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Astrid

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Astrid Poster

Astrid

(Part 3 of the Menel Series)

By: Lalaith Quetzalli

They were rebuilding SHIELD from the ground up, but this organization was very different from the old one, created by a family with trust, comradeship, love... and the universe would react to it, as individuals and beings once believed to be mere legends came out of the shadows, ready to join, to help, to Protect...

Chapter 1. To The End of the Line

Menel let out a breath as she stepped out of the Shadow Paths upon her return to Midgard. She had spent two weeks visiting her family, including a quick, one day trip to Helheim to see her sister on her way back. She'd learnt how to Shadow Walk, which was a good thing (she wanted to avoid being defenseless, trapped, ever again); she still couldn't take anyone with her, her powers weren't enough for that, but she was getting better. Her magic was still growing, after all.

Her illusions had gotten better too, though she was completely incapable of conjuring; which her Adar insisted was to be expected, as it was a particularly hard art, he himself had trouble with it, the only one capable of conjuring with any fluidity and success had been Lady Frigga; the young princess thought it might be because while illusions were never actually real, creation... that was a power that should only belong to the gods.

She was getting better at both Elvish and Norse, even if she mostly cheated, using the aid of spells to teach herself the languages; it was necessary, it's not like she had the time to study them.

Her fighting skills were also improving, or so Sif had told her during their last spar. Menel had finally stopped holding back, making use of everything she'd been taught during her life. It made for a rather eclectic mix of moves, as more than one person had pointed out, but it was alright, and it even worked in her favor, making her rather unpredictable to her opponents. Sif had even allowed her to spar with a few of the young trainees looking to join the ranks of the Asgardian Warriors, she could take down all the newbies and hold her own with most of the actual warriors-in-training; and she kept improving.

Her Naneth had taught her more of history, culture, as well as to better interpret her own dreams, and any possible future prophecies she might make. Though she knew not to expect much from the last one; actual prophecies were hardly ever made, as she'd been told, and nearly impossible to interpret correctly before they actually came to pass.

She of course had made time to go horse-riding at least every other day for a little while, as well as brush not only her horse's mane, but also Sleipnir. The stable-boys had stopped commenting on it, thinking she simply liked horses a lot and was fascinated by the eight-legged stallion. It also happened that Sleipnir would get a little wild and unmanageable whenever she happened to be in the stalls and the Aesir refused to allow her to do it; until the stable-boys refused to go near the animal whenever she was around, deciding that leaving her to her devices was by far preferable to running the risk of getting kicked. The half-elf just found the whole thing extremely funny; she also wondered why no one but she saw how much like their father Sleipnir was... then again, hardly anyone knew he was her father either so...

Visiting Fenrir was a bit harder, though not by much. Aside from a bunch of trainees and what seemed like the teen-aged version of the Aesir trying to out-dare each other hardly anyone seemed willing to get anywhere close to where the 'demon wolf' laid, chained. At least it wasn't as bad as the myths she'd read claimed, he didn't have a sword in his mouth, pinning him to the ground; still, there were enough chains on Fenrir to make all but the smallest of motions impossible; it gave him cramps, which could get quite painful. Which was why, after her second visit, Menel had begun carrying with her some oils and massaging her brother's extremity's at best she could. She would then hear his voice in her mind, expressing his gratefulness, his love for her, in every way he possibly could.

Jormungandr wasn't actually in Asgard but in Midgard; but the brunette had managed to establish semi-regular contact with him since her return from her first visit to Asgard back in February. It was why it was so easy for her to contact him to ask for her help when FitzSimmons ended at the bottom of the sea in Mexico's Gulf in mid-May.

Yes, it had been a good visit. She had only been able to spend a day with Hela, but that was alright too. The sisters knew they loved each other, regardless of how little time they might be able to spend with each other. Menel knew that no matter how much she might wish to spend more time with her family, it just wasn't possible. Not only because of the risk it would mean of them all being discovered (particularly her Adar's ruse, pretending to be King Odin Allfather); but also because being the Deputy Director of the new SHIELD was no small responsibility, and she couldn't push it aside for long, she couldn't do that to those counting on her, like Phil, and the rest of the team, who were all trying so hard.

Still, she was satisfied. Her parents were very proud of her, of what she had achieved in such a short time; and she was happy for them, that they were finally getting the chance to be together, even with all the subterfuge and risks involved.

The brunette had just set both feet on the ground and switched seamlessly into her Agent Avery image when a rush of power and feelings washed over her, abruptly enough to make her stumble and almost drop on one knee. Something was wrong, very, very wrong, with one she called her own. Letting her instincts take over (or what had become instincts since she'd stopped trying to separate her identities so completely and began actively using magic as well as her ice-element when dressed as an Agent); she slipped back into the shadows; though instead of going for Yggdrassil and another realm, she went through the Shadow Plane, following the psychic call of the one who needed her.

When she returned to the material world the brunette had no idea where in the world she was exactly. Before her 'vacation', Phil had told her he and the team would be checking out a number of old SHIELD bases. All records as well as preliminary research marked them as abandoned; there was supposed to be no danger. And yet, what she was feeling in that moment...

The half-elf pretty much expected to land in the middle of a fight-for-life; yet that wasn't what happened. No instead what she found was her team standing, looking lost, around what had probably once been the main floor of a warehouse. In the center were three men: Phil, James and... Steve Rogers. What was Captain America doing in that place?!

She didn't really have time to ponder on it, for she noticed that James was on his knees, body completely folded, trembling as if in some deep, unknown pain; and Astrid could feel that pain.

"James?!" She cried out, rushing to his side.

It took some effort but she managed to force his body to move, at least enough to pull him practically into her lap, head pressed against the center of her chest. She could vaguely hear the mix of surprise and confusion behind her, but she ignored it, ignored everyone that wasn't James. He was her responsibility!

"James..." She whispered into his hair. "Focus on my voice, on my heartbeat... Hear me James, feel me. I'm here... you're not alone... I'm here now... you're never alone..."

She kept repeating the same words, or variations of them, several times. Until James became practically limp in her arms; she could feel him relaxing, though she also knew he hadn't dealt with whatever had caused the 'episode', no, instead he was blocking it.

