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Fate and Destiny

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Fate and Destiny Poster

Fate and Destiny

(Sequel to Nexus and Necklace of Songs)

By: Lalaith Quetzalli

What's the true difference between fate and destiny? Or are they the same thing? Is the future written in stone, to stand through time or in sand, to be washed away by the change of the tide. How much can the actions of a handful of individuals change the world... the universe even?

I've Heard that Song Before

What do you do when you have memories of a time that hasn't yet passed?

I've been through a great many things in my life, most of them quite extraordinary. When I was a little eleven-year-old girl, sitting among roses in my garden, a little girl who knew next to nothing of the world... I met a boy... It sounds so cliché: girl met a boy, perhaps they fell in love... yet it's said that reality will always surpass fiction. In any case, this little girl met a little boy... who was no boy at all. I realized it from the moment I first laid eyes on him. There was a depth to his eyes, which belied the youthful appearance of the boy he was showing.

I was right, that image he'd first showed me was nothing but an illusion, a projection of the child he'd been... nearly a thousand years prior! For he was Loki, son of Odin and Frigg, youngest prince of Asgard, God of Mischief and Lies (and some might say, Magic as well), the Trickster, Silvertongue, Sky-Treader, Shadow-Walker. I've always believed that first meeting changed us both, to the core... or maybe, maybe we were always meant to be as we became, but we had to meet in order for that to be possible. Would that mean we were fated to meet? To be together? Was it our destiny?

What is the difference between fate and destiny? I've done some exhaustive research in the topic, not just because of my studies (I have three Master Degrees: in European History and Folklore, European Mythology and Literature); the topic was of personal interest to me, mostly due to my own personal history: being a reincarnated soul and all.

It was something I still had some trouble wrapping my head around, sometimes. The fact that I'd had another life before my current one. That I'd lived and died before... then again, in my current life I've lived, died and lived again... should that make it easier or harder to deal with everything? Maybe it's not a matter of making anything easier or harder. Things simply are what they are and I've learnt to take them on as they come. There's nothing else I can do.

Of course, according to what Lady Frigg explained to me, many souls are reincarnated, they just don't know it. It's easier that way. I'm a very special case... or, I suppose, we are; my love and I. We're a special case because we're a match, a perfect pair, soulmates, meant to be together to the end of time. A pair like that cannot be apart once they've found one another, or so legend claims. If one dies, so does the other... it's how it'd always been, how it was supposed to be: until the day I died, and my match didn't.

It wasn't exactly on him, I knew he'd wanted to die, had gone down a pretty dark path of self destruction. But his family, his brother Thor, but especially his father, Odin, had refused to let him go. The only way of stopping him, in the end, had been to make him forget what he'd lost, make him forget me... and that had brought on a whole other host of consequences. Not the least of which was the fact that it wasn't only Loki who forgot, but everyone; people remembered bad things my love had done, but not why, and that made them think he'd done them merely to be cruel. Also, when Loki forgot me, he forgot everything connected to me, including the truth of his origins, and how much his family loved him despite the fact that they weren't so by blood. The consequences of that particular fact would haunt him for a long time...

So, it is said that a match cannot be apart. It's why when one dies, the other soon follows... except, in our case, he didn't. It'd always been believed that a match couldn't be reborn until both halves had crossed over. Though some might argue that since Loki didn't die, and he could still be expected to live several millennia more, that was why I was reborn, so I could join him. So we could be a true match, both on the same side. Did that happen because we needed to be together, regardless of where? Because I had to be reborn whether he was with me or not? Was it my choice or someone else's? (It's not like I remember what happened while I was on the Other Side, it's enough or a miracle that I remember my life as Tinúviel...).

Was it Fate or Destiny that brought me back to my love? That brought us together once again? Or was it nothing like that at all and simply coincidence? Chance? Kismet? How much of our lives is shaped by our own choices and how much has been decided since before we were ever born?

Written in the stars... Woven in the tapestries of fate... Set in stone... There are some many terms to express when something has been written, when it's Fate... Some also say that the future isn't written in stone, that nothing is certain, we have our own choices, free will, which is it? Maybe it's none, maybe it's both, perhaps one day I shall know...

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

It was a late afternoon in June. It had been a long day, extremely long, as far as some people were concerned. What should have been a day of triumph had somehow turned into a mess of epic proportions before the sunset.

Two men and a woman entered the townhouse without a word. One of them in particular was feeling the very strong urge to get to his family, to hold them, as if doing so would somehow erase everything that had gone wrong that day.

They were just reaching the sitting room when a new song came on the radio, and a child's voice was heard:

"Mama, sing!" The voice belonged to a blue-eyed, black-haired seven-year-old boy currently sitting on the floor, with some coloring books and a box of crayons in every color of the rainbow.

The aforementioned mother was a young woman with hazel eyes and auburn hair in very loose ringlets, she didn't seem to be more than 21, at most. She smiled softly at the boy from her perch on a window-seat, from where she'd view to the small garden in the backyard. The roses climbing to reach just beneath the window. She'd always had trouble telling the little boy no, everyone knew that, so it was no surprise when her voice joined Helen Forrest's in the song:

"It seems to me I've heard that song before
It's from an old familiar score
I know it well, that melody
It's funny how a theme recalls a favorite dream
A dream that brought you so close to me..."

"I know each word because I've heard that song before
The lyrics said "Forever more"
Forever more's a memory
Please have them play it again
And I'll remember just when
I heard that lovely song before..."

She was just finishing the last note when a shadow fell over her. She didn't ask any questions, she didn't need to, truth was she'd known he was coming from the moment the little group had stepped onto the property. She just turned her head in time to meet his lips in a kiss. Him, her husband, her match, the jade-green eyed, raven-black-haired love of her life...

"Auntie Sia! Uncle Howie!" The little boy called brightly.

"Hey little man!" The dark haired, dark-eyed man in the three-piece suit, called brightly.

Even with that, the young woman could sense the tension in him, in all of him. She turned her eyes to her husband, there was no need for any questions. He just shook his head.

