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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.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2. Power and Responsibility

Natalia, who had chosen to keep that name after reuniting with James, only choosing to change the surname to Yasha (in memory of who he'd been back then, and the good things he'd done for her), had joined the New SHIELD, becoming leader of another team and taking great delight in tearing Hydra up, piece by piece (and sometimes the Red Room, which, at some point, had become entangled as well).

James would sometimes go with her, sometimes with Skye; the brunette young woman had been completely honest when telling him he did not need to stay close to her all the time for their bond to remain intact, her magic was strong enough to support him even if they were in different parts of the realm. The one he did not go on that many missions with was Steve, and there were several reasons for that: first, after everything that had happened since he was truly Bucky Barnes, he felt more connected to the girls than he did with his old friend (it was a bit sad, but no less true); there was also the fact that he didn't want Sam (looked up to Steve and wanted to help him as much as possible) to feel pushed away; as, if two super-soldiers were working together they would hardly ever need the back-up. Steve and James still had a lot of fun sparring together whenever they both happened to be in the Playground at the same time, though.

SHIELD was growing; it was unlikely that it would go back to being what it had used to be anytime soon, if ever; but still. The Koenig twins seem to take great delight in confusing all newcomers for a few days before revealing there were, in fact, two of them. They considered it part of a 'ritual of welcome' for anyone new. After a little while Eric had managed to move past his near-murder at a traitor's hands (and the fact that even with all his training and his protocols he hadn't been able to notice what he really was); and no longer distrusted anyone new in base simply for being new. Still, he had no interest in going to the field, like other returning Agents seem to want; he was happy looking over the Playground with his brother; and so was Billy, so things were pretty good on that area.

xXx

The next big event for everyone in the New SHIELD came in September. Phil, Skye, Melinda and FitzSimmons had taken off for LA briefly in one of the smaller planes to celebrate one year of being a team. They had actually invited others, like Trip, Clint, Darcy, Natalia and James; but they had understood that the day was special for those five, and insisted they celebrate together, just them. Skye, who kept opening more and more to her team/family, showed them several of her old haunts, including the diner she'd once frequented, where she'd gone with Grant when he 'kidnapped' her from Providence and the police failed to apprehend him. That night they went to San Francisco, to a bar called: "Luz de Luna (Moonlight)". It was a night when the team got a chance to see yet another side of Skye.

That night the brunette, blue-eyed young woman was wearing a ¾ sleeved, sky-blue dress with a deep v-neck, with golden strappy heels rather than her usual boots. She looked really good in those clothes. She'd also managed to convince the others to relax from their usual styles, enough that Melinda was in a black strapless dress, while Phil himself wore dark slacks, a light-blue shirt (a shade lighter than Skye's dress) with several buttons undone at the top and a simple jacket.

The moment they stepped in, it was obvious that Skye was recognized, though only Phil noticed by the name that was used.

"Karin!" Several voices called at the same time.

At the front of the group was a woman probably a few years older than Skye, of obvious latin-american ascendance, her skin was golden, long tresses pulled into a twist at the top of her head in a somewhat chaotic hairdo, black except for the random locks that seemed to have been dyed crimson. Her dress was white, halter style, skin-tight, very modest at the front, where it covered everything, though the back in contrast was left completely bare, only starting at the swell of her bottom; the skirt part of it was a bit loose (enough to allow movement) asymmetric, and barely reaching her knees; with that she wore red stilettos. Though, what called the most attention was the elaborate tattoo of the red rose on top of a thorned vine that covered more than half of the girl's back and the dress seemed to show be showing off.

The rest of the women were no less stunning, all looking tall and slim, almost like models: there were redheads, brunettes, blondes, some with highlights in a variety of colors too (and once with the tips of her hair dyed bright pink), though the latina was the only one Phil identified, as he was quite sure it was Rose (and seeing her back anyone would understand easily why she was called that, regardless of if that was her name or not), the girl Skye had mentioned before.

"Karin?" Melinda asked Phil quietly.

"It's the name she went by at the time they knew her." Phil clarified without giving away too much, especially of the things Skye had shared with no one but him. "Karin Kostan."

"Kostan?" Leo almost screeched at that, Jemma barely managing to stop him in time.

"You know the name?" Melinda inquired, interested.

"There was a very rich man, well, I suppose there is, it's not like he's dead." Leo began half-babbling in his nervousness. "His name's Josef Kostan. He used to live here, I mean. Some say he was the richest man in California. A cousin of mine, he was attending UCLA at the time, told me about him, how he was always surrounded by very beautiful women; some said his manor was like a second Playboy mansion... except the women were not really models, they all simply worked for him, somehow."

Somehow... yeah, that part hadn't been cleared yet.

"What happened to him?" Melinda asked, even more interested.

"Nothing, not really." Leo began feeling self-conscious under her stare. "There was some sort of accident. A gas leak or something, his mansion blew up. There was no one inside at the time, thankfully. But according to my cousin he showed no interest in restoring it, instead he packed his things and left. Rumor had it he went to the East Coast, but no one knows for sure."

"Wow..." Jemma seemed quite shock by the story. "And this Josef Kostan... would he be in any way related to why Skye took that name when she lived here?"

"Have you forgotten already about the keys to those apartments a few months ago?" Melinda asked suddenly, contemplating the matter herself.

"Skye said they were sent by someone named Josef..." Jemma broke off in shock. "You think it's the same Josef?!"

This time it was necessary for Leo to help her keep her voice down, the last thing they needed was for them to call unnecessary attention.

"I don't know." Melinda admitted, before turning to her friend and boss. "Phil?"

But Phil did not say a word. He knew that everyone kept getting mixed feelings whenever Skye revealed something new about her past: the mix of awe, surprise and confusion, at everything she'd been through, and at realizing more and more every time how little they knew of her, of each other. Skye's life had been complicated, long before she'd joined SHIELD, technically from her birth, or even conception, but most could not understand that. In any case, Phil wasn't planning to tel them, to reveal something the brunette might not be ready to have made public knowledge. If she wanted the team to know, she would bring it up herself, if not, they would have to respect her privacy. Besides, even knowing she had a connection to Josef Kostan wouldn't explain what had happened to the rich man, or what exactly Skye's connection to him was. So instead of answering any questions, Phil just smiled at his team and went to join his girlfriend, who was laughing with the girls (though it was obvious from the start that only Rose was really a friend, the rest being little more than acquaintances). His girlfriend seemed delighted to have him join and immediately introduced him to everyone. Several of the girls began eyeing him in such a manner it was actually beginning to make him uncomfortable, when Rose called:

"Girls that's enough!" She ordered in a very no-nonsense tone and a deep accent. "That's Karin's man you're eyeing as if he were a piece of meat. We're no sluts, girls, and we don't take another girl's man. So, stop it and move on!"

There were several groans, though it was obvious the girls were just being over-dramatic and joking. Skye actually whispered that the same kind of scene had happened before, whenever one of the girls would introduce a boyfriend to the group, though Skye had never done that before them. She hadn't been in a committed relationship with anyone then (Miles did not count); there was a time when she was sure she'd never be.

"I brought my friends here so they could try one of your original cocktails." Skye informed her friend matter-of-factly.

"Really?" That seemed to interest Rose a lot. "Are they the adventurous kind?"

"I'm hanging out with them, aren't it?" Skye said for all answer.

"Is there anything adventurous left to do around here since Josef and all the others left for New York?" One of the youngest girls in the room asked in an almost whiny tone.

She was petite, with porcelain skin, short straight black hair with electric blue tips and small dark eyes outlined in black khol and dark-blue eye-shadow; she was wearing a off-the-shoulder light-gray dress that seemed to be almost falling off her small frame and black heels that weren't enough to hide that she was the smallest of the group.

"Oh, stop whining Keiko." An older woman, brunette (and one of the few with no highlights). "Karin is visiting us after so long and you're making a bad impression with her friends, or do you want them to think we're all whiny brats?"

"I'm not a whiny brat." Abruptly the girl looked much more mature. "I am an Accountant and if it weren't for me you would all be drowning in debt!"

All the sting was taken out of the accusation when the girl that seemed to be of Japanese descent began laughing immediately after the last word was said; and the rest followed suit.

"That's the spirit!" Rose agreed, before turning to her friend "So, they are adventurous... how much? Wouldn't want to scare them all off, it's their first time after all..."

The innuendo was quite clear, though she wasn't really flirting with anyone. Skye just rolled her eyes good-naturedly before answering, pointedly:

"Very." Her voice dripping with implications.

"You go girl!" Several of the others cheered.

Phil realized, a second later, that they were taking Skye's tone as suggestive of their personal lives, which made him stop in shock for a second. At any other time, and if it had been any other person, Phil was sure he'd have been blushing to the roots of his hair. It was one thing to hear people like Tony Stark turning everything into innuendo, when it was about other people, but about himself... and yet, he'd changed, a lot. Not only because of his death and return, but also since meeting Skye, since falling in love with her, and since she had vacated her old bunk and moved into his room (whether they were on the Bus or staying on the Playground for a few days, it was the same). So instead of blushing and stammering, he wound an arm around his girlfriend's waist, pulled her tight against him, and kissed her full on the mouth.

The whistles and cat-calls that followed were almost enough to make him feel self-conscious all over again; however, Skye's bright smile as she snaked her own arms around his neck before kissing him again was enough to make him forget about any of that. He had way more important things to focus on, after all. Like the gorgeous woman in his arms, her lips on his, and the fact that he was mentally thanking the forethought that made him book rooms on a nearby hotel before arriving to the bar (they hadn't been sure how drunk they might end up, and even Melinda couldn't pilot while drunk).

In the end the team had a very good night. Leo proved to be a lightweight, while Jemma was better at holding her liquor, and yet it still made her a lot less inhibited. Melinda held her own the best (according to her, since Skye and Phil did not count as their tolerance had become ridiculous thanks to the changes caused to their metabolism by their respective powers).

xXx

After that night the group returned to the Playground, where FitzSimmons got working on the final part of a cure for 'Retroviral Hypodysplasia', which some had also taken to calling the 'Osborn Curse'. Skye still remembered quite clearly how they'd all ended involved in that mess, two days before she was to leave for Asgard to see her (other) family:

The young woman was getting ready for her departure. It wasn't like she had to pack any bags (not like anything she used or wore in Midgard would be of any use in Asgard... or Helheim); no, for her preparing for departure meant making sure everything was up-to-date with SHIELD, that all Agents were where they needed to be (either on missions or on break), that there were no emergencies that might need her attention, and protocols were ready in case something did happen. Some might say she was a bit obsessive with the details, but Skye honestly believed that since they were trusting her (despite her age, lack of experience and past alliances) to be the second in command of SHIELD, she had to step up and do everything she could to make sure they... her people, were safe.

It was almost funny, the way she worried and worked herself over had made some people, (from the few who knew the full truth about her heritage) make comments about her attitude probably being inherited from her father as well, that it was the 'princess' in her showing. Clint had begun calling her that as a joke, and somehow it was expanding; she'd been hearing several Agents around referring to her as that: 'the Princess'. She just rolled her eyes and took it in stride.

She'd just finished checking the files regarding on-going missions, when her 'public' phone rang. A tone she'd assigned to the contacts she'd made as a SHIELD Agent (which weren't many, but still). She answered on the second ring.

"Hello?" She called, wondering who exactly it might be.

"Agent Avery?" A male voice, young, inquired from the other side. "Is this Agent Astrid Avery?"

"Spider-Man?" She asked, honestly surprised. "And yes, this is Astrid Avery speaking."

She did know the boy's civilian name, but had agreed to keep his real identity to herself unless it was a matter of life-or-death; something he was thankful for. And while she'd given him her card and promised to help him if he ever needed her, she honestly never expected him to contact her, not with how carefully he guarded his real identity, his civilian life... and, of course, the life of the beautiful young woman he was in love with.

"It's Peter Parker, Agent Avery." He corrected her softly, to further surprise.

"Then call me Astrid..." She interrupted, not able to hold her confusion any longer. "Is there something wrong Mr. Parker?"

"You could say that..." He let out a sigh. "It's nothing about the city, I have things under control on that front. It's just that I... a friend of mine, he needs help. He's dying..."

"Is Gwen..."

"No, not Gwen, she's fine, Truly. We just graduated from High-school, we're both great. It's just, my best friend, he just came back from Europe and... he's not alright. He needs help, urgently, and I don't think I alone am enough..."

"What kind of help Peter? Who's your friend?"

"He's sick, very sick... and his name is Harry Osborn."

Skye definitely hadn't been expecting that. She knew that Norman Osborn, OsCorp's CEO had just died, of course. Everyone knew that. It was also well-known that Osborn Sr. had been sick for many years; he'd invested a great deal of his fortune trying to find a cure for whatever it was that affected him (no one ever knew what it was, exactly), but to no avail. SHIELD had invested on the research as well, interested as they were in the possibility of self-healing (which was what at least one of the projects were about... genetic manipulation, spiders, and a bunch of other stuff Skye couldn't begin to understand). It was impossible to know if the interest had actually come from SHIELD or Hydra, but still. Aside from the mess that had been the huge Lizard that had rampaged through Midtown the year before, and quite possible Spider-Man himself, there was nothing to even suggest that any of the projects had been successful in any way... and then there was Harry Osborn.

And so the team had flown to New York to meet with the young adults who needed help (James and Trip had not joined them, as they were with Natalia, Clint and Darcy taking down a Hydra cell in the Netherlands):

Skye, Phil, Melinda and FitzSimmons met with Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy in Clint's and Darcy's old apartment; it was the safest location any of them could think of, and Leo had made sure to swept the place for bugs and anything else that might have been planted when Hydra and the military went looking for the pair.

At first the two eighteen-year-olds (they had both jumped ahead a year at some point during middle-school and thus graduated a year younger than their classmates; they had also been the top two of their generation) seemed quite reticent to so much as step into the room, so Phil had tried his best to put them at ease.

"My name is Phillip Coulson, I am the Director of SHIELD." He informed the teenagers standing at the door. "I know who you are, though right now I am the only one besides Astrid who does. If you wish it will stay that way, but truth be told, we stand a much better chance at giving you the help you need, if we act as a team, all on the same side."

It took a second, but in the end, the couple's, or at least Peter's desire to help his old friend won. His whole demeanor seemed to change as he straightened up, taking a look at his girlfriend before jumping and flipping in the air, landing on a crouch... on the ceiling.

"I am Spider-Man." He deadpanned.

Leo's jaw dropped in shock, Jemma squealed, while Melinda could be heard muttering under her breath about 'crazy superheroes who had no idea what they were doing'... Skye had a feeling she was thinking about Stark...

Once the moment of revelation had passed the group spent the next hours putting all the cards on the table. After hearing what the Osborn Curse actually was FitzSimmons had sat together on a corner, tablets in hand, and began researching everything they could on the topic; before the hour was over their talk had become science-y enough that even Peter and Gwen seemed to have trouble keeping up with them without paying careful attention to every word that was said; and Melinda and Phil had kept them busy, wanting a full recount of how exactly Spider-Man had come to be, as well as the 'Lizard Catastrophe'.

After their long talk the group had lunch together, and finally, around three o'clock or so, there was a knock on the door, announcing that their last guest had arrived:

"This way Harry." Peter, who had opened the door to him, waved him in.

Harry Osborn had auburn hair and blue eyes, a slight frame, pale (though it was impossible to know if it was natural, or due to his sickness) skin; he was shorter than Peter by about half a head, about the same height or maybe slightly taller than Gwen Stacy. He was also wearing a full suit, with the tie half undone. He was two years older than Peter and Gwen, and had gone to elementary with Peter before his father sent him to a boarding school in Europe when he was eleven. That was the last time the boys had seen each other before the previous week, when Peter had seen Harry's image on TV after the announcement of Norman Osborn's passing.

"What is going on here Peter?" Harry asked cautiously. "Who are all these people?"

"Friends." Peter answered, unsure how else to explain.

"You told me to come." Harry reminded his friend. "Why did you want me here? What place is this? I thought you still lived with your aunt on Midtown..."

"I do." Peter nodded. "This apartment belongs to a friend of a friend. We decided it was the best place to hold this meeting."

"And what is this meeting supposed to be about?" Harry was still tense, on alert.

"Look, Harry." Peter placed his hands on the redhead's arms to stop him from fleeing. "You are a very dear friend to me, my oldest friend... since you told me what... what was happening to you, I've been going crazy, trying to find a way to help you."

"I told you how you could help me." Harry reminded him in a tight tone.

"Spider-Man's blood won't save you Harry!" Peter snapped, almost shaking him in his despair. "It will destroy you."

"How would you know?" Harry refused to believe it. "It worked on that... creature..."

"The chances of it working were one in a billion, less even!" Peter insisted, before his expression changed as he went for broke. "It only worked for him because of the DNA encoded in the venom of the spider that bit him... because it was Richard's Parker DNA... He did it on purpose, a fail-safe, so he was sure the experiment would never be accessed without his bloodline."

It was something they'd just found out, as Peter and Gwen had finally connected all the clues and found Richard Parker's secret lab in the abandoned Roosevelt Station earlier that same day, right before going to meet the team, in fact.

"His bloodline..." Harry gasped, shocked.

Peter decided to be a bit less dramatic in his second revelation of the day, using his web-shooters to pull a chair to them, just in time for Harry to fall onto it in shock.

"I am Spider-Man..." The brunette boy added for good measure.

"It's impossible..." Harry muttered, still in shock.

"No, it isn't." Peter told him quietly, kneeling before his friend, trying to sooth him with a hand on his leg.

"I'm going to die then..." Harry murmured next, a tone of finality on his voice, of resignation. "There's nothing left to save me..."

"You are not going to die." Peter stated, with so much conviction everyone who heard couldn't help but believe him. "You asked what everyone else was doing here... That's why we are all here." He signaled to the two youngest women. "Gwen Stacy, as you already know, is my girlfriend, she's also the most intelligent person in our generation. Astrid Avery is a friend of ours and the rest are her team. All of us together, we are going to find the way to help you Harry. I promise. You are my best friend, and I'm not letting you die."

The feelings in Peter's voice, the confidence with which he spoke, was such Harry couldn't help but believe it was true; it didn't matter how unlikely it seemed, if Peter said it, it had to be true. So all Harry could do was embrace his friend and cry, cry for the hope that had been returned, for the friend he'd always needed, and who was right there with him, for the hope he was being given... maybe Peter was right after all, maybe Spider-Man did give people hope... or maybe that was only a Peter thing. 

Skye had left for Asgard the next day. Confident that the others would be able to find a way to save Harry (though, what she did not tell them, was that she was also willing to try and find a less... 'legal' way of saving him while she was in Asgard). With what little she knew of healing (it was a very complicated art that required great mental discipline and a level of power she didn't yet possess), Skye had done her best to give Harry time.

With all five people, most, if not all of them, certified geniuses, it took no time for them to make a viable plan. Though it still wasn't easy. They had to reverse-engineer the modifications Richard Parker had done to the spider's DNA, which hadn't been easy since all the spiders had been disposed off. And then Felicia had stepped in, she hadn't had any idea of what the others were doing, ensconced in Harry's private office those first days; but she was nothing if not loyal, first to Norman, and later on to Harry, so when she heard them talk about spiders and venom, she just felt she had to tell them what they knew.

It had turned problematic. While it had been easy enough for Spider-Man to slip unnoticed into the right places to retrieve the venom from the spiders (with Gwen and Harry keeping security from noticing him), Harry had also noticed there were other things going on. However, the girls stopped him before he could begin researching it, they knew that if anyone realized he'd found out about things, it wouldn't be good, and they weren't ready to face whoever was trying to take OsCorp from Harry, not yet.

So they all pretended not to know that something dark was going on, while rushing against the clock to find a cure for the Osborn curse. They somehow managed it. After reverse-engineering the process the group of scientists had proceeded to repeat it in the right order, breeding new spiders (this time with Harry's DNA). It had taken two months, and Skye using her magic to help Harry every other week, before the venom of the new spider could be harvested. Then, since FitzSimmons refused to inject the undiluted venom to Harry, especially worried that his already weakened body wouldn't be able to take the strain of a sudden mutation, it had been processed, and several injections created to be used at regular intervals.

Harry had actually been moved to a SHIELD safe-house in New Jersey after the first dose of the 'cure'. It was necessary as he needed time to recover, and neither OsCorp tower, nor the manor were the right places for it anymore. What the girls had suspected had finally happened, as Donald Menken finally betrayed Harry and pushed the rest of the Board into firing him (which was ridiculous, as the company was his!) What the man wasn't expecting was for the young adults to be ready for it. The next day a video went viral online: Richard Parker's revelation about his experiments, Norman's intentions, everything (except the part where it was his DNA in the spiders). It had been followed by another video, this one of Spider-Man, talking about his origins, his powers (though without revealing his civilian identity), what had happened with Dr. Connors/the Lizard (especially how that too could be traced to OsCorp). The cherry on top was the release of a lot of information gathered by the girls, and approved by Harry, concerning other 'Special Projects', including the proof that it had all been Menken's doing, and how he'd planned to take the company from Harry.

When the fallout happened, Felicia was the one to take on the press and the authorities, making use of her new title as Mr. Osborn's PA and 'Acting CEO' in Harry's absence; explaining that her boss was undergoing special treatment to cure the 'Osborn Curse' and had left her in charge. Peter and Gwen were always in the background, being supportive in any way they could.

By the time Harry woke up after the most serious injection (the third, as it was actually stronger than the first two, which were meant to prepare his body for the real changes and stabilize him), things were mostly solved. Menken was facing criminal charges, as were several others who had been on his side; while the company was undergoing a serious audit, lead by Felicia, Gwen and Peter (and supervised by Harry through the computer and security feeds). Some of the things the young adults had found would probably feed their nightmares for years to come. It also somehow helped give Harry a public image like his father never had, as they made every finding public, made sure the people knew things were being done to correct the wrongs, to help the victims and make sure something like that would never happen again.

The hitch in their plan came when they found out about the Ravencroft Institute, too late to do anything about it. By the time a security team was formed (comprised only by those truly trusted, and backed up by a SHIELD team) and sent to the facility, it was mostly empty. Most of its subjects gone... though Skye and Felicia at least managed to recover most of the research, which they hoped would be useful when they found the people that were being kept in the facility and experimented on.

And that was how they came to that day. It was the middle of September. After returning from their partying in California they had dropped FitzSimmons off in New Jersey so they could get to work on the final step to heal Harry. It was supposed to be the hardest, and the couple believed Harry would have to be in bed-rest for a day, possibly more, and then spend at least a week taking it easy as his body grew used to no longer having to deal with the sickness.

Then things had gone wrong (as they were bound to, sooner or later). It had begun when Skye had managed to track down the vans that had taken the patients/prisoners from Ravencroft to a warehouse in East NY. A SHIELD team was assembled to handle the matter, but Phil's couldn't go themselves as were programmed to take down a high-level Hydra cell in Africa (in what had once been a SHIELD base). It was a hit they'd been planning for weeks, and would be a serious victory if they managed to pull it off; which was exactly why the best were going on the mission (meaning Phil's team as well as Natalia, Steve and Sam; Victoria and Felix were ready with a back-up team/clean-up crew). So a lower-level team had been sent to New York instead, being lead by Triplett, to make sure that at least one person knew what they were doing; with them was also a CIA team, lead by Sharon Carter (it helped foster good will between the two organizations, or so they hoped). Spider-Man couldn't be there, as he had class in the Empire State University (as did Gwen, for that matter); but they'd decided that was probably a good thing.

What no one was expecting was the kind of power some of the 'former patients' would have. The two teams together still managed to trap all but three of the individuals in the end, apparently the most powerful ones. Worried about what they might try to do, especially since one of those three was Electro, Trip fished his phone and called the number he'd been given for the 'local superhero': Spider-Man. He did not know him personally, or his civilian identity, but still. So he called, passed on the warning, then hang up again.

"Who did you just call?" A female voice, in what sounded like cold fury, demanded behind him. "Who did you just share information of a classified operation with?"

It was Sharon Carter; whom the SHIELD personal still affectionately called Agent 13; and even though she technically was no longer one of them, Trip couldn't help but still respect her, a part of him still saw her as his superior.

"Spider-Man." He answered honestly, though still cringing a bit at her tone. "He's an ally of ours now, and since he fought and defeated Electro before there's a chance the guy might go after him again. He needed to know the risk, so he could be on alert."

"If he's an ally, why isn't he here now?" Sharon asked suspiciously.

"Honestly?" Trip inquired, already knowing what her answer would be, and that when he gave his she wouldn't like it. "He's at school."

"School?!" Sharon's voice went through an octave or two in her disbelief. "He's a kid?! Are you all insane having a kid work with you?"

"Why do you think he's worked so hard at keeping his civilian identity a secret?" Trip asked in return before shaking his head. "Besides, it's not like we turned him into Spider-Man, that was all him. By the time Deputy Director Avery met him he was already known, the whole mess with the Lizard had already happened. At least now the kid has some support in case he ever needs it."

And he already had. Trip honestly had no idea what connection exactly Harry Osborn had with the Wall Crawler, as some called the young super-hero, but Jemma had asked for his assistance at one point while they were treating the CEO, and he enjoyed working with her and Leo. He also knew that his lack of knowledge wasn't due to a lack of trust, but the desire of a boy who wanted as few people knowing his civilian identity as possible.

Sharon seemed satisfied with that and went back to coordinating the move of what 'former residents of Ravencroft' they had managed to secure either to prison or the hospital, depending on their conditions. Trip had gone to coordinate his own team so they could begin combing the surrounding area for the missing individuals... though he could have never known it was already too late to stop the catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the mission in Africa had been a success. Victoria and Felix had taken over with their teams, securing the place, sending the traitors to jails (either in the country, or deporting them if necessary), taking anything Hydra had left that might help them locate other cells, releasing what prisoners there might have been. Afterwards they would either seal the place for future use, or dismantle it and turn it over to the local government, depending on how useful it might be.

Phil and his team, for their part, were on the Bus, on route to the Playground. Sam had a wounded arm (Hydra had shot him down during the fight and he'd dislocated the shoulder on which he'd fallen; he'd popped it back in right away, but it was still sore and swelling a bit); Melinda had a twisted ankle and a slight concussion, from a faulty landing and a hit with a pipe; while the rest had an assortment of light cuts, scratches and bruises (though since they were half-alien, Eihenjar or super-soldiers it wouldn't take them long to heal).

The group was about to lay down for some rest, as they'd engaged the autopilot and it was a long flight, when suddenly a ring announced an incoming call directly on Skye's SHIELD phone. Half-absently she accepted it, before laying the device on the holo-table to bring up video-call, revealing the Koenig twins on the other side.

"Hello, Boss-lady." Billy greeted her with a smile.

"Hey princess!" Eric added with his usual bright demeanor.

From the two Eric seemed to take great delight in calling Skye by the nickname Clint had started, it was as if he truly considered her a princess, even if he did not know about her heritage.

"Hello guys, what's going on?" She asked, confused by the call. "Is there something wrong?"

"I'm afraid there is." Billy, the more serious of the two, nodded. "It's about the operation that took place in Manhattan."

"Did we fail?" Phil interfered.

"Not quite." It looked like even the twins weren't sure how to explain that one.

"We caught all but three individuals," Billy elaborated. "which managed to escape; including the one who called himself Electro when he attacked downtown at the end of June."

"He's going after Spider-Man." Several people stated at the same time, independently reaching the same conclusion.

"We have to warn him." Skye announced.

"I'm afraid it's too late for that, princess." Eric told him quietly.

Skye did not like he sound of that; it only got worse when the twins sent her the video: it had been caught by what looked like a mix of security cameras and cellphones, the mix of qualities confusing, but still effective. It took a few seconds but eventually everyone on the Bus realized what the location of the video was: Empire State University... Skye could almost feel her stomach dropping, she just knew something bad had happened...

It began with dozens of teenagers and young adults moving around, it was probably a change of classes, students, leaving, students arriving... when suddenly the mix of chatter and laughter changed to screaming as three individuals arrived and began causing chaos. One was the well-known Electro, though he seemed to somehow be less incorporeal than he was during his previous debacle with Spider-Man; behind him arrived two others, an aged man wearing some kind of harness that looked a lot like Falcon's, and what looked like a man made completely of sand (though he didn't fully keep the shape of a man).

"Spider-Man!" Electro practically wailed, over and over again.

It took a couple of minutes, but eventually the young hero appeared, holding onto the side of one of the buildings, watching the situation carefully, trying to find the best way to help; and even though the mask made it impossible for anyone to see his expression, the teen probably realized how unlikely it was that he alone would be able to handle all three villains on his own.

"You looking for me buddy?" He called, in an attempt to call their attention onto himself.

"Spider-Man!" Electro screeched at him. "I am here to inflict upon you the pain I've been forced to suffer since our last meeting!"

"Yeah... I don't think so." The young man tried his best to keep things light.

In the end quips were of no use. In a matter of seconds a battle was going on, and even with all his acrobatics, speed, agility, there was just no way Spider-Man could win.

"Have we sent back-up to his location yet?" Phil was the first to voice the obvious question.

"We have notified Agent Triplett of the situation, but he and his team were in East New York trying to track down the missing inmates, besides..." Eric broke off, as if unwilling to finish the explanation he was giving.

"This already happened." Billy finished for her brother.

Spider-Man crashed once more, except that instead of just hitting the building, he went through a window in that moment, falling into what looked like a lab.

The greatest surprise anyone could have gotten happened then, when two of the villains (the ones that could fly) approached the building, and the people who had been inside the lab instead of running away, rushed the window. They each were carrying different things: vials with a variety of substances, or even just plain equipment, which they began throwing at the villains as hard as they could, doing their best to keep them away from the lab, and from the downed hero. It was a show of support and courage few could have ever imagined.

"That was..." Sam had no words.

Everyone agreed with him, even if no one had the right words to express themselves.

They managed to last almost five full minutes, which amounted to near an eternity in a situation like the one the group of young adults were facing. Until an attack from Electro blew up all the windows, and the follow-up from the vulture-like man finally made them tremble. Still, they wouldn't move away until a rush of sand forced them to.

The Sand-man then made an attempt to reach the still fallen Spider-Man, but before he could a bunsen burner that was set on a table in his way lit up, fast and high enough that the sand right over it began blackening and falling apart. He tried to move around it, but then his sand was hosed down abruptly (which was actually more effective than the burner); and holding the hose was a blonde girl with green eyes wearing a lab-coat over casual clothes.

"Gwen..." Skye murmured, not exactly surprise to see her there.

"Is she crazy?!" Clint cried out in shock. "That chick is gonna get killed? What the hell is she trying to prove attacking that thing?"

"She isn't trying to prove anything, Clint." Skye told him, matter-of-fact. "She's just doing her best to protect someone she loves."

"Shit..." The archer really had nothing better to say to that.

So focused was the blonde on protecting her boyfriend, she did not notice when the next tendril of sand slipped in her direction rather than his; she was completely unaware until a shocked cry slipped from her lips as she ended hanging upside-down, right outside the lab, suspended from her legs by what looked like a couple of giant tentacles made of sand.

That definitely made the fallen hero react, as he fought to sit up, reaching desperately for the blonde, but too far and still too hurt to move fast enough to stop her from being taken.

"Gwen!" He cried out involuntarily.

"Oh... so you do know each other..." Electro murmured, full of curiosity as he stared at the mask hero and the young woman in turns. "Interesting."

"Leave her alone!" Spider-Man snapped as he forced himself to his feet, only to stumble and almost fall down again. "She has nothing to do with this."

"No... I think she has everything to do with this." Electro smirked deviously at the hero. "I wonder, what would you do for her...?"

Spider-Man was caught completely by surprise, so much he didn't actually answer, though by the way he forced himself to get closer to the broken windows (despite the fact that he was stumbling more than he was walking) was quite telling of his despair.

"I suppose we will find out, won't we?" Electro finished with a mad cackle.

And then the three villains were gone, taking the blonde teenager with them; while Spider-Man was left, holding onto the window-frames, screaming her name.

The video cut off then, having reached its end.

"Oh Lord... is there anything we can do?" Darcy asked, worriedly.

"Even if I change course now, we're much too far away to be of any help." Melinda admitted grimly. "Same with those in the Playground..."

"We could call Carter and Triplett, but the chances of them finding Spider-Man in time to be of any help..." James really did not like the odds.

"Call them anyway." Skye ordered abruptly, though not angrily. "And change our route. Even if we're late, better that than never."

"What do you plan on doing?" Phil asked, noticing the tension in her form.

"There's not much even I can do." She admitted with some effort. "The kind of energy that it would take for me to get there... I would be of no use once in New York. No, I shall project. Even if I cannot touch things or access my powers in that form, I might at least be able to offer him a second pair of eyes and some warnings."

It wasn't much, but the brunette couldn't just sit there and do nothing. It wasn't in her.

xXx

The moment Menel appeared she was received by a violent uppercut... or what would have been an uppercut if she'd been corporeal and capable of receiving the hit. The lack of resistance caused Spider-Man to stumble further, and it took him a couple of seconds to right himself.

"Agent Astrid?" He asked, completely confused when seeing her.

Though that was probably more due to the fact that in that moment she was in full elven form (battle attire, light armor, a dozen knives on her person -no guns-, compressed staff down the middle of her back, her hair in a tight bun at the base of her skull), and of course there were the telling details: like her pointy ears, the strange almost-luminescence her, unblemished, golden skin had, and the shine in her blue eyes.

"When I'm like this just call me Menel." She told him calmly. "Are you alright?"

"I... I'm fine." He waved her concern off, though it was quite obvious he wasn't, still his priorities were others: "They took Gwen!"

"I know." She nodded grimly. "The Koenig twins alerted us to what was happening."

"Are you here to help me?" He asked quietly.

There was so much hope in his tone of voice it almost physically hurt the half-elf to have to crush them, she hated not being able to truly be there more than anything in that moment.

"I'm afraid I'm not really here, Spidey..." She told him as softly as she could, waving her hand through his to prove her point.

"Wha...?" He was shocked by that. "How is this happening?"

"It's called Astral projection." Menel clarified. "My mind is here, and a sort-of illusion of my image, but I'm not physically here. Therefore I cannot really affect anything around me, either by touch or by power."

Peter nodded grimly, understanding.

"Still, I couldn't just stand and do nothing." She insisted. "The Bus is too far away for me to get physically here on time, same with the rest of my team. But AC has called Trip and 13, they will try to get help to you, and... I guess I could always help you keep an eye out, seeing as there are several enemies this time."

"Thank you, I guess." He murmured.

They both knew that no matter how helpful she might want to be, it probably wouldn't be enough; but still, she had to try.

The loss of power a minute or so later gave both a pretty good idea of where the villains could be found. Without a single word Spider-Man shook his stiff muscles a bit, then threw himself out of the building, shooting a bioc-able and swinging himself around a corner a second later. In the form she was in that moment Menel could pretty much fly beside him; she only knew from experience that only the person she was connected to (the one anchoring her, for whom she'd projected) could see and communicate with her, which was actually a good thing in their situation.

They made it to the power plant in record time. Electro was slowly consuming the power; an interference that was caused Manhattan to lose electricity as a whole. It was a probably a good thing the sun was still up, Menel didn't want to begin to imagine the risks they would be in, if it was already night. And still, there were places that needed electricity or a lot of people would be in danger; which meant Electro needed to be defeated, soon.

In the end, it was a good thing Menel was there. The moment they arrived Spider-Man couldn't help but be distracted the moment he saw Gwen laying unconscious just in front of the empty control room of the power station.

"Peter beware!" Menel screamed at the top of her lungs.

The scream was enough to bring the young hero's attention back to the present, as he finally paid attention to what his spider sense was screaming to him, and just in time to let go of the web-line we was using, drop to the ground, still a number of feet bellow him, and roll to absorb the impact. It wasn't an easy fall, but definitely much better than if the Sand-man had managed to hit him with its mutated fist.

"Thanks Menel..." He whispered under his breath, so as not to call attention to the fact that there was someone else around.

What followed was something that could be compared with a cat-and-mouse game, with Spider-Man doing his best to evade all the attacks coming from Sandman and the Vulture-man-thingy flying circles above them (like a real vulture looking for a dead body!). It took both Spidey and the half-elf that long to realize their third opponent was missing. Electro was nowhere to be seen.

"Can you find him?" Spider-Man asked quietly as he ducked behind a column.

"I can try." Menel nodded at him. "You try not to get yourself killed in the meantime."

The teen saluted her in a somewhat theatrical fashion before ducking out from his hiding place and getting on the move; after all, the more he moved the less likely it was that his enemies would find him and therefore attack him.

Menel meanwhile went looking for the missing villain throughout the place. Eventually she finds him, in the most dangerous area of the plant, where the coils are so close it would be suicidal for anyone to walk through without getting shocked to death. She also realizes he has even less of a corporeal form than Sandman does (and his is already flimsy at best), and while she doesn't understand why exactly that is, the young princess know it cannot be anything good. She stays right then, floating around the blue figure, trying to find something that might help Spider-Man defeat him, when a sudden, pained cry snaps her back to attention.

In what would qualify as the blink of an eye Menel finds herself back in the main area of the power plant. Spider-Man is grunting in pain, lying among the debris of what used to be the entrance to the control room. The brunette feels like there's something missing from that scene, for her worry for the hero is at the forefront of her mind and she pushes away any other thought. Next she sees the Vulture almost gliding, three feet or so off the ground; though the truly terrifying is the Sandman, looking in that moment twice the size of a human and about to make the control room finish collapsing above the downed hero.

"Peter get up!" Menel screams at the immobile teenager in desperation. "Get up! Now! Move! Get up getup getup!"

But it's useless, and they both know it. The hit was so hard it was a miracle Spider-Man was still conscious, and Menel was sure he must have more than one bone broken.

Then, the unexpected. A shot rang through the place and Menel could see Vulture fly backwards in a rush, clutching at his bleeding left shoulder.

The she-elf turned around, seeing possibly the last person she could have ever expected: dark skin and very short black hair in ringlets, dressed in dark-washed jeans, leather boots, gray hoodie and dark jacket. It took Menel a breath or two to identify her:

"Akela Amador..." She breathed out in shock.

It was, indeed, her beloved's old protege, whom they'd saved from Hydra's control shortly after Skye had joined SHIELD. After taking the bionic-eye that served to control her and threatened her life they'd left the woman under custody of SHIELD... Menel had never expected to see her again; and while she would admit not to have thought about her at the time, she was glad the former Agent hadn't ended under Hydra's control, again.

And then, as the blonde figure in the dirtied lab-coat stepped around her, Menel realized what exactly hadn't seemed to fit when she'd reappeared before the control-room: Gwen was no longer laying unconscious at its entrance. Because apparently Akela had found her, freed and woken her at some point. It was a great relief for the young half-elf, who began wondering what the best way to thank the woman would be, she didn't want to even think what the situation would be if she hadn't arrived.

"ELECTRO!" Sandman's demanding yell was enough to call the brunette's attention back to what was important in that moment.

It was like a scene from a horror movie, as the electric-blue (quite literally) figure emerged from a super-charged coil, taking mostly human figure in the middle of what would qualify as a courtyard, right in front of the half-destroyed control-room.

"It's time to fry a bug!" He announced with sickening delight.

"Spider-Man get up!" Menel cried out in horror, and hers wasn't the only voice ringing in that moment, Gwen was crying out for him as well.

When realizing that wouldn't be enough, Gwen ran. Akela tried to stop her but it was useless, and there was no way for Menel to make herself visible to either of them; that would require for the half-elf to return to her body and then project again, and there just was no time...

Gwen ignored Akela completely as she ran across the courtyard to stand in between Electro and the control-room. Spider-Man's groans in a mix of pain and quite possibly horror at seeing his girlfriend putting her life in danger to try and protect him, could be heard; yet he didn't have enough strength to do more than half sit up.

"You won't hurt him!" Gwen screamed at the electric villain.

Electro's laughter was chilling.

"And who do you think will stop me girl?" Electro taunted her.

Menel was about to move, finally considering making herself visible to her, when a slight move from Gwen, who seemed to be holding her left wrist carefully behind her back, twisting as if readying herself for something, distracted her.

"You won't hurt my boyfriend!" Gwen practically screeched at him.

"Boyfriend?" Electro asked, honestly surprised. "Oh that is precious! Wondering what the bug will do if I make him watch you die before his eyes?!"

"No...!" Spider-Man tried to scream, but his voice came out broken by pained coughs.

"Sandman..." Electro called in an almost eager tone.

He obviously knew that if he tried to touch the girl he would kill her, and while that was certainly his final goal, he wouldn't let her go so easily.

Sandman did not reply verbally, but he moved against the girl. Though Gwen did not move, she kept her eyes straight on Electro, as if waiting for something.

"Move girl!" Akela yelled from her spot. "You're gonna get yourself killed!"

It all happened in less than a handful of seconds. Gwen shifted slightly, just enough to clear the way between Electro and the control room, as if allowing him to attack her boyfriend, something the villain immediately took advantage of. He knew a single discharge wouldn't be enough to kill the spider, though it would certainly hurt him, and he so enjoyed causing pain, especially after all the pain those doctors in Ravencroft had caused him... Sandman reached for the blonde, giant sand hands moving to take hold of her, and then she moved, stepping straight into the path of the electric discharge, making Sandman's moves follow her... before her left arm shot out, a line of bio-cable coming from her wrist and connecting to the top of a nearby-column; Gwen held onto it and jumped. The swing was much less coordinated than Spider-Man's moves, though the fact that she knew at all what to do showed that she had some preparation, the mere fact that she had on her wrist one of the devices Peter had created to help shoot his bio-cable!

The effects were almost instantaneous, as Electro's attack hit Sandman's arms (who had been reaching for Gwen), with enough power to turn not just the arms, but Sandman as a whole into clear glass; which shattered when hit by a bullet from Akeela. Meanwhile Gwen was left hanging from the bio-cable, a couple of feet of the ground.

Menel was in absolute shock at everything, probably even more so than Electro, and he was the one who'd unexpectedly taken out one of his own allies.

The princess remembered when she'd first met the two teenagers, how they'd been back then: how in love, and also how afraid...

It was Astrid's first day off since joining SHIELD in her new identity and she'd decided to play tourist. While she'd lived in New York (the state) before, and even visited Manhattan once (short layoffs while on board the Bus did not count), she'd never gotten the chance to just walk around, see the sights, that sort of thing. She wasn't ashamed to admit to enjoying herself thoroughly; at least she until someone abruptly grabbed her and pulled her into an alley.

It was the worst cliche in the universe, as far as she was concerned. Being pulled into a dark alley to be mugged... possibly worse. However, it wasn't like she was that worried... or she wasn't until she realized she wasn't the only one the gang had grabbed. There was one other, a teen-aged blonde in a charcoal gray sweater dress with dark tights underneath, brown leather knee-high boots and tanned winter-coat.

The girl's presence made Astrid stop and reconsider; she hesitated long enough that, by the time she reacted, it was the blonde acting; twisting around violently, using fists, elbows and knees to deliver hits to the men trying to hold her. Astrid finally reacted when one of the gang-members pulled out a knife, intending to use it to stab the blonde; the brunette twisted in between her captors before flipping once, throwing them to the ground harshly and efficiently before delivering a double punch that downed a third guy and ending with a high-kick that threw the knife off the one intending to hurt the younger girl.

The four men still fighting to hold the blonde were taken by surprise, as they'd seen the brunette acting so passive, they thought she would be an easy target. Astrid simple dropped into a crouch before extending her leg to trip one up; she tried the same with a second, only to fail and end up with a kick to her side herself; still she rolled with it before jumping back to her feet.

"Are you alright?" The agent asked, even as she made plans to help the girl.

"Behind you!" Was her reply.

Astrid spun around, taking a defensive stance, though the hit never came; instead she found the would-be attacker strung up by white pieces of thread that looked almost like what you would expect to see coming from a spider... if they came human-size.

In the time it took the brunette to turn around again, the rest of the gang-members were similarly tied and hanging from a nearby fire-escape.

The SHIELD Agent had heard about the 'wall-crawler', the superhero the people were calling Spider-Man; though she hadn't seen him in the week or so since her arrival to New York, not until that moment. That moment when the only three people left standing in the alley were her, the young blonde and the hero... and Astrid felt as if she could vanish into a wall at any moment, with the intensity that seemed to bind the other two together.

Right then, unexpectedly, one of the criminals the brunette had downed before Spider-Man's arrival got up again, pulled out a knife and attacked the blonde still in his vicinity, cutting the back of her hand before anyone could react.

"Gwen!" The wall-crawler cried out, jumping from his spot on the fire-escape.

The call of the name confirmed the agent's suspicion that there was a connection between those two; though she knew they had other priorities. The moment the criminal turned to attack her, her instincts took over, as she used her telekinesis to call on the knife she'd kicked from one of the unconscious gang-members. The bastard screamed, as his own knife fell, the other one going straight through his palm.

Spider-Man made his own offering a moment later, tying him up and hanging him beside the rest of his group.

The trio moved a few feet away, enough so they could talk quietly and not be overheard by whatever criminals might still be awake.

"I guess I don't need to ask if you know each other." Astrid commented flippantly.

None of them answered, but the tension in both of their shoulders was telling enough.

"I won't ask for any names, just..." She pulled one of her new SHIELD-issued business cards out of her pocket before turning it and adding her cellphone number on the back. "I am Agent Astrid Avery, with SHIELD. If you ever need help, give me a call." She considered for a second before adding. "If you want to keep it personal, with no SHIELD involvement, I can do that too. My cellphone is on the back. I promise if you want to call, or meet, no one will know your identities unless you want it to be that way. I may work for a government organization, but my interest will always be to protect those who may need it."

Spider-Man wouldn't take the card when she offered it, but the blonde girl did. Astrid just smiled at her before arranging her sunglasses (they'd begun to slip when she was manhandled into the alley and she ended having to pull them off during the scuffle) back in place; then she waited.

It seemed to take the hero a second to realize she was waiting for him, but the moment she pulled out her phone, called a number and introduced herself as a SHIELD Agent the young man finally seemed to understand, using one arm to pull the girl tight against his body, he use the other to shoot one of his webs and swing away.

Surprisingly, it was the blonde who went looking for her first. The teenagers confirmed her name was Gwen, but refused to give her surname, stating it was to keep her family safe. Still, with the things she revealed to Astrid in the following days, the Agent had no doubt that even the simplest web-search would be enough to give her answer. After all, even in a place like New York, there couldn't be that many chiefs of police who had died recently, especially surrounding the mess with the mutated Dr. Connors.

The two young women talked a lot in those days. As Gwen opened up, Astrid learnt about the relationship between the two teenagers, how she'd been there when he'd gone from vigilante to hero, about her father... and about the promise Spider-Man had made to him when the man was dying, to stay away from Gwen.

It took almost two weeks, but eventually Astrid saw the young superhero again. They met on her way out from the office. She could sense him there so, without saying a word, she walked the blocks separating her from Riverside Park. Once there, after making sure no one (human) was paying close attention to her, the brunette jumped over the edge to the actual riverside, before taking a position out-of-view of the people walking by the park, where she waited for the wall-crawler to join her, and he did:

"I know you're there." The Agent called, releasing her hair from its ponytail and placing her sunglasses over her hair (the sun was already out of sight, hidden among the skyscrapers).

Spider-Man dropped on the rocky riverside beside her, hesitating just an instant before taking a seat on some rocks beside where she was.

"You knew I was there." He stated, not asked.

"I could sense you." She did not bother trying to hide it.

"You're not human...?" He muttered, mostly a question.

"I am even less of a human than you are." She half-smiled at him before clarifying. "I have no idea if you're a mutant, like those that have been appearing all around the world, an alien, or something else entirely. Still, I am pretty sure there's nothing right now on this world stranger than I myself am."

Maybe it was her odd sense of humor, or her openness, but the young man finally opened to her. He did not tell her his name, but he stopped affecting his voice, and even went as far as revealing that his real name was Peter. He told her his story, the same one Gwen had already shared with her, only from a different point of view. And, as it turned out, while he certainly was more human than she, he was also odd in ways she had never imagined.

When the story ended, Astrid couldn't hold himself back, she had to say something:

"I know this is none of my business, but well... I guess it's up to you whether you listen to the advice I'm offering or downright ignore it, it's all up to you." She stated softly, hoping to be able to help, at least a little. "I've been talking to Gwen, as I'm sure you already know. She shared with me her side of things. Including the way your abrupt changes of mind make her feel."

"My abrupt changes..." He began.

"The way you one day claim to love her, and then the next day push her away." She clarified.

"I made a promise to her father when he died." Peter half hissed, half moaned. "Captain Stacy made me promise..."

"I know what he asked of you." She interrupted shortly. "And with all due respect to the dead, he should have never asked that of you. It wasn't his decision to make... and it isn't yours either. It's Gwen's life at risk, and she should be the one to decide..."

"If she dies because of me... because she's with me..." He couldn't even finish the sentence, the mere idea hurt too much.

"Everyone dies... It's as much a fact of life, as life itself. I myself have stood at death's door..." She raised her blouse just enough to show her scars briefly.

"Did it happen because of your job?"

"Yes. A criminal thought I'd gotten too close to catching him too many times and had me shot, twice, at point blank. I barely survived, and only thanks to... what makes me different. If I were human I wouldn't have made it."

"And yet you're still with SHIELD..."

"I am. It's my choice. I think... No, I know I'm doing a good thing, working with them. We can help people, protect those who need to be protected; and if that means that I have to put my life on the line every so often... I think it's worth it. Even if next time I'm not as lucky, if one day I do die, it will be worth it, for everything I managed to achieve while I was alive..." She let out a breath. "And it's not even just what I'm doing as an Agent. The life I'm leading, my family, my friends, the man I love... After I almost died I made a decision, a promise to myself, to never have any regrets. If something happens, a mission goes wrong, or even if there's just an accident, if I die tomorrow, I will be able to go in peace, because I will have done everything I ever wanted, I will have held nothing back, left no unfinished business." She sighed. "You may think you're keeping your girlfriend safe by pushing her away, Peter, but you're only hurting her, and yourself at the same time. Also, you are not the only danger in this universe, not even the worse. People, innocents, end up as tragic casualties all the time, who knows? Maybe there will be another invasion or another confrontation among mutants, or a natural disaster, a traffic accident? The two of you staying together, or apart, doesn't guarantee either death or survival. You don't get to decide how you die, none of us do, what you can choose, is how you live, so, what will you choose Peter?"

"I... I honestly don't..."

"Make your own choices, and respect Gwen's. In the end, it's a matter of what's stronger, your love for Gwen, or your fear for what might happen. If your fear is stronger then pull away, and stay away, both for you and for her; but if your love is stronger, then stay, and mean it this time. Gwen truly loves you, and she's made her choice, so what will yours be?"

Skye saw his choice, their choice, first hand three days later (she'd seen neither of them in the meantime), the day of that fight against the Doom-bots in Uptown Manhattan. There she'd half-crashed against Gwen as she ran to the place of the fight, where she'd later seen the blonde directing civilians to safety, where she'd also seen Spider-Man keeping the battle contained to the park and its surrounding streets... and then she'd seen Gwen, with her arms around her hero's neck, as the two swung off in one of his web-lines.

They'd never talked about it, not then, not when Peter called her for help with Harry Osborn's sickness, and not in the weeks that had all been meeting to settle that matter. Still, just seeing the two of them together was enough to make the young woman immensely happy. She believed that everyone deserved to have happiness in their life; for superheroes it might be harder than for most, but that only made it all the more important for them to find it. After all, what were they, what was every single one of them fighting for if not happiness, and love?

Menel was pulled abruptly back to the present when she noticed Spider-Man moving past him from the corner of her eyes, throwing himself at Electro before the villain could turn against the women. Also, Akela was busy in that moment helping Gwen get back to the ground without hurting herself further; though by the way she winced and limped it was obvious she had hurt something, probably a knee or her hip when coming in contact with the column.

Minutes passed, and it was quite obvious that Spider-Man was trying to do something, though none of them knew what exactly, until Gwen, who was relaying heavily on Akela to stay up and walk slowly, seemed to catch up on it.

"An overcharge..." She murmured under her breath.

"What?" The ex-Agent sounded confused.

It was quite obvious that she wanted nothing more than to berate the girl to kingdom come, but it was hard to muster any real anger when she'd managed to arrange the defeat of one of the enemies. A girl who was nothing more than human, the less prepared and most vulnerable person was responsible for the defeat of someone much stronger than her. It was awe inspiring, as well as humbling to everyone who'd witnessed it.

"Electro, he absorbs electricity, right?" Gwen presented her theory to Akela. "He's like a huge battery. But all batteries have a limit of energy they can contain, if you exceed it, they blow up. Electro must have a limit too."

"And if you overcharge him, he'll blow up, like a battery." Akela added, catching up.

"We need to restart the plant." Gwen stated with complete seriousness.

Akela hesitated, turning to look at the control room, still some distance away, and the girl holding onto her, unable to walk right on her own anymore.

"Go." Gwen made the decision herself. "Right now Spider-Man needs your help more than I do." With some effort she moved off Akela to sit herself on the remains of one of the columns. "I'll still be here when you've taken Electro down."

Akela didn't stop to think twice about it, knowing that even if the young superhero had managed to push himself back to the fight, he wouldn't last long, not after all the hits and shocks she'd taken already, and she had arrived when the fight had already begun. Even after everything she'd done and been through, she couldn't imagine how a teenager was handling it all (and she knew it was a teenager, the risks the blonde had been willing to take had shown a connection, a love-connection, so it was only logical).

The plan worked, pretty much how Gwen had stated it. She'd seen it before, right after Peter's first confrontation with Electro, before they learnt of Harry's sickness. The blonde had found her boyfriend in his uncle's old garage, with his web-shooters out, cooper wire lying around and at least a dozen batteries of different brands, sizes and capacities lying around, ruined. It had been her idea to use a car battery rather than the houses's electricity to charge his bio-cable. It was something so simple Peter had missed it.

In any case, the plan worked, and while neither teenager enjoyed the idea of killing, Electro blew up, exactly as planned. And then, then was when things went wrong:

Spider-Man was swinging in the direction of the control-room, smiling wide beneath his mask as he heard his girlfriend cheering loudly for him, when suddenly the sounds of joy changed to those of pain and fear. He dropped to the middle of the ground abruptly, turning just in time to see none other than the Vulture rising into the air again with a motion of his wings, Gwen screaming and twisting, trapped in his arms.

"Gwen!" Spider-Man and Menel screamed, though only one was truly heard.

"Now Spider-Man..." The Vulture said with a malicious grin. "You will surrender, or the girl dies a painful death!"

"No!" This time it was Gwen and Menel screaming at the same time.

Half-hidden behind the remains of the door of the control room, stood Akela, gun in hand, though with Vulture high in the air, and Gwen in his arms, there was no way she could take a shot, not like she had before. It didn't matter how good a shot she might be, if she missed, she could end up hitting Gwen, and even if she did it right, the fall would kill the girl.

"Give up Spider-Man!" Vulture insisted with a maniacal laugh. "I've already won."

"No... you haven't." Gwen stated soberly.

It was until then that everyone noticed she'd stopped twisting and fighting at one point. She then turned to look at her boyfriend, who was crouching at the top of the column, still a dozen or so feet above him, off the reach of his webs.

"Spider-Man..." She called, loud enough for everyone to hear her clearly, though her eyes were still on him. "My life... my choice..."

Then, before anyone could fully process what she might be planning exactly, a move of Gwen's wrist allowed a switch-knife she kept hidden inside the sleeve of her coat to slip into her hand, another move snapped it open, and before a handful of seconds had passed, she buried the blade deep into her captor's side.

The Vulture's moves were automatic as his body seized in pain, his hands reaching for the wound, half letting go of Gwen, half throwing her away; far enough that Spider-Man knew, even before he threw himself off the column in a desperate attempt to reach her, save her, that there was no way he could.

Menel couldn't even scream, terror had clogged her throat.

Then... a sound like a keen whistle broke the air, and right when everyone moved their heads, expecting to find the blonde's body broken on the ground, instead what they found was a figure in strange, dark, green-tinted metallic armor, standing on what some would describe as a flying skateboard, blonde girl in his arms...

Spider-Man was still in shock when the new-arrival flew by his hand, stopping just long enough to place Gwen carefully on her feet right beside him, before taking off again.

"If you don't mind, this one's mine." He announced as he flew to where the winged-man seemed to be studying him carefully.

"Harry...?" The shock in the two teenagers was obvious.

It was then that Menel understood, at least in part. Somehow, the man in the odd, futuristic armor was Harry Osborn... she still had no idea how that had happened exactly.

Still, the details didn't matter much. Whether is was Harry (maybe a side-effect of the treatment used to cure him?), the armor, or a combination of both, but he managed to take the Vulture down in a matter of minutes, hard enough to make sure he stayed down; and he'd kept half of the winged suit in the process, to make sure the villain wouldn't be flying again.

Then, as if that were some kind of cue, Triplett, Carter and their CIA-SHIELD team arrived.

Menel saw Spider-Man one more time as he watched the Agents canvas the place from the top of the nearby clock-tower, taking the Vulture, gathering the remains of the other two, and making sure there was no one else; Gwen behind him, out of sight from them all. She waved him good-bye with a smile before allowing her illusion to vanish and her spirit to return to her body.

xXx

The moment they landed Skye practically ran down the Bus's ramp and into the old SHIELD base the mixed team was using as temporary HQ. She'd just reached the door when the young woman finally remembered herself, and her position. So she stopped dead in her tracks, straightened her clothes, checked that her hair and sunglasses were alright, before pushing the double doors opened and walking inside with the calm and confidence that could be expected of the Deputy Director of a world-wide organization.

"As...Agent Avery..." Trip was the first to notice her presence.

"Deputy Director Avery." Carter echoed the greeting in a more formal manner.

"Good evening Agent Triplet, Agent Carter." Skye greeted back formally.

It was frustrating, but it really had taken them that long to get to New York, and while a part of her wanted nothing more than to find Peter and Gwen, make sure they were alright; another, bigger part of her knew she had a duty to fulfill, so she stayed put.

"I didn't know you would come so soon." Carter admitted, obviously bothered by her own lack of knowledge on the matter.

"Agent May changed course of the Bus as soon as we learnt there was a situation." Skye told her calmly. "I trust everything is alright now in the power plant... and that measures were taken to make sure no one was affected by the extended lose of power in Manhattan."

It looked like Carter wasn't sure how to answer that; or more like, she wasn't expecting Astrid to be so well informed, especially since she'd just arrived.

"It's been handled." Trip assured her, more used to his 'boss' knowing everything, even if she'd been on the other side of the world at the time. "The only ones who had any real trouble were the Hospitals; even then, most had generators that kicked in fast enough; the only one who seemed to have trouble even on that front, was Bellevue, and from what I've been informed, they made do with batteries until they got power back once the battle was over and OsCorp sent a team to get things back up and running safely."

"Who ever thought it was a good idea to allow civilians into that place so soon after the fight ended..." Carter complained.

"I did." Phil announced, having just stepped in himself.

"Director Coulson!" Both Agents called, surprised by his presence.

"Why would you allow civilians into that power plant?" Carter asked almost immediately. "We hadn't finished securing the premises yet."

"Because, like Agent Triplett just pointed out, the people needed that power plant up and running, and the team for OsCorp were the best people to handle that." Phil answered calmly. "Besides, from what I know, only three inmates had escaped, and by that point two were dead and the last one was out-cold..."

"Because of that strange figure, on the flying skateboard." Carter commented with distaste. "He looked like something out of a comic-book, or of Halloween, sort-of like a Goblin."

"Most superheroes do... look like beings out of a comic-book I mean." Phil commented.

"Yeah, I mean, just look at that Spider-guy." Trip commented with a snicker. "I mean, bright blue and red spandex, really? Shouldn't he be wearing body-armor or something if he's going to put himself in such a risk?"

"Agent Triplett, I think you haven't realized it yet but, spiders have something in their legs, which is what allows them to pretty much walk on walls, ceilings and the such." The brunette explained. "Spider-Man is really no different on that front, and..."

"He needs the fabric of his suit to be that thin so he can... 'glue himself to surfaces' so-to-speak." Carter finished, suddenly understanding.

"Exactly." Astrid nodded, before adding a chastising tone. "So, more respect to what superheroes wear, for most of the time there is a reason, even if we cannot always see it."

"Yes Ma'am." Triplett nodded respectfully.

"Very well." Phil agreed. "Anything else?"

"ESU student Gwen Stacy is missing." Carter announced seriously. "We know she was taken by the inmate dubbed Sandman, real name William Baker... from the university campus earlier today. We know she was in the plant, but have no way of knowing what happened to her exactly."

"What have witnesses said?" Phil asked, worried.

We both knew, technically, that Gwen was alright, but a part of us couldn't help but wonder if something had happened after I left and we hadn't seen...

"Former Agent Amador refuses to speak to anyone who's not you, sir." Triplett told him. "The same for Spider-Man and the... Goblin, regarding Agent Avery..."

"And the Vulture, ever since he recovered consciousness he keeps screaming about killing Gwen Stacy and making Spider-Man surrender." Carter went on. "We don't actually know if that's something he wants to do or... or something he already did."

"Whichever the case, the man is pretty insane, sir." Trip felt it necessary to point that out. "I guess that's why he was in Ravencroft in the first place."

"Regardless of how insane someone might be, no one deserves to be in a place like Ravencroft." Phil hissed almost angrily, still remembering the things his team had found when they'd arrived to the facilities, too late to help much. He shook his head. "Guess that means we'll have to talk to the witnesses ourselves then. Agent Avery?"

"Where can I find Spider-Man and... his friend?" Astrid inquired, guessing already they wouldn't be inside the building.

"Spider-Man said that when you arrived, you could find him and the Goblin by going to the roof." Triplett stated. "We've sent agents a few times in the last hours, even medics twice, but there was no one."

"Because they will only speak to me." Astrid nodded in confirmation before turning to leave, then looked over her shoulder one last time. "Goblin?"

Triplett could only shrug, not quite knowing how to answer that.

"It's what the guys are calling him." Carter informed her. "The Green Goblin..."

Astrid just shook her head. Everyone in New York must be really crazy to be able to see someone with superhuman abilities and focus more on giving them a nickname, instead of wondering how exactly they got those abilities, or who it might really be... maybe it was a good thing in the end. Especially because it was whom she suspected, things had gotten far crazier than she imagined was possible, even with her life.

Still, there were things she needed to focus on, so the pair split just outside the room where a group of Triplett and Carter were working on the reports to their respective superiors. Meeting the team on the way, they directed them to the right room, before asking them to interview the agents to make sure they had all the information, while they handled those who'd been on-site during the actual fight.

Skye reached the roof easily enough. One moment it was empty, the next she could hear the soft rumble of an engine, a second before Spider-Man landed softly, on a crouch sideways on the huge water-tank a few feet from her; and beside him, a figure in metallic green-tinted armor, the one the agents had been calling the Goblin.

"Spider-Man... Goblin?" Skye called, doubtful on the second name.

"It's what the agents around here have been calling me." The armored man nodded. "The Green Goblin... a bit odd, but I like it."

"So... you wanted to talk?" The brunette asked, confused why they wouldn't go down.

"Yes, but not here." Spider-Man declared with an obviously uncomfortable tone. "Too many eyes and ears on this building."

"If you don't mind..." The Goblin hovered right in front of her then, offering a hand.

It took a second for Skye to realize what it was he wanted. She did not hesitate, simply taking his hand and allowing him to position her in the most convenient way on top of the glider he was using. Then they were off.

They didn't go that far, actually. They were still in Manhattan, not far from the power plant where everything had happened. It took no time for the agent to realize where exactly they'd just landed: OsCorp Tower...

"Why am I not surprised?" She murmured under her breath, before turning to face the 'goblin'. "Harry Osborn, I presume..."

"Correct." He landed the glider and stepped off it before pulling off the helmet. "If you would follow me, Felicia must have gotten us our dinners by now."

Skye didn't even comment on an unknown civilian knowing the couple of superheroes identities. While the old SHIELD probably would have had a cow over it, they were quite different, and if the two young men thought Felicia Hardy trustworthy enough... well, they knew her better than she did. And heroes needed people to know about them, enough at least to be able to keep them grounded, focused, whenever life became too much for them.

"Should be out and about already?" The young woman couldn't help but ask even as she followed after the boys. "I thought you would still be recovering from the last phase of the treatment."

"He should." Peter nodded, mask off and concern clearly on his face. "But..."

"I saw what was going on, on tv." Harry explained, without stopping his walk, or getting out of the armor. "I couldn't let Peter and Gwen get killed, not after everything they've done for me. I just had to help them..."

"And the... Goblin?" That one still intrigued me.

"During the audit we moved everything connected to OsCorp's more... shall we say, dubious, experiments to the secret facility in New Jersey." Harry elaborated. "That included this suit. It was meant to be part of a super-soldier project. It connects completely to the wearer's nervous system, for better response; it also augments speed, strength, enhances the person's reflexes and even the senses; finally, it also grants a degree of self-healing. Not as much as the spider-venom, but it was enough to allow me to do save my friends."

The agent nodded, she would never berate someone for doing whatever was necessary, risking whatever they had, to save someone they cared for, she wasn't a hypocrite. Besides, as long as the risks taken were for themselves, the choices were theirs to make.

"Are you alright?" She asked next. "I mean, this won't push back your recovery or anything?"

"I probably should be on light duty for a few days..." The CEO admitted. "According to what we have researched on the suit, I will get a feeling like coming down from a serious high, once I take it off. The exhaustion will be quite serious, but it's nothing that should endanger my life, or my recovery from the sickness."

"Ok." That was what truly mattered, or one of the things, at least. "And Gwen?"

For all answer, the boys pushed the doors open; there, sitting on couches in Harry's private sitting room were two young women, one with black-hair, the other a blonde: Felicia Hardy and Gwen Stacy. The first looked the same as always, in her smart business-suit (sans jacket and heels, as she was relaxing); while the blonde had obviously changed her clothes for simple top and shorts. A bandage could be seen beneath the waistband of her shorts, as well as on part of her left leg, while her left arm was on a sling.

Skye's heart went out to the injured girl. It was obvious, by the sleepiness of his motions, that she had taken something for the pain; she must have been feeling a great deal, considering the number of bandages on her, and the number of bruises and scratches that could be seen in the rest of the left side of her body, where she'd crashed against the column. It made the brunette wish she could help heal the blonde, but there was nothing that could be done. Skye's healing talents were limited, especially compared to those of her father, and especially her grandmother... but it was more than that, that kind of healing could be used only in individuals who were 'super', or immortal, or something else like that. Because what she, what they all did was in fact to push the person's cell into replicating faster than they usually did (the injury wasn't erased; it healed, like it would have naturally, only much faster). The problem with that was the cell division was part of aging, so she would technically be taking time off their lives if she ever did that to a human, from hours to days, weeks, possibly even more. Super-humans, some mutants and other supernaturals had a natural level of self-healing; which she could push a bit further with her own powers, without taking anything from their life-force. It was actually what Loki had done for her, using his own power to heal the worst of it before her own healing took over; it was also what she'd done for Phil the day he was poisoned.

"So... will someone tell me what exactly is going on?" Skye asked, finally taking a seat.

"I'm dead." Gwen murmured.

Her voice was so low for a moment the brunette thought she'd heard wrong, until Peter sat beside his girlfriend and began explaining.

"Not literally, obviously." He stated. "But right now Gwen Stacy is considered missing and... it's dangerous, if she goes back to her life, not only for her but for her family..."

"Too many people saw her being taken from ESU." Felicia explained in her usual matter-of-fact style. "Some either heard about what happened with the Lizard last year, or were even around for it, remember that she was the last one out that day. Connections are being made, to these super-human villains, OsCorp old experiments, and to Spider-Man. We're at such a point right now that, if she goes back, there's a pretty big chance things will only get worse."

"They will never leave her alone." Harry added.

"You don't need to explain it to me." Skye shook her head. "I used to work for the Rising Tide, I know what some people can be like. They will stalk her, trying to find out what makes her so special. And f there happens to be someone good enough at it, they might discover Spider-Man's identity, possibly both of yours..." She signaled to Harry. "If you're planning on making your escapades a normal occurrence."

"Possibly, I'll have to think about it." Harry admitted.

"It's not me I'm worried about." Peter stated drowsily. "I have no delusions, I know sooner or later it's gonna come out that I am Spider-Man; though, for obvious reasons, I'd rather it be later. Aunt May... she won't take it well, if she finds out, especially after today. And then there's Gwen's family to consider. What if the next villain tries to use them?"

"So we need to take that chance away, erase any possible connection." Skye muttered, trying to make a plan. "Too bad we don't have a super-powerful telepath around, capable of making everyone forget what happened."

While she had no doubt that telepaths did exist, regardless of what SHIELD might say; then again, they said that about all psychics, and there she was... and then there were the mutants. She had been reading all those articles important scientists like Dr. Moira McTaggert, Dr. Charles Xavier and Dr. Jean Grey had written through the years, and while they all spoke of things in a very theoretical manner, the half-elven couldn't help but think there was something more to it. There was a level of certainty in their styles; they had no doubt whatsoever about what they were saying, as if they knew it to be true already. Maybe one day she would investigate that matter...

"Yeah... if only it were that easy..." Peter shook his head.

"But it isn't." Harry continued. "So other measures must be taken."

"By the way you speak I'm guessing you already have a plan." Skye said suspiciously.

"That's where my initial comment comes in." Gwen said, still speaking quietly. "I'm dead." She shook her head. "It's why we need your help. We need you to report my dead, do everything that has to be done so no one can doubt it. Hopefully it will be enough to make any possible stalker desist, and leave my family alone..."

"And what about you?" Skye asked, not quite comfortable with it.

It was one thing for her to play dead, but someone like Gwen, with a family, and a life...

"I suppose I will either stay here, or hide somewhere else." The blonde tried to sound like she did not mind, though it was obvious she was lying.

"What if you could go out, as someone completely different?" Skye offered before she could second-guess herself, and her offer.

"What are you saying?" No one was sure about that.

"I'm saying I can do it." The brunette was pretty direct. "I can give you a new name, a new life, no one will be able to suspect it. I've done it before."

"Astrid Avery..." Felicia murmured in understanding.

"It's not even the first time I've done it." I deadpanned.

"Ok." Gwen nodded, somehow more enthusiastic about the plan than before.

"Something else." The agent added. "It's one thing for someone like me to do it. I don't have any family around. You... you need to talk to your family first."

"How will I be able to protect them then?" The blonde was unsure about that.

"You leave that to us." It was obvious she was talking about SHIELD.

xXx

An hour later Helen Stacy, along with her three sons: Howard, Phillip and Simon, were rushed into the temporary HQs by a few Agents, past all the reporters, photographers and various curious civilians waiting outside the building for information on the missing college girl. Several of them managed to get pictures of the obviously nervous and worried mother, which only made the gossips going around grow.

The blonde woman rushed through the lobby, to the woman that seemed to be waiting for me.

"I'm Helen Stacy, Gwen's mother, and these are my sons." The woman said tensely. "I got a call an hour ago from an Astrid Avery, she said we needed to come..." She couldn't hold herself back anymore. "Is my daughter alright?"

"I am Melinda May, Agent of SHIELD." The woman introduced herself. "If you and your sons will follow me Mrs. Stacy."

"Is Gwen alright?" The boys began asking immediately.

Melinda did not answer, she just began guiding them.

"Is big sis dead... like daddy?" Simon, the youngest, asked in a tiny voice.

Melinda couldn't help but stumble just a little bit, to hear such a tone of voice from the boy. But she'd been told just to get the family to the room at the back, and she had to do that.

Melinda let the family into the room, without going in herself, which seemed to make the mother even more nervous; and it showed when she came face to face with the young woman waiting for the her in what looked like an ante-chamber of some sort.

"Good evening, Mrs. Stacy." The brunette greeted them. "Helen Stacy, right? I am Agent Astrid Avery, Deputy Director of SHIELD. It was I that phoned you earlier."

"Just tell me already if my daughter is alright!" Helen practically snapped.

"I am very sorry that we have caused you to worry this much, ma'am." Astrid told her honestly. "I promise you it was for a good reason. Gwen is waiting this way."

"She's alive..." One of the boys whispered in heart-breaking relief.

"A little hurt, but nothing life-threatening." Skye assured them.

They finally entered the sitting room at the back; where all eyes immediately focused on the blonde half-laying down on the love-seat in a corner. Two of the boys immediately dashed past their brother and mother, intent on throwing themselves to their sister; until Peter appeared, as if from nowhere, taking hold of each kid with one arm.

"Easy pals, Gwen is a bit banged up." He warned them. "It's not a good idea to jump on her."

"Sis is hurt?" Simon asked, almost sniffing.

"A little." Peter admitted as he allowed the boys to kneel beside her. "Your sister was really, really brave today, you know? She faced monsters, and she won."

"Wow..." Phillip was fascinated by the tale.

"How bad is it?" The oldest son, Howard, asked with a seriousness that belied his age.

"Not much." Astrid answered him honestly. "She has a sprained wrist, twisted shoulder and elbow, as well as a number of cuts ans bruises, mostly on the left side of her body from a crash against a column during the fight. All her wounds have been treated already. She'll have to wear a single and probably a cane for a little while, but I promise you she will recover and in a few weeks it'll be like nothing happened to her."

Howard smiled brightly before going to join his siblings and his sister's boyfriend by the loves-eat.

"It cannot be that simple." Helen Stacy argued to Astrid. "With all the people that saw Gwen being taken by that freak..."

Astrid couldn't help but wince at the comment, and from the corner of her eye she could see Peter do the same, he'd heard as well.

"I'm sorry." The woman had noticed as well. "I swear I'm not a snob or anything. I know there are people who have abilities and do good things with them. Like that Spider-Man... my husband was always against him, called him a vigilante... but I liked the idea of someone with the power to help being there, being able to help us humans be safer. I've never stopped believing that, not even when George died..." She let out a breath. "And now he saved my daughter... Because it was him, wasn't it? Spider-man?"

"Him, and an agent of ours, Akela Amador, who happened to be near the plant." Skye clarified.

And, indeed, Akela was an active Agent again; Phil had made the offer after listening to her report of what had happened in the power plant, and she had accepted. She truly loved being an Agent, and the idea of working against those who'd destroyed her old team, who had kept her under their control for so long... she liked that.

"What will happen to us now?" Helen asked quietly. "With so many people knowing that Gwen was taken, and everything that is being said about her connection to Dr. Connors last year..."

"That's pretty much why we called you here without telling you what had happened beforehand." Astrid admitted before bringing up a news-feed in her tablet and showing it to the woman. "As far as the news are concerned right now, you've been brought to find out what happened to your daughter after the fight in the power plant."

"And what will have happened to her?" Helen began to understand, but she still had to ask.

"For your safety, as well as hers, Gwen Stacy died in the power plant." Astrid finally revealed in a quiet tone.

Helen nodded stiffly; she had been expecting it, but it was still hard to hear; especially because she knew it could have happened, if superheroes hadn't been around (and she didn't know just how lucky they actually were that Harry arrived at the exact moment when he did).

"Does that mean I will never see my daughter again?" She asked quietly.

"Oh!" Skye actually wasn't expecting that." Of course not Mrs. Stacy."

She popped up a different program in the tablet, it showed the unfinished version of the personal documents of Gwen's new identity.

"What is this?" Helen asked, confused.

"I'm a hacker." The brunette elaborated. "Have been for years. What I am doing here is creating a new identity for your daughter. In a couple of weeks or so, when her injuries have healed enough not to be noticed anymore, she will go out again, with a new name, probably a different hair color, and no one will know she's Gwen Stacy. As far as the world will know, Gwen Stacy died, tonight. She will lead a new life, with a different name." She smiled. "Of course, you, your sons and Peter will still know. I would never dream of separating Gwen from her family. It's just safer for everyone involved, this way."

"How can she be close to us if she's getting a new identity?" Helen inquired, not understanding fully how it was supposed to work.

"Well... I could always make her your niece." Skye offered after considering it for a moment, taking her tablet to add the new details. "What's your maiden name Mrs. Stacy?"

"Watson." The woman answered promptly.

xXx

The following two weeks went well-enough. Phil, Skye and their team stayed in New York until the mess with Ravencroft had been fully settled, then they were back at the Playground, getting ready for their next mission.

Harry took a few days to recover from the 'crash' caused by the use of the 'goblin suit' before making a public appearance, purposefully wearing a light suit with no jacket, only a vest, and the sleeves rolled up; it was his way of showing off, of letting the world know the world know the Osborn Curse was no more. Also, due to agreement between all of those involved, in a press conference he named Gwen Stacy as the one responsible for the cure. The reason was two-fold: on one hand it gave her 'posthumous' recognition, allowed him to 'grant' a settlement to her family and made sure her friend would be remembered; on the other, with the creator of the cure 'dead', no one would expect it to be replicated, ever. Even Gwen had agreed with the plan when it was proposed to her.

The Stacys had a hard time pretending Gwen was dead, especially for the funeral, which became a very public matter due to the way in which the girl 'died'. However, even the boys understood it was necessary for them all to be safe, and managed to pull off their part. SHIELD Agents had made sure reporters and civilians cleared out as soon as possible, so the family wouldn't have to pretend for long.

Finally, at the end of the month, Peter was sitting at the back of the classroom in Biology 101 when the teacher made an announcement:

"Good morning class." Professor McAllister said as she placed her things on the desk. "While this is certainly unusual, today we have a new student. She's from Boston and will be joining our Science program as a Biochemistry mayor. Please welcome Miss Watson..."

Into the classroom stepped a young girl in her late-teens (her records stated she was 19), with peach-colored skin, piercing bright green eyes and curly red hair to her shoulder-blades; she was wearing a cream short-sleeved button-up blouse, a navy sleeveless vest and a knee-length dark-denim skirt; white flats on her feet.

"Good morning everyone." She greeted with a smile bright enough it could probably blind some (and it probably did that to her boyfriend... even if no one knew they were together, after all, they technically hadn't met yet). "I'm new in town, living with my aunt and cousins... I love Biology and Chemistry, just got a job as an intern in OsCorp... I hope we'll get along." She made a pause before adding. "Ah, right. My name is Mary Jane Watson. Pleased to meet you all!"

Chapter Text

Chapter 3. Forever is a Long Time

A Twenty-three year-old young woman with chocolate eyes and dark brown hair in a messy twist, dressed in what looked like a bright-blue, sleeveless, somewhat loose body-suit, open at the front, showing the tight, white, tube-top underneath, was lounging in a huge sofa in what seemed like a private room of a flat quite high up (judging by the spectacular view out the window), iPhone in hand. She was bored and killing time in some way or other when suddenly her phone pinged, announcing she had a skype-call.

"Beth!" She called brightly as the window popped open. "Girl, you have my deepest and most absolute respect. That report that you gave... amazing, truly."

The screen was showing a woman in her mid-to-late twenties, softly-tanned skin, sky-blue eyes and slightly wavy blonde hair to the middle of her back; wearing a baby-pink short-sleeved shirt and white slacks. What immediately alerted the brunette that something was wrong was the grim expression on her face, and the lack of pride after the younger girl had been singing her praises, which the blonde had definitely earned.

"Karin!" The blonde interrupted her with a tone of urgency. "Listen to me, I don't have time. Is Mick there with you?"

"Mick? No!" The younger woman sat up abruptly. "Didn't he pick you up from the office? I thought he was supposed to take you to the apartment so you could pick up your things?"

"That was the plan yes, but it didn't exactly work out..." The blonde admitted grimly.

"Beth... what is going on?" The brunette had a bad feeling.

"Talbot is working with the Legion..."

"He's what?! How is that possible? And how the hell did we miss it?!"

"I don't know! Honestly! I don't know if he knows everything or they're just using him but... he has the list Karin!"

"The List... The List?!" It looked like the girl was a second away from cursing the building down, before she thought better of it. "What can we do?"

"What I already did. I took the list, took everything he had on any of us, and burnt it. Then I went to Lewis and offered him an exclusive on the recent disappearances. The man is a sleaze who cares little about credibility as long as it brings up his ratings, I knew he wouldn't ask any hard questions. It was the easiest and fastest way to get the warning out."

"You did a good thing Beth. But I don't like that you're alone right now. Talbot is going to realize his files are missing and you will be his first suspect."

"I know, and my apartment is the first place he'll look. But I had to come back here, make sure there is nothing that could direct him to Mick, or any of you... if he doesn't know the truth yet I am not going to be the one to give it up."

"I know you won't Beth, just... please be careful."

"I will, I promise. I have everything else packed already. As soon as we're done with this call I'm putting the laptop away and taking off."

"Then get moving already!"

Beth was just about to close Skype when, suddenly, they could both hear someone pounding on her apartment door.

"Elizabeth Sarah Turner, open the door and face your judgement!" A commanding voice called loudly from outside.

"Now that's not exactly what I would call positive motivation." Beth quipped, though her nervousness still showed.

"Don't joke right now Beth." Karin chastised her. "You need to get out, now!"

"I know... I know..."

Right then, the blonde's phone rang. Unable to help her curiosity, Beth answered it, though she put it on speaker so Karin would hear as well... just in case.

"Beth?" The voice belonged to none other than Benjamin Talbot, and from his very first word, his condescension was painfully obvious. "Beth I know it was you who took the files from my office... Beth it's not too late yet..."

"Late? For what?" The blonde couldn't help but ask.

"The Legion considers you an infidel, because you cover up for the abominations, but I can convince them you are just a victim; just tell them you repent, you can still be saved..."

"Saved? By you? And what would that rescue cost me?"

"You cannot possibly be implying..."

"I'm not implying Ben, I'm saying. If anyone's been using me it's been you, from the very start. All I have to repent for is ever believing you were a good man..."

"I really wish you had made a different choice Beth... I guess the best that can be done now is to make sure at least your soul will be saved..."

The call cut-off then; leaving Beth a bit confused.

"Your soul will be saved?" Karin repeated with a mix of confusion and distaste. "What the hell did he mean by that?"

For a second there was no answer, as Beth seemed to turn to look at something off-screen.

"I think I know..." She answered quietly, as she turned the webcam to a side.

"What...?" Karin's voice broke off as she caught what was going on. "Beth... you really, really need to get out of there now!"

The place was burning, the fire expanding fast.

"Yeah... that won't be exactly easy." The blonde admitted grimly. "The starting point of the fire is the only door in... and I'm on the fourth floor..."

The blonde began nervously playing with the long chain around her neck; then, suddenly, she pulled at it, at the object that hung from it, usually resting hidden between her breasts: it was a small glass vial, the contents bright red, and the top was made of white gold and decorated with angel-like wings...

"There's is one hope..." She announced, tearing the chain from her neck and letting it fall, so she was holding only the vial.

"Are you sure Beth?" Karin asked quietly.

"The other option is a rather... 'hot' death, and that one I really don't like." She shrugged, trying to make it seem like it was no big thing. "We all knew this was coming..."

Karin nodded quietly.

"Just..." Beth hesitated a second. "If this doesn't work, you and Josef make sure Mick won't blame himself. Please..."

"You and I both know that would be next to impossible... so you better survive Beth..." Karin said, anxiously. "But I do promise, if worse comes to worst, Josef and I will do our best."

"And I promise to do my best to... survive." Beth nodded before turning her back to Skye and walking to the window; she turned to the webcam one last time to add. "Always remember I love you, all of you. It's been a pleasure knowing you. In the end... it's my life, my choice..."

The blonde then threw herself out a window, just a fraction of a second before the flames reached the webcam and the call cut-off.

Karin knew it would do no good, change nothing, yet she couldn't help herself, she screamed:

"BETH!"

Karin shook her head a few times, trying to clear it, she knew she'd been knocked out and the proof was in the pounding she felt going on behind her eyelids, but she couldn't focus on that. She needed to focus on who exactly had knocked her out, and why.

However, right as she was beginning to gain actual awareness, she noticed a tv-screen across the room, right in front her, it was a live newscast. She recognized the place: it was the driveway to a small townhouse in Northwest LA... what only a handful knew was that it was a safe-house, the cellar had a panic room able to withstand practically anything, as well as a hidden access to a secret tunnel that lead straight to Josef Kostan's manor, close to Santa Monica, a couple of miles south. It was to that safe-house that she'd been driven by her personal chauffeur and bodyguard... except she'd never made it inside.

And apparently she hadn't been the worst off. The reporter on the screen had stated that while there were no bodies, there were signs of struggle, of shots and enough blood on the scene to believe there had to be at least one dead. Also, someone apparently had managed to track down the car's plates, 'Karin Kostan' was officially declared as missing, possibly kidnapped.

"Wha...?" The brunette couldn't even finish a question, her mouth felt like sandpaper.