"Someone wanna explain to me what exactly happened here?" She asked authoritatively, yet softly so as not to upset her charge again.

"This was the last place on the list." Phil began explaining calmly and efficiently. "As the reports indicated, it was empty. James was getting restless, not having anything to really do. Melinda suggested to take a break, do some sparring, take advantage of the abandoned place. It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"They were awesome!" Leo offered from a side.

Skye guessed it had been James and Phil doing the sparring, only an Eihenjar would be able to keep up with a super-soldier when he really got going; and even if he'd broken the programming of the Winter Soldier, James still was one in many ways. He still needed to to vent sometimes, activities that forced him to expend his excess energy. A stray thought entered the young woman's mind, making her wonder how things would go if James were to spar against Sif...

"We never expected Captain Rogers and Mr. Wilson to arrive before we were finished, or for them to react the way they did." Phil went on.

The young woman nodded, she did not need any further clarification. She knew how people with extraordinary abilities could get when they found someone that could be considered an equal, to test themselves against. She had experienced it herself when she'd fought James in the Arboretum back in Los Angeles; after months without a good sparring partner. And with Phil still learning of his own abilities... A part of her wished she had been there to witness the fight, it must have been wonderful; the rest of her knew she needed to focus on what was happening at the moment.

"They thought you were in danger." She nodded in agreement. "That still doesn't explain why James in on the edge of a mental breakdown."

"I honestly don't know." Phil admitted. "I thought this wouldn't happen after LA..."

"It shouldn't have..." Skye admitted, pondering.

And then she understood, it was so obvious. The thought had even gone through her mind when James began relaxing in her arms.

"You still haven't dealt with it..." She murmured, mostly to herself.

With a shake of her head she pulled at James, forcing him to raise his head and meet her eyes; though it wasn't easy, as he refused to cooperate.

"James!" She called in her most demanding tone.

The reaction was immediate, instinctive; as the bond between the two forced James to comply. Skye winced internally, hating to force James to do something, but she knew it was necessary, for his own good.

"You're blocking your problems instead of facing them, of dealing with them." She told him evenly, staring straight into his eyes. "This cannot go on James. You need to take care of yourself. What will you do if I'm not around next time this happens? Or if it happens in the middle of a fight? You're a part of this team, and we need you..."

The words hit James deeper than even she was expecting, as he bowed his head, pressing his forehead against her chest, mumbling apologies in every language he knew (and the number was considerable, with his long life and experiences).

"What happened?" She asked next, softly.

"He doesn't understand..." James murmured keenly. "Steve... he doesn't.." His voice broke for a moment before he forced himself to go on. "It's not his fault... he doesn't know... doesn't see..."

"What do you need James?" She asked next.

"I need..." He shook his head, still pressed against her. "He needs to know... Steve... he needs to understand... Little Cloud, please..."

"Sh..." She carded her fingers through his mahogany hair soothingly. "Sh... James. It's alright. I promise, everything will be alright. He will know, he will understand... I will make sure of that." He pressed a kiss to her forehead before adding, voice laced with magic: "Lanta kaima (sleep)."

James eyes closed and he dropped (completely limp this time), into Skye's lap.

"Bucky!" Rogers cried out in obvious distress.

"It's alright, he's alright." She stated, not truly worried if he believed her or not at the time, she turned to Phil instead. "I put him to sleep. That level of distress was no good. When he wakes up I will work on helping him deal with the memories he's been repressing." She let out a breath. "I probably should have done this sooner, but I thought it was better to let him set the pace. I honestly believed he would come to me when he needed help."

"He's a proud man..." Phil reminded her.

"He is." Skye agreed. "But it's not just that..."

"He sees all the responsibilities you have and doesn't want to bother you." Melinda finished for her in a no-nonsense tone.

"Exactly." Skye nodded with a sigh before turning her attention back to the sleeping James. "What he doesn't seem to get is that he's my responsibility as well... and above that, he's my friend. I would have... will do, anything I can to help him."

"That's enough." Phil did his best to reassure her.

With some help from Melinda Phil hefted James's unconscious body up, taking him over his shoulder in a fireman carry. Rogers tried to help but the team moved to block him, something that seemed to surprise both him and his companion.

"Just what is going on here?" The dark-skinned man, whom SHIELD knew to be Sam Wilson, the Falcon, former Pararescue and Captain America's ally in Washington. "Who are all of you people? What do any of you have to do with the Winter Soldier."

It looked like Rogers was about to comment on his friend's choice of address of his oldest friend, but before he could, surprisingly, FitzSimmons did.

"His name is James!" The couple called in unison.

The response actually made the two non-family-team-members blink.

"Indeed, his name is James." Skye agreed with a smile as she took Phil's offered hand to get on her feet before turning to face them. "He's an old friend of mine. As to who we are..."

"I believe that's a conversation better had in private." Phil offered, signaling in the direction where the Bus was waiting. "We never know who could be listening out here."

That was definitely true; even if Skye couldn't sense anyone aside from them in the vicinity, it was better not to take such risks.

It was obvious the two men still had their doubts regarding the group, yet they still followed them, not saying a word until they were on the Bus... Captain Rogers's eyes landed on the seal engraved on one of the walls.

"You're from SHIELD!" He breathed out in half-shock.

That made Wilson react instantly, as he reached for the gun strapped to his waist.

"Emphasis on SHIELD." Triplett stated, hand on his own gun and eyes fixed straight on the Falcon. "We're not Hydra."

"How can we be sure of that?" Wilson insisted.

"How can we be sure you're not Hydra?" Leo retorted.

"Captain America with Hydra?!" Wilson snorted. "That's preposterous!"

"Just as preposterous as you insinuating the same about us." Jemma stated seriously.

"That's enough." Phil warned, before turning to face Wilson. "We're not Hydra, Mr. Wilson. We are Agents of SHIELD."

"SHIELD is gone." Rogers declared.

"Yeah... not quite." Skye shook her head.

"SHIELD cannot just disappear." Melinda stated. "It's not possible. Regardless of what might have happened in Washington."

"Besides." Triplett added for good measure. "Who do you expect to clean up the mess that is Hydra but us?"