"How bad was it?" She asked quietly.

"Pretty much how we expected." He replied softly. "Erskine is dead, as are a few other soldiers and agents. Carter is hurt, though thankfully nothing life-threatening." He shook his head. "Even knowing what was coming wasn't enough. The explosion, I think, threw us all off our game, Abraham was shot before we could do anything to stop it. And everything else... it'd have taken magic to do anything at that point."

And they were still trying to stay mostly under the radar. Howard was the only one who knew for sure what they could do, and that they weren't quite human... and he was doing his best to protect them. With the government what it was, and particularly with the war, other people might not be as kind towards them. They'd either be seen as a threat, or as weapons, and neither of them would ever allow that.

"What else?" She asked softly.

"Well, as you can expect, the higher ups didn't like it." He went on. "They were told to place their hopes, and their money, in this project, and now Erskine's gone, as is his formula. All that's left is what's even now running through Roger's veins..."

"How is Steve?" His wife's voice softened at that.

She hadn't know the young man for long, but there was something about him that called to her maternal instincts; maybe it was how small he looked, how fragile (nevermind that she'd known all along he wouldn't be staying like that).

"Devastated, of course." He nodded. "But I convinced him it wasn't a good idea to linger. He'll be joining a troupé and work on morale and selling war-bonds... It might not be what he was hoping for, but with him being all that's left of Project Rebirth, there's no way the higher ups will ever allow him at the front-lines, not with the chance of all that 'work' being lost; and if he stayed then he'd have ended becoming nothing more than a lab-rat."

"And that couldn't be allowed." She agreed completely with her husband. "Wait a second." She did a double-take. "So you're technically the reason why Captain America will be spending the next several months as a dancing girl?"

She couldn't help it, she dissolved into giggles.

That certainly called everyone's attention, as they all turned to look at the young couple. But they weren't laughing, and as she looked into their faces, the youngest woman in the group realized there was something else going on:

"What is it?" She asked seriously, looking straight at her husband.

"You know how the world works, as well as I do..." He murmured softly. "The higher-ups would not let Rogers go without getting something else in return..."

"What have you promised them?" She wanted to know straight out.

"Our aid in the war." He didn't even try lying to her, or avoiding the answer; he'd never do that to her. "Sia is mostly going as a pilot, but I'm being inducted into the SSR as an Agent." He let out a breath. "They don't know what I am, what we are, what we can truly do... but they know we can do things. Things that may prove valuable to them."

"So we're going back to Europe then." She concluded.

After spending months traveling in as much secrecy as possible, doing their best to get to the States before the war fully broke out (when it'd have been next to impossible); they were going back to where things were at their worst. But it was for a good reason, or so she told herself. Rogers wasn't yet ready to become who he was supposed to be. They were doing the right thing... or so she hoped. She wasn't quite sure how things would have worked if they'd never ended stranded in that time... or maybe they'd been meant to end up right there all along...

It was absolutely insane, and even Howard didn't know the whole story, but the 'Serrure' Family' weren't from around there. Particularly, not from that time...

To the world she was Arianna Stark-Serrure, the younger half-sister of mechanical engineer, prodigal genius and founder of Stark Industries: Howard Stark. The public version of the story was that after the death of his parents, Howard had discovered that he'd a little sister somewhere in Europe. He'd found her just after the start of WWII and had sent for her; had ended bringing her whole family to the US in order to keep them safe. There was Luke Serrure, 26, an English man of Norwegian descent and Arianna's husband of three years; his son (of a relationship before Arianna): seven-year-old Hakon; and Luke's younger sister: 24 year-old Sia.

Of course there were some that didn't quite buy the story. One particular tabloid had claimed that the child was probably Howard Stark's bastard son and he'd concocted the story of a half sister in order to keep the one who might be his only heir close... the story hadn't lasted long, once it became quite obvious how much like Luke, little Hakon looked (and nothing like Howard, or even Arianna).

The truth was a tad more fantastical than that. Howard had first heard the name Luke Serrure when he'd received a recommendation for some changes in the designs of the war-planes his company was producing. They were bold changes, yet once put in practice, it had been proven that it was genius. It'd taken several months (and a few more discreet suggestions made), before Howard had managed to track the one making them. A worker at the factory in New York, relatively new (less than a year). He'd learned all he could about them; the family of English immigrants who'd arrived to the country in September of the previous year. He'd also realized that not one, but two of them worked in that factory. The other adult member of the family: Arianna Serrure, played the piano in a little club several blocks from the factory, for some extra cash.

Even after finding them it had taken him a long while to convince Serrure to meet with him; but Howard hadn't made it to where he was by giving up, or allowing people to tell him no. It was completely by accident that he'd found out the family weren't quite normal. He hadn't been actually looking for them at the moment, when he'd found Arianna and Hakon playing in a little park. Howard had born witness when a mugger had approached them, he'd tried to use the boy as leverage when Arianna fought back; only to cry out and run away screaming about ice-devils and some other nonsense seconds later. Howard, honestly worried about the little boy and his mother, had gone towards them. Reaching them just in time to see the boy's blue-skin and red-and-black eyes. He'd frozen in shock.

"What do you want with us?" Arianna had asked him, scooping the boy in her arms instantly and giving a step back.

Howard couldn't have missed the way her free hand slipped into her pocket, quite possibly searching for a weapon of some kind.

"I promise I mean no harm." Howard rushed to say, raising both hands in what he hoped would be enough to prove his sincerity. "I was just passing by..."

"I know exactly who you are, Mr. Stark, so do not try and lie to me!" She snapped to him, holding her boy tighter against her chest.

"I hope you do not think I am the kind of man who would hurt innocents just to get what I want, ma'am." He told her politely. "While it is, indeed, true that I've been trying to get your husband to meet me. And, as must be obvious, I know already who you are. I promise I wasn't stalking you or anything. I was on my way to buy coffee when I saw you two, and then the mugger. I worried that something might happen, and no one would know."