She could sense there was someone else in the room, out-of-sight, observing her, as if gauging her reactions... she refused to give him anything. As concerned as she might be for the man who'd obviously been killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time... there was a lot more at stake than just him, and her...

Abruptly, the image on the TV changed. The reporter had been saying something about finding out more, probably about to cut and send back to the studio, when suddenly there was a loud, though distant boom, and in a corner, in the back, everyone could see black smoke rising. They tried to focus on it, but it was too far away.

A voice, from the news-studio possibly, announced they were shifting to a colleague who was in the helicopter. When the next image came Karin couldn't keep her reactions at bay: it showed the top of a hill near Santa Monica, and where once an amazing, contemporary manor had stood, there was nothing but debris and even that was on fire, the man giving the news was running with the theory of a gas-leak, which Karin knew was nothing but bullshit. When the camera panned enough to show a half-destroyed red Ferrari, what remained of the brunette's composure and emotionless mask, crumbled.

"JOSEF!" She screamed in despair, shooting through several octaves.

As if that were his cue, the figure that had been in waiting, finally approached her. At first Karin couldn't see his face, with the room as dark as it was, though he was well-dressed, in a suit and polished shoes, yet he was swayed as he began talking, fury tainting every word.

"We need to have a very serious chat, Miss Kostan..." The man whispered darkly into her ear.

Karin could smell the alcohol in his breath, feel his unshaven cheek against hers and it was almost enough to make her heave. Then, when he walked around her, finally stepping on a spot where the light from the TV illuminated his features she knew him, and as she did she couldn't help but think it should have been obvious from the start, only one man was insane enough to kidnap her and think he would get away with it.

"Benjamin Talbot..." She hissed, ignoring her dry mouth as best she could. "What in the seven hells do you think you're doing?"

"Ah ah, Miss Kostan, I'll be the one asking the questions here." He said darkly.

He dragged a chair before the one she'd been tied to, sitting on it, right in front of her, the TV. Illuminating him from behind and making it hard for her to read his expression. Which either was a tactical idea, or he was just trying to scare her.

"As if I would ever answer any questions you might have!" She snarled at him.

"Then it's a good thing I have ways to ensure truthful answers, isn't it?" He challenged darkly.

He pulled a lighter out of his pants and flipped it open, the tall, thin flame dancing before his face, reflecting in a morbidly fascinating manner in his blue eyes. Karin had no idea what was coming, but she knew it wouldn't be good.

"I am loyal..." She hissed at the man before her with all the conviction and coldness she could muster. "To my family, to my friends, of which you are neither. So regardless of what you may say, what you may do, I will never give you what you want..."

"We'll see about that..." He hissed.

His face twisted in an almost monstrous expression, only made worse by the light from the flame and Karin knew things were going to get bad, really bad.

The young brunette couldn't help but sway slightly and stumble over slippery ground and loose rocks on her way up the hill. She was thirsty, starving, and sore all over; also, the fact that she was being made to walk with heavy silver chains around her wrists and ankles; at least her arms were together in front of her rather than behind, otherwise she probably would have fallen and stayed down. Eventually they reached the end of the hill, a small scarp; and a handful of feet bellow: the Los Angeles River, current fast and hard after the recent storms.

"What the hell are we doing here?!" Karin spat, doing her best to cover her nervousness and fear with coldness and anger.

"I told you already Miss Kostan, we're doing a little exchange with your big brother. Him for you." Talbot sounded perversely satisfied by his own words.

"Do you honestly believe Josef will go for that?" Karin tried her best to scoff in disdain.

"He will." Talbot nodded confidently. "Because if something has been made clear in the last few months, it's that he cares for you... I suppose even monsters are allowed to care for their own."

Karin shivered at his tone, and at how right he was; and as much as she wanted to be rescued, she hated the idea of Josef being in her place even more. The things the insane fanatic that was Talbot did to her... it had hurt, a lot, but she knew that Josef wouldn't survive; in her case it somehow had paid being more fragile than him in the end. It paid being human... or as human as she might be in the end.

They didn't have to wait long, Shortly after they reached the end of that ridge, individuals began coming out of the shadows. The ones closer were the several dozens (she couldn't really count them all), members of the Legion, dressed in a mix of modern clothes and medieval armor; they all carried blades (most likely silver); though there were also some with guns and even a couple of flame-throwers. It was horrifying.

Meanwhile, down the hill, by the riverside, stood a dozen or so individuals, all dressed in simple clothes and holding their own weapons. At the front was Josef, looking no longer like the cut-throat businessman, but a Warrior, the same one he'd always been deep down, the only reason he'd ever survived the Dark Ages... to one side of him stood his two dearest friends, looking somewhat odd in their casual clothes yet holding such weapons; while on his other side, stood a bunch of women in tight black leather, them being the most armed and prepared for what they all knew was coming: war. Behind them all a few more individuals all in a variety of comfortable clothes and carrying weapons that might fit better in a renaissance fair than a riverside in LA.

For a few seconds not a word was said, and then Josef stepped forward, arms raised as if in a pacifying manner, no weapons drawn... yet.

"My name is Josef Konstantin!" He called loudly and authoritatively. "I am here as demanded by Benjamin Talbot, for the exchange. Now let my sister go!"

Karin shouted her denial, an unintelligible cry as she tried and failed to break the chains on her.

"Who ever talked about an exchange?" The Leader of the Legion scoffed. "There are no deals here, and no mercy. This world will be purified, and it starts today, with you!"

"Talbot!" Josef practically snarled. "We made a deal!"

"That is true..." Talbot admitted, one hand still on Karin. "I gave my word..."

"I never authorized that deal." The Leader interrupted. "So I guess I'll just have to break it."

Karin couldn't help the shrill cry that left her mouth when, with a quick, unexpected move, the old-looking man drove a knife deep into Talbot's chest; from bellow his ribs and into his heart, a ritualistic kill.

"And it's not like a dead man's word is worth much anyway." He finished with a shrug.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the brunette knew that well. She knew that if she stayed the Legion would kill her, no questions asked; it did not matter that she wasn't like the others, they still saw her as impure, as a 'traitor to the human race' for her association with them. So with that in mind, she half-ran, half-stumbled off the edge of the scarp and into the LA river running bellow.

For a few seconds she had no idea where up was, or down, she knew not where to go, how to move, how she could possibly survive; and it all reminded her painfully of that event years prior, when she'd been seventeen and a friend had thrown her off a bridge and into a river to save her. Except that time she hadn't been in chains...

Somehow, by instinct alone, she managed to pull herself up (the right up), and suddenly she found herself laying on the rocky riverside; half her body was still covered in water, and weighed down by the chains on her, but at least she was no longer drowning.

Karin was still fighting to breathe right when she suddenly felt someone take a hold of her and pull her to her feet. It was an older-looking woman, with dark-red hair in a tight, long ponytail and covered in black leather.

"Meredith?" She asked, voice hoarse, she was one of the few to know the woman's name.

"It's me, you're alright now Karin." The woman assured her. "What you did was very brave..."

"Dead if I stayed, only probably dead if I jumped... the odds were better on this one." The girl quipped as best she could as she straightened up fully.

"Still, not many would have had the courage." Meredith insisted in her praises. "You truly are a Konstantin, and one of our Community..."

With a sharp move of Meredith's gloved hands, the chains restraining Karin fell in pieces around her, freeing the young woman. Next thing she knew, the redhead was offering her a pistol and what looked like a short sword. The blade was easy enough, the brunette had experience with such weapons, even if not in the scale of what seemed to be about to begin, but the gun... she just hated firearms... had ever since one of her foster-fathers, when she was ten or so, had pointed one at her when she wouldn't stop crying at the pain of her dislocated shoulder... she'd ended more traumatized by that than by her fall off the stairs (pushed by her foster brother), which had caused the injury in the first place. At least she had changed families a couple of days later, the girl wasn't sure she would have survived long with them.

Meredith seemed to notice her insecurity, for she pulled back the gun, before offering her a second blade instead, to which Karin nodded.

"Do you want to stay?" The redhead's question surprised the brunette.

"What?" Karin wasn't even quite sure she heard that right.

"You have earned your place among us... doesn't mean you have to stand with us now." Meredith clarified. "You can leave now. Your brother would understand."

"I know." Karin admitted quietly. "But that's exactly why I have to stay. He is my family, this is my home... and I'm not giving it up." She made a pause before adding. "I... I cannot promise you I will be able to kill... but I will stand by you, by all of you, and do my best to be of assistance." Gathering confidence from lord-knows-where, she straightened up and nodded. "I shall not run, not this time."

With that, and making sure she had a good grip on both blades, Karin marched to her brother's left side. The rest of the women in leather, and a couple of others that were standing with them nodded respectfully and almost deferentially to her as she passed.

"Are you ready?" Josef inquired.

He didn't bother asking her if she was sure, or pleading with her to leave, he knew there was no point, it had been the same with the others.

"Not at all." Karin answered, dead-honest yet managing to insert a chuckle at the end. "Yet we're already here so, what the hell?"

"You will regret ever targeting me, my family, my tribe..." Josef snarled at the Legion.

"Tonight the purification begins." The Leader of the other side said in turn. "The Stain of Evil will be cleansed from this world. All creatures of darkness will perish, and the humans who had sided with them will be annihilated as well!"

"This is no beginning." Karin denied, talking loud and strong, like her brother. "Not for you. You are small people, fighting against that which they cannot comprehend. You believe you are strong, and you might be, but we're stronger..." She couldn't help but being human, and full of compassion as she added. "You may still leave now. Leave and forget this feud you seem to have with us, survive. Because I assure you, if you stay, you won't live past tonight..."

"We do not surrender, we do not turn back..." Several of the the Legion called like one.

Karin let out a sigh and stepped back, joining the lines of fighters.

"Then you die." Josef announced.

As if to emphasized his words lightning cracked across the night-sky, followed mere seconds later by deafening thunder. And then the battle began.

xXx

The young, blue eyed brunette straightened up in bed so fast and hard she probably would have been able to jump onto her feet if the man by her side, with deep blue eyes and light-brown hair hadn't reacted just as suddenly and held her against his body in a protective embrace instead. The girl was wearing a semi-translucent purple baby-doll with matching bootie-shorts (she knew most women would wear a thong or g-string, but she hated both of those); while the man (older than her) at her side was wearing a pair of boxer-briefs and a white loose shirt, navy blue.

"Skye...?" The man called, rubbing her back soothingly.

The brunette did not answer, getting off the bed and onto her feet, half-absently pulling the off-white silk-robe decorated with painted plum blossoms in a variety of shades. Then, still barefoot, she crossed the hotel room where they were staying, going to stand by the closed crystal doors that lead to the room's balcony.

"Arwenamin (My lady)..." The man called, getting on his feet and following her, paying no attention to the royal blue robe at the foot of his bed.

"Aratoamin (My champion)..." She responded automatically.

It was a little tradition of theirs that had begun after her return from her visit to Asgard; it had begun as a joke, a reminder of that day when Phil had, at great personal risk, gone to rescue her from Ward and Deathlok. When he'd used as an excuse that she was a princess, and he was her protector; that's who they were: a lady and her champion... the joke had turned into a set of endearments, their personal pet-names for each other.

"I saw... I dreamt... fire and rain, and death and blood... and so much pain..." Skye murmured, voice half-broken with inaudible sobs.

"I know..." Phil began.

"Except it was no dream..." Skye finished right then.

"I saw it too..." Phil added at the same time.

"Wait, what?" They could do nothing except look at each other in shock.

"You saw that?!" Skye's voice came out way too high and broke on the last word. "How...?"

"I don't know how." Phil shrugged. "But indeed, I saw it. I saw people call you Karin Kostan, and that man, Josef Kostan, you called him your brother, and he replied in the same manner. And the others: Beth Turner, Mick St. John and... Meredith...?" He shook his head. "I saw everything you saw, and even some things I did not see... I just knew..."

"Don't ask me." Skye interrupted, hand on her beloved's lips before a single more word could pass them. "Please. I know there are questions in your head right now, and you want nothing more than to ask them, but don't, please..."

"Are you going to say it's complicated?" Phil asked, regardless.

"I could, but this is so far beyond complicated it would never be enough." Skye admitted grimly. "What I can say is this: those things you saw, are real, yes. They're my memories. They are about Josef, about my year in LA before you and Ward found me in my van... and that's all I can say. There is a lot more, but I cannot say it, none of it. You once told me you needed to know that if you told me a secret, I would keep it..."

"And then I realized you already were, many secrets, most of them involving you."

"True and true. Except this time, the secret is not about me. That's why I cannot tell you..."

"You are loyal..."

"To my family, and friends. I may not have seen Josef in more than a year, I might never see him ever again, but he is family, he will always be family. I will not betray him Phil, I cannot. As much as it might hurt me, to keep something from you, I just cannot..."

She began crying them, letting all her tension out with her tears.

"I understand..." Phil stepped into her personal space, embracing her tightly. "Sh... it's alright Skye. I understand. I don't hold it against you."

He was being honest, and a corner of his mind prayed she could feel it.

"You have shared so much of your past with me already love." Phil said quietly, rubbing her back soothingly. "So many years of pain and tears, of wishing for a love you thought would never come... highlighted by moments of joy, of delight that never seemed to last. I know how hard it's been for you to share all that, both the bad things and the good, if for different reasons. And I also know there are things you haven't told me, and that there must be a reason for it. I don't hold it against you, I never will. I just..." He let out a sigh, burying his face in her hair. "I don't hate your secrets, I just hate not being able to help you deal with them."

"You do." Skye assured him immediately, placing a loving kiss on his collarbone. "Just by being here, with me, holding me, you do. I love you so much Phil... I don't know what I would do without you by my side..."

"You will never have to find out Skye. I promise you. I will never leave your side." He entwined his hand with hers. "This... Us... we're forever..."

"Forever..." Skye echoed, voice charged with feeling.

xXx

The couple didn't really go back to sleep that night, spending what time was left before dawn on one of the comfortable lounging chairs on the balcony, Skye cuddled comfortably in her lover's arms. They had a blanket on top of them, though the cold didn't affect her at all, and him very little. Watching the stars seemed to somehow made them calm down some and the sunrise was certainly a thing of beauty. They were at least ready to face the day.

As soon as the time was right the couple went back into the room, showered and got dress. Phil in his usual dark-blue suit, while Skye was wearing a purple sweater, black vest, black jeans and dark leather boots, her hair was down (as she only put it in a ponytail or bun when on a mission). They arrived to a nice but small restaurant a few blocks down the street right on time (as they had agreed), to find an old friend of Phil's waiting for them.

"David, good morning." Phil smiled. "I hope you haven't been waiting for long."

"Not at all, I just got here." David assured both him and Skye. "I just hope you staying a day longer just to have breakfast with me won't complicate things for you, Phil. As hard as things might get for us at the BAU sometimes, I know SHIELD works on a whole other level, especially since all those superheroes began appearing."

"It's alright." Phil told him. "We have very competent people working in SHIELD, they are quite capable of handling things for a day or two."

They were led to a table right then. Phil very gentlemanly pulled Skye's chair for her before taking a seat; David waiting until they were both settled to do the same on Phil's other side. It had surprised him greatly when learning that not only his old friend was no longer dating the cute chellist he'd last seen him with, but Phil was dating a much younger (and quite beautiful, if David said so himself) woman.

David, his full name was David Rossi, he was a Supervisory Special Agent and Unit Senior Agent at the Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico, Virginia. In his younger years he had served in the US Marine Corps, where he'd met Phil when the younger man joined under him; Nick Fury too had been part of the same platoon. When their service ended the trio had gone their separate ways: David being recruited by the FBI, where he eventually helped found the BAU, while Phil followed Nick to SHIELD. David had actually tried to convince his closest friend to join the FBI, but the BAU was so new and there just were no guarantees that it would work, while SHIELD already had a reputation.

Phil and Skye had arrived to LA the day before, on the aftermath of the BAU's most recent arrest; the particularly vicious murderer had turned out to be one of the escaped inmates from the Fridge, and regretfully Skye's program hadn't detected him until the man had killed almost half a dozen women and the FBI had been called in by the local authorities. The psycho had no supernatural powers, so David's team wasn't in too much danger as they handled the situation; still, Phil and Skye had decided to make a stop after their own mission (the latest one in Alaska), to meet with the team and debrief them (just in case there was something else). They'd met the team leader: Unit Chief and SSA Aaron Hotchner, Senior SSA and Advisor Derek Morgan, SSA and Dr. Spencer Reid, SSA and Media Liaison Jennifer Jareau and SA and Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia. The blonde and Skye in particular had gotten along famously, with the two of them being hackers and formerly part of organizations that went against the government.

The meeting had gone well enough, though it had ended taking all day; when after the debriefing Hotch had insisted on Phil and Skye returning the favor. Since both of them realized that it was on everyone's best interest to be in good relations with an organization like the FBI, especially the BAU, who were most likely to get called into the kind of cases that might concern SHIELD, at least inside the United States.

When they were done David had expressed a wish to talk some more with Phil, though it was already quite late. In the end it was Skye's suggestion that they stay one more day, have breakfast together and then talk, it was a good plan and the two old friends agreed.

So the trio shared breakfast, and then got talking over a second cup of coffee. Skye and Phil both just needed their coffee, she in particular couldn't fully function without at least two cups. It was one thing she loved about Earth. Even though Asgard had its own version of coffee, it just did not taste the same; while the young princess would be the first to admit that the wines in Asgard (especially some they imported from Alfheim) were superior to anything she'd ever found on her home-realm, coffee on Earth was something that nothing else could compare with (at least as far as she was concerned).

The trio had a lot of fun. David realized that there was a lot about Astrid, about her past, they weren't telling him; like the fact that Phil kept calling her Skye, had even introduced the girl with that as he middle name, even though it appeared in none of her records. Matter of fact, Penelope was quite convinced that Astrid Avery's records had to either be fake or redacted, even though there was nothing specially telling about it... their technical analyst insisted that in itself was telling. Nowadays people made mistakes when entering records so often the fact that Astrid's were so completely in order was actually suspicious.

Still, David was a profiler, and he could see that regardless of what she might be hiding, Astrid was a good woman (girl, compared to Phil and especially to David himself, but anyway) she was kind, compassionate, very passionate about her job, protective of Phil, of their team, and above all, she loved her friend (which really was enough to make him like her). David had known Audrey (the cellist), had seen how much she cared about Phil, and he for her... and while he'd seen nothing wrong with them, after seeing him with Astrid... Phil and Audrey had lacked the intensity that Phil and Astrid seemed to share, even when they weren't so much as touching. It was breath-taking, even (maybe especially) to a man who'd long since given up on ideas such as true love, eternal love, that sort of thing...

At some point Phil's phone rang. It was Melinda. She'd been with them during the debriefing but when Phil and Skye decided to stay a day longer she'd needed to take off in order to fly the team comprised by Darcy, Clint, Natalia and James on a quick mission to Colombia. It was going to be an easy thing (James was mostly going because he got antsy with nothing interesting to do in the Playground). Melinda had promised she would call when she had an idea of the time she would be picking them up.

"Excuse me, I need to take this." Phil announced as he stood up.

They had been in the restaurant for a while, and even though earlier the place had been mostly empty a number of people had arrived, and the noise had become such Phil decided it was better to just step into the hallway leading to the bathrooms to take the call.

"So, spill." Skye declared as soon as she and David were alone.

"What...?" He really wasn't expecting that.

"I can see it in your eyes, there are dozens of questions in your mind that you're dying to ask, but you're much too polite to do so in front of AC, especially since you are afraid he might think you don't trust him, or me... the last of which is quite fine, you don't know me, after all." Skye shrugged at the end of her tirade.

"I wonder if anyone does." David admitted. "As you know, Miss Avery..."

"Astrid, please." She told him.

Skye was a name only her family and friends got to use, and while she'd normally say that all of Phil's friends are her friends... the man was with the FBI, had been for a long time. If anyone outside of SHIELD stood a chance at seeing through her, it was him. So while she wasn't getting all stressed out and shutting down emotions... she wasn't going to make his job any easier.

"Astrid." He nodded. "As you know, I'm a profiler, I have been one for many years. It's not only my job, but also my life and yet... I cannot seem to be able to profile you, not in a satisfying manner. The way you stand, walk, talk, the way you present yourself... you mix characteristics of so many profiles I don't know if being eclectic is part of your personality or if it's your way of hiding something else."

Well... Skye had to admit she hadn't been quite expecting that. Either his assessment or the honesty about it. She decided to be as sincere as she could, in return.

"I think, at this point, eclectic might be a good way to describe me." The girl admitted. "It is true I hide things. That one is so obvious I won't insult you by attempting to deny it, however, it's not with any bad intention. Some things I hide to protect myself, others to protect those around me, especially those I care for... or sometimes those who are still innocent to the harsh realities of the universe, both human and other."

"How did someone so young, and especially someone with no background in the military or intelligence, get involved in this?" The SSA couldn't help but ask.

"Well, it was pretty much like your Penelope, actually." Skye shrugged. "I was working for the Rising Tide, hacked into SHIELD, and then AC and another Agent dropped in on me, took me in to find out what I'd been doing hacking into their systems. It was nothing nefarious, I assure you. In the end, AC saw what I could do, and he seemed to like it, so he offered me the chance to do my abilities to truly help the world, rather than just 'rock the boat'. I took the chance, and I've been a part of this since."

There was more to it, a lot more, they both knew it; even if David had no way of knowing the details. Maybe if he tried to keep in touch with Phil better eventually they would trust him with some of that truth...

The profiler was about to ask something else, about what could have possibly made her be so random in her way of acting (because no one was born like that, it was a learnt behavior), when, unexpectedly, they were approached by a group of police officers.

"Miss Kostan?" The one who appeared to be the leader of the small group, with a tag that read 'Sheridan' called to her. "Miss Karin Kostan."

"Yes, that's me." Skye knew better than to try to deny that name in LA, though she couldn't imagine why someone would be looking for Karin after so long.

David didn't say a word, focused on hiding his surprise at the different name being used. His mind was working a mile a minute as he tried to imagine what that name meant and why exactly the police knew her by it. Was it a cover, a fake id or maybe even her real name?

Then, what none of them had expected. The rest of the officers approached the brunette, two of them with their hands hovering over their weapons, while the other pulled out a pair of cuffs; while Sheridan began announcing:

"Karin Kostan, you are under arrest..." He stated.

"What...?" Even David couldn't help his surprise.

"What for?" She demanded, refusing to get up as they signaled for her to.

"The murder of ADA Benjamin Talbot." Sheridan stated.

"What the hell!" She yelled. "I was cleared of that eighteen months ago! I had nothing to do with the bastard dying. If anything he hurt me, not the other way around."

"The investigation continued when you disappeared Miss Kostan." Sheridan informed her. "A warrant for your arrest was emitted when you failed to answer calls from the DA's office..."

"So you're not actually arresting her for murder, but for breaching a court order?" David asked from his spot on the other side of the table. "The warrant is then for civil contempt of court?"

"That is correct sir." Sheridan nodded, surprise by the knowledge of the stranger.

It was quite obvious the man (and his team) hadn't been working in the precinct where the BAU's team had arrived, otherwise he'd have known immediately who David was. That was probably a good thing, the last thing Skye needed was the FBI to be involved in the mess that was coming if they truly intended to accuse her of Talbot's murder... again. The last time had been bad enough, there was a reason she'd left the townhouse and began living in her van!

Sheridan then began the usual rant about keeping silent, etc. Skye ignored him completely, though she did stand and allow one of the officers to secure the handcuffs on her. Instead, she focused on David.

"When Phil comes back from the call tells him what happened, but tell him I don't ant him to get involved." Skye stated. "I will handle this. If he gets called into work I will deal with this and see him once I get home."

"Are you sure you don't want us to join you in the station...?" David barely barely stopped himself from saying her name, any name, it wasn't a good idea.

"It's not necessary." The brunette insisted. "I'll be alright."

Nothing more could be said as the officers pulled her from the table and out of the restaurant, using more force than entirely necessary, considering she wasn't resisting in any way, but she did not comment on it. She managed to see Phil from the corner of her eye as he joined David at the table, he was obviously surprised and confused by the developments, she just hoped he would do as asked. She would never expect him to truly leave LA without her, but hopefully he would give her at least a few hours to handle things on her own before getting involved.

xXx

In the end, it was three hours before Phil intervened though, as Skye soon found out, he had been in the precinct since the end of the first, had been all for going in before the second was over, but others kept blocking him, until finally Sgt. Davis helped him.

Carl Davis... Skye wouldn't really call him a friend, though she knew the man. He'd been a Lieutenant in the police force back then, one of Beth's contacts and, for whatever the reason, he seemed to be the man in charge whenever there was a case that needed to be 'handled' either by her, her brother, or Mick for the safety of the Community. So, maybe the fact that Karin had been involved in so many of the 'strange and mostly unresolved' (at least to his satisfaction) cases had made the man not-quite-like-her... at least he was able to realize when the DA stopped looking for justice and was just trying to find an escape-goat. Really, it was one thing to ask her about ADA Talbot, at least there had been a connection between the two of them, with her having done some freelance work for him and his office, and of course when he'd kidnapped and tortured her for several hours... yet when they brought his predecessor, ADA Josh Lindsey, who'd also been murdered and whom Karin had never even met (he died months before she even arrived to LA), then it became painfully obvious how desperate everyone in that office was to be able to say they had gotten someone, even if that someone was innocent, and since everyone else who'd been once considered 'persons of interest' were gone (presumed either missing or dead) she was a somewhat easy target. Though it had still taken them sixteen months to find her... maybe because she'd hardly been in the country during that time, and in LA only for a week (and even then she'd been very carefully, not wanting someone from her time as Karin to approach her at a time when her team still knew so very little about her, it might have caused them to distrust her when they'd needed to be trust each other more than ever before).

Still, the 'fishing expedition' hadn't been that much of a surprise, it was well known, at least in certain circles, that Talbot had it in for Mick St. John and the Kostan's as an extension for their connection to him. Truth was Benjamin Talbot had been obsessed with Beth Turner, but she loved Mick, and thus kept rejecting the ADA's advances, he hadn't liked that. Things had only gotten all the more complicated when the List got into his hands.

The real surprise, however, was the arrival of Simone Walker, who made an appearance less than fifteen minutes after Karin's arrival to the station, announcing her name and that she was Miss Kostan's lawyer. That one had been unexpected, Skye hadn't seen the woman for the last two years, she'd been one of Josef's girls once, even his favorite at some point. But when the going got tough, when Talbot began putting pressure on whoever of them he could reach, Simone had decided the pressure was too much and bailed. Karin had hated her, the older woman's leaving had hurt her brother in a way few things and people could... but maybe it'd been for the best. In the end Simone simply wasn't strong enough for them, for their life, for the Community...

At least her presence was helpful. Since she'd distanced herself from Josef before the worst things happened, especially her kidnapping and Talbot's death, the DA wasn't attacking her, which allowed her to defend Karin in every possible way. Not that the DA and his assistants seemed to care much. It was quite obvious that for them the meeting wasn't a matter of making justice, they just wanted to get back at those who'd once gone against them. The office had really taken a hit when Karin had reported on her kidnapping at the hands of Benjamin Talbot, the proof had been undeniable... now the officers somehow believed that if they managed to pin the man's murder on her that would vindicate them in some way... she honestly did not see how, but still.

The DA, a man called Roger Andrews was, for what to Skye felt like the hundredth time since her arrival, pressing for details of what had happened the day Karin when missing, when the young woman finally snapped.

"The man was a psycho!" She snapped, barely managing to keep her powers in check, it would be disastrous if she were to lose control and 'out herself'. "He killed a man, a good man, called Hank Mottola, for no reason other than being there with me. Then he knocked me out, dragged me to his house, where he tied me to a chair and tortured me for hours! And all for what? Because he was completely off his rocker and believed my brother to be the devil or whatever other insanity he was spouting. I didn't pay much attention to his words, which is normal considering that, as I just said, I was being tortured!" She took a deep breath to keep herself calm, she was barely keeping herself from screaming full out, and her aura tight around her. "I'm sure Sgt. Davis still has the pictures that were taken in the hospital..."

"That is the other thing, how exactly did you get away?" Andrews pressed on. "Especially since your alleged kidnapper was murdered that very night..."

"Alleged?!" Skye actually half screamed at that.

"My client's kidnapping is not up for debate, Mr. Andrews." Simone interfered stoically. "An investigation was conducted at the time and after conclusive evidence was found in his apartment it was concluded that Benjamin Talbot was, indeed, guilty of kidnapping and hurting Karin Kostan for several hours that day. The DA's office allegations on circumstantial evidence stopped him from being posthumously convicted for the murder of Mr. Mottola as well, but that does not erase the fact that he did, indeed, kidnap and hurt my client. Also, I shall take this opportunity to remind you that, regardless of your dirty use of the Law, Karin Kostan has long since been cleared from the murder of Benjamin Talbot, you cannot charge her again. What this office is doing right now is harassing my client; something it did before, last year, which in the end push her to decide to leave LA rather than to remain subjected to this vicious treatment on the part of this office, and yourself especially DA Andrews."

The man grumbled under his breath but did not dare say a word. Simone Walker was a very well-known attorney. She'd become famous after handling a huge lawsuit against the owner of a rich restaurant who had attacked a couple of lesbians who were in that place celebrating their union. Walker had taken the case, accusing the man of discrimination, declaring his actions as a hate-crime. He got a lot of money for her clients in compensation, and the man was completely ruined after the media circus than ensued.

"Now, regarding my client's escape." Simone went on. "I'm sure everyone present has already read the report filed by the doctors in the White Memorial Medical Center, where Karin Kostan was taken after being found, unconscious and half-drowned, by the LA riverside. She arrived with mild-hypothermia as well as an infection that extended from her throat to her ears, after spending what must have been at least half the night in the river. There were also pictures and detailed descriptions of the extensive bruising, precise cuts and burns found on several parts of her body, especially, though not limited to, her forearms, collarbone and feet. Evidence found on former ADA Talbot's apartment proved that he was the one to inflict those wounds on Miss Kostan as he demanded answers to insane questions. Since he never got what he wanted."

"And what were those questions?" The ADA Marilyn Abbot demanded. "Because you cannot possibly think we believe your client's allegations that he was talking about vampires!"

"Of course, because vampires don't exist..." Karin drawled, voice dripping with sarcasm. "It almost sounds like Talbot was insane... oh, wait, he was!"

"He..." The woman had obviously been attached in some way to Talbot, because she refused to believe the man was anything but a saint.

"He was a poor, little, weak man who obsessed over a woman he could never have, to the point that he was ready to do anything to take his 'competition' out of the way." Karin stated coldly. "I am sure a good number of people in this room remember Mick St. John, he was a PI, helped a great many people with the cases he solved, he even helped the police a number of times, either directly or just by providing them with information when needed. He was, probably still is, a good man. His only 'sin', was having the love of the woman Talbot wanted. And what did your old boss achieve in the end? Nothing, he is dead, and so is Beth Turner. An innocent woman died, my brother and many others were practically run out of town in the crazy witch-hunt that former ADA Talbot organized and for what? Vampires? If that's not insanity I don't know what is."

By that point even Andrews's strongest supporters were left with nothing to say. Truth was the DA had been doing everything in his power to keep the whole 'vampire thing' under wraps, as he knew it would hurt his case. It was precisely why Skye had brought it up; as much as it might put her on shaky ground with some others, she needed that case to be dropped. While she was quite sure that even if they insisted on accusing her she could get away whenever she wanted to, and pretty much disappear... she didn't want to have to spend the next powers-knew-how-many years having to look over her shoulder whenever she so much as set foot in California. Then there was the fact that with her position as Deputy Director of SHIELD, she couldn't afford to have people doubting her. So she needed the whole mess to be cleared, once and for all.

It was exactly at that point that Phil entered the room, closely followed by David Rossi and, to Skye's greater surprise, Sydney Bristow. The woman was a CIA Agent and had apparently been involved in some serious messes that had made her cross paths with SHIELD more than once. She was their other contact into that particular Agency (Sharon was good, but she was too new in that organization to be of much help when things got tough, and while Sidney had plans to retire, she was willing to continue in her work for a couple more years).

"What is going on here?" Andrews demanded, not liking the interruption. "Who are you people?"

"David Rossi, Supervisory Special Agent with the BAU, FBI." The older man introduced himself politely. "This lovely lady is..."

"Sydney Bristow, CIA." The thirty-two year old woman was much more succinct.

"Phillip James Coulson, Director of SHIELD." Skye's lover was the last to introduce himself, and he certainly did it with style. "And the young lady you insist on harassing is actually Agent Astrid Avery, Deputy-Director of SHIELD..."

Andrew's mouth was left hanging open by the end of that statement.

"But that's impossible!" Abbot cried out.

"Why? Because there is nothing about it in your records?" Bristow deadpanned. "The really, really good undercover Agents are never caught, not even after their mission is done and they are extracted. Avery is one of the best, even if we're not in the same Agency. Near perfect record... or it would have been, if your office hadn't insisted on getting your nose into businesses not your own." She speared Andrews into place with just a look. "You're messing with things you cannot begin to comprehend... and all for what? This isn't about getting justice for your old assistant. You, like everyone in this room, must know already he was more than a little crazy. Even if Agent Avery had killed him, the most you would be able to argue was for accidental manslaughter, and even then, anyone will tell you it was self-defense. Talbot was a loose canon. I've seen men like him before... it never ends well."

The DA didn't dare say a word, no one did, what was happening in that moment was something they could have never planned. The idea that Karin Kostan might have been a cover for an Agent that later went on to become the second in command of one of the greatest intelligence agencies in the world (especially since being vindicated after the mess with Hydra months prior) was one he could have never planned for. Granted, no one had ever actually said that's how things was, but they all knew (expected) Andrews to assume and decide to let things go.

And he did. Sydney was right, even if they'd managed to prove somehow that Karin/Astrid was responsible for Benjamin Talbot's death, her lawyer would have only needed to announce a plea of guilty under the condition of self-defense and that would have been it. It was no secret what the former ADA had done to the young woman, so who could have blamed her then? Also, if they carried on any longer Walker might get into her head to accuse his office of harassing a victim, and he really couldn't handle anymore negative publicity... though, for the life of him, he still couldn't understand how, after being away for a year and a half the girl had managed to get one of the most vicious lawyers in California. And judging by her evident surprise when SHIELD wa mentioned it was quite obvious not even Simone Walker had known about that... so who had sent her to be Karin Kostan's attorney then?

In the end it was a moot point. Karin Kostan/Astrid Avery, whatever her name might be, was released minutes later and all Roger Andrews could do was pray that he and his office wouldn't be sued... luckily for him, SHIELD had much bigger fish to fry...

Skye and Phil took a moment to say their thanks to both David and Sidney, both of whom took their leave right away (Sidney had family waiting for him, and David had already stayed longer than planned, the team was waiting for him back in Langley and he'd to get back before another case had them traveling elsewhere).

"You didn't have to do this, you know?" Skye commented to her lover with a small smile. "But thank you anyway."

"I was actually doing the man in there a favor." Phil stated with a half-smirk. "When I talked earlier with Melinda she said she would be picking us at LAX today around 1 pm. If I had been forced to tell her then what was going on... well, it wouldn't have been pretty."

"Melinda is a force to be reckoned..." Skye agreed.

There was, after all, a reason she was called the 'Cavalry', even if she hated the nickname.

"Karin?" Simone's call reminded the lovers that they weren't completely alone yet.

"Yes." The younger woman immediately turned to face her. "Simone, thank you so much for your help today. I don't know what I would have done without you..."

"I am sure your man would have gotten you out with or without me there." Simone shrugged the praise off before getting serious. "Listen, I'll be honest here. The only reason I got near this at all was because Josef called me and told me you were being harassed again. I owe a lot to your brother, and to you as well Karin but..."

"But his life isn't what you've chosen." Skye finished for her. "I know that, and so does he. It's why he let you go when you asked him to, Simone..."

"I know..." She hesitated a second before raising her left hand, showing off the beautiful ring on her third-finger. "I am getting married in a month. He is a great man, an architect, even gives some classes at Wilbury University... and he's nothing to do with Josef or..."

"Or any of us." Skye nodded. "I understand Simone, I do not begrudge you your choices. It would have been far worse if you had stayed out of a sense of duty and later on resent Josef, or even all of us, for feeling you've ruined your life."

"Is that why you did not go with them?" Simone couldn't help but ask. "Or is it something to do with SHIELD? I never knew you worked for them."

"That's the point of an undercover, isn't it?" Astrid expertly dodged the questions.

"In any case." Simone agreed to let it slide, it's not like she needed to know anyway. "I didn't actually talk to Josef, it was Anthony who called me. He explained the situation and what was expected of me. He also asked me to pass on a message from Josef."

"Which is?" Skye suspected but still waited.

"He's living in New York now and he hopes you'll find time and drop by to visit him some time soon." Simone informed her.

"I'll do what I can." Skye nodded for Simone's benefit.

It was quite obvious that being Josef who he was he'd intended the message as less of a request and more of an order... it did not matter in the end, Skye wasn't the kind of woman who would do something just because someone ordered her to. And in any case, she'd already been planing on looking for her 'brother' sometime when she had time off. Since SHIELD was already planning on a 'Winter Break' of sorts (with all but emergency cases pushed onto January to give chance for the Agents who might have families and friends outside of the organization to visit them), Skye had thought that might be the best time to visit.

"Very well then, I suppose this is goodbye." The older woman announced. "Take care Karin."

"You too Simone." Karin shook her hand, knowing Simone wasn't one for hugs. "And my congratulations on your upcoming nuptials."

Simone just nodded before taking her leave.

"She didn't tell you how to find your brother in New York." Phil commented off-handedly as he went to stand beside his lover again.

"She didn't need to." Skye told him, but did not elaborate.

It was the truth. Skye was quite sure that finding her brother would not be a problem. There were only so many places a businessman like him could be staying. Perhaps New Years would be a good time for a visit... she had a surprise for him in mind, one she'd begun planning since reading some old, obscure text in the Asgardian library during her last visit, she just hadn't had the chance to put her plan into motion yet. Hopefully things would go well.

xXx

Phil and Skye arrived to the airport right on time to get on the quinjet; they only used the Bus when they were going on a long mission, or several in a row, as it was more comfortable, for quick trips the quinjet was faster and easier to handle.

When the team/family found out what Skye had been gone through that very morning they didn't like it; however, they were satisfied to know the trouble was over. And Melinda as quite clear on what she would do if it turned out not to be.

On the way to the Playground Skye took the time to explain a bit more of that part of her past to the others. It was public knowledge that a number of high-profile men and women in LA had disappeared in the Spring of 2013. No one had known what was going on, until Beth Turner, who had left Buzz Wire the year before unexpectedly returned with one last video-report, in which she announced the existence of an extremist group targeting individuals with power who favored minorities, especially the kind of groups that some might consider... less than human. The group was described as Neo-Nazi, psychotic and with no care for life. The report had gone viral and caused an exodus in South California like none seen before in the country.

It took some effort, but Skye then proceeded to explain to them how she'd been in the backroom of her brother's offices when she watched the video, how proud she'd been of her friend for doing it, their Skype talk... and how she'd ultimately seen her friend throw herself to her death in an attempt to escape the fire consuming the apartment.

"Saying they were insane is not enough." Skye said as blankly as she could. "Beth wasn't the only loss that night. Those monsters also killed Mrs. O'Riley, the old widow living in apartment 6, just across the hall from Beth; and injured Mr. Donovan from Num. 8 badly when he took his daughter and ran to protect her and himself. At least the two of them survived... and the family of four living in Num. 7 were away, on vacation or something." She shook her head. "Mick, Beth's boyfriend, left LA less than a week later, not wanting to stay around after Beth's death. He took Josef's offer of working for him elsewhere."

"I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that not only you know someone as rich and famous as Josef Kostan, but he actually calls you his sister." Leo commented, from the video-call they had to include him and Jemma in the conversation.

"There is more to Josef than the cut-throat businessman." Skye stated, shaking her head. "A lot more, though most don't see it. They only see his money, his suits..."

"The women he surrounds himself with." James finished with a leery smirk.

Skye smacked him wordlessly, to chuckles from everyone around.

"What about the kidnapping?" Melinda asked, interested.

Skye actually had to make a pause at that, she hated remembering that. Never before, or after, had she felt so vulnerable so... weak, as she had that day. In some ways that had hurt more than the physical torture. Feeling like she wasn't capable of protecting herself, that she needed to be saved, that people she cared for, family, needed to put themselves in danger for her sake...

"It was after Beth... yeah." She didn't even dare say it. "Mick was going crazy, Josef decided to go after him, make sure he wouldn't do something stupid. He didn't want me to stay in the Tower. The place had already been attacked once, the year before, though it had nothing to do with what was happening right then; and while security was much improved, he still didn't like the odds. So he sent me to the townhouse, a few miles from the actual manor. With him being the most high-profile target of the Neo-nazi group, the place was supposed to be safer than the mansion itself." She let out a sigh. "Hank Mottola was one of Josef's most trusted men, he was told to stay with me until the danger was past, for my own safety. It wasn't conductive to his. He had just finished doing a sweep of the grounds to make sure it was safe for me to get out of the car when someone attacked. He was shot so many times I couldn't count them. And even as he laid there, bleeding out, he kept screaming at me to run..." She let out a small sob. "I got out to try and get behind the wheel. So I could drive away... I know how to hotwire a car, so keys weren't a problem. I never made it that far. Someone came at me from behind, I was on the ground and losing consciousness before I even realized someone had hit me."

The memory came sharp and clear to her, of how she'd been, how she'd felt when waking up, it made her shiver visibly. Yet she knew the others needed to know, deserved to know...

"I woke up tied to a chair, in front of a tv with a live news broadcast." The brunette continued. "The reporter was before the townhouse. Hank's body was missing, but there was enough blood on the front-yard they knew someone had been killed, they were also announcing that I was missing, hopeful as they apparently were that I wasn't the one killed. She was just finishing with her report when suddenly there was an explosion. The program switched to a reporter they had on a helicopter, and who began showing pictured of a place that had just been blown up, supposedly because of a gas-leak..." She cursed quietly in Chinese. "When I saw it was the mansion, but especially the remains of my brother's favorite car, a red Ferrari, I lost it. I began screaming."

"Was your brother..." Darcy didn't even dare finish the question.

"He was alright." Skye nodded. "Since he was a clear target of the maniacs Anthony Gambino, his Head of Security, convinced him to leave the Ferrari at home, since it was so flashy. Instead he was driving a black Mercedes... though I did not know that at the time." She let out a breath. "My kidnapper chose that exact moment to step out of the shadows. His name was Benjamin Talbot, he was an ADA back then, I'd done some work for him and his office during the previous six months or so; Beth was a civilian investigator working directly under him, a job he offered her after she quit BuzzWire."

"Why would an ADA kidnap you?" Clint didn't understand.

"The man was sick, in more ways than one." Skye shrugged. "He was obsessed with Beth, had been since he met her. But he never had a chance, she was too much in love with Mick. If you knew all the things he did in an attempt to break them up... He investigated Mick! For no good reason! Just trying to find some skeleton in his closet that might make her break up with him. It got to a point where Beth decided to quit, and she did, the day before the fire..." She shook her head to push that memory away. "I don't know how it happened exactly, but at some point the man became convinced that there were people in LA who weren't human, and that included both Mick and Josef. The Neo-Nazi group was involved with that. Though they wanted to kill everyone, the guys for being different, and us for 'betraying humans by siding with them'."

"And what were they supposed to be?" Natalia inquired, eyes narrowed.

"Does it matter?" James replied for his friend. "They might have been metas, gifted in some other way, or even humans... in the end they were targeted for no good reason."

Skye directed a quick smile at him. James knew the truth, there was no way he couldn't, after their memory-sharing. However, she knew he wouldn't say, it would be too dangerous, for everyone, not just her, or even her family.

"All Talbot wanted was to get back at Mick." Skye went on. "I don't know if he was always that psychotic, or if her loss pushed him over the edge. He was convinced that if he 'outed' Mick and Josef, things would be better. So he kidnapped me in an attempt to find out the truth about them. He... interrogated me."

Everyone realized what she really meant when she said 'interrogated', no one asked.

"I gave him nothing." Skye went on, particularly proud about that. "After a while he eventually gave up, realizing it was useless. So instead he called my brother to make a deal, him for me. The exchange was supposed to take place on the edge of the Los Angeles State Historic Park, by the edge of the LA river..." She made an effort to swallow past the knot in her throat. "It was awful. The group... they called themselves the Legion. They were there. Only they cared about no deals, all they wanted was to kill and destroy. Talbot was of no more use to them, so they killed him. I knew they would do the same with me given half the chance so, after looking at the odds, I took my life in my own hands and jumped into the river." She took a deep breath, pushing aside memories of rain and blood and blades and fire... "I was found at some point before dawn by two runners, unconscious by the riverside, beneath the San Bernardino Freeway. I was taken to the White Memorial, where I stayed several days before I was fully recovered. Josef visited once but he couldn't stay. He had to leave, plans for the move were already under way and it was just too dangerous for him to stay. Even though we all saw the reports the next morning about the mass suicide that had taken place that same night... it was still no guarantee."

"But you chose to stay." Darcy murmured. "Why?"

"I needed to." Skye tried to shrug it off. "First because of my health and later on because of the investigation the DA's office was doing into Talbot's actions during those days. The reports the doctors filed on me were enough to support my claim that he had kidnapped and hurt me, which were further confirmed by the evidence in his apartment. Then more things came up: like the fact that his call was the last one Beth got that day, or his illegal investigation on Mick and later on his outrageous accusations against both him and Josef..." She shook her head. "I stayed on my own in the townhouse for most of the summer, until the harassment from the authorities became too much. Some people, like DA Andrews, just refused to accept that Talbot was a sick man. They kept going to get me, saying they needed to 'clarify' a few things. As if waiting for when I would give them a different version of things, and they would know I was lying. It was stupid. Still, I eventually got tired of it. So I packed my things and left. I didn't go far, couldn't, as I still had some freelance jobs there in LA and was slowly cracking into SHIELD's database. The plan was to leave as soon I was done with that. The day before I would have left... Phil and Ward appeared at my door. And the rest, as some say, is history."

The rest just nodded, some of them offering what comfort they could, especially in regards to the unexplained but implied torture Skye had gone through at the hands of Talbot.

Phil chose not to say a word. He knew that the first part of what Skye had told them was related to the first two scenes of the nightmare, but the third one... that one had shown something different from what she'd said. Phil knew there must be a reason why she was keeping such things from them, even if not what it might be; though he suspected it had something to do with the 'secrets not her own' which she kept. He just hoped one day he would be able to help her with it, because even with as little as he'd seen it was quite obvious that was one traumatic memory.

xXx

The next couple of weeks went well-enough. The team-family celebrated Christmas together in the Playground, along with those who had no families nor friends outside of SHIELD. After that they decided to split for a week, during New Years. Some, like Leo and Jemma, wanted to visit their families; they already knew the pair was engaged but hadn't been able to celebrate it, busy as they had all been since the formation of the new SHIELD. Melinda had accepted her mother's invitation to pay the family a visit. Darcy, Clint and Natalia were invited to Stark's New Year's private party in New York, while Sam had a date with Sharon for a CIA party and Steve and James had decided to take the chance and visit some of their old haunts in Brooklyn.

All in all most of them would actually be in the same state, including Phil and Skye; though they each would be in a different area, and Skye in particular had been very careful not to breath a word of where they would be staying, Phil was following her lead, choosing to trust her despite the fact that he felt really uncomfortable not knowing.

The group landed on a private airport. There they split, most of them taking rental cars, though to Phil's surprise, Skye chose to hail a cab.

"The moment Josef sees me he won't allow me to drive anywhere on my own, he'll insist on me using one his cars, probably even with one of his drivers, depending on how paranoid he's acting nowadays..." She shook her head ruefully. "In any case, there's really no point on renting a car."

Phil didn't know what to say to that, so he chose to keep quiet, instead getting into the taxi, which then took them all the way to South Manhattan, stopping before a huge steel and glass tower somewhere between the World Trade Center and Wall Street.

"I thought most businesses would be closing around this time." Phil commented, taking a look at his watch and the darkening sky outside.

"Most probably do, unless you're a night owl like my brother and would rather do business in the middle of the night." Skye shrugged, as if giving it little importance.

"Isn't the stock market closed at this time?" Phil insisted. "From the kind of business you've told me Josef does, wouldn't he need the stock market open?"

"Well, the one here is closed, but there are a lot more stock markets around the world." Skye pointed out. "And in any case, there is business done around here during the day, he just tends to have someone else do it."

Or at least he used to, she had no idea how many of Josef's preferences and routines might have changed since the mess in LA the year before. Still, she had a plan, and she's sticking to it.

Skye walked right into the building as soon as they reach the glass doors, walking straight to the main secretary in the lobby after leaving her heavy winter coat at the entrance with what looked like a servant. Phil imitated her. On the ride there she'd warned him she would have to take a certain attitude in order to make an impression, not for her brother's benefit, but for those who worked with and for him. Her lover had agreed to follow her lead.

"Good morning." Skye said to the receptionist in a false cheery voice, not even giving the blonde a chance to say a word before continuing. "I'm here to see Josef Konstantin."

"Do you have an appointment?" The woman asked with an almost biting tone, she obviously expected a negative answer.

"Oh, I don't need one, don't worry. He told me to come so I'm sure he's expecting me." The young brunette assured the receptionist still in the same tone. "No need to get up, I know where to find him so I'll go straight up." She gave to steps before looking over her shoulder. "Oh, right, my name is Karin Konstantin..." She signaled to her lover. "and he's with me."

It looked like the woman would have tried to stop her if she hadn't been left in such shock after hearing Skye say that particular name. Phil didn't say a word, just followed her to the private elevator which opened quickly enough. Then, to his surprise, it began moving before Skye even needed to touch anything.

"Wha...?" The man wasn't even sure what to ask.

"It's alright." His lover assured him. "Josef knows we're here."

She'd actually been bluffing that she knew exactly where to find him. His office would be in the top floor, just beneath the penthouse, as always; but that did not mean he would necessarily be there in that moment.

The elevator moved quickly and soon Skye was taking a deep breath before stepping out of it. She was wearing a silver and black tight skirt to just bellow her knees, with a slit on the left side, black leggings underneath and equally black leather high-heeled boots that reached almost to her knees; her top half had a white long-sleeved button up with the sleeves carefully folded just enough to show off her tattoos, the neckline open enough and her hair combed with two bangs pulled back to keep it out of her face and neck, enough to expose her mother's necklace, as well as a cartilage stud on her right ear from which hung a small platinum medal, the size of a penny, with the image of a two-headed bird with wings open and talons extended, engraved.

The brunette strolled across the office floor with confidence, like she owned the place. And by the looks being directed at her, either she was remembered, or the gossip preceded them.

Skye didn't stop until she was standing right in front of yet another blonde secretary, this one at a desk right outside the biggest door.

"Hello, I'm here to see Josef." Skye announced, her smile a bit less fake than the previous one.

When the woman looked up from the magazine she'd been reading Phil immediately knew there would be trouble, she was looking at the brunette with such a mix of derisiveness and snottiness that Phil could hardly stand it; and his beloved obviously wasn't just going to take it.

"You're not one of his girls or Clan, so why don't you do yourself a favor and get out before I have to put you in your place, dear?" The woman asked in a high falsetto.

"The only one who's getting put in her place is you, dear." Skye snapped straight back at her. "I was trying to be respectful of you, stopping to actually announce my presence, and you think you have the right to turn me away like I'm some tramp? No, that would be you. You think that being Josef's secretary means you have any kind of power? On the contrary, it just means he would rather keep you on this side of the door." She snorted. "You look down on me, as if you were somehow more important, but you're not, wanna know why? Two words: Karin Konstantin... that is my name. Now do you see what my place is, dear?"

The woman went so pale so fast Phil thought she almost looked like death. It only got worse when a husky chuckle was heard right behind her. There, standing on the now-open door to the last office was a tall man (six foot even) with somewhat pale skin, light blue eyes, dressed in a magenta-colored shirt with the top buttons left open, black dress-pants and shiny black shoes.

"Sister-mine!" He called over-dramatically.

Dropping her purse seemingly carelessly on the secretary's desk, Skye went around it to reach Josef, who embraced her tightly before placing a kiss on each cheek, and then one on her brow.

"So long without seeing you..." He commented in a low tone.

"I've been busy, as I'm sure you know." Skye replied easily.

"I didn't know your plane had landed, you didn't go through customs or anything." Josef half-commented, half-complained. "Had I known I would have sent a car."

"I know, but I wanted to be able to get here on my own." Skye shrugged, he couldn't have forgotten how independent she liked to be. "Also, it was a private flight, as I'm sure you at least were half-expecting."

"True." He admitted. "I've missed you sister. We need to talk."

"That we do, in private preferably." She agreed.

"Lets go to the penthouse then." He decided.

He closed his office door as he stepped fully out of it, a hand almost protectively around Skye's shoulders. He only stopped briefly before one of the side-desks, with a redhead behind it.

"Sheila, reschedule all my appointments and if anyone calls, take the message, I'm taking the day off." He thought it over before adding. "Also, when Mick calls tell him Karin finally decided to pay us a visit." He turned over his shoulder to look at the blonde before adding. "You're fired. Take your things and leave. Now."

Skye let out a breath, from the moment the blonde had looked at her with such contempt she'd known that was how it would end. She also knew better than to try and defend the woman. Josef was the one in charge, and she'd long since learnt to respect that.

"Phil!" She called as they were halfway across the floor.

Her lover just followed, evidently surprised by the unexpected developments and not quite sure how to react to them.

"And this is...?" Josef asked, looking him up and down searchingly.

"My lover, which I'm sure you already know." Skye replied easily, before moving out of his embrace and into Phil's. "And we're not saying a word more until we're in your penthouse and able to speak openly."

"Fine." It looked like he didn't fully like it, but he still agreed.

It took no time at all for them to get to the penthouse. Once there Josef went straight to the bar, where he got himself a glass of scotch, which he downed in one go before turning to look at the young woman he called sister, and the older (seemingly even older than him) man by her side.

"Are you sure this is a good idea, sister?" Josef asked, quietly but strongly.

"I'm bringing him in." Skye announced with no hesitation before letting out a breath. "I know I've been away for a while Josef, but unless something changed when I wasn't looking, I'm still your sister, still a part of this Clan, and of the Community. Phil is the man I've chosen to be my match, my mate... We've been together for six months now, and for all this time I've kept the secret, as I'm supposed to. But if he's going to be with me, if we're going to be together, fully, things cannot continue this way. You know they cannot. Relationships don't work when there are secrets this big in the middle." She sighed again. "I know this goes against everything you believe in but... you trust me, and I trust him, with my life..."

"And with mine?" Josef asked solemnly. "Will you trust him with the lives of everyone in our Clan, in the Community?"

"Yes." There was not an ounce of doubt in Skye's tone.

"He's SHIELD..." Josef muttered, not convinced just yet. "He's with the government. Their interference in our society has never boded well..."

"Phil is not Benjamin Talbot!" Skye snapped, taking offense for her beloved. "And SHIELD isn't what it used to be under the leadership of Alexander Pierce... or Nick Fury..."

"No, he's not." Josef agreed quietly.

He signaled for the couple to join him in the living room while he opened a bottle of red wine. He served some on three glasses before passing two to them. Phil looked at the wine, it smelled sweet, different than anything he'd ever had. Skye took a sip before letting out a contented sigh.

"You remember..." She said with a smile.

"I never forget." Josef assured her.

"What kind of wine is this?" Phil asked after tasting it, it was indeed sweet.

"Ice wine." Skye informed him. "Ultra-rich, super sweet. It's usually a dessert wine. Made from naturally frozen grapes, hence the name." She took another sip. "It's also my favorite."

She had always preferred sweet wines, even though she knew that the stronger wines were the more popular ones, sweet wines were somewhat less alcoholic (because the fermentation process was stopped before all the sugar could turn to alcohol), and she preferred them for that, and the sweet flavor. Elven-wine was the only one she'd found that was sweet and highly-alcoholic at the same time (she'd learnt never to drink more than two glasses in one night).

"Very well." Josef announced as he sat last. "If you're sure. I will do this. I will vouch for him."

"You know you don't have to do it..." Skye said quietly.

"I do." Josef insisted. "Back in LA you were my sister, and the Tribe respected that. But this is not LA, I may be old, but I don't have the power base here than I did there, a good number left before we got this far. And even if they hadn't, here in New York things are different, too many bloodlines for there to be only one Master." He shook his head. "I will vouch for him. I have enough power for this, and I'm sure a number of people haven't forgotten your name, sister."

As Phil heard him speak, heard him call himself old Phil couldn't help to notice something, the man looked hardly any older than Skye herself, still in his mid-twenties in any case; and yet he spoke as if he were much older...

"So I can tell him then?" Skye asked quietly, wanting nothing more than to do that exactly.

"How about we all do?" Josef proposed as he got on his feet again.

"All?" Skye wasn't expecting that.

"Anthony reported back to me after what happened to you in LA earlier this month, Simone told him everything." Josef explained. "Including about your mate. With how much you refused all those who flirted with you before, she knew it had to be serious between the two of you. I also knew that if you came with him it would go this way..."

"Thank you..." Skye actually jumped on her feet and wen to hug him. "Thank you brother..."

"You know you're very dear to me, Karin..." Josef kissed her brow again, looking straight into her eyes. "You know, with that change in eye-color we look more like siblings than ever before..."

She could hear the unasked question, he wanted to know why her eye-color had changed, he could see they weren't contacts, which meant that something had happened. And as connected as Josef was, she would have never expected him to know about the mess in Italy.

"It's a long story." She told him with a smile.

"Seems like we'll have an entertaining night then." Josef decided. "A lot of stories to tell..."

As if on cue a low bell announced the arrival of the private elevator. Two people stepped out: The first was a man who looked to be between his late twenties and early-thirties, with lightly tanned skin, brown hair and hazel eyes, he wore an off-white long sleeved shirt, dark jeans, boots and a black duster. However, the true surprise (at least for Phil) was the woman by his side, half a head shorter than him, tanned, with loose blonde curls to the middle of her back and sky-blue eyes, wearing a white top, ocean-green blazer, dark-washed jeans and white low-heels.

"Beth Turner..." Phil breathed in shock. "But you're dead..."

"I am." She nodded. "I am, indeed, dead... or undead, depending on how you wish to see it."

"Get comfortable, Phil Coulson," Josef told him as he did the same, signaling for the others to take a seat. "You're in for quite the story..."

Phil had seen and heard many strange and extraordinary things in his life, especially in the years since he'd begun working for SHIELD. From individuals calling themselves 'true psychics' (and, elves and half-elves aside, he still wasn't convinced any such individuals truly existed), persons who were affected by some event (hit by lightning, a chemical spill, experimental drugs, extreme radiation, etcetera) and changed by it; he had even heard the rumors about a sub-race among humans, they called themselves mutants and supposedly had something in their genes that made them different to baseline humans, made them more, rumors claimed they'd been around for at least fifty years, though he'd never personally met one such person. All he'd known with abilities deserving to be in the Index had gained their powers by something happening to them, they had not been born being different. Regardless, even with all his previous experience with the odd... somehow vampires had never figured in the equation.

If anyone had asked Phil even an hour later what he thought about vampires, he would have said that while Buffy had been a good show, Twilight was too silly for his tastes and it was his opinion that vampires were over-romanticized by writers all around the world. What else could he have said? After all, there was no such a thing as vampires! They lived in the real world, not a fantasy, or a tv-show... Except apparently vampires did exist in the real world, and the revelation suddenly made Phil wonder how many other beings that were supposed to be fiction actually existed. After all, first gods, then vampires, what was next? Werewolves? Psychics? Angels...? If anyone had told him right that second that all of them were real it wouldn't have surprised him.

Somehow, the Director of SHIELD managed to push his own shock aside enough to pay attention to the story he was being told. He was sure there was a lot more than what they were saying, after all, Josef had just claimed to be over four hundred years old! (That definitely explained the 'old' comment); however, they seemed to be focusing mostly on things connected to their last years in LA, and Skye (or Karin, as they all called her), which was quite alright with him.

Mostly he learnt about Josef Kostan, or Konstantin... or Joseph Fitzgerald, which seemed to be the name he was using in New York (the reason why Andrews hadn't been able to track him down, apparently he was quite good at creating new identities for himself and his Clan...). Phil learnt about those terms too. How the Clan were those connected to Josef in a way that was the vampire equivalent of family; in the Clan there were those who were part of Josef's bloodline (turned by him, by one of his, and so on), and those who were connected to the bloodline either as mates, 'bonded brothers' or had sworn eternal fealty. Mick and Beth were part of that Clan since Mick had been turned a second time by Josef (long story they didn't go into) and Beth was with him. Karin, despite not being a vamp herself, was also a part of the Clan, because Josef had claimed her as his sister, a pronouncement that was supported by the highest ranked members of his Clan, and others allied with him. After the Clan came the Tribe; which was the vampire population in any given territory; like LA or NY. And finally, the Community was the vampire population as a whole.

He learnt how Karin had begun working for Josef at his insistence, since his previous hacker was taking a 'long sabbatical' in the Caribbean after almost being caught by the feds while hacking into the FBI database. At first Josef had done his best to keep his secret from Karin (or he thought he was), until one day he spent too long working, began getting really cranky, and when he snarled at her, unwillingly 'vamping out' in his anger, she hadn't so much as flinched, before commenting that, like with all men, being hungry seemed to make him cranky, with which she'd handed him a glass of blood from his own stash (which he didn't even know she knew about!).

After that, seeing how the brunette knew and hadn't said a word to anyone (or run away), Josef had decided to take the chance and trust her. Something he'd never regretted. When he'd gotten her the new documents he'd insisted on the change of surname as a way to protect her, since in her line of work she ended coming in contact with many powerful vamps; he needed to stake a claim somehow, and with her being human...

The whole 'brother-sister' thing had begun as a half-accident, a way to express how much they cared for the other without saying the words 'I love you', which neither of them had been ready to say for their own reasons.

"There's one thing I still cannot understand..." Phil murmured, eyes fixed straight on Beth.

"How I am here when all records state I'm dead?" Beth asked with a kind smile. "Legally I am, I go by Elizabeth Fitzgerald now... Josef was kind enough to allow us to pass as siblings..."

"It was the best way to justify our closeness to anyone not of the clan, especially since Mick insisted on keeping his name still, in case he ever needed to go back to LA in a hurry." Josef commented in a dismissive tone.

"If you're wondering how I'm actually here..." Beth took a deep breath before explaining. "We first learnt of the Legion's existence sometime in November or December. They began leaving creepy messages all over LA, in places vampires frequented. At first we thought it was nothing, until several people who had connections with the Community began reporting odd happenings, like unknown people following them, stalking them, phone calls where nothing was said. It only escalated from there, to threats, some veiled, some not. Then, in March, several well-known freshies went missing, only to be found a week later; they'd been tortured and murdered." She flinched at the memory of it all. "It was horrible."

"Freshies?" Phil did not understand the term.

"Humans who, quite willingly, feed vampires." Skye explained as best she could. "Some do it on their own, as a sort of freelance job, others actually have contracts either with vamp-exclusive places, or with specific members of the community... especially high-ranked ones."

"Your girls..." Phil suddenly understood.

"Yes." The old vampire didn't bother trying to deny it, he wasn't ashamed of it. "I am always good to my girls, why wouldn't I be, when they're helping me? I cause them no pain, keep them safe. And when the time comes for them to move on I help them reach their goals..."

"The club... 'Luz de Luna'." Phil realized.

"Yes, Rose, Keiko... they were all freshies." His lover nodded.

It took a couple of seconds but eventually Phil decided that if the women weren't being hurt... besides, he had no right to interfere. And he honestly believed if there was anything wrong Skye wouldn't be as at ease with the whole thing as she was. Then something else occurred to him:

"Did you ever...?" He didn't even know how to finish the question.

"Only once..." Skye answered, just as quietly. "It was necessary, we'll get to that. First listen to Beth, everything has an order."

The Agent nodded, turning back to the blonde woman.

"I was involved in the case, as a civilian investigator with ADA Talbot." Beth knew the man was a sore subject, and chose not to dwell on him. "I knew two of the girls who'd been murdered: Tanya and Celeste, had met them before. With everything already going on I had a hunch, so I took the photos to Josef, who confirmed my fears, the Legion was involved. Of course, I couldn't tell Talbot any of it. He soon grew frustrated when he couldn't solve the case, and when I refused to stay extra hours to help him investigate more... I suppose that did not help either. In any case, it was after that, that Mick and I came to an agreement. We'd been dating for nine months by that point, and I was beginning to wear down on him with the idea of being turned. He hadn't been sure about it for the longest time... We knew that with the things going on we were all in danger. The Legion claimed to be against vampires, calling them a 'Stain of Darkness', abominations, and many other epithets, but they were also going after the humans who associated with them. And my connection to both Mick and Josef wasn't exactly a secret... so I made an official declaration that in case of an emergency I wanted to be turned. To make it easier I was given a crystal vial with Mick's blood, a very important thing for a turning. One needs to die with a vampire blood in their system to be able to turn..."

Phil actually remembered that tiny little detail from his beloved's dream, and suddenly the pieces began falling into place.

"In April the first vampire was murdered." Mick took over for a short time. "It was the beginning of the end, in a sense. At first it was mostly fledglings, and street vamps, the kind that never live long. But eventually they started with well-known members of the Community. It was a mess, and none of us knew how it was happening. How did they even know who we were, how to find us...?" He shook his head. "We'd faced threats before, from people calling themselves Vampire Hunters, and Purifiers, and many other ridiculous names. But never had we been in as much danger as we were with the Legion..."

"Then I found the List..." Beth took over again. "We'd heard rumors about it for months, though most believed it to be a legend."

"I knew it to be real." Josef clarified. "Being the Master in the LA Tribe, the List was supposed to be my responsibility. I could have never imagined that one of the people I trusted most would betray me in such a way, to steal the least, and hand it over to the Legion!"

"I knew it was dangerous, and that it meant the Tribe would never be safe again, not while they stayed in California." Beth continued. "They needed to be warned. And then it occurred to me. The last few vamps to be killed had been well known and respected members of the high society in LA, which was calling the interest of all the media. So I made a story, taped it with some help of an old co-worker called Steve, and then offered it to my former boss: Lewis. He was... is a sleaze. He didn't care about the truth, or true reporting, only about ratings and selling. I hated that, it was one of the reasons I quit in the first place. However, in that moment, it actually helped me. He wanted so much an exclusive regarding the missing rich people, he didn't even ask about my sources, or if any of what I was saying was true. I presented the Legion as a Neo-Nazi cult, which they pretty much were, only I said they were targeting 'old blood', the rich bloodlines who had been in power for generations..."

"You phrased it in such a way that the vampires would know they were the targets, while humans would see it just as a group targeting rich families..." Phil summarized.

"Exactly." Beth smiled. "I didn't know if it would work..."

"But it did." Josef pointed out. "Beautifully. Beth saved so many lives with that news report... It also made the tribe love her. When the Legion targeted her because of that video, and especially when news got around that she was in the morgue..."

"So did you die, or not?" Phil did not understand, at all.

"After the video was uploaded I went back to my apartment." The blonde went on. "By that point I was mostly living with Mick, but I still had some things in my own place. And since I'd pretty much destroyed everything Talbot had on Mick and the Community before going and making that video I knew someone might go to the apartment and I had to make sure they would find nothing that might reveal the truth. What I never expected was for the Legion to come after me so soon! They set my apartment on fire. There was only one door out, and it was burning, but I wasn't just going to give up. So I took the chance. I drank Mick's blood, then jumped out the window... I knew I had more of a chance of making it through a fall than a fire."

"And that was enough?" Phil was in absolute shock.

"Barely." Mick said grimly. "Paramedics found her and actually took her to the morgue. Where, thankfully it was my contact, Guillermo, who received her. He realized she was turning, but hadn't had enough blood yet, so he called me. I got there as soon as I could, but by then Beth had already been reported dead. Which probably kept her safe from what followed."

"Your kidnapping." Phil looked straight at his lover.

"My kidnapping." Skye nodded grimly. "You already heard all about it when we were in LA so I think we don't need to get into that."

"But that night..." Phil insisted. "Things didn't happen as you claimed."

"No they didn't." She didn't bother to deny it, she knew he'd seen enough. "Meredith, one of the highest ranking members of the Tribe in LA, and head of the second most powerful clan back there, helped me out. Then I joined her, her girls, Josef, Mick, Beth and a few others from our own Clan who had chosen to fight the Legion..." She shivered at the memory of that night. "It was... the most horrific thing I've ever been through. At first I didn't know what to do. I could defend myself well-enough with the blades I was given, but like Fox once said, I just wasn't born to be a killer... I didn't want to kill. Then I saw Leanne, one of Meredith's girls fall... it was like something inside me clicked. I still couldn't kill myself, but I realized that the Legion wouldn't stop until they were dead. So instead I defended those I could, called warnings whenever possible and stopped flinching at everyone that fell. I chose to focus on making sure those I cared for survived... maybe it was callous of me, but I chose my family above those I knew not, except for the fact that they were psychotic bastards willing to torture and kill for no other reason than we were different from what they considered normal..."

"And they all died." Phil concluded.

"It was the only way they were going to stop." Josef assured him. "Trust me, I've seen fanatics before, only death can stop them. In the end, it was them or me and mine... I chose me and mine."

Phil couldn't really fault him for that, he'd been quite willing to beat Quinn, possibly even kill him, after what he'd done to Skye...

"If that's how things actually happened, how come you were found in the river at dawn?" The Agent asked next.

"Josef, Mick and the others had everything ready to leave town the moment the battle was won. But I knew I couldn't leave." Skye answered grimly. "If we all disappeared the DA would want to investigate that, especially with Talbot's own death, and someone needed to make sure he would not find the wrong kind of answers. It was one thing for one Tribe to be threatened, if the Community ever were... it would be catastrophic." She shook her head at the mere thought. "So I stayed. Filed charges against Talbot for kidnapping, fielded questions about my brother and his friends missing. It went on for two months, until I just about had enough. So I packed my things and began living in my van, on the other side of LA. Close enough that I could still follow the investigation, but far enough that they wouldn't harass me anymore. Then, as you know, you and Ward found me in September..."

"Yes, about that." Josef commented, eyes narrowed. "What exactly have you been doing the last year and a half, sister-mine? I could never find you. Whenever one of my contacts would report seeing you in some place, you would leave before even twenty-four hours had passed."

"I joined SHIELD, first as a consultant, then as an Agent." Skye answered honestly. "It's a long story, and complicated."

"I love long stories." Josef insisted. "And the night is still young... also, you have yet to explain your change in eye-color..."

So Skye told them. She revealed everything, holding nothing back. Ever since the moment Phil and Ward had taken her from her van behind the dinner in LA, through her days trying to fit in, the mess with Miles, the revelations of her past, Quinn, getting shot, Loki... up to Hydra, the beginning of the civil war inside SHIELD, and the creation of the new version of the organization with herself and Phil in command.

"Wow..." Beth murmured when she was finished. "That's certainly something."

"I've heard about this superheroes, like the Captain America, Spider-Man, the Goblin... it's still hard to wrap my head around it." Mick admitted.

"Can you imagine if a vampire ever decided to become a superhero?" Beth asked suddenly.

It was enough to shock everyone into silence.

"So you're not actually human." Josef finally stated, after what seemed like forever.

"No, I'm not." Skye nodded. "I'm half-elven, half-Jotun, frost-giant... though this form is still the easiest to keep, as it's the one I've had most of my life. The only thing I chose not to change back was my eyes. I like them this color."

Josef nodded, saying nothing else on the topic. Truth was that, though he would never admit it, he'd long since known that humans and vampires weren't the only beings in the universe. There were others out there, some living in their world, others elsewhere. Most of them did their best to stay hidden from society at large, something Josef could understand, so he'd chosen to keep the things he suspected, and the things he knew for sure, to himself. He was conscious that even vampires in general did not know as much as he did.

"Josef..." Skye's sudden call of his name, in a low, tender, and very intense tone was enough to pull everyone short.

"Karin..." The aged vampire had a feeling something was coming, something huge.

"There is something else..." She murmured quietly.

She knew that what she was about to bring up would be hard, more for him than for her; but if there was any chance for her idea to work... they needed to try.

"It's about Sarah..." She finally blurted out. "I think I know why she hasn't woken up..."

"Sarah..." Josef repeated in a pained voice, before it suddenly registered what she'd just said. "You think you what?!"

"I think she's like me..." Skye tried to explain.

"Like you...?" Josef parroted, confused. "How?"

"In the not-human sense." The young woman clarified. "I don't know what race she might be, though my bet would be elf, or vanir... at least part. Maybe not because of her parents, but another ancestor. I think she's not fully human, she's more..."

"Where are you going with all this?" Josef's voice had gained an edge, Sarah was a sensitive topic for him, and he just wanted his sister to get to the point.

"She's more than human, therefore she needs more to turn than a human would..." Skye finally clarified her theory. "I think you need to give her more blood..."

"Have you?" Beth asked suddenly, growing giddy at the prospect. "Since you first tried to turn her and she didn't wake up, have you tried to give her more blood?"

"Never." Josef admitted as he considered it. "I didn't know what had gone wrong. Had no way of knowing that giving her more blood wouldn't just make things worse... The initial quantity of blood used is supposed to be very little because, as experience has taught us, too much will make the fledgling's abilities grow too fast for them to get used to them, to learn to filter, it makes them go insane because they cannot handle it all..."

"But that's with humans." Skye insisted. "If Sarah was more... there was a power inside of her that needed more..."

For what seemed like forever, not a word was said, then Josef nodded and got up.

"Will you try it then?" Mick couldn't help but ask.

"It's been fifty nine years, and human medicine is no closer to helping her than it was when she first fell into that coma..." Josef declared soberly. "If there is the slightest chance this might work... I have to try Mick. She's my Sarah..."

"I know Josef, I know." Mick clapped a hand on his back in understanding.

"We're here for you Josef." Beth assured him. "All of us. And we'll be here for Sarah too when she wakes up."

Beth did not know if Karin's theory was right, if her plan would work... but she refused to believe that the redhead would just remain sleeping for the rest of time. Josef loved her so much... and the blonde knew Sarah loved him too. Those two deserved a chance, and she wanted more than anything to believe that they would get it. The universe couldn't be so cruel as to allow two soulmates to find each other, only to pull them apart, forever.

xXx

It worked. It wasn't easy, and there had been a moment when they'd all feared it wouldn't, when Josef slashed his wrist, placed it above Sarah's lips, and there was no reaction whatsoever. But then it was Beth who had an idea. The same thing Mick had done for her when she was in the morgue, they took blood from Josef with a syringe, then injected straight into Sarah's main vein. Seconds passed, long enough for the vamp blood to reach the woman's heart, and a moment later silver eyes snapped open, fangs dropped from her mouth and she was instinctively reaching for the arm still hovering above her.

Afterwards Sarah had slept for a while longer, though shorter lapses each time, until she was awake more than she was asleep. There was still a long way for her to go, being a fledgling, and especially since none of them knew what latent abilities there might have been in her that Josef's blood might have activated. Still, just her being awake brought much hope and joy to the Clan, and of course to Josef.

Josef gifted Phil with a set of platinum cuff-links days later, they had the same two-headed eagle as Skye's earring. He learnt then it was the symbol of Josef's Clan. Everyone who was part of the family, or under his protection carried it. It served both so every Clan member would know each other, would help each other in moments of need; and also to warn off other members of the Community, letting them know who was under certain vampire's protection, especially when it came to humans.

In the days before the end of the year Skye and Phil had spent time sight-seeing around NY, some times with the others, some times on their own. At some point they also ended attending an impromptu Council Meeting with the Elders of the New York Tribe. They had been there with Josef and Sarah so he could register his fledgling as well as the new 'ally of his Clan'. While Sarah was accepted easily enough, Phil was another matter entirely, and some of those present even refused to acknowledge Karin. It was then that the NY Tribe got to meet Karin Konstantin and understand why LA had accepted her even though she was human. The fact that Phil was quite willing to cover for the Community with both SHIELD and the governments they were allied with ended up being a huge point in his favor. In the end the Council gave their approval with some reticence; everyone in the Clan was sure that once they got to truly know the two humans they would fully accept them.

New Years Eve was celebrated by the unorthodox family in the townhouse in Waverly Place. Josef hadn't been sure at first, with the memories of almost sixty years of believing his beloved lost, but the place was more homey than the penthouse apartment in South Manhattan and it was easier to keep the fledgling away from humans there.

Phil attended, though Skye had made a point of making sure Sarah would understand he was off-limits. It was good practice, and the Agent knew that his lover and her family would never allow him to be hurt. He was also feeling especially satisfied that one of the biggest rocks complicating their relationship was finally gone. He knew there were still some things he did not know about the woman he loved, but the time would come for that.

As Midnight approached Josef opened another bottle of ice-wine, the best he had in stock. He was also quite surprised when Skye offered him a bottle of a darker, thicker red liquid.

"Is that...?" He didn't even there ask.

"My blood." His sister finished for him. "Since this is a special occasion and all I thought it would be something good to toast with. Maybe you could make your glasses half and half..."

Josef nodded half-absentmindedly as he uncorked the bottle and took a sniff at it.

"This doesn't smell like the last time..." He commented suddenly, curious.

"The last time my powers hadn't awakened yet." She reminded him. "I don't know how different my blood might be from a human's now, but I'm sure it'll be."

"Well, it certainly smells delicious..." He leered jokingly at her.

The brunette just giggled, it was such an odd conversation to be having! If the rest of her family ever heard them, they would think she was insane! And maybe she was... in any case. Josef was her family, and with him came Sarah, Mick, Beth and a few others. She loved them all, like she loved her birth parents: Loki and Tawar, her team-family, and a few others she'd met in the course of her life and had come to see as family as well.

When they got close enough to midnight the group moved to the roof terrace; from where they could watch the fireworks being used all through Manhattan, and even some on the other side of the river. The women were all wearing cocktail dresses, and the men tuxes, with Phil's being the only one actually made for the cold, since the rest of them actually preferred colder temperatures (Skye just made sure it wouldn't be so cold her skin would turn blue).

As the time finally came to ring in the New Year, the toasts began:

"May your home always be too small to hold all your friends." Mick declared.

"You use the same phrase every year, and every year I tell you that the day I truly have more friends than space to put them... I will be dead and they'll be together for my funeral!" Josef replied with outrageous laughter.

"A New Year's toast to love and laughter and happily ever after." Phil offered his favorite toast.

"Now that one I like." Beth declared, embracing her mate.

"Happily ever after indeed..." Josef admitted quietly, Sarah in his own arms. "Happy New Years to all, my family..."

Chapter Text

Chapter 4. Destiny

It was May, the first anniversary of the founding of the new SHIELD was approaching, and that had everyone quite giddy. However, that particular night, they had other things to worry about, like the dinner with a couple of contacts from the DPD. It was a semi-formal affair, meant to look like dinner between two friendly couples; and truth be told, Phil and Skye actually got along pretty well with Annie and Auggie. Still, that didn't change the fact that they only received that kind of invitation when the others' boss: Joan Campbell, wanted something. Not that the circumstances would stop the two couples from enjoying themselves, and especially the chance to eat in an expensive place (without either of them having to pay... I was going to be filed as 'business expense' with the CIA).

While Sharon Carter and Sidney Bristow were their main contacts with the Central Intelligence Agency, truth was that the former was too new in the Organization, while the later was making preparations for retirement, she was married and rumors had it she was pregnant for the second time; and while she'd managed to have her first child and still continue in the job, she'd expressed an interest in leading a more 'normal' life with her family.

Annie had actually been the one to approach them, rather than the other way around. Apparently her bosses had heard about the radical change SHIELD had undergone and were interested in 'building bridges' with the new administration. It was the only time Phil and Skye had met the Campbells; that particular division took quite seriously the idea of being undercover. They had made arrangements, opened lines of communication... Auggie and Skye had a blast discussing different encoded means they could use and which ones might be safer... the Deputy Director of SHIELD had such respect for the CIA Intelligence Officer she'd asked his bosses to loan him to them so he could help oversee the creation of a highly encoded communication's net for SHIELD (Skye was good, but the two of them were much better). Also, Annie was an experienced field operative who'd been through a lot in her years of service; yet she somehow managed to retain a bright outlook, something Phil admired greatly (he confided in Skye that if the blonde didn't so obviously loved her job, he would have tried to poach her...).

Skye silently opened the garment bag that had been delivered by one of their Agents to the hotel that morning. She and Phil had been in Washington for several days already, meeting with various members of the American government; just like they'd met with high-ranked individuals of the FBI and NCIS in the days prior to that. It seemed like, with the coming anniversary, everyone wanted to make sure SHIELD was really everything it claimed to be... it wasn't a bad thing as far as its two leaders were concerned, just extremely tiring. Especially with all the recent missions the team had had. Though Skye at least kept joking that all the 'princess lessons' she'd gotten from her mother during her visits to Asgard were finally good for something.

Her visits every six-months were already becoming tradition, though the latest one in particular (back in January, shortly after everyone's return to the Playground following New Years... and Phil induction into a particular secret Community...) had rendered some unexpected surprises, not the least of which had been the two small bundles in her mother's arms, her little brothers, twins: Vali and Narvi. Tawar had managed to convince everyone on Asgard that she'd been pregnant when leaving Alfheim; it was also widely believed that the father of her children wasn't a part of her life (either he was dead or simply did not care enough to be with her). Sif was the only one who knew the truth, aside from the family.

Menel had actually accompanied her parents to present her little brothers to Fenrir and Sleipnir in secret; and she'd later shared the memories of them with Hela and Jormungandr. Their family was growing, finally in peace, and yet that didn't stop the young princess from fearing for them all. What would they do if/when Odin woke up and sought vengeance for Loki's actions? The mere thought of what he might do to her mother and to the twins... Skye had never been a truly violent person, but if something could push her into truly killing, an attack on her family would be it. She'd gotten dangerously close in the battle against the Legion two years prior, in LA, and if Odin were to ever so much as threaten those little boys...

In any case, while those thoughts were important, the twins weren't really what Skye had on her mind the moment she finished opening the garment bag to reveal the simple round-necked, short-sleeved, knee-length hot pink taffeta dress. Phil had more than enough suits with him, but Skye never wore dresses unless it was a formal affair, so Jemma had offered to go into her room back in the Playground and retrieve a dress, Skye wasn't expecting it to be that one, though.

"Dollar for your thoughts..." Phil offered suddenly.

"You know it's supposed to be a penny, right?" She couldn't help but ask with a half-teasing smile, knowing that was his intent.

"Your thoughts are worth a lot more than a penny, more than a dollar too, but still." He shrugged, wanting to focus. "What are you thinking about so intently?"

"Nothing bad." She assured him. "I was remembering the person who bought me the dress..."

"The person who..." Phil hadn't seen that one coming. "I thought you'd bought it."

"No." Skye smiled as she caressed the soft fabric of the dress. "At the time I didn't have much money, definitely not enough for a dress like this one." She remembered something else and added. "And to think this was the least expensive he agreed to buy!"

"He...?" Phil couldn't help the hint of jealousy in his tone.

"Oh, nothing like that, nothing you need to worry about." She assured him. "Alec was a friend, a very dear friend, and nothing more."

"You never..." He didn't dare finish the thought.

"You mean if we slept together?" She asked bluntly. "Yes. We slept together for a few weeks but Phil, we were never in love, were never even lovers. At much you might have called us 'friends with benefits'. There was nothing serious, no romantic relationship, between us; that was always quite clear, neither of us ever thought otherwise." She made a pause before explaining a bit more. "He was the first man I took to my bed, the first one I went farther than making out with. I was young back then, with no interest in a committed relationship... you could say I just wanted to have fun. I was attracted to him, as was he to me, and from the very first night we knew it meant nothing, at least, nothing more than friendship." She went to Phil, kissing the corner of his mouth. "What we had was nothing like what we have, love. I was a girl then, but not anymore. And as much as I enjoy sharing a bed with you, I enjoy the fact that we're together, truly together, even more. I love you..."

"I love you too Skye." Phil returned the sentiment with a relaxed smile. "So tell me about this Alec? Where is he now?"

Skye arched a brow, not fully sure if it was a good idea to tell her lover about someone she'd slept with in the past, even if it'd been years and they'd never really been together romantically.

"I promise not to get too jealous." Phil said with a slightly wicked smile. "I knew before we ever got together that you'd had at least a serious relationship before; just like you know I'd had as well. What matters is that we're together now."

"Very true." Skye nodded. "And like I said, it wasn't like that between Alec and I... nor between Miles and I." Her expression became abruptly intense before she stated. "Never in my life had I loved anyone the way I love you Phil..."