"You're rebuilding SHIELD..." Rogers realized.

"From the ground up." Phil nodded. "It's a long, hard task, but we're all quite willing to do it." He focused on Wilson. "I am Phil Coulson, Director of the new SHIELD." He signaled to Skye by his side. "This is Astrid Skye Avery, Deputy Director of SHIELD."

"What does Fury have to say about this?" Rogers blurted out.

No one dared say a word about that. The fact that Nick Fury was still alive was supposed to be a secret, one only they, as the highest ranking in the New SHIELD (and its founders) knew; and yet, it wouldn't be that surprising, with everything that had gone down in Washington, if Captain Rogers knew the truth about that.

"He gave me this task." Phil announced after what seemed like forever.

For what seemed like a very long minute not a word was said, and then Steve let out a breath, he sounded exhausted, mentally more than physically. They could all see the constant looks he threw at James, who was laying on a cot in what passed for an infirmary on the Bus. It had been Jemma who had insisted they kept him there, at least until he woke up and she knew if he would need any meds, perhaps even a sedative; though they all hoped it wouldn't be necessary.

"What is going on here?" The Captain asked quietly.

"AC already told you who the two of us are." Skye decided to take charge for the time being. "Aside from that we have the rest of our team: Melinda May, Antoine Triplett, Clint Barton, Darcy Lewis and FitzSimmons."

"FitzSimmons?" Wilson repeated in confusion.

"I am Leo Fitz, she's Jemma Simmons." Leo clarified. "We're the scientists of the team."

"Since we're always together, we're called FitzSimmons." Jemma added. "It's normal, people have called us that since we were in the Academy." She made a pause before adding, with a somewhat giddy expression. "We're also engaged."

"Engaged?" Wilson repeated, blinking again.

"I thought SHIELD protocols forbade active Agents from entering relationships with team-members." Steve commented, just as surprised.

"That's a rule of the old SHIELD." Triplett informed him. "We're different."

"Same objective, different methods." Melinda added.

"And a lot less protocols." Darcy put in her two cents with a smile.

Clint just laughed. It's not like they had been the kind who worried about the rules; but still.

"Clint..." Steve murmured, quite curious about his presence there.

"Phil needed help." Clint stated, as if it were as simple as that, and maybe for him it was. "Darcy got a tip that some individuals might be coming after me, after Hydra revealed itself. So we made our bags and took off. Met with Phil and his team later on, and here we are."

"You knew how to find him." Steve realized.

Clint nodded with a slight shrug, he didn't see what was so hard about that. He, Natasha and Phil. They were family, from the first day Phil had chosen to see the younger man's crass language as a joke instead of an insult, from the first day he defended the younger agent before a colleague inside SHIELD... and then there was that time when Phil had faced Fury himself to support Clint's decision of bringing in the Black Widow instead of assassinating her. Yes, they were definitely a family. It didn't matter if Phil had forgotten for a while, the archer had never doubted that they would meet again, someday.

It was one thing Phil had actually forgotten to bring up with Nick when they'd had their little 'conversation' after taking down Cybertek. Though, in the end, it hadn't been necessary, the answer had come to him in the following nights and weeks, as his powers and abilities as an Eihenjar continued developing and more of his memories unsealed. As it turned out, the loss had been a side-effect of the procedure that made him forget how the doctors had brought him back. Because he'd been holding so tightly onto memories of those he cared for most at the time of his death, those memories had sort-of been 'on the way' when the doctors worked the machines to eliminate memories of the surgeries. However, his power allowed him to 'restore himself', in a sense; it was what had returned to him first the memories of what TAHITI really had been about, later on his family, and even fragments of his time in Valhala. Though, on the last subject he knew he would never recover everything, Lady Frigga himself had warned him of that, as Valhala was another dimension, one that existed outside of human understanding; therefore his still-at-least-partially-human mind, couldn't fully process the memories of his time there, and instead kept them half-suppressed; as images that would sometimes come up in dreams, or as sort-of deja vú's, but nothing of more importance.

"I've been in contact with Clint, Darcy and Tasha since last December." Phil clarified for the Captain's benefit, since he knew Clint wouldn't.

Steve nodded. He didn't quite understood; but he had known, in the days that had followed the battle of New York, the few days he'd spent with the team, helping with the labors of rescue and restoration of the city, he'd been able to see the tight bonds there had existed between Hawkeye and Black Widow, they treated each other as siblings. He'd also heard them mention Agent Coulson more than once, though not as most Agents spoke about a superior, but how two young people referred to someone they looked up to: a role model, an older brother, or even a father... It had made him regret not getting the chance to know the Agent. And then Stark had sent out that message: "Agent is alive!" He hadn't believed it at first, of course; but it had been impossible to refute the evidence of that video, even after the original was erased from the web and they were unable to find either Coulson or any witness of what had happened in the train station...

"What I still don't understand man." Sam interrupted his line of thought. "Is how exactly the Soldier sleeping over there, figures in all of this." He arched a brow. "The little lady says he's her friend, but I thought Bucky Barnes had been 'on ice'..." He snorted at his own words. "Quite literally, for the last several decades."

"You shouldn't joke about such matters." Jemma declared in a chiding tone.

"Sorry." And Sam truly felt bad for his lack of tact.

"Hydra did do that to him." Skye nodded with evident sadness. "But he didn't spend all the time like that. They would wake him up, every so often, get him to do their dirty work. It was how I met him, back in 2007, shortly after I turned seventeen..."

The story she told in that moment was a shorter, less-detailed version of the things she'd told Phil the day she'd gone to meet James in New York. They did not need to know the kind of life she'd had while in the Foster System, how she'd had to run away before that last family killed her... or worse, the kind of things she'd seen and been through, living on the streets for months... There was no need to bring any of that up, they did not need to know. She neither want nor need their pity. Besides, having been introduced as the Deputy Director of SHIELD, she had an image to uphold, a position better maintained if they saw no weakness in her.