The streets were quite empty, with most people working and children at school. Arianna was the kind to stay at home most of time, but after going out to pay some bills she'd decided to spend some time in the small park. She knew Hakon grew tired of being inside their tiny apartment all the time, and she hated not being able to give him more... but she was doing her best for him, they all were.

"I see." She knew he was telling the truth, and wasn't so paranoid as to take the leftover fear and anger over what had almost happened, out on him.

"Might I offer to buy you a cup of coffee, and maybe some chocolate for the little one?" Howard asked politely.

Arianna didn't like coffee, but she knew that Howard was just trying to be polite.

"I know you saw... him." Arianna stated, avoiding saying anything too-revealing. "What are you going to do with that information?"

"Nothing at all!" Howard hurried to assure her. "I'd never do anything to hurt an innocent child. I might be a cut-throat businessman, ma'am; but I assure you that's just on the business-table... or when it comes to a man who's an absolute genius and keeps refusing to meet with me..."

"Touché." Arianna had to give it to him, he was charming.

So she had decided to give him a chance. They'd had a drink together (in the end both her and Hakon had had chocolate-milk, to Howard's coffee); for which Luke and Sia had eventually joined them, as they came out of work. At first the other two had been tense, worried about what might have caused that particular meeting. Arianna had explained them the truth, holding nothing back, and while Serrure still didn't like bringing more attention that absolute necessary upon his family, he decided to give Howard what he wanted.

He'd thought that was all it would be. The rich businessman getting what he wanted, and then he'd move on, satisfied that he'd 'won', so-to-speak. He'd been wrong. By the next week Luke was working side by side with him, helping design new and better planes; Sia acting as their PA.

None of them were quite sure how, when and why Arianna had ended becoming Howard's little half-sister... It'd helped, allowing Howard to justify granting his protection to the family, to make sure no one would ever find out the truth about them, would never persecute them for who and what they were... and especially the little boy...

That was the first part of the core of their 'little' secret, the fact that Luke, Arianna, Hakon and Sia Serrure were in reality Loki, God of Mischief and Lies (and Magic); his match and consort Nightingale (once the Ljósálfar princess Tinúviel, died and reborn as the human Silbhé Salani), Goddess of Devotion and Compassion; their adopted son Hakon (who was, by birth, the youngest son of Loki's half-brother Helblindi, the King of Jotunheim); and Sif, an Asgardian warrior-lady, the Goddess of War.

The other half of their secret concerned the fact that none of them, not even Nightingale when she was still human (long story) had been born in that time. They actually belonged to the future: the year 2016, to be precise.

It was absolutely insane, and even they did not understand the whole of it. In early summer of '15 they'd promised Phil (Agent Phil Coulson, of SHIELD) that they'd help him against Centipede. They saw it as necessary, seeing how Phil had faked his death and everyone except his own team and his girlfriend: Darcy Lewis, believed him to have died in a mission. It was too dangerous for the truth to be revealed in that moment. Loki and Nightingale hadn't liked it, but they'd promised to help him, realizing the seriousness of the situation. Sif had joined them at some point, wanting to reconnect with her dearest friends (though Loki claimed she was simply bored without Thor and his half-insane quests).

They'd been doing missions for Phil (and sometimes for Fury) for months when something had happened... they didn't actually remember what. The memories of all of them from that particular day, and the ones leading to it, were a bit scrambled. They had gone... somewhere. They assumed it hadn't actually had anything to do with the missions, seeing how Hakon had been with them. Though they still had no idea what exactly had happened that had made them all end up in 1941, in the middle of Norway of all places!

It'd taken them nearly six months to make it across Northern Europe to England, and then to New York in a ship. With what she knew of history (and while in grad school she'd specialized in the 10th and 11th centuries, she still knew quite a bit of the 20th), Nightingale had decided they would be safer there than anywhere else. Of course, when she'd decided that she hadn't taken Howard Stark into consideration, or the mess he'd make of their lives... (then again, he was Tony's father, they probably should have expected something...).

It'd been almost a year to the day since Howard had taken the group in. He'd never asked them any question about their origins, or their secrets. Not even why Hakon's skin had turned blue or why the would-be mugger had run off screaming that day. There were other things he'd found out since, like the fact that they all were special, each in their own ways. Still, Howard never asked, though he certainly had done his best to keep them safe.

"I'm sorry, sister..." Stark murmured right then.

She didn't need to ask what he was apologizing for. The last thing he'd ever wanted was for them to end up in danger, and going to Europe, serving in the war, would most definitely put them in danger; but there was little else they could do. And not only because it was probably the only way to make the higher ups leave Steve alone... if they'd really wanted they could have simply disappeared and let Howard deal with the consequences (he probably would have suggested it, if he thought even for a second that they might consider the option). But, deep down, Nightingale believed that there had to be a reason for them to be there, in that place, in that time, for Howard to have found them, and everything else... it couldn't be just cosmic accident. (There was also the fact that even after two years of discreet trips to every magical enclave on and off planet Loki had been unable to find any records of actual time-travel, or a method that might get them safely back to their time; thus far it looked like they might be taking the 'long way there' so to speak).

"You have nothing to apologize for, brother." She murmured quietly, embracing him. "Things are what they are, and we must do the best we can with the hand we're dealt."

It'd taken some time, for her to get used to having a brother, she'd never had one. But Howard was a good man... odd as it'd been to realize it, with the things Tony had once told them about his father. Something just didn't seem to fit... but Nightingale and Loki both had decided to push that aside for the time being, they'd deal with it in a few years.

xXx Nightingale's POV xXx

In the morning Howard, Sia, Luke, Hakon and I met Col. Chester Phillips and Agent Margaret 'Peggy' Carter of the Strategic Scientific Reserve in a private airstrip. A small plane (good for a dozen people at most) was waiting for us already.

"Really Stark?" Phillips scoffed. "We're going to war, not on a family vacation!"

"You want me and my sister to work for your organization." My husband stepped forward. "Well, this is how it's going to happen. I won't let my family be on the other side of the ocean while I'm fighting your war."

