural as if they'd been doing it all along, as if they were meant to. A beautiful duet of mother and daughter that showed its true beauty as their voices rose once again, fully entwined:
"They don't always happen when you ask (Ah)
And it's easy to give in to your fears (Oh...Ohhhh)
But when you're blinded by your pain
Can't see your way straight through the rain
A small but still resilient voice
Says hope is very near (Ohhh)"
"There can be miracles (Miracles)
When you believe (Lord, when you believe)
Though hope is frail
It's hard to kill (Hard to kill, Ohhh)"
"Who knows what miracles you can achieve (you can achieve)
When you believe, somehow you will (somehow, somehow, somehow)
somehow you will (now I know, I know)
You will (when you) when you believe"
It was a beautiful song, one that spoke of hardships and sorrows and pain and loss... but also of hope and faith and joy and so much love... the kind that most would believe to be nothing more than a fairy-tale, except it was real, it was the love of a match, the love of true, eternal soulmates, of those meant to be together in lifetime after lifetime, on and on until the last star fell from the sky...
"You will when you
You will when you believe
Just believe... in your heart
You will when you believe"
It wasn't even quite morning yet when Nightingale woke up panting. Beside her Loki woke up too in an instant. He didn't even need to ask her what had happened, their bond was deep enough he could see it almost as clearly as she could. It wasn't the first time Nightingale had such dreams, in the weeks since learning of her pregnancy they'd begun to become pretty common. Her favorite was one of a girl that was clearly their daughter, a bit on the short-side, in an off-white, long-sleeved, floor length gown, feet bare and a crown of red roses on top of her dark-mahogany hair (which looked red under the light) an aura that looked almost like fire enveloping her...
It was quite clear to both Nightingale and Loki that their as-of-yet unborn daughter was (would be?) a precog, so powerful that even in her womb she was managing to influence her mom's dreams, allowing her glimpses of the future. Neither of them were precogs themselves, and even as a she-elf that had never been one of Silbhé's specialties, but that did not stop them from trying their best to deal with it.
A few things at least were evident from their most recent dream: more conflict was coming. Not in their direction, but in the direction of others, at least at first... if it didn't get under control soon enough the ripples just might be big enough to end up affecting them in the end. Which was why they needed to do something, even if all they could think about was warning those who would potentially be the most affected by the upcoming situation. And so, with that in mind, Loki used just a little magic to summon a phone (usually he preferred to communicate through magical mirrors and the like, but for what was going on, a phone would have to do). Silbhé dialed the number without a thought. Neither of them were really surprised when Tony Stark picked up on the second ring.
"You do realize what time it is, right?" He asked in a deadpan tone.
"You weren't asleep." Silbhé said dismissively before getting down to business. "Now listen to me very carefully Tony. A storm is coming, and unless measures are taken, a lot will be destroyed, and many innocents will pay for the crimes of a few."
"Sounds ominous..." Tony quipped.
"Stark!" The couple practically barked at the same time.
"Ok, ok, I'm listening." Tony stated, truly becoming serious. "And I'm recording this call for future reference, just so you know."
Loki had to admit it was a good idea, so he did not complain, just allowed his love to talk. She told him everything she could remember with enough clarity to be sure about: agents, spies, a ship taken over by pirates; an assassin with a metal arm; a black man with a patch on his eye being gunned down; Captain America running through rooftops, through streets, on a motorcycle; a man with something that looked like a jetpack on his back, except metal wings came out of it; Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff running, fleeing together; a man supposed to be long dead, enduring inside a mega computer; a missile being shot to a secret bunker; a blonde woman neither of them knew, dressed in a tactical outfit, gun in hand; Agents fighting among agents, some loyal, some traitors, a fall from within; bullets, explosions, life and death; three helicarriers rising into the sky, carrying a sense of doom, of the end of the world; and then, there were no more pictures but a sense of so much falling into pieces...
"What do you expect me to do with all this?" Tony asked when she was finally done.
"I... I don't know." She admitted after a moment. "I don't know what you can do, but I'm sure it's more than I could do."
"You have more power than I do." Tony pointed out.
"Perhaps, but no reason to get involved, not in the initial stages." She replied. "And if I... if we were to wait until we actually have a reason to get involved..."