It was obvious Sam Wilson still did not understand how the seventeen-year-old Skye had not run after realizing what James's 'job' truly consisted of. He was so insistent on thinking the worst of her friend that the brunette couldn't help but forget her own thoughts about 'not revealing too much', and snapped full-out at him:

"Stop talking of things you cannot begin to understand!" She ordered, unknowingly calling on the authority and manner she usually only exuded when she took the image of her princess self. "You know nothing of James, much less of me, yet you believe yourself with the right to judge us? I expected much better from someone who's made a living out of helping war-veterans find their way after they leave the battlefield." She waved his excuses away before he could even voice them. "James is a Warrior, in every sense of the word. He was in the middle of a War when he fell. It was true he was on ice, and every time he was pulled out of it, he was sent to fight, then frozen once again. Now imagine yourself in his place. Imagine living years, decades, knowing only three things: strong voices giving you orders, death and destruction as you fulfill those orders, and the ice-cold of sleep being your only reward... every damned time!"

Sam's mouth shut so abruptly his teeth hurt as they impacted on each other.

"That's the kind of life James has lead, for so many years mortals could not comprehend..." She went on, still in the same tone. "At some point he got lost in that haze. Why should he care about anything, when he would never be allowed to have it? Only three things, three people, have ever been able to penetrate that haze. One was a girl called Natalia, whom he knew years ago, they made him one of her trainers, the one time he was woken for something other than assassinating someone (though he did end up doing some of that). He grew attached to her, and in the end he helped her escape, but couldn't leave himself. The things that they did to him for daring to care for another human being... they sought to strip him of any piece of humanity he might have left. Yet they failed..."

"Because of you..." Steve whispered, beginning to understand.

"Only in part." Skye admitted wistfully. "When I was seventeen... it's hard to explain. And I'm not saying this to get anything out of you, but you really need to understand." She focused straight on Steve. "Especially you, if you want to rebuild the friendship you once shared, the brotherhood..." She took a glance at the still sleeping James. "He's not the Bucky you knew in the forties... but neither is he the Winter Soldier Hydra turned him into. The easiest way to explain it is that he's James..." She took a deep breath before deciding to reveal just a little more about herself. "At the time we met. I had nothing and nobody. I had run away from my foster parents almost six months prior, spent that time living on the streets. It wasn't as bad as it may sound, I'm a survivor, have always been. Like everyone, I had good days and bad ones. The day he met, it was one of the bad ones. He helped me. He did not ask me who I was, or what was wrong with me exactly, he just helped. Then later on helped me again." She let out a breath. "When he learnt I was on my own he took it upon himself to become my protector. Taught me to defend myself, to fight, better means to survive... and then his handlers gave him the order to kill me."

"What?!" The announcement seemed to take Sam by surprise.

"Because you were making him care again." Steve began to understand. "Like the other girl, Natalia had, before."

"Yes." Skye nodded.

"And he didn't do it." Steve went on.

"No." Skye agreed with him.

"It didn't end well, did it?" Steve had a very bad feeling about where the story was going.

For all answer Skye activated one of the screens in the lab, bringing up a digital newspaper article she'd found weeks before, when she'd finally gotten to explaining her history with James to the rest of her team (she did not want to share the memories with them, like she had with Phil, it was a very intimate thing and not meant for everyone). The main picture showed a double-decker tour-bus and several other vehicles burning near the middle of a bridge, high over a river, in the boarder between the United States and Canada, the rain barely keeping the flames under control. The header mentioned a horrible accident, and the article itself went into detail of how everything had seemingly gotten out of control when people began shooting 'for no apparent reason'. The visitors were capable of reading in between the lines.

"How did either of you survive that?" Sam blurted out in absolute shock.

And it was that, in case the newspaper article hadn't been enough, Phil had added pictures and pieces of videos they'd fished from tv-stations, the internet, and several agencies databanks, from when the 'catastrophe' had been investigated. No one had ever known for sure what had happened that day, Hydra hadn't allowed it.

"They were after him." Skye responded, as if it should have been obvious. "They wouldn't kill him, of course; Hydra saw him as a weapon and would never destroy what was useful to them. Doesn't mean they wouldn't inflict a great deal of pain before putting him on ice again." She couldn't help the visible flinch at the memory of what she'd read in the files she'd found pretty much on accident the day the civil war had begun. "Me... I wouldn't have survived, had they found me. But they never did. James made sure of that."

She didn't tell them how exactly her friend had made sure of that; Rogers and Wilson simply wouldn't have understood. Besides, telling them that James had thrown her off the bridge would have required an explanation of how exactly she'd survived such an ordeal, and that was something she certainly wasn't willing to do. Because Rogers was an Avenger, and Thor's ally, and who knows what Thor would do if he ever found out about her...?

"The next time they woke him he was given the order to assassinate Nick Fury." Phil informed them from Skye's side, fixing his eyes on the Captain. "And then you came into the picture..."

Steve nodded quietly, understanding that he was the third thing/person to have been able to penetrate the haze of the 'Winter Soldier' and reach the man buried beneath: James Buchanan Barnes... his friend, his brother was still there. He'd changed, but then again, so had Steve; it was only to be expected. Doesn't mean they couldn't still be friends.

"There's only one thing I still don't understand." Sam announced. "And don't take this the wrong way lady but, why did he go looking for you? Why not Steve?"

Skye couldn't help but flinch at the memory his question evoked, and as Phil placed a hand on her arm in an attempt to sooth her, he was quite sure the same memory was echoing in both their minds, as clear as if it had happened just the day before: James on his back, broken, so badly broken, not physically but mentally and emotionally... telling her, telling both of them how Pierce had sent him after Steve, his friend, his brother; how the man recognized him, wouldn't fight him, refused to see him as anything but Bucky.

The mix of memories, not only theirs in that moment but also a rather strong memory from Steve made it so a specific phrase could practically be heard floating in the air:

"...I'm with you to the end of the line..."

Everyone shivered at the effect those words caused, even if none acknowledged hearing them at all (maybe they did, maybe they didn't).

"He pulled you out of the water." Skye blurted out abruptly, looking straight at Steve. "After the helicarriers crashed. He was the one to pull you out. Did you know that?"

"I suspected." He admitted quietly. "When I woke up in the hospital... Sam told me they had just found me on the shore, unconscious. There had been no one around who might have done it. But there had been just so many people in the Triskellion that day, and not all of them were Hydra, not even most of them; and some actually chose to do the right thing, to help, even when their lives were at risk." He shook his head. "A part of me wanted to believe, you know? Believe that it had been him, that he'd remembered, at least enough to choose to save me. But if it were so, why didn't he stay with me?"