"You do realize that where we're going, the danger will be much higher than here?" Phillips tried to reason with him. "Mrs. Serrure and your child will be much safer here."

"Hakon and I will never be safer than we are with Luke." I stated (I'd never been the kind to let others speak for me... or over me), then went on before something else could be said. "I won't be a bother, sir. I am a trained nurse. Put me to work. I promise I will make myself useful. As long as I can keep my son around to take care of him and continue with his home-schooling in my free time. I will do what I can to help as well."

"Very well." Phillips eventually agreed.

He didn't like it, that much was obvious enough; but we both knew they always needed people with medical training in wars; also, while he didn't quite know what it was that my match could do exactly, he suspected he wasn't quite normal, that neither of us were; and would be an asset in the war efforts. Then, of course, there was Sif; while no one was aware of her proficiency as a warrior-lady (and they might not take it well, considering the point of view men of the decade had when it came to women and what their 'place' was), she'd become quite a skilled pilot in the last year; Howard himself had taught her. She was one of the two best civilian pilots they could count on (the other being Howard himself); bottom line: they needed her.

So, with that in mind, we climbed on the plane. It was small, top-of-the-line, the most innovative design Howard and Luke had come up with thus far. It was also Sia's plane, a gift from Howard, it was called Inanna; after the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility and warfare... and both my love and I knew there was something behind that name, behind the reason for it, but the mere thought of Sif and Howard made us both decide we'd rather not think about it any more than absolutely necessary.

Personally, I knew that my almost-sister had spent a lot of time with Howard during the previous winter, and she'd spent more than a few nights in his bed; but by the spring it'd all seemed to be over. They'd gone back to being friends, co-workers and quasi-siblings-in-law. I had no idea what had happened exactly, and chose not to ask. It was Sif's life after all, she was entitled to her own choices. Of course, I'd always be there for her if she needed me.

xXx

We got to London that same day, but didn't stay there for long. Like Colonel Phillips had stated before, the SSR had been reassigned, they were taking the battle to HYDRA. Luke and Sia had been officially named Agents of the Reserve and been teamed up with Peggy Carter. While they were rarely in the front-lines, they aided the army in every way they could.

It didn't take long for Peggy to learn that neither 'Serrure sibling' was what most would consider 'normal'; since she found that out when they used said 'gifts' to save her life during a particularly hard mission on the French border, she didn't exactly mind. She also knew better than to let others see through the human facades we'd created for ourselves. It was for all that, that she soon became dear to us all, one of our closest friends since our arrival to the 1940s, almost family.

For my part, I was given a nurse's uniform and joined the rest of the volunteers. At first it was odd to them, not only because Hakon was with me whenever he couldn't be with his father, aunt or uncle; but also... I knew what they thought when they looked at me: a woman-child, one who looked much too small and fragile to be anywhere near a war. I managed to earn their respect, though, when they realized I wasn't the kind to shy away from hard duties, from the gory things. No matter how difficult a patient was, how badly hurt, how awful he looked, nothing would make me back down.

The only problem perhaps was my empathy. I'd heard several people say it, how I felt too much, as if the patients' pain was my own... they didn't realize that, in essence, it was. Of course, it wasn't like their pain took over me, or like it crippled me; I was quite capable of working around it, but that didn't stop me from feeling it. It was part of me, in my very nature as a light-elf (or the reincarnation of one). It was something that had been a part of me my whole life, even before I knew anything about power, or reincarnation; I just hadn't understood it before.

Also, as everyone had soon discovered, I was well-versed in almost a dozen languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Irish, Greek, Norse, Russian and Latin. That helped whenever soldiers from different countries came together and there happened to be no interpreter available. In no time I was being called into meetings with the higher ups (apparently the fact that both my husband and sister were SSR Agents made them believe I was trustworthy enough to listen to their strategies and the like).

In the last days of October we were in Italy. Both Luke and Sia were away on duty, while I was supervising my son's 'schoolwork'. He was very bright, always applying himself. I had no doubt that he would get far in whatever he wished to do.

He'd just finished and had begun asking me for a chance to do some coloring, when I felt as if someone had just kicked me in the mouth of my stomach. I lost my breath completely, gasping.

"Mama!" Hakon cried out, worriedly.

"Arianna..." Peggy began, worried.

She'd been sitting with us (probably to distract herself from what was going on).

"Sit with him, please." I asked her quietly.

It was taking a great effort to even speak. Energy was being drawn from me so fast I felt dizzy. I hadn't felt that bad in a lifetime... in fact the last time... the last time I'd felt that bad had been back in my previous life, during a revolt in Vanaheim. My match hadn't been injured, though Thor and many others had; and my love had been forced to call on a lot of power to keep them safe. So much his own reserves hadn't been enough, he'd needed mine...

That gave me the answer I needed. I wasn't an elf by birth, but after my ' human death' and resurrection (with some help from my eldest), I'd changed. I looked mostly human, but my body had changed in many ways (some might even call me a hybrid). One very important detail was that I could connect with nature, much as the Ljósálfar; perhaps not to the same depth they could, as I had back when I'd been Tinúviel; but still.

Making sure no one was looking at me I slipped out of the tent and into the small wooded area nearby. There, I slipped my shoes and socks off and then knelt on the dirt-ground, pressing both palms into the earth. After that it was instinctive, as I kept drawing on the energy. It never really got to my core, my body acting as a sort of conduit, giving my love more energy to use. It wasn't too much more, but it seemed to give him the edge he needed, something I was thankful for.

It was a while, possibly an hour, possibly more, before it all stopped. My Maverick was no longer drawing on my power, and while I wouldn't be able to say that he was exactly safe, the danger seemed to have passed, for the time being. I'd also gotten a sense of him being on his way, before the contact between us cut off.

With that in mind I took a deep breath, then got on my feet, dusted myself, put my socks and shoes back on, and after making sure I looked alright, I rushed back. I found Hakon sitting at the same table, drawing something with his crayons (a gift from Howard).