"It'd be far too late." Tony finished for her, understanding the seriousness of the situation. "I'll put JARVIS and FRIDAY both on this. See how much of this we can figure out before it happens, or at least if we can catch it the moment it starts. Will that be enough?"
"I hope so." Was all she could give him.
It would have to be enough, none of them had any better plans.
"Is that everything?" Tony asked after an extended silence.
Silbhé was about to say yes, when another thought came to her without warning.
"Keep in touch with Coulson and his team." She blurted out unexpectedly. "I... I think you're all going to need each other before the end."
"Ok, will do." Tony agreed.
It was obvious he did not understand what that particular group had to do with anything, but he'd already realized how serious it all was, he'd listen to the young woman's advice.
Nightingale and Loki couldn't have known it in that moment, but the fall of SHIELD was coming. A move HYDRA had been planning for a very long time, so many plans, and at least half of them had gone into flames before they could even be implemented. No one would ever understand how it happened; would never fully comprehend just how much they owed to two people's desire to do anything possible to help, and one man's choice to take that information and run with it, despite the fact that most would have never believed in it. Tony Stark would rather take a risk that regret not doing so, and the world would end up all the better for it...
Of course because things couldn't remain perfect for long (even with their visions/nightmares and all), something (else) just had to go wrong... and it happened two days later. The morning after the battle (and the party) all the sorcerers had written down their reports on what had happened before sending them to Wong (who, besides being the Librarian, had become the leader of Kamar-Taj for the time being).
Sorcerers had arrived to the NY Sanctum the very next day, Karl's presence was required in Kamar-Taj, for an audience. Required, though apparently he wasn't being the chance to refuse. As they soon found out, there were those who didn't feel exactly comfortable with someone having the ability to rob a sorcerer of their powers, especially someone like Karl, who was seen as not being completely dedicated to the Order, as he'd spent the last few years mostly wandering around the world (no one knew just how often he visited NY...).
"This is insane!" Stephen snarled when the new-arrivals tried to take hold of Karl. "You cannot imprison Karl simply because you are afraid of him. That's absolutely ridiculous!"
"He broke the natural laws..." One of the newcomers began.
"So did I!" Stephen practically roared. "When I stopped Dormammu from entering this dimension in 2011, when I defeated Kaecilius and his zealots I broke the natural laws. Karl and Wong were there too. Yet no one seems to care about that one! Tamara Walker was a Rogue, she was using her power to cause imbalance, she intended to bring someone back from the dead! And not just any person but a dangerous Enchantress!"
No one seemed to know quite what to say that.
"Stephen..." Karl began quietly.
The man knew the doctor/sorcerer saw him as a dear friend, always had (though there had been times, especially during the months following the battle in Hong Kong and Karl choosing to walk away, when the older man hadn't been quite sure why); still, the Romanian could have never expected such a vehement defense from the New-Yorker. He also couldn't possibly miss the way that Sachiko, Helena, Silbhé and Loki all discreetly but purposefully moved to surround him. None of them were calling on their magic just yet, but he'd no doubt that they would fight if it came to it. It humbled and delighted Karl at the same time.
"No Karl, I will not allow this." Stephen said, before turning to the other sorcerers. "Karl Mordo is my personal friend, a colleague to us all, and also a good man. And I will step forth and repeat that to every single member of the Order if I have to!"
No one doubted a word.
In the end Stephen did not need to do any of that; instead he ended having to do something in some ways much simpler, and in others, much more complicated than that.
"Are you sure this is completely necessary or, you know, at all?" Was the first thing to come out of Stephen's mouth once Wong finished explaining what he had to do.
Helena, Sachiko, Karl, Silbhé and Loki were in the room as well, though they remained completely silence, knowing that, as serious as things were, it had to be Stephen's choice, a choice they'd all abide by, no matter what.
"Strange..." Wong began, then stopped, revised. "Stephen... you are right. The people pushing for this are doing so out of fear. They fear what they cannot understand, and especially what could one day affect them; and of course, knowing there's nothing they could do to stop them doesn't help matters any." The Chinese man shook his head. "It was bad enough when Karl first chose to leave. Back then the fact that he'd stood with us against Kaecilius and his zealots, along with the fact that he'd been the Ancient One's student, and your own refusal to have him declared a Rogue, protected him. But this... this goes beyond that. And it's not even just him. What happened with Walker has made it painfully evident that we're none of us immune to temptation, to darkness. Tamara was once one of the best..."