"He couldn't." Skye answered quietly, though she knew he wasn't actually expecting an answer. "He couldn't stay, and he couldn't explain to you why, either."

The young woman was just grateful neither he nor his friend had yet considered asking how exactly it was she knew all the things she did. She wasn't ready to explain how, to save James, she'd had to go deep into his mind, had had to go through practically all of his memories from the day he'd left for the war... it had been necessary, to eliminate all possible triggers, mental traps, and anything else that might have either made him hurt someone else, or even himself. At the same time, her foray into his mind had caused an equal but opposite reaction, allowing him into her own memory banks. It was why he understood her so absolutely.

It had been almost funny, in fact, during that first week, how his insistence to be close to her had caused Phil to react with jealousy, something that apparently had never happened to him before, in any of his previous relationships. It had then been up to Skye to explain that she and James knew the other, absolutely, there were no secrets between them; they were brother and sister, tight as they would never find another pair of siblings... but that's all they would ever be. Their relationship was one based on absolute trust, and on dependency (more from him to her, due to the nature of the power used to save him, but still); and it was precisely for that reason that there could never be a relationship between them. Because they could never be equals, not like Phil and Skye were.

It had been even funnier after that. To see the reaction other people, especially those who arrived to serve the New SHIELD, had when they saw Skye and James interacting together, after having been told of her relationship with Phil. Some had taken offense at first (mostly feeling that Phil 'deserved better'), others couldn't help but think that maybe that was why the old protocols existed; but once they saw the three of them in the same room, they would begin to understand, the difference in the way each of them acted with the others.

Phil and Skye were never demonstrative of their relationship in front of anyone but those they considered family. And yet, just the way they looked at each other, the way they moved (as if they were constantly shadowing each other, as if gravity pulled them without them even noticing) made obvious there was a connection, one that went beyond anything that could be properly explained, anything most humans could truly comprehend.

"I know he went to the Smithsonian a week later." Steve went on, seemingly not noticing Skye's preoccupation. "A child mentioned he'd seen someone looking exactly like Bucky Barnes, but no one believed him until the security tapes were reviewed. Then I found out... but by then it was too late. He was long gone..."

"He came looking for me." Skye told him what he had already deduced. "I... we were in LA at the time, working on how to take down a couple of traitors and their project: Centipede." She let out a breath. "After what happened in Washington, he left me a message, through a code we'd established before. I answered it, telling him where I was, and that I was busy. I wasn't actually expecting him to go to me; thought he would prefer to wait until I could meet him on the East Coast. I had no idea how bad things were until I saw him." It took her a second to decide how best to explain things to the Captain, without making him feel bad about it all. "James's mind, you could say that he was trapped, chained by everything that was done to him, all the orders, the brainwashing, the tortures, the triggers... when you did what you did in that helicarrier, when you refused to fight him, kept reminding him who he was. You saved him in many ways... you also pushed him to save you. He managed to break enough of his conditioning to both stop seeing you as a target, and to save you when you were under water. However, the damage was still there. Maybe if an actual psychic (because she still believed those did exist) had helped him break out, but he did it on his own, and in the process damaged himself as well. In the museum he was able to confirm what you had been telling him, what his mixed-up memories were beginning to show him. But it was not enough. He was broken, in more ways than you or even I could begin to comprehend. He..." She had to take a breath before continuing, but the topic was a hard one to think about, and even harder to speak of. "He knew it was going to get worse, as more memories slipped through the holes he'd punched in his own mind. And there was no way of knowing when some trigger, or some other part of his training might make him act up. It was a risk he wasn't willing to take around you."

"But he was willing to take it around you." Steve couldn't help the bitterness in his own voice.

"Not quite." Skye admitted, and she knew that much, even if they'd never spoken of it. "While he did go looking for me, he did not mean to stay." She shook her head before finally releasing the bombshell. "He was dying..."

"What?!" Neither of their visitors had been expecting that.

"His mind was in pieces, it had been for a very long time." Skye tried her best to explain the horror. "And yet, somehow, the things Hydra did to him, the commands, they kept him together, made him... function, for lack of a better word. When he tore that away, he tore what was keeping him together, so-to-speak. He became paranoid, self-destructive and almost schizophrenic." She shivered again at the memory. "He knew he was dying, told me himself in fact. The only reason he went looking for me was because he wanted to make sure I was alright, as apparently I was on Pierce's list to be either inducted into Hydra or eliminated."

"You were a target?!" Sam blurted in shock.

Skye shrugged, just shocking the man further, wondering if she realized the dangers she'd been in; but of course she did, and the scars in her stomach were enough proof of it.

"I have been in enough danger since joining SHIELD, first as a consultant, later on as a full Agent, and now with the position I hold..." She shook her head. "Trust me when I say that being a target is nothing new to me, or something that truly worries me."

Maybe if they knew what she considered as the real danger (Odin Allfather, Aesir, king of the gods, etcetera, etcetera), which had been upon her since before her birth (since her conception, really); and the things she'd survived since she was less that 48 hours old... but she wasn't about to go into that, not yet.

"He went to make sure I was alright, and to cash in the favor I owed him for keeping me safe that day, on the bridge." The brunette tried her best to finish her explanation; her eyes once again fixed straight on Steve's. "He wanted me to find you, and tell you the truth. Tell you everything he'd done, the good and bad. He hoped then you would be at peace, finally learning what had been of your old friend, even if nothing could be changed. Even if you could not forgive him, he just wanted you to know... he was so convinced he would die."

"But he didn't." Steve mumbled, and then, it dawned on him, even if he did not really understand how it was even possible. "You saved him..."

Skye smiled at him but did not answer verbally, just hoping he would not ask how she'd saved his friend exactly; if she wasn't ready to reveal her heritage to them, much less her power, and what exactly she'd done to save their mutual friend.

Next thing Skye knew she was in the super soldier's arms, being embraced so tightly... and she could sense the feelings behind the touch: the gratefulness, the comradeship, the friendship...