"Mama look!" He called out brightly when he saw me. "I made you a picture!"

It was a very cute drawing, it consisted of stick figures that I imagined represented all of us, near the edge of the woods. Where we'd been playing a few days before; before his papa and aunt had left with the army. That thought brought me abruptly back to the present.

"It's a lovely drawing, baby." I told him kindly. "You're becoming quite an artist. Right now I need you to go stay with Mr. Baggio."

"Nonnino?" He inquired, confused.

Donato Baggio was an Italian, the oldest man on the base, a veteran from WWI and the cook. He was a very kind man, somewhat scarred from his time in the war, but none of us really minded that. He hadn't liked hearing he wouldn't be able to serve his country again in the front, but had been happy enough to cook for the young soldiers who had to fight. He was also the one who watched over Hakon when the rest of us were busy (particularly since the mess-hall and kitchens were on the other side of the base from the infirmary, which made it less likely that my boy would end up seeing something disturbing).

"Yes, my darling boy." I nodded, kissing his brow. "Mama has to work and you need to go stay with Mr. Baggio until I go get you, alright?"

"Alright mama." He was very obedient, even when he didn't fully understand why things had to be a certain way. "I'll show ninnano my drawing!"

With that he rushed out of the tent where I taught him, and where Col. Phillips and some of his underlings would do paperwork when necessary, running to what passed for a mess hall. Donato wouldn't ask any questions and just accept Hakon. Perhaps he might even continue teaching him Italian, as he'd been doing for the last few weeks.

"What is going on Arianna?" Peggy asked seriously once Hakon was gone.

"I cannot tell you how I know this Peggy, but trust me when I tell you that the soldiers are on their way back, and we need to be ready." I told her.

She might have seen something in my face, or heard something in my tone, in the end she didn't doubt me, and asked one single question:

"How bad is it?" She inquired.

Truth was, I didn't actually know. I knew my match wasn't badly injured, because I wasn't feeling any particularly strong phantom pains. Then again, he'd fought so hard, which meant that something had most definitely happened, and it hadn't been good... also, I could still remember what was supposed to happen around then...

"Bad." Was all I could honestly tell her.

Instead of saying anything else I decided to be proactive, rushing to the infirmary. Once there I went straight to the head of nurses.

"Signora Labriola." I said solemnly.

"What's wrong, paserotta (sparrow)?" She asked.

The woman had taken to calling me sparrow since shortly after meeting me, saying I looked like a little bird moving from one side of the infirmary to the other, never stopping, never resting. My family had found it extremely funny, with Sif actually commenting that maybe there was some kind of curse on me that made people compare me with birds: there was Nightingale, of course, sparrow... and a group of students at the Xavier Institute for Gifted Children had called me Canary once (though, I suppose, that one ought not count, since it'd been nothing but a mistake, they'd confused me with someone else, an old friend of Professor X).

"The soldiers are coming, they're in a bad way, and we need to be ready." I told her, simply and directly, she wasn't one for beating around the bush.

She didn't ask questions, if anyone had realized by that point that I wasn't exactly normal it was her, but as long as I used what made me different to help, she'd never question me. Instead she just stood and began giving orders.

In a matter of seconds everyone was moving. As many cots were being set as could be held inside the tents, equipment in every single station, medicines and everything else. All nurses were also ready for the first patients.

We'd just finished setting up everything when the soldiers began arriving. And they didn't stop for what seemed like a very long time. Until every single bed was filled. In some cases with two patients at the same time (when said patients had less grievous wounds and could be treated while sitting up). Some of the higher ups seemed quite surprised, when realizing we'd apparently been ready, but Labriola had stated, in a very authoritative manner, that a good nurse (and a good woman) was always ready for anything, and then sent them away where they wouldn't bother her and 'her girls'.

We'd been working for about a quarter of an hour, I'd been working mostly on minor wounds (even with all the trust they might give me, I was still the newest girl there); and then suddenly I heard one of the nurses cry out. Followed by quiet cursing.

"He's bleeding out!" Someone said.

My reaction was instinctive, before I fully processed what I was doing I'd passed the roll of bandages I was about to used to finish with a soldier's forearm, and was rushing to the opposite end of the infirmary. It was obvious enough what was going on. A wound high on the soldier's thigh. The nurse had tried to clean it up and ended pulling whatever it was that had been blocking the blood-flow. The man's femoral artery had been nicked at the very least, probably almost severed... he didn't have long.

I made the decision in a fraction of a second (either that or I'd made it long before, it'd just taken being faced with such a situation to realize it). I stepped beside the man, placing my own hands over the bleeding gash.

"Paserotta, you need to take your hands away." Labriola told me, taking over from the other, less experienced nurse. "This man will die unless we do something quick."

"He's already dead." Another nurse, the oldest in the camp, said bluntly.

"No he's not, not as long as I can do something about it." I stated stubbornly.

I could hear her scoff, turning away.

"Paserotta...?" It was obvious she could see I was bracing myself for something.

"I trust you, Labriola." I told her softly. "I hope you'll do the same."

I didn't wait anymore, the soldier simply didn't have the time. I focused and called on my magic, pushing it straight into the wound. I began feeling the effects quite fast, I hadn't yet recovered fully from all the energy my Maverick had called on, but there was just no way I was letting that man die if I could do something about it.

Labriola didn't say a word, she just watch as blood-vessels, muscle and skin knit back together. She stopped me eventually, and while I didn't realize it at the time, she'd done so right before the injury finished healing, just enough to make sure it wouldn't disappear completely; which would have been much harder to explain. As it was it'd be a matter of convincing those around us that nurse Abbot had simply made a mistake; that she was new and had gotten scared, believing the injury to be worse than it actually was. It wasn't that hard to believe, especially with all the injured and dying around us.

It was late, when I finally made it to my family tent, even after almost draining myself to the limit. I'd been careful to only use my powers the bare minimum necessary, and only on those who might have died otherwise. Labriola had kept an eye on me, making sure to stop me at the right time to make sure others wouldn't notice anything strange. She, and quite probably a few others, had noticed I was doing 'something', but I believed I could trust them. In the end, we were all on the same side.