Phil had no words to reply to that; he felt the same, and he knew his lover could sense it, which was good, considering his lack of wordly reply. All he could do was kiss her fully on the mouth, intense yet tender at the same time. The past did not matter anymore, not Alec or Miles, or Audrey or anyone else either of them might have been with at some point. They were together in that moment, and planned to stay that way for a very long time, possibly forever; nothing else mattered after that.

"Remember when I told you about the time I did that internship in Metropolis?" Skye asked as she began taking off her clothes so she could change.

"You worked in Luthor Corp for the summer, you were nineteen, if I remember correctly." Phil answered, half-absently as he couldn't help but focus on the curves of her body as she revealed them without an ounce of self-consciousness.

"Yes." She nodded. "The internship lasted three months. I met Alec on my second or third day there, he was one of my superiors. I did a few errands for him. We became friends after we met in a club that weekend; by the end of the month I was running less errands for the office in general and more for him personally; until I became sort of his PA." She smiled. "At the beginning of August he had a very important lunch/business meeting, I think the people were from Star City. Alec wanted me to go with him. I told him he was crazy, I didn't know how to act, had nothing to wear. He insisted that I act the way I always did, and on buying me something nice to wear. After some negotiating we ended in a small, high-end boutique. The pink dress was the most simple, least expensive piece in the whole place, and it fit me right. In the end I had to let him buy me shoes too and we borrowed some jewelry from a store next to the boutique." She let out a breath. "I didn't feel like I quite fit, but I certainly looked the part."

Phil nodded, he was sure there was more to the story but they had no time, they had a dinner to get to. With it being almost Summer a knee-lenght dress was good; she wore with it off-white heels and her usual pieces of jewelry. She was briefly reminded of Malta, and Ian Quinn, the last time she'd worn that dress; but she chose to push all that aside. Quinn was in prison, and she was alright, in the end they'd won.

So pushing Quinn, Alec and the past as a whole aside, Skye focused on arranging her hair in an elegant half-twist before adding an off-white wrap around her shoulders, then taking the arm Phil offered her (he was in a light-gray suit with a pink tie), and they got on their way.

The dinner was nice. The two couples got business out of the way and then focused on having a good time. Dinner, some ballroom dancing (a guilty pleasure they shared), and then some wine.

"We need to go on a vacation together one of these days." Annie commented. "It would be wonderful, having several days to do nothing but this."

"Do you honestly think that with our lives, with our jobs, we will ever get enough time off to actually go on vacation, especially all four of us at the same time?" Skye asked with a light snort. "The world might end if we aren't all here."

"Besides, you would end bored to death before the week was through." Auggie deadpanned.

The rest could only laugh, how true that was!

xXx

The next morning after a late breakfast Phil and Skye were on an airstrip, about to be picked up by the Bus. Melinda, FitzSimmons, Darcy, Clint, Natalia and James had been finishing clean-up of a Hydra facility in the Shenandoah National Park, west from DC. Phil and Skye had been in that mission too, but when the critical stages had been finished the pair had gotten a call from the twins back on the Playground, letting them know that the Director of the DPD was requesting contact; apparently she'd had Agents following leads for a couple of cases in that park, and SHIELD's own actions had destroyed their work. Either the woman was pissed off, or she just wanted to be sure there was a good reason another agency had stepped on her toes (or most likely, it was a mix of both). So Skye and Phil had gone.

The couple could hear the Bus right then as the wheels touched the ground. They knew from experience it would be five minutes or so until it had completely stopped, then it would take Melinda ten to fifteen before they were ready to be up in the air again. They were due to return to the Playground, after having been on half a dozen or so missions in a row, up and down the American continent. It had been good, but tiring. At least it seemed like they'd gotten most of the Fridge's former inmates back behind bars already, which was a huge victory. Though they still had a lot of Hydra left to deal with.

While they waited Skye took a seat on some crates (the airstrip was mostly used for cargo planes, but due to the size of the Bus, it was a more convenient place to use than a commercial airport). So they were there and the brunette decided to kill some time by checking on her e-mails, her personal ones. While she had one address that was well-known inside SHIELD, from which she handled matters of the organization, and a secondary official for their contacts in other national agencies, and even their allies in other countries; she had one more electronic address, highly encrypted, she used it to exchange personal letters, with people that she called friends and family, who had nothing to do with her job, or the name of Astrid Avery. Josef was one such person, also a couple of people in Miami: Suki and her man; an old foster-sister from California and a handful of others. It was also the address she had used back when she and Darcy had conspired to get Phil to spend Christmas with Clint and Natasha...

In any case, while she got short messages every couple of months from some people, mainly Josef, Suki and Mia, it wasn't very common. Which is why she was actually surprised to find a new mail in her inbox, and not only that, but from one person she'd had no communication with for over a year!

"Alec..." She whispered in shock even as she clicked the mail open.

Phil turned in her direction when hearing her whisper that name; it seemed like a somewhat odd coincidence that she would be getting a message from her old friend precisely the day after they'd talked about him... Still, he never expected the way Skye paled dramatically, her eyes widened and then she began shaking her head very quickly.

"No, no, nonono..." She kept mumbling in near-hysterical denial.

"Astrid?" He always called her by her official name when they were somewhere someone could overhear them. "Is everything alright?"

"No!" She practically wailed. "It's not... It's not... Alec is going to die."

"What?!" Her lover wasn't expecting that one.

For all answer Skye offered him her tablet. He hesitated a second, unsure if the message might be too personal for him to read, but it was obvious she wanted him too, and if she was right that her old friend was in danger of dying, then he needed to know in order to help:

Dear Skylar,

I know I haven't been there for you, been the kind of friend you deserved, for the longest time. I was changing... it began before we met each other for the last time and back then, during that blissful week, you managed to strip me bare, to see through the cracks in my walls and bring them all crashing down. It terrified me. No one but you and Clark are capable of doing that to me, and I was already losing him, I didn't want to lose you as well... Except, it seems, in the end that happened anyway. I lost you, pretty much pushed you away myself.

I was beyond shocked when I received that note of congratulations regarding my wedding to Lana... I'm sorry I didn't invite you. I would like to think of a good reason for it and offer it to you, but there isn't one, not even an excuse. All I can think of as for why I didn't tell you is that I knew even then that it wasn't going to work. You know what happened with Desiree and were actually there for some of what went on with Helen, you helped me so much then... I knew that the moment I told you I was marrying again, and especially who it was I was marrying, you would tell me I was insane, that it would never work; and I'm afraid I wasn't ready to hear that, even though I would have known it was the truth. I'm sure you know how the whole thing with Lana ended too. Even if you never said a word about that.

I guess it was my fault, I was the one who stopped trying. But I want you to know, it was never about you, it was all me... I know how cliché that sounds, but it's the truth. In the end, I am my father's son, all I touch turns to ash. I did it to my mother, to Pamela, Duncan, Amanda... one might even argue I did it to Lana, though she wasn't as innocent as she would have claimed either. Almost did it to Clark too, he barely managed to slip away from my grasp in time to save himself. I didn't want you to be the next so I pushed you away, to protect you. Sounds stupid, I know, but it is the truth.

Alexander the great once said: 'I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well'. I am indebted to you and to Clark, my truest and dearest friends, for living as well as I have. The last seven years of my life had truly been the best, and they were so because of you two. So thank you.

I know that, if you're still reading this and haven't yet grown tired of my diatribe you must be wondering what the point of all this is. It's to say good-bye. After so many years fighting against fate, I have finally decided to take it in my own two hands. I know what it is I'm meant to do, what my destiny is, and I've decided to embrace it, only in my own terms. Which means I'm not coming back. I could have just gone, I considered doing it, actually; but decided you deserved better than that, better than finding out about my death in a newspaper. Truth is, you deserve much better than this too, but it's the best I can do.

Don't look for me Skye... I know if you still care for me at all you will want to. But I have made my choice, let it be. Even if you were to find me (I have no doubt that, if you set your mind to it, you could) it won't change a thing. I have already hurt you enough, I don't want to do it again, don't let me. Remember me as the man I was when we went clubbing in Metropolis and, if you wish, the one I was, if only for you, that last blissful, terrifying week in Smallville. That's the best I've ever been, the best I could ever hope to be. Keep that, and forget everything else.

Let me go. Be happy.

The friend that never deserved you but will always care about you,

Alexander.

After that there was one more line, another quote of Alexander the Great: 'A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient...'

Truth was, if the contents of the letter itself hadn't been enough for Phil, the last quote would have done it. Wherever it was he was going, Skye's friend, Alec, Alexander, was walking to his own death, and he embraced that fact, for whatever the reason.

"I need to find him..." Skye mumbled. "Need to find him. Stop this insanity..."

Phil did not bother telling her she couldn't do it, he knew as well as Alec apparently did that Skye could do anything she set her mind to. He didn't try to tell her it was not what her friend wanted, if one of his own friends had sent him such a letter he would be ignoring that part too.

"Can you find where he is from the air?" He asked her instead.

"Yeah." She did not hesitate.

"Then lets go. You find where Alec is going and Melinda can get us there, it will be far safer for everyone than if you try to just use your magic to get there." Phil reasoned with him. "Even if your power is growing, you still get weakened when you travel the Shadow Paths; if he's far away enough you won't have enough energy to do much once you reach him, and if he's in a tight spot it might end up making things worse for the both of you."

Skye knew he was right so, even though she was dying to just go after Alec as fast as she could, she knew he was right, so she followed him onto the Bus.

The moment the rest of the team learnt there was a situation they were all for helping. Melinda got working so they could be on the air as soon as possible, while the rest began brainstorming possible places where he might be.

"This Clark, couldn't you ask him for help?" Darcy asked suddenly after having read the letter.

She and James were the only who were allowed to read it, because Skye needed more opinions on the things written there, but it was too personal for everyone to read it.

"He never talked about saying goodbye to him too." James commented, somber.

Skye nodded grimly, she had noticed that too.

"What does that mean?" Jemma inquired, confused.

"Either they are so far distanced from each other that Alec is convinced Clark wouldn't read the letter or..." James hesitated before saying the second part of it.

"Or he's involved." Natalia finished for both him and Skye.

"It's the other possibility, yes." Skye agreed.

And for some reason, she believed that was the one.

In the end the brunette half-elf strapped herself in before projecting to Metropolis, straight to Luthor Tower. From there she took a look around before finally jumping to Smallvile and checking the manor and the town in general. She was about to give up when she noticed a blonde she remembered seeing before in the Daily Planet and followed him astraly to a farm she'd seen a couple of times in her last, brief, visit to Smallville. It read 'Kent' on the mailbox.

Menel followed the blonde into the barn, where she witnessed a rather interesting conversation between him and a tall, broad-shouldered, tanned, dark-haired, green-eyed young man she recognized from a picture Alec kept by his bedside: it was Clark Kent.

"Clark, are you here?!" The blonde called loudly as he reached the young man in the blue-shirt, red jacket and jeans. "Chloe was just arrested."

Skye's heart skipped a beat but she forced herself to push that down, she needed to stay focused. Chloe might be arrested, but Alec was going to die unless she did something.

"What?" Clark was obviously shocked by the revelation.

"Her habitual hacking caught uncle Sam's eye, so I kind of went to Lex for help, and now he's holding it over my head." The blonde explained in a rush.

"You made a deal with Lex Luthor?" Clark's disbelief was clear for all to hear.

"Look, I told him to get another lapdog, Clark." The photographer insisted. "Then he just put her back in the most-wanted list. She went from life-support to life-without-parole in less than a day."

"Where's Lex now?"

"Look, I don't know. I tried to get in contact with him, but he's off jet-setting around the Arctic Circle." He grumbled. "And I know it's not drilling oil... See, he's gone way out of his way to cover his tracks in the snow..."

Menel did not wait to hear more, or to see Clark's own reaction to the revelation. In a blink she allowed her astral self to vanish and her spirit to return to her body.

"The Arctic..." She breathed the moment she was back.

The moment she was heard they were all on the move. It would take them five hours going at the Bus's top speed (which already cut down a third of the time it would take in a normal jet of that size). Skye knew that there was a chance that, whatever was going on in the Arctic, it would be complicated, possibly even dangerous.

Alec had been quite honest when he'd talked about being 'stripped bare' during that week they'd spent together, the last time they'd been face to face. He'd told her about his obsession during the previous year, with the Stones of Power and the Traveler, had even told her what little he could remember about the secret society his father had belonged to, Veritas... they were things Skye would never talk about, some she wasn't quite sure Alec actually remembered telling her about. He'd been so out-of-it for the first couple of days, spent half the time babbling about having ruined the best part of his life, how Clark hated him, how he was becoming his father...

Skye had gone deep researching Veritas after that, reading everything she could find... which wasn't much and seemed so much like fiction that if she herself wasn't from another world, she probably would have never believed it. The brunette did not know if Clark was connected to the traveler in some way or if, somehow, he was the legendary individual... she did not care. All she cared about in that moment was Alec.

Almost an hour passed, and eventually they all ended in the sitting area of the plane; practically every single member of the team looking at Skye who was sitting on one of the small couches, legs crossed, her tablet on her lap, the screen still showing the letter; which she'd read so many times as to have it almost completely memorized already.

"So... who exactly is it we're going to save?" Leo asked.

"His name is Alec, and he's a very dear friend." Skye answered quietly. "He counts me as one of his two best friends, no... one of his two only friends..."

No one knew what to say to that.

"I met Alec when I was nineteen, after my first year of college." The young woman began her story. "I got a summer internship in Metropolis, in LuthorCorp. That's where I met Alec. I ran a few errands for him. I was pretty, and the more powerful men of the company liked having the pretty interns around, the rest were left working the lower floors with the archives, filing, that sort of thing. Anyway, that was more or less how the first few days went. I noticed him, how could I not? He was quite handsome and had less of an ego than you would expect of someone with his looks, money and power." She shrugged. "When the weekend came I decided to go clubbing with a few other interns..."

"Clubbing?" Leo squeaked. "Weren't you too young?"

"Duh, fake ID, of course." She smirked at him. "Under the name of Karen Starr... one of the girls had enough pull to get us into the higher-end places and, surprise, surprise, Alec was there. The other gals noticed I couldn't stop looking at him and one of them dared me to ask him to dance... I'm not quite sure what surprised them the most, that I took the dare, or that he accepted my invitation and danced with me, for several songs." She chuckled. "One of them, Kelly, warned me. She said he was well-known as a man-whore, all for one-night stands, and half-publicly bisexual, but never one for commitment."

"How is one half-publicly bisexual?" Jemma couldn't help but ask.

"It's in the attitude. It's never said openly, but it's there if you know what to look for. He never kissed or touched guys openly, but he was an easy flirt and there was this look in his eyes, when he found someone attractive, whether male or female, it did not matter." She shrugged again. "In any case, they all were very insistent on how bad an idea it would be to get involved with him. I just wanted to have fun... I woke up the next morning on his bed, fully clothed mind you, and more than a little disoriented."

"What happened?" Several of the team members were immediately defensive.

"I was drugged." The brunette revealed. "The other girls from the office were already gone by that point; I'd chosen to stay since I was having such a good time; like I hadn't in a while. I was being careful not to drink too much, mostly dancing. Someone slipped something into my drink and I didn't notice until I began getting dizzy. It took a while, but still. Thankfully he had returned after going around the club, flirting with a few others, he was the one to find me right before I lost consciousness completely, or so he said, there's a lot I don't remember of that night, part of the drug's effects from what I learnt afterwards. It was his personal doctor's belief that I was dosed several times when the first one did not take; I was lucky I didn't end up in a coma, or worse, with so much of the damned drug in my system. Anyway, Alec didn't know where I was staying or who he could call, so instead he got us back to his place."

"His bed?" Darcy gave her a suggestive smile.

"Nothing like that!" Skye actually chuckled. "After what his doctor told him of the drug that had been used, and just how much was in my body he chose to keep me close in case anything happened, he's a light-sleeper. He got a maid to change me into more comfortable clothes and watched over me for most of the night. It was after that, that we became friends." She smiled. "Alec did not like that someone had drugged me, and we both knew whoever had done it hadn't had good intentions at all, so I began discreetly asking questions. I learnt that a number of girls had been drugged and raped, always after going to that club. Yet none of them could go to the police because the drug made it so they couldn't really remember what happened while they were under the its effects."

"You were lucky your friend was so gentlemanly." Natalia commented.

"Very, yes." The younger woman nodded. "When I told him what had happened he was furious. The place was supposed to be one of the best..."

"What did you do then?" Darcy was getting really interested in the story, as were most of the team members by that point.

"Well, since nothing had happened to me, I couldn't exactly report it. The drug was out of my system by that point, so that was a bust too; same with any other girls. So I decided to go the media way. During my first days in Luthor Corp I'd met a girl working in the Daily Planet (since the two places are across the street from each other). She attended high-school in Smallville and had earned a summer internship there. Her name was Chloe Sullivan. I told her everything I'd found out, how little actual evidence there was, and the very real danger to every girl in the city. She did some more research, actually managed to find a girl or two that could vaguely confirm what we knew, and ran with the story. At first I wasn't expecting much to happen, after all, she was an intern, and there just wasn't enough in her article to make front-page. Except that, without me knowing, Alec had given her a quote, citing how he was considering never visiting the place again, as it would be a risk to all his female friends and acquaintances. That certainly got the ball rolling. There was a full police investigation and a number of people working in the place ended up implicated. The Planet got Chloe to cover the whole thing, since she was the one to break the story. She loved it. It was her dream to be a reporter, you see. She kept thanking me time and time again for giving her the starting point. I didn't care about any of that; just thankful that no more girls would end up drugged and raped."

"It was a good thing you achieved..." Melinda praised her. "And your friend, using his position to make sure people listened."

"Yeah... anyway, so Alec and I became friends." Skye actually blushed a bit at the compliment but managed to continue. "Days passed. Things got pretty crazy in the office when I would get coffee sent when I was staying late, and someone saw me one night when he insisted on driving me to my place because it was too late to be walking the streets alone. The gossip ran rampant. The funniest thing of all is that we weren't actually sleeping together at the time." She chuckled. "That happened until the end of the month. I was feeling antsy, but didn't dare go clubbing again. Even though I knew I would be safe with him close-by, a part of me was didn't like the idea of exposing myself in such a way. So he invited me to his apartment for a few drinks. You know what the funniest thing is? It takes a lot, and I mean, really a lot to get either of us truly drunk. So when midnight came and went and I was barely beginning to feel typsy, and he even less so, we decided to quit and got talking. We talked about a lot of stuff... deep stuff. And somehow we ended in bed together. Like I said before, it wasn't about love, it was about attraction, and comfort and acceptance... We were friends, and that never changed."

Phil nodded from across the low table, silently reassuring her than he was not jealous. It was something that had worried her since her revelation about the origins of her pink dress.

"The next Monday there was this board-meeting, very important stuff; the secretary that usually took notes during such things had reported sick and they had no one close at hand. So Alec called me and told me to do it. At first no one really paid enough attention, didn't realize that I was just an intern; when they did, gossip started all over again. It only got worse when, by the end of the week, Alec had made me his personal assistant. They said it was because we were sleeping together, that I was doing him 'favors' to get the position, to get money. Which was absolutely ridiculous, I was an intern, I was barely paid enough for the room I was renting in a few blocks down the street and my meals!" She shook her head ruefully. "In any case, I chose to ignore them. It's not like I cared for, or even knew most of them. We were co-workers, and friends, and we were happy, nothing else matters."

She made a pause to take a drink from a glass of water James had procured her before going back to the story.

"At the beginning of August, a month after I became his PA, Alec told me he had some very important lunch/business meeting with a few associates of him from Star City, including Oliver Queen. He wanted me to go with him. I told him he was insane. I didn't know what to do in a reunion like that, had no knowledge at all about business (I may have been working in Luthor Corp but I barely ran errands, took notes and such) and I didn't even have appropriate clothing."

"Let me guess, he was all for correcting that last part." Darcy smirked at her friend.

"Like you cannot imagine." Skye agreed with a sigh. "I truly believe Alec has so much money it's become completely irrelevant to him. Also, it's so easy for him to acquire things, that he doesn't understand when others have a hard time, or when we don't like him spending money on us." She shook her head. "Matter of fact. At first he was all for getting a seamstress make a gown in my specific measures, of raw silk of all things!" She shook her head. "He was quite insistent on me going with him, though. So in the end we reached a compromise. We bought a pink taffeta, knee-length, short-sleeved, round-necked dress. It was quite pretty, and was the cheapest he agreed on buying from the boutique we ended in..."

"Wait a second..." Jemma interrupted abruptly. "Pink dress? The pink dress? The one you wore to Malta when you infiltrated Quinn's compound?"

"When we were looking for Dr. Hall, yes." Skye nodded.

"I love that dress!" Jemma insisted. "And you look so pretty in it!"

"Thank you Jemma." Skye smiled kindly at her friend and almost-sister. "Like I was saying, Alec bought it for me. And since it cost a lot less than what he was willing to spend, he then insisted on buying me heels to go with the dress and somehow convinced me to borrow some jewelry from a shop next to the boutique (thankfully that one he did not try to give me, or buy)."

"And you went with him to this meeting?" Clint inquired, wanting to continue with the story.

"Yes, in the end it actually went pretty well. Aside from the fact that it was quite obvious Queen didn't want to be there, could hardly stand Alec at all... I also had a very awkward moment when Alec's father arrived unexpectedly, looked at me full of contempt and then made a less-than-kind comment regarding my presence there. Alec was about ready to hit him until, surprisingly, it was the rest of the men at the table who came to my defense. I don't really know how that happened, only that it did."

"I'm glad that someone defended you." Phil and James stated practically at the same time, to chuckles from everyone else.

"I was too." The brunette half-elf admitted. "So, pretty much that was that. I spent the rest of August working there, visiting Chloe every so often, sometimes we would go for coffee together, and eventually I went back to clubbing, Alec always with me. Then the summer ended and I went back to College."

"Did you ever return? Another internship or to visit your friends at least?"

"A couple of times. The following year I didn't have any internship planned but Alec asked me to attend his wedding. He even sent a private jet to pick me up. I attended, it was a nice event. The bride was very pretty. Still, I could see Alec was distracted, his Best Man didn't arrive, though I don't know why." She sighed. "I left immediately afterwards. The jet took me to California. Where I'd planned on visiting one of my old foster families, one of the best..." She smiled at the memory before frowning again. "A month later I read in the papers that Alec was reported missing, possibly dead. His plane had gone down in the sea. Dozens of rescue teams had been sent out, no one had been able to find him."

"What did you do?" Melinda asked, curious.

"There was nothing I could do." Skye admitted. "It's not like I had any money to help with the search, and his father already had more than enough people working on that. Besides, my foster brother had done something stupid and was getting into some serious trouble. I was plenty busy helping Mia try and get him out of the mess."

"What kind of mess?" Several people got on alert once again.

"Remember how I mentioned I got involved with street racers a few times? That was one of them, probably the biggest too; though I wasn't in trouble except by association, and even then it wasn't that bad. Especially when the one person who could have ruined all of us ended on our side. That one was all Mia, but still."

"And what happened to your friend?" Darcy chose to return to the main topic of conversation. "Was he ever found?"

"Yes, three months later. In fact, after the mess in LA blew over I began looking more into that. I realized that his bride was engaging in quite suspicious behavior. So I hacked every database I could, until I found the proof that she was involved with the attempted murder. The plane had been rigged to go down, and she'd drugged Alec so he wouldn't be able to get out in time. It was not her idea, but still, she was involved. After Alec was found I sent him encrypted files with everything I'd dug up. He used that to get an annulment and then ran Helen out of Kansas. Not sure where she actually ended up, not like I care either. Then, right after I returned to Virginia I received a a basket full of all my favorite chocolates, and a few bottles of Sheridan's (a mix of two liquors: one black made with coffee and whisky, and one white, of milk white chocolate) my favorite drink from when we went clubbing; the only kind of gifts he knew I wouldn't be able to turn down. Darcy was actually there for that one..."

"Yes!" Darcy interrupted in glee. "I remember that one! So many different chocolates, at least half of them imported! Not to talk the liquor... that thing tasted great!"

Clint could only smirk at his girlfriend's attitude regarding the beverage, though at the same time he wondered at the taste. He'd never tried that drink.

"Did you see your friend again after that?" Natalia wanted to know.

"One more time." Skye nodded with a low sigh. "Two years later. I had had to leave college by that point, spent a summer laying low in Florida before meeting with Miles in Texas. After I left him I was on my way to California when I decided to take a detour and drop by Kansas and look him up. I was especially worried as I had seen on the news that there had been a serious meteor shower in Smallville just a couple of weeks before and there were a lot of damages, a few people dead and a lot hurt. I knew Alec would be in the middle of it, what with the LuthorCorp plant based on that town and all that. So I went straight there."

"That's right, the meteor shower..." Melinda said thoughtfully. "And wasn't that the second one in less than twenty-years? That place truly seems like a meteor-magnet."

"The meteor capital of the world..." Leo recited what he'd probably read once.

"Yeah, it was really freaky." Skye nodded. "Almost everyone in town was working on rebuilding when I arrived. I found Alec in his home, looking completely stressed-out, and more than a little depressed. He was totally shocked by my presence there. While we exchanged e-mails every so often we never got much into each other's private lives, and I hadn't told him I was planning on visiting. Though seeing how that was a spur-of-the-moment decision, there was a good reason not to tell him I was coming. He was so surprised by my arrival that when I asked him what was wrong with him, he actually answered me honestly. In the e-mails he had told me a lot of things, including about his best friend, a man younger than us, very mature, kind, who did not care at all about Alec's money or his family name, he was a good person. And Alec was completely head-over-heels about him!" She giggled at the memory. "He never told me that, of course, but it was quite obvious. It was in the way Alec talked about him, like the guy was the greatest ever, his own personal superhero..." She giggled again. "And maybe he was... considering that the two met when Alec went off a bridge in his car and the guy saved his life..."

"That sounds like something a superhero would do..." Phil agreed.

"It wasn't the last time, either." His lover pointed out. "In the following years Clark saved Alec's life many more times; and he too got a chance to save Clark's every so often."

"You make it sound like there's something that makes it necessary for people to be saving each other's lives in a regular basis..." Clint commented carefully.

"It would seem so." Skye actually pondered on that for a bit. "I don't actually know everything that goes on down there. Only that it has something to do with the meteors that fell down almost twenty years ago. They seem to have changed people."

"Like the people in the Index..." Melinda realized.

"Pretty much, only we're talking about dozens of this people living in the same small town." Skye clarified. "And that's without considering how the meteors have affected the flora and fauna, the very air and water..."

"Why hasn't SHIELD looked into it?" Jemma and Fitz asked at the same time.

"No idea." The young woman shrugged. "It seems almost like people would rather be blind to what's going on than accept that there is such a thing as the supernatural in the world. Even the people living in Smallville, unless they're a direct part of it, they would rather not know, and sometimes even then. Or at least that's the idea I got looking through newspaper articles. Only the Torch, the Smallville-High newspaper, reported anything abnormal at all!"

"Maybe we should check on all of this after we've saved your friend." Natalia proposed. "The last thing we need is for there to be a problem in that town, especially one that would expand to affect the rest of the country, or worse, the world."

"So you were telling us about the last time you met your friend..." James reminded her.

For a second his eyes met those of his best-friend, almost-sister, savior... he was the only one who knew the truth behind Alec, how could he not? Still, he wasn't saying a word until she did. He didn't know if she was keeping that piece of information under wraps in an attempt to protect him from possible bad predisposition on the part of the team, or if it honestly hadn't occurred to her to clarify that detail. Still, he wasn't saying a word. In the end, her reasons weren't as important as saving a life.

"Right." The half-elf nodded. "Alec and I talked a lot during that week." No need to be more detailed on that front, it was the past. "He told me about Clark, about their friendship, how Clark kept lying to him, in terrible ways, trying to protect some great secret he had, never realizing that Alec only wanted to know so he would be able to better protect him. You see, Alec's never been good with secrets, he's obsessed with control, with knowing everything so he can make decisions fully informed. It doesn't help that most times, whenever he's missed something, the results have been awful. Like one time, this man, Earl-something, took a class hostage inside the Luthor Corp plant, demanding to be shown something, an experimental part of the company, which everyone told him did not exist. After much denial, no improvement, and with the threat of a metane explosion hanging over everyone, Alec went in. He exchanged himself for the hostages and tried to convince the sick man that what he wanted did not exist... except it did. It was a secret, very much illegal project of Lionel Luthor, and Alec had had no idea. The man had denied it to everyone's faces, and Alec almost died because of it. It was one of the times Clark saved him, actually." She shook her head. "So the idea that one of his best friends might have a big secret, and he did not know, make Alec go crazy. How could he make plans to keep his friend safe if he did not know where the danger might be coming from?"

The rest had to admit the explanation made sense in a very bizarre kind of way. It was also a bit how Skye had hacked a Level 8 server while in the Hub, the time Ward and Fitz had been sent on a mission with no extraction plan. If she hadn't done it they wouldn't have known, and wouldn't have been there to save their friends. So maybe Alec's attitude on that front was understandable at least to a point.

"Alec was convinced he was slowly turning into his father." Skye continued, turning sad at the memory. "Said that even Clark could see it, as he was slowly giving up on him. I actually considered staying then. Thinking he could use a friend, someone who might help balance him out. Except he did not want me there. He said he was leaving for Metropolis soon and we both knew I could not stay. Karen Starr was on the wrong lists, after my connection to that newspaper article back when; and Skylar Karen Wright wasn't supposed to exist anymore. Enough people had known me during my summer as an intern that if anyone reported my presence there I would have been in a lot of trouble with the authorities." She let out a breath. "So I waited for as long as I could, trying to help Alec in any way that was possible. Then, at the end of the week, he took a helicopter to Metropolis, and I got back into my van and finished the trip to California."

For a few minutes nothing was said. They could all see how much Skye had disliked leaving her friend in such a way, not being able to be there for him when he so obviously needed someone. And yet there had been nothing else she could do; you cannot save someone who doesn't want to be saved... it's just not possible.

"You said that was the last time you saw your friend, but did you ever hear from or about him after that?" Darcy asked, curious.

"A couple of times." The young princess admitted. "One was in early December of 2013, right before that mission to Italy..." Everyone knew what mission she spoke of. "I was too wired up to go to sleep. Eventually I talked to Ward, and he helped calm me down. But before that I tried to burn time looking through things in the internet. Lex's messages hadn't had more than greetings, wishes for health and a good life and mainly platitudes, for months; and I worried about him. So I went looking through the websites of the Torch, the Smallville Ledger, the Daily Planet, even the Inquisitor! And then I found it. On the first page of the Planet's Society section: with a picture that took almost half a page: Alec had married, again, this time to a young woman from Smallville, called Lana Lang. I knew who she was, she was part of the whole drama that was Alec and Clark, as Clark was convinced he was in love with her, and who would he ask but Alec for help wooing her?!" She shook her head. "I thought it was absolutely insane. As much as I might want Alec to be happy, I just knew he wouldn't be with Lana, even if he had somehow managed to fall in love with her in the year and a half since we'd last seen each other... I just knew it wasn't right." She sighed. "There was nothing I could do, of course, the wedding had taken place the week before, the couple was already on their honeymoon. I hadn't merited an invitation, not even a notice that he was marrying (again). Still, I couldn't just ignore it, so I sent him a message of congratulations on his nuptials..." She shook her head and sighed again. "I received a rather generic thank you note. The kind you know was part of a load, all the same, and most likely arranged by his secretary, or his wife..."

No one knew what to say to that. The idea that someone who had been such a dear friend, would then ignore her so thoroughly...

"We all know what happened in Italy, and between Quinn, my parents, the visit to Asgard, and my new identity, I actually forgot about Alec for a while." The brunette admitted with a shrug. "The next time I looked through the newspapers to find out what was going on Lana was reported to be dead, presumably murdered by her husband, who had turned himself in and spent several weeks in prison. He was eventually let out, when another man confessed to the murder. Which, actually, was pretty much irrelevant in the end; when it turned out that Lana wasn't dead at all. She'd faked her murder to get away from Alec and was living in Shanghai. She returned after he found her, and they got a divorce. That was all over the papers too."

"Well Skye, with all due respect to your friend... but what the hell did he do for his wife to choose to fake her own murder rather than just ask for a divorce straight out?" Darcy asked bluntly.

"Honestly?" Skye sighed. "I don't know."

She didn't, and that was one of the things that terrified her the most of the whole thing. She knew Alec was no saint, but to do something bad enough that a girl would choose to do that only to get away? Granted, she'd also tried to pin the murder on him, but still. And it had been a whole year since then, what else might have happened in that time?

"Should we even be rescuing this man?" Clint blurted out.

Skye's response was instantaneous and instinctive; before she was even fully conscious of it an ice blade was flying from her hand and in the direction of the archer. Only James's timely interference stopped the younger man ending up hurt.

"Hey!" Clint called with a near-squeak, shocked by the attempted attack. "What was that?! It was an honest question!"

"And this is an honest reaction." His girlfriend then proceeded to swat him in the back of the head. "Of course we're gonna save Alec. He's Skye's friend, how could we not?"

No one else commented on that; if any of them shared Clint's thoughts they did not say, Skye was thankful for that. Even if they had doubts they were willing to go along with it, because they knew it was important to her. Hopefully she would be worthy of that kind of trust.

xXx

Skye felt like a lot more than five hours had passed when they finally reached their target. At first Skye had been nervous and afraid at the possibility that they might be in the wrong place; those emotions had turned to dread when a quick spell confirmed her that there was, indeed, a life-signature in the area. Two actually, but one was much farther, kept moving away, and did't feel quite right, quite human. But the one close was human.

The brunette couldn't be completely sure it was Alec, she hadn't been in contact with him since gaining her powers, but considering how limited the possibilities were, she was willing to bet it was (her friend being already dead simply wasn't a choice).

"So, where then?" James asked, standing next to her.

They were all in heavy winter-gear. James's, Phil's and Skye's being lighter than everyone else's to account for their different bodies, and to facilitate movement, in case it was necessary; though it was doubtful, what with the lack of more than one life signature in the area... FitzSimmons and Melinda were staying on the plane, the first to be ready to receive a most-likely injured man, the last one to get them in the air the moment they were all inside.

It took them a few more minutes before they reached an ice plain, too smooth and perfect for it to be natural (that and the signature was coming from there).

"Guys!" Darcy called suddenly. "Over here!"

Everyone rushed in her direction then. There, half-buried in the snow and what looked like broken pieces of ice, like pieces of shattered glass, was a man in his mid to late twenties, dressed head to toe in black; which only seemed to make the bluish, almost purplish tone in his skin even more evident.

"He's half frozen..." Clint said grimly. "The likeliness of him, of anybody surviving this..."

"Just shut up and help him!" Skye practically snapped. "Please!"

She was hovering over the unconscious man, hands practically trembling with the desire to touch him, help him, do anything...

"Skye..." Natalia called, noticing the tension in her form.

"I cannot touch him!" She practically wailed. "If I do, it'll only make things worse!"

It was then that they all realized. The cold did not bother Skye, but unlike the guys, it wasn't because of something super, but because of her nature as a half-Jotun. The same nature that had turned her skin completely blue, with some strange darker, slightly raised markings here and there. She'd fully turned into a Jotun for the first time.

It was James who carried Alec. Since he'd been a super-soldier longer than Phil had been an Eihenjar, the younger looking man was still a bit stronger than his boss; also, the cold did not bother him that much. It still brought some bad memories, of all the times he'd been frozen; but thanks to the help of Skye, Natalia, Steve and even the rest of the team, he'd managed to move on for the most part, at least enough that the ice and extreme cold no longer pushed him into having an episode. Having a mission, to protect the half-frozen young man, helped too.

The moment they stepped into the medpod and James laid the unconscious man on the pallet, FitzSimmons got to work. The bed was covered in many towels which began absorbing the water as the ice melted off him. They would wait until he was dry before taking away the towels and laying him on the bed properly. The medpod was colder than the rest of the plane, but still warmer than the outside, and Leo would be upping the temperature slowly so as to help the man slowly recover (too fast and he would die).

"Are you sure he's even still alive?" Leo blurted out.

"Leo!" His fiancée (they were getting married in a month or so) practically screeched at him, before turning apologetic eyes to Skye. "His core temperature is dangerously low, bellow 65 degrees even..."

"Can you still get his temperature up?" Natalia asked, observing from a corner.

"Yes, of course, but there's no guarantee that will be enough." Jemma admitted.

"It will." Skye stated, full of confidence. "You don't know Alec like I do. He's been through so much, survived so much... going off a bridge 60 miles an hour in a Porsche, a plane crash, several assassination attempts, a number of explosions, two meteor storms..." She shook her head. "He's a survivor. He'll get through this too."

No one had any words to reply to that. What Skye had just said... could any one person truly survive through all of that? Apparently the answer was yes. And maybe, just maybe, he could really survive his current predicament too.

It also helped when Skye got a rather wild idea an once the med-pod's temperature had been upped enough that her jotun skin began feeling itchy (but she held back from shifting when she thought of something). She went to touch Alec directly, trying her best not to be in FitzSimmons's way and then began pulling, not physically, but mentally. With the place beginning to warm-up, her jotun form needed the cold; she instinctively knew she could use her power to get it from elsewhere; and when the environment would not cooperate, she could get it from other living beings... in that moment she got it from Alec.

It worked. Skye had to work slow, it made her feel almost sick, but she knew it could be very dangerous if Alec's core temperature changed too abruptly. Which was also why, the moment Jemma announced that he had reached a 'safe' temperature, Skye stopped what she was doing and immediately shifted back to human form. While even in that body she preferred the cold, warm temperatures didn't bother her too much (as long as it didn't get too hot), otherwise she would have never been able to live in places like California and Florida.

Leo's next exclamation came when they finally moved Alec's body onto the bed. James and Clint had relieved him of his sodden clothes, before dressing him in a pair of sweatpants belonging to James and a sweatshirt from Clint. The first was closest in height to the unconscious man, but James was broader, hence taking clothes from different individuals.

When FitzSimmons could get back into the medpod to check on their patient, it was the first chance they got to take a really good look at him. They both recognized him immediately, though Leo was the most vocal about it.

"Luthor?!" She cried out in absolute shock before turning to Skye, who stood guard in a corner. "Alec, your Alec, is Lex Luthor?!"

"Why didn't you tell us?" Jemma asked, more composed.

"Honestly?" The brunette shrugged slightly. "I didn't really think about it. I've called him Alec almost as long as I've known him. He was Mr. Luthor just once, when he told me Mr. Luthor was his father, and he hated nothing more than being compared or likened in any way to that man, that monster... He was Lex for almost a week and then... I wanted to go out one day, after the mess with the drug, but before I was comfortable going clubbing again. There was this little Italian place some of the other interns had been talking about, and I just love good Italian food... even if I haven't found any as good as what Mia used to make..." She shook her head to push away those other memories. "In any case, I wanted to go. We both knew it would be insane if word got out of Lex Luthor going to such a place. So he decided to go 'undercover'. He placed a cap on his head, got dressed in dark-washed jeans and a simple shirt, and told me to call him something else. Alec was the first thing that came to mind. It was enough like his real name that I was less likely to slip, and even if I did, most people would see it as a joke if they'd heard me call him Alec first. After that I just kept calling him that, he liked it."

Almost everyone who was present, or had heard from outside the medpod couldn't help but shake their heads in silence. Only Skye... truly, only she could be friends with one of the most powerful men in the country and never think anything about it. Phil supposed it was something like with Josef, even if his power existed mainly on a different level, and his lover had apparently met Lex Luthor first... her life truly was extraordinary. She was extraordinary.

xXx

They made it to the Playground several hours later (going slower so as not to burn through the fuel as fast as they had on their way to the Arctic). Once there Alec was moved to a private room; the actual infirmary of the place was out, as too many people came and went, and Skye wanted to keep her friend's presence in their HQs a secret for as long as possible. So he ended in a room in the same hall as the team/family; where Jemma made sure to install monitors that would alert her if anything changed, while Skye set up a ward to do the same, as well as protect him from anyone who might wish him ill (unlikely in their current location, but still).

72 hours later Alec was declared as out-of-danger, Jemma also grimly informed everyone that the man was in a deep coma, and his brain activity was too erratic to be able to guess at his mental health or when/if he would wake up.

Skye refused to accept that, which had her marching straight out of the sitting room the team shared, down the hall and into Alec's bedroom.

"You are not dying on me!" She began ranting the moment she was inside. "Do you hear me Alexander?! You are not dying. I will not allow it. I don't care what twisted ideas you have of fate and destiny. You've survived too much to give up now. You're strong! You can fight! Now fight! And wake up!"

"Princess..." A male voice called quietly from behind her.

Most of the team were there, but James was the only one who'd dared to interrupt her tirade. What no one was expecting was her response to it. There was no anger, no violence; instead her eyes went from his face, down his body, to his flesh-and-blood wrist, she stared for several seconds before spinning around abruptly and moving to her friend's bedside.

"Skye...?" Phil could sense she was about to do something, something big.

"The last time I was with Alec, personally, he told me that while in the island he had pretty much gone crazy." Skye began elaborating as she went to sit beside her friend's immobile body. "The worst part was that it didn't end then. Months later he had a mental breakdown, serious enough that he ended in Belle Reve, where he was subjected to some serious treatments before he was deemed as 'recovered'."

"What kind of treatments?" Jemma asked in a hesitant whisper.

"Electroshock therapy." Skye practically growled.

The gasp from everyone was understandable. Though James in particular was almost vibrating with fury, his own past experience with the 'treatment' coloring his own judgement.

"He doesn't remember it, of course." Skye went on. "Matter of fact, he remembers nothing between the moment when he realized Helen was gone and the plane was going down, to the day he finally got out of the psychiatric hospital... the only reason he knows about the treatments at all is because after Lionel died he got access to his father's personal files, which included those." She took a deep breath to try and keep calm. "I really, truly, hate Lionel."

Truth be told, in her whole life she'd only ever truly hated three people. There had been a lot she did not like, mostly the foster families who would ignore her, or maybe even hurt her, but she'd only ever hated three individuals: Odin Allfather, Alexander Pierce and Lionel Luthor; curiously enough, aside from Odin, none of those men had ever done anything against her directly, but they had hurt people the half-elf deeply cared for, that had been their mistake.

"James's mind was broken, and I was able to help him..." Skye finally got to the point of her line of thought. "Maybe I can do the same for Alec..."

She needed to, there was no other option that was acceptable, she simply wasn't giving up on her friend, no matter what.

Remembering quite clearly what she'd once done for James, Skye practically sat on Alec, her knees on the outside of his hips, before bending over so she could press the flat of her palms against his temples. With one last look at her beloved, a silent confirmation of knowledge and acceptance, the sorceress focused all her attention, her will and her magic and what she wished to achieve, then she began chanting.

It took a while, Alec had far stronger mental defenses than James did; he had to, to be able to function so well after what had happened to him; what, quite possibly, was still happening. Still, Skye, Menel, was the one with the magic, with one of the most powerful sorcerers in the universe for a father, and a desire to save her friend that nothing would ever be able to eclipse. So she got through the walls, and straight into Alec's consciousness.

As she landed, straight on the last, strongest memory Alec had, Skye couldn't help but remember a phrase from a book she'd read. It hadn't been hers but Darcy's, she loved science fiction novels. That one had also been a love story, and though Skye hadn't put much stock on those until getting with Phil, she'd still read the book. One phrase in the first chapter had stayed with her, and it very aptly described what she was experiencing in that moment: '...it would begin with the end, and the end would look like death to these eyes...'

That was what the book had said, and it seemed oddly fitting with the scene forming around her, Alec's last memory, the one he'd taken to what he believed would be his death:

They were in what looked like some sort of building, castle or... a fortress... a fortress made entirely of ice and crystals, the later of which had an aura of power not unlike some artifacts in Asgard, which raised flags in Menel's mind instantly. She knew she couldn't be seen, she was pretty much spying on a memory, but still.

Alec was there, in his all-black ensemble. He seemed to be exploring the place, with not a care in the world... except for the badly hidden tension in his every muscle. It was only enhanced when a second individual arrived: in red and blue, Clark Kent, exactly like he'd looked back in his loft (made the half-elf wonder how he'd made it all the way to the Arctic faster than their plane...)

"I must admit, Clark." Alec spoke up the moment he became aware of his company. "This is a big step up from the barn."

"It's not what you think, Lex." The farm-boy really should have known better than to use such platitudes on a Luthor. "You don't understand."

"For the first time, I think I do." Alec said, a note of steel in his voice, showing he was absolutely convinced of the words he was saying. "You see, you live among us as a mild-mannered farm boy. But secretly, you're a strange visitor from another planet, plotting our demise..."

Menel actually did a double-take at that. Alien? An invasion? Again? And yet Clark Kent did not strike her as an alien conqueror... not that she actually knew the guy, but still, he looked much too... soft, for something like that.

"That's not what I'm doing at all." Clark stated.

"It's a brilliant disguise, Clark." Their bald friend insisted. "You don't even need a mask."

"I'm not your enemy, Lex." The farmboy/alien insisted. "I've never done anything to hurt you."

The young princess wanted to snort, if he just knew! He'd hurt Alec, many, many times... probably without meaning too, it was even possible he hadn't even noticed. Not that it excused him. Nor did it excuse what seemed like a delusion of an upcoming alien invasion on Alec's part. Besides, didn't they know already such a thing would never work? If it hadn't with the chitauri, when heroes didn't know how to be a team, it certainly wouldn't after years of working together, and with all the other superheroes popping up...

"You didn't trust me." Alec continued. "With everything you had, with everything you could do, did you ever think about what we could have accomplished together? I would have helped you become a hero!"

And there it was, the true problem. Really, with Alec it always came down to trust. He had... issues, some quite serious. Not that the brunette didn't have her own, but still.

"When have you ever thought of anyone but yourself?" Clark practically hissed.

She really wanted to take offense in her friend's name, but she realized there was no point.

"Right now." Alec retorted. "I'm doing this for the world. I have to protect the human race."

"This is my life." Clark insisted. "You have no right to control it!"

"It's my birthright!" The bald man yelled back with sudden passion. "After all my sacrifices, after all the pain, I finally understand. I was being prepared for a much greater destiny... Everything led me to this moment."

Menel decided right at that point that something was really wrong. Alec hated destiny, stated that he would make his own future, his own choices, and now to suddenly be saying such things...

"And we're both here." His friend was still trying to calm him down, to pull him off the edge, regardless of how hopeless it seemed. "We're in that moment. And what happens next is your choice. But no one is controlling you, Lex. No one is forcing you to do this."

The princess had to grimly admit he was right. Alec had made his own decisions, he'd said so himself in that e-mail. Still, it did not matter to her what mistakes he might have made, she was still going to save him, from himself even, if she had to!

"Who am I to turn my back on my fellow man?" Alec went on. "Especially after you turned your back on me? I'm sorry, Clark. But you are The Traveler. You hold the future of the entire planet in your hands. I'm here to take it back."

The Traveler? She'd read that title repeated time and again in what little she could find regarding the Secret Society called Veritas. Matter of fact, the whole group seem to revolve around this mysterious Traveler. An extraterrestrial, part of an advanced race, that was destined to arrive to Earth and bring great change to it... She wondered what the members of Veritas would say if they knew just how many 'aliens' actually lived or at least had been to Earth, had changed it...?

"Lex." Clark was still in denial that his friend might hurt him, to his detriment.

"You'll never threaten the world again... Kal-El." Alec stated with finality.

"Lex, don't!" The 'Traveler' cried out, trying to stop his (once)friend, but it was too late.

The moment the glowing orb that had been in Alec's hand came in contact with what looked like a console made entirely of crystal, it triggered a chain reaction, as the structure seemed to collapse upon itself, and upon the two men...

Also, something else happened that caused Clark to collapse to the icy-ground in obvious pain, his body trembling visibly. Alec noticed and went to kneel beside him, holding the one he'd called 'dearest friend' close.

"I love you, Clark..." Alec whispered, looking straight into the other's eyes. "But it has to end this way... I'm sorry."

There was such regret in his voice, in his eyes... he truly believed that he had to do those things, for whatever the reason. He had never stopped loving Clark, yet somehow he'd come to believe that for humanity to be safe, the 'Traveler' had to die. Just what the hell was going on really?!

The elven princess could only hope that by the end of the just-starting mind-trip, she would know. She had no idea how else to help...

It was a good thing Phil too remembered what had happened when Skye had helped James, which meant he wasn't surprised when the light show came (though he and James were the only ones to see it), or when his beloved collapsed, unconscious, on her friend. He and James made sure she was comfortable beside her friend. Several of the others took quick, hesitant glances at him probably wondering why he wan't the slightest bit bothered by the whole thing. Yet how could he? How when he was sure the warmth he felt in the deepest corners of his heart and soul were the love his lady had for him? There was just no way.

So there was no jealousy when the Director of SHIELD left his beloved on bed with her friend and went back to work, knowing she would be waking up in 48 hours at most (it had taken 36 with James, but they had no way of knowing how fractured Alec's mind might be). The rest of them still had jobs to do; though it was a good thing that the team had just finished a series of missions and had some time off (several days as long as there was no emergency).

So they waited.

xXx

It was unbelievable. From flaming stones falling from the sky like something taken out of the Bible, the corn catching fire all around while the redheaded nine-year-old ran and screamed for his father, unable to find him. Then waking up in his father's arms, sitting on a beaten-up truck, and the first thing he sees are the big blue-green eyes of the dark-haired kid sitting on the lap of a pretty redhead beside him and his father; there's such kindness on his eyes, and then he extends his hand, caressing his face softly. He wishes more than anything to never forget those eyes... Barely twenty-one and he's already a mess, so much his father has finally decided to send him away, exiling him to that god-forsaken town: Smallville. At least he still has his favorite car, the silver Porsche, and he was racing down the highway as a way to take his mind off his situation. Then, as if things weren't bad enough already, something happens right as he's crossing that bridge, he loses control of the car, going off the bridge, except that before doing that he cannot help but hit the young man laying against the rail; his last thought is the regret that his idiocy is going to end up costing someone else his life rather than just him... He feels like he's flying all over Smallville, and suddenly his exile doesn't seem anymore like a curse, or an ending, but instead a new beginning. And then his eyes open, like he thought they never would again, and he can feel warmth on his chest, hands, the taste of apples on his lips and the most amazing blue-green eyes staring at him, so deep he feels like he could drown in them. He was dead, and was brought back to life; and it's all thanks to him: Clark Kent...

"Trust me, Clark. Our friendship is going to be the Stuff of Legends..."

A boy, his savior, tied to a cross in the middle of a field, with a red 's' painted on his chest and a strange glowing green stone hanging from his neck; he looks like he's about to pass out, until the rock falls-off, right after Alec frees him, and then he's moving like nothing's happened... Hiring a reporter from the Inquisitor to find out how he survived... Discussing financial troubles with the Kent family, Johnathan Kent really doesn't like him, and all because he's a Luthor... A blind old lady, presumed to be a Seer, able to see anyone's future with just touching them, dies the moment she touches him. Is his future so dark that just seeing it killed her?... Beginning a research on the effects of the strange green meteor fragments... Clark's class being taken hostage during a field-trip to the Luthor Corp Plant by a sick former employee called Earl Jenkins. Alec offers himself in place of the student, nearly dies when a cat-walk collapses and is saved, again, by Clark. In the end he promises, in the name of the company, to find a cure for Jenkins... ambitious ex-lovers, obsessed servant-girls, a negotiator with a gift, a 'superboy', jocks on alien-steroids, the past coming back to haunt him, a flower carrying a hundred-year-old disease, a boy who can read minds, a girl queen-bee, a telekinetic, a fire-starter, tornadoes...

A summer in Metropolis with the most amazing woman he's ever met, too bad they don't love each other, because in every other way they're perfect together. Not like he actually expects to marry for love, but she, if anyone, deserves to find it, so he rather let her go... a black-widow with hypnotizing feromones, who's responsible for finally getting him to marry (even if it doesn't last long)... Clark acting so unlike himself that Alec cannot understand what's wrong, except that something most definitely is... his mother's old nurse, Rachel Dunleavy, dropping by, claiming to be looking for her son, Alec's own half-brother, claiming Clark to be that boy. And the Luthor heir isn't sure if he loves or abhors the idea... Anger management sessions, meeting Helen Bryce: She's beautiful, intelligent, ambitious, she just might make it as a partner for life (it's not like he ever deluded himself into believing he could actually have love)... the Kawatche caves, attacks from a white wolf, the mansion bugged by his father, Johnathan Kent accused of trying to kill Lionel, his half-brother Lucas existing and being still alive; half the town falling terribly sick, including Clark; a clone and a wedding, which his best-friend and Best-Man fails to attend... and then they're flying to spend their honeymoon in an island, he falls asleep, wakes to find Helen gone, there's nothing he can do, and the plane is going down...

And suddenly the memories rushing through the consciousness seem like new, they're memories that have been lost for so long... Spending three months stranded in an island, feeling sanity slipping from his fingers like the grains of sand he stands on. Until the day he's finally found, and returned to civilization, to Smallville, home. His father is there, so is his wife, and he just knows one of them tried to kill him. And then he gets the e-mail, it's from his dearest friend (other than Clark), heavily encrypted, and with several attachments that go in great detail into every single move Helen has made, from the very moment Alec met her. It's all the proof he needs, and while a part of him, the part that is all Luthor, wants to see his 'bride' dead; the other part of him, the part that has friends like Skylar and Clark, knows that they would never forgive him, and even if they never found out, that part of him would never forgive him. So he holds off from killing her, instead filing for an annulment and running her out of the State. Then he goes to the Kent farm, to meet his friend, and it's then that he finally feels he's back home...

An assassin on a mission to destroy all the meteor-affected, and somehow Alec survives every attempt on his life (he suspects who's responsible but doesn't dare ask, he doesn't want more lies, not when he's happy)... Solar flares, powers that seem to come and go, even more teenagers with odd abilities (all of which, he's sure, are somehow connected with the meteor fragments)... Then he discovers Chloe digging into Lionel's past, and Alec cannot help but think that maybe, just maybe, the two of them together can finally defeat the monster. The psychotic break doesn't help any, but was it a psychotic break? Lana is badly hurt, and it's all his fault. Somehow he manages to convince Clark to trust him, to help him; to the point that his friend risks himself to save him, to the point of revealing his powers before Alec to protect him. And then, he must have really been crazy in the end, how else can he justify, even to himself, ever having said those words? 'You're not even human'. Clark visits him in the Sanitarium, and Alec begs him to save him, but his friend is clearly terrified. Alec is babbling, half-lost to insanity, what if he ends up telling his friend's secret to someone. At least as long as he stays where he is no one will believe him, maybe he should just stay there, maybe that's why Clark doesn't want to help him. Except, except he was there, he tried; the last thing Alec remembers before the shocks turned his brain inside out is that warmth in the corner of his soul, which he's long since realized is only there when Clark is close by. Clark was there, he tried to save him, even if he failed in the end, he at least tried, and that's all that matters...

Clark goes blind for a short while, Alec wants to help but isn't allowed... experiments at the Summerholt Institute, and Chloe almost gets killed... Streetracing, Clark acting odd again, Lana asking him to get rid of someone, only to find out that Luthor Corp is somehow connected a the young man to go missing, strange symbol's on the Kent's barn's doors, Lionel developing an unhealthy interest in his friend, truth-serum, an experimental program to recover lost memories, a mythical knife, the FBI breathing over his neck, helping Lana travel to Paris... Then Clark discovers the 'Room', the one that is all about himself, or maybe Clark (he's not quite clear on that one himself), or maybe it's about them both, about a destiny he knows exists but doesn't dare acknowledge, because doing so would mean surrendering control, and he cannot do that... Lionel is arrested, finally; only instead of celebrating he can only think about what he's lost, the memory of Clark's eyes after he saw that room haunts him. Then, one minute he's having a drink, the next he feels like he cannot breathe, he's only half-conscious of the fact that he's been poisoned (probably the scotch) when it all turns to black. In the background he can hear his contact from the FBI, informing him the Sullivan safehouse has just blown up...

Alec is not stupid. He knew that even if the police got him, his father would still do his best to destroy him and Chloe, as the people threatening him. Which is why the safehouse was a set-up. He wasn't quite ready for the poisoned scotch though, even with his enhanced healing he barely survived that one... He goes searching for some mystical stones, finding the first one in a pyramid in Egypt. The moment he touches the stone, he's completely heal, he call feel the change inside. It, however, is lost to him before he can get back to Smallville, stolen by someone he cannot quite see, a man who can fly... Lana is back from Paris, boyfriend in tow, a man called Jason Teague who Alec thinks he should know (he's Veritas). Clark is back too, he was missing for most of the summer, same time Johnathan spent sick, and no one ever told him what was happening... Clark hurts him, except that the same sense that let him know his friend was there in Belle Reve when he was submitted to the electro-shocks seems to be screaming that despite the fact that it looks like Clark, his friend isn't there... The start of 33.1, it was supposed to help people, either allow the meteor-infected to gain control of their abilities, heal from the adverse effects caused by them or, if necessary, find a way to neutralize them. At some point that objective was twisted so far beyond recognition it's like it was his father behind the project instead of him... Clark helps him prove his innocence when he's accused of murdering a young woman... A dangerous toxin is released in Smallville, so many people are in danger, an antidote is created, but there's no time for tests and trials. Clark offers himself, but Alec cannot stand the thought of something happening to him due to an untested drug; and even if he's not hurt, it might end up revealing his friend's secret to all the wrong people. In the end the choice is easy and Alec injects the drug into his own arm... Clark goes off to marry his girlfriend Alicia in Las Vegas, only to become a widower a week or so later, the blonde becoming a victim of a hate-crime (she was a meta)... The search for another stone brings them all to China, Lois's sister is way too much trouble to be worth it, and a variant of the meteor-rock (black) causes him to split in the two opposite poles of his personality (he gets a headache just from thinking about that day)... His darkness makes an appearance when he takes advantage of a temporarily amnesiac Clark to have him reveal the secrets of the Kawatche caves, and days later it's the other side of the coin as he races against time in an attempt to help Clark and Lana save the life of a child who's aging too fast (he fails), then the Teagues kidnap and torture him and his father in an attempt to get the Stones and it all goes to hell... Genevieve is killed and Lana is responsible, Alec tries to help but there's little he can do. A meteor-storm is coming, Chloe is in his study without a good reason, Clark is missing and Alec is about ready to snap with everyone keeping secrets from him!

Chloe vanishes from the cave (where she had her with him); when she later reappears, in the Arctic of all places, Alec knows something's happened, she knows the secrets. And she refuses to tell him. Then he gets this crazy idea to engineer a situation where Clark will have no option but to reveal his abilities, except he suddenly seems to not have any. All he achieves is to have him end their friendship... And in the aftermath of that Skylar, his other (only remaining) dear friend appears. Alec feels broken, and when she offers comfort he cannot help but take it. And he tells her all he can, being careful not to reveal anything about Clark, regardless of what the Kents might think, he will never reveal that secret, to anyone! Veritas slips, but he doubts she can find out much about that, even he cannot! Skylar stays for a week, and it's a blissful week. Eventually it's over, Alec knows he needs to get back to the real world, and Skylar needs to go back to her own life, she'll be in too much danger if she stays. It takes some convincing but eventually she agrees, and Alec cannot help but think it's the beginning of the end...

It's like he's not even sure who he's supposed to be, who he even wants to be, anymore. There are days when he tortures a young man with powers related to water, or one with cybernetic implants, or one who's faster than sound, with the excuse of a government contracts, or sometimes no excuse at all; another he's helping Clark save Lana or Chloe, again... He's researching a black spaceship that landed the day of the second meteor shower with Lana (and gets the both of them in trouble because of it), and also running for Senator, against Johnathan Kent of all people! The start of a relationship with Lana... A professor called Milton Fine, who's in reality an alien-entity, almost like an incredibly advanced AI, names Brainiac, manipulates him intro creating what's supposed to be a vaccine; only instead it is something that allows Alec to be possessed by yet another alien entity: a superpowered general by the name of Zod...

Alec watches the events of what's known as Dark Thursday as if through a window, having no control over his actions. He mentally screams at Lana when she fails at murdering him, the one chance they had to make things right; Alec would have preferred that over what truly happened, over all the death and destruction Zod provoked through him and he couldn't stop... When he regains control all he can do is try his best: donations, a costume charity ball, everything to help, not only the people affected but also his own consciousness; it doesn't seem to be enough, and he also has to make sure that aliens will never get a chance to take over Earth, never... Being kidnapped and 'tested' in regards to his 'gift' doesn't help matters any; or the 10 years reunion when all he can think about is Duncan, the dear friend he once had and betrayed, whose death he unwittingly caused... Lana discovers she's pregnant, and Alec proposes. Except Lana's not pregnant, it's all a scam, one expressly ordered by him, in a desperate attempt to achieve at least some of the happiness he once dreamt, while recovering from a gunshot during his senatorial campaign, over the wonderful life he could have, with Lana, and two children, Clark and Chloe as his best friends. Only that dream ended in tragedy, and in reality he doesn't think such things will ever come to pass. The wedding takes place, but from the moment they each say 'I do', Alec knows it will never work... 33.1 becomes a disaster, but the deeper he gets, the less he can stop. Even when a group of vigilantes begin to blow all his labs up, it seems like nothing will be able to make him stop... One of his less-than-legal-or-moral projects gets him in trouble when he's kidnapped by the wife of one of his test-subjects, ending trapped in a set of tunnels, only to have Clark go after him to help him. The green-meteor fragments on the wall make it so they have to help each other in order to survive, and for a brief lapse of time it seem like they might be able to repair their friendship after all, then they're out and the moment ends... and then Lana supposedly dies, and he's been arrested for her murder, when suddenly Reeves Dam collapses...

By that point Alec has long since stopped all contact with Skylar. Ever since Dark Thursday in fact, after all the hurt he caused that day, he cannot stand the idea of her being affected too. He remembers quite clearly the thoughts Zod had regarding Lana when they were in the same body, and that was only because Alec lusted for her, if Skylar had been anywhere close... He doesn't find out about the congratulation for his wedding until it's too late; his secretary has already sent back a generic message of thanks, and he's so ashamed of it all he doesn't dare do anything about it. It's a mess... and then the whole thing with Lana's supposed death.

Alec almost dies that day in the Dam, and after a girl who almost looks like an angel saves him, he decides to try once more to do things right, and turns himself in. He actually does spend some time in jail, until someone 'confesses' to Lana's murder and he's released. Of course it was all arranged by Lionel. Then there's the fact that Lana isn't really dead, he finds her in Shanghai and, not wanting to continue their mess of a marriage, or to end up with them truly killing each other, he offers to give her the divorce, no tricks, no catches, he just wants it to be over... When Clark goes to him for help in finding out why a fan wants to kill the actress portraying the love interest of 'Warrior Angel' in the movie being filmed in his farm Alec can almost convince himself that they're still friends, too bad it doesn't last... Lana's attempt on his life is harsh but not exactly unexpected, it's not like she's the first (ex)wife that tries to kill him... Grant Gabriel is a mess from start to finish. Alec is feeling so alone, so depressed, painfully aware of his own descent into hell, he wants, needs, someone to save him. The memory of Clark pushes him to believe that if he had a brother, a real brother, he might be able to be good again. He has no idea why exactly he decided on cloning Julian, and the disgust everyone expresses against him shows just how twisted his mind must be to have ever done that. Then there are the clones that keep failing, either becoming horribly sick or going psychotic; and his father, Lionel becomes close to Grant, even when Alec tries to prevent it, and the bald man is terrified how that will turn out. In the end, he doesn't really know what it was that prompted him to have Grant killed in a fake mugging, if it was really his jealousy, another psychotic break, his fear of what Lionel might do to him, or maybe after seeing so many failed clones he refused to see the same kind of fate befall Grant, whom he'd come to care for as more than just Julian's clone. He doesn't know, and is afraid to find out... Things just keep going south from there: with the vigilantes, Kara, Pete, Patricia Swann, Lionel, Chloe, even Lana... and then the orb came to be in his hands...

The first thing she became aware of after opening her eyes was a pair of blue orbs, the lightest blue she's ever seen, staring straight at her.

"I told you not to come after me..." He whispered in a slightly hoarse voice.

"And if you ever believed I would do as you said, then you don't know me at all Alexander..." She retorted quite calmly.

He knew he was in trouble the moment he heard his full first name from her lips. She never called him anything other than Alec, not since they became friends.

Skye just sighed. Normally she would be demanding what the hell he was thinking when he chose to go on that insane suicidal mission... except she knew, exactly, what he was thinking. She could see it all, not just the moment the decision was made, but what drove him in that direction, and could see it was the bravest, saddest, and most idiotic thing he ever did, anyone ever did.

"So I guess I am insane after all..." He murmured with a little sigh.

"Not anymore." Skye said, more forcefully than absolutely necessary. "And I don't think that being drugged into a psychotic break and then electro-shocked into god-knows-what-else, counts as being truly insane."

"I still did a lot of terrible things, as I'm sure you've seen already." Alec muttered in return.

"And, as I'm sure you saw in my own head, I am not a saint, or in the habit of judging people I care for." She insisted.

Really, if she could get past all the things her father did, what Alec had done wasn't that much. And in the end the one most affected, aside from Clark, had been himself. She wondered if it was something all 'pseudo-villains' (as she had come to think of his father for his actions, reasons and eventual revelations) shared: doing bad things intending to do good, losing themselves (there was a saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions...) and eventually going down a self-destructive path only love could get them away from. She would try her hardest, but she wasn't sure her love would be enough, and after what had happened in the Arctic she wasn't sure if Clark would be agreeable to help, or where to even find him!

"So... your life's gotten interesting lately." The bald man commented with a half-smirk. "I mean, worldwide protection organizations, metas, aliens, vampires!"

"Sh!" She half-hissed at him even as she worked on repressing a giggle.

"I know, I know, the Community must remain a secret." He nodded solemnly, though with a hint of mischievousness in his eyes. "Not my fault that your magic dumped the contents of your mind in mine and mine in yours." He sighed. "At least it got me back those memories. For so long I'd thought them lost forever. And now they're back. Only that is enough to make everything worth it. The smile on Clark's face when I returned from the island, his hug... even if it's unlikely he'll ever forgive me after what I did in the Arctic. At least I'll always have that memory."

"He will forgive you, Alec." She tried to reassure him. "All you have to do is explain things to him, be honest, allow him to understand..."

"I don't think he will want to." Alec whispered grimly. "Not after... Clark can be very kind and compassionate, but he can also be very stubborn. Once he makes up his mind on a topic, nothing will change it. By now he will have decided that I truly am beyond help. Clark has given me a lot of chances Skye, too many, most would say." He closed his eyes tightly in pain before shaking his head and looking at her again. "However, I shall not focus on that. I am very fortunate, lucky beyond my wildest imaginations, far beyond anything I could have hoped for. Because I still have you, as one of my dearest friends. You're like my sister Skye, and that is something I swear I will never take for granted again. Also, you've given me back my life, a life that hadn't felt like my own for a very long time, since that plane went down, in fact." He made a pause again. "For the longest time I thought I should have died in that crash. That it would have been for the best, for me and for everyone else..."

"Alexander..." Skye began, voice going through two octaves in her growing anger.

"I used to think that, but not anymore." Her friend hurried t reassure her. "You've given me a gift Skye, and I promise to you, I swear to you I shall not dishonor that." He turned contemplative as he added. "Maybe this is my chance at the life I always wanted but could never have, a life without the Luthor name involved."

"You know I can give you that." She offered. "Some hacking and I could have a new identity for you, with all your fortune behind it..."

"No." He shook his head. "Not all of it. What my mother left me yes, but nothing that has to do with Lionel. This is a new life and I want it to be completely free of his stain, and that includes his money. Let the world declare me dead, it will all go to the mayor shareholder and my half-sister Lutessa. Even if she doesn't know who I am, or even who she is. I do..."

"Why did you never contact her?"

"I couldn't. As far as she's concerned I'm only her boss. If I'd ever told her the truth... being a Luthor would have destroyed her. She's Pamela's child, Pamela was good, to me and to my mother, and her child deserves better than the curse of being a Luthor."

"So do you... so, how about Solomon, for a surname?"

"You know that was my mother's..." He shook his head with a smile. "Of course you do. I think it's a wonderful idea."

Skye just smiled back at him.

xXx

A couple of hours later the two friends had showered (separately, of course) dressed in casual clothes. They actually found it extremely funny when they happened to match, both wearing lavender shirts (Skye with a white skirt, Alec with dark-jeans).

Once they were ready Skye guided him to the sitting room, where the rest of the team/family was gathered. They all turned to look at them, some chuckling at the clothes they wore. It took a couple of seconds, but eventually it was Darcy who got up and, with her usual bluntness, extended her hand to him.

"I'm Darcy Lewis, and I believe you're Lex Luthor." She said.

"Not anymore..." He shook his head, a strange glint in his eye.

"Darcy, everyone, this is my cousin, Alec Solomon." Skye announced with a mischievous smile.

Just like that, Lex Luthor died, and Alec Solomon began his life, one he was determined to make the most of. A bright new future extended before him. And no more destiny...

Chapter Text

Chapter 5. The Messenger

A loud gasp echoed through the pale-blue-white bedroom when one of the people who had been sleeping on the bed: a beautiful twenty-five year old woman with eyes like stormy skies and waves of honey-brown hair cascading down her back, sat up abruptly. It took her a handful of seconds to gather her wits and remember where she was; all of which returned to her mind when she became acutely aware of the egyptian-cotton off-white sheets with the blue and violet design on the lower area, in direct contact with her bare skin.

It was as simple as that, Skye was completely naked on the bed. Which wasn't exactly rare. In recent months she'd taken to only wearing night-clothes when they were on the Bus or a hotel. When in her own bed, with her lover, she slept in the nude, as did he, sometimes. Others he would wear boxers (mostly in case there was an emergency and he had to get up in a rush. She had her own dressing robe close enough she could put that on if necessary.

When she finally was able to focus again Skye turned tired eyes to the side, to meet the half-alert pale-blue ones of her beloved. He was still laying down on the bed, but he was awake, all his attention on her.

"Again?" He asked her quietly.

"Again." She agreed softly.

She was having dreams, had for almost a week straight. It was always the same. Most of the characters changed, but the actions repeated themselves, over and over again: a tall, dark and handsome man in a black coat met a young woman, hardly more than a girl, who was gifted: telekinetic most of the times, sometimes pyrokinetic. Then he would seduce her. Sometimes it was a long, hard, road; when the girl was willful; others she fell for his charms right away, and there where times when she seemed not have a choice. But in the end they always slept together. Always different girls, always the same man. The other part that repeated itself, each time the same, was the red haired girl in the dark, trench-coat, who would make an appearance whenever the man got distracted, and she would kill the girl with a ceremonial dagger. The man always returned too late to be able to save her.

Always the same, time and time again. Same man, same assassin, different victim. So much blood, and tears and pain and death...

"It's like..." Skye had trouble putting her thoughts in order, even just for him. "Like a curse of some kind. Like every girl who gets involved with him is cursed to being hunted down and murdered by the redhead. And he's cursed to always being too late, never getting there in time to save her, them..." She shook her head when another thought occurred to her. "You know, some of those girls almost seemed to be pregnant..."

It was only after she said it that another possibility came to her, and to her beloved at the same time, for he was the one to voice it.

"What if the redhead isn't after the girls, but after him, and any possible offspring?" He offered. "You've said she appears after he has seduced the girl, slept with her. Maybe it's not the girls at all, but what they could bring to the world..."

It was only after he finished the phrase, and she went stock still beside him, that Phil realized what exactly it was she'd just said.

"Just like my mother... like me..." She whispered hoarsely. "Just like Odin went after Nana just because she was pregnant with me."

"It's not the same." Phil shook his head. "Odin is evil, your father isn't. Then there's the fact that Loki did his best to protect Lady Tawar, as well as you. He may have been in trouble, but in the end he saved you."

"And Nana too." Skye added.

It may have taken a while, and the whole family may still be in some very real danger, but that didn't change the fact that they were winning.

"Exactly." Her beloved nodded. "This man, he was never there for the girls. Not for any of them. They died because of what he did..."

"What if it wasn't his fault?" Skye suggested. "What if he couldn't be there?"

"What could have stopped him?" Phil wasn't against the idea, he just wanted his lover to consider all possibilities because fixing onto one.

"I don't know..." She contemplated possibilities. "Maybe a diversion was used, or a trap, or he just couldn't be around all the time... I don't know! I just... I feel like there's more to it than just him seducing girls and abandoning them to be hunted down and killed like animals!"

"The seduction seems to be the focus of it all, from what you've told me, and showed me." Phil offered, sitting up on the bed. "An incubus?"

"You've been reading way too many myths!" Skye chuckled.

"Well, telekinetics are real, as are metas, vampires, the rumors of mutants existing keep growing too... maybe next we'll find out that werewolves, witches and psychics are real as well!"

"Who knows? I guess everything's possible. But in this particular case, I think you might have it wrong. I don't think it's about the sex at all."

"Then what?" He noticed her look and realized the only other possibility. "The consequence of the sex... you think this is about a baby."

"You said it first, the redhead doesn't seem to be after the girls themselves, but after the potential they carry, the potential of a child with that man." She bit her lip in contemplation. "I..."

"You think we need to investigate this further."

"I do. I have no idea why I'm having these dreams Phil, but there must be a reason. As fantastical as some of it might seem, I can feel it in my bones that all I've seen is real; the people, their actions, and the consequences... Whether it's because the man is evil and needs to be stopped, or because he needs help... I need to know. The cycle of seduction, death and pain needs to stop, once and for all..."

Phil agreed grimly. He still thought it was all quite shocking, so many girls with psychic abilities through time, and all going through the same. But regardless of whether he believed in psychics or not (and he'd become much more flexible in his beliefs lately), there was no doubt that something needed to be done to prevent more girls from ending up the same way.

"Any idea where we can begin to look?" Phil inquired.

"Not yet." Skye admitted. "I've seen girls from all over Europe, Africa and even some of Asia going through the same. The most modern ones, the first ones I dreamt of, spoke English and looked like they might be from somewhere in the north, judging by the climate."

"So, either North America or the UK?" Her beloved suggested.

"Most likely." She nodded. "Maybe I can look through satellite images, see if I recognize any of the places..."

"That's a good idea." He nodded. "I'll see about getting us transport there. The sooner we solve this case the sooner you will be able to sleep peacefully again..."

Her lover nodded grimly. She might be part of very-long-lived, almost-immortal races, ones who could survive a lot, but the lack of sleep was still beginning to get to her.

xXx

By that night Skye was beginning to feel particularly stressed. She'd spent the whole day pouring over satellite pictures the Koenig twins had assembled for her (they knew nothing except that it was a special project of hers), and she had yet to be able to find anything that might help her in tracking down the man, or whoever the latest girl to be seduced and hunted down might be (and she dearly hoped it wasn't too late to save her). She'd been able to detect where some of the past ones had lived: France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and even Egypt!

"Ready to sleep?" Her beloved asked as he sat beside her on the bed.

He was in boxers again, and she in a little white nightie with lavender designs.

"Not really." She admitted quietly. "But it's not like I have a choice."

"Maybe if you try and focus, you will be able to get the information you need." He suggested. "This is your power, after all. Which means you can control it..."

"Maybe..." She admitted, not fully convinced. "Hopefully..."

Silently he helped her lay down, before taking his place beside her. Skye curled up slightly, head on his collarbone. It was something she rarely did, being such an independent woman (and the kind who tended to move restlessly even during the quietest nights), but Phil had to admit he liked it. Liked having her so close, trusting him so much, loving him...

"You go to sleep, I'll be here for you when you wake up." He assured her, kissing her hair.

"You promise?" She asked quietly.

"I promise." He assured her just as quietly. "Always."

"Always." She agreed, before going to sleep.

In the time it took to blink Skye found herself suddenly floating in nothingness, looking into a scene like someone peeking through a window.

The scene showed her a young girl, probably no older than eighteen, laying on her bed, a peach colored comforter on her, pale skin, straight light-blonde hair to her shoulder-blades, she was wearing only a white shirt to sleep. The half-elf also realized she was the first one to appear in her dreams/visions.

Abruptly she was no longer alone in the room. There was a man, tall, dark, in a long black coat and a white crisp shirt with the top buttons undone. The same man Menel kept seeing in her visions/dreams. He walked silently to the girl's bedside, depositing a cup of hot tea on her night-table before tenderly pushing a lock of hair away from her face. Then he sat beside her, on the bed, waiting for her eyes to open.

It didn't take long for the girl to wake up; either because of the smell of the tea, the man's presence in the room, or an entirely different reason. The first thing her blue eyes saw was the cup, and for a few seconds it seemed like she didn't understand what was going on.

"Ginger tea?" He offered, signaling to the cup on the table. "Very good for morning sickness."

"I don't have morning sickness." She denied with no feeling behind her words.

"I have been thinking about strollers." He began talking, an eagerness in his expression that couldn't be hidden. "And I have decided that three wheels is a bad idea. If you look at the history of transport through the ages four wheels have always been best..."

"Are you going to leave me alone?" It was also quite obvious she did not share his excitement, all the opposite, in fact.

"How can I?" He asked, placing a hand over the covers, around her middle. "You're more important to me now than ever."

She did not seem to like that for some reason, though she kept quiet.

"Have you thought of any names?" He did not actually wait for an answer, though he probably knew already what it would be. "No. There's time for that. He's going to be an amazing boy, Cassie... Imagine the inheritance!"

"I'm trying not to." She admitted, shifting, obviously uncomfortable.

"I know what you're planning." He said, straight out. "Whatever else you think of me he is still your son. When the time comes I have the feeling that you'll want him to live..."

Menel wondered if he meant what she thought, the mere idea was staggering to her, she couldn't comprehend it, refused to, even.

"So he could be a constant reminder of you?" He half bit, half whined.

"You feel more than you care to admit." He insisted.

"I don't think so." She kept refusing.

And yet Menel too could sense she wasn't being completely honest with him, probably not even with herself. She was in absolute denial; or maybe it was that she was refusing to even think about it... whichever the case, it wouldn't be good.

"You can't cut me out of this." He almost hissed, finally beginning to lose his patience. "And if you're honest with yourself you don't want to." He stood up, signaling to the cup still on the table before turning. "Drink your tea while it's hot."

She stood there, in the darkness watching in, as the implications of everything that had been said registered in her head. One thing seemed the most important at that point.

"She's already pregnant..." She whispered to herself.

"That she is..." A voice whispered beside her.

The brunette spun sharply, seeing a woman standing before her. With golden skin, hair of the darkest black and completely straight, reaching almost to the middle of her back, a gold circlet was around her head and she was wearing a pretty much transparent strapless dress with enough gold appliques on it to cover her modesty (barely) and give the illusion of an actual design; she also had heavy jewelry up and down her arms and around her neck. All in all, she reminded Skye of the past life of the main character in a movie she'd seen when she was a young teen, "The Mummy", she was supposed to be a reincarnated Egyptian Princess, and in the scene where her past life was shown, she looked almost exactly like the woman before Skye right then.

Seconds later the half-elf realized something else, the woman had also been in her dream/visions, the one that seemed the most distant time-wise, in Egypt...

"I am the first of what some fanatics have taken to calling 'Satan's Brides'..." The young woman, little more than a girl (like all the others) announced. "Which is beyond ludicrous since Azazeal is no devil. My name is Herath... five hundred years ago I was an apprentice priestess in Egypt."

"Priestess... Herath..." Skye echoed, before fully processing what had just been said. "You're the first girl he seduced, the first one that was hunted..."

"No and... no." The raven-haired smiled as she said that. "Azazeal did not seduce me, tricked or lied to me in any way. I knew exactly who and what he was, what he intended, and the risks that came with doing it. I went into it all with my eyes fully opened. And I wasn't hunted by anyone either. I was killed by my own family when, for whatever the reason, they became convinced that the baby I was carrying would cause the end of the world..." She snorted. "They entombed me alive while still pregnant. I killed myself and my baby before he could be born."

"Wha...?" Skye was absolutely shocked by that. "Why?"

"Because he was safer that way." The Egyptian answered as if it were obvious. "If Azazeal could not be there for us, for him... he was better not being born at all."

"I don't understand..." The half-elf admitted quietly.

"I know you don't." Herath responded easily before extending a hand to the older-looking girl "Let me show you what you've missed."

Skye took the hand offered, before being pulled to where another window-of-sorts had appeared. The scene showing there was of an Egyptian city during the 1500's, a mix of architecture that was to be expected when Egypt was part of the Eastern Roman Empire. At first the view was open, until it abruptly focused on a young woman dressed in white robes who was running across the dusty streets, continuously looking over her shoulder, as if making sure she wasn't followed.

"That's me." Herath informed the half-elf, before willing the image to close-up.

The girl was dressed in the white robes of important ladies, golden sandals on her feet and some jewelry on her; she wouldn't meet anyone's eyes, and seemed to almost be willing them to pay no attention to her either. She eventually reached what looked like an old, almost rundown temple; there she seemed to check that no one was looking before going in.

Inside, the place looked very much like one would have expected a temple during the time of the pharaoh's to look. It was their secret, a small part they'd managed to keep the Romans from taking from them, a way to keep to the old ways, even when so much outside was different.

Azazeal was there, dressed in the attire expected of an ancient Egyptian priest. A benefit of being as old as he was, and the things he'd studied in his lifetimes was that he knew a lot of things. When he'd offered his knowledge of the old customs to those trying to keep a part of the Ancient Egypt alive, they'd jumped at the opportunity. So Azazeal got food, drink, a safe place to sleep, and in return he only had to share his knowledge to those who asked for it, which was in no way a hard thing to do. Herath was one such person, his apprentice too.

"Princess..." He received her with a bow of his head.

"Will you always call me that, Azazeal?" She asked quietly, she was the only one who knew his real name. "You know I'm not really a princess."

"You descend from the last line that can be traced back to the Pharaos..." He pointed out in return. "Even if the Romans have taken away your throne, the blood running through your veins still marks you as royal..."

"And as gifted." She added.

With a wave of her hands several torches moved to their places, and with several snaps of her fingers they all caught flame, one by one.

"Very gifted indeed." He agreed.

"But more important than this magic, is the gift that I can give you..." She offered, voice quieter still, as if afraid to be heard by anyone other than him.

Azazeal spun around at those words, looking at her intently, silently asking if she meant what he thought she did.

"I've thought about it." She told him seriously. "About everything you told me. Of your past, your vows, your desire..." As she finished the list she dropped her dress to the ground, revealing her bare body to his eyes. "I will give you your son, Azazeal. This I vow..."

He didn't ask if she was sure, he wouldn't do her that disservice. Instead he simply waved his hand to make sure the entrance was sealed and they wouldn't be interrupted, then began undoing the knot holding his own robe up.

The scene rippled and vanished, leaving Menel and Herath together in the darkness again.

"Ok, so you chose to get pregnant by him willingly." The Asgardian princess summarized. "That still does not explain why you chose to do that."

"He was honest with me." The priestess explained with a smile. "He told me the truth, about him, about his past, about his match..."

Even as Herath was talking, Menel opened her mouth to insist, when the last word registered on her mind, rendering her speechless. It appeared that something was definitely was going on that she wasn't aware of. A whole other level of things!

"Due to certain circumstances surrounding the pregnancy, it went quite fast." Herath went on. "I managed to hide it beneath my priestess robes for almost a week, until one day my father and brothers went and tore me from my bed with no explanation whatsoever. They said that the gods had sent them a message, that I had been corrupted, was pregnant with the devil's child and his birth would unleash an army of demons upon the world and bring its end." She sighed. "They'd already ran Azazeal out of the temple, having marked him as 'Satan'." She snorted. "It was completely ridiculous! We weren't even Christians! I kept hoping Azazeal would find his way back to me, at least long enough so the baby could be saved, but it did not happen. I know not what they did to him, but it must have been bad. I was placed inside that temple, and then it was collapsed around me, turning it into a tomb and burying me alive. Surprisingly enough the cave-in did not kill me. I had to do that myself..."

Menel said nothing, she still had a hard time wrapping her head around that detail.

"Why show me all this?" The brunette asked after what seemed like forever. "Why now?"

"Because it's happening again." Herath answered honestly. "You've seen it yourself. Cassie is a psychic, she's carrying Azazeal's child, and unless something is done, she's going to die too." She sighed, almost sadly. "I made a vow, the day I laid with Azazeal, I promised him to give him his child... The intervention of others made it impossible to fulfill that promise. After that it was my family that created the legend of Azazeal as the devil, of his followers as the Nephelim, making it harder for any potential ally to accept him. And then the Huntress came into the picture. I believe she's being manipulated too, though it's still her fault that what girls have accepted Azazeal, died before being able to give him his son, before breaking this cycle of death and pain." She took a deep breath to calm herself. "For so long I've had to watch from limbo as innocent girls were murdered, and as Azazeal had to lose them, and his son, over and over again; unable to do a thing about it. But now that's changed. Now you're here, and though I'm nothing more than a spirit trapped in limbo, you can do something. You can break this cursed cycle. Save Cassie, help her son be born, allow my promise to Azazeal to be fulfilled... then I too shall be free."