"Thank you..." He whispered into her ear. "Thank you so much..."

No one said anything, though it was obvious they'd never seen the Captain like that; it showed just how much he cared about his oldest friend, his brother in all but blood...

"There's no need to thank me." Skye assured him with a soft smile as she returned the embrace. "James... he's family."

And, even if just for that one time, that really was enough of an explanation.

xXx

After a short conversation it was decided that Steve and Sam would be joining the New SHIELD as they worked on taking down Hydra, one base at a time. They wouldn't actually be part of Phil's team, but there were others, and no one doubted the agents would welcome two men such as them, especially after the fame they'd earned during the battle at the Triskellion. Among those who had joined there were a few who had been present that day, and they all agreed that, even if they couldn't recite it word for word, they would never forget the speech Captain America had given that day, or what it had caused in each of them.

There were also some who wouldn't join the new SHIELD, but were still being as helpful as they could. Like Maria Hill in Stark Industries, or Agent Sharon Carter, who had joined the CIA. It had also made Phil decide to take advantage over certain friendships he'd made throughout the years, which allowed them to establish friendly-ish communications with other agencies, like the FBI (he knew a few people, especially in the Behavioral Analysis Unit), NCIS, as well as Crime Labs in several cities (especially when one of the former 'Fridge inhabitants' began causing a mess and they had to deal with it).

The contacts were such some people couldn't help but wonder why the old SHIELD hadn't enjoyed such connections; until Melinda explained:

"They aren't SHIELD's connections, they're Phil's connections." She clarified. "All those peoples, those agents and detectives, and scientists... they would have never been able to deal with Fury, not the way they do with Phil. They are two entirely different men... also, Phil has a way of... gaining other people's trust, of deserving it..."

She need not say more, they all knew it. There was a reason so many Agents were answering the call to join, even some whom most might have expected to take the chance to retire; like Agent Felix Blake, who had fully recovered from his fight against Deathlok and was back and leading one of the new teams; or even Victoria Hand, who had been offered a place in SI with her girlfriend (the relationship had become both official and public knowledge since the change in 'rules'), but had declined it to become another team-leader. Even some of the former Centipede Soldiers, who had only ever been part of it all because of the 'Incentives Program' had asked for a chance to join, to use what they had left (from training, abilities, etc.) to help instead of hurt.

So things were going well, though there was no doubt that the road ahead was still long, and it would be bumpy. While the government in general was no longer 'satanizing' SHIELD, and the high-ranked officials who had been present at the Cybertek facilities when Phil's team had dealt with that matter had given their full approval for what the group planned to do; there were still some men who wouldn't leave them alone: like Col. Talbot, General Ross (who seemed to have decided that if SHIELD didn't help him get the Hulk, then he would ruin SHIELD).

Two weeks after the team's return to the Playground, they had an unexpected visitor. According to Clint, Natasha had finished with whatever it was she had to do in Russia, and she was bored. She'd heard from the grapevine about the new SHIELD rising, apparently they were doing such a job that Hydra members as far as the other side of the globe were getting nervous already, and they hadn't been at it for more than a few weeks! A few of them believed it wasn't what they had been doing those weeks, but what they'd done when they took down the Clairvoyant in New Mexico, that had been the key point.

Some of them referred to it as a 'Castle of Cards' falling. Because by taking down Garrett, the Clairvoyant, and imprisoning Ward, Quinn and Raina they had taken down the Centipede project, the Deathlok, the Cybertek company as a whole... and they also had information regarding any other project they might have been involved with, and Quinn's businesses. One single battle had given them a number of victories in different areas, and data that could be used to their advantage in future confrontations, that was what was really making even people on the other side of the world nervous. The team/family just hoped they wouldn't get the chance to prepare enough to actually win when the time finally came to confront them, that wouldn't be good.

That particular morning Skye was with May and a few other people working through their Tai-Chi katas (it had become tradition, first between the two of them, and then, slowly, others had joined); when abruptly Skye dropped to her knees and doubled over.

"Skye!" Melinda cried out, rushing to her side in concern.

The two women had been growing closer ever since her return. It had actually begun before, when May had started teaching her Tai-Chi; but it only became truly obvious after the younger woman got back from her first trip to Asgard. For so many years Skye had had no one, and she'd learnt to live like that. Even when people as wonderful as Karen Wright were a part of her life, it wasn't for long, and while there was connection, it wasn't as strong as it might be. And then Skye had found her parents, had learnt they loved her, and they had formed such tight connections, so fast... the young woman couldn't help but feel untethered upon her return. Having no family to turn to for advice, to lean on. FitzSimmons were wonderful, but even though they were older than Skye, they seemed younger most of the time, far less experienced than the half-elf who had been through so much just by the time she was eighteen...

Triplett was an unknown even after he joined them, Phil was the man she wanted as her match, and after his rejection after the situation with the Berserker staff Skye wasn't exactly willing to make herself vulnerable before Ward... so she had turned to May instead.

"Skye, what's wrong?" Melinda insisted.

"This can't be happening again..." The girl muttered for all answer, gasping for breath.

"Skye?" Melinda insisted.

For a few seconds not a word was spoken, as Skye focused all her will in breathing, enough so she could move again.

"I need to get to James..." She murmured as soon as she focused enough.

In the next second she was on her feet and running in the direction of the main hangar. Melinda didn't even doubt it, even if she hadn't the slightest idea of what was going on, she jumped to her feet and followed.

It was almost like a repeat of that scene back in the warehouse, just a week prior. Skye ran across the hangar at her top speed, before dropping to her knees beside the trembling, kneeling form of her friend. Melinda followed, also mostly running; though, unlike Skye, she took stock of the people in the hangar, immediately noticing the one new individual.

"Natasha Romanoff?" She called, intrigued.

The dark-haired woman, in her usual dark bodysuit, couldn't help but wonder what the redhead could have done to put the man in that state... especially considering what had happened the last time, and who had caused it then.

"Actually, not anymore." The Black Widow announced. "That cover has been blown, as well as every other cover I've ever had. So... I've decided to go back to my original name for the time being: I am Natalia Alianovna Romanova..."

"Natalia..." James practically moaned out the name.