After that I'd gone straight to the showers, while we couldn't actually stay long there, I'd spent up to my last allotted minute scrubbing at my hands and arms until they were almost raw... and even then I felt like I could still see red on them. The blood of all the soldiers I'd touched, of those I'd saved, and those I hadn't. It was war, I knew that, but despite having lived two lifetimes, neither of them in complete peace, I'd never been surrounded by so much blood, so much death.

As I sat on the ground, beneath the shower, I looked at my hands in silence and remembered the last time they'd looked so red. They'd hadn't looked exactly like that, in my life as a Ljósálfar I'd been a bit taller, yet at the same time lighter, my skin not quite so pale... but the point remained.

*My Nightingale...* Ever since arriving to the past, my love had made a point of only using our assumed names (both to keep us safe, and so we wouldn't confuse Hakon), which meant that he only ever called me Nightingale when we were lost in passion, or in the privacy of our minds. *Is everything alright?*

*Yes, I...* I let out a breath, accepting that it was pointless to lie to him. *I'll be alright.*

He didn't ask me what was going on, he knew. I'd no doubt he must have been able to see everything that went through my head.

It took me a while to pull myself together but eventually, and with no small help from my love, I did. I then met him in our tent, where he was laying beside our little boy, who was sleeping peacefully. I was so thankful that I'd sent him with Baggio before the soldiers arrived.

No questions were asked, by either of us. Even if neither of us knew the exact details, we each knew how bad the other had had it. The time would come to discuss the details, or not (though, all things considered, it was likely we'd end up sharing memories, either voluntarily or by mere accident, sooner or later).

So we didn't talk about the day we'd had, we just kissed, said our good-nights and went to sleep with our little boy sandwiched between us, a reminder of the reasons why we couldn't give up, no matter how hard things might get.

I hadn't failed to notice the absence of one of our dearest friends, our sister in every way that mattered. Sif had gone with Loki and the soldiers, yet she hadn't returned. She wasn't among the injured, wasn't dead or captured, I knew that much; yet she was still absent. Which meant that, whatever she was doing, it was important. I'd be finding out sooner or later.

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

In the middle of the night, a figure was stalking through the forest in absolute silence, and making using of every single stealth trick in the handbook. Dressed in somewhat modified camos, with a dark thick leather jacket on top, Sif used the shadows to her advantage as she kept out of sight of the enemy soldiers doing their rounds.

It'd been a long day, but she'd finally made it to the very place where the war prisoners had been taken: HYDRA's base, several miles beyond enemy lines. It was the deal she'd made with Loki before the situation turned critical. He'd get as many soldiers as he could out and back to base, and she'd follow those that couldn't be rescued. Obviously, in order to make a rescue, they first needed to know where to go, that was what she was there for. A part of her (the part of her that was Sif, goddess of war, more than Sia Serrure, Howard's former PA and Agent of the SSR) had actually contemplated attempting a rescue on her own, but there were just too many enemies. Even with all her Asgardian advantages, there was a chance she wouldn't be enough... and that was just considering the soldiers and their odd weaponry; she had no idea what HYDRA's leader: Johann Schmidt, might be capable of (to be fair, no one did).

So she stalked. She made rounds around the factory, doing her best to memorize the layout, to learn the patterns of their guards and anything else she could that might prove useful when someone actually arrived ready to execute a rescue. Because someone had to come, there was no way they could leave that many soldiers to the tender mercies of the enemy, right? Sif was afraid to admit she wasn't actually sure, but since the thought was so awful, she chose to do what one of her dearest friends, Nightingale (Arianna, she'd to remember to always call her Arianna in public, it'd be simply too dangerous to do otherwise) would do, and that was believe. A rescue would come, it had to.

No one, not even Sif, were aware of the other figure walking through the forest that night. Then again, that particular figure didn't quite exist among the living, not in that moment and thus was not visible unless it was by her own choice. The figure was female, tall and slim, wearing a long, thick, black woolen cloak that dragged several inches behind her bare feet, hood pulled up to cover her head completely and shadow her face. No one tried to stop her as she stepped out of the forest, into the factory and through several hallways, even when she passed a number of HYDRA soldiers, there was no reaction, she was invisible to them all.

The female never stopped, never hesitated, only once through her walk did she react to the people around her. A short man in a labcoat, stepping out of what looked like a laboratory; she actually stopped as he passed her, and for all of one second it looked like she might do something, say something, perhaps even go after him. But in the end she didn't, she just ignored him and stepped into the lab.

There was a single person left in the lab. A young man, in his mid-twenties perhaps, with short, messy dark hair, dark eyes and half-ruined fatigues. The figure bent down, pale lips close to his ear, and a single curly lock of obsidian black hair escaping from her hood:

"Soldier..." She whispered softly. "Wake up soldier..."

"I'm Sergeant Barnes, James Buchanan Barnes, 3 2 5 5..." He broke off from his usual mantra the moment he realized the radical change in company. "Who are you...?"

Very slowly the man, Sgt. James Barnes, sat up. He looked down at his arms, then at the cot he'd been lying on, and got what was probably the shock of his life: a body, his body, lying down on the cot, strapped to it.

"Just what is going on here?!" He demanded, turning to face the figure. "Am I dreaming?"

"I suppose it's a way of looking at it." She stated evenly. "This is not quite a dream, soldier; but it's not the reality you know either. We're at a point between both, between life and death..."

She waved her hands around, and suddenly the two of them were no longer in the lab, they were standing in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mist.

"Who are you lady?" He asked yet again.

"I am Beauty, and Death, and Grief, and Faith..." She murmured softly. "Names are irrelevant. It doesn't really matter who I am, or where I come from, soldier. What matters is what's brought me here on this night?"

"And what's brought you here exactly?"

"You, soldier. At this moment you're standing on the edge of a knife. You're straddling the line, and it's up to you whether you live or die..."

"What hope is there for me?"