"And then she became..." Stephen broke off, cursing under his breath.
"We're all vulnerable as we are right now." Wong went on. "Not just Kamar-Taj, or the Order, but the world as a whole. It's been five years, and cannot be allowed to continue." He let out a breath. "You've known all along that this was a possibility, don't try to pretend you didn't."
"True." Stephen admitted. "Doesn't mean I expected it to happen so suddenly."
"You're ready Stephen." Wong assured him kindly. "I think you might have been ready all along, ever since 'that' day. It was the Order that wasn't ready yet. You must realize, the way you went through training, from initiate, to novice, to apprentice, to sorcerer, to master... whatever title you may choose to call yourself, it doesn't change your actual position. And no one before you had ever moved so fast through the ranks. Not even Her..."
Stephen nodded, she knew that, had always known it, at least in the back of his head; but he'd never paid it much mind. It simply didn't change anything for him.
"You say the Order wasn't ready back then, will they be now?" The blue-green-golden eyed sorcerer asked with an arched brow.
"They will have to be." The Librarian left it pretty clear there simply was no other option available. "You have nothing to fear Stephen, You're ready for this... and we both know you will not have to walk down this path alone."
"No, I won't." Stephen agreed. "Lets do this then."
The others straightened up instantly, ready to walk out and face what was coming by his side, like it was supposed to be. Stephen stopped just before reaching the door.
"Sachiko...?" He called, turning towards his apprentice.
"Yes?" The young woman gave a step forward, cocking her head to a side in wonder.
"I trust you'll stand by him for what's coming." The Master of the NY Sanctum said, it wasn't really a question, nor did it need to be.
"Of course." The girl answered without hesitation.
"You're ready." He nodded, inclining his head just enough to kiss her brow. "Congratulations, you're a fully qualified sorceress now."
Wong rolled his eyes. Stephen Strange was really the kind to defy tradition and do things however he wished. Usually an apprentice becoming a fully qualified sorcerer would be a more complex matter, full of ceremony and protocol; especially when it was the disciple of a Master in a position like Dr. Strange's... and yet, perhaps it was only right that his apprentice (former-apprentice now) be as unorthodox as him. And she would be a good aid for Mordo in what was to come.
"Very well." Stephen nodded, mostly to himself. "Lets do this then."
Helena put her arm in his, seeking to calm him and prompting a small but sincere smile from her match. Then, after taking a deep breath they walked out of the room and towards the main courtyard of Kamar-Taj, where Stephen Strange was about to take his place as the Supreme Sorcerer, and subsequently name Karl as the new Master of the New York Sanctum; something that would both show his trust in the other man and put him in a position of enough power that others wouldn't be able to turn against him without causing a veritable war, and none of them wanted that.
It was true that Stephen had known all along that they'd need a new Supreme Sorcerer sooner or later; he might have even been able to deduce that he was the most likely candidate for the post. And that wasn't his ego speaking; it was like Wong had said, none before him had moved through the ranks so fast. He had the knowledge, the cleverness, the power to back it up, the support and respect from his peers (the awe of all who had heard of how he'd stopped Dormammu from taking over their world after Kaecilius's attack on Hong-Kong, and just how far he was willing to go to protect the world); and most important of all: he wasn't alone. He had his match, and his dearest friends. He could do it, he could be the Supreme Sorcerer...
So, what did you think? I decided to try some new things for this fic (it was also one of the hardest for me to do, as I hadn't the slightest idea of what to write, aside from knowing I didn't want a repeat of any of my previous works). And then Lorelei came into the picture, and I decided to take some of the things I'd mentioned in Ethereal Gift with Tamara Walker, Karl Mordo and Sachiko Nishimura further. Then Amora came into the picture (that one definitely wasn't planned!... It also ended up a bit more violent than planned). I hope you like it.
Next AU (coming in three weeks) we're going to Wakanda! (And that's all I'm saying on that topic.
See ya around people! Please don't forget to comment!