"Natalia?!" Skye's head snapped up even as she echoed the name. "You are Natalia?!"

Her mind really was having a hard time processing things, the world couldn't be that small, could it? Really, what were the chances of all of them: James, Steve, Natalia and her, coming together as they had, all as part of SHIELD? Maybe having the abilities they did, doing the things they did for a living made it only logical for their paths to cross at some point, but still.

A slight change in the air was enough signal that Phil was there. The young woman did not know if it was the similarity in their powers, their relationship, or something else entirely, but she could sense him, almost as if he were a part of herself, connected to her; she sensed him better the closer he got to her... and she knew he was beginning to get the same sensations regarding her. A part of her really hoped it had romantic implications...

In that moment he just stood there, as if standing guard over her, knowing all her attention was on her friend.

"The world cannot be that small, can it?" She asked him quietly, looking his way even as she worked on soothing James slowly.

Phil did not answer in words, instead he just looked at her significatively, then down, at himself. She was the daughter of Loki, who had ended living as a human, working for (and lately with) a man connected to those who had saved her as a baby, who had been once murdered by Loki, been allowed into Valhala, become an Eihenjar and then was helped back to Midgard (Earth) by none other than Lady Frigga (Loki's mother, Skye's grandmother). Yes, the world most definitely could be that small, the universe certainly seemed to be.

"Why is he acting like that?" Natalia asked right then.

"You do not know?!" Melinda wasn't expecting that.

"I know he's the Winter Soldier." The Black Widow clarified. "I imagine him being here means Steve managed to get his friend back." She shrugged. "But no, I have no idea why he went white as a ghost the moment he laid eyes on me..."

"You don't remember..." Phil realized with a breath.

"No, she doesn't." Skye agreed quietly.

James had finally relaxed in her arms, though he was still refusing to turn and look at the red-haired woman standing there, waiting.

"What don't I remember?" Natalia asked suspiciously.

Skye could sense James's silent prompting, he wanted her to tell the story, as he couldn't in that moment. He'd never planned for that, never expected to see Natalia again; and even with everything she knew, everything she'd seen, Skye hadn't connected the young, beautiful Natalia from his memories to the equally beautiful and infamous Black Widow... the name might have been given to her while she worked for the Red Room, but James had never identified her by it, to him she'd always been Natalia.

The brunette herself was having a hard time wrapping her head around it all. Her relationship with the former Natasha Romanoff had been complicated almost from the start; from the moment the woman learnt whose daughter Skye was, to be precise... It was ironic really, how Clint had been hurt the most by Loki (aside from Phil, of course), yet he'd been willing to forgive and forget, to accept Skye as a friend, and possibly as family; and yet it was Natasha who couldn't look at her without there being a hint of distrust, of rejection, in her eyes. Skye understood, of course she did, but it'd still hurt.

Things had gotten a bit better in the months since that first meeting, the Black Widow had grown to trust her, at least on a professional level, if not exactly on a personal. And at least she hadn't flown straight in to slit Skye's throat when Phil had revealed to her that they were lovers (while some might not like that title, she thought it was better than boyfriend/girlfriend, showing better the depth of their bond, and of the passion between them).

In any case, the daughter of Loki did not think that the upcoming revelation was going to help her relationship to the redhead any...

"It happened less than a decade ago; I don't know the exact year." Skye dove straight into the story. "You were working for the KGB... and at the same time were a part of the Red Room..."

"What's the point of the history lesson?" Natasha asked almost defensively. "Everyone knows that, everyone knows everything about my past by this point."

"Do you remember Yasha?" Skye asked in return, ignoring her outburst.

"What do you know about Yasha?" This time Natalia really got defensive, Yasha hadn't been in any of the files.

"I know he was part of the Red Room, and that he trained you." Skye answered honestly. "The people in charge gave him the name of Yasha, but there were times, when he would go into a sort of trance, and he would tell you he was an American Soldier, and that his name was James."

"How do you know all that?!" The redhead demanded hotly, looking ready to attack the younger woman, even as she kept kneeling on the ground.

"I am not part of the Red Room, if that is what you're wondering." The brunette qualified, before running a hand through James's hair again. "I know because he told me..."

'Showed' would have been a better term, but Natalia definitely wasn't ready to know that. She would, in time, of course; it's not like she didn't know already about Skye's heritage, but it might be better if she wasn't made to deal with everything at the same time.

"The KGB wanted you to protect a nuclear scientist, but the Red Room wanted that same man dead, for he was refusing to cooperate with them." The youngest woman in the trio went on. "So you were sent. You were supposed to make it look like an accident... Yasha was there mainly to observe, to make sure you'd learnt what he'd been teaching; and to be your backup if it was necessary. But then things changed." She shook her head. "I don't know all the details; though James always suspected that you were too young to go so fully into a mission, especially one where the target wasn't actually a bad guy. He was just a man, a scientist, husband, father..." She let out a breath. "The accident happened as it was supposed to; but instead of getting yourself out of danger, you chose to save him as well. James knew the Red Room would never allow that, they would kill you, or worse. So he decided to finish the job. In the end you were so close to the target he was forced to shoot him through you."

The redhead couldn't help herself as one of her hands automatically moved to her side, to the knotted scar of a bullet-wound.

"After that you were supposed to go back to the Red Room, so he quickly bandaged your wound and got you out of there." The half-elf continued. "James... he thought you deserved a second chance, a better life. He saw you as a little sister. You were so young yet... He didn't want you to end broken in a ditch some day. So he made a split decision and when you were going through a farm on your way to the rendezvous point he forced the passenger door open and pushed you out of the vehicle. He knew the place, had spent a lot of time there, scouting, making preparations for the assassination and the take off. He knew the times when the man who owned the land made his rounds. He knew you would be found soon enough, by someone who would help you. And since he and the handlers were leaving that same day back to Stalingrad, there was no reason for them to ever find you." She let out another breath. "So he got to the rendezvous point, reported that he'd made a mistake, the arranged accident had killed you as well as the scientist."

"They didn't like that, did they?" Natalia murmured.

"No, they did not." Skye shivered at the memory of what they'd done to him. "But in the end, he was their weapon; they needed him too much to kill him. He knew that. Had known it from the start. Since you first suggested that the two of you should run away together..."