Menel nodded. It all sounded painfully familiar to her. Someone trying to prevent a child from being born by making a whole world believe that if it happened the world would end... wasn't that what Odin intended regarding her? And still she'd been born, her mother had managed to protect her long enough, sent her away. These girls... they didn't have that chance, none of them had the power to protect themselves and their unborn baby when the Huntress came. So maybe it was the half-elf's time to get involved.

"I'll do it." She announced. "I'll help you."

"I knew you would do it." Herath declared with a brilliant smile. "Thank you, my princess..."

Menel opened her mouth again, wondering at the Egyptian priestess's choice of address, sensing there was something important about it, but before a single word could be said, the darkness all around seemed to wash away, and Herath along with it.

xXx

When Skye woke up again she did not feel quite as rested as she would have after a full night of sleep, but at least better than she had in the six nights since her dreams had begun. She'd also woken with three certainties she'd shared with Phil the moment he was awake: 'Cassie Hughes was pregnant', 'The Huntress was coming', and they needed to get to Mendenham Hall in Northern UK before it was too late.

In the end, Melinda offered to fly them to where they needed to go. She was the only member of the team/family, other than them, in the Playground at the time; since it was Christmas Eve and the others had split to visit their families for the week. They would be gathering together again in time to celebrate the New Year. A number of them in fact were in New York, in a party organized by Tony Stark in Avengers Tower. They had been invited too, but declined.

Truth was Skye was terrified of being anywhere close to Thor. She did not fear her 'uncle', not really, but she knew that relations had bonds, magical ones; humans could not see or sense them, but Asgardians could. What if Thor felt the bond that existed between him and Skye? Would he be capable of guessing whose daughter she was? What would he do then? What if he decided to bring the matter up with his father, or worse, Heimdall? Things could get out of control really fast and the half-elf wasn't willing to risk being the cause her parents were discovered; there was just too much at stake, including her little twin brothers.

Phil, understanding her fears, hadn't insisted, he also refused to attend without her. Officially the excuse had been that Skye didn't feel quite comfortable since she didn't know them (never mind that most of the Avengers were actually working for and with them), and that as the leaders of SHIELD it was better if they stayed with their people for the Winter Holidays. Tony hadn't liked it, but in the end Darcy convinced him not to insist.

So the three made it to Glasgow, the closest to Mendenham where they could find a decent airstrip where the Bus could land (since they might be taking a pregnant girl, they thought a bigger plane, with beds, would be far more comfortable than one of the quinjets, even if slower).

Melinda had told them beforehand that she would be staying on the Bus, unless things changed and they needed to stay more than a few hours (which they hoped wouldn't happen). She did not know everything that was going on, only that there was a pregnant girl involved in a supernatural situation whom they needed to reach before she was killed, like many others had been before her. They also had no idea how powerful the person after her might be, so their plan A was to find the girl and leave with her before the Huntress arrived.

The couple took a cab, and right as Phil was about to ask him to take them to Mendenham Hall, Skye asked to go to the hospital instead.

"Skye?" Phil asked quietly once the cab driver closed the partition.

"I can sense her..." The brunette announced quietly. "I don't know if it's Herath's doing, her connection to the supernatural, or something else entirely. But I know Cassie is not in Mendenham Hall right now, she's at the hospital."

"Do you think something's wrong?" Her beloved inquired, wondering at why she might be there. "She is quite young after all, and the baby is anything but normal..." He let out a breath, trying to be less negative. "It may be just a routine check-up, though."

"Nothing about what's going on is routine, or normal." His lover reminded him. "I don't know what she's doing in the hospital, but we still need to hurry."

Abruptly, something pulled at her magic, at her astral-vision, and suddenly she was seeing another scene entirely:

It was a hospital-room, Cassie was laying on a bed, wearing a white hospital gown, when Azazeal arrived, carrying a small bouquet of white and peach-colored roses, he placed it on her night-table quietly before sitting on the bed beside her, facing the girl.

"You don't have to go through with this." He told her quietly but bluntly, as he placed a hand tenderly over her bump. "Maybe part of you is repulsed by us, by this, but that part is getting smaller." He wasn't going to give up without a fight. "I know how you felt. Don't pretend you can't remember."

"Don't do this." She practically begged him to stop, as if knowing she wouldn't be able to hold out for much longer.

"I've lost a child Cassie..." He admitted in a low voice. "I don't want to go through that again..." He paused, his expression showing wonder. "I've felt it move."

For a few seconds nothing was said, by either of them.

"I think you should go." The blonde announced, forcing herself to speak past the knot in her throat. "I want you to go... Please go."

"OK." He did not try to fight with her further, though it was obvious that everything going on was breaking him inside.

"She's having an abortion..." Were the first words out of Skye's mouth as she returned to herself.

"What...?" Phil wasn't expecting that.

"I just saw her and Azazeal talking about it." Skye nodded grimly. "She's going to terminate the pregnancy, just like was insinuated in the last dream."

"Shouldn't it be her choice?" Phil dared ask quietly.

"It's not really her choice when she's making it for all the wrong reasons." She insisted.

"I know, I know." He raised his hands in a surrendering motion. "I'm just saying that if we go in there and just take her we'll be as bad as everyone else involved in this mess."

"Then we explain the truth to her, let her make her own choice." The brunette decided.

"That's all I ask." Her beloved nodded.

He, just like her, could not conceive the idea of aborting one's own child, but in the end, he knew it should be the girl's choice, not theirs.

They got their answer before any question needed to be asked. The couple had managed to slip past security (a they didn't really have credentials to be there or to see the expectant mother), and they'd just reached her room and were considering how to convince her to talk to them, when they both overheard the conversation going on inside.

"I don't think I can go through with it..." Skye recognized Cassie's boy instantly, and Phil inferred it simply by what was being said.

"Cassie..." A second female voice replied in obvious hesitation.

"I tried to pretend it that it doesn't mean anything to me." Cassie began half-babbling, half-sobbing. "That I was out of my head when I loved him but... it's not like that..."

"I know." Her interlocutor admitted.

"He desperately wants this child Thelma." The blonde insisted.

"No bet!" The other girl, Thelma, seemed to have something against Azazeal, the baby, or both.

"And whatever else, it's not the baby's fault." Cassie pressed on.

Right then Skye decided that if they ever hoped to find the pregnant girl willing to talk to them, to listen to reason, that was the moment so, making a split decision, she pulled her hair into a ponytail, adopted her 'Agent Avery' persona and went into the room (she was already wearing a labcoat, having used it to slip past security unnoticed).

"Good afternoon." She said easily,

Pretending like she knew exactly what she was doing, the brunette took hold of the medical chart at the foot of the bed, going through it, before addressing the blonde; completely ignoring the dark-haired girl in the odd black dress when her magical senses warned her she was a spirit (and therefore a normal human shouldn't be able to see her).

"I'm Dr. Astrid Avery, I'm the psychologist on shift." She lied through her teeth. "You are... Miss Cassandra Hughes, correct?"

"Yes." The blonde answered, looking uncomfortable.

"Dr. Surtees sent me." Astrid went on. "Don't worry, this is usual protocol. It is required of the hospital to make sure that whoever comes for a termination answers a few easy questions to make sure they, you in this case, are in complete understanding of what it is will be happening." At Cassie's doubtful look she added. "I promise I'm not a religious fanatic. This is about you. About making sure you are going into this with both eyes open. Alright?"

"Alright." Cassie nodded. "What do you need to know?"

From the corner of her eye Astrid could see that the ghost-girl, Thelma, did not like any of it; whether it was because she was protective of her friend, or afraid Astrid would make her change her mind, there was no way of knowing.

"Very well." Astrid went to the last page of the chart and pulled out a pen to make it all look official. "First of all. How long have you known you are pregnant?"

First question and already the blonde looked like she would rather not answer.

"Take into account that there is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions." Astrid told her with a soft smile. "I've known women who are sure of their pregnancy before it even registers in any home-tests; and I also once knew a girl who didn't know until she was five months! So... really, either is quite possible."

"Last week..." She admitted quietly.

Considering that it was Thursday, 'last week' could mean from ten days, to barely four... and if one added the fact that the half-elf knew that, due to how fast that particularly pregnancy must be going, the girl was unlikely to have more than seven days pregnant...

"Did you immediately decide to have an abortion, or did you give yourself some time to consider your possibilities?" Astrid asked next.

"A little..." The blonde hesitated before half-admitting. "Not long."

"Is your wish not to have children at all or just not right now?" Astrid inquired, hesitating before adding. "Or is it about the father of the baby?"

"Just..." It seemed like the blonde really did not know how to answer that. "Just not now."

But Astrid could tell she was lying, it was about Azazel, not a refusal to be a mother, or her own youth; still, she pretended not to know and continued with her made up questions.

"What about the baby's father?" She asked next, knowing the time was coming to 'seal the deal'. "Is he in your life? Is he against having a child? Does he know what you've decided? Agree?"

"I just... It's complicated..." She tried to be evasive. "I just..."

"It's okay." Astrid placed a hand over the blonde's, using the slightest bit of her empathy to sooth the girl. "I am not here to judge you Cassandra. Or the father of your baby. It's not even about him at all. It's about you, about being sure you're doing what's best for you."

"Alright." Cassie took a deep breath before going into what was probably a heavily edited version of the truth. "His name is Azazeal, and he's much older than I am, at least ten years. Very handsome, sensual. I saw him several times, flirting with different women in clubs during the nights; yet during the days he seemed to always be around where I was. At first it seemed like coincidences, until they became too many. It was almost like he was stalking me..."

"Did her ever hurt you?" Astrid wanted to clarify.

"No, never." The blonde was pretty clear on that. "He didn't seem to like it when I would turn away from him, or ignore him straight out; but he never hurt me."

"He hurt me!" Thelma yelled angrily from the other side of her friend's bed. "He killed me! You know that Cassie!"

It took all of Astrid's concentration to ignore the ghost-girl, and she also ignored Cassie's badly-concealed wince at the yell.

"He... was connected to the death of a friend of mine." The blonde admitted quietly. "It's one of the reasons why I rejected him for so long and yet... in the end I just couldn't resist anymore." She sighed. "He's such a contradiction. So charming and gentlemanly one moment, cynic and manipulative the next. He wanted to sleep with me almost from the start, and in the end I just couldn't resist..."

"Possessed!" Thelma yelled once again. "You were possessed Cassie! Remember that?!"

"When you had sex, was it your choice?" Astrid couldn't help but ask.

"I..." The girl actually flinched at the question. "A part of me might like to say that no, that he seduced me and I had no conscious knowledge of anything... but it would be a lie. Deep down, I did want it, I just hadn't allowed myself to act on that want before."

That certainly helped calm Astrid down. It was one thing to think the girl had been seduced, but downright possessed? Thelma might believe that her friend was raped, but from what the half-elf had read in the Asgardian Library, possession wasn't that simple. A lot was dependent on the individual's will, and from what little the princess had seen, Cassandra Hughes had a pretty strong will. The possession may have pushed her to ignore previous misgivings and accept what she truly wanted, but it would have never pushed her into doing something she was completely dead-set against.

"He knows I'm pregnant." Cassie admitted, no longer needing any prompting from the 'Dr.' "I think... I think he likes the idea it's just... I'm the one who's not sure."

"I realize you're probably younger than most women would want to be mothers, but if you have his support..." Astrid shook her head. "Have you considered giving the baby up for adoption instead of having an abortion? Or just giving him or her to the father even?"

The blonde did not answer to that immediately, it looked like the thought had never occurred to her before, and it left her thinking...

"That baby cannot be born!" Thelma practically screeched. "The world will end if it is! He's the devil's spawn!"

"My baby is no devil's spawn!" Cassie practically snarled abruptly, moving her hands to encircle her bump, almost as if she were cradling her womb, and the baby inside it.

The moment that happened, the effect was instantaneous. The sorceress could both sense and see the moment the young psychic's (though she called herself a witch) magic connected to the baby inside her, in a way she hadn't allowed it to before. The moment when the being inside her ceased being 'a baby' and became 'her son'.

As happy (delighted, in fact) as the half-elven princess couldn't help but be at Cassie's connection to her child, her sudden protectiveness of him; what she never planned for was that her defensive reaction would press her to instinctively call to the one she knew would protect both her and her unborn child: Azazeal.

It was a chain reaction: a steel eyed, dark haired man in a black suit, white crisp shirt and polished shoes appeared in the middle of the room, immediately turning his attention to Astrid, the unknown (especially since he could sense the power inside her). Before he could do anything at all, even say a word, Phil rushed into the room, hand hovering defensively over his gun. Astrid jumped to her feet in complete alert, magic automatically rushing to her fingers (which probably didn't make things any better where Azazeal was concerned). Cassie herself curled up on herself as much as she could, looking to protect her baby. Thelma could only watch the whole scene in shock, unable to do anything at all.

The moment Azazeal saw the half-elf he could sense the power, and sensing Cassie's distress he immediately saw the older girl as a threat, which meant he was ready to attack her before he was even fully conscious of what he was doing. However, the instant before the attack came, Astrid became aware of something else:

"Bror... muindor... brother!" Astrid kept calling to him, switching between Norse, Elvish and English as she sensed his growing anxiety.

It was when he heard the last word that Azazeal froze completely; everyone turning to look at the brunette in a mix of shock and confusion, the blonde even straightened up just enough to see her.

"What did you just say?" The alleged-devil asked after what seemed like forever.

"Brother..." Astrid answered quietly. "I called you brother." She made a pause before explaining. "I don't actually know what our connection might be, but I know there is a connection, I can feel it. And I'm sure if you focus a bit, you will too."

It made sense suddenly. Why she had had those dreams, besides Herath's wish for Skye to do something to help, why she'd sensed Cassie was in the hospital rather than at her school... she wasn't really sensing the girl, but the baby inside her.

"Who are you?" Azazeal asked strongly, as if the entire world depended on the answer.

"The world knows me as Astrid Skye Avery." The brunette answered softly, giving a pause to let her hair down and take off her labcoat before adding. "I was born Meneliel Lokidottir..."

"That's impossible..." Azazeal breathed out. "There is only one Lokidottir, Hela..."

The moment Azazeal said her sister's name, and especially the tone with which he said it, one more thing became clear to the half-elf, at the same time as Herath's voice saying 'his match' echoed inside her head.

"You're Hela's match." It wasn't a question, and they all knew it. "I swear I am who I say I am, Meneliel Lokidottir Tawardottir. Hela is my half-sister."

"And she is my match." Azazeal announced.

That was the connection. Azazeal really was Menel's brother, her brother-in-law, but still.

"Just what the hell is going on here?!" Thelma demanded loudly.

Everyone turned to look at her then, Azazeal and Menel unable to hold back their laughter at her choice of words.

"What are you laughing about?!" The ghost demanded next.

"Just thinking about Hel..." The half-elf admitted with a shrug. "I've been there, you know?"

"What...?!" Both teen-aged girls were shocked at that.

"Helheim." Menel clarified. "It's not quite the hell most people picture, simply a world of the dead. I've been there, to visit my sister."

"Sister..." The blonde repeated, trying to wrap her head around everything being revealed.

"My sister Hela, the Queen of the Dead." Menel finished.

"My wife." Azazeal added for good measure, before turning to his recently-discovered sister. "Did she tell you? Did Hela tell you about me?"

"No." Menel was completely honest about that. "Herath did."

"Herath?" The man was in absolute shock. "But that's impossible, she's..."

"Dead, yeah, I know." His sister replied, before arching her brow almost challenging him. "And about impossible... I suppose it's as impossible as the gods of Norse mythology existing at all, or magic, gifted humans... except, guess what? They all exist!" She took a deep breath before going a bit more into detail. "Herath is in limbo. She vowed to give you your son, but her family made that impossible when they entombed her before the baby could be born. She possessed power, and that made her vow binding, she won't rest until it is fulfilled. She's spent the last five centuries in limbo, watching the same cycle of lies, pain, blood, death and grief, happen over and over again; unable to do anything to stop it. Until now... until I appeared."

"What makes you so special?" Cassie voiced a question.

"And did you just say that gods exist?" Thelma asked almost at the same time.

"It's a bit complicated." Menel admitted with a little sigh. "They were called gods by humans in ancient times, but they aren't not really. They live really, really long times, measured in millennia rather than in decades, but they're not actually immortal, or omnipotent. As for what makes me so special. I am technically one of them. Like I said before, my name is Meneliel, I am the daughter of Tawariel, princess from the House of the Midnight Blossom, a Light-Elf; and of Loki, adopted brother of Thor, adopted son of Odin Allfather, son of Frigga, Prince of Asgard... My oldest sister is Hela, the Queen of the Dead, Ruler of Helheim..."

"And your wife..." Cassie finished, turning to Azazeal, her voice sounded deeply hurt. "Why did you not say it? Why let me believe that you were interested in me for me? That you might love me? When all you wanted was to use me, a womb that might finally give you a child!"

"You are a remarkable woman, Casarmi..." Azazeal declared, kneeling beside the bed in respect. "Any man to win your favor will be extremely fortunate. But that man cannot be me; because five hundred years ago I promised my heart, my soul to one woman, the one I've loved and whom I shall love to the end of time. Maybe in another time, another reality, there could have been something between us; but in this one I already have my match, my partner in body, mind, heart and soul, and I honestly believe one day you'll find yours."

Cassie let out a breath, silent for what seemed like a long time, as she considered things. No one dared say a word.

"Can I even refuse, at this point?" She asked eventually.

Azazeal looked at her with a broken expression as he heard that, but he didn't say a word, just turned away from her, though everyone in the room could feel the despair beginning to feel him.

"Yes." Menel forced herself to answer. "If that is your decision, no one here will try to stop you. This is swear."

After what she'd said about Herath it was obvious how important such a promise could be, and how much it must be costing her to make it.

"Would you do it?" The blonde asked next, looking at the brunette quizzically.

"Do what?" The oldest of the women in the room honestly did not understand.

"Would you give them their child? Your sister and Azazeal?" Cassie asked, though it did not sound like a challenge, only curious.

"No." Menel shook her head, eyes bright.

Before Thelma could say anything, some cry of triumph maybe, Menel surprised everyone by slipping her jacket off, before pulling her long-sleeved top up just enough to reveal the scars on her stomach.

"I would if I could, do not take me wrong." She stated quietly, in an almost pained voice. "But it is as impossible for me to have children as it is for my sister, if for different reasons... I was shot twice, point-blank, two years ago. I was attended by a group of doctors in Switzerland who did all they could before declaring me beyond their help. In the end it was my father who saved me but... even Asgardian healing can only help that which is there, my uterus no longer was. So, you see, I couldn't possibly give Azazeal his child, I can never even have one of my own."

Cassie could only look apologetically at Menel, Thelma herself did not know what to say, none of them had been expecting something like that. In fact, the only ones who knew the young woman was barren were Phil, James, Alec, Melinda and Natalia. The first because, being her beloved, needed to know that there were things she would never be able to give him; the next two because of their mind-melds with her, Melinda because she was to the brunette like a second mother and Natalia because she too was barren, the circumstances in which she'd ended like that were completely different, but if there was someone who could at least half-understand what the young princess was going through, it was the Black Widow.

Silence reigned for what seemed like forever, until Cassie spoke again.

"I'll do it." Her eyes were fixed straight on Azazeal's shocked ones. "I'll give you, your son."

Azazeal did not respond at first, going to kneel before her bed again, taking the blonde's hands in his and kissing them reverently.

"Thank you..." He whispered in his most heart-felt tone. "Thank you Casarmi... I swear that one day I shall give back all I've taken from you..."

xXx

Things got a bit tense when, abruptly, Menel, Azazeal and even Phil, became aware of the power approaching, like a predator. The Huntress had arrived. The reaction was instinctive as Azazeal took hold of the two teenagers before vanishing into the shadows, Menel embracing her lover before doing the same (she was still new at the whole transporting-with-people and it took a great deal of energy, but it was better than the alternative at that point). Once in the Shadow Plane Azazeal followed his sister-in-law to the airport. It took them longer than planned, since they'd left so abruptly none of them were able to plan a route beforehand (and it wasn't easy going through the Paths). Eventually they made it to the airstrip in Glasgow, where Melinda was waiting for them. She made no questions about their companions, or about how they would at times speak 'to the air', instead she just went to the cabin and began the preparations to get them all in the air again.

The problem was that the airstrip was so small that they had to wait until a number of programmed crafts flew either in or out. That made them all tense.

"She's here..." Azazeal announced grimly after almost an hour of waiting.

"It took her a while." Cassie commented flippantly.

"What do we do now?" Thelma asked nervously.

"You stay here, I'll handle this." Azazeal announced, getting on his feet.

By that point Cassie was laying on a couch in the sitting area of the Bus, Thelma on the floor by her and Azazeal on a nearby smaller couch. He stood to leave, but before he could give a single step Skye (she'd insisted on being called that, as outside of Asgard and Helheim she was more used to that name) was standing there.

"I'll handle it." She said in a tone that wllowed for no complaint.

"Melinda says wheels will be up in five." Phil announced arriving from a different direction.

"Perfect." Skye smiled. "It'll make things even easier."

Then, to everyone's surprise, she sat down on a love-seat rather than leave the room, before allowing her eyes to close and head to drop.

"What is she doing?" Thelma asked, confused.

"Astral-projection." Phil and Azazeal answered at once.

"I did not know she could do that." The taller man stated, turning to his sister's intended. "It being a compounded-gift, there aren't many who possess it."

"Her mother has the Sight and her father can Teleport." Phil explained with a small shrug. "She cannot actually teleport, shadow-walking notwithstanding; and while she has some of the Sight, it's mostly dreams, and unless others interfere, like Herath did, they're next to impossible to discern until something has already happened."

"It's an interesting way to mix gifts." Azazeal declared.

The conversation was interrupted as they became aware of something going on outside. With some commands on a control they all got visual of what has happening just outside the Bus on a screen before all of them.

Menel had appeared close to the cargo-bay ramp in full Menel attire (her battle attire, rather than the elven-style dress). She took a relaxed stance, playing with her black blade as she waited. It didn't take long for the Huntress to appear, dressed in a magenta semi-translucent lace top, black leather corset on top, dark-jeans, high dark-leather boots and a well-worn dark trench-coat; her hair was dark red and completely straight, barely reaching her shoulders; while her eyes were big and the color of the darkest honey. She was also looking at the brunette in a completely predatory manner as she pulled out two tubes before joining the together in a small staff (a staff that was practically humming with power).

"I don't know who you are, little girl, but if you wish to survive the next few minutes, you will get out of my way." The redhead stated, full of arrogance. "My problem isn't with you, but if you get in my way, I'll eliminate you, it's that simple."

"That simple?" Menel repeated, straightening up though still not getting on-guard. "Did you know that only psychopaths talk about killing others with that ease? Especially innocent young girls who've done nothing wrong?"

"So you know who I'm here for, then?" The Huntress stated, cocking her head sideways in contemplation. "But you must not know all, if you are protecting her and calling her innocent. That girl is lost already, she's carrying an abomination that must never be allowed to be born, least all the worlds pay for it!"

"I am Meneliel!" The half-elf announced strongly. "And you're getting nowhere near Cassandra or my family!"

Inside the Bus Cassie instinctively curled around her stomach, protecting it and the baby inside. A gesture that did not go unnoticed by anyone.

"How can you be so at ease while your match is out there, facing a battle against her?" Azazeal couldn't help but ask.

"First of all, she's not actually there, but here." Phil signaled to the body of his lover beside him. "Second of all, even if it were her over there, I have absolute confidence in her abilities, in her power. She would win."

Azazeal didn't seem too convinced, maybe because he didn't know Skye.

"Who is the redhead anyway?" Thelma asked, eyes fixed straight on the screen.

"She's taken the human name of Ella Dee, calls herself an Anointed One, to fit the myth Odin created to justify the death of all who might agree to help me." Azazeal answered bitterly. "However, five centuries ago she was Halle, daughter of Volstagg; the youngest of his children, and the only girl. I suppose that having one of the Warrior's Three for a father and being around the Lady Sif so often affected her as she was growing up. She wanted to be a warrior, but no one aside from a handful took her seriously, not even her father..." She shook her head. "She was also Fenrir's lover before all the mess took place. I can only imagine what Odin must have done and said to get her into this..."

There was more, of course there was, but nothing they would be able to understand, not without first understanding everything else, where they all came from, and who they were exactly and, especially, the tragedy and travesty that had taken place five centuries prior...

It was at that point that Ella seem to finally get tired of the talk as she twisted the staff in her hands, shooting a bolt of energy from it... only to have it go straight through Menel before hitting the hull of the Bus (doing nothing, as the sorceress had taken care to place every protective spell she knew after one of her visits to Asgard).

"That's right, I'm not really here." She smirked (her father's smirk) at the Huntress.

The redhead let out an almost inhuman screech before releasing several more bolts of energy, getting the same results each time.

"I know a lot..." Menel stated in a somber tone. "I know the truth... You know as well as I that Cassandra isn't lost, and the baby inside her is no abomination. No, not at all..." She smiled in triumph before adding. "And just so you know, that boy will be born, like he should have been five hundred years ago!"

Before Ella could recover from the shock caused by everything the brunette had just said, she disappeared. It was also until that point that the Huntress became aware of the fact that the huge plane had begun moving at some point. It was too late by then, with the craft beginning to rise already, no way to stop it anymore... which had been exactly the plan. The Huntress had lost. The Mother had gotten away, there was no way the birth would be stopped in time now... And a part of Ella couldn't decide if that was a bad thing, or a good one...

xXx

Melinda set course for the Playground. At first it had been Skye's intention to get the group to a safe-house, most likely in New York (since, in case of an emergency in that city was the biggest number of people who would be able to help them); but Phil had insisted that they were family and needed to be taken home.

After all arrangements were made the group sat down in what passed for a living room in the Bus with drinks in hand (Phil and Skye had each a glass of Sheridan's, the bottles a gift from Alec for Christmas; Azazeal was drinking a cup of mead; Melinda and Thelma were having glasses of cider; Cassie had to content herself with apple juice).

"We'll have to be very careful, take serious precautions in the coming days." Skye declared after taking a long sip from her drink.

"Why?" Phil suspected but wanted to be sure.

"I might have said a bit too much when confronting the Huntress." Skye admitted, closing her eyes. "While it is quite likely that Odin sent her here to keep Azazeal and then simply forgot about her, there is a chance that she has a way to communicate with Asgard, and if she does..."

"Your family could be in danger." Melinda finished for her.

"Our family." Phil corrected. "I don't think the Allfather would take kindly to our connection with this particular mess. Not after what he did all those years ago in an attempt to prevent it..."

"I will have to warn Adar next time I visit." Skye nodded grimly.

"Someone mind explaining us lesser mortals what exactly is going on?" Thelma demanded. "I mean, everyone here except Miss-black-catsuit can see me, talk to me, you're feeding me!"

"I thought you would like that, Thelma." Cassie commented.

"It's creepy!" Thelma practically wailed. "Just when I'd finally gotten used to being practically invisible to everyone but you and... baby's daddy, this happens?!"

"We're connected to magic." Skye told the ghost. "As are a number of others where we're going. That's the most simple explanation. Melinda cannot see you, but she knows enough about the existence of magic to believe that you exist and are here."

Thelma nodded, still not exactly at ease with the change in situation.

"You mentioned Halle contacting Asgard being bad..." Azazeal commented right then. "Do you really think he would move against us?"

"The Allfather has been trying to kill me since before I was even born." Skye snorted. "But that's not the part that worries me most." She turned quieter. "What worries me is the Huntress getting to Asgard and discovering that the King suddenly has no interest in ruining our lives, or even worse, he might take offense to what she's been doing all these years."

"The Allfather cannot possibly have changed that much." Azazeal refused to believe it.

"He hasn't..." The princess made a pause, taking a moment to mentally check on the protections she had on the plane before finishing her statement. "But the one sitting on the throne right now is not Odin Allfather. It's my father..."

The shock at that revelation prompted Skye to retell her story. She didn't give much information about her childhood in the system, but did talk about her time with Alec and James, as well as in SHIELD (things she thought the others needed to know, if they were to become family). While the girls seemed shocked enough by learning that the Norse gods were real... Azazeal's shock came from learning that Loki had taken the throne.

"But Hela still remains trapped, as do her brothers..." He stated, half-frustrated, half-sad.

"They do." Skye confirmed in the same tone. "Odin isn't dead just... imprisoned, for the time being. Adar is pretending to be him with a very complex illusion to hold the throne. Nana is with him, as are my two little brothers..."

"Which means that if they find him out...?" Her brother in law didn't even dare finish.

"We won't allow it." Skye stated with sudden intensity.

"You have a plan?" He was really interested in that.

"I'm free." Skye explained. "I'm exactly what Odin never wanted, what he always feared: a child of chaos with freedom and power. My powers are still developing, since I spent the first twenty-four years of my life with them sealed, living as a human. But I'm getting better. I can already Shadow Walk on my own, and I've begun taking Phil along. One day I will be able to take more people with me..."

"You're planning on taking your siblings..." Azazeal realized.

"We are no fools." Skye stated quite seriously. "One day the ruse will be discovered. When that day comes, Odin will try to take vengeance on my father, and when he does..."

"You might just become what he's always feared you all would be." Azazeal finished for her. "The bringers of Ragnarok..."

"I honestly hope it won't come to that." The brunette said honestly. "But if anyone wants to get to my family, they will have to go through me first."

"And through me." Azazeal offered his hand to her, and with it his allegiance.

xXx

Tensions had been growing in the Golden Halls of the Eternal Realm. Some said it had begun with the marriage between Princess Hela Lokidottir and Captain Azazeal Centurion, they said that the Allfather did not approve his only granddaughter and eldest grandchild (or whom they all believed to be his eldest) marrying an Eihenjar. There had been some talks about a political union but most men seemed be bothered by the scars on one side of the princess's face (and the rest of her body) product of the fire that had killed her mother, and which she refused to banish with magic. In the end, Queen Frigga had given her blessing to the match between Hela and Azazeal and no one could refuse afterwards.

Tensions might also be due to the princess's pregnancy. It had been long and hard, with several near miscarriages, which had left everyone close to her more than a little stressed out. But she was finally nearing term, ready to give birth any day; some hoped things would be better once the baby boy was born.

On the other hand, those truly attentive might have realized that the tensions had actually begun on the very day when Prince Loki's children had arrived to live in the palace, after the death of their mother: Lady Anrgboda, in a mysterious fire. Some might say there were those who did not want the children of Loki in the palace...

Children of Chaos, the trio were called, since their father was the God of Chaos, among other things (Mischief, Mayhem, Lies, some would say magic...). Hardly anyone seemed to like them. There were Hela's scars, and the way she would speak her mind regardless of how 'unlady-like' she might sound at times; and then there were the boys' penchant for changing into animal forms and running around like that, courtiers had been scared more than once by a wolf prowling the royal gardens, or a huge sea-snake twisting around in the lake. It was all too unsettling for individuals so used to leading simple, boring lives.

That particular evening Hela was sitting on a small stone-bench in her father's private garden, surrounded by blue roses and the nightingales that seemed to love the flowers, and in her blue gown she looked almost like part of the scenery. Her porcelain white feet were in the water, a small stream that ran beside the bench, and which helped her with how hot the day had been (or at least that's how it'd felt to her). She missed her match, and as she traced designs on her bump she could almost sense her baby calling to him too. Too bad General Tyr had needed him to lead that training trip precisely then. Couldn't the man have been more considerate? She would be giving birth any day! How was she supposed to do that without her match supporting her? Azazeal was supposed to be back in two more nights, but what if she went into labor before that? It was going to be hard enough to go through that without her mother, and there was no way the healers would allow her father to stay with her during the delivery. And, as if all that weren't bad enough, her grandmother had gone to visit some distant family in Vanaheim; she was supposed to have returned already, she knew how close to giving birth Hela was, and how much she needed the support after everything she'd already been through during that pregnancy; but apparently something had happened that had delayed her return.

"It almost seems like a curse, huh?" She asked out loud, pressing a hand to where she could feel her baby kicking. "What do you think Malachi?"

And, if all that had happened thus far, weren't enough to convince her that something seriously twisted was going on, more came right then. A loud splash announced Jormungandr's arrival, still in sea-serpent form, closely followed by Fenrir in his own wolf one. Hela would have laughed at the way they both seemed to practically press against her, Jor twisting around her legs and Fenrir crouching beneath the bench; if she hadn't heard the rush of the heavy boots that she knew belonged to the Eihenjar as half a dozen guards entered the place.

"This is a private garden!" She called authoritatively. "You have no authority to be here!"

"I'm afraid we do, princess, under orders of the Allfather himself." The leader of the group of Eihenjar announced. "We are to take the two shape-shifters under arrest." 

"Those shape-shifters, as you call them, are my brothers, your princes, you owe them respect." She practically snapped at the men.

She was quite sure she hadn't imagined the sneer a number of them directed not only to the boys, but to her as well.

"What is the reason for their arrest?" She demanded to know.

"I am afraid we cannot share that, my lady." The leader refused to answer her.

"I am Hela Lokidottir, your princess and I demand an answer!" She hissed as she pushed herself to her feet, ignoring her shoes as she stood; she was told enough to reach all the guards.

"I am afraid these are the Allfather's orders, princess." The Eihenjar insisted. "You may bring your questions to him personally."

"I will." Hela told him strongly before turning to her brothers. "Go with them. Go. I will go see father and we'll settle this soon."

Jormungandr and Fenrir knew that their sister was in no condition to stop the Eihenjar, so in the end they did as told, while Hela herself began making her way to the throne room. As the group was separating she was sure she heard one Eihenjar talking about her behind her back.

"Damned bitch, an abomination such as her should have never been allowed to call herself our princess! Same with these monsters!"

Suddenly Hela had a feeling that things were really bad, in more ways that she could comprehend in that moment, and they were only going to get worse.

.

An hour later Hela was standing before the Council of Elders arguing for her brothers' freedom as a spokesman kept listing their 'crimes', a list that grew more scandalous and ludicrous by the minute. The two were being accused of everything from 'disturbing the peace' for their usual games in animal forms, 'slaughter' of farm animals, to 'corruption of youth' for giving a bad example by choosing to spend more time as animals than as Aesir. The worst part: Hela was alone. Azazeal was still training the guard, Frigga on Vanaheim and even Loki was nowhere to be found, even her uncle Thor had no idea where he might be.

In the end it was all for naught. Jormungandr and Fenrir were declared 'guilty of all crimes' among veiled threats against Hela of accusations that would follow against her if she did not 'accept her place' and act like a 'proper princess'. It was all absolutely ludicrous, as far as the raven-haired, blue-eyed woman was concerned. And yet there was no one to help her. Her own grandfather did nothing except watch, with the excuse that 'his hands were tied' and he couldn't change the law just to 'help family'. Hela found his excuses lacking, aside from idiotic, but she just did not have the time, or the energy to fight the Allfather as well. And of course her uncle was no help whatsoever! But that was no surprise, he never was. Thor had never liked her, any of them, considering how he sometimes didn't seem to like his own brother that much it wasn't that surprising, but still, it hurt. The princess thought he wasn't evil, per say, he was just too used to doing whatever his father said; she just hoped one day he would see how wrong that was...

Jor and Fenrir were sentenced to preventive prison while a proper punishment was decided. Hela just hoped that would give time for someone to arrive and help her. The whole situation was stressing her out more than was safe for her. And then, things just had to go wrong:

There was no way of knowing if it had been on purpose, the Eihenjar was too young, or simply too afraid of the big silver wolf, but he hurt Fenrir's paw, causing her brother to react by almost biting his arm off, before rushing to hide behind he skirts.

Jormungandr, who'd been surrendering himself as well, reacted too at seeing his brother hurt, almost strangling two guards before joining his siblings.

The Eihenjar reacted too, unsheathing their blades and pointing them at the siblings, especially at Hela, who was the most exposed in that moment. The fear in her escalated so fast that her body flickered briefly, giving her snow-white skin an almost blue tint, which didn't help matters any. Also, it caused her to unknowingly call for help.

Great was everyone's shock when Captain Azazeal appeared in the middle of the room, right in front of his wife. His hand reaching for his own blade before he was even fully conscious of what was going on. A battle began then. An insane battle that had no reason for being except hate, fear, and Azazeal's protectiveness.

Hela was still trying to find a way to calm everyone down (Odin did not seem too interested in doing it himself) when she noticed a man approaching her husband from his blind spot, a small knife with an odd yellow-tinted blade in hand.

"Azazeal, pass opp (beware)!" Hela screamed even as she rushed towards her beloved.

She used a considerably short chain on her wrist (her favorite concealed weapon) to seize the traitorous warrior's arm before he could stab her beloved, pulling in her own direction so she could disarm him. It wasn't quite as easy as she was expecting (as it had been when she wasn't carrying an extra 30 pounds or so). There were a few close calls but eventually she heard the knife clatter to the fall and she immediately kicked it out of anyone's reach.

"Hela!" Azazeal finally returned to his senses, seeing her standing in the middle of a battle.

"Stop this senseless fighting!" She called with her strongest voice and all the authority of a princess. "We're all allies here!"

It looked like she was about to say something else when she abruptly swayed. Behind her Fenrir whined loudly, he knew there was something wrong.

"Hela?" Azazeal called, very concerned. "Are you alright?"

"Yes, I..." Her voice broke off as she swayed again.

Azazeal moved to hold her, at the same time she moved one hand to her belly and the other to his own hand on her hip. A second later both moved their hands away from her hip when feeling them damp. Their hands were covered in blood, red blood with a strange yellow tint.

Behind them Fenrir's whine turned into a howl a second before he jumped at the Eihenjar who'd been holding the suspicious knife, tearing his neck before anyone could stop him. That caused the madness to begin all over again, worse than before.

Hela was about to comment that apparently she wasn't as fast as she used to be, when a blinding pain seized her... it was centered on her middle.

"The baby!" She screamed.

A second later she blacked out.

On the Bus, everyone woke to Cassie's unholy scream. Seconds later they were standing at the door to the bunk she'd been allowed to rest in. It was a long trip back to the Playground, and the group as a whole had decided to take a nap before arriving. Azazeal and Skye especially were tired after all the magic used to get away from Ella Dee; and in Cassie's case, the speed with which the baby was growing meant that her energy was drained faster than usual (which meant she needed to both eat and sleep more than a normal pregnant girl).

"What the hell was that?!" Thelma demanded from her spot on the floor, besides Cassie's bunk.

"I... I..." Cassie couldn't string a sentence together, she just kept crying.

Worried, Azazeal went to kneel beside her. He just wanted to be there, and wasn't quite sure how welcoming she would be (especially after how he'd tricked her); she'd promised to give birth to his son, not to accept him in any way. Which was why he was so surprised when she practically threw herself at him, embracing him tightly. They remained like that for a few seconds before the blonde took his hand and pulled at him until his palm was pressed against her stomach, were the baby seemed to be just as restless as her.

"You need to calm down Casarmi..." He whispered as soothingly as he could. "This much stress isn't good for you, or the baby..."

"I'm sorry..." She half-sobbed. "It's just... I saw... I saw..." She forced herself to swallow past the knot in her throat before finishing. "I saw the day you lost him, and her..."

Azazeal did not need to ask what she meant, though his hand tightened almost convulsively around her back at the reminder.

"I think we all did..." Skye commented quietly from the door.

Her brother-in-law turned to her then, his eyes demanding answers even when his mouth felt to dry to get a single word out.

"I'm not sure if it was my fault, or hers, Herath's, or a combination." Skye admitted with a tired sigh. "On my side I can tell you I've seen the past before, most of the time I'm revisiting my own, but I've also seen things that concern others a few times, always people connected to me. Mostly my father, in fact."

Some of those memories would probably haunt her forever...

"Cassie's dreamt of the past before too." Thelma informed everyone. "Though it's mostly been about the McBain witches and... him." She signaled to Azazeal almost disdainfully. "None of those dreams made her react like this, though."

No they hadn't; but, at the same time, how could she, how could any of them have reacted any different after seeing something like that?

"I thought it was just me..." Azazeal admitted after what seemed like a very long time, but could hardly have been more than a few seconds.

"Did... did he really die like that?" Cassie asked with a sniff.

"Yes, he did." Azazeal admitted in a hoarse tone. "We tried to stop it, but the wound was too close to the womb, the poison reached the baby too fast. Even Eir, the most gifted of all healers in Asgard, was unable to save our son..." Tears began falling down his face, but he ignored them to keep holding the blonde girl. "Hela herself was hurt more than could be healed on time. The only thing that saved her was Loki arriving right on time and taking her to the world of the Dead. There time doesn't exist the same way it does here, nor does life. There she had the needed time and power to heal properly. However, Odin took the excuse of what had happened that night and condemned them all. Fenrir was badly hurt and eventually chained up in a dark corner of the forests in Asgard; Jormungandr was trapped in the deepest recesses of the ocean here in Midgard, while Hela was blocked from accessing the Shadow Paths (the only way to leave Helheim)."

"And you?" Phil dared ask. "You were involved as well..."

"I was declared a traitor to the Asgardian crown." Azazeal admitted in an almost blank tone. "The Queen's return allowed me a stay of execution, as she spoke in my favor. So instead I was exiled here, to remain until the day I was 'forgiven for my sins'."

"Which, knowing Odin, was never going to happen." Skye snorted.

"I did not care." Azazeal admitted. "Hela had already been taken from my side, and I had no way of reaching her. Even with all the magic Loki blessed me with after my union to his daughter, reaching Helheim is beyond me. The only hope I'd left was that, when our baby died, Hela used some very complex magic to keep his soul from returning to the Creator; she bound him to me, so I would one day find a way to give him life."

"So, you're saying your wife planned on you sleeping with some girl to give birth to your son?" Thelma asked, shocked by the whole thing.

"Yes." Azazeal nodded honestly. "I know how insane it sounds. But it was never about love, or about the sex, it was about giving our baby a chance. Herath knew it, knew everything, and she agreed to help me. And died for it... After her came others. At first I would tell them, some would say no, while others would agree. And while I made sure that their families wouldn't turn against them, by that point Odin had created the myth of the Nephelim, and of us all as the Harbringers of doom... then there was also Halle..." He let out a tired sigh. "A moment came when I just could not handle it. Telling the truth so many times, having to relieve all that grief only to fail in the end was too exhausting. So..."

"So you stopped asking for help, and instead started seducing." The blonde finished for him.

"Yes." There was nothing else he could say.

"To be honest, I don't know how I would have reacted, what I would have said, if you had told me everything from the start." She admitted as she considered it all carefully. "I think I probably would have asked you for time. A chance to finish high-school, live life in a carefree manner a little more. But I do believe I would have helped you in the end. Because you deserve it. You deserve this child, Azazeal. Both you and Hela do."

"Thank you..." He whispered, embracing her again.

After so many years of things going so wrong... it appeared like maybe, just maybe, things might finally begin to go right for him. It was an encouraging thought. And to think he'd almost given up on hope. He would never be able to thank Cassandra enough...

xXx

By the time they landed on the Playground the cover was fully ready: Ian McBain was a British musician, better known by the artistic name of Azazeal; he was also married to Astrid's older sister: Agent Helena Avery, who had been in a deep undercover black ops. mission for the last several years (the kind that was completely redacted... hence why she hadn't been made when Hydra revealed itself and so much of the old SHIELD went down). Casarmi McBain was Ian's adopted sister, as well as their surrogate (since Helena couldn't bare children due to an injury during a past mission) and about ready to give birth to their son. She had gotten pregnant then because she was finally old enough and it was supposed to be a surprise for when Helena finally returned. Except she hadn't returned yet, and they had reason to believe the mob she had infiltrated in the middle-east might be onto her, which was why Astrid and Phil had decided to move the family to a secure location and be ready to 'extract' Helena as soon as she called for help. The situation, as fantastical as it might seem to some, was plausible enough in their line of work to be believable.

Cassie had chosen to change her name so as to make it harder for Ella Dee to find her, and in case her mother reported her missing. Unlikely considering Lilith Hughes was in a psychiatric hospital and she'd pretty much offered her daughter to Azazeal when she gave her the enchanted pendant that facilitated her possession. She wasn't a bad woman, but not the best mother either. And if one considered the kind of danger they were all bound to be with Malachi, Azazeal, and SHIELD on top of that... maybe it was better not to get Lilith or other innocent civilians involved. The people in SHIELD at least were used to danger (and were beginning to grow accustomed to supernatural things as well) and the rest of them had ended involved in the madness for a reason...

Three days later Malachi McBain was born: almost 8 pounds and a little more than 21 inches. While his weight was just a little over average, the midwife who had assisted on the birth (mother to one of their younger agents) had said that he was one of the biggest babies she'd seen born, though that wasn't exactly a surprise when one considered Hela was 5' 8'' tall, Azazeal an even 6'; and Cassie, the shortest of the three, was still 5' 6''.

Aside from the midwife and a nurse, Azazeal and Skye were the only people allowed in the room while Cassie was giving birth (and Thelma, but most couldn't see her).

After the baby was cleaned, the medics had left the room and both Azazeal and Cassie had had a chance to hold him Skye wove an intricate illusion around herself, making herself look like her sister, before taking Malachi in her arms. She smiled at the baby, rocking him and humming a lullaby she'd learnt while listening to her mom sing it to her brothers.

The young woman got half-lost in the moment, until Malachi was completely asleep in her arms; then she looked up, her stormy eyes (the one thing that was exactly the same in the two sisters) meeting Azazeal's steel ones, the pain in them. She lost hold of the magic forming the illusion before she fully realized it.

"I'm sorry..." She whispered quietly, placing the baby on his bassinet, beside the exhausted blonde. "That was a bad idea and I shouldn't have done it."

"It was the perfect picture..." Azazeal admitted hoarsely.

"Why did you do it?" Cassie asked quietly, confused.

"Some people say that the first people a baby sees when they're born become engraved in his mind, even if Hela cannot be here, she deserves to be engraved in Malachi's mind, along with the two of you..." The brunette answered, matter-of-factly, before adding in a more hesitant tone. "And I wanted to have a memory I could share with Hela, so she could feel him, feel as if she'd been here as well..."

Abruptly Azazeal's expression changed from pain to wonder; Cassie herself smiled in what might have been called satisfaction, as if she'd known beforehand what Skye would say.

"Thank you, sister..." Azazeal kissed the brunette's forehead.

Everyone from the immediate family was very attentive in the following 24 hours. Cassie slept a lot as she recovered from the hard pregnancy and birth, mostly just waking to feed the baby, eat something herself, before going back to sleep; Azazeal hardly left their side, looking at his son with the awe of a man contemplating a miracle; Skye and Phil would visit every so often to make sure they were alright, but never staying long so as not to interrupt the bonding time of the little family (even if Cassie and Azazeal weren't together, they were still family); even Thelma stayed out of the room mostly, realizing those moments were meant to be private.

Bath time was a lot of fun. Malachi was highly alert, despite having just been born, he seemed to find great fun in splashing water all around, getting the adults all wet. They did not mind.

Malachi went back to sleep after all the water fun was over, and all the adults watched him in his basinet, enveloped in the off-white baby blanket with his name embroidered in blue thread that Skye and Phil had gotten for him.

"Will you protect him?" Azazeal asked abruptly.

"What...?" No one was expecting that.

"Until he's strong enough to protect himself, or at least until Hela is able to join you here, will you protect him?" He insisted, voice full of a strange desperation.

"Of course!" Skye was the first to recover enough to answer. "We will protect him, all of us. Until Hela comes, and even after. And you will as well, Azazeal!"

"No... I won't." He stated, voice so full of sadness no one knew how to reply to that. "I'm sorry..."

He place a kiss on the sleeping baby's brow before disappearing, so abruptly that for a handful of seconds no one knew what to do.

"Thelma!" Cassie was the first to react, if only to call to her friend. "Find him!"

The ghost did not even try to complain she disappeared just as quickly. In the few days since she had been in close contact with Skye and Azazeal they'd taught her a lot of things, like how to make herself completely invisible, go through solid objects (while that was a usual for all ghosts, she'd wanted so much to touch something that it was easier for her to do that than make herself intangible), and travel through the éther. The moment she found the man she sent a message to the blonde through their bond (which existed due to the conditions of her death).

Thelma, Cassie, Phil and Skye arrived to the roof of the facility seconds later, using the Shadow Paths to get faster than they would have otherwise. They'd only waited long enough to find Melinda and ask her to watch over the baby while they handled a 'situation' (none of them knew how else to define what was going on).

The moment they appeared on the roof (Cassie on Phil's arms due to her remaining weakness), they were shocked still. Azazeal was standing on the very edge, facing the horizon; but the most alarming detail was the ceremonial knife in his hand.

"Azazeal..." Skye called, approaching him very slowly so as not to provoke him into doing something stupid. "What are you doing?"

The man spun around on one foot, swaying precariously but not falling off (though the girls still let out half-screams in shock), facing the newcomers.

"The day you agreed to give birth to my son, I swore to you that one day I would give back everything I've taken from you." Azazeal reminded the blonde, before shaking his head with a self-deprecating smile. "Not that I'm actually able to do that, obviously..."

"You did not take anything I wasn't giving freely." Cassie retorted. "Seduction, possession, whatever, in the end it was my own choice. My will is too strong for you to bend it just like that. And if it hadn't been then I wouldn't have been the right woman for this task."

He had to admit she was at least right on the last part.

"There is still no excuse." The former Eihenjar insisted. "No justification for everything I've done. All the lives that have been cut short because of my actions."

"You did not kill those girls!" Skye stated hotly. "The Huntress did, on Odin's orders. None of that was your fault."

"In a way it was." Azazeal insisted grimly. "I was the one who wanted so much for Malachi to be born, even after what had already happened in Asgard, and what happened to Herath..."

"You just wanted your son to have a life..." Phil pointed out solemnly. "You were being a father, there's nothing wrong in that."

"And Malachi deserved to have a life." Cassie added for good measure.

"True." That, at least, the former Eihenjar could not fight. "There is one more thing, though..."

His eyes were fixed straight on Thelma then, and when Cassie followed them, she realized what he meant, the sacrifice to restore his full power...

"This, I can give back." He stated the obvious, hand tightening on the handle of the knife.

"Will you be with her?" The blonde asked suddenly. "If you do this right now, will you be able to go to your wife?"

No one said a word to that, it had never occurred to them, that he might have such reasons; the possibility to help while at the same time being able to rejoin someone lost so long before...

For a moment Azazeal actually considered saying yes, it would have been so easy... Cassie would have accepted that answer, and he was sure no one would have tried to stop him again then but... but he had promised, even if only silently and mostly to himself, that he wouldn't lie to his family, and he especially wouldn't lie to Casarmi again.

"No..." He admitted quietly. "Because I have been labeled a traitor by the Allfather, the day I die I won't go to Valhalla, or Heilheim. While humans might think that Hel is the place where evil souls go, it's not, it's simply a world of the dead, a place were the souls of the departed go to rest, until the End of Days. It's not the only world where the dead dwell either. In my particular case, because I have been marked..." He unconsciously fingered the mark on the side of his neck. "I would end in Muspelheim, or possibly even the Underworld or the abyss, a place of true torment, until the demons are released and Ragnarok begins... that would be my punishment."

"Then why do it?" Phil couldn't help but ask.

"Because Thelma is an innocent in all this, the one person who never asked to be involved in any of it." The ex-Eihenjar stated seriously. "And she deserves to have her life back."

"What does that have to do with you acting all suicidal?" Skye demanded hotly, she had a very bad feeling, even if she couldn't explain.

"Life cannot come from nothing. It has a cost, always." Azazeal stated in a near drawl. "It's quite simple, really: a life, for a life..."

The moment the last word left his lips the man raised the ceremonial knife in a lightning-quick move, until he was holding it against his chest, right above his heart; then shifted his grip just enough to be able to plunge it ill with one smooth move...

Cassie and Skye were about ready to scream, both wanting nothing more than to use their magic to stop the insanity about to take place; yet one knowing she did not have the power, and the other knowing deep inside that no power would be enough to change his mind at that point.

"Stop!" Thelma's cry stopped everyone in place all over again.

Even Azazeal froze, looking at her in confusion.

"If it's really for me that you're doing this... then don't." She told him, so seriously it shocked those who knew her.

"Thelma..." The former Eihenjar did not know what to say to that.

"You killed me." The ghost stated in her usual blunt manner. "It hurt, in more ways than one. But I've gotten over it. You dying... it wouldn't help. Yes, it might give me back my life, but it would also mean Malachi would have to grow without his father, and that is not fair for him. He's a baby, he deserves better. And... and you do too."

Azazeal contemplated that for a few more seconds before finally lowering the knife. A move from Skye's hand took it away from him (he knew he probably would never be seeing it again). What truly surprised him, though, was when Cassie was suddenly in front of him (still in Phil's arms) and she turned his head violently with a hard slap.

"Don't you dare ever do that again!" She practically screamed in his face.

The man could only raise a hand to the reddening hand-print on his check, it ached, he realized she must have put some power behind the slap. However, what had shocked him most was the feeling behind her actions.

"I am not raising Malachi on my own!" She hissed at him. "You're his father..." Her voice half-broke at that but she pushed on. "And I'm not explaining to your wife, when the day comes and she finally finds her way back to the living, that her husband did something stupid and got himself trapped in a world of demons!"

"I won't..." He mumbled after what seemed like forever, a hand still touching his cheek. "I won't do it again, I promise."

He couldn't fully understand. After all he'd done to hurt them, both Cassie and Thelma, why were they suddenly so keen on keeping him alive? Was it really all because of Malachi? And Hela? He never expected something like that to happen.

"Forgiveness is an intense thing, isn't it?" Phil asked him quietly.

Azazeal had no response to that, good thing the other man wasn't expecting one.

"You're family now, don't dishonor that." The younger Eihenjar went on. "Death never brings anything good, only more grief and pain. If you regret your past actions make amends for them, do what you can for them... and above all, don't give up."

"Besides." Thelma began saying more animatedly right then. "What would I even want to be human for? I have all the pleasures of life right here. My best friend, more new friends, and lots of food! And I don't even have to worry about getting fat! I'm also useful. I can get into places others can't, find out things, get help if necessary... if I went back to being human I would be next to useless!" She snorted. "No, I'm quite content with my existence right now."

Of course content wasn't happy, and there were things she would never be able to have as a ghost, and she knew that; but she wasn't willing to focus on it. As much as a part of her would relish the chance of getting her life (or at least a life) back, she wasn't willing to accept Azazeal's sacrifice to get it. She wasn't sure when it had happened, but at some point in the last three days she'd stopped hating the man responsible for her death. Part of it was due to Malachi, that little baby was way too cute for anyone to stay angry around him; but another part was that after hearing his story, she just couldn't help but feel compassion for Azazeal, for everything he'd gone through. There had been so much pain in his life, for so long... he deserved a chance to be happy.

Then there was the fact that despite everything that had gone wrong, Thelma did like her life (or not-quite-life, but still). She liked being so close to Cassie, even if they couldn't actually touch. And with all the others who could see and talk to her now... Also, Cassie was planning on joining SHIELD when Malachi was old enough, and Thelma was all for helping her on that front too. Who knew what her life would have been like if the events that had lead her to being there right then hadn't happened? Maybe she would have still been Cassie's friend, still been with her during the pregnancy, and when she had left... maybe not. In the end, 'what ifs' were pointless; her life was what it was and she was quite content with it.

Who knew, maybe one day she would be able to touch Cassie, then things would be as close to perfect as she could have ever imagined...

xXx

Days later it was New Year, and all the 'extended family' was together again. They all cooed over the baby and were fascinated by the story (both, in fact, finding reality more fantastical than fiction... as was usually the case). Malachi was blessed nine days after his birth, as was Norse custom, with both Cassie and Skye as the closest family standing by Azazeal for the blessing. They all knew the boy was probably going to be spoilt rotten with all the uncles and aunts he was getting, but he deserved it, they all did.

In January Skye made arrangements as usual to travel and see her family, except that time she started with her sister.

Hela seemed honestly surprised to see her sister there a fortnight early (while time didn't pass by exactly as it did on mortal Realms; Hela, being its ruler, had enough of a connection to the rest of the universe to more-or-less keep count).

"Menel?" The porcelain-skinned, raven-haired, stormy-eyed princess in her black silk and lace floor-length gown asked. "You are here early sister."

"I have wondrous news, sister." The tanned-skinned, brunette, equally stormy-eyed princess in her lavender elven-style dress replied in an almost giddy tone.

"News?" Hela sounded honestly confused.

For all answer Menel took both of her older sister's hands in one of hers before pressing two fingers against Hela's temple. No words needed to be said, the memory was enough. Menel was focused enough to share it completely, in a way she'd only shared thing with Phil before: not only the images, but thoughts and feelings as well, all senses connected. For Hela it felt as if she'd been truly there, standing in the middle of that small bedroom, holding the newborn Malachi in her arms, rocking him and humming a lullaby. The memory ended with the sight of her match's expression as their eyes met.

"Oh..." Hela was completely speechless after feeling all that.

The raven-haired kept her eyes closed for a minute or so after sitting back down on her throne, giving her mind time to fully process what Menel had just given her, and all its implications.

"Malachi has been born...?" She asked in a voice full of hope when she finally opened her eyes.

Then she had to do a double-take again as she noticed the blue-roses suddenly in front of her.

"A gift from Azazeal." Menel informed her with a bright smile. "And yes, Malachi has been born. Casarmi McBain, the last of the McBain bloodline, gave birth to him on the 28th of December, at 00:00 hrs, to be precise."

"Tell me everything." Hela said eagerly, holding the dozen roses against her chest.

And Menel did.

xXx

"You're a grandfather."

Those were the first words to leave Menel's mouth the moment she and her family were alone in the King's private suite. Well, they weren't completely alone, Sif was still there, as it would seem odd if the King didn't have at least one guard with him whenever he was meeting with someone 'not of his family'. Most people still did not understand why their 'King' had placed so much trust in the Lady Sif recently. It had come as no surprise when the Warriors Three had pretty much gone their own way after Prince Thor's departure to be with his midgardian lover; but Lady Sif not only staying but becoming the King's most trusted guard was certainly surprising. Thankfully no one was yet asking the wrong kind of questions.

"What exactly are you talking about?" Loki asked, completely shocked.

"Malachi Azazealson Helason was born exactly on midnight of December 27th, or 28th, depending on how you see it... 21 inches long and almost 8 pounds. All in all, a very healthy child."

"Azazeal... and Hela?" Loki gasped.

He remembered. He'd regained those memories along with the ones concerning Tawar and Menel while being 'persuaded' by Thanos with help of the Mind Gem in the abyss... At the time the loss of his second wife and baby daughter had been much more recent and traumatic, and had taken over almost completely. He hadn't fully recalled other things until much later (after he'd told his story to his daughter and her team) and by then there was no point in focusing on more painful details of his past that he couldn't change. He honestly never expected a day would come when those words would be said.

"Hela's had her child..." He whispered, as if trying to convince himself.

"With help from a human psychic called Cassandra McBain, yes." Menel proceeded to tell the story of what had happened in the last couple of weeks, and some of Azazeal's past.

"See, A'maelamin (my beloved)?" Tawar asked softly, smiling. "I told you this day would come."

"Our family is healing, growing, thriving..." Loki whispered in wonder.

Indeed it was, and Menel would make sure nothing happened to threaten that. Never.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6. The Stuff of Legends

Menel's astral form materialized on the roof of the Daily Planet building, in Metropolis, Kansas that late May night, right on time to see a man in his early to mid twenties in a blue button up shirt, dark slacks and tie, the half-elf recognized him immediately as Clark Kent; he was met by a dark-haired scruffy-looking, younger man in a dark blue sort-of uniform who arrived right then... flying. Menel stayed out of sight from both of them, listening in on their conversation and waiting for the right moment to interfere.

"Thanks for meeting me." The man who arrived flying stated.

"I'm not the one who had to travel 1,000 years to get here." Clark said in a joking tone.

The young woman had to do a double-take at that. Was he really implying what she thought he was? Was the unknown man from the future? It's not like she considered it impossible, with everything she'd seen thus far, but still.

"Yeah, well, I just hope that I'm not too late." The younger man said grimly.

"For what?" It was at that point that Clark seemed to realize something was definitely wrong.

"The future." The flier stated seriously. "Now, I know that anytime we travel back, we take the chance of disrupting fate. And to be honest with you, Kal, after coming back here and trying to change the future, I might not have one to go back to."

That confirmed Menel's suspicions that he was a traveler from the future. And apparently he'd been previously involved in something that had nearly ended with Chloe dead... she wondered if it was connected with what had happened at her wedding. They'd all heard about it, since Alec kept an 'eye' on everything going on in Metropolis and Smallville, especially everything that was in any way connected to Clark. Regretfully the team had been too far to be of any help at the time of the tragedy, and later on just did not have any way to be of assistance. Alec had done what he could, and he was able to help Chloe's husband: Henry James Olsen a lot, but still.

And then this...

"Look, I don't understand." Clark was saying to the other man. "You said the future would be safe if we got rid of Brainiac."

"Yes." The man from the future nodded. "Everything is safe. Brainiac is gone... but so are you."

That seemed to be extremely important somehow, like Clark was the corner-stone of... something. She wondered about that. It seemed to somehow go beyond all the 'Traveler' business Veritas had going on, beyond anything Alec had ever known.

"When you saved Chloe's life, you saved her connection to Doomsday." The flier continued in a very serious tone. "She stopped you from sending him to the Phantom Zone. She made him invulnerable by trying to kill him with kryptonite." He let out a sigh. "And now because of Chloe, you cannot defeat him..."

The princess had no idea who Doomsday was, though judging by the emotions the traveler was giving off as he said that name, it was bad. Also, the idea that Chloe was somehow responsible of unleashing a truly dangerous creature on the world was ludicrous... yet also sadly believable, if one considered their record up to that point.

"I'd never take back my choice to save her." Clark declared firmly.

Menel smiled, and so did the visitor, it was obvious neither of them had expected any different.

"I believe yours got a little...scorched." The flier offered Clark what looked like a ring. "Use the ring. Send Doomsday to the future. The Legion's there, and we are ready to fight him."

"The Legion didn't unleash Doomsday, I did." Clark stated with reticence.

Noble... but stupid. Menel could hear quite clearly in her mind what Alec would say if he were there, hearing him say that.

"Kal-El!" The younger man's thoughts seemed to be running down the same line as hers. "You need to understand that there is nothing on this earth that will stop him from killing you."

Menel made a split-second decision, she seriously doubted she would find a better opening than that, and it appeared that they might have less time to work with that she'd originally been planning for. So with that in mind, she stepped around the corner and spoke.

"I happen to disagree..." She called softly but strongly.

The two men reacted instantly, turning in her direction. Clark only blinked in surprise, probably due to her attire (she was in her Asgardian-warrior ensemble), the Traveler on the other hand was looking at her like she was a mirage.

"Who are you?" Both ended up asking her at the same time.

"One who's come to offer help in the battle approaching." She answered, slipping into Asgardian speech-patterns so as to separate from her civilian identity more completely. "Darkness is nigh, but it can still be defeated."

"Doomsday is unlike any enemy to have ever seen lady." The Traveler insisted.

"Maybe, but I know for a fact that the future is not set in stone." The half-elf replied with a loopsided grin. "You know that Clark cannot defeat this enemy on his own... but he's not alone anymore. I am here now, and the rest of my team is on its way. We will help."

"How do you know my name?" Clark practically eeped.

"I've seen a great many things..." Menel answered cryptically, and evasively. "Which name would you prefer I call you, Kal-El, Naman, Clark...?"

"And which name should we call you?" The man from the future practically demanded.

"I have many different names, depending on who you ask..." She chuckled to herself before turning a bit serious again. "You may call me Meneliel..."

"Meneliel..." The flier repeated in shock greater than when she'd first revealed herself, the next words coming out barely above a whisper: "Lady Infinity..."

"What did you just say?" She asked, cocking her head to a side.

"Nothing..." He shook his head, not wanting to reveal too much.

"Very well, I'll let that go." She nodded. "Though I can tell you've heard my name."

"I have." He nodded seriously. "I am Rokk Krinn, by the way, I am part of the Legion, in the 31st century. It is true we've heard about the Lady Meneliel, but never in any connection to Kal-El or the Justice League."

"Let me guess, the Immortals..." She made a wild guess judging by the fact that it was a thousand years in the future.

As much as she may like the new SHIELD, she doubted it would last that long. Also, if there were going to be more people with powers in the future... there might be a point where SHIELD either would no longer be enough, or it would have to change so much it would no longer be SHIELD (which amounted to the same, in the end).

"Indeed..." He answered, obviously not wanting to give out too much.

"That's okay, I can imagine who at least some of them are, and why you do not want to say too much." She nodded calmly. "But then if you know who I am, and the kind of allegiances I have, you know that I can help with what's coming. And if my team is not enough, there are others that can be called in, that will come if I call on them."

At least Josef and Azazeal would answer, and get her help, a number of vampires and nephelim would be good help, if a super-soldier, an Eihenjar, some of SHIELD's most talented Agents and herself, happened not to be enough...

"What could have possibly happened to make you decide to step onto this path?" Rokk couldn't help but ask, honestly intrigued.

"I told you, the future isn't sent in stone." Menel answered with a mischievous smile. "All I can say is that someone dear to me knew that Clark would need help, he asked me to step in and so, here I am. Also, like I say, I won't be the only one, my team is on the way. They will be landing in a few hours."

"Who?" Clark asked suddenly. "Who asked you to help me?"

"I'm afraid that I cannot say..." She whispered, almost pained.

She wished for nothing more than to tell him, make him see the truth... yet Alec was so convinced that Clark hated him, and he'd practically begged her not to say his name, she wouldn't betray him. Even if Clark never knew to whom he owed the help that was coming his way, at least he would be alive, and that would have to be enough for them all.

xXx

Menel had wanted to be there when Clark discussed the plan to defeat Doomsday with his allies, the team Rokk had called the 'Justice League', but he hadn't approved of the idea. Apparently the 'heroes' would be there in their civilians identities and they wouldn't like it if Clark brought an unknown (especially if one considered that she was such even to Clark himself). Doesn't mean the half-elf didn't attend, she just didn't allow herself to be seen. Probably a bit underhanded of her, but when the future of the planet is on the line, as well as the life of someone dear to one she calls a brother, Menel's lines tended to get a bit blurry.

At least she knew Alec's friend wasn't trying to leave her out, as he'd phoned her as soon as the other team had left his house to share the plan with her. She'd also told his friends that there was another group who would be acting as backup, called them old friends; preferable to 'I have no fricking idea who they are', though it was still funny when the best he could say to explain their abilities was that they were 'gifted'.

For the particular mission Phil had decided to divide the team in smaller groups. Skye, Phil, James and Natalia were the main team, as three of them were 'super' in one way or another, and Natalia had the most experience fighting those far more powerful than she; Darcy, Clint and Trip were close-by, keeping an eye on things from a distance, ready to provide back-up, and field-medical attention if necessary; Melinda was staying on the Bus, on a private airstrip (which had at one point belonged to LuthorCorp) with FitzSimmons, in case of an emergency. Azazeal had offered to go with them but Skye had asked him to be ready to get back-up to their location if they happened not to be enough.

His team, they called them the Nephelim, though they were no fallen angels. The truth was more simple in some ways, more complex in others. They were th Eihenjar who'd been the most loyal to Azazeal at the time he'd been accused of treason and condemned, the ones who'd followed him into that exile willingly. Some had died along the way, either in fights against the Huntress, protecting humans from other threats, or even choosing to become human themselves out of love for one. Still, a number remained, and they were all as loyal to their captain as they had been five hundred years prior.

That night, the plan was set in motion. However, right as the others were getting into a couple of vehicles to drive to the LuthorCorp ThermoNuclear plant, Skye got a feeling and announced she was going to go look for Clark. No one questioned her, being accustomed to her hunches and such; Phil just asked her to take care of herself and she allowed herself to drop into a shadow.

As it happened Clark's aura was different enough from humans and metas alike that Skye didn't have too hard a time tracking him down to the limits of Edge City. Where she found him on the dirt ground, groaning, a glowing green bolt behind his shoulder. She abruptly remembered the meeting that same morning and what she knew about Clark's allies, including the fact that one of them was well-known as an archer...

"Really," She couldn't help but snarking the moment she realized what must have happened. "If this is how your team treats each other it's no wonder that in the original timeline we never had any contact... attacking someone on the back... we would never allow such betrayal."

"Can you criticize my team later and help me now?" Clark asked, half-snarking, half-groaning in pain at the movement required just to speak.

"Of course." She nodded.

A wave of her hand was all that was required to pull the dart off him and throw it a considerable distance away. It wasn't probably the best decision, to leave such things laying around, but she had no time to dispose of it and she obviously couldn't carry it with her when it obviously hurt Clark to be anywhere near it.

It seemed to take a few seconds for Clark to fully recover and remember exactly what they were supposed to be doing. When he did he was on full alert instantly.

"We need to hurry." He stated, ready to run off.

"My team is already there, they will hold the monster back until we arrive." She assured him.

He nodded, but still took hold of her before going into super-speed. And it was a good thing that Menel was, in a way, super herself, otherwise the suddenness of the motion would have probably given her serious whiplash.

Still, she did not complain, just held on. Regardless of how good the team might be, both teams, the half-elven would still feel better once they were there as well.

The two arrived right on time to see Phil and James tag-team Doomsday, while Trip and Darcy gave first aid to an unconscious man in a blue half torn shirt and jeans, Natalia and Clint on high alert watching their backs while at the same time keeping Clark's allies off the fight.

"Do you want to get killed?" Natalia snapped at Green Arrow right then. "Because that's all you will achieve if you get involved in that."

"What makes you so sure your friends won't get killed?" The green-suited archer snarled.

"If insane nazis, aliens and metas haven't been able to kill those two what makes you think one creature, no matter how monstrous, will?" The redhead drawled. "Now, they might not be strong enough to take it down, but they can certainly keep up a lot better than you would, or I."

As if on cue Doomsday threw both Phil and James on separate directions, hard enough to hurt them a bit (nothing they wouldn't recover from, though it still hurt) before going after the rest. Black Canary and Hawkeye too were thrown aside when they tried to distract him and Trip and Darcy did their best to remain unnoticed, same with their 'patient'. Black Widow and Green Arrow were the next on the list when, abruptly, they saw a young woman dressed in purple jump on the creature's path, hands raised. Natalia relaxed instantly, as she recognized the elven form of her friend, Green Arrow on the other hand, nearly had a fit.

"Get out of the way girl!" He yelled, reaching for an arrow.

"I am not 'girl'!" The elven princess snapped at him without turning around.

Before GA could say anything else everyone saw the girl's hands get a blue tint and ice shot from them, with enough speed and quantity that she actually managed to 'freeze' Doomsday for half a minute or so.

"Kal!" Menel called loudly as she lowered her hands. "If you're taking point on this one it's now or never. I'm good at icing things up but this creature learns as it fights, I won't be able to trap it like this again!"

"Get everyone out of here!" Clark told her even as he began moving. "And..."

"I'll make sure the charges detonate as planned." She finished for him.

Clark just nodded before rushing Doomsday, right as the last of the ice holding him in place shattered into pieces.

"Everyone get out, now!" Menel ordered as she spun around to face the others.

"Who the hell are you to order me and my team around?" Green Arrow demanded.

Menel really, really wanted to snap at Oliver Queen right then. When she'd seen the man step into Clark's loft that morning she'd almost fallen down in shock. She could remember Queen quite clearly from that business lunch she'd gone to with Alec, she could also remember what her dear friend had told her about the kind of bully his former classmate was. The idea of him being a 'hero', especially when Alec's name had been brought up during the conversation, implying he was the 'villain of the story' was so ludicrous in the young princess's mind she'd wanted nothing more than to be physically there and slap the man silly. Clark could be under a misapprehension considering the traumatic events that had taken place in the Arctic, but Queen had no leg to stand on! He was no 'hero' to be able to call Alec a villain!

Still, in that moment there were more important things to focus on and the brunette knew she needed to take the higher road.

"I am the second strongest person here, and one of less than a handful who stands a chance at surviving being anywhere close to this place when it all blows." She enlisted, doing her best not to sound like a petulant child. "So if you wanna become ashes and join that creature on the hell this whole plant will become, be my guest, if not... get moving!"

It looked like the archer was going to insist when Darcy quite unceremoniously approached him from behind and knocked him out with help of a pressure point in the back of the neck. His team-mates stared in shock and it all while Clint and James laughed uproariously, even as the later placed the unconscious man over his shoulder in a fireman carry before he began moving.

"Lets get out of here." Phil declared for good measure.

"I still have to..." The Black Canary began, hesitant.

"I'll wrap things up here, go." Menel stated.

They didn't insist anymore, they just left. Leaving the young brunette half of them did not know to help Clark finish things up. She only just hoped she could really be as fast as she'd implied to the others, turning to ashes was really not in her plans... especially since she had a feeling her sister would bring her back only for the rest of her family to kill her all over again for allowing something like that to happen.

In the end, she was just fast enough. The half-elf half-stumbled out of a shadow shortly after the whole plant went up in flames, half a second before the 'Traveler' practically materialized at her side, clothes a bit charred, but otherwise looking a bit better than her.

"I hate heat..." Menel muttered as she allowed her skin to defensively gain a blue tint to help her overheated skin. "And fire, and everything of the like."

"Considering you're ice, it's not surprising." Clark admitted, looking at her changing skin.

"The ice is a part of me, even if not all I am." Menel nodded, skin going back to tanned. "It's in my nature, though only recently have I realized how much..."

It was one thing to know your father was a Jotun, but she hadn't fully comprehended what was implied, not even when using the ice to neutralize the poison AC was shot with; not until she'd first gone blue all over while rescuing Alec n the Arctic the year before.

Having concluded that Doomsday was done, for good, the two 'superhumans' went to join their teams where they were waiting, on the control-building at the very edge of the property. What they weren't expecting was the argument they walked into. Apparently Jimmy Olsen, Chloe's husband (the photographer Menel had witnessed talking to Clark about Alec and the Arctic the year before) had found them and he and his wife were arguing hotly about what each of them was doing there exactly (apparently Chloe wasn't the only one getting involved in the 'superhero business', Jimmy himself had just begun working for Oliver).

"This is why the old SHIELD preferred to work in secret..." Trip commented looking at the mess.

"Yeah, so much secret that the entire world knew you existed..." Darcy began with a snort.

"And you had a world-wide group of hackers stealing pieces of information from you every other day." Skye added in the same tone.

"Well, the Rising Tide is now gone..." The Agent began, before realizing who it was he was talking to. "...and it was you who took them down."

"That should tell you something." The two brunettes stated in unison.

"Just what the hell is going on here?!" Jimmy demanded in a half-scream.

No one really knew how to answer that, until...

"Tell him the truth Chloe..." Clark called as he stepped past the costume-clad heroes.

"CK?" The shock on Jimmy's face was obvious to everyone.

"Clark, I can't..." The blonde gasped nervously. "I promised..."

"I know you promised." Her friend said with a smile. "It's alright. You're my best friend Chloe, and you have helped me so much through the years... but Jimmy is your husband, and if you don't tell him the truth now, you risk losing him... It's alright. I'm sure he's trustworthy enough..."

"I think it might be better if we take our leave now." Phil announced abruptly. "It looks like things are going to be getting a tad personal here. And we still have work to do elsewhere."

"Of course." Clark nodded at him. "I am very thankful for all your help."

"It's what he do." Phil shrugged slightly, not at all used to being thanked (most of the time no one knew what they were doing), he brought out a SHIELD card and offered it to him. "If you ever need help, don't hesitate to call. Just ask for Director Coulson or Deputy Director Avery."

He wasn't saying just who those were... maybe they would find out, in time.

Menel for her part, was hanging back, still in elven form and all for leaving. As happy as she'd been to be able to help, she didn't want to get too close to Chloe. Oliver hadn't recognized her, and while it was surprising how much a few years, a different eye-color and new hair-style could change someone, she had a feeling that if someone could connect her with Skylar Wright (and or Karen Starr), it was Chloe. And while she wasn't ashamed of anything she'd done, anyone she'd been; she'd rather reveal her past in her own terms, and no one else's.

So really, she was all for leaving, until she became aware of something really wrong...

"We cannot leave AC..." She called before she was even fully conscious of speaking.

"Menel?" Her lover called her name in a questioning tone.

"I can sense a soulless one here..." She answered.

"You can sense what?!" Several people looked at her like she was crazy.

"I know it sounds insane, but I'm saying the truth, someone here does not have a soul!" Menel practically hissed at those disbelieving.

"Wouldn't that apply to anyone not human?" GA asked with a snort.

"Please... I am not human and I can assure you, I have a soul, so do a number of other non-humans I've met..." She drawled, until she thought of something they might believe more. "So does Kal for that matter."

She purposefully did not turn to look or signal at anyone, just in case they decided to still keep things a secret from Olsen (though she honestly did not see how they could).

"A soulless?" And that, right then, was him, choosing to step in. "Would that be like a zombie?"

"I guess that's as good a description as any." The elven princess shrugged. "Creatures that are soulless are highly dangerous. Lack of a soul means they had no consciousness of self, they do not differentiate right or wrong... it also means that either they follow very specific orders from someone with power over them, or they're ruled completely by the most basic instincts. Neither of which is good, trust me on that."

They'd had a case with some clones several months prior, Luthor clones... in fact, she was also sure the 'Lex Luthor' Queen and Clark were arguing about (that Oliver Queen had apparently blown up) was one of those clones, one that escaped. They hadn't thought much of it, seeing how most of them had died on their own due to a serious defect in the DNA that made it so their very cells practically collapsed upon themselves at some point.

"Who of us is supposed to be soulless then?" Black Canary demanded sharply.

It appeared that at least two people had gotten the same idea as they turned, looking for a specific individual, at the same time as Menel's eyes went completely blue (no pupil or sclera) and words spilled from her lips in elvish.

"What the hell just happened?!" GA and Impulse demanded at once.

"A prediction..." Darcy murmured.

She, Phil, James and Alec had some basic understanding of elvish; the last two thanks to their mind-melds (though literally knowing wasn't enough to truly learn a language, or understanding it), Phil and Darcy had actually studied it. Still the phrase they came up with didn't seem to be enough to tell them anything.

"Doom is night, all Beast, no Prince, True Doom is here..." They recited almost in unison.

"What the hell does that mean?!" Once again the JL demanded answers, yet got nothing.

Only one person understood, even if just instinctively. He'd been there when the comments had been made regarding Doomsday... as well as its vessel, Davis Bloom.

Phil turned in the direction of Chloe Sullivan, who was standing in her husband's arms. At some point during the argument about soulless and zombies the two had managed to settle their differences, at least for the time being; and in that moment whoever looked at them would be able to see, quite clearly, why exactly those two had married. Which was exactly what put the Agent in complete alert.

When Alec had contacted them, asking them to help his old friends deal with the menace that was the awful monster, he'd explained everything he knew about the things that had happened in the few months since the creature's first appearance, on the day of Chloe Sullivan's and Henry James Olsen's wedding. The last of which had concerned Sullivan's unexpected choice to leave her home and friends to go with Bloom of all people (whom they already knew was the vessel). It was easy to see that the paramedic was obsessed with the blonde. But what actually worried the Director of SHIELD the most was Alec's investigation that made them believe the man to be a sociopathic murderer... it would appear that the man was as much a monster as the creature inside him; or maybe they had always been one and the same.

Chloe, who'd been looking around, searching for Davis, just like Clark, growing worried after the oddly-dressed girl's explanation about the 'soulless', was briefly distracted by her husband's lips on her cheek as he asked her in a whisper if she was alright. The distraction, while small, was enough for her not to notice the attack that was coming, not for her specifically, but for the man holding her in his arms.

Phil, on the other hand, was not only alert, but he was pretty much waiting for the attack to come, which allowed him to act just in the nick of time, pushing the young couple out of the way. His calculations seemed to be just a bit off, enough that he ended with a rod piercing his side. And yet, he refused to allow that to stop him, as he backhanded the young man hard enough to send him stumbling back several feet.

"Phil!" Menel screamed as she returned to normal.

The response to the attack was not only immediate but also quite vicious: right as Bloom got back on his feet and before he could attempt another attack he ended with an arrow, a shocking disk, and several bullets in him. He was dead before he even knew it.

For a few seconds no one said a thing. Eventually the shock was broken by the clattering of the metal rod as it connected to the ground. Phil himself had pulled it out of his body.

"AC!" Menel called loudly in a chastising tone as she rushed to his side. "You shouldn't have done that! You could have made it worse..."

"I'm healing already, the thing was just getting in the way, made me feel itchy." Her beloved replied, making the whole thing seem as unimportant.

"Did you really have to do that?" Clark asked suddenly, quietly.

"Did you miss the part where he skewered my lover?" Menel asked, voice dripping with sarcasm, as she looked at him over her shoulder. "All while attempting to kill Chloe's husband, might I add?" She let out a sigh. "If it helps at all, he was the soulless. Without a soul he wasn't actually alive in the first place, so..."

"Still, I don't like it..." Clark admitted, he was uncomfortable.

Once sure her beloved was truly healing alright and there was no more danger Menel left him to those who called him family and turned to face Clark.

"I know it's hard." She told him in her most soothing voice. "Probably harder for you than anyone else on your team..."

"What makes you say that?" GA interfered.

Menel resisted the urge to roll her eyes at him, she had an image to protect.

"It's the power." She said, eyes fixed on Clark. "The power you possess, and the one I possess. It is not the same, of course, but we are similar in the sense that we're both far more powerful than anyone else in our teams. In my case there are a few who are a bit 'super' themselves, but even they cannot reach the levels I could if I were to go all out... and my powers are still developing." She closed her eyes briefly. "It's hard to have this much power, and to have to live among people who are so..."

"Fragile." He finished for her, voice barely above a whisper.

"Yes, fragile." She nodded with a sigh. "You have to be careful for them all the time. And when you decide to use your abilities to protect those that are fragile, you have to be even more careful, because they might not care who they hurt but you do. And you fear... you fear that once you've taken a life, nothing will be the same. You fear that you might end up so traumatized you won't be able to help others anymore... or even worse, that it might even be easy, and then the next time it won't seem as hard, and the next... until the day comes when life or death will be completely inconsequential to your eyes."

"Have you ever felt like that?" Clark asked her.

"I have stood in the middle of the bloodiest battle you can imagine, calling out warnings to my allies so they may be ready, using blades to defend myself, even to disable, when at all possible, never daring to actually attack." She answered honestly. "Because I know what bloodlust looks like, I know what someone looks like when they've gone down that path, and I don't want that future for myself. So I try very hard not to kill." She smiled almost sadly. "I know there's a very good chance that the day will come when I won't be able to help it. When either to protect my life, or that of the ones I love, I may have to end a life. And as hard as I know it'll be, I'm willing to do it, to protect those I love. The question is, are you?" She didn't want to put pressure on him, but still felt he needed to understand the stakes he was playing by. "Because, honestly, if you're not, you might be better getting out of this business before you get any deeper."

"I..." Clark actually took a moment to think about it before answering. "To protect... I would do it to protect, and for no other reason.

"That's alright." She smiled at him.

It was the best answer, really, for someone like he, and she.

"Now we really have to go." Natalia announced. "Phil is healing alright, but he lost some blood and will need to recover."

"And don't think we missed the amount of energy you've been expelling all night." James added, looking straight at Menel.

"We all could use some rest." Clint offered.

"Then lets go." The princess agreed.

They were on their way out when Clark called their attention one last time.

"If I call this number, you'll come then?" He asked, waving the card around.

"Always." Menel assured him with a last smile.

And then they were gone.

xXx

A few weeks later Skye was in Alec's ranch a few miles outside Columbia Falls, Montana; on the edges of the National Forest. The property had belonged to Lillian Solomon, who'd somehow managed to keep it away from her husband's hands, even after her marriage; she'd also made arrangements for the property to go to her son after her death, with some help from dummy corporations, to make sure Lionel would suspect nothing.

It was there that Alec Solomon had gone to live his new life. There he had everything he could ask for: a house, clothes, and even a personal lab. Before winter he was building a new company: Solomon Pharmaceuticals, which in just six months had grown to become one of the best in the country (the good deals they had with OsCorp, Stark Industries and Konstantin Enterprises did not hurt matters either).