"There are those who'd rather you live soldier, but in the end the choice is only yours."

"I'm not important, no one needs me."

"Oh but you're wrong about that. The world needs you, more than you, or it knows... however, I'm not here to talk to you about the world. Are you familiar with the concept of soulmates?"

"Soulmates? Like one-true-love and all that jazz?"

"That's one kind, but not the only. There are two kinds of soulmates, soldier. The platonic ones, those who are meant to be your truest friends, your family by choice. And then there is your romantic soulmate, your perfect partner, your match..."

"What does that have to do with anything?" He didn't understand.

"Your soulmates, soldier, would rather have you alive than dead." She stopped him before he could interrupt. "Do not misunderstand me, I am not here to do some sort of emotional blackmail. Like I said, the decision is yours. I'm only here to make sure you do a fully informed decision."

"Inform me then."

"Your brother and your match, would rather have you alive. You must know that, were you to choose death, they will mourn you, but they will go on. They will go on with their lives, make their own choices, as is their right. And one day, when the End finally comes, you will all meet on the Other Side, in perfect peace." She made a pause, giving him time to fully consider that, before continuing: "Should you choose to stay... it will not be easy. This war you're in has but begun. You will have to fight, there will be victories and loses, joy and pain. You will suffer a great deal, probably more than many other mortals ever have or will... but should you choose to live you will get the chance to follow your brother as he goes through every trial the Fates have put in his path, and you will have a match, a valiant woman who will stand by you every step of the way."

"But if I die, they won't die? I mean, they can go on without me?"

"They have the potential, yes. Though, as always, it's their choice in the end."

"What's the real difference then? Whether I live or die, I'll see them again. And if I die I won't have to keep hurting, and suffering... I will not risk losing them..."

"You will also miss on all the good things life has to offer. Death... death cannot offer you anything soldier. Nothing other than peace, that is. You will see them again, yes; but things like passion... everything that forms mortal love, it's irrelevant on the other side. The pain and suffering will cease, yes; but so will the joy, the passion, the excitement be gone. Life might not be perfect, but it's not completely awful either. Then again, to be able to appreciate the light, there must be some darkness for it to shine in; to be able to notice beauty, there most be some ugliness as well. It's all a matter of balance."

For just a fraction of a second, the half-light that surrounded them, and which seemed to have no obvious origin, appeared to hit her in just the perfect angle for him to catch the slightest glance at her face. Porcelain skin, one half perfectly unmarked, the other covered in terrible scars...

"What will your choice be then, soldier?" She asked him then.

He didn't answer immediately, he was having a hard time getting his head around it; and yet... and yet he'd known, from the very beginning, what the answer would be. Even before she'd said anything about the pros and cons of each choice. He didn't need to ask who his brother was, it was as obvious to him as his own name. James had no idea how badly things might get (and, judging by her words, they would get pretty bad still), but if Steve needed him, there was no way James... Bucky, would ever leave him hanging. And his match... he'd no idea who that might be, but if there truly was a romantic soulmate somewhere out there, waiting for him, a perfect match... he wanted to find her. He needed to...

The hooded female smiled at him, it was something he knew, even if he couldn't quite see her expression. Apparently he didn't actually need to voice an answer, she knew already; a part of him wondered if she'd known from the very start...

"It was your choice, soldier." She reminded him. "Always your choice..."

Yeah, a choice he'd made, probably before he was even aware of it...

He wasn't fully aware either as he lay back down, the lab slowly reforming around him, the hard cot underneath him, the straps tight around each of his limbs, and his middle. As the haze of whatever drugs they'd given him returned, a part of him began wondering if that meeting had happened at all, or it'd been nothing more than an hallucination.

'I suppose it doesn't matter...' He thought to himself. 'All that matters it that I need to live... for Steve and... for her...'

No one paid any attention to the hooded figure as it walked away, vanishing into the shadows before the first sun-rays appeared on the horizon.

Chapter Text

A Hero Comes Home

No matter what, we all keep trying to find our way home.

I was working in the infirmary (light duty, I'd just returned that day, after being in bed with an awful cold for two days... or at least that was the excuse Labriola had come up with when, after coming down from the rush of adrenaline, and with the way I'd pushed myself past my limits, I found myself unable to so much as get out of bed). It wasn't too bad, I'd managed to heal a lot of people, all who weren't beyond saving by the time I reached them (and some who were). There was no one truly critical left in the infirmary, and if the nurses were claiming that this or that soldier was still bad off, it was mostly so as not to make the sudden recovery of so many seem suspicious, and to give a few of the men a bit of time off.

I was doing some paperwork on a desk in a corner when a sudden spike in emotions, negative ones, made me react before I was fully conscious of it. It was odd, I'd been feeling nothing but happiness, some of it tinged with sarcasm, but mostly joy. I knew that there was a show going on, for the survivors of the attack (someone had apparently decided that the soldiers deserved to enjoy the sight of the dancing girls). Still, that did not explain the negative emotions...

I reached the main tent in time to unwillingly end up listening in on a heated argument.

"What about the others? Are you planning a rescue mission?"

It actually took me a couple of seconds to realize who it was I was hearing. I'd forgotten that the dancing girls being in the base meant so was 'Captain America'. Since I'd still been in bed when they'd arrived, and then spent all day working, it was probably unsurprising that I hadn't seen him yet, but still.

"Yeah! It's called winning the war." Col. Phillips replied bluntly.

"But if you know where they are, why not at least...?" Rogers insisted.

"They're thirty miles behind the lines." Phillips seemed to be trying to explain to him. "Through the most heavily fortified territory in Europe. We'd lose more men than we'd save. But I don't expect you to understand that, because you're a chorus girl."

That was bellow the belt, and I was quite sure even the Colonel knew it. Still, it was not my battle to fight, but Roger's... and I knew he would do it. He was ready... he had to be.

"I think I understand just fine." There was a hint of something behind Rogers seemingly careless words; yes he most definitely understood, and he was ready.

"Well then understand it somewhere else." Phillips snapped. "If I read the posters correctly, you got some place to be in thirty minutes."