That, at least, the two women had in common.

"He always knew you would never get the chance to run." The brunette added for good measure. "That if you tried... it wouldn't go well. The Red Room would accept the loss of one asset, but not two, especially not two runaways. It's also why he reported you as dead. And since the Red Room was never interested in those they weren't paid to kill, no one ever found out about the young woman a farmer took to a hospital, with a bullet wound on her side, torn clothes and a fracture on the back of her skull."

"In the hospital they said it was a miracle I had survived." Natalia admitted quietly. "They were all convinced I must have been kidnapped and then managed to escape, that they'd tried to kill me, but somehow I survived... the nuns at the hospital said god had protected me, but it wasn't god was it?"

Skye shrugged, she wasn't going to get into a theological debate.

"Why don't I remember any of this?" Natalia wanted to know. "I remember working for the KGB, and the Red Room. Remember Yasha, wanting to run, making outrageous plans... I even remember him shooting that man through me. But I don't remember the other things."

"The skull fracture." Skye told her. "You hit your head on a rock when James pushed you out of the car. That part wasn't planned, but it worked well. Your mind apparently reverted to the last undercover identity you'd been given..."

"Irina Zlatyarova, second dancer of the Russian ballet, recently widowed..." Natalia recited in a low, almost pained voice.

It had been her first solo mission. As part of the training in the Red Room all the girls learnt to do something, a profession, with which they could easily join the 'real world' when necessary for undercover missions. So Natalia became a ballerina and at age 19, at the height of her 'career', she married test-pilot Alexi Shostakov.

That had been part of a mission; though Natalia, with the training she had, never asked why exactly they needed them to be married. It didn't last long. Shortly before the couple would have celebrated their first anniversary, she received noticed that he'd died during the testing of an experimental rocket. It was also at that point that she was extracted from the life as a ballerina and chosen to become the Black Widow: an assassin.

Two years later she was sent after a nuclear scientist, and everything changed.

"You recovered, went free-lance, and eventually joined SHIELD." The young woman enlisted calmly. "Thankfully by then you were going by the name Natasha Romanoff, which, somehow, seemed to be enough for all the fools of the Red Room that had joined SHIELD through Hydra not to recognize you... don't ask me how that was possible, I will never understand how someone can achieve so much on the realm of evil and still be that stupid! Even the name Black Widow didn't give you away; since you weren't the first or the last..."

It was true. And that applied both on Black Widows to exist, and those that had tried to find a way to get away. Though even those who had been successful at it, most hadn't lived long. The best examples being the woman Natasha had known simply as Sofia, who had worked for the Ten Rings and died along with her employer while trying to provoke War between Russia and North Korea with a replica of the Jericho Missile; and then there was Yelena Belova... who had been another matter entirely.

"Ok, so I understand why he would react like that, more or less." The redhead admitted, staring straight at Skye. "How exactly do you fit in all of this Skye?"

"I knew James when I was seventeen." She explained calmly, for what seemed like the umpteenth time in the last few months. "I was living on the streets and he helped. He allowed me to sleep on his motel room, got me food, taught me to fight... and would disappear a few hours every day as he got ready for his assignment. He killed a promising politician, cannot remember the name. Then his handler found out that he was getting close to someone, again, and gave him the order to kill me. He refused, I convinced him to run with me, but we didn't get far. I suppose you've heard of the catastrophe of the Thousand Island Bridge in 2007..."

"The border to Canada? The car crash with the fire and..." Natalia broke off as realization hit.

"It was no accident." The younger woman said what the older was already expecting. "It was a bunch of goons that bastard Pierce hired to get his 'weapon' back. James made sure they wouldn't get me, but couldn't get away himself. They got him, tortured him, and then put him back on ice. The next time they woke him was to assassinate Nick Fury."

And like some said, the rest was history...

For almost a full minute not a word was said, by anyone at all. Skye's attention was half-diverted when she noticed Natalia dropping to her knees beside her in such a manner it could almost be called elegant. She hesitated for a fraction of a second, as she glanced at the brunette searchingly, before finally laying a hand on James's shoulder in a comforting gesture. Both women could feel the full-body shudder from the man before he began slowly turning to face them.

"H-hey Natali-a..." He whispered brokenly.

"Hey Yasha..." She whispered back. "Though I suppose you prefer James."

"It's who I really am." He half-shrugged. "Beyond the Winter Soldier, and Bucky Barnes." He directed a quick apologetic look to his oldest friend. "It's the only name I possess that carries no weight, of virtue or sin..."

It was true, James, just James, could be anyone: Agent, assassin, protector, attacker, good or evil, it was the chance he'd dreamt of for so long; the chance he'd always deserved but didn't get until it was almost too late.

"Thank you..." Natalia whispered in a most heartfelt manner.

"Wha...?" He obviously wasn't expecting that.

"I know I don't remember what happened that day, and I've probably forgotten a lot from back then..." She admitted. "But if one thing is clear to me, it's that I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you. What you did that day... you saved my life. You gave me a chance, no matter the cost to you. This life I have now, I owe it to you..." She bend to kiss James's brow. "So thank you."

Skye was so focused in the transformation she could sense going on inside James, as Natalia's words allowed him to put to rest something that had been bothering him for so long. He finally knew what had been of his Natalia, of the first person he'd allowed himself (had been able to, at all), care for since the war, since the loss of Steve and the start of his conditioning.

It took a few seconds, but eventually the brunette became aware of the redhead woman looking straight at her. It was odd, Natalia had made such a point of avoiding Skye whenever she could without appearing rude; the younger woman had actually wondered how that would work with her relationship with Phil and him seeing the redhead as family... but in that moment Natalia was looking straight at her, and when their eyes (one set stormy blue, the other forest green) met, there was something in the green pair that had never been there before: acceptance. The nod confirmed it, Natalia had finally accepted her.

Skye felt at the same time that it couldn't be so easy, and it couldn't have taken so long; after being so sure they would never be able to reconcile, suddenly the two women were at peace. And one way or another, it was all because of James!

Their family was certainly something, quite dysfunctional, but no less special, and none of them would have it any other way.