That day in particular Skye and Alec were arguing, again. It was an old argument (seemed like a neverending one too) about good and evil, heroes and villains, and about destiny...

"The last time I gave you a pass because you'd had a bad time, for a long while; and to be honest, after seeing everything you went through, I understood you getting all obsessed with destiny..." Skye was practically hissing at her almost-brother by that point. "But that was then, and this is now. I don't want to hear you talking about things like fate, or destiny, or bithright ever again! To Hell with destiny! To Hell with all of it! And I mean that literally. Do you know what it's like to see your father in chains, and then witness a man who is supposed to be his father, telling him his birthright was to die?!"

"You saw what?!" Alec paled dramatically at hearing that.

"That's the kind of stuff my nightmares are made of, and the worst part is that it's not really a nightmare at all!" Skye retorted. "That really happened!"

"I... as terrible as that may be, it doesn't change anything where it concerns us." Alec tried to sound understanding while at the same time holding onto his own opinions. "There is nothing in this universe stronger than destiny!"

"You do not believe that." The brunette shock her head vehemently as she said that.

"Really?" Alec shook his head at her. "This is not about what I believe or not, it's about reality. He's Naman, I'm Segeet, it's as simple as that."

"Nothing is that simple, nothing is ever simple." Skye insisted stubbornly.

"This is." Alec was just as stubborn as she.

"If it is then why are you still here? Why haven't you returned to Metropolis, retaken the Luthor name and fashioned yourself into the quintessential villain?" Silence was her answer, and she kept pushing on. "You do not believe in destiny anymore than I do, Alec. And yes, it is about beliefs, because when you do not believe, they can have no hold over you..."

"But you do believe in destiny, my friend." He sounded almost sad as he said that. "Otherwise you would not spend day in and day out preparing for war against Odin Allfather!"

"I do not believe in destiny! What I do believe in, though, are self-fullfilled prophecies. Odin is so convinced we Children of Chaos will start a war, that he won't stop until it actually happens, until he feels validated. So when it does, I intend to be ready, to make sure my loved ones will survive what's to come."

"You know if I thought there was anything I could bring to such a battle I would be there, right? Fighting by your side, like a brother ought to."

"I know, but there is nothing you can do, it's not your war... what's going on with Clark Kent on the other hand..."

"There is nothing going on with Clark Kent!"

It was obvious that the bald twenty-nine year old wanted nothing more than to declare their current conversation/argument as over and done with; it was equally obvious that Skye wasn't about to allow that. Especially not with what she knew was coming their way.

"You do know he's coming any day, right?" She asked brow arched.

Alec did not answer, but the brief flicker of emotion that went through his eyes before he turned away told Skye more than she expected, or he wanted...

"You not only know... you planned for this!" She cried out in shocked disbelief.

"Skye..." He tried to make her stop, but it was too late, she was onto him.

"That's why you insisted that I seal the deal with Queen Industries and Wayne Enterprises myself, isn't it?" She half-demanded of him. "It wasn't just the fact that the CEO's of all the companies in the Consortium have given me power of attorney. You wanted to call their attention to you, and used me to achieve it. As long as Tess Mercer was acting CEO of LuthorCorp they could believe whatever they wanted; but the moment someone appeared to 'settle matters with the Estate', it was confirmation that Lex Luthor was gone. And, of course, the fact that an executor is coming out of the woodwork, a year after the 'last Luthor' supposedly died, won't be suspicious at all..." Her voice was dripping sarcasm but she did not care. "Oh, and if that weren't enough to make anyone suspicious, we have the escaped clone of a few months ago... who apparently was blown up by Oliver Queen of all people! Believing it was you, too."

Alec said nothing to that, he knew it was pointless to lie.

"Did you know that Bruce Wayne asked for a moment to talk to me after the negotiations were over?" She asked abruptly.

Alec actually froze in place at that.

"What did he say?" He asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

Skye couldn't help but soften a bit at that; she knew how important Bruce was for Alec, his best friend in Excelsior... the only one he'd had after the Duncan Allenmeyer incident...

"He knew of my connection to the Consortium, and asked me to send his personal thanks to the doctors at Solomon Pharmaceuticals for creating the miracle drug that restored his leg after a rugby accident two years ago." The brunette explained calmly. "Apparently nothing else had worked. The doctors had pretty much given up on him ever being able to walk right and without pain again..." She made a pause before adding. "After hearing him say that I couldn't help but wonder, is this the same miracle drug that saved James Olsen when he was dying in Star City after that monster attacked during his wedding? Is this the same drug that we took from Queen because he got it by torturing you?!"

"You know it is." Alec told her quietly, calmly. "Regardless of what may happen, Bruce will always be one of my best friends, I couldn't leave him to suffer, not when I have the means to help, he did not deserve that. Especially when you and I both know he did not get that injury in any sports-related accident..."

"Batman..." She nodded.

"Indeed." He shook his head with a slight smirk. "It would appear that billionaires tend to get bored easily. I mean, just look at Stark, and Harry..."

"And Queen..."

"I still say he's nothing more than a vigilante... Bruce... Batman may not always be 'nice', but he's doing good things, and that's what matters."

"True. You know, while technically Mr. Fox was the one who handled the negotiations, he was there too; he was actually the only one who did not seem interested in why exactly the group I'm mainly know to represent had no interest in taking pieces of Luthor Corp as it was finally broken down. And yet we were interested in the Smallville Fertilizer Plant and the workers..."

"You know why I chose to do things that way..." Alec murmured.

"I do. But there are people who don't know you, who don't understand... this kind of thing looks suspicious to them. Though considering all your planning thus far..."

"The Smallville thing I did not do because of that, I just..." He let out a breath. "Even after 7 years I can still remember the fear in the eyes of every worker when Lionel gave the order to close the Smallville Plant. I knew it was completely crazy when I organized the employee buyout but there just was no other possible solution. And somehow, after LexCorp was created I ended having to go to Metropolis to deal with the fallout with LuthorCorp anyway."

"I remember." She nodded. "We met that summer."

"The only reason LexCorp even survived past that summer at all was Gabe Sullivan." Alec admitted. "He was the one who convinced the employees to trust me and help with the buyout in the first place. And he kept things going there while I handled the paperwork and the huge PR messes Lionel kept causing in an attempt to ruin it, ruin us..." He shook his head. "Not that it lasted much, after my psychotic breakdown it all went up in flames anyway."

"But you tried, the people had to know you tried."

"I tried, and in the end I failed... I couldn't fail again."

"So you bought the Plant to make sure everyone would keep their jobs."

"It's also the best way to get our special teams into Smallville and dispose of all the meteor rocks. I had plans to do that once, before marrying Helen... but apparently I forgot afterwards."

"I really, really wish I could have known things were that wrong earlier, that I could have done more for you... maybe if I had stayed longer that summer..."

"I was the one who told you to leave..."

"I could have been more stubborn, insisted on staying..."

"Not then, I wouldn't have allowed it. I... I think I would have gone as far as hurting you to get you to leave..."

"Hurt... but why?"

"Because if you hadn't left then I would have never let you go..."

"I don't understand..."

"You saw me at my weakest, Skye. I was at my most vulnerable, so much a single word could have destroyed me completely, and instead you put me back together again. I was beginning to depend on you, more than was healthy, for either of us. If I had allowed myself to bask in your company well... I probably would have asked you to marry me before the month was over."

"What?! If this is a joke..."

"No joke, I'm being absolutely honest here..."

She could see in his eyes that he was, and that forced her to honestly look back on things, on how she had been, how the two of them had been. What would she have said? What would have happened if she had stayed?

"I probably would have said yes." She admitted after what seemed like forever.

"That's exactly why I couldn't take the chance..." He stated unexpectedly.

"What...?! I don't understand..." Shouldn't he be saying the opposite?

"We love each other Skye, there's no doubt about that, but we're not in love with each other. We were content, that week together, a feeling I'm sure would have remained. But contentment isn't happy, and loving someone isn't the same as being 'in love' with them. I see you as my equal, and that would have definitely helped, it would have been enough for me... but not for you."

"Oh Alec..."

"Being who I am, I never expected to marry for love. But I cared enough for you to want you to have what I couldn't. And you have it now. You have Phil, Skye. He's everything I could have ever imagined for your match, and more; because in many ways you're more than you were back then. If you had stayed with me, if you had married me, the two of you probably would have never met. You wouldn't have the love you do now, the love you deserve."

"You deserve love too Alec, I honestly believe that."

"I'm not sure I agree." He shook his head ruefully. "Besides, haven't you heard, I am the villain of the story, when have you ever seen the villain get the girl and the happy ending?"

"Well, in this case it's not the girl..." She chuckled briefly. "Anyway. You keep doing all you can to protect your friend, to protect the one you love, and then insist you're meant to be enemies? I don't understand you..."

"I told you, it's all about Naman and Segeet... the 'protector of the world' and the 'bearer of darkness', the hero and the villain..."

"And there you go again... you cannot protect your enemy Alexander! Either you want to keep him safe or you want him dead, you cannot have it both ways!"

Before they could take their argument any further, or Alec lost his temper completely and stalked away (he would never, never hurt his friend regardless of how angry he got), there was a knock on their front door.

"I'm not expecting any visitors..." Alec stated uneasily before Skye could ask the question.

Before she could say a single thing someone else spoke:

"I open the door!" It was a child's voice.

"No! Connor!" Both adults called at the same time.

Apparently Alec received so few visits he'd never taken a moment to teach the boy not to open the door... they were also too far in the back of the house to stop the child in time.

When they reached the foyer they found the door open already, Connor holding it open as he looked at the unknown visitors with obvious curiosity. It was normal, childlike curiosity, he could have never imagined the feelings those visitors were causing on the adults behind him. And it was that there were three people at the door: Jimmy Olsen, Chloe Sullivan and Clark Kent...

The sharp intake of breath from the visitors let Skye know that they had most definitely identified the man at his back. She cursed inside her head. There was a reason why the CEO of Solomon Pharmaceuticals was considered almost a recluse. While he attended the truly important events with other companies, and his own top scientists, and he had several pictures on his company's webpage... in all of those he wore a dark auburn wig. Which he wasn't wearing in that moment. He always complained it itched, and the ranch was supposed to be a safe place, their haven... There was no way the three visitors wouldn't realize that the bald man behind Skye was Alec Solomon, and also Lex Luthor...

"Connor...?" She called quietly, almost nervously, gesturing to the child.

"Mama?" The boy asked as he turned towards her.

"Yes, come here baby..." She called, gesturing insistently at him.

"Mama, Papa, we have v'sitors!" He called excitedly as he ran to them.

The moment he was close enough Skye scooped him into her arms, holding him protectively against her chest. She was sure the move had not gone unnoticed by their 'guests'.

"That I can see Connor..." Alec replied in an almost strangled tone.

It wasn't easy for him, the fight between the 'loving father' Connor knew him as, and the calm, emotionless businessman he had to act like with the new-arrivals.

"Why don't you go play some more while Mama and Papa talk to the visitors baby?" Skye asked Connor quietly.

"Today is Saturday... Papa promised we could go play in the trees on Saturday." The child said in an obviously eager tone.

"And we will go Con, as soon as your Mama and I deal with this." Alec reassured the boy as best he could with his current emotions.

"You promise papa?" The boy asked, baby blues full of emotion.

"I promise, my boy." Alec kissed his brow for emphasis.

"Ok." The kid nodded, satisfied.

He moved slightly to signal for Skye to put him down, then he waved at all the adults before practically jumping out of the foyer and back to the back of the house.

The 'uninvited guests' did not say a word for several seconds, it was obvious they were still busy processing what they had just seen. Connor was a six-year-old boy with baby-blue eyes and auburn hair that had been growing darker in the last few weeks, it made those who knew him wonder if it would eventually end a very dark mahogany, or possibly brown or even black... there was no way of knowing for sure. His skin was somewhat pale, for lack of enough sun, but had been getting better lately. Anyone needed just to see into the boy's face to know he was Alec's son, but Skye couldn't help but wonder if they saw the other part as well...

"So you really are Skylar..." Chloe was the first to break the uncomfortable silence.

"What makes you say that?" Skye couldn't help but ask, honestly curious.

"The boy called you Mama." Chloe answered with a shrug. "I saw his birth-certificate: he was born to Skylar Karen Wright and Alexander Joseph Solomon... who I'm also quite sure is in reality Alexander Joseph Luthor."

"If you only came to this place to throw ludicrous accusations around..." Skye started, steel in her voice and her eyes.

"I very much doubt others will believe they're ludicrous if they only see what we're seeing right now..." Chloe retorted coldly.

"And who says anyone else will be given that chance?" Skye challenged.

It looked like Chloe might reply to that, and like Clark was about to try and stop her when, to the three visitor's surprise, Alec stepped in.

"We knew this was coming..." He reminded her. "We planned for it..."

"No!" The brunette turned to snap at him. "You planned for this! Not me! Never me! And if I had known what was running through your head I would have never allowed it. Not only for you but for Connor! Have you even thought about...?"

"Every day Connor is the first and last thought in my head!" Alec retorted sharply at her, before softening his voice again. "You know that Skye..."

"I do, I'm sorry." He was right.

"You also know that this arrangement is no longer enough. Connor needs more help than I can give him. Since... since this began we knew the day would come... and if the only way for him to get the help he needs is for me to go..."

"Then you will just give up? No! No way! I'm not allowing that! And how do you think Connor will feel when he finds out his Papa might be going away?"

No one needed to answer that question, the answer came to them on its own...

"Papa not go anywhere! Not without Connor!"

The three visitors could only blink, seeing the voice suddenly there, the boy holding onto Alec for dear life; and ever so slowly, it dawned on them, the fact that the child had been on the other side of the house one moment, and right there before them the next. Though only one person was fully conscious of the fact that the child had ran the distance in the matter of a second...

For a handful of seconds no one moved until, unexpectedly, Clark gave several steps forward before dropping on one knee beside the boy.

"Hello." He greeted the child softly. "My name is Clark Jerome Kent, what's yours?"

"Connor Johnathan Solomon!" The kid said brightly, before his mood turned sad. "Mr. Clark...?"

"Yes?" Clark asked, confused by the boy's tone.

"Please don't take my papa away..." He said, holding onto Alec tightly. "Please, please, please... I love him very very much... I don't want him to go..."

Clark couldn't help but feel for the boy, and as crazy as he knew it was to make promises when they still had no idea of what was going on, just looking into the boy's eyes he was reminded of the time when he'd gone into Lex's mind and met little Alexander, when he'd learnt that there was still good inside his old friend, something worth saving... something apparently someone else had managed to save. And since there was a part of him that would never stop caring for Lex, no matter how bad things might have gotten at times... Then there was that moment, back in the Arctic, as the Fortress fell into pieces around them, the intense look in Lex's eyes, and the words he'd pronounced:

"I love you Clark... But it has to end this way... I'm sorry..."

"I promise you Connor, no one is taking your Papa away..." The words left the green-eyed man's lips before he was even fully conscious of them.

"Clark!" Chloe called, half-dismayed, half-outraged, she obviously did not agree.

Clark did not have the chance to worry, about that, for suddenly he was half-sitting on the floor, with a lap full of a six-year-old.

"Thank you Mr. Clark!" He kept repeating, over and over again.

Clark could have almost sworn he felt something click inside him at the touch of the child, as if something in the world had just been set right. He had no idea what it was or how such a thing could be possible; but he knew one thing for sure: no matter what, he would find a way to keep the promise he'd just made, Connor deserved nothing less...

"Come on baby," Skye called to him right then.

"Mama?" Connor asked, even as he left Clark and joined her.

"It's getting late, why don't you take a short nap and when you wake up your Papa and I can take you to play in the trees?" She offered.

"Really?" He asked, eyes bright with excitement. "You coming too, Mama?"

"Yes baby, I'm coming too." She nodded.

"Yay!" He was really, really excited at the prospect. "I'm gonna show ya all the things I can do now Mama! And everything Papa's teaching me."

"I'm sure it's gonna be great Connor." He kissed his brow. "Now for that nap..."

The boy was so thrilled at the prospect of both of his parents taking him to play he did not even complain about having to take a nap. He just allowed his mom to lay him down on the bunch of cushions and blankets that had been his 'fort' earlier and quieted as he listened for the soft lullaby she would sing very quietly in a language he could not understand. He knew he was very lucky, as he and his baby cousin were the only ones his Mama ever sang for. He actually wished she would do it more, she had such a pretty voice...

As soon as Skye made sure Connor was truly asleep she set up the usual wards for his protection before making for the sitting room, where she knew the others were waiting. Their visitors had glasses of what looked like coke in their hands, while Alec himself was holding one with at least two fingers of scotch, possibly more. Before the brunette could even comment on it he was offering her a glass with a similar amount of a reddish-brown liquor.

"What is that?" The light-brown haired young man blurted out in obvious curiosity.

"Bochet mead." Skye answered honestly before taking a sip. "Some call it burnt mead. It's liquor made from fermented honey... this one in particular was made to taste a tiny bit like chocolate... it's my favorite variety of mead..."

It was also the most alcoholic of human drinks that she drank (at least among those that remained in any way sweet... she really did not like bitter liquors, unless it was a Sherridan, and it was the whiskey-coffee blend giving it that flavor).

"Is Connor..." Alec began quietly, though he knew Clark could hear.

"He's asleep." Skye assured him in the same tone. "I set the wards so he won't hear us even if we happen to get a bit loud; however, we will hear him if he calls for any reason. Also, if anything happens to even just one of us the security protocols will activate and he will be out of here and to safety before even Kal-El can get out of this room."

"I really hope it does not come to that." Alec muttered under his breath.

"I do too. The family will not take it kindly if something happens to either of us." Skye nodded.

"There are some who would tear the world asunder to avenge you." Alec agreed.

"Not just me, both of us." Skye corrected him softly. "I'm not blind, you know? Billy is crazy in love with you since your stay at the Playground last summer; even James looks at you like he wants to eat you up sometimes, or... other things I'd rather not think too much about since, even though you and I did sleep together in the past, you're both like brothers to me now."

Clark spluttered in the background, but neither of them seem to notice, or at least Alec didn't.

"Wha... I... I don't understand..." Alec murmured after several seconds in shock. "Neither of them has ever said anything."

"Billy is simply too shy, and I think he might realize the two of you are just too different." Skye shrugged just a little as she said that, it was the truth. "And James... he knows you are interested in someone else. I would almost believe he's even getting used to this sort of thing by now. It's not the first time it happens..."

It really wasn't, and though technically she only knew because she'd seen it inside James's own head, truth was she did not understand how the individual in question could not know, could not see the love shining in James's eyes every time they settled on him...

"If you will stop whispering already!" Chloe practically snapped.

"Fine." Skye went from joking to absolutely serious in a second before swallowing the rest of her drink in one go. "Lets talk. What do you want to talk about? Maybe how you've come here to threaten one of the richest, most powerful and respected men in the country? Or how you've invaded private property... that alone gives me the right to shoot you, you know?"

"You wouldn't..." Chloe began, shocked by the mere idea.

"I wouldn't, but considering that you're pretty much accusing Alec of anything and everything..." Skye snarked at the blonde.

"Why do you insist on calling him that when we already know he's Lex Luthor?" Chloe almost demanded at that point.

"Because to me, he's Alec, he's always been Alec." Skye actually rolled her eyes at that. "I would have expected you to remember that Chloe. It's not like I did not call him that the last time... and you were there back then too. Though I suppose you've forgotten all about back then, all about the friend you used to have, or at least I thought we were friends... up until you were presumed dead in the explosion of the FBI safehouse, turned out to be alive, and couldn't be bothered to let me know, even though I know for a fact Alec told you I sent flowers to your funerals and had been quite worried about you."

The blonde did not have an answer to that.

"So, what are we discussing then?" Alec inquired.

"How about the crimes you have committed?" Chloe went back to what she considered was important. "The crimes you must still pay for!"

Skye knew that if given the chance Alec would surrender without putting up a fight, and she was not about to allow that, so she answered instead.

"You are talking about the crimes Lex Luthor committed, Lex Luthor is dead." The brunette stated in a very no-nonsense tone. "Alec Solomon is a model citizen!"

"Model citizen..." Chloe repeated with disdain. "I can prove my claims!"

"You can prove nothing." Skye snapped. "If you try to take him to trial several of the most important men and women in the world will testify to Alec being who his papers say he is right now, and to having been that his whole life. And since I'm quite sure you must have hacked every database possible before daring to come to us, I'm sure you know there is no way to prove that any of those records were falsified..."

"I'm sure with a little more time I can..." The blonde just refused to give up.

"Chloe, remember who taught you to hack?" Skye sounded almost playful as she asked that.

"Then I'll just ask help!" The reporter insisted.

"From who? The Rising Tide? Because let me tell you, they're gone, and even they could have never gotten past me." Yes, she was being a tad egocentric, but Chloe was just driving her nuts, insisting on hurting her friend.

"Skye..." Alec noticed, and tried to calm her down.

"If you're not willing to fight for yourself I have no trouble fighting for the both of us, and for Connor!" Skye snapped at him.

"How can you even trust him?" Chloe sounded honestly confused at that. "After you had to disappear before, to leave everything...?"

It actually took the half-elf a few seconds to fully understand what Chloe was saying, and when she did, she couldn't believe it...

"You think it's his fault that I had to disappear back then?!" She went through an octave in her disbelief. "Alec had nothing to do with it! It was all me. I did something stupid, got myself in serious trouble and had to drop that identity in order to get away..."

"Drop that identity...?" Surprisingly it was Jimmy and not his wife who picked up on that detail. "Those that mean that Skylar Wright isn't your real name either?"

"Just like Meneliel isn't..." Chloe rolled her eyes.

"But Rokk recognized the name of Meneliel..." Clark blurted out.

Judging by the look the blonde directed to her friend, that was news to her.

"Meneliel is a real name, probably the most real of all the ones I've had, along with that of Skye." The brunette stated with unexpected honesty. "Though it's actually Menel... Meneliel is like a... more formal version of it, so-to-speak."

No way was she explaining about the whole princess-thing, not with the way Chloe was acting. It made the brunette wonder where the spunky, way-too-brave and blunt girl who'd helped her reveal the whole drug-rape thing going on in a club in Metropolis had gone...

"So he didn't force you to change your name and disappear so he could keep Connor?" Chloe demanded in a half-demanding, half-confused tone.

"Not at all!" Skye was honestly offended by the mere idea. "And we're not talking about Connor, at all. He's off-limits. Whatever crazy grudge you might have against Alec, the boy is an innocent and you're leaving him out of it. If you try anything I swear you will regret it Chloe."

"What will you do?" The blonde couldn't help but challenge her. "Make me disappear?"

"Honestly? I don't know." Skye admitted with the slightest shrug. "But I'm willing to do pretty much anything to protect my family, so you better not test me."

"And you think I wouldn't?" Chloe's eyes narrowed almost dangerously. "As long as Lex Luthor is free he has power over my mother! I will not allow that!"

And suddenly everything became crystal clear. From Chloe's decision to even be there, to her insistence on condemning Alec, it was all about Moira...

"Your mother is not in my power, not in any way..." Alec informed the blonde, honestly surprised by her outburst.

"Do not play games with me Luthor." Chloe hissed at him. "Once before you gave her the drug that woke her up, then took it away when she was no longer useful to you. I won't allow the same to happen again!"

"It won't happen." Alec tried his best to reassure her. "The drug that woke your mother from her catatonia this time was a different version than the previous one. A permanent one..."

"Then why is she still taking pills every day?" Chloe demanded. "They're about to run out, and I cannot find anymore!"

"That's because once she finishes the ones that were given to her, she will need no more." Alec tried to explain. "The first day she was given the drug that woke her up, that was permanent. Completely. The other pills she was given are meant to counter everything the previous drugs tried on her might have done to her body. By the time she finishes them she will, technically, be as healthy as she would have been if nothing had ever happened to her. I cannot promise you how long she'll live, but she will never fall catatonic again, and there will be no secondary effects, of that, or any other drug she might have received in her time in that facility."

"How do I know I can trust you?" Suddenly the blonde sounded extremely vulnerable.

And it's that, deep down, she was just a girl deeply worried about her mom, playing tough in order to protect those she cared for, those she feared she couldn't protect.

"I suppose there's no way to really convince you but..." Alec actually swallowed before admitting the truth. "I know what it is like to live feeling like your mind is scrambled, like pieces of it are missing, lost in the shadowed corners of your own psyche. I would never wish that feeling on anyone, certainly not on an innocent woman whose only problem was to end up in the middle of the war between my father and I..."

"How long?" Clark asked quietly.

"How long what?" Alec inquired, turning to him.

"How long have you felt like that?" Clark insisted, very serious.

"Since I got lost in an island in the middle of nowhere..." Alec answered with absolute honesty. "Sometimes it felt like I never came back... and maybe a part of me never did... I forgot so much that year, and even the things I did not forget, sometimes it felt like I wasn't myself when I was doing them. I know it's no excuse, but it is still the truth."

"Do you remember everything now?" Jimmy couldn't help but notice something odd in the way Lex... Alec, was speaking.

"Thanks to Skye, yes." The bald man answered honestly. "It's also thanks to her that my mind is healed as well."

"How...?" Chloe was shocked by that.

"Magic." Skye smirked at that before adding. "Literally."

"A witch?" The blonde's eyes widened, as if she were remembering some past experience.

"I prefer the term sorceress..." The brunette declared flippantly.

"You remember the truth about me..." Clark commented quietly, as if only then fully realizing that detail, then turned to Alec. "You know what I am..."

"He did not tell me... at least not willingly." Skye hurried to prevent another misunderstanding. "After my team rescued him from the Arctic I went into his mind to heal him of all the damage. That kind of thing has the particular side effect of making it so that my memories become his, and his become mine. Everything he knows, or knew up to that day, I know now. He would have never betrayed your secret otherwise..."

Alec did not say a word, just look at Clark in silent expectation.

"I believe that." Clark nodded after what seemed like forever.

"Thank you Clark..." Alec murmured quietly, seemingly not knowing what else to say to that.

"It might be too late to say it Lex, Alec, whatever, but I do trust you." Clark told him in a very serious tone. "Back in High-School... I was young, afraid. My parents instilled in me the idea that if anyone found out the truth about me either I would be in danger, or they would. Truth is, I never told anyone, not willingly. Pete learnt of it because he found the space-pod I arrived in after the tornado and wouldn't quit on his idea of revealing it to the media, he was hurt several times in the following years and in the end he left because he just couldn't handle the danger; a few of the metas I faced would see me doing things, and then there were some I would save, like Alicia and Kayla, in the end they all died, either because of my secret, or their own; Lana... that was a whole other mess, and since you were there for most of it I don't think we need to go into it; my parents.. well, they are my parents they knew from the very first day; and Chloe..."

"Alicia put me in a position to witness Clark doing something." The blonde explained herself. "She wanted me to write a story about it. Thought that if people knew Clark was different too, they would accept him, because he was good, and in accepting him they would be forced to accept everyone else, herself included."

"That would have never worked..." Alec and Skye shook their heads at the same time.

"Humanity tends to fear that which they do not understand..." Alec added, for good measure. "And if you consider the kind of things other people with abilities were known to have done... it might have caused a witch-hunt of the worst kind."

Chloe just nodded grimly, she knew, there was a reason why she hadn't written that story, and why she'd done her best to help Clark keep his secret after that day.

"So, you're in the business of saving lives now, then?" Jimmy asked abruptly, looking directly at Alec with unusual seriousness.

"What makes you say that?" The bald man couldn't help but ask.

"Well, there's Chloe's mom of course, and thank you about that, by the way." Jimmy elaborated. "Then there's me..."

"You?" Not even Chloe was expecting that one.

"Yes." The dark-blonde man turned to look at his wife. "I know we haven't had time to talk about the things you missed during the whole Doomsday mess but you do remember that I was badly hurt by that thing during our wedding..."

"Oliver had you airlifted to the best clinic in Star City to receive treatment, Lois went along because I was missing and Clark was looking for me." Chloe enlisted.

"And if it hadn't been for the experimental drug Solomon Pharmaceuticals sent for me I wouldn't have made it." Jimmy finished.

That made the blonde reporter turn back to the man she'd only a few minutes prior been accusing of anything and everything with absolute shock.

"It was... anyone would have done the same in my place." Alec mumbled, barely keeping himself from saying 'nothing' because to them it obviously was anything but 'nothing', blushing a little under the unexpected attention.

"Oliver said the drug must have been stolen from his labs, because it worked exactly like one his people had been working on..." Chloe commented, though she didn't sound accusatory that time, only confused by it all.

"And did he tell you how 'his people' got that drug in the first place?" Skye asked, quietly but intensely as her eyes narrowed. "Did he tell you he tortured Alec, experimented on him, on his enhanced healing, in order to get it?"

"Skye!" Alec tried to stop her but it was too late.

The other three could only gasp in shocked disbelief, except... hadn't they already heard what Oliver had done to Lex... or to one they'd all thought was Lex? If he was capable of killing a man in cold blood, he surely was capable of torturing and experimenting on him too.

"So, in case you're still wondering, I was the one who stole all the data, made sure he'd nothing." Skye added for good measure. "He did not deserve it. Not with what he did to get it. I then gave Alec the only copy of it all, since it was his blood, he could decide what to do with it. And he decided to create something that could save the lives of others. But it was his choice to make. Not Queen's. Never his..."

The three guests did not know what to say to that, though silently they had to agree that Oliver had crossed too many lines already, and he certainly had no right to that drug. They might even say he should pay for what he'd done, except he couldn't be accused of anything when the man he'd wronged was legally dead.

"I don't care about reparations, or revenge, or anything." Alec said, as if he could read their minds. "I already have everything I could ever want..."

Or almost everything, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

"I'm sorry..." Clark whispered unexpectedly, looking straight at his old friend.

"Clark...?" The bald man really did not understand.

"For not saving you in the Arctic I mean..." Clark clarified. "When I woke up I was just so confused... and without my powers... all I could think about was finding a way to survive... It seems I just keep failing you, doesn't it? First Belle Reve, your father, and then..."

"There's no reason why you should have." Alec shook his head with a quiet sigh. "Belle Reve doesn't even deserves mention, you were so young back then Clark... And about the Arctic, you did what any normal person would have done in such circumstances... if a normal person could have survived any of that, I mean. I wasn't expecting you to save, not that time... actually, I wasn't expecting to be saved at all."

"How did you know?" Chloe couldn't help but address the question to Skye.

"He sent me a letter..." The brunette young woman explained, shaking her head at the memory. "An e-mail, to be precise... apologizing, saying goodbye... and telling me not to look for him."

"So of course you went and did exactly the opposite." Chloe actually smirked as she said that, all animosity completely gone.

"Of course..." Skye couldn't help but smirking back before turning to Chloe's husband. "It was actually thanks to you that I foud him at all." At his confusion she elaborated. "I have a power called astral vision. I saw when you visited Clark to tell him what had happened to Chloe, and you mentioned Alec taking a very secret trip to the Arctic... By the time we got there Clark was already on the move, getting farther away by the minute, Alec was barely breathing. My team healed his body, and then when I learnt he was in a coma he might never wake from, I went into his mind... It wasn't easy, but it worked."

"Why hide you survived?" Jimmy was the next to ask Alec a question.

"Why keep the name of Alexander Luthor when I was no longer him?" It was a rethorical question, yet the bald man still explained himself. "Truth is I began changing long before that day in the Arctic, ever since I went off a bridge, drowned in a river and then got life breathed back into me... some times it was harder than others, to be who I could truly be, rather than just who most expected me to be. Also, at some point my fight to protect those I cared for from my father made me more like him than I ever wanted to be... I'll never claim to be innocent, for I most certainly am not, but I don't want to be a villain either..."

It was the first time he said those words, and they were the absolute truth... Skye could only smile in silent satisfaction.

xXx

Two hours or so later the group as a whole was in the limits of the property, where it met the edge of the Forest. Chloe and Jimmy were taking a moment to relax, laying on a thin blanket, under the shadow of a tree. Skye was sitting cross-legged on a stump a few feet away, talking to them about the things that had happened in the years since the girls had last spoken. SHIELD hadn't been mentioned yet, but there would be time for that. As for the other three, Connor was keeping Alec and Clark busy, running around the trees. It was obvious the brunette man must have already noticed the child wasn't quite like other boys his age, he was more...

Everyone was having a lot of fun until, abruptly, something made Skye straighten up.

"What's going on?" Chloe asked, confused about the change in her friend's demeanor.

Skye did not answer, instead she began moving, so fast no one could follow her, until they saw her standing right behind Alec, holding a green, somewhat glowing arrow in her hand.

Clark reacted instantly at the proximity of the bolt, shaking slightly and seemingly trying to make himself smaller, in an attempt to keep away from the glowing green rock inside the arrow.

Connor, who'd been running and jumping around, froze in the spot, staring at the object as if it were both terrifying and fascinating at the same time.

"Con, don't get close to it." Alec ordered, as calmly as he could.

Somehow the man managed to force himself to move past the fact that someone had just tried to kill him... again. His son was much more important than that; though he still couldn't help but think that his attacker was using a weapon that would have hurt Clark if he'd tried to step in for any reason. It was either a very-well-thought-out plan, or a rather desperate one.

It took a second but Skye soon realized what was so wrong about the arrow and with that in mind she froze it up deep and fast enough as to render it useless (or so she hoped) at least temporarily.

"Such a coward..." She called loudly, angrily. "Shooting from the shadows at a man who's unaware, with his back turned, while he's playing with his son!"

"I am here to make justice, for all the people Lex Luthor has ever hurt!" The vigilante in his emerald green getup stepped out from behind some trees.

"And what about the people you've hurt?" Skye challenged. "Don't they deserve justice?"

"Skye!" Chloe called loudly, almost tripping as she got on her feet. "Let me handle this, please."

"Of course." The brunette girl waved her friend on. "But if he dares to shoot again, if he so much as look at Alec or Connor wrong, I will shoot him in turn." As Skye said that her guns floated to her hands from the special safe she kept them in, in the ranch. She addressed the archer, then. "Do not worry, they won't kill you, only knock you out, one with considerably more pain than the other... which one I'll use depends on how much you piss me off."

The vigilante didn't dare answer to that, which was probably a good thing as Skye was on edge in that moment and a single word would be enough to push her off.

"Arrow, you've gotta stop this, please." Chloe said, approaching the archer slowly.

"Chloe... you cannot tell me you buy into whatever story Luthor has concocted." The green-clad man stated. "It's a trap! Luthor is evil, he's always been evil..."

"Yes, and you're the picture of a perfect hero..." Skye snorted from her spot.

"Look, Ollie, you know I'm really thankful for everything you've done. The way you've helped Jimmy, and what you did for me last summer..." Chloe began, trying to sooth him.

"Wait a second." Skye interrupted, unable to help herself, but she just had a feeling. "What did he do for you last summer, exactly?"

"Well..." Chloe sounded actually a bit self-conscious as she answered. "I got careless while doing a hack and the Feds were onto me. Jimmy tried to negotiate to keep me out of jail, but things went wrong on that front too and they went for me eventually. Ollie got them to let me go after a few days so, it was all good."

"Did he say that?" Skye asked, eyes narrowed. "Did Oliver Queen actually had the gall to say he was the one who got those men to let you go?"

"She assumed!" The archer defended himself.

"What?!" Chloe was onto him right then. "Well yes, I assumed! But you did not deny it! I went to thank you and you said you were just doing what you could do help!"

"So you took credit for something you did not do, something that never even occurred to you, to do." The brunette woman stated in a way-too-calm voice. "Because, really, if you had had the idea, we would have never had to do it!"

"So you were the ones who got me out then?" Chloe asked, turning to her.

"It was all Alec." Skye explained immediately. "We just helped get the order to the right people. And the only reason it took as long as it did was because he needed time to recover from the mess in the Arctic and his own mind, first."

Chloe nodded, she understood that.

"So you take credit for things other people do, bully school-classmates and then torture business competitors just for the kicks, huh?" Skye snapped testily at the man. "What other heroic deeds are in your arsenal?"

"You act like you're this important person, but it's nothing more than bravado." Queen snarled at her. "Deep down you're still the same insignificant little girl in the cheap pink dress who didn't know what to say when Lionel Luthor called her a whore."

Alec actually growled at that, while the rest couldn't believe such words had just come out of the mouth of a man they'd considered a friend, a leader... Skye for her part, just laughed.

"Is that the worst you can do?" She asked with a mischievous smirk. "Because if it is, I'm not impressed. You calling me a little girl, a whore, does nothing to me, at all. I know exactly who and what I am, and if I cared at all about what other people said about me..." She snorted. "You have no idea who I really am, Queen. Back then all you saw was a girl doing an internship, and that's mostly what I was at the time, I'll admit. But that was seven years ago... you've no idea who I am right now. And trust me, you do not want to find out."

"I don't know... maybe your bosses would like to find out..." The Green Arrow challenged, pulling out a white business card.

It was the card Phil had given Clark in the aftermath of the battle against Doomsday. From the corner of her eye she could see Clark wince. Either he'd trusted GA with the card, or just left it somewhere the man could find it, in the end it wasn't his fault.

"So betraying your team-mates is an every-day thing, then?" Skye drawled. "And I thought that the whole, arrow in the back was reserved for special occasions, like this invasion of private property, or the battle against, one of the most fearsome creatures to appear in this world... Good thing I'm not a member of your team then, otherwise you would have gotten me killed already!"

"Worried what your boss might say if I give him a call?" Queen kept on with his challenge, ignoring Chloe's sharp intake of breath at the revelation of his repeated betrayals.

"Worried? Not at all." Skye shrugged. "I would even offer to call him myself but seeing how my phone is inside, and there's no way I'm turning my back on a cheap shot like you..."

That seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back, as Green Arrow brought out his own phone, and made the call (he apparently had the number ready to dial already); then he put it on speaker, as if to 'torture' the others further.

"SHIELD..." Eric's voice sounded from the other side. "State your name, password, and who you desire to speak with."

"Green Arrow of the Justice League." The archer said in a rather pompous tone. "I was not given a password, just told to call and ask for Director Coulson or Deputy Avery..."

"Deputy Director Avery is on personal break, but I will connect you to Director Coulson in a moment." Eric answered in a very formal tone.

There was a sound some identified as the transfer of a call, before a new voice was heard.

"Director Coulson speaking... is this the Green Arrow?"

"Yes sir, it is I."

"I remember giving one of our emergency cards to Mr. Kent, is there something wrong?" He was beginning to sound really worried.

"Not, nothing like that at all sir." Queen almost winced at that. "It's just... I am in Montana, intending to arrest a serious criminal, and I'm afraid one of your Agents is in the way."

"One of my..." Phil repeated, until it dawned on him. "Montana... the Solomon Ranch?"

"Yes..." Queen really didn't realize the impasse he'd just committed.

"I'm afraid I don't understand, then. Alec Solomon is a the CEO of Solomon Pharmaceuticals, and an ally of SHIELD."

"Ally...? He's a criminal! He's Lex Luthor!" GA cried out in fury.

"I believe you are under a misapprehension, sir. Our intelligence state the young Mr. Luthor is dead, has been for near a year, by now." Phil went on with the charade.

Skye could practically hear the laughter her lover was forcefully restraining, so could Alec.

"Now, I hope in the future you will only use the card for a real emergency." Phil went on. "We at SHIELD are extremely busy most of the time and need to be sure that when someone calls us, it really is for something important, rather than just to chat." His tone changed before he added. "Deputy Director Avery, I trust you can handle anything else on your own."

"I can AC, you need not worry." Skye answered, a full-on smirk on her face.

"Deputy Director..." Chloe was the only one who could speak at that.

"Astrid Skye Avery, at your service." Skye bowed theatrically at everyone present.

They could all hear Queen's phone breaking as he threw it against a tree in his fury. Skye couldn't hold herself back anymore and began laughing.

In less than two seconds, everything changed: From the corner of her eye the Deputy Director could see the vigilante reaching for another arrow, he was going to attack; and yet she wasn't the first to react. Before any of them (except maybe Clark) were fully conscious of what was going on, the archer was crashing against a tree with a pained grunt, and none other than Connor was standing where the man had been before, arms extended, he was the one who'd thrown Oliver. And if anyone had any doubts about it, the child's next words cleared them all out instantly:

"I'm not letting you hurt my Papa!" He cried out protectively.

When, in his fury, Queen began erratic movements (trying to get up one moment, reaching for his weapons the next) Skye decided she'd had enough, she reached for one of the guns still floating at her sides, took a moment to aim and shot. Queen went limp instantly.

"What was that?" Several voices asked turning to her instantly.

"An ICER..." She answered honestly. "Dendrotoxin that renders the victim unconscious, standard SHIELD issue... I actually meant to shoot him with the electro-gun Stark made for me..."

She had wanted that, really. But even when moving just instinctively, those instincts had forced her to be the better person, so she had just left him unconscious. At least she knew the man would wake up feeling like he had the mother of all hangovers, that made her feel a little better.

"I cannot believe Oliver would go so far as to do all of this..." Clark whispered as he looked at the unconscious man.

"I could have told you from the very start." Alec said with a half-shrug. "He was a bully all throughout our time in Excelsior, went against me simply because I was different..." A hand ran through his bald head made quite obvious what he was referring to. "I never believed that whole, hero spiel he used. It was always about ruining me... Or did you ever see him blow up places other than my labs, go against anyone other than me?"

"He was my friend..." Clark insisted, barely over a whisper.

"So was I..." Alec reminded him grimly.

And yeah, somehow they'd gotten from having a lot of fun, to a rather depressing talk...

"Connor..." Clark began suddenly, quietly, hesitantly.

"He used to be one of the clones." Alec stated straight out, before either of them needed to ask, even as he pulled his son to his arms.

He did not try to hide anything from Connor, the boy knew the story of his own origins, he'd always known, even if not all the details.

"Used to?" Chloe seemed confused by that part.

"Your clone?" Clark asked, eyes shining in a way that said he suspected something else.

"Ours." And just like that, Alec's last secret was released.

It was the one thing he hadn't even told Connor himself before, not wanting the boy to wish for a father who might never be there for him... still, that hadn't stopped the bald man from trying to find a way of bringing the two together.

"How?" Both reporters were asking at the same time.

"Remember the blood Helen took from you when you were sick and I stole?" The bald man smiled grimly at the memory. "After everything I've done... there was just enough of it left for this. With the instability all the other clones were showing, I thought to try something different for the last one. It wasn't enough though." He shook his head. "After I fully recovered my mind I reacquired Cadmus Labs through several dummy corporations and began cleaning up everything I had there. Including the clones. One escaped... I thought nothing of it, half of the clones had pretty much self-destroyed by that point, didn't expect the other one to live for much longer. But then I found Connor... he was the youngest, his aging wasn't as fast as the others, and he retained enough rationality to know what was happening." He sighed. "It was one thing to put down all the other abominations, but him... him I couldn't see as anything other than a child. So I took him out of the lab, brought him with me to the ranch. He was growing a bit too fast, but not so much as the others, which helped."

"So he's not your son then?" Chloe asked Skye.

Skye did not answer, just signaled for the blonde to pay attention to Alec, they weren't done with the explanations just yet.

"And yet... even all that wasn't enough." Alec admitted quietly, holding onto his son tightly. "His genetic code began failing, just like all the others had. I tried everything I could think of, but nothing seemed to be enough. As a last resource, I called on Skye, and she explained to me what I had refused to see..."

"The soulless..." Their three guests whispered at once, remembering Doomsday.

"Yes." Alec nodded. "I... I didn't know what to do. He was my little boy. And then Skye offered a solution, one I could have never thought of."

"A call to the Higher Powers." Skye explained. "A call for a blessing, for a soul..."

"Is such a thing possible?" Chloe asked, shocked.

"Only if certain condition are met." Skye told her quietly. "It's complicated. I... due to my very particular heritage, I could do it. The Higher Powers answered, but there was a price that needed to be paid. Connor's genetic code was defective because he did not have a mother, he was missing the part of the genes that a mother usually gives a person. I offered myself for the part. So you see, technically I am his mother. Even if I never carried him, never gave birth to him. Nor could I have. He has a part of me in him, he's my son. Connor has two fathers and one mother..."

More or less like how Malachi had two mothers and one father... it was a mess, but that's how their lives were, and it worked for them, so...

"Two fathers..." Clark repeated, still shocked by it all.

"Can I call you Daddy?" Connor's quiet voice broke through the shock.

"I... yes." Clark nodded suddenly. "Yes, you can..."

"Yay!" Connor's delighted cried echoed in the forest as he threw himself into Clark's arms. "I now have a Mama, a Papa and a Daddy!"

No one said anything to that. How could they?

"I..." Alec couldn't help but fidget a bit. "Will you want to take him?"

His voice sounded so small... even though he'd always wanted to give Connor his other father, he had also always feared what Clark might do when he found out.

"Why would I do that?" The farm boy sounded honestly confused. "Le... Alec, regardless of anything else, you're his father too! I... I would like it if you gave me a chance to spend some time with him, be his daddy too, though."

"I... I would like that, yes." Alec nodded quietly.

It might not be what he'd imagined in his wildest fantasies, but he was realistic enough to realize it was still more than he ever expected to have. At least Clark would be back in his life... that could be enough for him, he could settle for that...

"You know, I've been thinking..." Skye commented suddenly in a complete non-sequitur. "About prophecy interpretations, and how subjective they can be... I mean, it's like with that thing in the Kawatche caves I saw in Alec's memory: Naman and Segeet. Some can see it as the neverending battle of good and evil, the eternal enemies... or you can see it simply as balance."

"Balance?" Clark was completely shocked by the sudden change in topic.

"Yes," The half-elf went on. "You know, like how the moon cannot exist without the sun, the day without the night, that sort of thing. And it's not only that one cannot exist without the other, but things wouldn't be complete if the two weren't there. They're the perfect compliments, a balance." She smiled brightly. "Just a thought... Con, come on, I want to get some ice-cream."

"Yay! I want ice-cream too!" He nodded excitedly as he went to take her hand.

Chloe and Jimmy, understanding Skye's intentions (even if they too were still shocked by the way she'd chosen to go into it), followed after the two; leaving Clark and Alec alone in the backyard.

"So... balance..." Clark repeated nervously, turning to look at Alec.

"Skye is a bit crazy..." Alec excused her as he looked away, too afraid to meet Clark's eyes.

"I don't know..." Clark's voice changed in a way Alec couldn't identify. "I think what she just said was... completely brilliant."

"Brilliant?" Alec repeated, shocked.

"Brilliant." Clark confirmed.

Alec froze when he realized suddenly Clark was in his space, their bodies touching from chest to feet, and even through the clothes it was enough to make the slighter man shiver.

"If this is not what you want, tell me now that no and I'll back away." Clark said huskily into his ear. "Say the word and I'll never bother you like this, ever again. We'll go back to being best friends, raise Connor together, but that will be all."

"Me?" Alec asked hoarsely in disbelief. "What about you? Clark, you're not gay... I mean, Lana and... and Lois..."

"Lois is a very good friend, but nothing more than that and Lana... you know I tried, but it just wasn't meant to be." Clark shook his head with a sigh. "And about being gay... I don't really like labels. I'm not attracted to a person for being a woman, or a man, I like a person just for being them, genders are unimportant..."

"And you suddenly decide you like me?" Alec asked breathily.

"I always have... I said it before, I was young, afraid. I was terrified of what my Dad would say if he ever found out. He was so traditionalist, I feared he might hate me if he ever found out I was in love with a man..."

"And me being a Luthor did not help matters any."

"It took me too long to realize that I cared for you more than I cared about what others thought, my dad included... I never forgave myself for that, for losing you before I could have you..."

"You have me now..." Alec whispered before he could stop himself.

"Do I?" In that moment Clark sounded so much like the teenager Alec had fallen in love with.

"For as long what you want me."

"Forever. I want you forever..."

They kissed then, their first kiss, so far beyond what they'd both been dreaming of for years...

"Marry me, Clark."

The proposal came so sudden that, for several seconds that it took the farmboy/intergalactic traveler had no idea what to say.

"Gay marriage isn't legal in Kansas... or in Montana for that matter." Clark finally said after what seemed like forever.

"Maybe I should go into politics and see to that..." Alec muttered mostly to himself. "But for the time being, Washington isn't that far, or there's always Canada... And besides, who needs the validation of human laws, we've always followed our own rules anyway..."

"Until you're the president of the United States we need human laws to validate us, for protection, not just for us but also for Connor." Clark reminded him with a little smile.

"Mmm... president of the United States... I like that plan..." Alec muttered with a smirk.

Clark shook his head with a smile before kissing Alec straight on the mouth.

"I like that plan even more..." Alec whispered, breathless, when they finally broke the kiss.

"Me too..." Clark agreed, kissing him again.

So maybe one day he would be president, and they would change the law... but regardless of those minor details, they would be together from that day on. And that was all that mattered.

"I think I agree with what you said before." Clark commented quietly, as he began walking with Alec back into the house.

"What exactly?" The bald man couldn't help but ask. "Because I've said many things, and with some even I do not agree..."

"We're gonna be the Stuff of Legends..."

With that Alec definitely could agree.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7. Familia

A woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties, with straight, light-honey colored hair with some lavender highlights in a tight high-ponytail, tanned skin, soft factions and heavy makeup, dressed in a small black tube-top, a sleveless dark-washed denim vest on top with only the lower half of the buttons done, equally dark-washed pleated denim miniskirt, dark-mesh shorts underneath and knee-high leather low-heeled boots; from her shoulder hung a dark-leather knapsack and over her hair rested a pair of dark glasses revealing bright blue eyes.

She stepped into what looked like a mix of an unfinished multiple office building and a multi-level parking lot (seeing how there was an elevator, and also ramps that allowed the cars to get to every floor). She was on foot, and did not care that much as she got off the elevator on the right level, it was filled with all kinds of equipment, both tech and weapons. Anyone who saw it would immediately know there was a high-ranked government op involved. Good thing she was on the right side of the law this time...

The girl realized that her attire didn't exactly fit with the way everyone else was dressed, much more casual, less obvious in what they were... but it was the part she had to play.

She arrived right on time to hear someone complaining about what had gone on the previous hour. And if she had known things would get that insane, that fast, she might have made an effort to arrive sooner. Several of them had almost gotten killed!

"This is crazy." The man was saying in a tone barely this side of hysterical. "We are not in Brazil. So, now we got cars flying in the air? On some 007-type shit? This is not what we do!"

No, they were not in Brazil... then again, she hadn't been physically there when Brazil had gone down so... and there was a reason why she had decided to dust off her old 'racer girl' clothes and actually fly to where the action was taken place this time.

"Man, you really got to check that emotion." A second man said. "Your voice just went from Shaggy to Scooby-Doo. 'This is not what we...'"

She recognized that voice instantly. It was her old Miami friend: Tej Parker. He was the whole reason she was involved right then, or had even been involved in the Brazil heist... well, him and Suki, who had decided to call in the favor the younger girl owed her and told her to go make sure Tej didn't get himself killed. The man might not know it, and his on-again, off-again might not be ready to tell him just yet, but there was a baby on the way and there was no way he was getting killed before he or she was born!

"See, man, when a woman starts shooting at you, that's a clear sign to back the fuck off!" The man went on. "We need to get the hell out of Dodge!"

Deciding that she rather introduce herself than have someone shoot her in their surprise when seeing her, the girl decided to use that as her cue and spoke up.

"Well, at least now I know how to get you off my back if you piss me off." She announced non-chalantly as she strode across the place.

Everyone turned to look at her at once.

"Who the hell are you, chick?" The first man she'd heard asked her.

She just rolled her eyes and ignored him, nodding her head at the couple by the dark car. She could tell the woman was the dangerous one in that pair, and decided to be careful, there was no way of knowing how she would react to her presence. She also almost stumbled when seeing the two men at the back, she knew exactly who they were, and the mere thought of either of them (though one more than the other) pained her. Still, there was no time for her feelings right then, so, focusing on her part, she walked to Tej, where she greeted with warmly.

"Hey Tej, long time no see." She said with a light tone and a Chinese accent.

"Hey girl..." He actually embraced her. "Didn't think you were coming..."

"I know I'm a tad late... and apparently you guys already began with the fun... but unlike most of you I do have a day job I cannot just disappear from." She reminded him with a light smirk before sitting on the table beside his equipment, swinging her legs with apparent carelessness. "I had to set up a few things with my boss before I could take off."

"Who are you?" The only woman asked as she got off the hood of the car she was on.

"Xiao Wang." The girl gave her current name and offered her hand in greeting. "The hacker."

She, of course, already knew the older brunette woman was Gisele Harabo, alias Yashar. Ex-Mossad, weapons' expert, markswoman, biker and had once worked for Arturo Braga, the bastard. If the man hadn't been caught by the FBI when he was... he really wouldn't have liked meeting her, or her own team.

"The 'clouded-sky' chick?" The dark-skinned man of before asked bluntly.

Roman Pearce... and he was as foolish as Tej and Suki had made him sound, she honestly hadn't believed a man could be that bad... how he was alive was a wonder to her.

Xiao just rolled her eyes. Just because her name could be interpreted as either 'sky, cloud or firmament' the man had to joke like that?

"To be honest girl, I called you out of courtesy, but I wasn't expecting you to really come." Tej admitted with a light shrug. "Despite tonight's mess, we're in a fairly good place..."

"I suppose since this time you're on the right side of the law, that's a good thing, but if you think you're in a good place going against Owen Shaw... you have no idea." Xiao deadpanned.

"How do you even know that?!" Roman called out loudly. "You just got here!"

"Maybe because I did my homework before arriving." Xiao said pointedly. "I know all about what's going on, Shaw, his crew, the Nightshade device... this whole thing needs to be stopped before that device is completed. The kind of damage it would do..."

Really, it would be worse that when Hydra had revealed itself, and that was bad enough! At least they had long since recovered all the Fridge inmates. The mere idea of Shaw allying with one of those guys would have send shivers down her spine. The man was dangerous enough on his own, backed up by a volatile meta? It would have been a nightmare of epic proportions. There were enough rumors that one or two of his crew had enhanced senses and strength; and yet that one was easy enough to deal with, elemental abilities or other gifts? That would have been a whole different level.

"Excuse me, do I know you?" The blonde in a shirt and jeans asked as he approached.

Brian O'Conner, formerly Brian Earl Spilner... he was one of those Xiao would rather not think about, it was just better that way.

"Most likely, 'Bullet'..." She managed to make her tone sound coy as she smirked.

"You're one of Suki's girls!" He cried out with a smirk of his own at the same time he snapped his fingers. "I knew I had seen you somewhere."

"Suki's my cous'..." Xiao clarified calmly. "And what can I say about Miami's Best...?"

"So you two know each other?" The Asian man, Han Lue asked, curious.

"She was part of a friend's crew back in Miami." Brian nodded, before thinking it over and turning back to her. "Though I remember I stopped seeing you around at some point."

"I was just visiting my cousin for a while, the moment came when I had to leave..." She shrugged in apparent dismissal.

There was no way she was explaining how seeing him had brought back so many memories; she had forced herself to ignore the pain for a while, until that last race, the bridge, and then the police had appeared... when he was taken in, only to be released the next day Xiao just knew that something was going on, it had become too dangerous to stick around. So after thanking Suki and the other girls for their hospitality she'd packed her bags, got on her old van (which was much better after getting the royal treatment from Tej and Jimmy) and left Miami and Florida as a whole before the trouble truly began.

Brian nodded at her, apparently satisfied with that, before walking once again to the back of the room, where Dominic Toretto was working on getting a bullet out of his shoulder. Xiao winced slightly but forced herself to pull her attention away from him. There was no time...

"So, you ready to work girl?" Tej asked, signaling to the equipment around him.

"That's what I'm here for, man." She stated brightly, jumping off the table. "Just tell me what you need me to do."

She could hear when the two men began a quiet conversation in the back, her hearing acute enough to get the git of it even as most of her concentration was on Tej as he began explaining to her what he'd been doing before they all got their butts kicked by Shaw's crew an hour before on that run by Interpol.

Everything was alright, until her ears picked up on Dom's closing statement:

"You don't turn your back on family, even when they do..."

"Indeed Dominic..." She whispered to herself under her breath, no Chinese accent at all in her real tone of voice. "Indeed..."

xXx

The next morning Tej and Xiao were typing fast (they'd added some of the girl's stuff to the equipment Hobbs had placed there for Tej, in order to allow each of them to work on separate things, and especially for Xiao to have access to certain things that made hacking easier. The rest of the team was around, waiting, when an armored truck arrived, carrying the government Agents in charge of the operation: Luke Hobbs and Riley Hicks, DSS federal Agents.

"All right, lock it up." The man called as he approached the team. "We got two things: First off, this is the worst damn city in the world to commit a crime. They got cameras on every street corner. I got video footage from CCTV of the raid. Let's track that, see where it leads us..."

"Nowhere." Xiao couldn't help but speak.

The two Agents seemed to do a double-take when seeing her rise from the corner where she'd been sitting on the floor, using her tablet to coordinate all her work (she preferred that to other computers, which Tej used), she was wearing tight-fitting jeans and no vest that morning.

"Who are you?" The Agent asked, already reaching for the gun.

"Xiao Wang, the hacker." She repeated her introduction of the day before.

Hicks looked at her with obvious distrust, but Hobbs at least seemed capable of connecting the dots (though even Xiao had to admit they were small).

"You're the one who was in the background in Brazil..." He realized.

"It would be more precise to say I was never there, not physically at least." Xiao shrugged.

"And you chose to reveal yourself this time..." Hobbs brow arched, intrigued.

"I decided Shaw's involvement in this mess merited it." Xiao said simply.

There was no way she was explaining Shaw was just the tip of the iceberg, and not even what worried her most. She was more worried about the other side of the table, in fact; but they hadn't said anything, which meant they had no idea who she was... as much as a part of her couldn't help but hurt over that, the more sensible part of her brain reminded her that was what she wanted, it was what was needed if the operation was to work. The last thing they needed was another fight, like the one six years prior...

"You said the CCTV footage was no good..." Hicks commented. "Why?"

"Right..." She typed a command on her tablet before turning it to the two Agents.

"There's nothing there." Hicks almost hissed at the girl. "Just static."

The new girl was an unknown, and in clothes that made her look more like one of the 'bunnies' than a serious adult, the female Agent really did not think much of her. Hobbs, on the other hand, while he did not know her, he recognized that if the young woman was a part of the crew, there was a reason. And if she'd really done what he thought she had (hack the CCTV...), then 'hacker' was probably not enough a title.

"Exactly." Xiao smirked at the older woman, as if reading her thoughts on her. "That's all there is in the CCTV mainframe, in every single camera that was placed either in Interpol, the place of that failed op from last night, and any of the roads used." She closed the window and pulled the tablet back to her. "I hacked the CCTV mainframe earlier today, pulled all the footage we were going to need. This was all I found... Well, this and the fact that whatever happened, it was no accident. The cameras weren't shot, or disabled... no, they were turned off on purpose. Now, who did that, and if it was done on purpose or just a bunch of extraordinary coincidences... that I don't know. Guess you'll have to be the ones to find that out."

"You hacked..." The woman really seemed to be in shock at everything.

Yet again, the young woman shrugged. Really, that was nowhere near her most interesting hacking jobs. Hacking SHIELD, now that had been something, Hydra had been a thrill, taking down the Rising Tide... that was the kind of stuff she liked to do. Compared to that, hacking the mainframe of the Closed Circuit Television in London hardly qualified as important.

"We will be checking that out then." Hobbs decided. "It cannot be a coincidence."

Under normal circumstances he would be insisting on someone else looking over the footage he'd gotten, just to make sure she was right. But by the way no one second-guessed her statements, it was quite obvious the rest of the crew trusted her findings, the girl's abilities; and they really had no time to waste doing things twice. So he moved on.

"You said there were two things..." Dom reminded him right then.

"True." The Agent nodded, getting back to business. "We just got confirmation on what Shaw's crew grabbed from Interpol. They ripped off the database of every location that houses the final component that they need."

That was enough to call the attention of everyone else in the crew as they gathered round. They had already known about the footage, so that hadn't really been much news...

"So where are they at?" Brian asked, interested.

"There are over two dozen of them around Europe." Riley pointed out, in an odd tone.

"But the list is only good for 96 hours." Hobbs took over the explanation again. "Which means,

wherever Shaw's crew is going to hit next, it's going to happen within the next four days. They got a window, and so do we. We gotta move."

"Hobbs is right." Dom stated, taking control of the meeting with no effort at all. "So let's break this down. "You met them. What do we know?"

"We know they have to be running custom engines." Tej was the first to speak. "You heard that flip car going through those gears."

"Sequential transmission." Han offered next.

"That didn't sound like a normal engine." Gisele pointed out.

"That was a turbo diesel." Brian stated. "It sounded like something you hear at NEMA."

"Did you see it take all those hits and still stay flat in the corners?" Tej inquired.

"Yeah, hydraulics..." Roman began.

"Or magnetic suspension." Brian gave another alternative.

Xiao, for her part, kept quiet. The mechanics of the cars weren't really her thing, she was more of a hacker, a 'systems' kind of girl. Which was exactly why she was working on breaking down the things that had been used to make the crew's cars crash.

"But who not only has access to the components, but can fabricate something like that?" Han asked, realizing it wouldn't be an easy things.

"Maybe a handful of shops in London..." Brian guessed, though even he didn't sound sure.

"Regular tuner shops aren't going to cut it on this one." Dom shook his head emphatically. "We're going to have to dig deeper than that." He turned to look at the other members of the team. "Han, Gisele, Roman, you're up. We find the guy who made that car, we find Shaw."

"Let's go." Gisele called, getting her handgun ready.

"I'll help." Hicks's declaration didn't sound like an offer, but an order.

"Roger that." Hobbs just nodded.

Xiao wondered if she was the only one who thought there was something off about the female Agent. It wasn't something the woman had done or said, but there was just something about her... the hacker couldn't put her finger on it, but she just knew there was something going on, under the surface, and it wasn't good...

"Tej, Xiao, we're gonna need cars without computer chips that can be overridden." Dom added right then. Make sure they're fast."

"We got this." Tej nodded for the both of them.

"I'm already on it, Dom." Hobbs interfered. "I've contacted R&D at DSS..."

"Hobbs..." Tej interrupted in a too-cool tone. "I said I got this."

Xiao was very close to giggling at the exchange, Brian certainly did, but she managed to control herself right on time for Dom to turn in her direction to see if she had something to contribute:

"I'm still working on the chips that were used to make your cars crash." She informed him in her most blank tone. "I can tell you right now I've never seen something like this. And while I won't be able to replicate them any time soon, I'm hoping to be able to understand them enough to create a firewall against them... just in case we fail in the 'getting cars without computers' thing..." She turned to her friend. "No offense, Tej."

"None taken girl, it's always good to have a few contingencies in place." Tej nodded.

Dom and Brian nodded their agreement too, which Xiao ignored almost completely as she returned to her place on the floor and to working. The team had mostly gotten used to it already, stopped offering her chairs or other places to sit.

"This should be interesting..." Dom murmured as they each took their leave.

Indeed it would be, even more so if he'd realized just what was really going on around them... but they hadn't, and they wouldn't, not until she decided to clue them in. She sometimes wondered if she would at all... It would be so easy, to just do the job and then disappear again, it's not like it would be the first time she did it, but still... there was a part of her that felt like she still owed something to them, regardless of how much she tried to deny it, to ignore it... it was probably never going to go away.

Really, if it were, she wouldn't even be there... she could still remember quite clearly how it had come to happen:

The brunette 26 year-old (though she hadn't really aged physically in almost three years) was still holding her cellphone tightly between her hands when her lover found her. It took him a second to realize that it was her private phone she was holding, which meant whoever had called her was either family, or a close enough friend for it to mean the same in the end. Also, the shock her frozen frame revealed was enough to let him know that whatever was going on couldn't be good. His beloved looked scared, far more than he'd ever seen her before.

"Arwenamin..." He called, approaching her slowly, carefully.

It wasn't that he feared her, not at all. He could never fear the woman he loved with everything he was... Still, truth was that her powers were still growing, and one in particular was causing problems: her Sight. While her visions of the future were highly subjective and of very little use to actually prevent anything most of the time (though they certainly seemed to help her intuition somehow). Her astral vision she mostly had under control, even when the power activated on its own, to make her see something she hadn't planned on, she still had enough control to know what was going on and not get lost; and she could call on it on command when necessary. The visions of the past were another matter entirely, she had no control at all over them, and sometimes she hadn't the slightest idea that what was going on wasn't real, making it so when she came out of a trance she did so screaming, kicking, and one time she'd gone as far as throwing magic around the moment she felt someone too close.

Phil wasn't afraid of her, not at all, he was strong enough not to be hurt much by whatever she might do in a moment of fright. Didn't mean he wanted to put that kind of burden on her...

"Skye..." He called yet again.

"Suki called..." The brunette finally spoke after what seemed like forever. "The familia is going after Owen Shaw..."

Phil did not need to ask who 'the familia' was, he knew already. While Skye may have parents, brothers (and half siblings) as well as the team and others like Alec whom she called family in one way or another; there was one very specific group she referred to with that word. And Phil couldn't begin to imagine what would make anyone, even a team as infamous as them, want to go against Owen Shaw. He was being investigated by over half a dozen agencies around the world, though the DDS had point. The only reason SHIELD wasn't in the run was because, while they did know he had at least one person with 'extra' abilities in his group, they weren't the kind of abilities that made them really worry. Even 'normal' humans could handle someone with superhuman strength if they were prepared, and Luke Hobbs certainly seemed like the kind of man who was prepared to handle something like that.

Of course, all that went out the window the minute Skye found out the familia... her familia, was involved in it all.

"This is not like last year Phil..." Skye whispered, looking at him with so much fear...

That was what truly terrified the man. In the years he'd known Skye, he'd never known her to be that afraid. Not when she was new to the team, when the plane was taken and they all had to do some insane stuff to defeat Camila and her people, or when she'd gone against people way more powerful than her, again and again... not even when she was kidnapped by Ward, or when they went into Cybertech to take down Garrett once and for all.

No, she'd never looked that terrified, yet in that moment she was, and not for herself, but for others, for the family who had left her behind years before...

"I have to be there..." Skye went on. "This... I cannot call on favors this time, like I did when I told Simone to do her best, or help from a distance, like with that stint they did in Rio. With someone like Shaw and his crew, I have to be there, I have to make sure they will all survive this, survive him. The chances of it going sideways are just too big..."

"We could arrange a team..." Phil began offering.

Regretfully, it wouldn't be her team, they were all busy working different missions in other countries. None could be pulled fast enough to join her.

"No, not SHIELD, just me." The brunette pointed out.

"Are you sure?" He wasn't.

"Completely." She nodded. "It's the only way Shaw won't see it... won't see me coming. With everything he's done in the last few years... and besides, even if my tech-skills aren't enough, as long as he doesn't know I'm not SHIELD I will have the other side of me as an ace in the hole."

That was true, even Phil had to admit that much.

"Will you be creating a new identity for this?" Her lover asked.

"I don't need to." She shrugged slightly.

"So you'll be letting them know it's you?" He didn't believe she was ready for that.

"Not that either." She let out a tired sigh. "That wouldn't be a good idea. D... They won't take it well if they know it's me. Not after how things went down last time..." She trembled just slightly, and a tear shone in the corner of her eye. "Still, this is something I gotta do." She steeled herself, drying her eyes almost forcefully. "I still have a name I can use. The one I had when I spent those weeks in Miami, after the University Board found out about my faking contacts, but before Miles found me living in my van. It never was a full identity, but I don't need it to be. At least Tej will be able to vouch for me, that should be enough to get me in."

"So, you will protect them, without them knowing?"

"It seems to be what I do best when it comes to them... Besides, if they knew they would never allow it. No, it's better this way."

"Very well. I won't argue with you on this. I know well enough how important it is for you to protect your family. I just want you to promise me that if anything, anything at all, goes wrong, you will call me. With Azazeal's help at least the two of us could be there to back you up in no time if it becomes necessary."

"Ok, I promise."

"Oh, one more thing. This is just plain curiosity, but what will the name be?"

"Xiao Wang..."

The familia... it was what she called them, because that was what He called them. She was a part of it once, years before, but not anymore... Not since he'd renounced her, said she wasn't family, never had been. Didn't mean she was going to just let him, let them all walk to their deaths without doing something about it! He'd said it best, just the night before:

"You don't turn your back on family, even when they do..." Xiao/Skye, whispered to herself.

It had been easy, almost too easy, to take back the identity of Xiao Wang. Just a different style of clothes and shoes, heavier makeup than she usually put on, a higher ponytail than the one she had used when keeping 'Agent Avery' separate from Skye, and some dye in her hair. Back in Miami it had been actual dye, the cheap kind that could be washed out if you tried hard enough; being a sorceress had the benefit of giving the color to her hair without damaging it, it would also make it much easier to take it out when the 'mission' was finished.

She could still remember back then: finding out that there was an investigation going on about 'someone' who had presumably faked contacts and deceived the university... she knew it was her, of course, and she knew the authorities were suspicious. So she'd taken off that very night, taking care to erase everything about Skylar Karen Wright from any and every database she could access. It wasn't as through a job as she would have liked (as she'd learnt to do in the following months and years) but it was enough at least to get away. She'd run to Florida because it was close and a place where she could lay low.

Meeting Suki had been... providential in many ways. It was impossible to imagine what had made the woman decide to help a complete stranger; but that was exactly what Suki had done. She'd given the brunette a place to sleep, food, a job... and when Skye was too afraid to even say her own name, the other woman gave her a new one. She'd even claimed the girl as family to get others to trust her, including her own crew.

Joining the street-racing scene hadn't exactly been a chore. Skye had been a part of it before. Never a racer, always in the sidelines, but that was alright. She was good enough at dealing with car-computers, she was considered part of Suki's all-girl crew in no time. So she began tagging along to the races. It was how she met 'Bullet', the fastest racer in South Florida. 'Miami's Best' some had taken to calling him. The brunette couldn't help but wonder what all his fans would say if they'd known just who the blonde really was, who he'd been, just a year before. Still, it's not like she didn't have a past that could be used against her, so Skye decided it was better to keep certain things to herself.

Then there was that race, the bridge... the brunette almost had a stroke when seeing those cars flying over it. She also almost decked Tej at the idea that they might have gotten killed doing those stunts! She might not have known Suki long, but the girl was good, and Skye had grown to care for her as true family.

Then the police had appeared, she saw 'Bullet' being taken, only to be out and about the following day, as if nothing had happened... only she'd known otherwise, had seen it before. It was in the very way the blonde walked... something was going to go down, and the brunette decided straight out she wasn't going to be there for the fallout. Brian obviously hadn't recognized her, and she didn't know if authorities in Florida even knew about her, but she just wasn't willing to take the risk. So she left. Better to be safe than sorry.

Xiao Wang had disappeared as swiftly as she'd appeared that summer... and now she was back again. Not her best alias, Skye didn't really like wearing such skimpy clothes, and she felt particularly vulnerable without a single weapon on her (even though she knew enough hand to hand to be perfectly capable of defending herself without them).

The next several hours passed by almost in flashes for the brunette. She was still in her corner, almost rhythmically typing in her tablet, going through every line of programming in the chip they'd managed to recover after Brian had knocked it off his car. It was a mix of a hacking device, a virus, and something else she'd never seen before.

Regarding her position, she honestly liked it. It came as a consequence of spending so much time huddled in the back of her van, or even just in the back-seat, either researching, surfing the web or preparing a new video to upload for the Rising Tide. Also, and on the not-so-bright, side, it was also a consequence of all the times she'd curled up in the back of a closet or an empty room, hiding from foster families who were less-than-nice to her, some downright violent. She liked being on the ground, felt comfortable being curled up, or just with her legs crossed; it also made it less likely for anyone to read over her shoulder and find out things they shouldn't (like the kind of programs she was running the chip through, some which were clearly government related).

A part of her also kept fighting against her desire to get into some satellite. It made her wish she were in America... it would have been so easy to get footage from a satellite there: either from Stark, OsCorp, Wayne, or even ask help from Watchtower... and while in Europe she could have gained access to government satellites, she would also have to explain how she'd gained that access... hacking wouldn't have cut it on that one. And it wasn't just about not explaining her connection to SHIELD, or even hiding from certain individuals; she just had a feeling that something was coming and she needed to keep her cards close to her chest.

Another benefit to her position, and the fact that no one got too close to her was that no one noticed when, every so often, Skye would close her eye and let go, taking a peak on some of the others, make sure they were still alright. It was how she found out about Hobbs's and Tej's visit to CCTV, their excuses of why all the cameras that could have caught Shaw in action weren't working at the time (maintenance, yeah sure...); or the collection of cars Tej bought (and how sleazy the man selling them to him was); as well as the mess that Roman, Han, Gisele and Hicks were forced to deal with on their front; and of course Brian's and Dom's own deals with the man at the pawnshop (that one was actually the smoothest of all the exchanges).

She didn't pay much attention when Tej and Hobbs arrived with the cars, or to what her friend did to get back at the dealer. She thought it was a bit much, but the fact that the man was willing to lower himself that much... it felt wrong to her. Maybe it was all the Asgardian pride getting to her, but it really made her uncomfortable for someone, anyone, to lower himself so much for money. Still, in the end she decided it was better to just ignore the whole thing. Also, she was a bit busy watching the smack down going on in the metro-station in that moment; she hadn't seen fights like that in a while, made her want to spar...

Eventually everyone was back. The Agents were obviously not satisfied with how things had gone down that day. Hicks seemed to be particularly annoyed after her fight with Letty. When Han offered Tej the odd weapon his group had found, the man almost jumped.

"Xiao, come look at this baby!" He called.

Intrigued by what could have him so entertained the girl put her tablet to sleep before getting on her feet in a smooth move.

"Are you going whale-hunting or something?" She blurted out the moment she saw the weapon.

And really, that's what it looked like to her, a harpon and a device meant to shoot it with... To be honest it was a weapon he would have expected someone like the Green Arrow or another of the vigilantes to put together, not Shaw. And then she noticed something else...

"This is high-tension titanium cable..." She murmured thoughtfully as she fingered it.

"What about it?" Tej asked, curious about what she might be thinking.

"This kind of thing, it's used to anchor buildings and such..." Xiao explained thoughtfully. "The kind of weights it can carry are something serious... and with enough power behind it I'm quite sure it could penetrate next to anything..." She shook her head. "I have no idea what Shaw wants it for, but it cannot be good."

"On that we agree, girl." Tej nodded grimly before turning to the others. "So, what happened?"

"Shaw's goons showed up and started shooting up the place." Han declared.

"But we got something big." His girlfriend added.

"What?" Dom was fully focused the instant he heard Gisele say that.

"Braga." Gisele announced. "He's working with Shaw."

That had everyone's attention instantly, even Xiao's (though since everyone was looking at Han and Gisele, no one paid attention to her).

"What are you talking about?" Brian asked, completely tense.

"It's true. That phone's filled with coded payment transactions that lead straight to Braga's cartel." Han elaborated.

"Who the hell is Braga?" Roman asked, confused by the intensity coming from everyone else.

"He ran one of the biggest cartels in Mexico." Dom informed him.

"And my old boss." Gisele added for good measure. "We used codes just like that to move money out of the country."

"It all makes sense." Brian admitted grimly. "Braga was running Letty, now she's working with Shaw. It would explain how the two of them met."

"Okay, so you all know all this information about him, where do we find him?" Tej tried to get them to focus on the important part.

"He's sitting in a prison in Los Angeles!" Brian practically snapped.

"How do you know that?" Both Tej and Roman seemed confused about that.

"Brian put him there." Dom answered for his friend.

"All right, so this is the break we were looking for." The blonde decided to focus on the present, on a solution. "If the two of them were working together, Braga will know what Shaw's up to. I'm going to pay him a visit."

Xiao blinked once, twice. Was he serious? He couldn't be serious! He couldn't he that idiotic, could he? Judging by the looks of others around, they were thinking the same.

"Are you serious right now?" Roman practically hissed at his oldest friend. "Think about what you're saying. You're wanted, Brian. The moment you step foot off that plane, it's a wrap. You're not coming back."

"Coming back?" Tej repeated in disbelief. "How are you going to get in the country?"

"Let me worry about that." Brian dismissed their comments as if they were nothing, going to stand before Dom, addressing him. "This is on me. I'm the one that served her up to Braga. I'm the one that gets to make it right."

To be honest, Skye wasn't really that surprised, either at Brian's attitude (stupidity aside) or the way he seemed to almost be asking Dom for permission. That's how it had always been. Dom has the head of the familia, what he said, went. Well, not this time.

"Let me make it right." Brian insisted one more time.

The girl knew already what Dom's answer would be. Even if Brian was 'following the unspoken rules' by asking him, in the end Dominic had always seen the blonde as his equal, respected him as such (which was actually quite a surprise). Skye should have just accepted their decision, and maybe a decade before she would have. But she no longer was that girl, the one who had been so lost when arriving to her umpteenth foster family, the one who had thought she'd finally found her place in the world, after the nicest man she'd ever known asked her to call him Papa... That girl would have done anything for the family, followed every rule... she was no longer that girl.

"You won't." She spoke up.

She knew that interfering in what some would see as a family matter wasn't good; and the follow-up would only make things worse. But she couldn't just stand back and do nothing while Brian put himself in danger with such an idiotic stunt, especially because it wasn't necessary.

"Always remember: the most important thing is to protect your family... Nothing else in this world matters more than family. Everything will be alright, as long as you do that. Can you do that, dolcezza (sweetheart)?"

"I can Papa... I will." Skye whispered under her breath to herself.

"What?!" By that point the shock finally passed and both the blonde American and the bald Italian were looking straight at her.

In fact, everyone was looking at her, though it was obvious the two men were the ones most bothered by her interference.

Sending a quick prayer for the Higher Powers to give her the strength to do what needed to be done (and not allow Dominic Toretto's stare to make her cower), Skye took a deep breath and looked straight at the blonde ex-cop as she spoke:

"Since you apparently didn't hear a word your friend said, I will say it again: You are wanted, Brian O'Conner. And not just by Hobbs, or the FBI. If you set foot in America, you won't be getting out again. What you intend to do goes so far beyond foolish as to be downright idiotic. What do you expect any of us to tell your wife, your son, when you don't come back?! Everyone here knows that what you want to do is suicide, and if no one else has the balls to stand to you and tell it to your face, then I will."

"What do you even care?" Brian blurted out, more confused than angry.

"I care!" She hissed at him. "Maybe I'm just wasting my time caring for your safety since you care so little yourself. But I care about the woman who will lose her match if you do this, and especially for the child who will never get a chance to know his father... please don't be an idiot."

That actually seemed to make Brian hesitate. It obviously wasn't that he did not love Mia or Jack, because he did, very much. He was just feeling so much guilt over what had happened to Letty... She knew how dangerous it was to make decisions when drowning in guilt... it never ended well for anyone involved.

"We still need to get that information." Brian pointed out in a low voice.

"I will get it." She announced after swallowing her nervousness. "And before you ask, no, I won't be going back to America either. Though if I did, it at least wouldn't be the suicide it would be for you. It's not like I'm wanted by the authorities..."

"And how exactly are you going to get that information?" Dom asked, still a bit angry, but that seemed to be turning into a mix of curiosity, resignation and something she could almost call respect, except for the fact that it was impossible.

"By calling in a favor." The girl announced before pulling out her phone and dialing.

"Who can possibly owe you a favor and have access to that kind of information?" Hobbs asked with a brow raised and a suspicious tone.

Skye didn't have time to say anything, as the person on the other end of the line picked up right then, not that she would have anyway, it was enough of a risk just to be calling her number with the company she was in.

"Annie? Listen, it's Karen." She knew it was dangerous, releasing another name before the two Agents, but otherwise Annie wouldn't understand. "Listen, I cannot explain things right now but I need to call in the favor you and Auggie owe me. I need all the information you have on Owen Shaw's connection to Arturo Braga, especially anything that might include Leticia Ortiz..." She made a pause as she heard Annie's hesitation on the other end of the line. "Yes, it's personal... It's also complicated... No, the operation is legal..." And of course Annie Walker would know just who was heading the operation. "Yes... my involvement is personal... cannot really explain on the phone... Alright, yes, yes I'll owe you... Dinner and dancing? I'll pay. Just you, your man, mine and me, what say you? Perfect. I'll see you when this is over."

Skye couldn't help but hesitate a bit as she raised her head when the call ended; as expected everyone was looking at her.

"Who exactly did you just call that had access to confidential information?" Agent Hicks demanded of her in a rather harsh tone of voice.

"That, I cannot say." Xiao did her best to shrug it off.

"You know I could just tap into your phone and find out." The female Agent challenged.

"The day you're able to hack into anything of mine I give up my job." The young woman said in the most direct voice she had. "Trust me Agent Hicks, I run in the circles I do, because I am the best of the best."

"What about the Rising Tide?" Tej couldn't help but ask.

"I was with them for a while." Xiao shrugged. "As you can see, they're gone, I'm still here."

No way was she explaining she was the reason they were gone. Some of them actually had gone to work for the new SHIELD, those that truly wanted to do good... but that was all information those present did not need to know.

"You know, I looked up the name Xiao Wang in every database in the world, no one with that name exists." Riley pressed on.

Skye couldn't help herself, she burst out laughing; which only made the Agent anger all the more.

"God, it burns you, doesn't it?" She asked, while trying to control her laughter. "You're focusing too much in something that matters very little."

"If you're working for us I think we deserve to know who you really are." Riley insisted.

"But that's just it, isn't it?" The girl retorted. "I'm not working for you Agent, I'm not even here for you. I care very little about your little government operation... I'm here because Tej told me the team was coming, and when I learnt who you were pitching them against I knew it was insane! There is a reason why Owen Shaw has been on the Most Wanted Lists of over a dozen countries for years and no one's managed to get him yet."

"And you think so highly of yourself that your presence will make a difference?" Riley asked testily, she really did not like the supposedly-Chinese girl.

"I think that if anyone from this team dies and I know I could have done something to help I'll never forgive myself..." Skye admitted, the closest she'd come to being completely honest since her arrival to London. "Besides, my real name matters very little..."

"What makes you say that?" Hobbs asked, curious.

"I grew up in the Foster system." Skye revealed with a light shrug. "Moving around all the time, from house to house, family to family, never staying for long, never wanted. Ask anyone who's lead that kind of life what their name is, and no matter what answer they give you, I can promise you it won't be a name you can find in a birth-certificate... that is if they even have one. I sure don't. Not a real one anyway."

It was the truth. Even the first birth-certificate she'd been issued, in St. Agnes, was fake. It stated that she was born in Massachusetts, rather than in China, had no name for the parents, and also had a DOB that was actually several days late (though she'd only known all that after meeting her parents and finding out the truth from them).

"For people like us, 'real names' matter very little." Skye went on. "I myself have had more than half a dozen in my life, and I'm sure there will be more in the future. Years ago in Miami I was Xiao Wang, and since it was Tej calling me here I chose to use that name. At another point in my life I was Karen Starr, and that's a name Annie understands, which is why I gave it to her. And like those there are many more, which I'm not giving you, because they aren't really important. You don't need to know who I am. All you need to know is that I'm here to help, and I'll be damned if I let anyone stop me!"

No one really knew how to reply to that. Even Dom was at a loss for words, which was a new one, as far as the brunette girl was concerned. At least the silence didn't last for long, a low chime from her tablet announced that the information she'd asked Annie for had arrived.

"I will need to decrypt that information, but as soon as I do I'll let you know everything." She stated, and without a single word more, went back to her spot.

No one tried to stop her.

xXx

Hours later Xiao finally finished decrypting all the files; and she had to wonder if the excessive encryption was a way of showing just how important the information in those files was, or if it was just Annie's way of showing how much she did not like Skye asking that kind of favors. At least the blonde didn't refuse her, she had enough experience where it came to 'personal' missions to know better; in the end, the SHIELD Agent could have gone elsewhere for the information, but she didn't want to get Chloe in trouble asking her to hack government agencies again (she had stayed clear off that since what had happened the last time), and the last thing she needed was Olivia asking why exactly she needed such sensitive information concerning Braga and Shaw. The woman and her team were good, but at times much too nosy for their own good; besides, they had their own troubles in that moment (troubles Skye shouldn't even know about but, in the end, turnabout was fair play, as far as she was concerned).

The moment the last part of the code cleared the brunette (with purple highlights) young woman could only stare at the screen of the tablet for several seconds in shock, before she began cursing, colorfully and extensively.

"Xiao?!" Tej called, turning to her in shock, he'd never seen her like that.

"Hey man, what did your chika just find out to get like that?" Roman asked her.

"That's what I would like to know..." Tej admitted before approaching her. "Xiao..."

"I know why Letty shot Dom..." The girl admitted quietly, still half-breathless in shock.

"What?!" Everyone turned to her.

Truly, that statement was more than enough to call the attention of everyone present... which, regretfully, did not include Dom and Brian (the most interested parties) as they'd gone to take a ride and check London's street-racing scene; the former to find Letty, try and talk to her, the latter to see if he found anything more that might be useful, and to be close in case Dom needed backup for whatever the reason.

Skye didn't say anything, she was still working at processing it all, when Gisele crouched in front of her, making sure not get into the younger woman's personal space, while still close enough to talk easily one-on-one.

"Easy..." The ex-Mossad said in her most soothing voice. "While I'm quite sure it must be pretty bad, knowing is still better than the alternative. At least then we might be able to do something about it, right?"

"I'm not sure anything can be done..." Skye admitted quietly.

It was the truth, much as the half-elf might hate it to admit, even she, with all her magic, didn't think it was something she could solve, not this time.

"What did you find out?" Han asked, straight out, from behind his girlfriend.

"She doesn't remember him..." Skye began, before shaking her head and revising. "She doesn't remember anything..."

That certainly was enough to shock everyone.

At least the shock made it so everyone decided to leave Xiao alone. She had refused to reveal anything else, stating that Dom and Brian were the ones who needed to know that information, afterwards the men could decide if they wanted to share it with everyone else. Somehow that seemed to be enough for the rest of the team... everyone but Riley, who was spitting mad (way more than anyone should be, as far as Skye was concerned), and demanded a copy of the information, which Skye refused to give her, stating that she wouldn't betray her source like that. The woman hated the answer but there was nothing she could do.

After a while, the half-elf began feeling the pull of her powers. While she had complete control of her astral vision and travel for whenever she needed to use it; at times the power still activated on her own, to show her things she needed to be aware of. At least it had gotten better, and she had some warning so as not to be too obvious when it the company of people who had no idea about her 'extra abilities', like was the case right then.

So with that the brunette announced she was going to sleep and made for the small room that had been prepared for her, separate from the ones the boys were sharing, two to a room (Han and Gisele slept together) a level up.

Her head had just barely touched the pillow when she was no longer in her body. Instead she was standing in what, at first glance, looked like the middle of nowhere (in the years she'd been with SHIELD she'd avoided missions to the UK like crazy, not wanting to be anywhere near where Thor was living, just in case), under a bridge.

She turned when she heard the sound of a car starting right beside her, in time to see Brian behind the wheel. It explained why she was there, but still not what was going on exactly; but she still followed the blue car with her eyes, to where it joined a black one Dom was standing next to.

"Hey... you okay man?" The blonde asked his brother-in-law quietly.

Dom was just about to answer, and the princess honestly did not know what that answer would have been, when another car came from beneath the bridge, to stop just a few yards away from them. Out of it came none other than Owen Shaw.

"Shit..." Suddenly the brunette had a really, really bad feeling about that meeting. "Dom, Brian, don't say or do anything stupid, please..."

"There she goes, leaving you again." The man they were all after said in a rather dramatic tone. "Bloody fickle, that one..."

"You want bloody?" Dom challenge in a too-calm tone. "We could do bloody."

Brian didn't say a word, but they could all see the hand hovering just above his gun. He didn't actually move to Dom's side, instead using the car as cover while still offering what security he could to his best friend.

"A street kid," Owen began talking easily, as if not noticing anything at all. "starts out stealing DVD players in East L.A., ends up heisting $100 million in Rio..." His eyes turned to Brian. "And of course lets not forget the former cop, jumping to the other side of the law out of love for his mark's younger sister, following both of them all the way through the continent, where he too becomes a legend in Rio..."

"Not bad, huh?" Both men smirked.

"It's a good story, isn't it?" Owen continued his speech. "Almost inspiring." He began pacing in the area between the cars, without getting too close to the other two men. "See, what I couldn't fathom is why he's not relaxing on a beach somewhere with that cute little Brazilian number. Or why the other one isn't keeping his wife company, watching their son grow..."

Those words were enough to make the tension grow, it was quite obvious that Shaw knew a lot about them, more than either man would have wanted him to.

"Instead, they're working with a two-bit government hack like Hobbs." Shaw went on, ignoring the looks the two men gave to each other. "And then I realized, they have a weak spot."

"We all got a weak spot." Dom stated simply.

"Love isn't a weak spot." Brian hissed almost at the same time. "Of course, you wouldn't know. You'd know nothing about love, would you?"

A gesture from Dom managed to make Brian stop his tirade, Shaw just continued like he hadn't heard either of them.

"You know, when I was young, my brother always used to say: 'Every man has to have a code'..." The criminal declared as he paced. "Mine? Precision. A team is nothing but pieces you switch

out until you get the job done. It's efficient. It works."

It was obvious Brian was seconds from going ballistic on the man's ass at those words. Dom, somehow, managed to keep his cool easier, though it was obvious he still found Shaw's words offensive. It was no surprise, they saw their team as a family, much like Skye herself did; to people like them, Shaw's statement about a team being pieces to be switched around, people you have no care for, was practically heresy.

"But you?" The man kept talking still. "You're loyal to a fault. Both of you. All your team really. Your code is about family. And that's great in the holidays, but it makes you predictable. And in our line of work, predictable means vulnerable. And that means I can reach out and break you whenever I want."

That put Skye in full alert instantly. She knew a threat when she heard one.

"At least when I go, I'll know what it's for." Dom stated rather calmly.

It looked like Brian wanted to say something more (a lot of somethings most likely), but he also realized it was important to keep cool, and since he was likely to lose control if he said a word, it was probably better not to say anything at all.

"Well, at least you have a code." Shaw conceded after a few seconds. "Most men don't. So, I'm going to give you a chance. Take your crew and walk away. That's the only way you're going to keep your family safe..."

"Your brother never told you never to threaten a man's family?" Brian practically snarled, finally unable to keep cool anymore.

"It's a pretty stupid thing to do." Dom agreed, steel in his eyes. "But I'll make it simple for you. We walk away when she walks away."

There was no doubt about who 'she' was...

"Well, then, it appears this inspiring tale has come to an end..." The man made a weird gesture in the air before striding back to his car. "See you around, Toretto, O'Conner."

"You can bet on it..." Both men hissed almost at the same time.

Skye straightened up in bed with half of her consciousness still on that empty lot somewhere in the outskirts of London. She could remember everything quite clearly, though what she was focused most on were Shaw's words regarding family, and weaknesses... The young woman didn't even have to stop and think about it, there was only one logical thing to do after that, she pulled her phone out and hit speed-dial one:

"Skye?" Her lover answered on the first ring, he sounded concerned. "Is everything alright?"

She knew why he worried; she'd warned him before leaving for London that with the company she would be in, it wasn't likely that she would be able to call him, so the fact that she was doing it was probably enough to raise red-flags for her beloved. Which was good, considering why she was calling him right then:

"I'm fine but..." She hadn't wanted to get SHIELD involved, still didn't, but she couldn't do everything on her own, and she accepted that. "I need help."

"Tell me what you need." Phil said immediately, like she knew he would.

"The situation has escalated." Skye informed him, trying very hard to remain unemotional. "We are alright, and even if things get violent around here, I'm confident enough that we can handle it. However... there are others." She took deep breath before finally getting to the point. "What I need is for you to go to the Canary Islands, find Mia and Jack Toretto as well as Elena Neves and get them to safety. I don't know when, I don't know how, but there is no doubt in my mind that Shaw will go after them to keep Dom and Brian off his back. We need to get to them first."

"What if they refuse to go with me?" There was no doubt that he would do it, but there had to be a way to get the women's trust.

"Tell them... Tell Mia..." The brunette had to swallow before she finished the statement. "Tell her Cielo sent you. And tell her she... I said: Per la famiglia, tutto..."

"For the family, everything..." Phil knew enough Italian to translate that one. "That phrase will be enough to convince her to trust me?"

"It should." Skye replied quietly, barely holding back her tears. "It's what Papa used to say..."

She didn't even pay attention when Phil agreed to get to the Canary Islands in the next few hours and get the three she'd mentioned; she half-remembered to thank him and send him her love, but a good deal of her mind was already lost in memories. Memories of the one man she'd ever called Papa (Loki was Father or Adar), and the ones who once were/would have been, her siblings...

A sixteen-year old brunette in worn-out jeans, a simple white and blue stripped top and white sneakers shifted nervously at the entrance of the beautiful two-story house near downtown LA. Her current child-services worker had just dropped her with her new family and she was a bit nervous standing before the rather huge man.

"You're Skye Bennet, right?" He asked.

"Yes sir..." She answered quietly.

Her previous foster family had all been former military and were very strict, it had felt like she was in some boot camp rather than a home... one of the few times she hadn't minded the fact that she never stayed in one place more than two or three months.

"None of that." He waved off her address. "The name's Darius Toretto, and I'm your new foster father." She signaled for her to get inside. "Come on, your new siblings are waiting inside to meet you. Dom is 21 now and he mostly helps me around the garage. We own both that and a market, by the way, and we all work in one place or the other to keep things running smooth. You will be expected to help where you can too. Mia, that's my daughter, she's eighteen, in the last year of high-school now, so you'll probably be walking with her to the school. I understand you are a sophomore, right?"

"Yes..." She had no idea how to address him anymore, his cheery attitude threw her for a loop.

"Just call me Darius, or even Papa Toretto if you want, all of my kids' friends do." The man said, as if reading her mind. "You're now a part of this family, Skye..."

That was what he said, but she hadn't really believed it. It wasn't like he was the first person to tell her those words on her first day with them, and she always had to leave after a while. She had eventually found out about the protocol the SHIELD agent had put in place, but still... for the first sixteen years of her life it had been torture.

In any case, the Torettos had been awesome, managing to get past her defenses in just a couple of weeks. Soon she was calling Darius Papa Toretto (the fact that were over half a dozen kids in the neighborhood who did the same made it less odd to her), she also began referring to Dom and Mia as big brother ans sister... They were both so nice to her, spoiling her and protecting her in turns. The whole family realized she'd been hurt a lot in the past and did her best to make her feel at ease, make her happy, and they succeeded. Doesn't mean Skye had been expecting anything to change once the three month mark came...

She was dressed in some denim shorts, a lilac tube top, denim sleeveless vest and lilac flip-flops. They were her favorite among the clothes Papa Toretto had bought her in the months since she'd gone to live in his home. The man had practically bought her a whole new wardrobe after seeing how almost everything she owned was old and worn-out (and some of the things weren't even her size, being hand-me-downs), Mia had helped her choose the clothing, and the men had vetted everything to make sure they weren't showing too much skin... though the girls still managed to get a few things past them.

She had put all the clothes she could inside her schoolbag (she had no suitcase) and was just sitting on her bed, in the room she shared with her sister, waiting for someone to go in and tell her the social worker was there to pick her up. She wasn't expecting it when that person turned out to be Darius, and instead of saying anything he went to sit beside her.

The girl did not know what to say or do at that, and the two just sat in silence for a while.

"Do you want to stay?" He asked her after what seemed like forever.

"I never get to stay." Skye stated in a self-deprecating tone. "Doesn't matter what I want."

"This time it does." Darius insisted, placing a hand on her shoulder. "So tell me Skye, do you want to move on to another family, or do you want to stay with us?"

"I..." The girl hesitated a moment before giving her answer whole-heartedly. "I want to stay..."

"Then that's what you'll do." He declared, as if there was no doubt about it. "Now unpack your things. Your sister is making dinner: garlic bread and her special lasagna, with meat, spinach, mushrooms and extra-cheese."

"That's my favorite..." The girl said quietly.

"Of course it is." Darius smiled, pressing a kiss to the girl's brow before getting up and moving to leave the room. "Now, unpack and go wash up, ok?"

"Okay..." Skye hesitated just a moment before running to the man and embracing him tightly from behind. "Thank you Papa..."

To that day Skye still did not know what Darius Toretto had done or said to convince the people at Child Services to let her stay. Back then it hadn't mattered, all that mattered was that someone had cared enough for her to want her there. From that day on the man was no longer Darius, or Papa Toretto, he was just Papa... her Papa. She was also given her own bedroom, made to feel like one of the family, so much that even the neighbors began referring to her as 'one of the Toretto girls', rather than just a foster child, a temporary guest.

Then the end of the summer had come, one of the worst days of her life... it was one day she couldn't actually remember, not properly at least, only in flashes: Papa had been so excited, one more victory and he could go pro... the three of them were delighted by the chance too, the man wanted nothing more than to be a professional racer, and he was finally being given the chance. The race began, and all three Toretto children were watching in rapt attention. It was supposed to easy, Darius had raced so many times, and his children always enjoyed watching and cheering for him; in the last year Dom had taken to helping him prepare, as he too wanted to be a professional racer in the future (had already begun, in small races). Then it had all gone to hell, almost literally too. Another car had hit the back of Darius's vehicle... everything happened so fast, not even a handful of seconds before it was all over, the older Toretto lost control of the vehicle, crashing against the contention wall before he could regain it... Then, as if that weren't bad enough, the car went up in flames.

Even a decade later Skye could still remember her brother screaming his throat raw, her sister too; she was the only one who hadn't screamed, her throat closing up in shock, she couldn't scream, couldn't even breathe... She wasn't really that close to where the crash had happened, but she could swear she remembered the heat of the fire, almost as if the flames had been lapping at her own skin. There was a reason why she hated fire, had long before she even learnt about her own heritage as part Jotun.

Skye remembered that when the accident first happened she hadn't wanted to believe it, didn't want to accept that the man who had loved her like a father, the first who had showed her he really cared, could be gone... She remembered how just that morning he had talked about having a surprise for her. She'd never gotten it.

It was only five years later, while she was working like crazy erasing all she could about Skylar Karen Wright; she was doing her best to cut off any connection between that name and the one of Skye Bennet that she found the registry in the database for LA County's city hall: Darius Toretto had submitted papers to adopt one Skye Bennet, proposing her new name as Cielo Toretto... Cielo, that was what her Papa used to call her, his piece of heaven...

It had been too late by then. Skye lost her family before she ever had it. At times she wondered if Dom had known, had Mia? She didn't know and was too afraid to ask. Too much had gone wrong by then. Still, that didn't stop her from keeping a digital copy of the petition in her personal files. She hardly ever looked at it anymore, though that was probably because she knew every word in that document by heart. It was a comfort and a torture all in one, for all that could have been, and all that had gone wrong.

Papa's death had been bad enough, but it was only the beginning of the end; things had only gotten worse in the following weeks. First there was Dom's attack on Kenny Linder, 'aggravated assault' the man's lawyers had called it. Dom had ended in federal prison, maximum security, had been condemned to a minimum of two years without the possibility of parole...

Mia and Skye had done everything they could, but lawyers were expensive, and the insurance company was taking too long giving them the money of Darius's; they had the help from some neighbors who knew them, but in the end no one in the community was exactly rich, there was only so much they could do, could give. A moment came when the girls needed money, and there was only one way they could get it: they went street-racing.

Mia was a far better driver and racer than her sister, so she was the one to actually race. With some help from an old friend of Darius and Dom's: Hector, who actually put the money for the first race (they didn't have enough to even pay that). But Mia was awesome, she won that race, and half a dozen more. In two weeks they had enough money to survive until the insurance payed them what was due. And then, after the last race, they were caught.

The police appeared out of nowhere, and everyone took off. Mia was with Hector, who had gone with her to collect the winnings of that night (with her being so young, some sore losers some times tried to take advantage and cheat). Skye had seen a couple of cops going straight for them, being two of the few not yet on cars (easy targets), they would have arrested them, probably thrown them both in jail. The teenager couldn't handle the idea of losing her sister too, so she jumped into Mia's car, hotwired it like she'd been taught, and then took off as fast as she could. She purposefully went straight by the cops about to get off their car, calling their attention onto her and away from Mia and Hector...

In the end she was the one caught that night. Skye really wasn't a racer, while she definitely loved speed, it was like she didn't have the reflexes needed to drive a modified car (years later she would learn it was because of all about her that her mother's protection spell kept sealed). She was the one sent to juvie for a few months, after which she was sent to the worst couple in her foster-child history, up in Chicago...

It didn't matter, as far as she was concerned, it was worth it. The months in juvie, even the things the Garrows put her through and all that came afterwards, she didn't regret a thing. Because she had protected her sister, protected her family, just like Papa taught her.

Skye knew Dom had never learnt about what had happened that night, neither Mia nor Hector had ever told him about it, or even about Mia racing during those weeks. It wasn't something they had wanted him to worry about. As far as he was concerned Social Services simply had decided that the Toretto family was no longer the right place for her to be (and they actually did say that, after she got out of juvie), it was why they sent her to the Garrows, who were used to dealing with 'troubled teens'...

In any case, after her term in juvie, the nightmare in Chicago, running, James, 'falling' from a bridge, and her year with Karen, Skye had created a new name for herself, that of Skylar Karen Wright, and gone to college. She knew Dom had gotten out of prison that same Summer, but she was so busy fulfilling Karen's expectations of her, getting into College, she just couldn't go and see the man. Then the next Summer she had had that internship in LuthorCorp, in Metropolis, and while she planned several times on taking off for a weekend and visiting them... she never went through. Becoming more and more afraid as time went by.

It was only a year after that, right after Alec's and Helen's wedding (which ended up being a mess all its own), that she finally took the chance. Alec had told his pilot to take her wherever she wanted, so she chose LA. She could remember quite clearly that reunion:

Skye arrived to the house in Echo Park, small suitcase in hand, not quite sure if she would be welcomed by her once-foster-siblings. Still, she knew she had postponed that visit long enough, it was time to try to reconnect with them. As it happened it was Sunday, and a BBQ was taking place. The moment she stood at the entrance of the backyard (and was noticed) silence fell.

"Oh... my... God..." Letty could only gasp when seeing her.

The latina a year older than Mia, though she'd actually gone to school with the older Toretto girl, hadn't been part of the sisters' stint in the races at the end of that Summer (she'd been in Nevada, taking care of some sick relative). Still, they knew each other.

"Skye!" Mia cried out as she ran to her once-sister.

The twenty-year-old barely had time to drop her bag in time to be pulled into the tightest hug she had ever gotten (her sister might be slim, but she was strong).

"You're back!" Mia was babbling. "When... How...?"

"I'm sorry I couldn't come before." Skye told her quietly, embracing the older girl back. "A lot has happened in the last four years."

"Of course, of course, and you'll tell us all about it." She said as she began pulling her sister to the table. "But first we're gonna eat." She turned to another at the table. "Vince, be a dear and get Skye's stuff into the house, please?"

The man did not say a word, just did as told. While Skye was directed to a seat before she could say a word, finding herself at Dom's right.

"I'm sorry for dropping on all of you unannounced and all that I..." Skye began babbling nervously when seeing her brother's unreadable expression. "I've been meaning to visit, always chickened out before I made it here. And now I came, didn't remember to call first and..."

"It's alright." Dom finally took mercy and interrupted her. "You're family Skye, and as such you will always be welcome here." The slightest smile appeared on his lips. "Now you can say grace, so we can finally begin this meal."

Skye didn't complain, she just extended her hands to the sides, her brother on one side, Mia on the other (one of the two boys she did not know had moved a place to allow her space), and the prayer came from her lips:

"Thank you God..." She said sincerely even though she wasn't the strictest practitioner of any religion. "For the food and drink on this table, for the people seated around it, and for the bonds that unite us all..."

Too bad it was not to last...

Maybe it was that she had been too old, become too independent, secretive, too used to looking after herself; she did not appreciate Dom's over-protectiveness as she had when she was sixteen. Her brother insisted on knowing everything she did and had done, was always asking questions about her past... questions she couldn't, or just didn't want to answer.

And that had been just the start. Skye had learnt about the truck-jackings, after overhearing an argument between her siblings! She couldn't believe her brother was being that stupid... as well as suicidal. And the worst part was that the others were going along with it! All but Mia, yet there was nothing she could do, the Toretto family was completely patriarchal, Dom's word was law. Except Skye wasn't about to take that lying down. She might have had a lot of respect for Papa, but as far as she was concerned, Dom was an idiot.

Then there was Brian... Skye had known who he was less than a week after he'd first appeared in that race. Really, the whole thing had been way too suspicious: the blonde pretty-boy appearing out-of-nowhere, with that attitude, losing his car in the first race (though in the end Tran's gang blew it up), saving her brother from the cops (and if that hadn't brought back bad memories to her...), and then the restoration project...

Yeah, Vince kept screaming to the four winds that he was a cop... but he was just jealous about the easy camaraderie between the blonde and Dom. Skye, she could see he was way too calm about things, and the way he would look at them sometimes, as if reading them (profiling them) in some way... and then there was his interest in Mia. That, if nothing else, was enough of a reason to investigate him, as far as the hacker was concerned.

The truth had come up then, easy to find for Skye (who was already a pretty good hacker by what point), though at the same time she understood why Jesse hadn't seen it. Brian Earl Spilner, was not real, the name itself hadn't existed more than a couple months. His records (or most of them), on the other hand, had been there for longer than that. She knew what that meant, someone was mixing real records from someone, with papers of a new identity... the explanation came to her immediately: undercover cop. Which meant that her brother was in more trouble than she had originally thought.

She knew it was absolutely crazy, but she still went and confronted him a few nights later:

"I know who you are..."

As opening lines went, that probably wasn't the best (a bit too cliched), but it wasn't like she'd scripted a dialogue or anything. It had been hard enough to find a moment when she could approach him, alone; lately it seemed like he was always either with Dom or Mia... or he was missing (which, the brunette suspected, was when he met with his superiors).

"Of course you know Skye," He said, working to use a smile to cover his surprise at her presence at Harry's backroom. "You all who I am: Brian Earl..."

"O'Conner..." She finished for him.

"Wha...?" He was so shocked by it all he couldn't even lie about it. "I don't understand..."

"I'm a hacker, a pretty good one if I do say so myself." Skye said easily as she sat on a chair. "And as an unemployed college student currently on vacation I have a considerable amount of free time in my hands. I will admit it wasn't easy, it's no surprise Jesse didn't notice it, for a number of Brian Spilner's records are too recent, they may be back-dated, but they didn't get in the internet until recently; and while some are old-enough, the internet-signature doesn't fully match those of the other records that supposedly are from the same time. That allowed me to see that Brian Earl Spilner was a lie... finding out your true identity was harder. However I realized something, those who change their names, they always keep something from their original one: the initial, the basic sound of it, the meaning; and sometimes, some of them, choose to keep the full first name. Hence Brian O'Conner becoming Brian Spilner..."

He was terrified, she could see it in his eyes; though what she did not know was who exactly he feared more: her siblings, or his superiors...

"No one knows anything about this." She announced, to his surprise. "It's not for you. To be honest, if it was just you I had to worry about I would have run you out of town already. No, the only reason no one else knows the truth about you yet is because I don't want either Vince or Dom to do something stupid. Five years ago I was too young to protect my brother, not this time. So I need to know, do I need to protect him from you?"

Brian at least had the decency not to mock her for her words, her wishes; he at least respected her that much (or maybe he was still shocked at being found out).

"No." He answered, dead-honest. "Look Skye, I don't know what you've managed to find out already but... I'm here because of the truck-jackings. LAPD and FBI are working together to find out who's responsible. They... we don't know. My bosses are sure it's your team, but there is no proof." He stopped her before she could even open her mouth. "I don't know anything, and I don't want to. It's better if I don't. Whoever is doing it, they need to stop, before someone ends up in jail, or worse, dead."

She knew he was right, she also knew he was lying to himself, by saying that he didn't know...

"You know you cannot keep this up for much longer, right?" She asked him suddenly, quietly. "Sooner or later, the truth is gonna come out. I won't say anything, as long as this doesn't put my family or the team in danger I will keep what I know to myself... but still, no secret lasts forever. And the longer it takes, the angrier Dom will get. I'm sure you've read all about the things he's done, what got him sent to Lompoc, but I can promise you, you haven't the slightest idea what it was really like. You weren't there, I was... I don't want to see my brother like that ever again."

Brian didn't say anything, perhaps he was too afraid to answer, perhaps he didn't have one. In the end, he knew she was right, it didn't change the fact that he was in a hell of a mess, and neither of them had the slightest idea how to get out.

And Skye seriously doubted that the mess that had gone down during Race Wars counted as 'getting out'. No, it was 'everything going to hell', royally. Much as she might love her old foster family, her almost-real-family, there were some memories she'd rather not think about, and what had happened that day was one of them. When Papa died she was sure no day could be worse... she had been wrong, so very wrong...

xXx

It all went down two days later, or more like thirty-six hours but the point was the same. After her memories Skye had slept deeply, mind filled with even more memories, both good and bad; thankfully even her subconscious knew better than to go into what had happened that day back in LA, she probably wouldn't have been able to continue her job afterwards. In the morning she'd handed Dom and Brian a copy of all the relevant information she had concerning Letty and how she'd gone from running for Braga to working with Shaw. They read it and then destroyed it, both as unwilling as she'd been, to give that kind of leverage to the DDS (no matter how much Riley bitched about it all).

Apparently Tej had tried to follow Shaw the night before, after his conversation with Dom and Brian (Hobbs had been tracking the pair, and they knew). Tracking didn't do much, but they managed to guess at a general area where the man's crew might be based, and where Riley had later on pointed out a likely location, due to everything it had access to (back-roads, basements, subway, all of it). The DDS Agents had found the place empty by the time they got there, but instead discovered just enough to make a guess at where the criminals might have gone: a NATO base in Spain.

Not long afterwards Xiao's tablet had pinged, revealing that one of the trackers she'd placed on several servers had just gotten image of Shaw and his crew crossing the border into that very country. The reaction was immediate as Hobbs and Riley got on the way, telling the others to get ready as they would make arrangements for the team and their cars.

Sleep that night hadn't been easy, as everyone stayed late checking and re-checking everything. Then, early in the morning, they were on a military plane (made Skye miss the Bus, or even the quinjets, they were much more comfortable, and faster too).

"I just got word they caught one of Shaw's men at the base." Tej announced at some point while they were still in the air. "It's time."

Xiao narrowed her eyes from her position over some crates. For the mission she was wearing a mix of what one would expect from a racer, and actual Agent-like clothes: a tight-fitting charcoal-gray tube top (one that left her midriff bare), with a lilac sleeveless button-up blouse half-done on top, purple pleated short skirt, charcoal-gray leggings, her knee-high black-leather boots and finger-less black gloves. She also was carrying: taser-gun strapped to one thigh, trusty black knife to the other, both hidden beneath the skirt; two other throwing knives in her boots. Her hair was in the same style it had been since her arrival to London, and she had her sunglasses on.

In that moment, hearing Tej make that announcement, she knew something wasn't right, and she wasn't the only one:

"Something is not right." Brian stated, building up a scenario. "He wanted us to find that guy. Think about it." He turned to Dom. "At Interpol, you were face-to-face with him..."

"Brian, so what are you saying?" Dom interrupted, they needed to get to the point.

"It was in that video Xiao showed us, remember?" The blonde stated. "Braga said the only way you get near Shaw is if he wants you to."

"Tej, where's that component?" Dom asked, as he began to understand what his friend meant.

"They're moving it to a secure location." Tej informed him with a light shrug.

It was like the two brothers-in-law were having a whole conversation with a single look, both awe inspiring and humbling at the same time. It was also one of the things she missed most, knowing someone that well, knowing what they thought and why... and exactly because of that, it was something she couldn't focus on, they had a job to do and she couldn't do it if she was feeling sorry for herself, for the family she had once had and lost... or maybe he was right and they'd never really been family...

"Shaw ain't hitting that base." Dom said after a beat.

"He's hitting the convoy." Brian finished the thought for him.

They began making a new plan immediately. Xiao stayed well out of it, she wasn't a racer, her strengths laid elsewhere, and she knew that. So instead she worked on getting satellite maps and handing them over (they were all so busy no one bothered asking her how she'd gotten them). Being one of the 'techs' she was assigned to one of the bridges that went over the main highway, from where she was to observe and warn the team as necessary, Tej was on a similar bridge, separated from hers by a number of miles. In fact, they were all hoping to be able to stop Shaw's team before the convoy even made it as far as the second bridge (Xiao's).

Taking advantage of the moment everyone else left Skye fished her cellphone and making use of her real (or at least her most recent and legal) name, she called local authorities to warn them of what was going on. When that didn't work fast enough she hacked the closest radio-signal and sent a warning that way so people would abandon the highway.

"Now that was interesting." Tej commented over the radio when she was done.

"It's the one things none of you thought about." Xiao pointed out with a shrug. "I saw the pictures after the robbery on Moscow, that kind of collateral damage? It's not fair to the civilians..."

"You are right girl, of course." Tej nodded immediately. "Truth is, we've never been able to do something about innocent bystanders, which is why most of us would rather not focus on them, we need to do our jobs, otherwise it would end up being worse."

"I know." Xiao nodded. "I understand that, believe me. But this time, there was a way to make sure there will be as few lives lost as possible, especially of innocents." She couldn't help the half-smile that appeared on her lips. "Also, a clear highway will make it easier for the racers too."

"That it will." Roman and Brian agreed at the same time.

"Now less chat." Dom ordered. "We've got a job to do."

So they did.

It was... the brunette just didn't think insane was a strong enough word, not from the moment the tank burst out of the remains of that convoy.

Regretfully they didn't manage to clear the highway completely, but they still all knew, once the explosions started and Shaw got the tank on the other side of the road, that a lot more people would be in danger of dying if Xiao hadn't taken measures.

What no one was expecting was when one of the explosions made half of the bridge under Skye's feet collapse. The brunette was so shocked by it all instinct took over and she called on her magic to create a shield just in the nick of time; the cloud of dust allowing it to remain invisible from everyone involved in the operation.

"Xiao!"

The yelling through the radios began instantly. Every member of the team calling her name, some even began calling her Karen. And the tones were growing desperate the longer she took to answer; apparently in less than a week she'd managed to become part of the family...

"'m fine guys..." She called with some effort as she got on her feet.

While the shield had saved her from the explosion itself, it was so sudden it didn't last long and the debris of the destruction managed to hit her some.

"Xiao!" Tej called again. "Talk to me girl!"

"I'm alright." She stated, more confident the second time. "Some bruises and scraps, and more than a little bit shaken, but nothing to worry about."

No need for them to know that when the ground disappear from beneath her feet she had actually gone down, landing over one of the bigger pieces of concrete. Thankfully she was sturdy enough to come out of the fall well-enough (just some scrapes and bruises, like she said), though the moment she recovered her footing she was pulling the torn pieces of her skirt away from her body, not point on keeping it when it was mostly destroyed already; her blouse had fared a bit better, though it was a bit scorched on a side and she probably would be sending it to the trash when the day ended.

The inclusion of a tank to it all had forced the team to scrap the plan and improvise; which wasn't really that bad, as it seemed to be when they did best. Turning Roman's totaled car into an anchor to stop Shaw was a very good plan, though Letty being on top of the military vehicle when it flipped was definitely enough to terrify everyone, especially those that were witnesses to Dom's response (jumping off his own ar, across the void separating the two lanes, to catch Letty and then land on his back over the wind-shield of a car... a car he hadn't actually known would be there in the first place!). Skye wanted to pull his ear off and hug the hell out of him at the same time, the fact that she could do neither didn't help matters any.

At least it seemed to finally be over, or almost. Skye hadn't missed the fact that Shaw had only had three of his crew with him, at least two more were missing... that wasn't a good sign. It meant there was one move missing before the game ended.

Still, she allowed herself a moment to decompress in the military base while everyone else was doing the same, the DDS Agents working on the paperwork to get Shaw to prison. At least that was the plan, until Hobbs and Hicks emerged, going straight for the team, they did not look happy, at all; unlike the criminal walking behind them who, despite being handcuffed and with armed agents at both sides, had a malicious grin on his face, like he'd already won...

"You guys really think you've won." Shaw started his speech the moment everyone gathered around him. "This code you live by, it's the very reason why you weren't even in the game. I told you exactly what I was gonna do if you didn't walk away, Toretto. But you didn't listen." He smirked malevolently. "I told you I can reach out and break you whenever I want. And I have." He made a pause, as if for dramatic effect, before sealing the deal: "Maybe you should call Mia."

Dom was completely tense, not saying a word, though Skye could feel the barely leashed rage running beneath his skin. Brian, on the other hand, was immediately dialing, there was no point, the call went straight to voice-mail.

"Mia!" He screamed into the phone, though there was no point.

Brian's response in that moment was immediate, as well as predictable, he threw himself at Shaw, punching him across the face before being pulled back by his friends, before the soldiers could do it, though that didn't stop him from resisting anyway.

The girl for her part put her tablet aside quietly. The screen showing briefly a white-and-black satellite image of two certain someones before blacking out. Her intuition had won in the end and she'd gotten the satellite access she needed to investigate a hunch, it had panned out and she finally saw the whole picture. It also meant that she was going to have to put all the cards on the table. It might even be better that way, even if it wasn't going to make things any easier... she had been quite honest when she'd told Brian no secret could last forever...

So with that in mind and a wave of her hand she vanished the purple from her hair as well as the heavy make-up from her face, she also pulled on the band on her hair until she had it in a very loose ponytail (her favorite style back when she'd almost been a Toretto).

"So, this is how it's gonna go down." Shaw continued with what he probably considered his victory speech. "You're gonna cut me loose from these cuffs, you're gonna hand me the chip, I'm gonna walk out of here and you're not gonna follow..."

"How about no?" Xiao called loudly as she stepped to the front of the group.

Shaw actually turned to look at her, obviously not expecting her interruption. It looked like the NATO commander had something to say as well, but the girl's intervention threw him for a loop as much as everyone else. In fact, everyone's eyes were on the brunette in that moment, though only the team noticed the abrupt change in the way she looked, or the fact that there wasn't a hint of Chinese accent in her voice anymore, they had no idea what that meant exactly, only that it meant something, and they were about to find out.

"I'm not talking to you, little girl..." Shaw told her in a condescending tone. "You may feel like a big-girl, playing with international criminals, but it's nothing when you can do it from behind a computer. Here, this is real life, not a virtual one, here the name of Karen Starr means nothing."

"I know that, but if you think I'm only dangerous in the virtual world, you're so very wrong Shaw..." Skye couldn't resist smirking at him. "I have gone face to face against some of the worst this world has to offer, and you think I fear you?"

"You're of no concern to me, girl." Shaw insisted. "My business is with Toretto and O'Conner..."

And it looked like the two men would agree, but the brunette wouldn't allow it, not when she'd finally made up her mind to take the leap.

"That's where you have it wrong, because their business is my business." Skye insisted, pulling his attention again to her.

When she heard what on a lesser man might have qualified as a whimper from behind her Skye decided it was to get the show on the road and pressed a hand to the comm she had placed in her ear earlier that afternoon.

"You may come in..." She whispered.

The main doors opened right then and everyone saw a tall dark-haired man and a shorter blonde woman in dark clothes; though the focus was on those that entered behind him: a golden-tanned blonde woman, followed by a bronze-skinned brunette both in casual clothing, and the younger woman had a baby in her arms...

"Mia! Jack!" Brian cried out in relief as he ran to his wife and son.

Skye could sense the moment Dom's tension went at least half down.

"What...?!" Shaw had definitely not seen that one coming.

"Everything alright Cassie, Azazeal?" The girl asked her brother-in-law.

"Perfect sis." The man sent a smirk her way.

"The boss-man is thankful for the chance to let out some steam." The blonde added in the same tone, before turning to the military. "We're also to tell you we have the two goons who went after Ms. Toretto, her son and Ms. Neves in a truck out there."

The man in charge of the base immediately sent some of his men to pick up the new prisoners, though most were still trying to understand what exactly was happening, and how.

"How...?" Shaw asked right then, focusing all his attention on the brunette girl before him.

"You made a mistake." Skye informed him quiet calmly. "Well, several, but most can be joined as one: you were so focused on Brian and Dom, that you didn't see anyone else. You were so sure they were the threats that you couldn't see any other, you couldn't see me."

"Who the hell are you?!" He demanded. "Xiao Wang doesn't exist, and neither does Karen Starr, not really! And Skylar Wright disappeared years ago!"

For a second, silence reigned. Skye wondered briefly if that name would be enough to give her away to Brian and the Torettos, but it didn't seem so... either that, or they just couldn't see it yet... or they'd completely forgotten about her in the last five years, which she hoped wasn't it.

"You are so focused on the names I've had..." Skye said, shaking her head in pretend grief. "That was another of your mistakes. Because those aren't the names that mattered. From the moment I arrived to London I made it pretty clear that my joining in this op was personal. I know everyone thought I was referring to my friendship with Suki and Tej... truth is there was more, something that made it truly personal."

They still didn't understand, and Skye decided it was finally time to reveal the full truth.

"A man I respected above everyone else once said: 'Per la famiglia, tutto'." Skye repeated the quote, knowing it would give her away. "For the family, everything. That's the code I live by. It's the code Papa taught me..."

Yes, everything, even if it meant giving them up...

Brian had promised that he would call it quits once Race Wars ended. He would tell the truth to Dom, warn him about the truckers arming themselves, apologize to Mia, and then disappear. He wasn't doing it before because the blonde honestly wanted to pay-back the debt he owed to her brother by racing the Supra. Nothing was supposed to happen during Race Wars, every racer in south Cali and its vicinity were busy in the desert, racing and partying... or at least that's how it was supposed to be, until the blonde approached in the edge of a panic attack, telling her that Dom and the team had just left and Mia was almost hysterical. Skye knew what that meant, they had gone on a 'job'.

"Skye, your brother is going to get killed, and if not him, then someone else!" He hissed.

"You think I don't know that Brian?!" She snapped back at him.

"Just what is going on here?!" Mia demanded of both of them.

Skye wasn't sure whose shock was greater, Mia's at Brian's revelation that he was an undercover cop, or Skye's own at the fact that he'd told her the truth. In the end they'd managed to convince the older Toretto girl that they needed to stop the team before they were either caught or killed. So all three got into the Supra. Brian was on the wheel, Mia on the passenger seat giving Brian what information she had... and when that failed Skye pulled out her modified phone and brought up a program she herself had created to track down her brother. It worked.

The sun was rising when it all happened. All kind of emotions mixing up: the girls' terror at the scene they found upon arrival, Brian decision to risk his life to save them, the adrenaline in Mia's veins as she got behind the wheel of the car to allow Brian to jump onto the truck, Skye herself standing on the back to help pull Vince onto the car. It was the kind of maneuver you would expect to see in the movies, but never in real life.

And then... then they were left with Vince bleeding out by the side of the road, and Brian had done the only thing he could think of to save him: he blew his cover and called Med-Evac. For a moment there it looked like Dom might kill the blonde, but the girls managed to stop him. The look of betrayal he directed at them when realizing they knew the truth about him was such that Skye felt like she'd been physically hit.

Of course the fact that after the helicopter left with Vince she refused to get in the car with the rest of the team probably didn't help matters any when Skye was concerned. But if everyone was so focused on their anger they couldn't think clearly, the twenty-year old wasn't such affected, she knew measures needed to be taken if her family was going to walk from the mess they had gotten themselves into.

So she ignored Dom's yells and threats, staying back. Then she worked on getting the two black Hondas that had crashed as clean as possible, and when that failed, she finally blew them up. It was the best she could do, in the time she had. Brian just stood there, waiting for her. Then he guided her to the Supra and the two took off for Echo Park. It wasn't over just yet, no, the day was just starting, and so was the real mess.

When they got to the house Dom was on his way out, his shirt still red with Vince's blood, he had a shotgun in his hand, and the Charger ready to go. Brian reacted instinctively, pulling out his own gun, and yelling at her brother. The two men argued for couple of minutes, about Jesse, bout Brian being a cop, Mia tried to stop them, but Dom shut her up, it was then that Skye decided enough was enough.

"Stop it Dom!" She yelled, stepping in between the two men. "This is insane. Put the guns down, both of you!"

"Don't you dare talk to me that way Skye." Dom snarled at her. "You have no right."

"I have no right?!" She challenged him. "And you do? You're not thinking clearly Dom. If you don't calm down this is only going to get worse! You're in enough trouble as is."

"And what about you?!" Dom insisted. "We're supposed to be family, and you betray us for an outsider, for a cop?!"

"I wasn't the one who decided it was a good idea to go hijacking trucks to make some easy money." Skye retorted. "I told you it was a bad idea, so did Mia. What do you think Papa would say if he knew?"

"Don't you dare... don't you dare speak about Papa, or to call him that, for that matter." Dom said, in a suddenly dead-cold tone. "He's not your Papa Skye... you have turned your back on this family, proving the obvious truth. You are no Toretto, never were..."

Skye had no words to say to that, she couldn't speak, couldn't think, not even breathe... among all the things Dom could have ever said, nothing else could have hurt her worse. To have the only family she'd known in twenty years taken away from her with just a few words, she felt like she had died in that moment.

And she had, indeed, almost died just seconds later. Skye had been so lost in the pain she hadn't heard Jesse arrive, or his ranting and fear, she hadn't hear the bikes approaching, or the machine fire as it began... if Brian hadn't pushed her down she would have died right then and there. Jesse certainly did. Then everything got confusing, Brian went after the shooters in the Supra, then Dom in the charger, someone called 911, and in the end neither men returned...

Back in the present, Skye could hear Mia's quiet gasp, as well as a sharp intake of breath from Dom behind her. They knew... but she wasn't done yet. They might not consider her family, but for her they would always be the 'familia' and she would protect them no matter what.

"It's all about protecting family, no matter what." She went on. "You protect them even if they don't want you to, and even from themselves. Someone said it pretty well recently: 'You don't turn your back on family, even when they do...'" She smiled almost sadly before she sealed the deal. "So you see, the truth was never in the names I've had, but in the one was never truly mine: Cielo Toretto... that is who I am, or at least who I once could have been. And that's why you were the one never in the game, Shaw. From the moment you dared threaten my family you lost. Now, you're done. No one is saving you from this one. Not even your brother."

That one was yet another surprise, and it showed on Owen's face.

"Yes, I know who your brother is." Skye nodded in confirmation. "He's not bailing you out this time. This time you went too far, messed with the wrong family. So, it's over. You lose..."

So did she, but that was alright, she'd known from the start that's how it would be. The job was done and it was time to leave, allow life to go back to how it was meant to be. Her family was safe, even if they weren't really hers, their safety was what mattered. For the family, everything...

Skye turned around then, coming face to face with the huge bald Italian, who was staring at her like he'd never seen her.

"Dolcezza..." He called her by the nickname both he and Papa had favored.

Skye's mind was racing with a way to get out of the confrontation she really did not want to have (not like it would change anything, right?) when abruptly her senses screamed at her of a danger coming. She reacted instinctively, twisting around just enough and right on time to catch an arm as it raised a gun against her (or Dom, she wasn't fully sure); Skye twisted her hands, doing the same with her opponent's wrist in the process, forcing her to drop the gun, using her heel to kick it far away from anyone's reach, before she finished twisting her body at the same time she raised a leg, delivering a roundhouse kick.

Riley, for that was who was attacking the girl, was strong enough not be too put out by Skye's kick and took advantage of the time the girl took to regain her balance, delivering a punch to the side of her face. The half-elf moved with the hit just enough to get nothing broken, she stumbled but managed to recover fast enough. Then it was on.

Riley wasn't one of the superhuman minions of Shaw; no, those had actually been the ones sent to the Canary Islands for the women and child, whom Azazeal, Phil and Cassie had taken down (the blonde girl might not be a fighter, but she was a psychic, and good at it; also, the fact that the others were there intending to harm a child had made her anger rise, thinking about Malachi). She was also seriously underestimating the younger woman, seeing her as nothing more than a race-bunny that was good enough behind a computer that she was included in the team (and she could not even race herself!), the woman just couldn't see the steel beneath. Still, Skye managed to have some fun as she traded blows with the woman.

The fight lasted more than was strictly necessary but Skye was wary of finishing too fast, of showing too much (she'd tipped enough her hand by getting the information on Braga, and then having someone arrive with the two women and the baby...), also, the fight was a good way to relieve some tension, and the last few days had certainly left the young brunette more than a little stressed-out. At some point Riley managed to throw Skye to the ground, and Dom made a move to get into the fight, only to be stopped by the very people who had arrived with his family (which was the only reason why he stopped to listen to them).

"She's fine, don't worry." Cassie assured him. "She's just having fun."

Dom looked at the young blonde like she was crazy, he was quite sure she couldn't be even twenty years old, and yet the way she held herself, there was some power inside her, power Dom could not understand... it was the same with the brunette fighting the traitorous Agent.

That threw them all for a loop, though it was confirmed when they saw Skye jump back onto her feet, shrugging off the more than half-tattered blouse, oblivious to the gasps that came from several mouths as the knotted scars in her stomach were seen, before spinning and delivering a kick to Riley with enough strength to almost dislocate her shoulder and throw her down.

"Time to end this." Skye announced, beginning to get bored.

It had been entertaining for a while, but fighting Hicks was beginning to remind her a bit too much of the so-called training with Ward, back when he was her SO... it was the kind of memory she could do without.

She dropped into a crouch the next time Riley went to hit her, making the older woman stumble as she over-reached. Then the girl insinuated herself inside her opponent's defenses, rose, and before the traitorous agent could think of something to do, Skye hit her with the side of her hand on the back of the woman's head, knocking her out.

"Wouldn't it have been easier if you had tased her or something?" Azazeal asked his sister-in-law when the fight was over.

"Maybe." The brunette admitted with a shrug. "But I was getting antsy and this was as good a way to release stress as any."

"You don't seem that surprised about her attacking you..." Hobbs commented as he signaled for soldiers to take the unconscious traitor into custody.

"I knew, almost from the very beginning, that there had to be a mole somewhere." Skye answered with a shrug. "Even before we all got here, how else could Shaw always be two steps ahead of all government agencies sent after him? Riley Hicks has been the agent assigned to his case for the last two years. Second, how else could Shaw's team have known as much about us all as they did from the very first night? Also, I got a satellite image from a confidential contact just a few minutes ago that showed the two of them together..."

The others could interpret that part whatever way they wished; she'd sent the pertinent pictures to Hobbs but that was all she needed to do.

"She knew all about everyone... except you, apparently." The General added.

"I said it when I first arrived, and I'll say it again." Skye stated with a sigh. "I am very good at what I do. Real names mean nothing to me, I've had many, and none are completely legal, to tell you the truth. Comes from the fact that even my first birth-certificate is a lie... but that's a whole other matter. Different people, different kinds of people know me by certain names, it depends on what circle I'm moving."

"And if you were coming into this circle, why choose the name of Xiao Wang instead of Cielo Toretto?" Hobbs couldn't help but ask.

"Because I was actually Xiao Wang, even if just for one summer." The girl answered, trying her best not to show her distress at her admittance: "I was never a Toretto." She raised a hand to stop Dom before he could say a word. "It's alright. I won't say it was easy, but that is a truth I accepted a long time ago. Now, I believe there is business in need to be wrapped up, and then I have a job, and another life to get back to..."

With that she turned around and left the bunker, Azazeal and Cassie at her heels (the blonde girl having retrieved Skye's things), all the while praying to the Higher Powers for the strength not to look back, she knew if she did she might never want to leave, and that just wouldn't do.

xXx

A month later Skye was back in her usual clothes (purple short-sleeved top, knee-length dark-denim skirt, denim sleeveless vest and low black boots), her hair fell down in loose curls, almost reaching the small of her back and she's wearing no make-up, sunglasses pushed to the top of her head. She was also standing just outside of a house she knew too well in Echo Park (someone had played dirty, sending her to contact Hobbs and his new partner Agent Neves, without telling her first that they were at the Toretto home, delivering their pardons). Still, she planned on keeping it all business, talking to Hobbs and leaving, right...

She approached the man when he was about to get back into his vehicle.

"I'm not sure if I'm surprised at seeing you here or not." The big man admitted when seeing her. "Considering how you left Spain two weeks ago."

"Actually, Agent Hobbs, you are the reason I'm here right now." She admitted with a shrug.

"Really, and why is that Miss...?" Hobbs was intrigued, and unsure what to call her.

"Astrid Avery." She introduced herself, offering her right hand for a shake, while showing her badge with her left. "Agent Astrid Avery, with SHIELD, to be precise. My boss thought it was time one of us made contact with the DDS to settle good relations."

"You're SHIELD!" The man repeated in absolute surprise.

"Yes I am, have been for more than three years now." Skye shrugged, at times it actually seemed like it had been longer...

"That would explain the thing in the Canary Islands..." Hobbs nodded, beginning to connect the dots. "I suppose the two you left with are SHIELD as well."

Skye just nodded, not willing to give more information than absolutely necessary.

"I thought you'd been Rising Tide..." Elena couldn't help but blurt out, having heard the story.

"I was..." Skye's smirk turned predatory. "Who do you think took them down?"

There had been good reasons for that, of course, but there was no need to explain those.

"So you are to be my contact with SHIELD then?" The man asked. "May I ask what rank you have exactly Agent Avery?"

"Why?" Skye challenged with a brow raised. "You won't deal with me if I'm a low level Agent?"

"Some missions might deal with sensitive information, whoever acts as contact needs to have high enough clearance to deal with that information." Hobbs explained.

"Ok, I can accept that." Skye nodded. "I am Level 9, though I can invoke Level 10 under certain circumstances... I am also the Deputy Director of SHIELD..."

That left everyone in shock, especially those who'd known her in the past. The idea that the little girl who had no one, who couldn't really race, who was a genius hacker, had somehow gone to become the second in command of one of the most powerful organizations in the world...

"Then I guess we'll be doing some good business together in the future, Deputy Director Avery." He shook her hand sincerely.

"Of course, Agent Hobbs." She hesitated a moment before adding. "And if you're willing to take some advice offered in good will: do not follow orders so blindly. The people at the very top aren't always acting in the best interest of those who serve them. We SHIELD learnt that when Hydra revealed itself within our ranks, with the highest of them being a number of Senators, Senior Agents, and the very top boss: Alexander Pierce. Cleaning house hasn't been easy, but it was necessary. The last thing we need is for another organization to go through the same..."

Especially when she was beginning to pick up on rumors that there was something going on in the DPD, something that might have quite serious ramifications... Skye and Phil knew there was nothing they could do to help, they had an organization to run themselves after all, they only hoped their friends would survive what was to come.

"I will take your advice into consideration." Hobbs nodded.

She really hoped he did, because the way he'd hunted them down in Rio... if the man hadn't come through for them with those pardons she would have had a serious problem with him.

"Well, I will leave you all to your meal." Hobbs announced.

"Oh, I'm not staying..." Skye said emotionlessly as she went to walk away too.

She hadn't even made it to the end of the drive before someone called her back.

"Cielo..." Dom called, sounding oddly hesitant.

"That's not my name." Skye stated without turning around, fighting to keep any emotion from her voice and expression. "It never was."

"Just give me two minutes." He insisted.

She didn't want to. Or more than not wanting, there was a part of Skye that was simply afraid of being burnt again, that was downright terrified of a repeat of the last time she'd stood in that very drive... the only problem was that she was being picked up and she couldn't see Phil anywhere. She could always just walk away and wait for her lover to track her down, but there was a corner of her heart crying for her to give it all one last chance...

"I know of the things you've done to protect this family, even when we haven't been thankful for it, me especially." Dom called.

That, somehow, made Skye spin around in shock, only to see Mia and Brian behind Dom.

"We told him the truth." Mia nodded.

"All of it." Brian added for good measure.

The younger woman couldn't help the shiver at the prospect of that being true.

"It seems you're more Toretto than any of us." Dom commented warmly, approaching her slowly.

"I'm not..." She began shaking her head again.

"You are." Dom insisted emphatically. "I found the papers in Papa's old stuff while we were moving back. It's all signed and sealed. You are family, Cielo Toretto, legally."

Skye felt almost dizzy at the shock. It was true she'd seen the petition online, but she'd never known that it had actually been already approved and all the paperwork signed. A low gasp came from her lips as she understood that that had been the surprise Papa had for her that day, after the race, it wasn't that he wanted to adopt her, but that he already had...

"I don't know why or how they took you away, they shouldn't have, not with the papers already signed." Dom continued, shaking her head. "You were our sister, always will be."

Skye had an idea. Ever since learning of the protocol Agent Linda Avery had put in place to keep 'the 084' safe she'd wondered how exactly Papa had managed to keep her for longer than three months, that had never happened... but what if, what if the person who normally made sure the protocol was followed had been absent, when the time came for her to move on? New papers had been signed when she got to stay, and if they'd been filed fast enough, then maybe that person didn't get to see them, didn't know Skye was still in the same home.

There was no way of knowing if they'd known about the adoption and simply made the papers disappear to be able to move her as they wanted once she got out of juvie; the fact that Mia hadn't visited made it obvious that she did not know the adoption was legal, and with their brother being in jail, there was nothing anyone could do.

If the brunette did not know SHIELD were just doing it all to protect her the only way they knew how she would be getting seriously pissed-off right about then. She'd lost her best chance at a family, a normal one, because of them... on the other hand, if things hadn't gone the way they had she probably wouldn't have the family she did in that moment, so...

"That last time we talked, the argument we had... I said many stupid things, to Brian, to Mia, to you." Dom continuing his speech forced her to focus. "There's nothing I've ever regretted more than saying you weren't a Toretto, that you weren't Papa's daughter, because you are, you always will be... It's not even about the things you've done to help us, though I will always be thankful for that too, we all will. You're family. It's as simple as that."

The 26-year-old brunette just couldn't hold onto her emotionless facade after that, her knees gave up beneath her and before she fully realized what was going on she was in her big brother's arms... and what a delight it was to be able to call the man her brother again!

"Ti amo Cielo, mia Dolcezza (I love you Cielo, my sweetheart)..." He whispered into her hair, holding her in a tight embrace.

"Me too fratello (brother)..." She whispered back.

Skye was barely finding her footing again when they all heard the purr of a car approaching, a sound Skye identified instantly... it was Lola...

"Not that is one sweet ride, man!" Roman called loudly from the back.

It only got worse when the car stopped at the very end of the ramp and the driver took off his sunglasses to look at everyone.

"Skye?" He called, suddenly hesitant about his reception.

"Phil..." Skye arched a brow at him.

She loved the man to bits, but she knew he had pretty much set her up for that meeting... though considering how it had actually gone she would probably be expressing her gratitude in every way possible for a while...

"Come on Phil I want to introduce you to my family..." She thought over that and revised. "Well, one branch of it."

And really, if they kept going like they were she was going to end up with a rather huge family... and to think there was a time when she'd been completely alone...

"I brought you this." Phil pointed out, offering her a plastic envelope.

She recognized it instantly and brightened up.

"Ah! That's right, I'd completely forgotten that Simone was sending that over." Skye nodded, then turned and signaled to the man. "Dom, Mia, Brian, this is my boyfriend, Phil Coulson." She usually preferred other more 'explicit' titles for their relationship, but she could tell her brother wouldn't like it, so she held back. "Phil, this are my older siblings: Dominic and Mia Toretto, Mia's Husband: Brian O'Conner, and their son: Jack."

"Pleasure to meet you all." Phil shook their hands respectfully.

"Simone?" Mia repeated, after introductions were done. "As in Simone Walker, Dom's lawyer?"

"Yeah..." Skye wasn't sure how they would react to that.

"So it was you!" Brian called out brightly. "My bosses, or former bosses, whichever, could never understand how a lawyer with the reputation of Miss Walker had gotten involved in Dom's case. One of the best, most expensive lawyers of LA... I didn't understand it either."

"We knew each other." Skye explained with a shrug. "We both worked for the same man... ah, four years ago, I think. And she owed me a favor... She did not want to tip her hand too much on the first round and was planning on filing an appeal that would have put the FBI to shame when you decided to screw the system and just break Dom out."

Not that she minded that much. She knew even when everything Simone had and how good she was, the appeal could have failed, and the girl didn't even want to begin to imagine what would have become of her brother.

"Worked for the same man?" Mia asked, jumping at the chance of learning more about the time her sister had been away. "Who?"

Skye knew the answer was going to make them even more shocked, but they were family, and there could be no lies between family...

"Josef Kostan, of Konstantin Enterprises." She answered honestly.

The shock at that was such that no one knew really what to say.

"One of the names I've had was Karin Kostan, he set it up for me, after I could no longer use either the one of Skylar Wright or Karen Starr, years after I stopped being Skye Bennet." She added for good measure.

"It would seem like you have quite the story to tell." Dom decided right then. "I'm sure it will make for entertaining table conversation." He arched a brow at her before adding. "I'm also interested in knowing who exactly was responsible for the scars in your stomach..."

Yeah, it was a good thing Quinn was already behind bars, otherwise it wouldn't have been pretty, it still probably wouldn't be... she could already imagine the reactions everyone would have to certain parts of the story. Her family especially wasn't going to take well to hearing of her near-death after being shot, or her kidnapping (regardless of how brief it might have been)... or pretty much anything she'd gotten into since first coming in contact with SHIELD. Still, considering she didn't take well to a lot of things they (though especially Dom) had done in the last few years, that was probably alright.

"So... what's in the envelope?" Brian asked, curious, and realizing the rest of the story would wait until after the meal.

"Right." Skye pulled out two folders, handing them over to Dom. "Just sign where the marks are and DT's and Toretto's Market will be all yours again."

"What?" Yet again the man was shocked.

"I bought them through some shell corporations and aliases when the FBI put them on auction." Skye revealed calmly. "Not hard at all, to tell you the truth. They were keeping the house while the investigation continued, but were getting rid of the businesses, so I took advantage. No way was I letting anyone else take them."

"Should you be talking so openly about illegal business, especially with your current job?" Brian couldn't help but ask.

"He knows what I am, has known from the very start." Skye signaled to her boyfriend. "It's why he brought me in, in the first place."

"Brought you in?" Both of her siblings asked in unison.

"Right." Phil nodded. "Full name is Phillip James Coulson, I am the Director of SHIELD. I'm also the one who first recruited Skye, back when she was still with the Rising Tide."

Yes, 'story-time' would be interesting indeed.

"Were you that sure we were coming back?" Mia chose back to go to the matter of the deeds.

"To be honest if it had taken much longer I would have done something about it." The younger Toretto admitted. "I didn't want to get involved at first, which is why I called Simone. With me being SHIELD and all, and with the rank I hold, it can be dangerous to be connected to me. Also, you did not need that kind of attention. However, when Suki called and told me where Tej had gone, and then I found out just who you were all going up against... I knew it was beyond insane, wasn't even sure how you would react if you were to find out who I was, seeing me again after things went so wrong... but I couldn't just ignore it either. Not with the chances that being involved in that op might kill you."

"So you decided to go and protect us, again..." Dom muttered, though there was a certain pride as he said it, and Skye could tell.

"What can I say?" Skye replied cheekily. "Papa taught me well."

They were all laughing in a carefree manner as they joined the rest at the table in the backyard. It was rather a big group: with Han standing beside Gisele, if Skye's senses didn't fail her they were talking about settling down in Tokyo, possibly even marrying; Tej was standing beside Suki, who had finally told him she was pregnant (Tej was thrilled); Roman was on his own, though he liked it well-enough that way, and Letty joined them as soon as they were all there, sitting on Dom's lap when it turned out there just weren't enough chairs for everyone.

"Come on, man, let's get with it." Roman called brightly as he bit a chip.

"First bite, he's got grace!" Brian cried out with a laugh. "House rules, man. House rules."

Skye smiled, she did remember the house rules... Phil didn't comment on it, just sat beside her, on Dom's and Letty's right, and across from Brian and Mia.

"Any of this feel familiar to you?" They heard her brother ask his girlfriend.

"No." She admitted, before adding with a soft smile. "But it feels like home..."

"That's good enough for me." Dom decided, holding her tight.

It would have to, because no matter how much Skye might wish she could help, that she could fix Letty's memory like she had done for James and Alec, it just wasn't possible. Letty was human, they hadn't been; James was a super-soldier and Alec was a meta, that had allowed them to endure the kind of power Menel had used on them, Letty would never be able to deal with that. Besides, it wasn't really needed. Somehow in the last couple of weeks she'd managed to fall in love with Dom all over again, she'd chosen to be with him. In the end, love did not need memories, it existed all the same. And that really was enough for them.

"All right, y'all." Roman said loudly, calling everyone's attention. "Come on, let's do this."

"Okay, Roman, bless our table." Dom indicated.

All of them held hands in a circle and the man did not hesitate before saying his version of grace:

"Father, thank you for the gathering of friends. Father, we give thanks for all the choices we've made, because that's what makes us who we are. Let us forever cherish the loved ones we've lost along the way. Thank you for the little angel, the newest addition to our family. For the return of Skye, the sister we believed lost along the way. Thank you for bringing Letty home as well... And most of all, thank you for fast cars!"

Skye let out a laugh as she heard that, silently adding her own part to the prayer:

"Thank you God, for the family you've given me, given us all, by blood, by word, by deed. For the things you've given us, the joy we've been able to find, the strength to get through every test in our path. Thank you for this life..."

She was thankful indeed, she loved her life, and would have it no other way.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8. Weapon of Fate

It was the hour before dawn and Agent Astrid Avery was in full 'agent attire' with an ICER in each hand, waiting against a wall on the back of a building for the assault to begin. Beside her two other Agents, recent recruits of SHIELD, though with good experience from working in other agencies in the past, were waiting alongside her, holding similar guns.

"Explain again to me why we're holding these toys instead of real guns?" One of the other Agents asked with obvious distaste.

"You shouldn't be insulting the guns your bosses have given you." the other probationary Agent remarked, obviously finding the attitude for their superior insulting.

Astrid just smiled, not taking the offense seriously. She knew it rankled some people, especially those who had served previously, either in other security agencies or in SHIELD itself, to have to serve following the orders of someone who was younger than them, who most would assume was little more than twenty-years-old, judging by her looks alone. At least most got the chance to see her in action at some point before having to follow her into a mission, David certainly had, which made the calm loyalty no surprise, Lavin on the other hand was a different matter. He'd been planning on retiring, something that didn't exactly work out for him, in the end his transfer to SHIELD was all the saved him from being pulled back in forcefully by Mossad (and who knows what would have happened afterwards?). He was included in that mission because, having had the same training as David, others hoped the two would be able to work together alright, still, the ex-Mossad seemed to have a hard time following Astrid's orders.

"First of all, these are no toys." Astrid pointed out. "The ICERs were created by FitzSimmons and are some of the most advanced technology..."

"We're going after criminals, repeat offenders, it would be far easier if we could just put a bullet between their eyes and be done with it." Lavin insisted.

"And what will you do when you shoot and the bullet doesn't go into your target's head? Or when it does and he just keeps going against you anyway? Or, my favorite, he goes down, only to get back up and attack you a few seconds afterwards?" Astrid challenged quietly.

"You cannot be serious." Lavin shook his head in disbelief.

"I am very serious Agent Lavin." His superior told him solemnly. "I have seen a man take almost a full clip to the chest, only to get back up and attack as if it were nothing, no vest, no armor."

"That's impossible." Lavin insisted.

"Not when you're dealing with metas." His partner, David, pointed out.

"You have seen them?" Lavin wanted someone else to confirm or (preferably) deny the info.

"A few times, in my old job." David nodded. "Most seem to prefer to hide they're different at all, but there are times when hiding is next-to-impossible. It's why some have taken to decapitating their enemies, sometimes even burning the body completely, to make sure of their defeat."

"We've done that too, once." Astrid nodded seriously. "With the first Deathlok..."

"What...?" Both agents were surprised at that.

"Deathlok was a super-soldier program, created by Cybertech." Astrid explained in few words. "It was based on bionics, using them to replace organs and limbs soldiers had lost, the change also made them stronger, sometimes faster..." She shook her head at the memories. "A few years ago Cybertech joined forces with the remains of AIM, the incomplete Extremis, creating what was known as the Centipede Project. They managed to create a number of super-soldiers in their manufacturing facility in New Mexico, using people they had gotten through what they called the 'Incentives Program'. Which consisted of blackmail, extortion, and at times even the use of hostages to convince people to 'volunteer'."

"That's monstrous!" Lavin hissed. "Why does the world not know about this?"

"Because we shut it down before it reached too far." Astrid informed him. "It was right after Hydra revealed itself and the civil war between it and SHIELD began. We hit the factory in New Mexico. Got there in time to free all the hostages, both those in cells and those being forced to work for the company. We also got those who'd been in the program and got them the help they needed to go back to their lives. Some of them, former military, chose to join SHIELD and become Agents, but most went back to their families and old lives."

"And you let them go? Just like that?" Lavin didn't believe it.

"They were not our prisoners, or criminals." Astrid stated firmly. "They were simply innocents who were used by Cybertech and Centipede. If we'd made them stay we would have been no better than them, no better than Hydra."

"What if they ever use their abilities against you, or against innocents?" Lavin insisted.

"Not possible." His superior shook her head. "Once the Centipede serum was out of their blood most of those abilities vanished. We allowed them to keep the prosthesis, but unless they truly needed the reinforced version (like in the case of those working for us), they were replaced by lighter versions, with strength equivalent to normal human limbs."

What she wasn't saying was that she had created special algorithms that allowed her to keep a 'virtual eye' on all of them. If any of them said or did anything, she would know, then they would decide how to proceed. Most were leading perfectly normal lives, Skye didn't even know what they were doing, didn't try to check on them, if it wasn't necessary. Their private lives were exactly that, private, unless they tried something.

"Will you have any problem?" Astrid asked, turning to David. "We're pretty much walking into your old turf in this one..."

"No problem at all..." David answered calmly.

It wasn't exactly a lie, but Astrid knew it wasn't the whole truth either. Still, as long as they could all stay focused long enough to bring the bastards they were hunting down, to justice, she cared little for what happened afterwards.

The signal came right then, shots as the fight began at the front of the NCIS offices, which had been taken by a group of criminals, at least two of them metas, the night before. After the Agents of the organization had failed their attempt at recovering their building, even with help from the FBI and CIA, SHIELD had finally been called in.

At the front of the building was Phil, along with Melinda, Akela and Trip, the four of them acting as a diversion, to pull the attention of the criminals; creating a window for Astrid and her two subordinates to scale the wall and slip into the building, unnoticed.

The plan worked well enough. Using some equipment FitzSimmons had sent them with the trio managed to climb the wall to a window in the third floor that Skye had previously used her telekinesis to open in such a way her subordinates believed it had been unlocked all along (as no one outside the family knew of her own powers, though it was an open secret that she had some sort of special ability).

David guided them through the dark corridors fast and quiet (electricity had been cut off earlier by the Agents inside in an attempt to gain an advantage against their invaders... regretfully, it hadn't been enough).

At some point they reached a corner where two guards were posted. David's hand was raised before Astrid could say a word, and the man was falling with an ICER to the side of the neck; the other one fell in a similar manner just a second later, to a shot from Lavin, who apparently had decided to stop complaining about the situation and get to work; which was good because Astrid was busy enough keeping track of everything going on everywhere, making sure they weren't ambushed by their enemies... or worse. They still did not know what abilities their opponents might have, and that made their situation a bit more delicate than any of them would prefer. Though Astrid had warned everyone that if it came down to it she was quite willing to pull on any and every power she had. The mission was too important for them not to.

They finally made it to the staircase, which was thankfully empty. They used it to go down the necessary levels before exiting carefully. To find a handful of more guards, all of which fell in a matter of seconds, to ICERs.

"How do we know this is the right place?" Lavin asked quietly. "Shouldn't we have checked every level to make sure?"

"We have trusted intel." Astrid answered simply.

No way she could tell him that, since she'd met the Agents they were seeking to rescue in that moment, she could track them down through their auras.

They were just a few yards from the door to the lab where the Major Case Team of NCIS were staying, when things seemed to finally blow. Apparently someone had finally noticed Skye's work in the surveillance cameras (which had made it so no one saw them in the control room). Which immediately allowed them to realize that the distraction outside was precisely that, a distraction. That got all the criminals (and the numbers were considerably higher than what had been initially suggested) moving instantly. Men in dark clothes and wearing night-vision goggles were upon them in no time.

"Well, time to improvise!" Astrid announced, going into a roll to avoid several shots.

"Exactly the way I work best!" David declared with satisfaction.

Shots were exchanged for what seemed like hours, thought it was less than a handful of minutes. Still, things were going fairly well, until Astrid heard Lavin call his partner's name loudly. A call that was followed by David's own wounded cry.

The two cries distracted Astrid enough that one of the criminals managed to get in her personal space, causing a slash in her arm; and since it was a 'human op.' so-to-speak, rather than a meta one, she wasn't wearing armor. The knife went straight through the sleeve of her shirt, to her skin opening a cut down her forearm.

The Agent cursed colorfully before shooting down the man who'd injured her. Still, even with her injury, she knew there was no time, so she ignored the pain, kicked at her attacker's knee to take him down before shooting him twice with the ICER for good measure. Then she spun around and ran in the direction of her subordinates' cries.

She turned a corner to reach them and almost crashed against a wall with the scene she came upon. David was on the ground, wearing no jacket, and the half-scorched remains of it could be seen by her feet; the white sleeveless shirt also looked a bit darkened; though the Agent allowed for no pain to show. Lavin, for his part kept shooting at his opponent, though it was doing nothing, as it was a meta, a pyrokinetic, and he kept burning every ICER bullet before it could reach him. A ring of fire around him also stopped either Agent from approaching.

"We should have brought Cassie on this one..." Astrid muttered under her breath.

Really, since upping her training (around the same time she decided she felt useless and wanted to join SHIELD as an active Agent), the young woman had improved by leaps and bounds. Her telekinesis was almost as good as Menel's and Azazeal's, and her control over fire was like nothing else that anyone had seen before.

Seeing that meta also brought other, far more delicate memories to the surface: her Papa's car blowing up right as he was about to win the last race of the season when she was sixteen, killing him; the flamethrowers wielded on both sides during the battle by the Los Angeles River when she was 23; a bridge, an explosion, a good man presumed dead for trying to do right by everyone and another being abducted by their enemies, while she held in her arms a child screaming as loudly as she; barely managing to get out of the Thermo-Nuclear Plant outside Metropolis, Kansas right before it blew up, collapsing the tunnels underneath and burying the dark creature known as Doomsday beneath as much earth, stone and metal as was possible... The one time SHIELD had gone against a fire-starter Skye had been nowhere near him, instead she'd been in the control-room with Ward, working on making sure that when Ho-Yin blew up, he wouldn't take the building, and everyone inside, with him.

Then she forced herself to remember other things: her team was alright, had survived that mission and many others since; Clark and the JL were alright as well (and they were somehow managing to keep the Green Arrow under control); and while her Papa might be dead, her siblings were safe and happy back in Echo Park...

Lavin ran out of bullets right then, something his opponent seemed to notice, as he stopped calling on small bursts of fire, meant to stop the bullet, and instead manifested a ball of flame that kept growing, preparing to attack. Lavin cursed loudly in several middle-eastern dialects, and it looked like David might be planning something crazy to take down the enemy. And Astrid remembered something else then: they were SHIELD, they were her Agents, and she was supposed to look after them, and protect them (ages and experience be damned).

"Get down!" She yelled, infusing her voice with all the authority of her princess self.

There was something about the Deputy Director's voice that pushed both Agents to obey her order instantly, even Lavin did it without saying a word. The moment they were out of the way Astrid extended both of her hands and pushed, expelling ice from the tips of her fingers, enough to go through the ball of fire the meta was still shaping and reach him. She couldn't freeze him, his fire ran too hot for that, but at least she could stop him from attacking her agents.

"You're like us..." The meta, voice raspy, said.

"I'm nothing like you." Astrid snapped at him.

"Of course, you're ice and I'm fire..." The criminal began.

"Wrong!" Astrid interrupted, covering her leg in ice before spinning around and kicking at the man. "The real difference between the two of us is that you are a criminal, a murderer, and I'm an Agent of SHIELD, here to stop you."

The man did his best to cover himself in fire in an attempt to dissuade her from attacking him. But she was't about to give up, so giving no thought to the Agents at her back, Skye shifted into her Jotun form and began pushing ice at her opponent, as fast as she could create it.

It wasn't easy, but in the end the man, while a meta, his body was still human, he had a high tolerance for the heat and fire, but wasn't meant to exist as such, while Skye's own nature made the ice a part of her. The fire went out and the man collapsed, completely drained. Skye stopped himself just in time not to ice him over.

"Now that was interesting..." Lavin commented, looking at the fallen enemy and his boss in turns. "Freaky as hell, but interesting nonetheless."

Astrid rolled her eyes as she pushed her body into becoming human again, her blue skin turning a golden tanned once more, her red eyes returning to blue.

David joined them, giving a once over to the criminal before shooting an ICER for good measure. The others didn't say a word, it was a good precaution.

"Are you alright Agent Avery?" David inquired, looking at the boss up and down.

"Just perfect." Astrid nodded as she made sure the last of her skin returned to normal.

"Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice." Lavin recited in a low tone. "From what I've tasted of desire /I hold with those who favor fire. /But if it had to perish twice, / I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice."

"What are you muttering about now?" David asked, turning in the man's direction.

"It's 'Fire and Ice', the poem by Robert Burns..." Astrid pointed out.

"Quite appropriate considering what just happened here." Lavin stated. "Freaky intense..." He began cursing in Hebrew before focusing again. "I'm beginning to wonder if it wouldn't have been better for me to stay with Mossad..."

"You are of course free to do as you wish Agent Lavin, but I do not think your old bosses would be exactly happy, considering you were on your way to defecting when we met you..." Astrid reminded him, brow arched. "Most of my team wasn't even sure it was a good idea to bring someone from Mossad into the team, but Annie convinced my boss to give you a chance..."

"They weren't sure because I am Mossad?!" Lavin snorted. "What about her?!"

"I stopped being Mossad years ago." David replied calmly.

"I know your history, you only quit being an Agent last year, and even after you did, that didn't stop you from hunting down your enemies..." Lavin insisted.

"And did you miss the part where for the last three years I've been a U.S. Citizen as well as an NCIS Agent?" David inquired.

Lavin had no answer for that.

"So, what will it be Agent Lavin?" Astrid demanded.

It probably wasn't the best time, they still had a mission to finish, though she could sense that Phil and the others were done outside, and they had handled the other meta (one with power over electricity, or something like that); but she was 'Team Captain' and needed to know at all times who in her team could be trusted.

Lavin muttered under his breath in a mix of languages, Astrid rolled her eyes but waited. David, on the other side, wasn't as patient and delivered a smack in the back of the other Agent's head.

"Fine!" Lavin snapped. "I'm staying."

"Good." Astrid nodded, after confirming the declaration through her empathy. "Lets finish this mission already, then."

"Ma'am... the wound on your arm..." Lavin commented right then.

"It's nothing." Astrid replied non-chalantly, turning to the door they stood before.

Her sleeve was slashed open, and there was enough red on it for everyone to realize the injury couldn't have been small and yet... there was no injury anymore.

They opened the door then. There were only two criminals left inside, and they fell quite quickly to ICER shots from David, who stalked into the room with a mix of confidence and badly-hidden concern, which tipped over the moment she noticed that among the people huddled in a corner of the room one man in particular was laying down, shirt open, what looked like a labcoat pressed to his side, all of them a deep, morbid red... David snapped.

"Tony!" The Agent screamed, dashing to the fallen man.

Everyone seemed absolutely shocked when they noticed the SHIELD Agent getting on her knees beside their own badly injured colleague.

Just with the amount of blood in the cloth, the shirt and the floor Astrid could tell it was bad, so could Lavin, for that matter.

"He won't make it..." He muttered, with a shake of his bed.

He'd seen too many people, good people, both agents and civilians, die for no good reason; didn't make it any easier, though...

"Yes, he will." Astrid declared before she pressed her hand to the comm on her ear. "Darcy! We need medics in here, we have an NCIS Agent with what looks like a GSW to his flank, it's bad, he's lost a lot of blood. Also, I need you to call Alec, or Clark, or even Chloe, whoever answers first. Tell them we need the Solomon drug asap!"

"On it!" Darcy answered from the Bus.

"The Solomon drug?" Lavin asked, curious. "As in Solomon Pharmaceuticals?"

"I know the CEO..." Astrid answered with shrug. "I cannot tell you details, it's classified. But I can say this: if that man is as much of a fighter as Agent David has implied since we recruited her... then that spirit, and the drug, will save him."

"I hope it does." Lavin nodded. "Something tells me David won't take it kindly if he dies."

Astrid nodded, in complete agreement.

Right then the injured NCIS Agent, one Anthony DiNozzo, opened his eyes, just a bit, but it was enough to see the woman kneeling by his side, pressing the bloodied labcoat tighter against his injury in an attempt to keep him from losing more blood than he already had. He couldn't help but wonder if she was a hallucination, a signal that he was almost completely gone. Still, even that did not stop him from calling to her, nothing ever could have...

"Ziva...?"

"Yes Tony..." She whispered, tears clouding her vision, though for the first time she did not care. "I'm here, and you're safe now..."

"I must be dying..." Tony muttered in a broken voice.

"You are not dying!" She stated in an attempted forceful tone. "Do you hear me Anthony?! You are not dying on me. I won't allow it! The medics are on their way and once we get you to the hospital the doctors will have what we need to save you. Trust me Tony..."

Tony made an effort to keep talking, even when his other colleagues tried to shush him, convince him to save energy. But how could he keep quiet when Ziva was there, in front of him, after he thought he would never see her again? Also, with her there, it meant there was no way he could give up, he would never let her down like that... he couldn't.

"I trust you Ziva..." He whispered. "Always..."

"Very well." Ziva nodded. "Then you hold on, I promise you help is coming."

Tony nodded, slowly closing his eyes tiredly, though he kept a hold of one of Ziva's hands as a way of showing her he was still alert, or as alert as someone who'd lost as much blood as he'd could be (and even then it was surprising).

"Is that really you, Ziva?" The small black-haired woman in dark clothes whose bloodied hands attested to the fact that she'd been the one holding the bloody labcoat (possibly her own) against her colleague's and friend's injury asked, with more than a little hesitation.

"It really is me, Abby." Ziva nodded.

"So you're back now?" The girl asked, confused. "How?"

"I am here now, but I'm not NCIS anymore..." Ziva revealed, turning over her shoulder to look at her boss, who stood by the door with Eyal Lavin, as they waited for the medics to arrive. "I am an Agent of SHIELD now..."

xXx

It was a close call. DiNozzo had lost more blood than any doctor felt comfortable with and more than a few were sure that regardless of how fast the paramedics had gotten the Special Agent to the hospital, and the promises the middle-eastern looking woman escorting him had made of a medicine that would help him greatly, that man was still going to die. He didn't, thanks in part to Alec's 'special drug' and DiNozzo's own will to live (though it was a close call, especially when they actually lost him twice on the table).

It still wasn't easy. The drug wasn't FDA approved (mainly because they still hadn't found a way to 'explain' its contents and origins (without revealing the truth about Alec and his meta status). And no one from the 'family' had the necessary influence in the area to get the doctors to simply administer it anyway. At least not until none other than the Special Agent in Charge: Leroy Jethro Gibbs made an appearance and ordered all the doctors to stop making excuses and do it. Since the man was in all of DiNozzo's files as his next-of-kin and the only one allowed to make medical decisions and that sort of thing, the doctors had no choice but to do as they were told.

Alec had even sent his own doctor: Eli Hamilton, to take care of the procedure, not because it was actually complicated in any way, but to make sure that the doctors, unknowing of what they were dealing with, wouldn't make some kind of mistake; wouldn't try to boycott the treatment in a misguided attempt to protect the patient from an unknown drug; or worse, might not administer the full dose, wanting to keep some of it for study... all of which couldn't be allowed.

In the end, it worked. Twelve hours after the mission had taken place DiNozzo was declared to be in a medical coma, in which he would remain until the machines connected to him no longer registered him to be in pain, and enough of his blood volume had been restored that he wouldn't end up going to sleep anyway. The drug had taken him away from the edge of death and set him properly on the path to slow, but sure, recovery, but not much more (it had taken a full dose just to do that, and more would give him some awful secondary effects, like what had happened to Oliver Queen when he himself had first experimented with it).

Astrid stayed around just long enough to make sure Agent DiNozzo had made it through the worst of it, file her report on the mission, attend a debrief with SA Gibbs and Director Vance (which had been more than a little grueling, what with her having appeared with a former NCIS of all people as part of her team!). Then she made arrangements to leave, citing personal matters (and it was personal).

"You cannot leave..." Ziva called her as she was about to board the quinjet.

"Agent David..." Astrid began, calmly.

"My name is Ziva, you know that, you can very well use it, I don't see people calling you Agent Avery, or worse, Deputy Director Avery, wherever you go." Ziva snapped a little.

"As a general rule, no one outside of SHIELD, and some specific contacts know the real rank I hold in the organization." Astrid reminded the woman, unaffected by her attitude. "It is true most don't call me by my surname, but that's because most of those that form my team now have been with me from the moment I entered SHIELD, at a time when all I had was my first name, no family name at all... so it just became normal for everyone to call me that."

She did not need to know that the first name in question hadn't been Astrid, but Skye, or why such a change had taken place.

"I still think..." Ziva began.

"What are you objecting really here Ziva, my leaving, or your staying?" Astrid deadpanned.

The ex-Mossad, ex-NCIS had no answer to that, she herself wasn't sure. It's not like she was that dependent on her superior, she made a point to depend as little as possible in other people (the father-daughter relationship that had developed between her and Gibbs during her time at NCIS notwithstanding), but it was still a question she wasn't sure she could, or wanted, to answer.

"In the end, there's nothing I can do about either." Astrid went on, not really expecting an answer from the other woman. "I need to go to Chicago on personal business and you... need to stay here and look after your friend."

"He doesn't need me..." Ziva muttered.

"Oh girl, if you're gonna lie to others, make sure you're not trying to lie to yourself at the same time, it never works." Astrid actually smiled crookedly as she said that. "You and I both know your friend does need you, and that he'll be greatly distressed if he wakes up, after surviving the mess that was the attack on NCIS, especially everything he and the rest of that team had to go through before we were called, and not see you there beside him. He might even believe you to have been a hallucination, and that would be in no way productive for his recovery."

"Why are you insisting so much on this?" Ziva couldn't help but ask. "I was part of your team for this mission. You should be demanding that I stay with you, or in any case, that I go back to the Playground and wrap this case up."

"I'm insisting on this, because it's what you really want, no matter how much you may insist on denying it to me, and even to yourself; truth is Ziva, you want to stay." Astrid told her softly. "You want to be here for Agent DiNozzo, and for the rest of your team..."

"They're no longer my team." The middle-eastern interrupted.

"They will always be your team." The half-elf insisted. "A team like yours, like mine... they are like family, and family doesn't stop being such, even if you happen not to be able to meet for a while. Bonds like that can never be broken. And you don't want them to be broken Ziva." She turned serious. "You might have thought you needed to stay away for their own good, and your own; you might think that you can never go back to NCIS, and you may be right at least on that one... but you don't need to go back to working with them, to be able to still care for them. And in any case, we are in need of a good liaison for any future jobs with NCIS. It's not like Phil and I can continue being the only connection to every ally we make around the world..."

It was the truth, and if she was honest with herself (though there was no way she was revealing that part to the other woman), Astrid had planned something like that for the beginning. She knew how much Agent David missed her old team in the NCIS, and how much she felt like she couldn't go back, not after everything that had happened... still, she was too much an Agent, too much the kind of woman that lived to protect, to really retire, so she had taken the job SHIELD had offered her, and then Astrid began planning the best way to get her close to NCIS again.

Granted, the Deputy Director of SHIELD hadn't exactly planned for a group of rogues to take the NCIS offices exactly after a mission in Maine had ended; just in time for their contacts in the CIA and FBI to call them in (as the only ones who were expected to be able to handle the meta threats in the rogue group). Still, it had worked pretty well, if the half-elf did say so herself... or it would as soon as she convinced Ziva to stop focusing on the past and give both her old team/family and herself another chance...

"Just give it a try Ziva." The younger woman insisted. "You all deserve it..."

"You know, you say 'you all', yet it sounds like you mean just me and Tony..." The ex-NCIS commented with an arched brow.

The hacker knew about what had happened... or almost-happened between the two Agents, and even if the woman hadn't been accommodating enough during her interview, Skye was sure she would have still seen the bright bonds that tied the two Agents together. So tightly it was a wonder the woman had been able to stay away as long as she had, she would have had to find her way back eventually... and the Deputy Director was only happy to help.

"What can I say?" She said in a rather blasé attitude. "I'm so happy with my love-life I want everyone else to feel the same way!"

"I did not need to know that about my bosses, thank you very much!" Ziva shook her head in a rather theatrical manner.

"Then what are you doing here still talking to me, go back to the hospital and wait for your man to wake up!" Skye made shooing motion even as she chuckled.

Finally, Ziva did. With one last smile at her retreating form Skye turned around to climb into the Bus. She had other things to focus on... like the lawyer waiting for her in Chicago. Chicago... the one city she'd once declared she'd never go back to, the place of her worst nightmares... and now she was willingly going back... she must be insane. She was still doing it, but only because it was her, the only person who could have possibly convinced her of returning to that hell (one that had nothing to do with her sister).

Over the comms she could hear Melinda announcing that they were ready for take-off, a second before Phil took a seat beside her. He didn't say a word, just placed a comforting hand on her arm, as they both waited. He knew she hated the idea of going back to Chicago, and why she felt it was necessary to do it anyway; the only thing he did not know was what exactly made her hate that particular city so much. It was the one part of her past that Skye still kept a secret, in part because of how traumatic it was, and in part because she still had some secrets that could kill, and that was one of them.

"Yes, I must be completely insane..." She muttered to herself.

And yet there was, indeed, a reason why she was going, and it all came down to the contents inside an envelope she kept in the inner pocket of her jacket:

Ms. Starr:

We at Burbank and Associates regret to inform you that Ms. Amalia Richards has passed on, prompting the unsealing of her Last Will and Testament, according to which you are to receive of all her monies and assets. Please meet us at your earliest convenience.

Yours,

Carlisle Mackenzie, Attorney at Law.

The letter on its own wouldn't have meant that much, even with how it had traveled before reaching her hands. Going from one PO Box to another with help from third parties and hired couriers (at some point even crossing the border briefly). All part of the protocol that had been put in place for whenever she had to deal with something connected to her 'criminal' identity of Karen Starr (called that way because it was the identity where she still had a rap-sheet, and the one her less-than-legal contacts had.

The name Amalia Richards hadn't meant much at first, as she couldn't remember anyone with that name; which wasn't really that surprising, all things considered, she wasn't the only one who employed aliases when dealing with certain people. And then she'd pulled something else from the envelope, a small piece of paper, folded in half; a P.S. In the main letter had explained it was a personal message left by Amalia to be sent to her in the event of her passing, as some sort of authentication code. The lawyer hadn't understood it, but the moment Skye unfolded the paper, she did, the paper had only one thing in the very center of it, a carefully etched, hand-drawn picture, of a big golden-brown fox with sharp features, flicking its tail playfully at a delicate white dove flying overhead.

Skye's shock had been such she'd been left almost completely speechless for a while. It was probably a good thing she hadn't opened the envelope until the mission was finished (though she had finally picked it up from a locker in the airport in Maine before they traveled to Virginia for the emergency op). In the end, Phil was the only one capable of getting a reaction out of her (which wasn't exactly a surprise).

"Fox is dead..." Was all Skye said for the longest time.

Plans were made to travel to Chicago almost right away. That, more than anything else, told Phil that something definitely wasn't right; he knew how much his lover hated that place, even if she had never been clear on why exactly. It was quite obvious that, whoever Fox might be, have been, she was important to the half-elven, for her death to prompt her to return to that place.

Phil knew his beloved still had secrets, most simply because she'd been through so much that it was no surprising that it would take years for everything to be shared between them. However, he also knew there was one truly important secret, a piece of his lover he still hadn't been able to reach and was important. He'd been a patient man, waiting until she was ready to share... he never expected the moment to come the way it had, though. Never expected someone would have to die, or that Skye would actually be returning to the one place she hated so much she actually ran away from it, from the people in it, that she willingly lived on the streets to stay away from... and in the middle of the winter too! So yeah, whatever had happened there was big, and Phil had a feeling that once that last piece of the puzzle was in place, nothing would ever be the same.

xXx

They made it to Chicago with no trouble. Skye knew already where to find the lawyer's offices. That part was easy enough too; the lawyer didn't even check Karen Starr's fake ID (either they already knew it was fake, or it just did not matter to them), the man just gave his condolences before handing over a sealed package. Skye took it, thanked the man, tipped him (as was expected with the kind of deals being done in that place), then gestured for Phil and the two left.

Skye finally opened the package once they were in the rental car. The first thing Phil saw, from the corner of his eye as he drove, was almost enough to make him pull over in shock. It was a Revolver, looked a bit like a Colt, or maybe a Smith & Weson, except for the detailing on the handle, that was so intricate as to make it obvious the gun was unique.

Skye pulled out the handgun, taking a quick look at its cylinder (it was empty), before turning it around several times, gingerly fingering the almost tribal-looking markings half-engraved, half-painted on the polished dark wooden handle. Eventually she put it down, on her lap, beside the box, before saying something that definitely threw her lover for a loop:

"Where's the other one?"

"What?!" That time Phil really pulled over, too shocked to focus on the road anymore.

"This was Fox's favorite weapon, or more precisely, this is one of a pair, and that's what's gotten me all confused." Skye explained as she stared into the mostly empty box. "Those revolvers are a set, and Fox being how she is, she never took one without the other... it was one of her quirks... and even then she rarely used these guns, said they were a gift from a man she greatly respected, they were meant only for her most special jobs..."

"Most special... jobs?!" Phil's eyes were wide in surprise. "Just what did your friend do?"

"Remember how I told you once that James wasn't the only assassin I knew... or even the first?" Skye asked with a grim smile. "Yeah... Fox was connected to that."

"Your friend was an assassin!" Phil really did not know what else to say.

"One of the best, from what I know." Skye nodded, half lost in a memory.

For a couple of minutes not a word was said, Phil just watched Skye placing several papers inside her denim jacket, before looking intently at what looked like a very modern key, the top fused with a engraving of the same image that had been in the little card, except that one was in a mix of cooper and what looked like white-gold or platinum.

"I don't understand..." Phil finally blurted out.

"I know..." Skye nodded with a quiet sigh. "And I'm afraid this is something I cannot explain. For your own good as well as mine. Some secrets really can kill... and this is one of them. My last secret, and also my most dangerous one."

"I would have expected that to be the one related to Konstantin..." Her lover quipped.

"You would think..." The girl snorted. "But Josef calls me family, the people Fox was connected to... they are something else."

And that was as much as she as willing to say, she already felt like she'd said too much.

"So, that's what she left you then?" Phil asked, changing topic a bit.

"Not quite." Skye shook her head. "The handgun she could only have left with her lawyers, as she had it here in Chicago, the key on the other hand... it's for a deposit box in a bank, in Zurich. That's where the real inheritance is. The papers are official statements of all her liquid assets."

"Only money, no mementos or anything like that?" Phil was confused by that, and really, it was so normal for people to collect things, knickknacks...

"Fox was never interested in material possessions." The brunette shook her head. "She could have had a life of luxury, and chose instead to live a simple one, always saving the money. I asked her once if she was making plans for her retirement, she said yes..."

"But she never got the chance..." Phil murmured.

He might not know the woman, not understand what made her become what she was, but he did grieve over the fact that once again Skye was losing someone she cared for.

"Oh, she did." Skye's answer surprised her beloved deeply. "This was her retirement Phil. She said it once: 'If you're an assassin you only retire when you stop pulling the trigger, and instead it gets pulled on you'..." She shook her head, eyes closed. "Never expected that she would leave it all to me, though..."

"What about her family? Parents? Siblings? A significant other...?"

"No one as far as I know. She told me once that her father was a DA. When she was a child he had this big case, very public, against a very dangerous and vicious man. I don't know what happened exactly, if the man jumped bail, there was a technicality or just escaped prison, but he hunted the DA down, as well as the family. The DA died that night, as did his two sons, who'd tried to protect their family; Fox and his mother survived, though the mother killed herself shortly afterwards, never recovering from the torture she was subjected to that night, or having to watch her husband and sons die. In the end Fox herself was the only survivor of the tragedy."

"Is that what made her decide to be an assassin?"

"In part. It was a bit more complicated but... well..."

But she couldn't say the rest, at least Phil understood.

"I want to go to the cemetery..." Skye declared quietly after a while.

Phil did not ask any question. He simply introduced the location into the GPS and began driving.

They made it to the cemetery in no time at all. The lawyer had explained to Skye that 'Amalia Richards' had been buried in the family plot, so that's where they went, the couple stopping on the way to buy a bouquet of white carnations (for remembrance) and cosmos chrysanthemums (for peacefulness) on the way.

And there they were, with a worn-out gravestone where it was quite evident a fifth name had been recently added at the bottom. Amalia Richards's name had, in death, finally been able to join the parents and brothers she'd lost so long before...

"How curious..." Phil commented quietly shortly after they arrived.

Skye was still on her knees before the gravestone, having just finished her prayers and laid the flowers down, when she turned to her lover.

"What is it?" She asked quietly.

"There are already flowers on your friend's grave." Phil pointed out what she'd somehow missed. "And they're fresh."

"Indeed..." Skye cocked her head sideways in contemplation. "Lilacs, white tulips and pink carnations... first love, forgiveness and gratitude..."

It was an odd combination, not just of flowers, but of meanings, it made Skye wonder who had left such a bouquet, and what the history behind it might be. Though, even with her curiosity, she probably would have chosen a different way for her answer to come to her.

The click was very quiet, normal human ears would have never heard it... but they weren't exactly human so... Phil turned around sharply, all senses on alert and a hand reaching for the gun on the holster at his side (even though he was technically off-duty, he'd learnt it was a bad idea to go around unarmed at any moment, because, somehow, that was when they would get attacked); Skye, for her part reached for Fox's gun, which she'd placed in the small of her back earlier, having filled the chamber with bullets included in the box. She'd been planning on shooting at a tree or something with the gun (despite how much she did not like actual guns) as a sort of tribute for her old friend... she wasn't sure if that was even the right word, but still. In that moment, though, she decided it might have been a good idea, considering that aside from that, the only weapon on her was a knife in one of her boots, and there was a certain saying about 'not bringing a knife to a gunfight...'.

It was like the Mexican stand-offs one saw in movies, or read of in novels; except in that moment there was quite the chance of someone ending up dead.

As they remained un-moving: Skye still on her knees, before the Richards' grave, Phil on guard a few feet behind her, and the unknown two or three yards away from them. The two SHIELD Agent took a moment two study the newcomer: somewhat on the small side (height wise), lithe, tanned skin, messy chocolate hair, wide baby-blue eyes, he was in a white wifebeater, somewhat-torn blue-jeans and a ligh-blue denim jacket. However, what truly pulled their attention was the gun he was pointing at Skye with.

"What in all seven hells are you doing with that gun?!" Skye demanded hotly, jumping to her feet and giving a step.

"Don't move!" The man hollered, waving the gun threateningly. "I'll shoot!"

"You shoot me, and he'll shoot you." Skye deadpanned. "And I promise you, in the end, you'll be the only one dead."

"You think I'll miss?" The man sounded almost challenging.

"I never said that, did I?" Skye arched a brow, answering the challenge.

And really, if her suspicions were right, the chances of the man missing a shot were so small as to be laughable... though she was still sure she could survive it.

"Now, explain to me how you got that gun." The girl demanded, not moving again, but not backing down either.

"Of course, as soon as you explain about the one you're holding." The young man retorted.

"It was left to me." Skye answered calmly, the elaborated. "Amalia left it to me in her will."

"Amalia?" The man actually seemed confused for a moment. "But that gun belonged to..."

"Fox?" Skye finished for him, her eyes narrowed. "Who are you exactly?"

"Shouldn't you be introducing yourself first?" The man obviously didn't like the idea of giving his name, not when he did not know her.

"Karen Starr." She had never cared much who knew that name, there was a reason why all her criminal contacts had it.

"That means nothing to me." The man snapped, getting tense all over again.

"I..." Skye hesitated just a second before giving him one name she knew, or hoped, he would understand. "Fox called me Dove..."

"You're Fox's 'Little Dove'!" The man called, pulling the gun away.

"And you would be...?" She was still waiting for an answer.

"My name is Wesley," The man finally answered, before readjusting the safe on the gun and putting it inside his jacket. "Wesley Gibson."

He turned eyes to Phil, but before the assassin could study the older man too closely Karen/Skye stepped in the way. She was wearing a loose thin-strapped violet top, dark-washed tight jeans, a short dark-washed denim jacket, black-leather knee-high boots and black-leather gloves, her hair in a messy twist at the back of her head.

"Not him." She told Wesley simply. "Your business, if you have any, is with me. He's got nothing to do with... that."

"You know that's not a good idea, right?" Wesley asked her with a brow raised. "Bringing civilians into our lives, I mean." He reconsidered that for a moment. "On the other hand, he carries a gun, has seen the one you carry and didn't seem that surprised by mine, or phased at all by my pointing at you with it. So what exactly is he?"

"For the last time, he's got nothing to do with this." Skye repeated, tense. "To be frank, even I have very little to do. I am not like you, Wesley, I'm a contact, but I was never part of the... Secret Society." She smiled almost wistfully. "Fox said I didn't have it in me."

"The White Dove is just that, white, innocent, and free... she's too good for this life." Wesley recited, in a manner that made it obvious he was quoting someone.

"Yeah, that's what she would usually say." Skye nodded solemnly.

"Why are you here?" Wesley asked, curious.

"I got notice from the lawyers that she was dead, and I was the sole beneficiary in her will." Skye answered honestly. "I would have never come back if it hadn't been about her. When I left Chicago ten years ago I told myself I was never coming back..."

"She held you in very high esteem." Wesley nodded in recognition. "Once told me that you were the only friend she'd ever had..."

"Hard to make friends in an environment where the very person sitting beside you is as likely to put a bullet between your eyes as they are to share a drink with you." Skye drawled.

"True." Wesley had to admit she was right on that one.

Skye opened and closed her mouth several times, hesitating about asking a question; Wesley was about to tell her to just ask and get it over with when the senses of all three of them snapped.

"Down!" Skye called, probably unnecessarily.

Still, the three hit the grass in the next fraction of a second, rolling until they could more or less hide themselves behind gravestones: Phil and Skye together, Wesley a few places away.

Wesley pulled his gun back out, but whenever he so much as began peeking over the top or side of the stone he was behind, more bullets would rain on them. He couldn't see, therefore couldn't aim, or fire, at all.

"Where the hell are all these bullets coming from?" He growled, annoyed.

The young woman, for her part, while she couldn't exactly take a look either, she didn't need to, her magic senses more than made up for the lack of human ones.

"Two shooters." Skye began reciting the pertinent information. "One at my four o'clock, the other at seven o'clock... more or less. The first is posted on a tree, fifteen yards away or so, he has a rifle. The second is using a mausoleum half a dozen feet behind me as a cover, one with a Star of David above the door, that one has only handguns with him, short-range."

"Well, at least we've got no snipers, that would have certainly been a pain in the ass." Wesley commented flippantly.

He had no idea how or where the girl had gotten her information but considering their situation he decided it wasn't that important.

"Wesley!" Skye called loudly. "Heads up!"

The assassin barely reacted properly in time, still surprised when she caught the gun she'd just thrown at him. He looked at it and then at the girl in confusion.

"Told you I'm not like you, and guns just aren't my thing... not that kind of guns at least." She said for all explanation.

She loved her ICER and her taser-gun, but she just couldn't deal with normal guns, the memories were just too many, and too traumatic: the bastard poor-excuse for a foster father that had waved a gun at her when she was just a child who couldn't stop crying, due to the pain from a broken arm (courtesy of her foster-brother pushing her down the stairs); a drive-by shooting on Echo-Park when she was twenty, she'd been too shocked to move, she'd been pushed down just in the nick of time, but Jesse hadn't been as lucky; Hank Mottola shot to death before her eyes when she was twenty-three by the insane ADA Talbot, only to later be kidnapped by the same individual who'd turned out to be a worst monster than any of the vampires she knew; Ian Quinn shooting her point blank in the stomach, twice, in that cellar in an Italian villa months before turning twenty four, she very nearly died from that one.

So yeah, too many traumatic memories connected to guns.

Wesley looked directly at her, mouthing two words she was already expecting, even as he said them to her lover in a low tone.

"Don't Move..."

Bullets began flying them from the opposite direction. Phil was actually shocked when he saw the assassin swing his arm around while holding one of the guns, before shooting, the barrel of the revolver ending pointing straight at Skye. Except the bullet didn't hit the girl, instead it seemed to go in an arch around her, around them both and the gravestone at their backs, before a low groan and some cursing revealed that it'd hit its mark.

Wesley jumped to his feet then and began firing in earnest, swinging his arms around a bit more. In the end, almost half a dozen bullets were fired by the young assassin. The first had hit the man by the mausoleum in the leg, making it harder for him to hide and shoot at the same time; three or four bullets that followed had served to either deflect or completely disable the ones shot by the two attacking them; the next shot hit the wall of the mausoleum, forcing that man to move a couple of steps in shock, which put him straight in the path of the last shot from that gun, clean through the heart, he was dead before he even knew what was going on. On the other side one bullet hit the end of the rifle, stopping him from shooting again; the next took the branch the weapon was braced on, making both fall; before the last hit the shooter on the head.

Skye waited a few seconds more, senses at full alert as she searched the silence, making sure there wasn't another shooter waiting in the darkness for them to lower their guards. There wasn't. So with that in mind she finally pushed herself to her feet, helping her lover do the same before brushing the dirt off her jeans.

"Wanna explain to me what exactly that was?" She asked Wesley in her most crossed tone. "I really don't like being shot at, especially when I don't even know who's shooting at me, or why..."

"They weren't after you, but after me." Wesley answered, almost sheepish. "They're Fraternity..."

From all the answers Skye had been expecting that one wasn't on the list. She could have cried out about impossibilities, thought the worst of the man before her (after all, if the Fraternity was after him, it must be for a reason, right?). Even him having Fox's other handgun could be easily explained if he'd killed her and taken it afterwards... except his aura didn't scream 'insane killer', or anything of the sort, no, it wasn't the aura of a killer, but the one of a man in so much pain he didn't know what to do with it anymore...

"How did Fox die?" Skye asked carefully, purposefully.

"Her name came up..." Wesley said, looking away, voice somewhat hoarse.

It wasn't exactly the kind of answer one would expect for the girl's question, but it told her more than any proper answer would have.

"That's impossible." She shook her head in denial. "Fox lived by the code, she would have never done anything that would have made the Loom weave her name..."

"Except for the fact that we don't exactly choose who we go after, the names of our targets are just given to us..." Wesley muttered, pained.

"And..." The woman still did not understand.

"What do you think happens when targets are faked?" Wesley asked her in turn. "When it's no longer about 'killing one to save a thousand' about being 'weapons of fate', but just a gun for the highest bidder, a common mercenary?"

"Fate turns against you..." Skye forced the answer through the know in her throat, she was beyond shocked. "Who?!"

"Sloan. He betrayed everything the Fraternity stood for, everyone. And now the Fraternity is no more..." He hesitated before adding. "It was the only way."

"Fox...?" She asked quietly, not even sure how to phrase that question.

"She made the choice." Wesley nodded at her. "When the farce was revealed I was left standing in between over half a dozen assassins: Sloan and Fox included, and he told them that all their names had turned up. So they could either live by the code, and shoot themselves, or forsake the code, live and shoot me. All but one turned their weapons on me." He sighed. "There's no way I could have ever taken them all, even with all I'd done to get to that point, I just wasn't enough to go against them all. And then... Fox took a shot. She bend the bullet in such a way it made a full circle, took down every assassin in the room but Sloan... she was the last one to fall." He hesitated a second before adding. "When I saw her there was a smile on her face."

"She made her choice." The girl half-echoed the assassin's words. "For so many years she lived by the code... and she chose to die by it too."

"I went after Sloan after that." Wesley informed her. "It took me two weeks, but eventually I got him where I wanted. He's dead now."

Skye nodded, half-absently, as she considered everything Wesley had just told her and its rather far reaching implications. It wasn't just Fox dead, but most of the Fraternity (if not almost all) as well, Sloan included...

"The Fraternity is gone..." Skye gasped as it finally hit her.

"Yes..." The assassin did not understand what the point was.

"I'm free..." She whispered brokenly.

She collapsed into her lover's arms then, her body going almost completely limp in her sudden relief; it was shocking. Truth was, that while the men might not understand, there was a reason for that relief; because, for the first time since she was sixteen, just released from juvie, since she'd first set foot in Chicago, in that small wooden house and the monsters that lived in it and called themselves foster-parents, for the first time since she'd come to understand what hell really was (and that it wasn't in another world, or another life, but right then and there), she was free... she was finally, totally, truly free...

It had all begun right after she was released from the Juvenile Detention Center. The case workers at Child Services had decided that the Torettos no longer where the right family for her, what with Darius dead, Dominic in jail, Mia barely eighteen years old, and the fact that she'd been arrested racing while under her care. There was also the fact that someone had covered up the fact that her adoption had gone through, though she hadn't learnt that until recently, after reuniting with her adoptive family (and they really were her family).

The State sent her to Chicago, Illinois then, to the Garrows, a couple who supposedly specialized in 'troubled teenagers'. From the moment Skye arrived she knew there was something very wrong with that place, it just felt wrong... and if anyone had asked, she would have told them she could almost feel death lurking around the corner.

The Garrows were abusive, which at first wasn't really that much of a problem; it's not like they were the first abusive family she was forced to be with. She did her best to stay out of their way, especially when either or both were drinking (beers mostly, sometimes moonshine or some other 'homemade' brews... there was a reason why she preferred more elaborate drinks) or doing drugs; and whenever she couldn't avoid them, she would take what they dealt silently, doing her best not to react at all to them. Deep inside she kept the hope that when two months had passed she would be able to move on, it was the first time she was happy about the constant moves.

And then, Fox appeared. She arrived one day, in the middle of the night. From comments made here and there Skye was able to deduce that the newcomer had been a foster-child of the couple ten or fifteen years earlier, when she was fourteen. At first the girl had hoped to gain an ally, someone who knew how bad the Garrows were and might be willing to help, until Fox too began manhandling her at every opportunity, slapping her, once even kicked her when the teenager wouldn't move fast enough.

It was almost more than the sixteen-year-old could take, but she wasn't the kind to give up, so she took it. She taught herself to move with the punches and kicks, protect her vitals, dodge whenever possible (mostly when the Garrows were already too drunk or drugged to really pay much attention to her).

When the second month with the Garrows approached its end, Skye began getting antsy, wanting to leave already, yet at the same time she couldn't help the feeling that something was going to go really wrong before the end... And it did:

It was two days before the end of the month and Skye was all-packed already. Her bag hidden in a corner, with some papers and other things around it for camouflage. She had lost over half of the things the Torettos had bought for her shortly after arriving to the house, the Garrows telling her there was no need for all those pretty clothes, instead selling them to get money for their drugs and booze. Skye had manage to hide a few things and buy back a few more with what money she'd left. It wasn't much, but at least something.

What she could have never expected that night was the moment Fox slipped into her room. The woman was tall, statuesque, with sharp features, dusky skin, dark eyes and brunette hair in loose waves to just below her shoulder blades. She usually a white short-sleeved top (allowing a number of tattoos on her arms to be seen), dark-gray cargo pants and boots.

"What do you want?" The girl asked hesitantly.

In the weeks since Fox had first arrived she'd learnt it was a bad idea to question the woman about anything; but in that particular moment the shock of seeing her was so great Skye just couldn't hold herself back.

Surprisingly enough, Fox did not make any attempt to strike Skye, she simply let out a sigh and sat on the girl's bed.

"So young... so innocent..." Fox murmured, in a tone of voice Skye had never heard from her before. "You truly are a dove, aren't you?"

"I have no idea what you mean..." Skye murmured, standing as far away from the older woman as she could, which wasn't much with how small the room was.

"You have the instinct to survive, to protect, but no instinct to kill... you will never make it in this world." Fox went on, as if she hadn't heard Skye.

"I am perfectly capable of surviving!" Skye couldn't help but hiss.

"Not in this world." Fox shook her head with a dark chuckle, as if she had heard a joke in Skye's words. "Ours is a world of monsters, of beasts, and a little white dove such as yourself... you'll be eaten the first day."

Skye had no words to answer to that, it was as if the older women were speaking some kind of code she'd never heard.

"You should run." Fox told her, abruptly serious. "If you want to live, you must run, tonight."

"I don't understand." Skye admitted, confused. "The day after tomorrow will make two months since I've been here, the social worker will come and take me to my next home. They always do."

"No they won't, not this time." Fox shook her head. "This is your last stop, it's always been. The kids that come here, it's always been like that... I'm sure you've realized that already. Have found out how many teenagers the Garrows have lost..."

Indeed she had. Skye was, by nature, a curious person. The way the Garrows treated her, it was more vicious than any of the violent families she'd been with before, and she was alone. Usually when she was with violent families they had other children at the same time, so the attention wasn't on one sole 'victim' all the time. The fact that it was different in that moment made her curious, so she had made some research, going to the library and looking up registries and old newspapers. What she found, horrified her: A number of teenagers had gone missing in the last two decades, all of them foster-children of the Garrows; at least four a year. With some of them, their bodies had eventually been found, in a river, a ditch somewhere, on in shallow graves; the general theory on all the cases was suicide, or sometimes it was believed that they had ODed on some drug or another, a number were said to have been victims of gangs.

It was obvious Skye hadn't been the only one to notice what they all had in common: being foster children to the Garrows. However, the most any article had to say was about the 'emotional strength' the couple must have, to be able to move on; or how good they must be, to keep trying to give 'troubled teenagers' a better life, despite their obvious lack of interest in one. Because that's all they were to the public in general: 'troubled teenagers'; foster children whom no one wanted. The State had been paying for their care for most of their lives, and finally they too were giving up, uncaring about how they met their ends.

The worst part, somehow, wasn't even all the dead, but those that had never been found. The girl suspected that, somehow, those had it worse.

"What did they do to them?" Skye asked quietly. "What will they do to me?"

"You, they will kill." Fox answered in a dead-honest tone. "You're not what they were expecting. Like I said before, you have the instincts to fight, to protect, but you don't have the initiative to attack, you could never be a killer..."

"Of course not!" Skye almost cried out in horror.

"Which is exactly why you'll never survive in our world." Fox insisted. "And why they will kill you tomorrow night, unless you're gone by then..."

"Who are they?" Skye asked, voice hoarse with a mix of horror and near-terror. "Who are you all? What gives you the right to decide who lives and who dies?"

"We are what this corrupted world has made us." Fox replied in an almost poetic manner. "We are the Weapons of Fate, a Fraternity of Assassins. And we are not the ones who decide who lives and who dies, rather Fate does, and we follow its command."

"That sounds... insane..." Skye deadpanned. "How can you, how can anyone justify killing people, especially people you don't even know?"

"It's what we do. 'Kill one, save a thousand', that's our code."

"I don't want that. I don't want to spend the rest of my life killing people I don't even know, because supposedly some 'power' says I must; until the day someone else kills me! It's insane! That's not the kind of life I want for myself!"

"I know, it's not the kind of life you could ever have. I told you before, you could never survive in our world, you simply aren't meant for it."

"Considering the track record the Garrows have I don't think they're just going to let me go."

"They won't. Those who do not have what it takes to be an assassin, are killed."

"Is that part of your code too?"

"No, I... I have never liked that idea, but most of the teenagers that I have seen come to Garrows have truly been too far gone to have any life you would consider good."

"It still should have been their own choice, not yours, or anyone else's."

"Until you I never considered that, never saw it as important. You are so... different. Your body is scarred, your eyes are old, and yet there's somehow still so much innocence in you... You're like a bird whose wing has been broken and yet is fighting to get better, fighting to fly again..." She shook her head. "Which is why I'll say it again, if you want to live, then you must run, tonight. This is your last chance..."

Skye did not ask more question, nor did she stop to consider possibilities; the moment Fox was gone and the girl was sure no one was coming to check up on her she had her bag over her shoulder and was slipping out the window as silently as possible. Under other circumstances she would have liked to slip to the kitchen, try and find some provisions to take with her; but after the heavy conversation with Fox she knew, without a doubt, that if she was seen by any of the adults she wouldn't make it past the night. So she gave up on taking anything else and just ran.

Weeks later she would reach a small town in South Ohio, where she would meet her second assassin: James, and her life would flip yet again.

Regardless of what she, and probably even Fox, might have preferred, that wasn't the last time she saw the woman. Years later, while she was in college, Fox had appeared in her dorm-room (thankfully she had a room all for her). The woman looked absolutely shocked when recognizing the girl, which made it obvious that she hadn't gone looking for Skye.

As it turned out 'Karen Starr' had become known as a hacker in certain dubious circles, including that of the Fraternity. Sloan had thought it was a good idea to have someone of her ability in their 'payroll', so-to-speak, and had sent Fox to find her.

At first the assassin tried to convince the college-student to run. Leave everything behind and hide. Skye refused. She liked the life she had in that moment; going to college, the friends she had: like Darcy, Alec, Chloe... she wasn't willing to give all that up. So she had agreed to be the Fraternity's hacker, on the condition that they never look for her, only contacting her through e-mails and such. Since Sloan liked being able to brag about having only the best working for him, he agreed. Also, it wasn't like he needed her that much, it had been more a matter of being able to say he had such a person working for him. Most of the time the assassins preferred to slip in, do the kill, and get out before anyone knew they had been there. Fake papers, even the very good kind 'Karen Starr' was able to create, were unnecessary.

Still, that did not mean she wasn't nervous, even afraid. Every day she woke up knowing that there were dangerous people who knew about her, who might go looking for her at any moment, might ruin her life. The girl wasn't sure if Josef had known about the Fraternity and that was why he'd insisted on giving her a new name, or it was simply the fact that the name of Karen Starr was known among criminals, but still, the point was the same in the end.

So, in that moment, finding out that Sloan was dead, that the Fraternity was as good as gone... Skye felt more relieved than she had in a very long time...

So Skye told her story to both men, what had happened in the months she'd spent in Chicago, her first meeting with Fox, where she'd learnt the basics of the Fraternity, and why she'd survived the experience. And then her second meeting with the woman, while in college. Phil wasn't sure if he should be more angry at the whole 'assassin' thing, or thankful that the woman had seen that his beloved just wasn't meant for that kind of existence, and still did her best to push her to survive, when few people would have cared.

After Skye came Wesley's turn. He explained his life: an accountant, a loser (he knew it, no point denying it), with a boss he couldn't stand but didn't dare talk back to; a girlfriend who cheated on him with his best-friend, insulted him yet wouldn't leave; the 'friend' who betrayed him in every possible way... Until the day he met Fox. Fox who got him involved in a shooting the very first night, who told him his father hadn't really died when he was a child, but only the week before, betrayed by a man who'd once been his friend... Fox who had betrayed him, pushed him into becoming an assassin, telling him it was so he could avenge his father; when in reality it was his father she and the rest of the Fraternity wanted him to kill. And he had... by God, he had killed his own father! The best assassin in the world, and he'd only ever gotten the chance because the man, despite not having been directly a part of Wesley's life for so many years, had loved him too much to hurt him in any way... (And later on he'd been in his father's apartment, just across the road from his own, and found out just how close his father had been his whole life).

It was after Cross's death that Wesley had learnt the truth, the same truth that his father had discovered, and why he'd turned against Sloan and the Fraternity, the way the man had betrayed the Code, betrayed Fate... And so Wesley had set himself to finishing the work his father had begun. He knew the only reason he'd achieved it, had survived at all, was Fox, her actions, her choice that day... He would always be grateful to her for that; it was why he'd forgiven her betrayal in the end, why he didn't feel so bad remembering her, the love he'd felt for her, a love like he had never felt before, not even for the girlfriend who'd lived with him for years...

"There's one thing I still don't get." Phil said after the stories had been told. "And it's, how can you see this whole thing, the assassins, the Fraternity, as good in any way? As a work of Fate?" He turned to his lover. "First you were completely opposed to it, but the way you talk about Fox... you respect her, and what she did..."

"Remember what I told you about Amalia's childhood, what happened to her family?" Skye asked quietly, she did not blame her lover for not understanding. "The man who destroyed her family, who ultimately destroyed her. His name came up in the Loom, he should have been assassinated, days before he went after the Richards, but the assassin in question hesitated, let the man go, and he had the chance to go on and destroy one more family before someone else put a bullet in his head, finally." She shook her head sadly. "Fox called me innocent, but it wasn't only that, back then I was also naïve. I thought nothing in the world could justify killing another person, nothing at all. Now I have my own code, I would do anything for my family, quite possibly even kill... I haven't been faced with the choice yet, but I have thought about it. And, lets be honest here, there are people in this world, in this universe, who are evil, truly and absolutely, and whom only death can stop."

"I..." Phil didn't know what to say.

It wasn't that he hadn't killed, because he had. He had been a soldier, and after that a SHIELD Agent, they hadn't always had weapons such as the ICERs, and not all the criminals he went against ended in the Fridge. Still, he couldn't help but see a difference between killing someone during a confrontation, and outright assassination.

"Jerry Tyson, George Foyet, the Cruz Brothers, Arturo Braga, Hernan Reyes, Marie Wallace..." Skye recited each name carefully, purposefully.

"What's that?" Wesley couldn't help but ask.

"It's the kind of people the Fraternity should have been killing in the last few years." Skye stated. "I have no doubt at least half of them must have had their names come up but since Sloan had become corrupted it's no surprise he did not send anyone after them. It's the names of people that through sheer wit, intimidation, money or downright torture and murder managed to stay free, to do evil, when they shouldn't have. Marie Wallace is a terrorist who has sold information to the highest bidder for years, who has helped terrorist in several countries; she might even be planning a move against this country at this very moment, and no one has any way of finding her, or catching her once and for all. Arturo Braga and Hernan Reyes are, were, drug-dealers, as good as king-pins of organized crime; the first had control of LA, the second of Brazil; they are responsible for the death of dozens of innocent people, civilians and Agents who went after them, until they were stopped by a crew of techs, street racers and such (long story). The Cruz Brothers did all kind of things, starting with rape and ending with multiple accounts of murder, and there was nothing that could be done against them as they had Diplomatic Immunity; except that Horatio Caine, the Day Shift Supervisor of the MDPD Crime Lab managed to bend the laws just enough to get them, eventually, though not before a good number of innocent people died. George Foyet was a serial-killer, he murdered at least 36 people across the country during several years, before being stopped by BAU's Unit Chief: Aaron Hotchner... though not before his ex-wife became Foyet's last victim. Finally, Jerry Tyson, also known as the 3XK is a killer who has been in the cross-hairs of the NYPD for years, his victims are over 26... he was believed dead at one point, and officially he's still declared as such, though some people know otherwise and are still on alert, ready to go after him the moment he reappears; though it's impossible to imagine how many people might end up dead before that happens..."

None of the men had a reply to that, though just by their expressions, especially Phil's, it was obvious she'd made her point. Just how different might things have been if the Fraternity had been there to stop those people? If they had still followed the code... maybe then killing one, would have saved a thousand...

"I think it might be a good idea if we cleared this place... just in case someone else decides to show up." Wesley suggested right then.

"That's a good idea." Phil agreed.

"And if you can, it might be better if you simply leave Chicago already." Wesley added. "There should be no reason for anyone else that might show up to come after you, but just in case."

Skye nodded, it wasn't like she wanted to be in that city longer than absolutely necessary (and she still needed to get to Zurich to retrieve the contents of the deposit box).

"What about you?" Phil's question surprised both of the two young people.

"Me?" Wesley was so shocked he didn't quite know how to answer. "Not sure actually. I'm out of a job, and a home... well, at least I still have Cross's... I mean, my dad's apartment. So it's not like I'll live on the streets... I could look for another job as an accountant."

"Is that what you really want?" Phil asked, intently.

"Excuse me...?" Wesley wasn't expecting that.

"Well, it's been my experience that people who have the kind of talents you do find retirement rather, shall we say, boring." Phil pointed out.

There was a reason why Clint had joined Phil and his team at the first opportunity, even after he'd quit the old SHIELD; it was why Natasha had chosen to become Natalia rather than create a new identity where she could have a new, 'normal' life. Really, it was why all of them were there when Skye could have so easily arranged new identities for them.

"I suppose I could always given a shot at re-creating the Fraternity." Wesley offered.

"I don't think that'll work." Skye pointed out sheepishly.

"What makes you say that?" Wesley asked, confused.

"Well, I... kind of... hacked Sloan's computers once..." She offered.

"You what?!" Both men were completely shocked by that revelation.

A second later Wesley was laughing like a madman. That girl really was as special as Fox had told him she was; really, to be so obviously terrified of Sloan, and yet at the same time daring to hack his files? It was a good thing she was never found.

"I would be angry at your actions, but I'm just so used to you doing insane things." Phil declared with a dramatic sigh. "So, what did you find out?"

"Well, most of it was connected to the jobs they'd been doing." Skye began explaining. "So on that front I could pass on the information to the proper authorities. They won't be able to arrest anyone, but at least it will allow them to close a good number of cold cases."

"That will be good." Phil nodded in agreement.

"What truly caught my interest." Skye went on. "Were some old files he had, which seemed to be scans of old journals. They told a story, I believe it was the origin of the Fraternity."

"The Loom of Fate and all that?" Wesley inquired, he already knew that.

"Yes, but there was more." Skye insisted. "Apparently in the beginning the Fraternity was formed completely by a group of gifted individuals. They were pulled together by more than just their understanding of the message in the Loom, it was their ability to carry on the tasks. The way the adrenaline affected their bodies: enhancing their senses, making them faster, stronger and, of course, the ability to bend bullets... They were the beginning, not just of the Fraternity as a whole, but of lineages. Every generation, each family had two children: one that grew to become an assassin, the second would be kept apart of the 'family business', in safety, he or she would live a mostly normal life, eventually marrying someone and having a family; carrying on the lineage. That way the bloodline would continue, and the assassin never had to worry about leverage."

"I don't know if I should be fascinated by the whole thing, or horrified." Wesley declared.

"Neither do I." The girl admitted. "Anyway, that plan worked for several hundred years, until things began changing. They had assassins who wanted normal lives, children who had normal lives and wanted to be assassins. So they changed things around, allowing the siblings to grow together, and once the youngest became off-age, the choices would be made. That one worked better, lasted longer; though what no one expected was how vulnerable it ended up making them. At one point there was an attack from some rival organization, they decimated the Fraternity, killing a whole generation of assassins; many bloodlines were lost then." She shook her head. "Things had to change then, again; with all the names coming up, all children born had to become assassins in order to be able to keep up. And while some were willing to accept the idea of duty, and honor, and lineages... not all agreed. Some wanted freedom. Several escaped, some died in the attempt, though a number were never found, dead or alive. I believe the Richards family might have been one such line. It's why Fox could do all the things she did, not just bending bullets, but everything else too, when so few nowadays can..."

"You know I actually used to think that everyone could do that." Wesley confessed. "That they all had senses that drove them crazy at all times."

"They didn't." Skye shook her head. "I actually think you and Fox were two of few, if not actually the last." She sighed. "The point I'm trying to make is that, there came a moment when others, outsiders, began being accepted into the Fraternity, mercenaries, ex-military, people who had no connection to the Loom, to the Ancient Order, they just were good at killing. That was how Sloan ended up being involved. He was also the one who came up with the plan of picking up kids from the foster system to turn them into assassins. The troubled kids, the ones who already had had problems, who might already be violent... the ones no one would miss if they were to disappear..."

Like Amalia, who had been left so traumatized after the loss of her whole family, and the torture she herself had endured, that at fourteen she had been willing to become an assassin; Amalia Richards had all but disappeared, leaving nothing but Fox. Like Skye herself, who was moved around so often someone had come to believe there had to be something wrong with her; they had come to believe, just as she did, that no one wanted her, that nobody would miss her...

"The Garrows were actually former Fraternity themselves." The girl continued. "They retired when wounds made it impossible for them to continue their jobs. What they did, with the foster-kids, it was a way to keep working for Sloan, sending him recruits, while the ones who 'failed the tests' were killed, giving them the chance to indulge in their depravity."

"And you almost became one more name in the list." The mere idea was enough to terrify Phil, to think he could have never met his beloved.

"Could have, but I didn't, because of Fox..." Skye nodded quietly.

"So, let me see if I got this right." Wesley stated, in a rather tired tone. "I have no hope of getting anything resembling a normal life, and I cannot hope to reform the Fraternity either because the last time outsiders were allowed in, we ended up with what happened last month?!" He let out a sigh. "And I just cannot see myself as being a hitman or a mercenary... regardless of what happened, and how wrong everything turned out, I do believe in the idea the Fraternity was founded upon: killing one to save a thousand... I still believe in being a Weapon of Fate..."

"Well, I don't know what Fate might think about this, but how do you feel about being an Agent of SHIELD?" Phil offered unexpectedly.

The offer came so out of the left field Wesley was completely speechless.

"We do not follow any mythical Loom, but our mission is to protect, everyone we can, from any and all threats that might exist, in our world, and that might come from others; usually threats most people could never begin to understand..." Phil went on.

"I..." Wesley took a deep breath before nodding once, confident. "I think I would like that."

xXx

A week later Melinda May was still trying to understand their newest recruit. Wesley Gibson, whom some had taken to calling Cross, was a marksman like few she'd ever seen, and that was without taking in consideration his odd ability to make bullets curve before hitting a target. Then there was the way he could fight; how he would look so normal one moment and then abruptly begin moving faster, hitting stronger, seemingly able to detect even the most subtle movement. No one could take him by surprise when he was like that. And finally, there was the fact that he was the only man in their whole organization who didn't seem to have any problem whatsoever when Melinda took him down in a spar. Most men would feel threatened by a woman who could do something like that, might even take offense but he? No, he just laughed, jumped back to his feet and call for another round. And the worst part of all? Melinda enjoyed it!

It worried her. The last time she'd allowed her guard down around a colleague she'd ended up in bed with Ward and then... well, everyone knew how that one had ended. And as much satisfaction as she might have gotten kicking that boy's ass to kingdom come, that didn't erase the fact that he had played with her. Their 'affair' might have been 'no strings attached' but he had still played with her, with her trust. She had hated that. Made her feel vulnerable. Which was why she'd been so determined not to like the new team-member, to to like him... except there was something about him, about his charisma, his devil-may-care attitude, his willingness to keep trying, that drew her in, more than she liked to admit.

What Melinda did not know was that she wasn't the only one who had 'issues' when it came to getting close to someone. Wesley had them too, in spades. Because as much as he might have forgiven Fox for using him, betraying him, leading him to kill his own father... she'd still done all that. He'd loved her, and she'd hurt him in all the worst ways possible, beyond any physical pain, beyond the bullets, the knives and the beatings. Melinda was in some ways so much like Fox: brave, loyal, strong, professional, and sexy as hell! In some others, she was the kind of woman Fox could have never been: soft, understanding, compassionate and most of all: even when she might make a mistake, she was willing to try and make amends, rather than just give up, than just surrender and die...

Maybe some day those two would finally push past their 'issues', and there would be something between them two, maybe not. (There were bets being made all throughout the Playground, but of course, the two individuals were not to know about it... and if Phil and Skye themselves had placed bets on the matter... well, they did not need to know that either).

Chapter Text

Chapter 9. Hope

Phil slipped back into the bedroom of the suite he shared with his lover, quietly. He was wearing blue stripped sleeping pants, a loose white wife-beater and a slightly opened blue-gray thick, long-sleeved sleeping robe (mostly in consideration to the fact that it was the end of January, though the inside of HQs in the Playground wasn't that cold).

Inside the room, on the window-seat, his beloved was in her favorite lilac semi-translucent long nightgown, legs curled up beneath her. Her eyes fixed on the darkness outside, though he didn't think she was really paying attention to anything.

"Arwenamin?" He called softly, sitting before her.

"Did I hurt anyone?" She asked softly, hesitantly.

"No." He told her honestly.

It was why he'd left their quarters, despite the obvious distress of the woman he loved. She was empathic, and while that was the least used (or known) of her talents, mostly just serving to enhance her 'instincts', there were times when that, in conjunction with her magic, allowed her to not only feel emotions, but affect them. It wasn't something she did consciously, only when very upset and half out-of-control. There had been some nights when nightmares had made more than just her scream, or when the people in nearby suites would be jumpy all day for no reason at all. It was her fear, her angst, echoing in others.

After that particular night, the way she'd woken up, so full of fear, frustration and a sense of defeat so great it almost seemed suicidal, Phil had been honestly afraid of how others might react to receiving such powerful emotions. Except no one had received them, other than him, that is. Somehow, even in the midst of her despair, the sorceress had managed to pull her power to herself enough that the only reason her lover had picked up on it at all was that he'd been holding her that night, in an attempt to offer some kind of comfort.

"Love...?" He called softly, not knowing what else to say.

"I hate these dreams..." She half-sobbed half-hissed. "No, hate's not even a strong enough word. No word is strong enough."

"It's the same as before?" He inquired softly.

"The same as it's been for the last four nights." She answered tiredly. "I... I don't understand it Phil. It's like every time I go to sleep I pick-up where I left off the previous night, the same chaos, the same ruin, the same war that was lost so long ago it's a wonder why we even keep fighting... And whenever the times comes to fight, it's like I cannot do it..." She began babbling without really noticing. "It's like I've forgotten, how to fight, how to live... It's like I don't know to reach for the power that should be there, only it isn't, not always... and then it is, but it's not enough, never enough. And people die, so many people and there's nothing I can do! So many people, old and young... and I see them die... Every Single Night!"

When she doubled over, dissolving into tears, Phil couldn't help himself, he reached for his lover, pulling her into his lap and holding her tight.

"It's like I no longer know who I am..." The young woman whispered brokenly. "Or like I'm not myself, not who I'm supposed to be. It's... it's like the end of the world..."

Yes, that summed it up nicely... or it would if there were such a thing as a 'nice way' to summarize the hell the half-elf had been through since those nightmares had begun. She'd had bad dreams before, even dreams that turned out to be visions (either from the past, the present or even the future) yet nothing had ever been as bad as what she'd seen in the last few nights. And it wasn't even the dreams on their own, or not just that at least, but the way she felt in those dreams, the things she knew. Like the fact that the war had been going on for years, that the huge creatures attacking them were so many they would never be able to really win, or that there were so few people still alive in the world one had to wonder what the point was of it all. What's the point of fighting a war you've long since lost?

The thing that bugged her the most was how different she was in those dreams, as if someone had pulled a past version of her, from before she was Deputy Director, before learning about her origins, before she was SHIELD, and that version of her had been pushed into a war. She did have power, but not all of it, and it didn't work right; like she's acting on instinct, like she's never learnt how to use it, or what it is she can even do. Also, Phil's not there. Her 'dream memories' tell her he used to be, when it all began, he used to be part of the group, but he's long since been lost, and they were never close to each other, never a match... and that fact somehow hurts her more than anything else from that dark dream, that dark world. The fact that in some world, any world, she might have had to live without her beloved, her Aratoamin; and not for having lost him, but because she never had him... it's almost enough to shatter her soul; it would be, if that very man weren't holding her in that moment, if she didn't know that he's hers, just like she's his, and always will be.

xXx

In the morning it was impossible to hide the deep shadows underneath Skye's eyes; showing the lack of sleep from the last five nights in a row. She was beginning to feel it, somehow it was even worse than the visions Herath had sent her during the whole episode with Azazeal, Cassie and the (back then) unborn Malachi.

That morning she was drinking her third cup of coffee; and almost completely black too, so bitter she almost winced whenever she took a sip; but she just did not know how else she was supposed to keep herself awake. It was definitely a good thing that there were no new missions she had to go on, and that she'd returned from her latest visit to Asgard before the mess had begun (she had no idea how she would even begin to explain anything that was going on to her parents, it's not like she understood any of it herself).

"Phen...?"

Skye heard the soft, almost musical voice behind her, the word from a different language, spoken with an odd accent. But she knew what the word meant: 'sister', and most importantly, who it was that was saying it:

"Hey Wanda..." Skye whispered, turning away from her coffee just enough to look at the girl.

Girl was probably the wrong word to use. The light-eyed, mahogany-haired woman looked like she was in her mid-twenties (just like Skye did), though the brunette knew for a fact she was actually much older (there had been a conversation where, at some point, her twin-brother Pietro had said something about memories of early childhood... back in the 1960's...).

Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, better known by some as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were the first mutants SHIELD had encountered (officially, at least); when the organization had executed an assault on the last Hydra base, somewhere in Siberia, mid Summer the year before, a little over three years after the foundation of the New SHIELD.

Three years, that's how long it'd taken them to take down all of Hydra. It was likely there were still some people loyal to those crazy beliefs here and there, but they had no strongholds, no power whatsoever left. SHIELD had made sure of that. The base in Siberia was left for last, though they'd known about it for months, thanks to James's memories, as well as some things they'd managed to get after interrogating captured Hydra members. They had left it until the very end after learning just who it was that ruled that base:

Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker... the man had been part of Hydra since the time of WWII, working alongside the Red Skull (which was telling enough about how evil the man must be). Some jokes had been made about men that just did not seem to age (Captain America, the Winter Soldier, and now Von Strucker... not to mention Skye and Phil, though with them few had noticed yet). The worrying part though, was what might be causing his lack of aging, whether he was somehow immortal or simply long lived, and how that might affect his abilities.

So, due to the number of unknowns, and both Skye's and Phil's unwillingness to send a team to a potentially suicidal mission, they had decided to leave that base until the very end. And even then they'd taken time to plan in detail the assasult, which would take all their very best Agents going into the action. Perhaps if they had known about the twins beforehand they would have been willing to risk going in sooner.

It was something Skye would always regret. Regardless of how many times both Maximoffs told her it was alright, that she'd done the logical thing and they held no grudges, Skye still felt bad about it all. As far as they were concerned being free, after so many years in cages (so long they had had no idea what year they were even living in when they were first found), was more than enough reason to be grateful.

The twins had actually attacked at first. When seeing the base taken appart, all they knew falling into pieces around them, they'd fought to defend it. It wasn't that they liked the place or the Baron (and they didn't, on either account), they were just terrified of losing the only 'world' they knew. Quicksilver had been a hard enough enemy, moving so fast even the super-soldiers couldn't really keep up with him. Scarlet Witch had been a whole other surprise, with hexes that would levitate things, throw them away, create shields... and sometimes simply made things explode outright. After almost half a dozen Agents fell (thankfully not dead) under the onslaught of her barely-in-control powers, Skye had stepped forward. Her magic rising with a mere thought as she began countering the witch's every move. Until she missed one hex and... nothing happened. It was then that they had realized that the witch simply couldn't hurt Skye.

There was some strange circular logic involved, connected to Wanda's ability to use her hexes to manipulate probability and chaos magic. Magic was chaos, Skye was magic, therefore Skye was chaos; and since she was all that, she was completely immune to Wanda's abilities. It was that fact, which had bound the mahogany-haired mutant more tightly to the sorceress than anything else could have. After so many years of being either feared or persecuted (sometimes both at the same time), the fact that there was someone who didn't react like that at all, and not only that, but whom Wanda simply couldn't hurt... it fascinated the witch.

Wanda's fascination had been enough to stop the battle back then, and his sister stopping had, in turn, made Pietro stop as well. Skye wasn't quite sure what all she and Phil had said to convince them that they didn't have to be enemies, but by the time they left the base, hours later, the team had joined two more members, and their family too.

Pietro wasn't as demonstrative as his sister. There was something about him that seemed to make him harder, like he believed he had to be stronger. He often talked about times his sister couldn't remember. Wanda for her part was softer. Whenever she felt threatened she could be hard and even vicious (which was aided by the nature of her own powers), but when she felt safe, she was almost like a girl in the body of a woman. And she treated Skye as family, like an older sister, someone to look up to and follow (which was almost ridiculous considering the witch was older). Still, the half-elf couldn't help but respond to the way the mutant acted. And so, her family had gained more members (Pietro joining by virtue of being Wanda's twin).

"You're hurting Phen..." Wanda murmured, standing very close to Skye.

"No, I..." Skye tried to deny it, but didn't have any strength even to do that.

"Phen..." Wanda repeated, a hint of steel in her voice this time.

"My magic is misbehaving." Skye said, by way of explanation.

Several people in the kitchen snorted, if that wasn't the biggest understatement of the decade they did not know what it was... though that did not make it any less true.

After the battle in the Baron's compound all SHIELD knew that their Deputy Director wasn't human, and that she had power that went beyond any the metas they'd met (some of which had joined SHIELD too) possessed. Her ice had already been revealed before that, but not the magic, not until then; the fact that it allowed her to do so many different things: from her telekinesis, to empathy, shields, illusions, mind-projecting, some light mind-reading (only when and what the other person wanted her to see), shadow-walking. The only thing that remained a secret still was her parentage, though she was quite sure that some (those who had had previous experience with visitors from other worlds) might suspect that one, if not both, of her parents weren't human.

It wasn't that bad, with people like Spider-Man, the Goblin, Cassie, Azazeal, the Justice League, among others, on their side SHIELD wasn't as against gifted individuals as they'd been before. The Index had changed its purpose. The gifted who worked for SHIELD reported on what they could do, as it helped place them in teams they would work best with, as well as sending them to the right kind of missions; criminals who had abilities also entered a registry, in case there was ever trouble, so the authorities would be ready to deal with it (or send for someone who could). Aside from that, civilians did not have to report on anything if they did not want to. Some still went to SHIELD or to Watchtower, to ask for help, those who had trouble controlling their abilites. It was a good arrangement.

Wanda and Pietro had been different in the sense that, unlike most gifted, they hadn't acquired their powers through some freak event, they'd been born with them. While they hadn't always been able to use them, they had activated during puberty, Pietro had told them without any doubt that they'd been born like that. And how did he know? A man had told him, when he was ten, a man called Charles Xavier.

It was something that had been talked about in whispers, almost like an open secret... except most people didn't believe it could possibly be true. The existence of mutants, people who were born with something in their genes that was different, that made them 'other'. They were gifted, like the metas, but it wasn't because some event changed them, they were born to be like that. Most manifested at some point between early puberty and late adolescence, but there were also those who were born a certain way...

Skye had heard the stories, even seen some old pictures no one could fully prove whether they were real or not. One of a child with cobalt-blue skin, tail like that of a devil, black hair and slit-eyed (like those of cats), capable of teleporting in a cloud of sulfurous smoke. A woman with skin like blue sapphires, with scales like a reptile, bright crimson hair and amber cat-like eyes, lithe and agile, and whose skin would ripple and change, into anyone... A man with blue fur (he looked like a giant teddy bear, to Skye's eyes).

She had, of course, heard the story of Magneto, the man who supposedly was connected to the assassination of President Kennedy back in '63, who was said he could bend bullets (and somehow she did not think they meant that in the same way Wesley did). A man that had spent ten years in a concrete cell, dozens of floors beneath the Pentagon, until he was released by... someone. Pietro claimed he had something to do with that, but there was no proof. There was no proof of any of it, except a grainy video of Kennedy's assassination, with a strange figure standing in the middle of everything, whom conspiracy theorists claimed had to be Magneto.

Then there were the events surrounding the Paris Peace Accords. There were full sections of papers all around the world missing from the archives, and no one knew how or when exactly they'd disappeared. There was this sense that something had happened, not just in Paris but in Washington too (the International sections weren't the only ones mission from American papers, the National one too). Except that one seemed to remember anything at all. Nothing beyond the idea that something important had, indeed, happened; something comparable to Kennedy's assassination (though how anything one could possibly forget could compare to the -very public- assassination of a president, she had no idea).

The Koenig twins had once told her about their father: Agent Oliver Koenig had worked for the CIA in the sixties, in a completely secret division (the kind that were completely redacted from any and all records) rumors had it he'd been the head of some top-secret project. He'd died in suspicious circumstances, his last recorded mission having been the recruitment of a group of 'gifted' individuals in order to form a team that could take down a man called Sebastian Shaw, who was considered a danger to National Security. It was the word used that called everyone's attention. That and the fact that there was next to nothing in the CIA files about Sebastian Shaw or the rest of the mission. Nothing but one name Klaus Schmidt; no one knew if it was supposed to be an alias, the name of an ally, or what; though Steve insisted that the name reminded him of the red skull: Johann Schmidt. In any case, the mission in '62 had supposedly been a success, though it had been close, ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Of the top-ranked Agents enlisted Director John McCone was dead, and Agent Moira MacTaggert had retired from service shortly after that mission, studied to become a doctor and had been working for years in a special Research Facility in Muir Island, north of Scotland.

It was almost funny, how the old SHIELD had denied the existence of psychics and mutants for years (as long as it had existed, in fact). Skye hadn't been a problem, as she wasn't really human, and therefore couldn't be considered either of those. But then the new SHIELD had formed, and it was as if the change in leadership, in priorities and actions, were some kind of signal for all kind of individuals to come into the light. There was Cassie, telekinetic and pyrokinetic; Wesley with his own enhanced senses, strength, speed and reflexes, as well as his ability to bend bullets; a native-american tribe in Northwestern US who could shift into a variety of animals; a dozen of teenagers in the island of New Salem, Massachusetts with the power to manipulate the elements and to a certain extent Nature, they called themselves witches, the Secret Circle. All of them had been part of bloodlines, individuals born to one or more gifted parents, who had inherited their gifts from them, who'd been born with them.

Then, of course, there were the Maximoff twins. Pietro said he remembered their mother to have been human; never knew his father, though he believed that the man she would sometimes talk about, with the 'gift' to manipulate metal, must be their father. Magda Maximoff had died when he and Wanda were still in their early teens. Pietro, who looked older than his sister (his mutation seemed to have made him age faster when he'd first manifested and until he hit his prime, as a side-effect), had fought tooth and nail for them to stay together. For a while it had worked, then Wanda's mutation had activated and it was all chaos. He wasn't fully sure how it happened (what had pushed them to it in the end), but the two of them had been forced to run at some point, and then kept running, until Hydra found them. At first it did not seem so bad, they were allowed to stay together, and Von Strucker claimed to be fascinated by their gifts, wanting to understand them, to help them... so they had agreed to stay. And it had seemed a good thing. Until the day Von Strucker stopped contenting himself with the things the twins were willing to do, to give, he wanted more; and when they refused... then they went from being guests to being prisoners. And then it was too late for them to get out.

When SHIELD had first taken the twins in, it hadn't been easy. Pietro wouldn't go anywhere without his sister, and Wanda's power would act out the moment there was the smallest trigger. It was part of how she and Skye had become so close, because the sorceress could stand in front of her and take the brunt of each and every hex and the worst that had ever happened was having her clothes destroyed; they'd later learnt that such a thing didn't happen when she wore her Asgardian battle attire, or the elven royal dress, or the black-leather combat-suit she had woven all kind of protective spells onto (so she could fight as an Agent and still be protected).

All that they knew about the twins' past, before Hydra, they did because of Pietro, and most of it he'd revealed because of Wanda. Because his sister did not have the memories he did, and so he would tell her about things. They believed that the exponential growth of Wanda's power under Hydra's tutelage and its 'methods' (torture) had been so traumatic she'd blanked a lot of her past as a way to protect herself from it all. Still, she liked hearing her brother talking about their mom, about the three men who had gone looking for him in Washington and asked him to help break-out someone from the country's most guarded cell, deep inside the Pentagon (Wanda had never truly believed that tale, but she still like it). It was when he'd said that the man who had gone looking for his help was called Charles Xavier and he was supposed to be some kind of professor or something, that things began to take shape for everyone.

Charles Francis Xavier was well known around the world as a Professor, with Doctorates from the most prestigious universities in the United States and Europe, in Biochemistry, Genetics and Psychology, he'd been teacher and guest-lecturer in Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, and a number of other universities. He was also Headmaster of a private school in Westchester: the "Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters"... and there was that word again.

Skye had known going in that the man was a certified genius. Then she'd found his works online. His graduate thesis, which proposed a jump in evolution, a mutation in the genes of humans that would allow them to manifest abilities never before seen. It was all there. All works mentioned things in hypothetical terms, the brunette wondered how long he'd known that there was more to his own work than just theory... Had someone, a mutant, gone to him after reading his works, hoping to understand more about themselves through him? Or maybe he'd found someone before he wrote that, and they were the reason why he'd made those studies? Or... what were the chances that he was one of them? Usually Skye would say that astronomical, but considering the kind of life she lead she wasn't about to declare anything as impossible.

It had taken the twins two months before they were willing to explore the 'new world' they found themselves in. So different from what it'd been like before Hydra became all they knew. Pietro had recognized James the moment he saw him, as the Winter Soldier, and pitched a right fit. To the point where, for once, Wanda had become the voice of reason, calming her brother down. It turned out that Pietro had tried to engineer an escape once, only for Hydra to send the Winter Soldier after them. The twins had fought like crazy to defend their freedom, but in the end it wasn't enough, and the kind of things Hydra did to them when they were back... there was a reason Wanda did not remember anything before waking up in her cell, alone, a week later.

And yet, the fact that Skye called James brother, and the way he obviously cared for her, looked after her, was enough to convince Wanda to trust as well. (It helped that she did not remember all the man had done to her and her twin while under the control of Hydra). And in the end Pietro followed his sister's example, he didn't like it, but was willing to try, for her.

The exploring had gone well-enough after that. Wanda loved Cassie, someone who could help her learn at least a bit more about her power. After all, the way each of them controlled their abilities was very similar, even if the powers themselves weren't the same. The Scarlet Witch also adored Malachi, the little boy who seemed so absolutely unafraid of her and her power; even after she'd accidentally caused an explosion or two near him, it was like nothing could affect him. Cassie said she thought it was because, even as young as he was, he knew that there were people who loved him who wouldn't let anything happen to him, or to anyone else in the family, and Wanda too was family...

There were others, of course. Connor whenever he visited, his kryptonian heritage made it so the explosive version of Wanda's hexes didn't hurt him (she could still affect him with her 'luck' and other hexes, but it didn't hurt him anything serious), he also loved running with Pietro, he, his Dad and another member of the JL they called Impulse were the only ones whose speeds could compare with Quicksilver's. James loved flirting with Wanda, she knew it wasn't serious, that while he was a flirt, there was only one person he truly loved, and he also wasn't the kind of man to play with a woman's feelings. He wasn't against casual relationships, but he knew that Wanda wasn't the kind for that. Once that was cleared the girl enjoyed his attentions, they almost made it into a game, flirting with each other, sometimes scandalizing those around them. Their family didn't care, they knew it was all in good fun.

Skye and Phil had even taken them to New Salem once, to meet the Secret Circle. Pietro hadn't had much to do, but never complained, he could see his sister's enjoyment at meeting more young people with abilities that could compare with hers. The witches might even be called mutants, seeing how they were born with their gifts. Faye especially seemed to take a shine to the redhead, bonding with her over their pasts (Faye knew what it felt like to be used for her power, after what happened with Black John). Skye actually got along better with Faye's partner Diana, as well as the other leader of the coven (they were a triumvirate) Cassie, and her match: Adam; but she appreciated Faye taking Wanda under her wing.

A month after the trips had begun, from the Playground and out to explore other places, a woman had gone looking for them. They were in Virginia at the time, attending the wedding of Anthony DiNozzo (NCIS Senior Agent) and Ziva David (SHIELD Agent assigned as liaison with NCIS). Skye and Phil had been invited, and as the couple had been showing the twins around at the time, the couple had seen no trouble in them joining the party as well. What no one could have expected was the tall, blonde, blue eyed woman in the dark-blue dress that had approached them after the party was over.

Skye recognized her almost immediately, at least in part. She'd seen a younger version of that woman in several pictures of Professor Xavier at public events; one had even had her name: Raven Xavier-Darkholme...

The woman got too close to Wanda, prompting the girl to hide behind her brother, at the same time that Skye's own over-protective instincts kicked in and she placed herself between the twins and the newcomer. The blonde arched a brow at the reaction but didn't say a word. She just offered a card, with the name of the Xavier Institute, saying they were always looking for new 'gifted' young people to join their school. It was obvious she was there for the twins, that she somehow knew they were mutants; which also meant that the Xavier Institute was a school for mutants... and none of them knew what to think about that.

It took a full month before Wanda agreed to give the Institute a try, and even then she refused to do more than visit. Pietro did most of the convincing, telling them what little he could remember about Charles Xavier and his companions. Also, nothing in Skye's research pointed to there being anything wrong about the man, so there was that too.

After the second visit Wanda felt comfortable enough to go more often, though she still did not want to stay. It wasn't like she need the basic education on offer; and regarding the powers, she was just fine with training with Skye, Cassie, Azazeal and sometimes the Circle. She knew the professors at the Institute wanted more, but they recognized the fact that the twins were in a fragile state still, and did not press. There were plans to have them stay longer each time, if they wanted, in the end it would be their choice.

"Come with us Phen..." Wanda whispered, pressing to her 'big sister's' side.

"Go with you?" Skye asked, confused.

"To Westchester." Wanda answered.

Skye had actually forgotten the twins were supposed to be leaving for Westchester that day, would be staying a whole weekend over there, in fact. The dreams were messing with her head more than she wanted to admit.

"What for?" She didn't understand.

"Professor Xavier..." Wanda hesitated before revealing the truth. "He's a telepath... he might be able to help you..."

"Should we even be present for this conversation?" Darcy asked from a corner. "Considering how long they've kept the secret, I'm not sure they will like us mere humans knowing..."

"They know there are those here we call family, and that not all are gifted." Pietro declared with a shrug. "Magneto did not like it, especially once they found out we lived in SHIELD Headquarters but the Professor insisted that we should always be honest with our family, regardless of if they were mutants or not."

"The Professor wants to meet you." Wanda added.

"It might be a good idea." Melinda offered, thinking of the implications. "A group with the reach and influence they have... it would be a good idea to try for an alliance."

"I won't have them thinking we're using the twins for political reasons." Skye shook her head.

"This wouldn't be political..." Phil began.

"But I do want to help!" Wanda interrupted, focusing on her sister again. "And I want to be able to help you too, phen..."

Skye wasn't sure how much help a complete stranger could be, but Wanda was so eager to do something, anything for her... the brunette just couldn't say no. Besides, what did she have to lose? Whatever the telepath might do, it could hardly make things worse.

It did not make things worse, though it certainly changed them more than anyone could have ever imagined possible.

xXx

In a short time the group landed in a small airstrip in White Plains (Westchester County, NY). Melinda and Wesley would be staying in a hotel for the weekend; as a kind of small getaway, while ready to act as backup in case it was necessary. The two had been together for a short time. It was still a somewhat shaky relationship, with Melinda unsure about the wisdom of being in a personal relationship with a co-worker (the last one hadn't gone too well). And yet Wesley was stubborn, insisting on sparring against her, never reacting negatively when she happened to win, and finding every chance to kiss her (almost never on her lips).

It was amazing in fact, considering how self-conscious and insecure he'd been once (to the point where he'd known his girlfriend was sleeping with his best-friend and never said a thing). And yet with Melinda, it was like he couldn't hold himself back, he kept trying, no matter how many times she said no, he refused to give up.

Eventually it had worked. There were some who believed Melinda had intended it to be a one-night-stand. Except that once he was given a chance, Wesley wasn't willing to give Melinda up. He kept pursuing her, as a good man in love, though he never stopped respecting her rank, her will and her personal strength. That weekend was their first try at making a relationship work, away from the Playground and from SHIELD.

Phil and Skye were the ones to accompany the twins. Skye because Wanda wanted her to go, she was sure Professor X would be able to help; and Phil because he simply refused to let his beloved get into a completely unknown, possibly dangerous, situation without him there.

The school turned out to be located in a huge manor and its surrounding grounds, the Xavier Estate; Phil and Skye knew that already, though it was still shocking to see. The place was so big, and it looked more like a castle than a house.

The thing Skye noticed the most was the emotions that filled her the moment they entered the property: the mix of confidence, trust, respect, friendship, joy... it was such a high for the half-elf, especially when one considered that the only emotions to fill her in the last three days had been fear, anger, grief and defeat.

"Are you alright?" Phil asked quietly, noticing her tension.

"Just fine..." She answered just as quietly.

Phil could sense her honesty, and though he didn't understand it, he didn't ask either; as long as his lover was alright, everything was fine for him.

One person was waiting for them at the door. The same blonde woman who had tried to approach the twins and ended giving Skye the card. She didn't seem surprised at seeing Phil and Skye, and Phil couldn't help but comment on it:

"Charles sensed you the moment you crossed the gates..." She said, though there was something in her tone, like she wasn't quite comfortable about something. "And I told Erik that you would end up coming one of these days, what with the way you blocked the twins from my view that day, and the fact that Wanda cannot stop talking about her 'phen'..."

Skye stumbled just slightly the moment the blonde pronounced that word, not because she did it in any way wrong, the opposite in fact, she'd gotten it perfectly, so much her voice had sounded exactly like Wanda's...

"You can mimic voices?" Skye asked, though it didn't fully sound like a question.

"Oh girl... I can mimic a lot more than that." The blonde said, in Wanda's voice, before her skin rippled and she looked exactly like the witch.

It was a perfect replica, down to Wanda's favored get-up of short-sleeved black dress, red leather jacket with pulled-up sleeves, the symbol of SHIELD on one arm, and a stylized M in the other (for Maximoff, Mutant, or maybe something else); dark, knee-high, thick-soled combat boots and black-leather arm-guards.

"Shape-shifter..." Skye whispered, realizing the truth.

"Think you could tell us apart?" The not-Wanda asked.

"Yes." There was no hesitation, no doubt in the brunette's voice.

The shape-shifter took her up on it, taking hold of Wanda's hand and pulling her into the closest room, closing the door. It seemed that in the last few weeks the witch had grown to trust at least her enough to allow the casual touch easily enough.

Seconds later the two girls stepped out, looking and moving exactly the same.

"So... who's the real Scarlet Witch?" They both asked in unison.

Skye could barely keep herself from rolling her eyes; she knew that she was expected to fail, though she did have an unfair advantage.

"Like I would ever mistake family with anyone else." She said with a playful smirk.

She couldn't help but make a game out of it, inclining her body just slightly in the direction of one of them, just enough to make her think that was her choice; before abruptly turning to the other one and pulling on her arm.

"Phen!" That Wanda smiled brightly.

The 'other' Wanda rippled, before revealing, instead of the blonde she'd been before a red-haired, amber-eyed, blue skinned (and totally naked) woman (one the hacker remembered from old grainy possibly-false photos).

"That's impossible!" She practically whined. "I'm a perfect shape-shifter, no one but Charles can tell me from whoever I'm mimicking, and he cheats!"

"I told you I could never mistake family with anyone else." Skye insisted, holding a mischievous smirk in place.

"Are you a mutant?" The blue-woman asked, cocking her head to a side pensively. "Charles said you weren't, neither of you... but you've gotta be something!"

"I can tell you, with full confidence and honesty, that I'm not a mutant, neither of us are." Skye declared with a cheeky smile. "Not a meta either."

The shape-shifter looked at her suspiciously, as if she knew the brunette was making fun of her somehow, but didn't insist.

"My name's Mystique, by the way." She declared, almost as if in after-thought, before she began leading the group again.

"I'm Skye, he's AC." The brunette said promptly.

If Professor Xavier was really as powerful as had been implied just by the off-handed comment of him having felt them arrive, then he probably would know more already; then again, they had no way of knowing how much their nature (as a half-elf, half-jotun sorceress and a human-turned-Eihenjar) might affect someone's telepathy. On the other hand, she didn't want to reveal just how high in the ladder of SHIELD they were just yet.

After a minute or so more the group arrived to what looked an office at the end of the hall, quite possibly the Headmaster's office. Inside was a bald man with sky-blue eyes, in a dark-gray suit with pale-blue shirt, on a hover-chair (some of the most advanced Stark technology); beside him stood a silver-haired man with blue-green eyes dress in kaki pants and a black turtleneck.

"Welcome, welcome." The man in the chair greeted them amiably. "I am Charles Xavier, some of my students call me Professor X, my partner is..."

"Magneto, and I don't like unknown humans being in this place." The silver-haired aged man practically growled. "45 years staying in the shadows, keeping the very existence of mutants a secret, only to throw all that out the window in a whim!"

"There is nothing wrong with being human!" Wanda snapped at him, taking offense.

"Humans are traitorous." Magneto said, in a tone like it was a speech he'd repeated time and again. "They have betrayed each other, and us, in the past. And will do so again the moment our existence becomes public knowledge."

"Skye will never betray us, she's my sister." Wanda insisted, for the first time using that word in English rather than any other language.

"Pietro is your brother, every mutant in this school and around the world could be considered your brothers and sisters; a human isn't, and never will be, your sister." Magneto punctuated, all metal in the room vibrating as if to emphasize his words.

Wanda snapped. They really should have seen it coming, and Skye had, though only a second or two before it happened.

Before anyone could react, Quicksilver could try and run his sister out of the room (and quite possibly out of the manor) before she blew up, Skye took hold of her, spinning the young woman in her direction.

"Discharge." She told her in a no-nonsense tone.

"No!" Wanda was trying her best to resist, and failing.

"Your power needs an outlet, and we need to keep the effect under control." Skye pointed out. "I trust you, and you know you can trust me. So focus, Scarlet Witch, and discharge!"

The mutant-girl's eyes snapped open then, usually light-eyes turning bright crimson and flashing, a reflect of her own power, before sparks of the same color began appearing in her hands. She brought her hands together, forming a perfect sphere of pure chaos magic (the most explosive kind). Magneto's eyes widened, and even the Professor seemed a bit nervous. Skye didn't hesitate even for a second, standing right in front of the girl, arms wide, making herself a target.

"What the hell...?!" Magneto began.

He didn't get to finish the question before the explosion happened.

"Is she insane?!" Magneto demanded.

"You have no idea." Pietro snorted.

"Don't speak to me in that tone." Magneto chastised the boy. "You're still my son."

"No I'm not." Quicksilver shook his head. "I've never been your son, because you never cared for being my father."

"I tried to find you..." Magneto began, suddenly hesitant.

"Too late for it to do any good." The speedster shrugged. "You may be joined to us by blood, but Skye... she's joined to us by a bond that goes beyond anything as simple as blood. She's stood by us from the moment SHIELD rescued us from Von Strucker. Wanda loves her, as a sister, and quite possibly as a mom, since she doesn't remember ours. You made a huge mistake trying to belittle the person that means the most to her."

"She's just a human!" Magneto insisted, frustrated.

"No, she's not." Mystique whispered unexpectedly, turning to look at the male guests, and then her brother. "She's not really human, is she?"

"I don't know for sure." Xavier admitted. "There's something about her mind that makes it hard to read, like I cannot get a grasp on it, and what little I can, is too chaotic to understand.

"Magic is chaos, she's magic, therefore she's chaos." Quicksilver recited the circular logic.

"So she really isn't human?" Magneto insisted.

"Even if she were, it wouldn't matter." Pietro insisted. "She would still be family."

It looked like Magneto wanted to say something else, probably to try and gain favor with his son again, when the cloud of smoke finally cleared, revealing Wanda, half-crouched, panting; in front of her was Skye, half-kneeling, holding the mutant in her arms.

"Skye...?" Phil called quietly.

He had absolute trust in her, still, some reassurance now and then didn't hurt any.

"We're fine, just fine." Skye assured in a soothing voice. "Right, Baxt (Luck)?"

The nickname Skye sometimes called her by was the Romani world for 'luck', it was meant to be a way to go against all who'd once called Wanda's power and even herself a curse; and at the same time it was an implication on the nature of her basic power (whether good or bad).

"Yes Phen..." Wanda nodded.

The two got back on their feet as one. Skye just letting go of Wanda long enough to shrug off the tattered remains of her jacket and top, leaving her in the tight dark halter-top that was part of her fighting-clothes, slim-fitting jeans and low-boots (over the other half of her fighting-clothes).

"How...?" Magneto was too shocked to even finish a question.

"I'm neither mutant nor meta..." Skye stated as she stood quite close to Wand, still offering comfort. "not human either."

"What are you then?" Mystique blurted out, thoroughly confused.

Skye couldn't help but smirk. Two of the three of the mutants present had been rubbing her the wrong way from the very moment they's stepped into the building, one of them had even made Wanda lost control, after Skye had spent months working on her to be able to keep her emotions in check. That was enough to put anyone in her black book. At the same time, she was her father's daughter, that she couldn't get even (because she was supposed to be the better person) did not mean she couldn't play a little with their heads.

What she never planned on, was the man who stepped into the room right then, and the ways he would change everything:

"I think I remember you..." The Professor murmured suddenly in a contemplative manner, calling the attention of his sister and partner.

"No surprise there." Skye declared with a shrug. "I am SHIELD, have been for four and a half years now. All around the world, carrying on missions..."

"No, not from SHIELD missions..." He waited a moment before adding. "Not from this world..."

Something in his choice of words seemed to hit a corner of the brunette girl's consciousness, but she did not know what, or why; however, they seemed pretty significant for his family.

"You mean..." Magneto didn't even finish his attention (or maybe he did, mentally), he turned to stare at Skye with a mix of surprise and confusion.

"A rundown temple in China..." The Professor added for good measure.

An image hit Skye then: a dark world, a place seemingly abandoned, except for them, and the small group they'd gone there to find. It was an odd place to choose as sanctuary, even if some would say religions tended to create their places of reunion with such things in mind. Of course, they must likely never expected one would need sanctuary from that, from such a war...

The half-elf blinked and the image was gone, though she knew it was important, it was somehow connected to what Xavier had just said, and also to her dreams... However, before she got the chance to ask any question, the door to the office swung open, and another individual stepped in. He was tall, broad-shouldered, tanned skin, dark hair and a somewhat-odd hairstyle... he also had a presence, and an ageless look Skye was beginning to identify of those who were immortal (or, as was her case, as good as). The most important part, however, was that the moment she saw him, she recognized him, she couldn't remember a moment in her life where she'd seen them, yet she knew exactly who he was, and what he was capable of, and then...

"Hekate..." The man pronounced, voice colored by absolute surprise.

It looked like someone was about to say something, anyone, yet none of them actually got the chance. Before a single word could be said Skye dropped on one knee, a pained cry abandoning her lips without her permission as she felt as though a thousand needles had pierced her head at the same time. And then, a rush of images, voices, feelings, memories...

She was twenty-three years old, living in her van to stay out of the way of certain people who shall remain nameless, proud member of the Rising Tide... and also one of the few defenders of Mutant Rights, the most vocal too (though that was probably because of how confident she was that the authorities would never find her). The Rising Tide was all for revealing government secrets, and thus were very supportive of her actions hacking Trask Industries and the like, releasing pictures and statements about the experiments the government were conducting on the mutant, the persecution of the last five years, which had only gotten worse recently. Still, they weren't as supportive as her either, they did not care as much... then again, they hadn't witnessed an innocent girl one moment dancing happily in the middle of a blooming greenhouse (literally blooming, flowers following her as she moved), and then next being violently ripped out of the place by the huge behemoth of a Sentinel! The girl was never seen again.

To be honest, Skye'd never really known the girl more than in passing, a hello here, a smile there; but there had been something about her, something in her smile, the songs she seemed to never be able to stop humming, the joy she exuded with every step; to have so much good ripped out of the world simply because some people thought she was less than human... no, she wasn't less, she was more, so much more... maybe the world didn't really deserve her, but that didn't mean her loss could just be ignored. So, for her, Skye began speaking up for those who seemed to have so few people speaking up for her.

She wasn't a mutant, though there were times she wished she were. It didn't matter what power, as long as she were one of them. She, who had felt like an outsider for her whole life, whom no one wanted; if she was a mutant at least she would belong somewhere. She would still have been rejected by all those families, but at least there would be a logical reason; at least, a part of her, would feel like she belonged somewhere, like she was connected to others, to a family, like she was meant for more than just living out of her van making other people's lives hard in an attempt to bring some justice to this world, even though she wasn't sure she was really achieving much. After all, how much difference could one person make?

She had just finished the latest post, this one on a group that was missing from a small town in North Washington, humans. Rumors had it that they'd been helping mutants cross the border into Canada (where other people would help them get out of the continent). A bunch of armed men, presumably military, had invaded the place in the middle of the night, forced people out of their homes, shot whoever resisted. Those who were taken hadn't been seen since, and that was two weeks before. A couple of days earlier an encoded video had arrived for her, obviously taken with a cellphone, from some hiding place, someone who'd managed to survive the raid. Skye had been very careful to make sure nothing would give out who had taken the video, or where it was even taken from (she knew people could be tracked that way too), before posting the video. Her one voice narrating the sequence of events, the names of the people missing, the loses, the pain...

She knew it was dangerous, how could she not? She'd received threats already (open, since few knew for sure how to contact her), from purists like the so-called 'Friends of Humanity' who thought either she was mutant too, or an aberration to the human race by siding with 'freaks'. Since Skye didn't have any particular love for 'humanity' as a whole, that one actually felt more like a compliment than an insult, as far as she was concerned. Then there were those of Trask Industries, and even some in the government who did not like the fact that she was exposing all their dark deeds, but she did not care.

It wasn't like things hadn't been done before either. Miles was dead, paramilitary had killed him when he was unable to find her for them. Then again, considering that he had agreed to sell her out to them, that was on him rather than her, she thought. Darcy, her old college friend had been in danger too, until none other than Tony Stark took her under his protection,made a very public statement about her being his daughter, and suddenly Darcy Stark was untouchable.

She had turned everything off, something she needed to do after every post, as fast as possible, to lessen the chance of anyone tracking her down at her most vulnerable (the exact time when the post was going online). She was still planning on moving, to another part of Los Angeles, maybe straight out and to Pasadena, or to Charming... she knew people there, and in Neptune too, but that was farther away.

All her plans went up like smoke, though, the moment the back-door of her van swung open almost violently, two men standing right there. She cursed, realizing that she'd been found, before springing into action. She'd had plans in place, in case she was ever found (believing she was well-hidden didn't mean she was complacent). Of course, most of those plans required her having at least her computer turned on and a couple of seconds to enter the command that would burn everything in it, making sure they would get nothing from her. She did not have that option then, not with everything turned off. Still, making up her mind to try her best she practically ripped her laptop away from everything else before forcing open the side door of the van.

What she, definitely, hadn't planned on, was someone else standing there too. A small group that, judging by how different their clothes were to the two men by the back door, had nothing to do with them. She was trapped, and she suddenly had no idea what to do. It was obvious that two different groups had found her, despite all her planning, all her contingencies. Neither of them looked like military, but she wasn't actually sure if that was good or bad.

Knowing she was lost, she decided to at least salvage what she could, so with that in mind she slipped a hand into her jeans and activated the hand-held EMP, her last resource. All the tech inside the van (and in a several foot radius) got fried in a second. There, even if they had her, they would never have her work. That gave her at least some level of self-satisfaction, even if it would not make things easier in the slightest for her, her work would remain, a testament of who she'd been and what she tried to do...

.

Of course, when she fried everything she had, she never expected that the people looking for her were actually good, and at least one of the groups had every intention of protecting her. (It's a good thing she had a way of recovering all her files from a heavily encrypted virtual cloud).

As it turned out the two groups wanted her to work for them. And while she wasn't too keen on working for SHIELD (she'd hacked them enough to know there was a lot of 'gray' and 'black' going on behind their curtains); when the leader of the other group introduced herself as Rogue, and part of the X-Men, she was floored.

There was much arguing, but in the end Skye agreed with the leather-clad, glove-wearing mutant that SHIELD are government, and therefore liable to not treat a hacker (especially one with her track-record) right, so she chose to go with the X-Men instead. Though, in the last moment, she left Agent Coulson her contact information (the real one) just in case...

.

Living in the Xavier Institute wasn't easy. The part she hadn't considered when she agreed on going with them was that, regardless how much she might support mutants, she wasn't one of them. And some people just wouldn't let her forget that. So while she had a stable place to live, it isn't really a home, and she still didn't fit!

Rogue, at least, was nice to her. The woman had experience with being a human in a house full of mutants (she'd taken the cure back in 06... though her powers returned full-force two years later, as the 'cure' was proven not to be such a thing, more a suppressor than anything else, and quite temporary). Still, the woman had the memories, and she befriended Skye regardless of whether she was mutant or not.

Later on Skye had the chance of being there for her when Rogue was forced to admit that her relationship with Bobby (aka Iceman) just wasn't working anymore. They'd broken up and reconciled so many times it had become habit, there was no love between them anymore... Rogue wondered if there had ever been. Skye for her part, couldn't help but notice the looks her friend and the Wolverine would throw at each other whenever they were in the same room.

They discovered that Skye might not be as human as she believed quite by accident. It was so hot outside that day that Rogue chose not to wear long-sleeves, or gloves. Everyone stayed well away from her, knowing what her touch could do. But Skye... she didn't understand, and at one point she simply went to touch her friend in the arm, a play-full nudge for something she'd said. Rogue froze, and... nothing happened... They had no idea why it was, but the hacker just seemed to somehow be immune to her friend's power. It was also then that the Professor revealed to have a hard time grasping the hacker's thoughts, as they were so chaotic.

They did not understand what might be different about her, but at least the mutants living in the mansion stopped looking down on her for 'being human' (even if no one understood quite what she was supposed to be then, as she didn't register as either mutant or human for Cebrebro, or for the mutants with the ability to identify others like them). Rogue also stopped covering herself so completely, sticking close to Skye; the two acting like long-lost sisters.

.

When the betrayal came it was unexpected, and so painful Skye could hardly breathe... (and not just because of the bullet in her stomach). She'd seen on the news what had happened in the SHIELD HQs in Washington, how could she not? Then when Phil wouldn't answer her calls and messages she grew extremely worried for him, until eventually he let her know he was okay. They had been in contact a few times in the months since she had left with the X-Men, though not much. Mostly to assist on some missions at a distance, and they had helped a meta called Chin Ho-Yin relocate too, after Centipede went after him, wanting to use him.

Eventually things seemed to have stabilized enough. Phil asked for sanctuary, he and his team needed a place to stay, with most SHIELD bases lost to Hydra and the military after them. The Professor agreed to receive them. What no one could have ever planned for were the Hydra soldiers that attacked that very night; called there by none other than Grant Ward!

Thankfully it was summer, half the children were either with their families or on vacation. From those who were left they managed to evacuate most, but still, a handful were lost. Including Rogue, who was captured rather than killed. Ward tried to take Skye as well and she resisted, the gun he was holding shot in he struggle, a bullet going straight into the hacker's lower stomach. Though, before he could take advantage of the situation and take her, Phil appeared and shot the traitor in the head. He was dead then, but all the evil he had caused still remained.

It was a miracle that the young woman survived being shot (and, as far as she was concerned, that Magneto didn't leave her behind while she recovered). Maybe it was Professor Xavier's compassion, or maybe just that even the former leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants had to recognize that Phil and his team had tried to do right by them, and it'd cost them.

.

It had begun after that, the Alliance. A good number of the remaining SHIELD Agents had joined to stand by Phil and in turn the X-Men; and of course there was the group of mutants formed by the X-Men and the remaining members of the Brotherhood of Mutants, lead jointly by Professor X and Magneto. Skye was the one person both groups had in common, and who acted as the go-between most of the time.

It began, but did not stop, there. Other groups joined as the time passed, though few stayed, and even less survived, once the Sentinels began attacking not just actual mutants, but those who had it in their genes to produce mutant off-spring. Surprisingly enough, Skye was never targeted by the Sentinels, it was almost as if she didn't exist to them...

That, along with the strange flickering her eyes did at times (changing from brown, to blue and back), and the burst of some-kind-of-power that would, at times come from her was more than enough proof that she wasn't quite human. She wasn't mutant either, and whatever ability she might posses she did not understand, much less had any possibility of controlling. It still save her life, and a few others, more than once.

No one knew for sure who it was that had first called Skye 'Hekate', though it most likely was one of the X-Men. After years they'd come to see her as one of their own, it no longer mattered if she did not have the X-gene, or how unreliable her ability was, she was still standing by them, had for years, even when the government had offered her an out, when Hydra offered her protection if she just stopped helping the mutants.

By that point in the war few mutants used human names, normal names, and so the hacker had followed suit. She stopped being Skye, and became Hekate.

.

By 2017, four years after both SHIELD and the X-Men had first found her in LA, the war had reached its worst point. Los Angeles had long since disappeared, along with most cities around the world. The only way to survive was to keep moving, never staying in one place more than a few weeks, always on alert for when the Sentinels might come calling.

It was almost the end of the year when they mounted a mission into what had once been the Xavier Institute; a place none of them had returned to since the betrayal in 2014, since the loss of Rogue, Beast, Siren, Psylocke and Angel... the place had long since become a stronghold for Trask Industries, and thus the Sentinels. They wouldn't even be trying such a thing (going to that place was as good as suicidal), but Wolverine had heard rumors that Rogue was still alive and being held there, and the man hadn't even stopped to consider anything, he was off and looking for her. Insisting that they ought to stay together, the Professor had voted that they help. Magneto didn't like it, he thought the danger was too much, but in the end he agreed that no one should be left behind, ever. So they went.

After some intense arguing of options and plans, it was Hekate who went into the old Institute. She was really the best option, what with the Sentinels unable to detect her. She was also well-versed in weapons and hand-to-hand combat by that point, so she had a decent chance at making it out of the place alive.

When she eventually found Rogue she was actually busy, kissing none other than the Wolverine with such intensity that if it weren't because of the situation they were all in (in the middle of enemy territory and all that), Hekate might have whistled to them and made some joke about finding a room. As it was, they had no time, and needed to get out before they, or worse even, those waiting on the jet, were found.

"Rogue? Wolverine?" She called, letting them know she was there.

"Skye/Hekate?" They called, separating instantly before turning to look at her.

"Girl!" Her friend called, voice-thick with her southern accent as she rushed to embrace Skye. "You're here! You're really here!"

"Yes, I'm really here." Hekate told her, returning the embrace. "And as much as I would like to bask in our reunion, we need to get out of here, now."

"Hekate is right." Wolverine nodded. "The Sentinels will notice our presence at any moment."

He jinxed them, Hekate knew it a fraction of a second before alarms began blaring and they all heard the tell-tale clicking sound of Sentinels approaching.

"Run!" Hekate yelled at them as she pulled out her twin handguns.

They were her personal weapons, created by Tony and Darcy before they were killed, along with most of the Avengers, trying to keep the people who'd taken refuge in Stark Tower safe. They'd failed in the end. The guns fired electrical charges, and were strong enough she could use them to short-circuit the Sentinels (it also meant that if she ever hit a human with a charge they would be dead before they even knew, but that was a risk she was willing to take).

The run was hard. Rogue wasn't used to seeing her old friend fight and had worried, which in turn had made her vulnerable. One of the Sentinels managed to hit her leg, causing a deep cut in her calf and almost shattering her ankle. Wolverine didn't stop to consider things, just pulled the woman into his arms and ran, Hekate on his heels, shooting at anything that moved.

They got in the plane just fast enough and Storm had them in the air before the Sentinels could pursue. Magneto using his powers to block the Sentinels' path, while Hekate jammed any radio signals (to stop them from calling others in and tracking them), and Storm worked her own brand of magic to make them as invisible as clouds and rain possibly could. It worked.

In the back Wolverine placed Rogue on a pallet before extending an arm before her, ordering her to take his power and heal herself. When she hesitated he insisted she would be of no use to anyone with a leg in that condition (crude but accurate), so in the end Rogue ignored her own misgivings and took what was offered.

They kept flying. They would have to stop eventually, to rest some, and make plans (for whatever they might be worth, in a war that had long since been lost), but for the moment they just kept moving, getting as far away from what once was New York as possible.

.

Three days later they were landing in a temple in China.

Hekate remembered Iceman, Shadowcat and Colossus, all three of them had been in the school when she first arrived; though the first two had left before the attack. Colossus was one they believed lost back then, but apparently he survived and managed to find his way to others. The rest of the mutants: Blink, Bishop, Warpath and Sunspot, Hekate didn't know, which was why she chose to stay back, to call as little attention to herself as possible, and hope that neither of them could tell she wasn't like them. It wasn't easy, being the only non-mutant in a group full of them. Rogue hung back with her, while it'd been years since there was anything between her and Bobby, she still didn't feel comfortable around them; also, Hekate could tell that something had happened concerning her and Wolverine, the fact that back in NY they had practically devoured each other; yet by the time they arrived to China it was like they couldn't even look at the other. Hekate wanted to help, yet had no idea how. And then they were all together in the main room of the temple and the conversation turned serious.

"Whenever the sentinels attack Warpath spots them and I send Bishop back to warn us of the attack before it happens." Shadowcat was explaining how their group had survived as long as it had. "Blink scouts the next site and well, then we leave before they ever know we were there."

"Because we never were." Warpath interjected.

"What do you mean you were never there?" Wolverine asked, confused.

"She projects Bishop back in time a few days to warn the others of the coming attack." The Professor clarified for him.

"She sends Bishop back in time..." Wolverine and Hekate mumbled at the same time, not quite able to grasp it.

"No, just his consciousness into his younger self, his younger body." Professor X corrected.

Abruptly Hekate had a very good idea of why they'were there, why they had decided to look for the other group after years of each working on surviving on their own.

"Wow..." Wolverine muttered, and he's not the only one.

Really, who could have imagined that the little girl who always looked so afraid when in the Institute would one day have such a power?

"This might just work Charles..." Magneto's words, succinct as they were, were all the hacker needed (though it was obvious no one else had caught up).

"What might work?" Kitty asked, not following.

"The sentinel program was originally conceived by Dr. Bolivar Trask." The Professor explained a little history. "In the early 70's he was one of the world's leading weapons' designers. But covertly he had begun experimenting on mutants, using their gifts to fuel his own research. There was one mutant who had discovered what he was doing..."

"A mutant with the ability to transform herself into anyone..." Magneto added.

"Mystique..." Several voices muttered at the same time.

"I knew her as Raven..." The aged leader of the X-Men commented almost wistfully. "We met when we were children, grew up together. She was like a sister to me..." His regret was obvious by everyone who heard him. "I tried to help her but only succeeded in driving her away. She hunted Trask across the world and, at the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 after the Vietnam war, she found Trask... and killed him. It was the first time she killed."

"It wasn't her last..." Wolverine pointed out.

"But killing Trask did not have the outcome she expected." The Professor went on, ignoring the comment. "It only persuaded the government to believe in his program. They captured her that day, tortured her, experimented on her..." His face took on a pained expression but he went on. "In her DNA they discovered the secrets to her powers of transformation. It gave them they key they needed to create weapons that could adapt to any mutant power; and in less than fifty years the machines that have destroyed so many of our kind were created. But it all started that day in 1973, the day she first killed, the day she truly became Mystique..."

Several people nodded, beginning to understand how they'd come to be where they were. Kitty, for her part, was beginning to understand something else:

"You wanna go back there..." It wasn't a question.

"If I can get to her, stop the assassination, keep her out of their hands... then we can stop the

Sentinels from ever being born." The Professor explained his line of thought.

"And end this war before it ever begins." Magneto agreed.

"No more death..." Rogue said beside her.

"Of mutants, or humans..." Hekate nodded her own agreement.

She'd seen so many people die, the mere chance that they might be able to undo it all...

More people began nodding around, the only one who didn't seem convinced was Kitty herself.

"I can send someone back a couple of weeks, maybe a month." She said hesitantly. "But you're talking about going back decades. You have the most powerful brain in the world professor, but the mind can only stretch so far before it snaps; it would rip you apart. I'm sorry, no one could survive that trip."

"What if someone's mind has a way of snapping back?" Wolverine's question was so unexpected, no one knew how to answer. "What if someone could heal as fast as they are ripped apart?"

The plan was made then. It was crazy, beyond insane even... but it was the only plan they had, their last hope of survival...

.

As they all soon found out, sending someone into the past (or their consciousness, whatever) was far from easy. And yet, there was little time if they wanted to be effective. Everyone was quiet as the last instructions were given as Wolverine lied on the stone table in the middle of the main room of the temple.

Storm, Warpath, Blink, Sunspot, Bishop and Colossus were outside, standing guard; while Iceman looked over his girlfriend as she prepared to send Wolverine back 45 years. The Professor and Magneto were standing beside the table, waiting as well; and finally, Rogue and Hekate observed the proceedings from behind a column.

"There goes our last hope..." Hekate whispered once Wolverine's cry quieted and he settled.

"What do you mean?" Rogue inquired.

"You realize it, don't you?" Hekate asked her in turn. "This time, when the Sentinels find us, we won't be able to run, and Shadowcat won't be able to send someone else back to warn anyone. This is it. This is our last chance."

"Not for you, you could still make it." The southern woman pointed out.

"What would the point be?" Hekate asked, almost bitterly. "Everyone I've ever cared for is dead. Darcy, Phil, his Agents, Josef's clan, all who I once called family..." She shook her head silently. "I don't want to be all alone in this world, Marie..." She was one of two people to call her by her birth name. "That, I think, would be a fate worse than death." She let out a breath. "So I will stay. And when the Sentinels come, I will fight, just like the rest of you..."

"Lets just hope this really works, then." Rogue decided.

Hope... it was such a fickle things; yet, in that moment, it was really all they had left.

.

The first problem came on the third day. Something happened, no one knew for sure what, but it caused Wolverine to lash out violently, slashing at Kitty's side, underneath her arm, deep, painful slashes, before Magneto could even react and use his powers to restrain him (through all the adamantium covering his skeleton).

"Oh God, Kitty..." Iceman mumbled in horror before turning to the others around them. "She's wounded pretty bad."

"I got him back..." Kitty announced right then, through her own groan of pain.

"We need something to treat those wounds..." Iceman began, nervously.

Rouge shook her head to herself before stepping out of the shadows and approaching.

"If I borrow his power, will it affect what you're doing?" She asked Kitty directly. "Will it undo his whole trip into the past?"

"N-no..." Kitty answered after thinking a moment on it. "It shouldn't. His mind's already there. But why would you...?"

Rogue didn't give the slightly younger girl the chance to finish her question, instead pressed her hand to Wolverine's cheek for a few seconds, until the veins beneath his skin became just a bit prominent, the signal that his body was reacting to her ability. Next she went to stand by Kitty.

"Brace yourself." She told her.

Before Kitty, or anyone else, had the chance to ask what exactly she was going to do Rogue pressed the same hand to Kitty's face. The girl's loud gasp echoed all around, making Iceman react, or try to. Before he could even give a step towards his girlfriend Hekate was pulling him back, harshly enough to make him fall down.

"She's not hurting her." Hekate snapped to the boy. "Rogue's just trying to help her."

"It won't be enough, but at least it'll help some." Rogue said before pulling back and moving to a side of the room with Hekate.

When Iceman approached his girlfriend he saw that the slashes on her side had been reduced considerably; they were still there, still bleeding, but nowhere as much as they had been just a few seconds before.

"What did you do?" He asked, turning to his ex.

"I borrowed Wolverine's power, and then transferred it to her." Rogue explained calmly, arms crossed. "She cannot use it to its full extent like he does, not even like I do, because her body was never meant for self-healing. But at least it did help some, it'll give her, give us all, more time."

"Can't you just do it again, until she finishes healing?" Iceman asked.

"It doesn't work like that." Rogue shook her head. "In a body that was never meant for it, for healing on that scale, at that speed; trying to force it would do more harm that good. And I cannot take Wolverine's power too often, as it would end up affecting him too much. I already borrowed his power a few days ago."

And the last time she'd borrowed Wolverine's power more than once in a lapse of less than three days he had almost died, Hekate knew that. And while Rogue back then hadn't had the control of her power she had in that moment, it still wasn't a good idea.

"It'll have to be enough." Kitty spoke-up, interrupting the conversation. "We have to trust Logan will do what's necessary and I... I'll hold on for as long as I can."

So she would, they could only hope it would be enough...

.

The end finally came on the fifth day:

"They found us." The Professor announced, after receiving the message in his mind.

"They'll be here in a matter of minutes..." Iceman murmured, anxiously, looking at Kitty.

In the last two days things hadn't gotten any better. Rogue's actions had slowed her bleeding, but the wounds were still there, the borrowed power hadn't been enough to close them completely, and her undernourishment from recent years made it so even her natural healing had a hard time dealing with something like that.

Magneto didn't say a word, just went to join the upcoming battle.

"It's Doomsday ascending, the world you know is ending..." Hekate sang quietly.

"What the hell...?" Rogue turned a disbelieving look on her. "Are you honestly singing a song about the end of the world right now?!"

"It would be fitting, don't you think?" Hekate half-smirked at her before turning serious. "But it's not about the end of the world, not really. And that's why I like it. The song said 'the world you know is ending', which means it's changing, but the world will keep existing. It's what we're hoping for, isn't it? For the world we know to end, for a new one to exist."

"True..." Rogue admitted thoughtfully. "Lets hope it works like that then..."

They both knew they had no hope of winning that battle, everyone knew that. But maybe, just maybe, they would be able to stall the Sentinels long enough for Wolverine to truly change history, for the better. It was all they could hope for anymore...

The moment Skye had dropped to her knees Phil and Wanda had practically dropped at her sides, searching for a way to help her, while Pietro stood guard stoically behind them, ready to do anything to make sure no one would take advantage of the woman's vulnerable state. He might not feel for her as deeply as his sister did, but he still considered her someone special, someone they owed a lot too, and her lover too.

The moment Phil touched his beloved he was half-pulled into her visions, sharing them. He still had enough consciousness of self to retain a grip on reality, but at the same time he was at least half aware of what was going on in her mind.

"She's remembering..." He told quietly.

"Remembering?" Wanda asked, confused.

"Her dreams, except..." He made a pause, knowing it was insane, but no less true. "Except I don't think they are dreams at all, they're memories, of another time, another life..."

It was absolutely insane and yet... after all they'd lived already, especially since the two of them had met behind a diner in Los Angeles, how could he possibly say anything was impossible?

"Hekate?" The Profesor gasped, looking straight at the last mutant to have entered. "Did you just call her by that name?"

"It's who she is... or was." Wolverine shrugged slightly.

"I thought we had agreed that Hekate did not exist in this timeline." Magneto said, disbelieving. "Charles searched for her for years, and even when he found everyone else you told him about, she wasn't anywhere to be found. We decided in the end that something in what we changed must have prevented her from existing."

"You decided, you, not we." Wolverine pointed out with a shake of his head. "You chose to stop looking for her. I told you, when I woke up to this reality, that you would never be able to find her like that. Cerebro could never locate her, just like the Sentinels couldn't. She was completely invisible to any form of tracking."

"Well, we tried Los Angeles as well, she wasn't there either." Mystique pointed out.

She had been the one to travel to California, taking several guises as she searched for the woman her brothers didn't seem to be able to find no matter how hard they tried. She didn't understand what was so important about her, she was just one gal! And yet... what little she'd seen since the group's arrival had shown her that the woman, whether she called herself Hekate or Skye... was anything but a 'normal' gal.

"No she wasn't..." The Wolverine turned contemplative eyes to the man kneeling beside one he'd once considered a close-friend. "I wonder..."

"Are you certain she's the one?" Magneto insisted. "Couldn't you be confusing her?"

"Trust me, it's impossible to confuse Hekate with anyone but her." Wolverine stated gruffly. "Her scent isn't exactly the same, on one hand, He is so deep in her skin, just like she's in his." He signaled to the couple on the ground. "On the other... there are things in her scent... things that were already there, yet they seem more potent now. It's like she's still herself, only more so."

"She said she was neither human nor mutant." Mystique offered.

"Yeah." The gruff mutant nodded. "We never knew what she was..."

"I think she does know." Mystique insisted. "The way she speaks, that attitude, the very way she stands; it's not that of one ignorant about themselves. She knows who and what she is exactly. There's no doubt about that." She shook her head. "What I want to know is what's so damn important about her. I mean, I understand people like Storm, Cyclops, Jean, the school wouldn't be the same without them. Even some of the children, like Kitty, Colossus and Rogue, you feel like you owe them, and they were your family, still are. But what's so important about her?"

"When we met, she was a 23 year-old hacker and activist living in the back of her van." The oldest mutant informed everyone. "She was one of the strongest Mutant Rights defenders we had, since the things with the Sentinels got critical and humans siding with us began disappearing too. Jubilee, our own hacker, was always singing her praises. We decided to send a team once we learnt Trask Industries had finally grown tired of her continued interference in their plans, her constant hacking of their databases and release of information; they were making all kind of plans to find her, capture her. They had already made one attempt in fact, using an old hacker-friend of hers, it didn't work and the boy ended dead. So Rogue took her team and went to LA to get her. There was some kind of hiccup involving a couple of SHIELD Agents, but nothing to be worried about. They weren't threatening and let the girl go easily enough."

"SHIELD Agents...?" Magneto repeated, looking at Phil pointedly.

"Yeah..." Wolverine seemed to realize what he was thinking, but said nothing on the matter. "She came to Westchester and pretty much became a part of the X-Men. There were a lot who didn't really like her being around, since she wasn't mutant, but others supported her... When it all went to hell almost a year later she stood with us. Got a bullet to the gut for her troubles. I taught her to fight myself, Rogue helped on that front too, taught her to shoot too. The girl hated guns with a passion... until the day of the attack, when those things began shooting at the children. Then she picked up a pair of guns Stark had sent her and began shooting like nobody's business." He shook his head. "A lot happened in the following years, and she was involved in it all. Never stopped trying, gave up on us. Not even when the government offered her an out. Hekate might not have been a mutant, but she was an X-Man through and through. I know she always felt like she didn't make a difference, being just one person, first with no powers, and then completely unreliable ones; yet that wasn't true. I have a feeling we might not have survived as long as we did without her there to help us..."

"You're giving me way too much credit Wolverine..." A hoarse female voice called to him.

It was Skye, she was back in the real world, though they could all see the shadows in her eyes, a part of her was still lost in whatever she had experienced.

"I'm nothing more than an outsider who got involved in a war not her own." She stated with a self-deprecating tone.

"Marie would disagree." Wolverine grumbled.

"And seeing how, in this world she doesn't even know I exist, I don't see how you think that changes anything." Skye retorted as she finally got back on her feet.

"Hekate..." Wolverine began.

"Don't..." She winced unwillingly. "Don't call me that name, please."

"It's your name." The mutant did not understand.

"Not in this world." Skye pointed out. "I've had many names in this world, but never that one."

"Why Hekate?" Mystique blurted out.

Skye didn't answer, unwilling to bring even more memories up. She was having it hard enough already, having gained almost five years worth of memories in a few seconds; and while she'd seen a lot of it during her dreams, there had been no context back then. Also, and regardless of how many times they'd turned out to be more, back then she'd still wanted to believe they were just dreams. She didn't want to accept that things, that the world could ever turn out that bad... that Doomsday could ever be more than the theme of a song or the name of a dark creature from a long lost world.

"Because Hekate was the goddess of crossroads." Wolverine answered. "And that's what she was, she was the crossroad, the connection between all the groups that came together to fight the Sentinels. All but the X-Men had died by the time the end came. But they were there, they fought, and it was all because of her; she brought us together."

"The Professor and Magneto were the leaders, I was nothing but the go-between." Skye denied.

"That's not true, and we both know it." Wolverine insisted. "All those people, those teams, they weren't really standing by us, they stood by you..."

Phil did not doubt his words, just like he did not doubt who all those people were, the very same ones who were allied with SHIELD in their own time, and it was because of her too.

"You know what's funny." Pietro commented unexpectedly. "The name still fits! Because Hekate was the goddess of sorcery and... well..."

He cut off when he realized that the X-Men still didn't know the truth about her.

"It doesn't matter how well or bad it might fit." Skye declared, trying to lessen the impact of Quicksilver's words. "I am not Hekate anymore, not in this time, in this reality. That name now belongs only to a world lost, and it would be better if it remained there because... because if I hear it... if I hear it it's like I'm back there. Like I'm still in that rundown temple, like death is creeping onto us, and I cannot stand it. I've hardly slept in the last five days, I don't need that kind of torture while awake too!"

"I know how hard it is to carry such memories..." Wolverine began.

"You don't know!" Skye snapped at him. "You have no idea! You weren't there!"

"Of course I was, that's the whole point..." The mutant began to insist.

"You weren't there for the end!" Skye practically wailed, shooting through two octaves. "You did not see the pain in the Professor's face every time someone outside died. Did not see Magneto stumbling back into the Temple, Blink's last favor to him before she too was taken down; though there was nothing he could do anymore, he was fatally wounded already. Not that it made much of a difference since we were all minutes from dying by that point! You did not have to hear as the Sentinels took down the door, piece by piece; as Iceman went to fight them, knowing there was no way he could win, but he just had to give his girlfriend, and you more time. You did not hear his dying screams..." She stopped shouting and instead her voice became little more than whisper, almost drowned by grief and pain, though she still kept on talking. "You did not see Marie step forward to face them. She had so much power by that point, had spent years taking the gifts of those on the edge of death... do you know what happens when she 'borrows' someone's power? It's not just the gift itself she takes, it's also a part of their minds, of their memories. Do you have any idea what she felt, getting the memories of dozens of mutants who were seconds away from death? I know some called her cold, by the end, emotionless, but she just had no other way of surviving. If she allowed even the slightest feeling to creep inside, all those memories might have overwhelmed her, and she knew we couldn't have that luxury."

"The kid..." Wolverine began, shocked.

"She wasn't a kid!" She hissed at him in reproach. "Even when you first met her she wasn't a kid. She was a woman, younger than you true, but no less of a woman; and one who was very much in love with you! Everything she did, all she fought for, it was for you in the end. And you rejected her. In the last days, when we had practically nothing, you took away her last hope, her last illusion... and even then she wouldn't stop fighting, for you!"

The immortal, and usually invulnerable, mutant had no words to say to that.

"She was like my sister, and I had to see her die, trying so hard to give you more time..." Skye whispered in a half-broken voice. "You didn't have to see and hear all that. And then, you didn't have to see, didn't have to feel the moment when it all ended. Not by death, no, before that. The moment when they all just... gave up. All except Kitty. That girl..." She shook her head, a hint of pride in her eyes. "She was terrified, completely out of her mind with fear and pain, and yet she never gave up, never let go."

"What about you?" Magneto couldn't help but ask.

"I went and fought." Skye answered with no hesitation. "Used my weapons at their highest setting, to try and blow up as many of those monsters in one go as I could, and if in the end the explosion took me as well... all the better as far as I'm concerned." She was being dead honest. "For what good it did... I knew I didn't stand a chance against those things. But I had already decided I would rather fight and die, than just lay down and die, or worst, survive... Surrender isn't in my blood, and I had no reason to live, not when everyone I ever cared for was gone already. And..." She hesitated just a second before admitting. "I suppose a part of me still hoped... hoped that I would get to open my eyes again, and when I did the world would be a better place." She let out a breath. "Of course I never considered the possibility of having to carry the memories of that life, while in this one!"

"How is that even possible?" Mystique piped in. "I mean, if you're not a mutant, and you're not the one who time-traveled, how do you even remember any of it?"

"I may not be a mutant, but like I've been saying time and again, I'm not human either." Skye pointed out. "Also, unlike in that timeline, in this one I know who I am." She gestured to her blue eyes. "And I have complete knowledge of my abilities and how to control them."

She waved a hand around, drawing the water from a glass on the Professor's desk to levitate just above her palm, moving in abstract patterns.

"You're telekinetic?!" Wolverine and Mystique called in unison.

Skye smirked, beginning to enjoy the little 'game' of hers; a slightly different motion from her hand (and her fingers taking the tiniest hint of a blue tint) froze the water over her hand.

"Telekinesis and cryokinesis?" The Professor asked, growing very interested.

"And empathy, illusionism, astral proyection, shadow-walking, Sight, and some others that do not have proper names." Skye enlisted, her grin growing.

"No one can possibly have that many gifts!" Magneto denied.

"Once again, I Am Not A Mutant." Skye recited carefully, as if talking to a child.

"What are you then?!" Magneto demanded, not happy at all about her tone.

"An alien." The young woman deadpanned. "For all intents and purposes." She shook her head before elaborating. "Remember what happened in New York back in 2012?"

"The alien invasion..." Mystique nodded.

"The Avengers." Her brother added.

"Yes, one of them wasn't from this world, he was... is Asgardian." Skye half-explained.

"He's your father?" Wolverine inquired, curious.

"No..." She hesitated before deciding she would rather not risk it. "But, just like him, my father is not from this world. Neither is my mother for that matter."

"Then how did you end here exactly?" Mystique asked, not an ounce of tact.

"Raven!" The Professor called, alarmed by her bluntness.

"That's quite alright Professor." Skye assured him before turning to the blue woman. "They sent me here when I was a baby to protect me." Not quite, but the details weren't important. "They knew I would be safer growing up as a human."

The X-Men nodded. It was obvious they didn't understand, not completely, but it wasn't like it changed anything in the end.

"I just have one more question." Wolverine declared after a little while. "How exactly did you end up with SHIELD?"

"That your people missed your date with me on the summer of '13 doesn't mean they did. I may not have been a Mutant Rights' activist this time around, but I was still a hacker and Rising Tide. That was more than enough to call SHIELD's attention onto me. They found me and... well, lets just say I decided to take my chances with them. Turned out quite alright, if I do say so myself. We were still betrayed, and I ended up shot in the stomach at one point, but it was all worth it."

"You weren't with him in the other world." Wolverine pointed out.

"We never had the chance there." She didn't bother denying it, knew enough about him to guess how he knew about them. "Here we had it, and we took it." She smiled. "It's true that this life is very different from the other one I had, more than I could have ever imagined, even when I allowed myself to think on what might have been... but I do not regret it? How could I when I have gained so much? I lost Marie, that is true, and a part of me hurts, remembering what once was and now will never be... but it's alright. In the end, I was the one that needed her, not the other way around, never that; and in this time I've learnt to depend on other people, I've found others I now call family..." She turned to the twins with a soft smile. "And that includes Wanda and Pietro now..."

"Her family is huge!" Wanda offered.

She would know, she'd been with Skye on her trips the last several months, meeting people (and then there were those who visited themselves instead); all except Asgard. Those visits were still done for two weeks, every six months, like clockwork, and still top-secret, both for her safety and that of her blood-family.

"I'm curious about something." Phil said right then. "You're all talking about differing timelines, that you changed history, and I've seen in Skye's head some of how it was... would have been, whichever. But what exactly did you change for the world to turn out so different."

The four members of the X-Men turned to look at each other briefly in silence before Mystique pulled what looked like an old newspaper from a cabinet and offered it to Phil. There it was, in big letters, front-page: "Mutant saves the President and his Cabinet". The date read January 29th, 1973... that very day, forty five years earlier.

"I knew these days were important, but no matter how hard I looked, online and in the archives, I found nothing." Skye commented, signaling to the paper. "I knew something had happened, something huge, but couldn't find any sign of it... except for the rather notorious lack of any newspapers from that date..." She shook her head. "How in the world did you manage to hide, to pretty much erase, something this big?"

"It wasn't something I, or any of us really, planned at first." The Professor said honestly. "After we managed to avert the crisis with the Sentinels, Mystique killing Trask and all that. Humanity got to see a different side of mutants, that not all of us wanted to kill them. I thought that would be enough, I hoped..."

"It wasn't, not by a long shot." Mystique snorted. "For a while it was all good, of course. People kept whispering about what mutants might be capable of. Some kids were even eager about seeing one of us in action. Talking about the return of superheroes like Captain America and the like. But it did not last."

"No, it didn't." Xavier nodded. "In July of that same year, the Watergate Scandal blew wide-open. Nixon began losing a lot of clout, and while him being the center of the attention meant we mutants were being ignored, again; I also knew eventually people would remember about us. We had no guarantees that the next president would follow Nixon's policy of leaving us alone, or even like Kennedy, helping us. And the chances of things going back to how they were right after Kennedy was assassinated were too big to ignore."

"I knew all that." Magneto pointed out. "I imagined that the war would finally come, and I began almost unconsciously making my way to Westchester. Knowing that if an attack was to come, it was likely it would start there. So imagine my surprise when I woke up one morning to discover no one had the slightest idea what a mutant was... not beyond science-fiction and Dr. Xavier's theories on evolution, at least."

"You erased the world's minds?!" Phil cried out in shock.

"Not quite." The Professor shook his head. "No one actually forgot anything, so much as the way they thought about it shifted just slightly. They went from knowing it was all true to seeing it as some kind of show, a ruse. Like the whole 'War of the Worlds' radio-drama back in 1938... Most people came to believe that it had all been acted. The Watergate Scandal helped too, making it seem like Nixon had tries to gain publicity with the stunt, and failed." He sighed. "There were some, of course, whose minds were strong enough to know the truth, but those were few and far between. Most of them didn't actually care either way, and from those who did, it was mainly because they knew mutants too close to ignore the truth. It's actually how we got our first generation of students once the school reopened that very fall."

"I had made it to Westchester by then, not quite knowing what to think about what I'd found in my way." Magneto admitted thoughtfully. "The very reason Charles and I split after Cuba back in '62 was because we couldn't reconcile our ideological differences. He believed too much in the good of mankind, and I remembered too acutely the cruelty men with too much power and no scruples could bring..." He rubbed the inside of one arm self-consciously. "I thought the only way of stopping mutants from being massacred was by being the ones in power."

"Wouldn't that make you the very thing you sought to prevent?" Pietro blurted out.

"Cannot say I was thinking exactly clearly when I made such plans." Magneto admitted. "By that point I had spent over half of my life hunting down the man who ruined my life, and the life of so many other people, innocents. I actually never expected to live past the end of my mission. Then when I met Charles, in the sea, off the coast of Florida, he threw my world upside down. I didn't know what I was supposed to do anymore. He changed so much, the things I knew, or thought I knew. The only way I could think of, not to lose myself, was to hold onto the one thing I knew, without a doubt, as still true: Shaw, his evil. Killing him went from being my mission to my anchor. And in my obsession of fulfilling it I ended up making many mistakes, hurting people who never deserved it... Charles most of all."

"Cuba was a mess, there's no doubt about that." Xavier nodded in agreement. "So much of my beliefs were challenged, and it almost seemed that the harder I tried to hold onto them, the worst it all became. First the government turning against us and shooting us on that beach, the bullet that took my legs, Erik and Raven leaving and then when the Vietnam War took so many of my teachers and students just after the first semester... I got lost in myself for too long. Until January of 1973 when Wolverine came, from the future, and changed everything with a single phrase:"

"That I came from the future?" Wolverine smirked from the side of the room.

"No." Xavier shook his head, voice suddenly intense. "You said 'you and Erik sent me back here together'. I still couldn't fully believe that, after so many years, I could convince Raven to come home. Erik seemed beyond impossible; and yet when you said those words... It was then that I understood that no matter what happened, how bad things got, in the end we were still connected. And regardless of how long it might take, one day he would see it too. That gave me Hope, like nothing else could have." He smiled. "Didn't actually expect that day would come just eight months later but..."

"When I realized how far-reaching the change in people's minds were I just knew it was your fault." Magneto deadpanned. "Had to make sure you weren't dying, being held hostage or something equally dreadful. Because I honestly couldn't believe you would be doing something like that by your own will."

"But I did." Xavier said strongly. "Maybe it wasn't exactly right, maybe I could have done something else to protect us. But in that moment it was all I could think of. I contented myself with knowing I hadn't hurt anyone, hadn't changed them in any essential manner. All I did was protect us, myself, my people, my family..."

As he said the last words the Professor stared straight at Skye and Phil, as if willing them to understand, not to judge him too harshly for the choices he had made. And how could they? How when they were exactly the same?

"Per la famiglia, tutto." Skye declared out-loud.

"For the family, everything." Magneto translated, arching a brow.

"It's a family motto." The woman shrugged, leaving the rest to their imagination.

She knew they would get the idea.

"So it worked then?" Phil said, pushing the thought of Xavier's actions aside. "You made the world forget about mutants and managed to protect yourselves?"

"It has worked for the last 45 years, but it won't last forever." Professor X stated. "The numbers of mutants around the world keep growing, and now with the introduction of metas and other gifted individuals to the mix... it's a matter of time before we're all in the spotlight all over again. And with the way things are happening there will be no way to hide us again."

"We shouldn't need to hide." Mystique stated, allowing her body to shimmer between several images before returning to normal (her normal). "Mutant and Proud, remember?"

"The problem is that, even with the X-Men, we are not prepared if the government decides to come after us in this world too." Xavier shook his head. "I might be willing to fight for my students, but I'm not willing to see them die. We're not enough to protect everyone that would need protecting if it came to war. And with Trask Industries using things like the invasion of New York in '12 and the whole thing with Hydra in '13 to try and gain supporters for a return of the Sentinel Program..."

"What if you had the government protecting you, for a change, or at least a quite powerful multi-national organization, with ties with even more groups all around the world?" Phil spoke up, making a rather unexpected offer.

None of the X-Men knew what to say to that. Though the offer was more than viable; and it was not just SHIELD they would have at their backs, but all the connections they had made in the last few years, both official and unofficial... maybe it was time the full Alliance was brought together, just like in the other world (but hopefully with a better chance of making it through whatever came; and she was all for making sure the Sentinels never got the chance to become a threat). She was still not using the name Hekate, though.

"I might be able to do something about Trask..." Skye announced before she was even fully conscious of what she was saying.

The X-Men were still thinking over the implications of the offer Phil had just made when she pulled out her personal (encrypted) phone and dialed one of her main contacts. Everyone turned to look at her the moment she began to talk.

"Josef? This is Karin..." She ignored the looks at the different name. "I have a proposal for you... All business of course." She smirked almost predatory. "Trask Industries, and Dr. Bolivar Trask... I want them ruined... You can call it a personal favor to me... No, it's not a joke. This is important, beyond SHIELD, beyond the Clan; Trask is a danger to every gifted individual on this world. His plans simply cannot be allowed to go through... Yes. With his company in shambles his work will never be finished, and if he loses his reputation no one will listen to his ideas again. That's the kind of thing that needs to happen... I guess you could always call Alec and Stark and get them to help; they might be getting a bit bored with so little to do; and they will have personal interest on this too." The next pause was longer. "One more thing, whatever you find: personal documents, research files, anything; send me the originals, I will get them to the right people, who can decide what to do with it all; destroy anything else. Nothing must be left of his work, nothing at all." She waited again, then smiled. "Yes, thank you Josef, I owe you one."

For a couple of seconds not a word was said, and then:

"Who exactly did you just call to ask him to take down Trask?" Mystique asked in disbelief before turning to her brother. "And if she's allowed to take down the bastard why can't I?"

"I did not send an assassin after him." I pointed out, slightly offended.

"Worse." Wolverine chuckled almost darkly. "She sent a businessman. Josef Kostan..."

"Josef Kostan, of Konstantin Enterprises?" Magneto was paranoid enough to keep up with who the most powerful (supposedly) human people were.

"I know him." The young woman decided not to go into details. "I know every member of the Consortium for that matter."

No one needed to ask what the Consortium was... ever since Queen Industries had attempted a hostile take-over of Solomon Pharmaceuticals a couple of years before and ended being taken down (and pretty much apart) instead, there wasn't a single person who knew anything of business and did not know who and what the Consortium was.

"I suppose you remember him from the other timeline." Skye nodded at Wolverine, un-surprised. "You probably remember most of my contacts, then. Most of them are part of an Alliance with SHIELD now, they're part of what Phil offered you before."

"But to be able to make such an offer..." Professor X seemed to finally have managed to consider all the implications, and realized what it all came down to. "You are more than just Agents of SHIELD or of any other organization..."

"I suppose AC and Skye have nothing to do with you either..." Magneto added, suspicious.

"The Professor is right, you, however, are completely wrong." The young Agent informed him. "Skye is my name, one of many at least. AC..."

"Stands for Agent Coulson." Phil finished for her, before focusing fully on Xavier. "You were right on what you inferred, though. We're more than just Agents. My full name is Philip James Coulson, I am the Director of SHIELD."

"And I am Agent Astrid Skye Avery." His lover promptly added with a hint of a smile. "Deputy Director of SHIELD."

Not a word was said, not by anyone; though when Phil offered first Professor Xavier and then his partner his hand to shake, they both did so. Words weren't needed really, Skye's memories of the other timeline were good enough she had an idea of what must be running through their heads: Maybe, just maybe this time around the government would help instead of hurting them. Maybe, just maybe, this time around coexistence could really be possible. Maybe their Hope hadn't been in vain, and this really was the future they always dreamt of...

Chapter Text

Chapter 10. Protect, Live, Love

The wedding of Darcy Stark to Clint Barton in early 2018 was cause for a riot, or rather, the fact that they didn't invite anyone was. Tony Stark in particular seemed to take offense that his oldest child hadn't so much as given him a call before pronouncing 'I do', or that she hadn't allowed him to give her the kind of wedding he thought his firstborn deserved. Never-mind that he had only known she was his for less than six years, or that he himself had married Pepper years prior in a private ceremony in Hawaii that only included those he personally flew to the island.

Darcy had discovered she was Tony Stark's daughter in 2012 when her mother, on her deathbed, finally deign to confess the truth about why she'd treated her only child so coldly during her whole life. The fact that she'd spent decades taking out on an innocent girl the fact that the man she'd slept with did not love her, did not so much as remember her.

In the mid 1980's Daphne Matthews had been a promising law student, doing an internship in a high-end law-firm. She had every intention of becoming a famous lawyer, working high-profile cases; she was a very beautiful woman, well-endowed (as more than one man had told her) and she wanted it all: fame, fortune, a good life. Which is probably why, when the millionaire Tony Stark gave her the time of day she thought all her dreams were about to come true. Her friends tried to warn her the man was fickle, already becoming well-known as a ladies-man, uninterested on anything beyond a one-night-stand. But Daphne was convinced that it either wasn't true, or she could change him. They had an amazing night together in her birth-town of Phoenix, then he left in the middle of the night, and never called her.

At first she'd reacted like any offended woman, refused to admit she cared at all. Instead staying close to her best-friend: Maya Lewis, and her brother: George (who had the hots for her). At one point she even got drunk enough to sleep for him, regretting it almost right away. And then... then she found out she was pregnant. The future she'd once envisioned, vanished in an instant.

She'd tried going to Stark to demand child-support, but after hours of being kept waiting the only one to deign to see her was Obadiah Stane; who looked down at her, as if she were a whore, and told her in a very no-nonsense tone that Starks did not have bastards. In the end George was her only hope. He agreed to marry her, knowing full-well the child wasn't his; then again, he needed help too. He and his sister were part of some cult Daphne didn't understand and they needed a facade they could hide behind: Daphne, and a child, a normal family and life, were the perfect smokescreen for their activities.

Daphne could have had no idea how bad things would get in the following years, but she was desperate. Her father had cut her off after learning she was pregnant, and many of the offers she'd had for jobs upon graduation vanished like smoke once her pregnancy became known. No one was interested in a pregnant lawyer, no matter how promising she might have been.

It wasn't that bad at the beginning. Maya herself was married to a curator in the Smithsonian and they had a daughter called Olivia, Livvie, for short. Maya got Daphne a job as an legal assistant in the same buffet she worked for, it was smaller than what Daphne had once planned for herself, but still better than nothing.

Then, in the 90's, everything had gone horribly wrong: first a supposed drive-by shooting had left George with a painful limp; he'd refused to go to the hospital to get treatment, stating it was dangerous, though he never explained to Daphne why. He'd turned to drinking after that, he'd always enjoyed wine, like his sister and her husband (unlike Daphne, who didn't have a taste for it), but he began drinking beer, being drunk more often than not. He was never violent to her or to Darcy, but still. And with Tony Stark rising to fame, people calling him the richest, most wanted bachelor of America... it was a painful reminder of all she'd lost.

The end of it all finally came in 1995. Maya was supposed to travel to London that day for business. Daphne had finally risen to a full-payed lawyer in the firm, she'd even been chosen to oversee Maya's cases in her absence. It was supposed to be just for a few days, a week at most... it wasn't. The plane never made it to London, some mechanical failure or something, it crashed in the sea, miles away from the UK.

George left that very same night, no explanation, no word said. He simply left and did not come back. And then Rowan wouldn't see her, wouldn't allow the girls to have play-dates than they used to. It was as if Rowan blamed Daphne for something, and she didn't understand what, or even why. (Eventually she would come to realize that the cult had been more than just that, that it was somehow connected to how Maya died, and George had run before anyone went after her. Rowan blamed her, believing she was a part of it too, he never cared for finding out the truth).

Daphne never wanted to be a bad person. She just got frustrated: at the co-workers who were always talking about her behind her back, either because of the sister-in-law who'd died, the husband who abandoned her, or the figure she never recovered after her pregnancy (some said that was why her husband walked out on her). She was constantly upset, and there was no one she could take her frustrations out on... no one but her daughter.

Realistically speaking, Daphne knew it wasn't Darcy's fault, she was just a child. But during her lonely nights the woman couldn't help but think about the perfect life she should have had, and how it had been ruined because of one unplanned pregnancy... In the end it was no surprise to her when Darcy chose to go all the way to Virginia for college. What was, certainly surprising was when Darcy informed her of the debit-card she'd received, a college-fund in her name, created by none other than Rowan Pope...

Darcy knew who the man was, she also knew he hadn't wanted anything to do with her or her mother since the death of her aunt Maya. Still, the funds in the card allowed her to study all the things she'd always anted: like art, politics, languages... For a while Darcy entertained the thought of becoming a lawyer and one day working with her cousin Olivia. (It never happened).

In the end law turned out to just not be her thing. She tried, but it was just too boring. She still studied Politics, which might have allowed her the chance of working with her cousin anyway... until the need for six science credits had her traveling to New Mexico for what was supposed to be six months... and ended with her working for SHIELD.

In 2012, before the alien invasion, right after she'd finished all the basic courses to become an official Agent of SHIELD, Darcy got an unexpected call from the family doctor in Phoenix. It appeared that her mother had cancer, had had it for years and never told Darcy a thing. Not while she'd been in treatment, and not when the treatment stopped working. According to the doctors she had but days left to live. And even then, it'd been Dr. Porter's idea to call her (though Darcy did not know that until she saw her mother's shocked expression the moment her 26 year old daughter stepped into the hospital room).

For almost two days mother and daughter hardly spoke. And then, in the third day, so high on morphine Darcy had serious doubts her mother had made the conscious decision of saying anything, Daphne began talking. She spoke of Maya, Rowan and Olivia, of George, his leaving, of her own pregnancy, the father that cut her off, and of the night spent with Tony Stark...

Darcy felt like she couldn't breathe... for a while she hadn't believed it; though, the more she thought about it, she could remember her father (or the man she'd believed to be her father), had never loved her. She had next to no memories of him, and none of them were good: all being about anger, drinking, insults... it made the young woman wonder if that was why he hated her, because he wasn't hers. In any case that probably explained why when both of her parents had had dark-skin and black hair her hair was brunette and her skin a bit lighter in tone.

Darcy never planned on telling Tony about herself. It had been too long, and it wasn't like she actually needed a father (or so she thought). She hardly knew Tony at all; mostly because of Clint and also because, after Phil's 'death' she'd been chosen to act as messenger between SHIELD and Stark (she wasn't sure if that meant they trusted her with highly important documents, or that they did not trust her to become a field agent... not that she was that interested since her boyfriend had been pushed to quitting).

Then, something unexpected had happened in the winter of 2013. Tony's daughter: Margaret, not even three months old, was admitted into the hospital in emergency. The baby had spend almost a whole month in an incubator, being born at seven months, too small and not yet fully developed (it was a consequence of the radiation poisoning Tony'd once suffered, and possibly Extremis). They hadn't even had her six weeks in the Tower when the new emergency came.

According to the doctors Maggie wasn't producing enough blood, and that was affecting her negatively. They all hoped that it would get better as she grew, but for the time being she would need a transfusion. And that was where the real trouble came: because little Maggie had inherited Tony's blood-type, which was extremely rare. Pepper wasn't compatible, and due to the residual radiation poisoning Tony couldn't donate.

It just happened that Darcy had been at Stark Tower picking up some papers to take to her bosses when it all went down. Worried for the little girl she had decided to go by the hospital after her shift was over. There she learnt what was going on from Happy, who looked kind of lost as he watched Tony pacing from one side to the other, almost stalking; while Pepper cried in a couch. When Pepper's bodyguard told her what was going on Darcy nodded, taking advantage that the Starks didn't seem to have noticed her yet, she went looking for the doctor in charge.

"You want me to what?" The doctor asked after she blurted out her request.

"You need blood for Maggie Stark, don't you?" Darcy said, seriously. "Check mine against hers, I think I might be a match."

"Why would you?" The doctor sounded distrustful. "The blood-type is extremely rare..."

"AB-, I know." Darcy interrupted him, extending her arm to him. "It's my blood-type."

The doctor stopped questioning her then, instead choosing to take her to a nurse who would draw her blood so compatibility analysis could be made.

It was like she expected, she was compatible. An hour later Darcy was donated the necessary blood for the baby, and leaving her contact information for the doctor in case they needed more later on. She just asked one thing of the man:

"Don't tell them who did it..." She asked of the doctor.

"Why not?" The man wasn't expecting that. "I imagine Mr. Stark would like to reward."

"I'm not interested in any rewards." Darcy shook her head. "I did what I did to help that little girl, that's all. Now I would like to go back to my apartment, and my boyfriend."

She wasn't sure if the doctor had spoken in the end, or if Stark simply hadn't been able to stay not knowing who had donated the blood for his baby. In any case, a week later Tony Stark was at her door, looking at her like he'd never seen her before (and considering how often he joked with her when he was visiting the tower, that was simply not possible).

If she were to be honest with herself, she had expected Tony to find out she'd been the donor, sooner or later; what she never planned on, was on him finding out why exactly she'd been so compatible with Maggie. She didn't even know the studies the doctor made had revealed that!

"I'm sorry..." Were the first words out of his mouth.

"What...?" Darcy honestly did not know what to say.

"I have a twenty-six year old daughter, and only now I'm finding out..." Tony began babbling as soon as he was in the apartment. "It's obvious she knows, because she knew she would be compatible with Maggie, yet she didn't think she could tell me..."

"The one time my mother tried, she was thwarted by Mr. Stane." Darcy revealed grimly. "It didn't go well. There was a reason she didn't try again. I myself did not know until last year."

"And still you said nothing..." Tony murmured.

"What for?" Darcy asked, confused.

"Well, I know I'm not what most would consider as the right person to be a father but..." Stark sounded actually hurt as he said that.

"It's nothing against you!" She hurried to reassure him. "I've seen you with Maggie, it's obvious to me you're a wonderful father. It's just... I'm twenty-six years old, it's not like I need a father. I've done well enough all these years without one..."

It was what she kept telling herself, but she knew it was a lie. She did need a father, always had, always would. She was just too afraid to have one reject her, again. And while knowing the George wasn't really her Dad had helped her move on from his abandonment, to then have her real one turn away from her would have been too much.

So they'd taken it slow. They'd started with lunch or dinner once a week, then movie-night one or twice a month. When Pepper found out the truth she received the young woman with open arms. Willing to be a big-sister if not a mother to her.

In the end what stopped Darcy from taking the Stark name wasn't a lack of love or acceptance from any side, but Tony's fears that his enemies might turn against her once they knew Darcy was a Stark. Especially with Hydra, the SHIELD civil war, and the revelation that Howard and Maria Stark's deaths hadn't been accidental, they had been assassinated.

It was entirely coincidental that Darcy and Clint chose to marry just a few months after making her name change to Stark official. Though she chose to hyphenate her surname, to be able to take her husband's without losing her father's. She was too happy and proud of being the daughter of Tony Stark to want to give it up.

As Darcy told it, the team had been in Vegas, wrapping up a mission. It had been mostly an easy one, except for the part where an old 'acquaintance' of Clint's (with no relation to the mission or even SHIELD, at all) had showed up and threatened Clint while he was holding a rifle, having Darcy's back. A fight between the two had broken out. A fight on the roof-top of one of the tallest buildings in Las Vegas. And Darcy had had to see it all from the ground (after she'd finished the mission in a rush when a number of arrows fell beside her).

When it was all over she'd slapped Clint before kissing him almost violently. His response, which even he hadn't planned on, was to ask her to marry him.

No one knew for sure if Clint and Darcy had chosen to marry right then and there, with no one present except their two teammates (Natalia and James) because they wanted to avoid the media frenzy the marriage of Tony Stark's oldest daughter would cause; or if they truly were so lost in each other and the idea of finally marrying that it had never occurred to them. Whichever the case, Tony still made sure of holding a party for everyone in their crazy family. It was the only time Skye allowed herself to be anywhere close to Thor (he and Jane were guests too), though there were so many people she supposed there was no need to worry, and Darcy knew better than to call one of them when the other was close.

xXx

In the summer a good number of members of the rather extended and bizarre family traveled to San Diego, California; not for a mission, but to support another of the family. Dominic Toretto was again racing, legally (they discovered that the pardons Hobbs got for them were blanket pardons, erasing all the crimes they'd once been charged with, including Dom's conviction for aggravated assault at 21). He was competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, with a car fixed by his own team. They were all there too.

When Dom had invited his youngest sister he wasn't sure she would be able to attend. He knew, better than most, how busy she was. While they were finally done with what some had taken to calling the 'Civil War', the fact that they'd decided to make all their actions public after the last confrontation had only made everything all the more public. Also, so many gifted individuals going public, and standing by SHIELD, wasn't making things any easier. The only benefit was that few people outside of the organization and the family seemed to know the rank his adopted sister held. The fact that she could so easily change clothing and hair-styles, take a different name and practically adopt a different identity also helped. Only the family, Luke Hobbs and Elena Neves knew that Astrid Avery and Cielo Toretto were the same person.

Dom was very nervous. While he'd been racing all the season and had a pretty good record. No doubt thanks to both his racing skills and the work he and everyone else had put into building the car he was using. What he did not know was that Cielo had a double reason for being there. As happy as she was for having the chance of seeing his brother fulfill his dreams, finally, she was also worried about him.

One of her more unsavory contacts (one who knew her as Karen Starr) had informed her that there were rumors in the 'underground' of something happening during that race in San Diego. Wesley had seen an e-mail arrive for Sloan (while he'd taken down the Fraternity, a lot of its structure still remained, as a way of keeping an eye out for anyone he might have missed), of a man wanting to showing a little too much interest in that particular race, and looking for someone to cause an 'accident'. Then, as if that weren't enough, Agents posted around the world who had been tasked with keeping an eye over one or another member of the team since they'd captured Ian Shaw in Spain had all reported someone highly trained spying on the crew. That had been enough to raise red flags in several minds, including hers.

"Why are you giving me this?" Brian asked, looking at the badge in his hand in confusion.

It was a SHIELD badge, a Class C (Class A were the full-fledged Agents, B the official liaisons with other organizations -like NCIS, FBI, CIA, etc.-; and C those that were connected to them but did not usually go on missions, though they were the first ones on call should any local authority require a SHIELD Agent in short notice -as HQs were still in the Playground, in the middle of the Atlantic, and it took time getting from there to anywhere-), Level 7 (because he knew too much of the gifted and the supernatural to be any lower) badge.

"First of all, I know you actually liked working in law enforcement, though after everything that's happened neither the FBI nor the LAPD are willing to take you." Cielo explained seriously. "I also know you're not sure of looking further because you don't want to leave Mia and Jack. This badge makes you officially a part of SHIELD, but your service will be more on an 'as needed' basis. Mostly, if something happens in the area that the people in charge think SHIELD needs to oversee. It will then be your responsibility to decide if a proper team needs to be called. I imagine you mostly will be called if they happen to meet a gifted, or someone who claims to be connected to us in any way. You will have an encrypted phone with access to all of us, as well as several of our regional allies, in case of an emergency."

"Ok, I understand that." Brian nodded. "I even like it. But why give it to me precisely today, and right now. Why not after the race?"

Cielo smiled grimly, she knew Brian would see through her. There was a reason he'd been such a successful FBI Agent until the Braga case threw him back into the Torettos' orbit.

"Because I have very good reasons to believe that something is going to happen in this race; a number of reports that someone has been spying on the team, someone with enough training not to be caught by my agents; and Wesley says someone was looking for a person willing to cause an 'accident' during a race." She answered honestly. "All those things put together paint a really dark picture, as I'm sure you realize. And considering the number of enemies our family has made through the years..." She shook her head. "Since Stark is sponsoring Team Toretto for this circuit it won't surprise anyone to find SHIELD Agents around. But we need to be on alert."

"I suppose Dom knows nothing about it." Brian guessed. "Which means no one from the team knows, otherwise they would have told him already... You do know he's going to kill us when this is all over, right?" He didn't wait for an answer. "What do we know about the threat? Do we even know if it's only one person or multiple?"

"Regretfully we know very little; though what we do know it's no good." Cielo answered quietly. "The person or persons spying on you and the rest of the crew is, like I said, good enough that while the agents I had keeping an eye on you every so often knew they were there, they couldn't catch them; couldn't even get a picture or anything at all. Then there's the fact that the one who wants to cause an accident wants it badly enough to have gone looking for the Fraternity to get someone who would do it; Wesley stopped that chance, but still, it's no guarantee that an attempt won't be made, an assassination attempt that might look like an accident..."

"Like Papa Toretto's..." Brian's gaze turned to steel as he understood the implications. "Not happening." He pondered a little more on what had just been said. "If they want it badly enough and cannot find anyone they might just try themselves."

"At this point that's pretty much what I'm hoping for." Cielo admitted. "If we assume that the whispers of something happening are referring to the accident, there would still be the doubt of if it's the same people who've been spying on you. If it's all one sole individual, then at least that'll help us. Also, the fact that they're acting during a race means Dom is at least the immediate target, which gives us something to focus on." She let out a breath. "Like you said, if they want this as badly as it seems, they will come and try personally. At which point we must catch them."

"Very well." Brian nodded.

They split then, to look for whoever might be responsible of what was coming. Skye had made sure of giving Brian a comm unit, with which he could get in contact with her and the rest of the agents 'walking around' the place.

It took a couple of hours, but abruptly everyone heard a single word come across the channel:

"Shaw!" It was Brian's voice.

Skye reacted instantly, spinning around from where she was and running at her top speed, letting her magic reach and map out the route she needed to take to find her brother-in-law. She found him in a corner of the garage where Dom's car was being kept until his turn came for the last tuning and warm-up lap. What she noticed next was the unconscious body at his feet: a tall, well-muscled man with very short black hair, dressed in a white-shirt, black suit and black tie.

"Brian?" Skye asked when she saw him, gun still in hand (thankfully it was an ICER).

"I saw him slip in here, he was going for Dom's car." Brian began reporting almost automatically. "His phone rang and when he answered he said: Shaw. I knew it couldn't be good, so I shot him."

"Ian Shaw..." Skye murmured in understanding.

"You know who he is?" Brian inquired, completely tense.

"Yes, I do." Skye nodded seriously. "He's Owen's older brother..."

"Owen's..." Brian was in shock. "Wait, you mentioned him when we finished that job in Spain. You told Owen Shaw his brother wouldn't be able to get him out..."

"And I was telling the truth." Skye nodded.

"So he's a criminal too, then?" Brian guessed, signaling to the fallen man.

"It's actually more complicated than that." The brunette admitted, pulling at the loose ponytail in a nervous move.

Brian had no idea how complicated it all was about to get.

It took fifteen minutes or so for the man to wake-up. Skye did not even bother to cuff him or anything. She simply took a seat in a crate, and waited. Brian did not understand what was going on, but he stood beside her.

"I know you're awake." The brunette called, appearing carefree (if not careless). "Ian Shaw... or would you prefer me to call you Frank Martin?"

The use of the second name made the man sit up instantly. His expression twisted briefly; Skye knew he was probably having a hell of a migraine (a secondary effect of the ICER).

"Who are you?" The man demanded. "And what the hell did you shoot me with?"

"She wasn't the one to shoot you, I was." Brian informed him, feeling great pride when he could add. "Agent Brian O'Conner. And seeing how this is my team's garage and you aren't part of my team, you have no business being here..."

"Brian O'Conner... husband of Mia Toretto, father of Jack O'Conner-Toretto..." The man recited in an almost challenging tone. "You are part of the crew that sent my brother Owen to prison."

"So you're the one who's been spying on us." Brian nodded in understanding.

"I needed to see you, your crew." Shaw admitted. "Find out how a group of third-class criminals took down my brother and his team. With his cleverness, his wit and his precision he achieved so much in years; you catching him shouldn't have been possible."

"Precision, yes, that was your brother's code." Brian nodded seriously. "We talked about codes once, you know, how you taught him that every man needs to have a code. Well, our code is about family... and your brother made a huge mistake when he chose to threaten ours."

"Per la famiglia, tutto." The two agents recited in unison.

The man commonly known as 'Transporter' just looked at the two Agents in silence, he still did not know who the girl was, she looked much younger than the blonde man, but there was something about the way she held herself, even as she sat on those boxes, that told the former Special Forces that, somehow, she was the most dangerous one of the two.

"I see..." The man nodded.

He did, it was quite obvious that his little brother had misjudged the group, badly; they were not just a crew, they were a family. Owen had treated them the same way as all who had opposed them in the past, but they weren't playing by those rules, they had their own. It was probably a good thing he'd been stopped before he did anything to the car...

"So you're here because of what happened to your brother..." Skye began in an easy tone, before turning colder. "And what made you think that your brother being in prison was a good reason for you to try and kill mine?"

The older man obviously wasn't expecting that. In all his research he had only found one sister: Mia Toretto... and the girl before him obviously wasn't her... But then he remembered, there had been another: a Cielo Toretto. Had been adopted into the family at sixteen. But in all his research he hadn't been able to find anything about her. It was almost as if she'd vanished into thin air shortly after being adopted, only re-emerging twice and for brief periods of time.

"Cielo Toretto?" He tried anyway.

Skye nodded once, not saying a word.

"I looked into every member of Toretto's crew, I never saw you." The Transporter commented, intrigued by that.

"Most of the time I go by another name." She announced before jumping off the crate, allowing the ease of her life as Cielo Toretto to slip away, and everything that made her an Agent show through. "I am Astrid Avery, Agent of SHIELD... and you, Mr. Shaw, Mr. Martin, whatever name you prefer, made a huge mistake coming after my family. I do not take kindly to the people who threaten those I care for."

"I never intended for anyone to die." The man revealed finally. "If Toretto was really as good a driver as all the reports claim, what I was planning to do to his car wouldn't have done more than make him spin a few times."

"Yes... unless someone else lost control, or simply didn't manage to get away in time." Brian almost hissed. "Then he could have died."

Shaw/Martin shrugged. He had to admit that wasn't something he had considered. He was a master at evasive driving; and as far as he was concerned, if Dominic Toretto was any good he should have been able to handle anything.

"You know, I have the utmost respect for Inspector Tarconi." Astrid said seriously. "I know the kind of things you've done, and that he holds you in high esteem, particularly for the ways you've helped people in the past. The mercenary life you might have lead as Ian Shaw at one point is quite different from the life you have now as Frank Martin... it's why we at SHIELD haven't worried about you in the past. But if you decide to become a threat to my family, like Owen did in the past, that will change."

Shaw/Martin knew she was serious. Regardless of the fact that a mere Agent shouldn't have the clout to threaten him like that, his instinct (the same that had allowed him to survive through all his years in the Special Forces, and later on his time as a mercenary in Europe and the Middle-East) told him that she was being completely serious with her threats, and was in a position to back them up if necessary.

"I suppose I shall take my leave then." The Transporter declared.

He didn't wait for the Agents to say anything, simply snapping his handcuffs open with a move he'd learnt in the army, straightened his clothes, and walked right past them to leave.

A couple of minutes later a voice was heard through the comm. channel:

"Our person of interest has just joined a redhead in a tight dress and they're walking towards one of the side exits." Akela stated from her vantage point, by a ticket-stand.

"What are our orders, boss-lady?" Eyal asked, posted in a corner of the parking lot.

"Stand down, I repeat, stand down." Astrid ordered authoritatively. "Let them leave in peace. Frank Martin and Valentina Vasilev are no concern of us. As long as Ian Shaw doesn't make a reappearance to threaten the Toretto crew, we will leave them well enough alone."

"Very well boss." Eyal agreed. "Lavin out."

"You're the one giving the orders..." Akela added, though she didn't sound as convinced by Skye's decision as the other.

"Does that mean we have to go or can we stay and watch the race?" Another member of the team, Triplett, asked, interested.

"You can stay Trip." Skye told him with a smile. "I certainly plan to." She turned off the comm. "Now we only need to..."

She cut off the moment she noticed just who was standing behind her: Dom Toretto: staring at her with piercing dark eyes; a look that was replicated in Mia Toretto as she looked at her husband.

"Now you need to explain to me what exactly just went down and why you didn't see fit to tell me you were here in a professional capacity rather than just as my sister." The racer said in a very no-nonsense tone.

Skye/Cielo swallowed almost audibly. While a part of her had been hoping that she could avoid the whole episode, the bigger part of her had known she would have to explain things to her brother at one point; she just wished she would have been able to do it on her terms, and after the race (maybe after he'd won he would have been on a better mood). Still, she wouldn't lie to him, hopefully the fact that the danger was past would make things easier... who was she kidding? Dom was going to hate the whole thing no matter what.

xXx

That should have been the end of it, really it should have. Shaw/Martin had been the one wanting to cause an accident, and he was also behind the spying of the team... he should have also been the reason of the whispers in the 'underground' of something happening... Only he wasn't, and no one ever considered that possibility. Which was why, when the first explosion took place, no one was expecting it.

During the first two minutes after the initial explosion everything was chaos. It was how long it took before Astrid got her head in the game, turned her comm. back on and began giving orders. There was such authority behind her words that even the security in the track did what she said, none of them stopping to consider the fact that someone who looked like a girl, whom none of them knew, was giving them orders.

"Deathlok!" Akela called suddenly from her comm.

She and Tripp were the ones closest to where the action was taking place.

"What?!" Several voices called at the same time.

"We have another Deathlok!" Akela announced as she moved. "Antoine is out, got thrown against a column and knocked out. Lavin is trying to down him but it's not working. It's too strong for us... it's too strong for any human, princess."

It was rare for the older Agents, those with previous experience, to call Skye that; the fact that Akela was doing it in that moment was telling. She expected Skye would need her full power to defeat the attacker. The problem was the half-elf did not believe that was going to enough. She stopped running then.

"Listen to me." She called to all agents present at the same time. "Keep him distracted, make sure all civilians get out but, whatever you do, do not engage him. If we're really dealing with a Deathlok he will kill you if you get too close."

"ICERs aren't working!" Lavin yelled from his own comm.

Which meant he either had armor or he was being shot in purely cybernetic parts, the ones that did not absorb the dendrotoxin.

"Boos-lady?" Lavin asked.

"I'm calling in some back-up." Astrid elaborated. "We're gonna need it."

Yes, they would. They would need to fight fire with fire if they hoped to win... or in their particular case: Deathlok vs. Deathlok...

Truth was, that while Skye's body was different in many ways from that of a human, and that certainly allowed her to endure more... she wasn't as strong as a super-soldier. She was half-elf, a race that wasn't made of fighters, elves were more connected to nature, the universes, tended to be spell-weavers or artists; they were lithe, which allowed them to move between trees, or in other environments were most wouldn't find it easy. Jotun... they were tougher, harder, but with that strength came the ice, and the last thing they needed was for the whole track to end up beneath ice... also, the heat of mid-summer wouldn't help her.

Thankfully Mike Peterson was relatively close. It would be Ace's birthday soon and every year the man made an effort to be nearby when it did... even if he never actually visited the boy. Just sending him gifts and voice-mails using Astrid as intermediary. It had happened enough times already that Skye saw Ace as another part of her family. Also, with the boy and his aunt living in Echo Park the Torettos were close enough to keep an eye on them most of the time.

The battle took all of fifteen minutes, once Mike got there; and even there most of that time was spent with Mike assessing his opponent.

Once the fight was over Trip and Akela approached with reinforced cuffs to take the unconscious criminal into custody. He would be sent to FitzSimmons first, who would determine if he could be made normal again; after that they would decide where exactly the man would be sent to do time (he was going to prison on several charges of destruction of property, assault, and probably even attempted murder). Eventually they would find out that he'd been from Cybertech, someone who'd never been Hydra and yet, for whatever the reason, believed so much in the Deathlok project as to willingly become one himself. Col. Talbot was connected too. He'd manipulated the young man and then sent him to attack a public place believing that once the destruction was done he would be able to blame SHIELD; the fact that they weren't capable of really taking care of all their problems. He never expected for there to be Agents in that track.

Once the fight was over and the latest Deathlok was in custody, Astrid had sent the remaining agents to search the motel room where the man had been staying at, his car, and anywhere else he might have been, getting information.

No one tried to stop Mike once the fight was over, though a part of him almost expected it. After all, wasn't he the last remnant of everything SHIELD had fought against for the past five years? Centipede, Cybertech, Deathlok, the Clairvoyant, Hydra...? The only thing he was expecting even less was the brunette woman (not Astrid) waiting for him just outside the tracks. He watched her in silence for a handful of seconds before the implant in his eye drew his attention to the man in SHIELD gear crouched on a tree, holding a bow and pointing an arrow straight at him.

"So you're taking me out, after all..." Mike declared, he didn't sound angry, or even surprised, just extremely tired. "I always knew this was coming... tell me agent, will my son be safe?"

For a handful of seconds the agent didn't understand what Mike was saying, when she finally did she was completely horrified.

"No!" She almost screeched, waving her hands wildly in denial. "I'm not here for that! We're not here for that!" She looked over her shoulder, throwing a dirty look at the archer. "My husband is just a tad paranoid where it comes to my safety."

"Husband...?" Mike had not seen that one coming.

"Agent Darcy Stark-Barton." The woman introduced herself. "The one on the tree is Agent Clint Barton, also known as Hawkeye, one of the Avengers. My father would like a word with you."

"Your father?" Mike was completely confused by it all.

"Tony Stark, aka Iron-Man." Darcy clarified. "He's been trying to locate you ever since I first told him about you. He has an offer for you, well, actually two."

"What kind of offers?" Mike inquired.

"The second is a job offer." Darcy told him. "I know Astrid has you in SHIELD's payroll as a freelance agent. My dad would like to offer you a job either as a security consultant, or whatever else we might find that fits you. Maybe some day you will consider joining the Avengers..."

Mike blinked a few times, having a hard time processing what the woman before him had just said, when he noticed something else.

"That's the second?" He asked, confused. "What's the first then?"

"My Dad... we... we would like to offer you a chance to be whole again." Darcy answered, voice growing stronger and more confident as she spoke. "A very select number of people know this, but my dad has the perfected formula of Extremis..."

"What they gave me..." Mike began interrupting.

"It was the advanced version Centipede got from AIM, but not perfect yet." Darcy clarified. "Dad finished it after whole thing went down with Killian and the Mandarin to help Pepper. Even now it exists only in his brain. What FitzSimmons did to you almost five years ago stabilized the more volatile part of the Centipede serum... but it's still not perfected. Garrett got the closest with that drug he found in the para-military base, the GH-321; the problem being that it apparently also took away what little sanity he had left at that point." She shook her head, pushing that thought aside. "What we're offering you is a change for your body to restore itself as much as possible. You would no longer need that armor, or most of the cybernetics... the leg... I'm actually not sure about that one. You've had it for so long, and while Extremis was meant to restore lost limbs, if your nerves have completely adjusted to the cyber-leg, it might not be possible to take it away."

"But everything else would go?" Mike wanted it clarified, it sounded too good to be true. "The eye, the pieces of metal in my head, my arm, my back... it would all go?"

"Yes, all of it, the centipede themselves as well." Darcy nodded. "You cannot go back to being normal, though. Because then the perfected Extremis would be in your blood, and there's no going back from that. But unless you do something to show off what you're capable of; to whoever who sees you, they will see just as a man."

Mike honestly didn't know what to say.

"What about the bosses?" He asked, suddenly thinking about that.

"You shouldn't worry about us, Mike." Astrid was suddenly standing beside him. "You've done so much in the last four years Mike. If we've managed to take down Hydra it was in no small part thanks to you. I would love it if, once you've had this procedure, as well as a long, well-deserved vacation; if you decide to come back, work for us as a full-fledged Agent... that would be wonderful. But if you would rather work in a factory, or in a shop as a mechanic; then you could do that too." She smiled at him. "You don't owe us anything Mike. Though, I think, you owe yourself the chance for a good, fulfilling life... I'm sure Ace would love it if his birthday wish came true this year..."

His birthday wish... for his Papa to come home... it was all Ace Peterson had wished for at every chance, with every birthday candle, falling star, wish bone... for the last five years.

"I think I would like that... yes." Mike told Darcy after what seemed like forever. "I don't know if I will come back to SHIELD afterwards... but I would really like to be a man, to be whole, again, Ms. Stark..."

"Done." Darcy stated with a bright smile.

It wasn't magic, but really, once the decision had been made, it was a done deal.

Skye smiled, already imagining what Ace's face would look like in several weeks, when he saw his father again...

xXx

Late on the night of December 27th of the same year Skye woke up abruptly, and she wasn't the only one, so did Phil, Azazeal, Cassie and the three-year-old Malachi. Neither of them had the slightest idea of what was going on exactly until they joined in Malachi's bedroom, where the boy seemed to be staring straight into the shadow underneath his window, just behind the patch of moonlight that slipped through the blinders.

"Malachi?" Several voices called at the same time.

"Mor..." Malachi called.

"Mor..." Several voices repeated.

It took the length of two heartbeats for the people present to comprehend what the word the boy'd just pronounced meant. And at the same time, exactly when the small bell on the clock down the hall rang midnight, they all witnessed a figure step out of the shadows. At first it seemed almost like a piece of the shadow were detaching itself from the rest, until it took figure, a humanoid, female figure... the woman was tall, and covered in a thick cloak of a blue so dark it looked black anywhere but under the direct moonlight.

"Mor..." Malachi repeated.

"My sweeting..." The cloaked woman called in a thick Scandinavian accent.

"Hela..." Two of the adults called at the same time, one more reverent than the other.

The woman raised her eyes, from the child on the bed, to the adults crowded by the bedroom door. Smiling from the shadow of her hood before pushing it back, followed by the cloak itself, which seemed to vanish into the shadow she'd come from. She was tall, taller than anyone else in the room (about as tall as Loki), with thick luscious curls of obsidian black hair and the same stormy-blue-green-gray eyes of her sister and their father. Her attire consisted of a royal-blue sleeveless dress with a heart-shaped neckline, along with what looked like a translucent gauze-like long-sleeved blue coat; black low-heeled boots, dark gold heavy jewelry on her arms and neckline and a thin circlet of gold and obsidian across her forehead.

"Hela..." Azazeal was the first to dare approach. "Is it really you...?"

"It is really me dereworthy heart..." She called to him, extending a pale hand in his direction.

"My heart's queen..." The man whispered back his own favored endearment, taking her hand in both of his and kissing it reverently.

"How is this possible sister?" Menel inquired, confused.

She didn't even notice when her figure changed from the twenty-something-looking human woman in the mauve teddy and half-opened dressing-robe; into the elegant elven-princess in the lavender colored long-sleeved dress with golden embroidery and golden sandals.

"The veil has torn." Surprisingly enough the answer came not from Loki's oldest daughter, but from the blonde witch by the door and her dark-haired ghost-friend.

Everyone turned to look at her instantly.

"Peggy, the ghost-woman I met back at Mendeham, told me it was written in all the old myths." Thelma explained. "They said that when the child of the Nephelim and a witch was born, the veil separating the spiritual world from the material one would be torn..."

"They also spoke about the army of 200 Nephelim being released upon the Earth and the End of Days coming; two things we know never happened." Cassie added. "The first because the Nephelim have always been in this world, and the second because it had simply nothing to do with the end of the world."

"No, that was just something Odin added because he likes to be over-dramatic... and to prevent good-hearted people from helping us..." Azazeal drawled. "Though thankfully some dared do exactly that." He bowed his head respectfully at the two girls.

"Yes well, it did end up taking three years, but it appears that the veil has truly torn in the end." Thelma commented, nervousness showing.

"It has, but it's not quite as dramatic as Odin made it sound." Hela commented calmly, taking her little boy in her arms. "The dead cannot come back, because they no longer belong here." She touched Thelma briefly. "You are bound to this dimension by your friend, Casarmi, her magic allows you to exist here; but normal souls could never possibly do that. Also, why would they want to? Existing in this plane will never allow them to rest, only Helheim and other such realms will grant them True Peace."

"I'm quite alright where I am, thank you." Thelma declared. "When the day comes for Cassie to depart I may change my mind. But until then I'm quite content with this existence."

Hela nodded, it wasn't like she was trying to push the ghost into choosing different. As abnormal as the whole thing might be, she honestly believed everyone deserved to make their own choices on how to live their lives.

"No, in the end, the veil being torn affects only me." Hela continued. "Which is exactly why Odin tried to hard to prevent it. Because he knows the power I possess. He knows the power all of us children of Loki are capable of; it's why he's tried so hard to keep us apart: Jörmungandr trapped in your deepest sea, Fenrir chained in the darkest forest of Asgard, Sleipnir forced to serve the King of gods as a mere horse, and me... ruling a realm of non-living."

"How could Malachi change any of that?" Phil did not understand that part.

"Simply by virtue of being my son." Hela told him honestly. "While Casarmi gave birth to him... she may be his mother in many ways... he's also mine. He's connected to me, his soul is part of mine. That connection... the best way to put it is to say that his soul has been calling to mine from the very moment he was born, and together his magic and mine has been chipping away at the barriers keeping our realms separate. We wanted to be together, in a very basic level we needed to, so our magic worked on making it possible. But all of this would have never been possible if it weren't for my dearest sister..." She smiled at Menel. "The one Child of Chaos Odin could never enslave... I owe you my freedom, sister-mine."

"You owe me nothing, my dearest sister." Menel replied, embracing Hela tightly. "There can be no debts between family, ever. Seeing you here, with your match and son, it brings me a joy so great; I can only hope the day will come when our whole family will get the chance to be truly united... like we deserve to."

"Like we deserve to." Hela and Azazeal agreed.

They couldn't have known it, but right then, when Hela finally broke free, was the beginning of the end in many ways... though what end, no one knew for sure. Not even the greatest prophetess could have ever predicted what was to come...

xXx

On a certain day, near the end of May of 2019, New York became ground zero of yet another inter-dimensional battle. One no one could have seen coming. The most surprising part was that not only were the defenders of Midgard an eclectic mix of humans and gifted and even a number of 'Travelers', but the same could be said about the invaders. No one could have ever expected the Asgardiand Enchantress sisters to ally with a bunch of intergalactic criminals released from what the League called 'The Phantom Zone' and Doom.

It was a battle on several fronts. The Doombots were providing numbers, which the joint efforts of most members of the Justice League, the X-Men and Agents of SHIELD were doing their best to counter; the more powerful and gifted members of such teams were fighting against the intergalactic criminals. The huge operation was being coordinated from Avengers Towers, by yet another impressive mash-up: Pepper Potts Stark, Jane Foster, Darcy Stark-Barton, Mary Jane Parker, Chloe Sullivan-Olsen, Professor X and Destiny.

To that last group arrived Phil, Skye, Thelma, Cassie, Azazeal, Hela and Malachi, aided in their move by Nightcrawler (they'd been in the Playground).

"Situation." Phil called the moment they could all move again.

"Kal-El, Kara, Cyclops, Phoenix, Storm, Rogue, Wolverine and Magneto are working on getting the Zoners back to their prison." Chloe called from her corner, where she was supervising that part of the ongoing battle. "The moment they manage to herd them all together the Martian Manhunter will activate the crystal that will send them back to the Phantom Zone."

"Impulse, Aquaman, Black Canary, Spider-Man, Shadowcat, Collosus, Angel, Beast, Quicksilver and several teams of Agents of SHIELD are working on getting as many civilians out of the battlefield as they can." MJ added from her own station.

"Cyborg, Goblin, Iceman, Pyro, Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Black Widow and some more of our Agents are dealing with the Doombots." Darcy offered next.

"Iron-Man, Captain America and the Winter Soldier are dealing with that odd dwarf-looking man Thor called Skurge the Executioner." Jane added beside her friend. "While the rest of our Agents are dealing with what looks like an army of brainwashed men..."

"The Professor is working on finding the way to release them." Destiny added from beside her leader and brother-in-law...

"I would like to help with the civilians." Cassie offered.

"We shall go there." Nightcrawler declared, before disappearing with the blonde.

"Alec is preparing everything to deal with injuries once the battle is over." Chloe said next.

"Felicia is doing the same regarding rescue-crews." MJ nodded.

"What about the leaders of this mess?" Phil inquired. "The sisters?"

"For the time being Lorelei seems content with admiring her army of brainwashed men, while Thor is distracting Amora..." Pepper answered.

Jane grumbled under her breath about that.

"We contacted the Secret Circle before coming here." Azazeal informed everyone. "They're taking position in a circle around the battlefield. Once they're ready Diana will contact me and I will connect their power with mine to create a barrier that will limit the effects of the battle to where it's currently making place; as well as making sure none of our enemies can escape once it's all said and done."

"I, regretfully cannot get involved directly, my magic is still tainted by the long time I spent in Helheim, and using it would be like lighting a beacon." Hela admitted grimly. "If the wrong individuals became aware of my presence in this real things would not go well." She shook her head before adding. "However, I can offer my magic as protection for this building. That shouldn't be enough to call too much attention; and it will allow what civilians are unable to leave Manhattan, to seek refuge right here."

"That would be very helpful." Pepper nodded. "I will inform Happy so he can coordinate our security to help as best we can in the process."

"I guess that means we will be the ones dealing with the Enchantress sisters." Skye declared.

"Is that a good idea?" Darcy asked. "From what I've heard, and we're all seeing down there, things tend not to go well when men try to go against Lorelei."

The lovers knew that was true, but they had an ace under their sleeves...

It was one of their visits to New Salem, to the Secret Circle. Faye was keeping Wanda company, motivating her. Pietro was playing a strange game that seemed almost like catch the flag against the boys, Deborah and Suzan; Laurel and Melanie chose to watch and cheer one side or the other. (It was fair enough as the witches kept using their powers, while Quicksilver would speed off every so often). Skye and Phil, meanwhile, were chatting with Cassie and Diana, two of the three members of the triumvirate that lead their little coven.

"There's something we, or at least I've, been meaning to talk to you about." Cassie said quietly.

"Is it something about you and your magic?" Phil inquired, wondering if he should even be present for that conversation.

"No." Cassie shook her head. "It's something about the two of you, in fact."

That made both Phil and Skye turn to look at the ocean-blue eyed chocolate haired witch. Her silver-blonde, emerald eyed counterpart sitting beside her, looking quite solemn.

"Is anything wrong?" Skye inquired, confused.

"Not wrong." Diana stepped in immediately. "It's just something we became aware of during our first meeting. I wasn't quite sure that we should have kept it from you this long, but there just never seemed to be a good time to bring it up..."

"I have no idea what you're talking about Diana..." Skye admitted.

"We're talking about the Silver Cord connecting the two of you." Cassie went to the point.

"Silver Cord?" The couple repeated in unison, confused.

The two girls moved in sync then, kneeling before the couple sitting on the porche steps, each taking the hands of one of the lovers in theirs, before fixing their eyes straight on the older couple, then they began reciting:

"Vision, sight and deep perception, mystic light and meditation. / Trance or conscious their eyes shall see, the other side, the magic unveiled."

Skye had just opened her mouth to ask what exactly they'd just done when the girls let go of the agents' hands, and moved back, still synchronized. Then Cassie waved for them to look down, at their own hands: it was there, what they'd always felt but never seen, a ribbon made of the purest light connecting the two of them, binding them together. It was what the Secret Circle had labeled the 'Silver Cord'.

"What does this mean?" Skye asked, voice barely above a whisper.

"It means you're soulmates." Diana answered in a scholarly manner. "It means you're destined for each other, always have been, from the beginning of time. Your souls are bound to each other, for whatever lives you might share... you're soulmates."

"Are you sure?" Phil asked, not quite believing just yet.

"Quite sure." Cassie seemed to think it over before explaining. "When I first met Adam, I could feel this pull towards him. Then, when I truly got to knew him that attraction only grew, but he was with Diana, who I'd quickly grown to see as a sister. We fought against the attraction, went as far as swearing a blood oath to never betray Diana... but in the end some things just couldn't be denied. The bonds tying us together were stronger than any human force."

"I knew about the Cord, had read all about it in my Grimoire." Diana added. "I thought it was a legend, we all did, with how rare it was. Until Cassie and Adam described it to us, we couldn't deny it anymore. They described it perfectly, even though neither of them had so much as heard about the Cord before..." She smiled gently. "So I stepped back and let them be happy."

"Did you ever regret it?" Phil couldn't help but ask. "Ever think the decision should have been made by each of you, rather than a mystical force?"

"Never." Diana shook her head confidently. "Because this mystical force is a sign, Cassie and Adam were meant for each other. They are happy together, in a way he would have never been with me, nor I with him. Besides, I cannot complain, there was a surprise destiny had prepared, all for me. I just needed to truly open my eyes and see..."

She didn't say a word more, but no one failed to notice the way her eyes strayed to the amber-eyed, raven-haired, pale skinned beauty talking to Wanda by the edge of the sea.

Phil and Skye didn't ask anymore, just returned their eyes to their respective hands, and the ribbon of light tying them together; the material (even usually invisible) sign of the connection they'd always known was there, always felt in a corner of themselves, but never been able to give a name too. They were destined, they were soulmates...

"Are you ready for this?" Phil asked his beloved as they walked towards the sisters.

He asked it only once; he had no desire to question her power of her convictions; but Thor was out there, in the very place they were walking to, and he couldn't help but remember everything the two of them had done, all the invitations they had turned down, to make sure the god of thunder would never cross paths with the niece he didn't even know existed.

"As much as I would rathe