"Yes, sir. I do."

I met him, as well as Peggy Carter, as she followed him out of the tent.

"Mr. Rogers." I greeted him politely.

"Mrs. Serrure." He nodded in return.

"Please, call me Arianna." I murmured.

"Did you need me for something, ma'am?" He inquired.

"My husband left this morning, with a group of volunteers, to check the area where the battle was fought," and lost... I'd rather not focus on that part. "They were hopeful they might find some more survivors."

Luke was actually hopeful that Sif might have been able to rescue at least a few, and they'd be brought back; there was a chance that that might be the push Phillips needed to execute a rescue I knew, basically, what had happened, that there had been a rescue (a little over two hundred men of various nationalities), but there were such wildly different stories about the events of those days, it was impossible to know for sure how things had happened, what had pushed that rescue into taking place. Some said that Rogers had asked for a chance to prove himself, others that he'd gone even against orders, a few more that Phillips had sent him against the wishes of his own superiors, and I'd even heard once that Phillips had just wanted to get rid of him and thus sent him into a 'suicide mission' hoping to get rid of him. Of course, there was only one person still alive in my time who might have known the answer to that question, and I'd never thought to ask him (then again, it's not like I actually planned to get thrown 75 years back in time!).

"I just thought you should know." I added with a shrug.

"Think he'll find Sia?" Peggy asked right then.

"Sia...? Sia Serrure?" Rogers obviously hadn't been expecting that. "Your sister-in-law was captured as well."

"Well..." I swallowed, making a split-second decision. "Not exactly." I looked around, making sure no one would overhear us. "It was her choice to stay behind."

"What...?!" Peggy hadn't known that either.

"Sorry." I apologizes sheepishly to her. "Didn't mean to lie to you Peggy, Luke just thought it was safer if no one knew. Luke had to come back with the other soldiers, but Sia was well enough, and she chose to stay, to follow the enemy and see if she could find where the prisoners were being taken. Possibly even a way to get them out. We're hopeful..."

"So, your husband is leading a rescue?" Steve wanted to know.

"No." I hated having to disillusion him. "Phillips wouldn't allow that. But we hope that once Sia gets back with that information, Phillips will allow for a rescue..."

"He won't do it." Peggy shook her head, almost regretfully. "You know he won't, Arianna... Phillips is too focused on the big picture. He won't care about saving a few soldiers... so matter what kind of intel Sia might bring him."

"Well, he should!" Rogers snapped.

Seemingly making his mind about something he turned around and began walking away. In seconds he was climbing a jeep; Peggy and I looked at each other in shock for a couple of seconds before hurrying after him. We reached him just before he started it.

"Wait!" I called, though I wasn't quite sure what to say to actually stop it... or if I even wanted to.

After all, if it was his destiny to go, and his choice (that was the most important part) shouldn't I just let him do it? On the other hand, what if he wasn't supposed to go? What if I was supposed to stop him? In the end, it wasn't my choice to make.

"What do you plan to do?" Peggy demanded. "Walk to Austria?"

"If that's what it takes." And he really sounded like he'd do it if he had to.

"You heard the Colonel, your friend is most likely dead." Peggy tried to reason with him.

"You don't know that." Steve shook his head.

"Even so, he's devising a strategy to take..." She began, though it didn't sound like she truly believe it herself.

"By the time he's done that, it could be too late!" Steve actually snapped for a moment. "You told me you thought I was meant for more than this. Did you mean that?"

"Every word." There really was no doubt in her (not in her voice, or her aura).

"Then you gotta let me go." He told her, softly but purposefully.

"I can do more than that." Peggy offered.

"Howard!" I blurted out at the same time.

Peggy nodded at me. We'd obviously had the same idea. Steve, of course, had no idea what we meant, but there was no time. So we just pulled at him, explaining on the way.

xXx

Hours later Luke arrived, along with the small number of volunteers, and a couple of soldiers who'd apparently managed to survive and avoid capture (probably playing dead). They were in awful conditions, but still alive; which was probably what truly mattered. However, there was something I focused on more: Sia's absence.

"She wasn't there." My Maverick explained to me. "I couldn't find a trace. I'm confident that she's not perished..."

"We'd know if she were dead." I agreed with him.

Since the recovery of our memories from my time as Tinúviel we'd both become very close to Sif; just like we'd been back then. The best of friends, almost siblings.

"Regardless, she might be captured, or simply stalking the enemy, waiting for a chance." He went on thoughtfully.

"I choose to believe it's the latter." I decided. "And the opportunity is on its way right now."

"What do you mean?" He'd been so focused on the mission he hadn't taken a glimpse into my head all day.

"Rogers found out about what happened, a few hours ago." I explained. "Apparently a good friend of him was with the 107th. A Sergeant Barnes..."

"James Barnes, goes by Bucky..." My love nodded. "I remember him. Good soldier, loyal, always talking about his little brother, back in Brooklyn..."

"Well, it'd seem his brother is no longer in Brooklyn, nor, exactly, what most would consider little..." I quipped, unable to help myself.

"Phillips's not gonna like this." Luke muttered, as if only then realizing that.

"No, he won't." I agreed. "He'll probably want Peggy's head on a pike, and Howard's..."

"He won't touch Howard, the army needs him... he's their main weapon's developer and producer right now." He murmured soberly. "Peggy on the other hand..."

"The world needs Peggy." I pointed out.

Even if there was nothing we could do, if things were destined to go as I remembered from the history books, with Captain America and his lady love forever separated by time and the cruelness of fate... even then, Steve needed her in his life. She was one of the people who'd shape Captain America into the hero the world would remember for decades... or had shaped him? It got confusing! Living in the past, knowing things that hadn't yet passed... Still, the point remained.

"Then we'll make sure she'll be safe." My love decided.

I nodded in agreement. It was a promise. Peggy Carter might not know it, but she'd earned our friendship, our trust, and our loyalty... perhaps that might make some difference in the end.

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

Steve Rogers had been forced to walk for several hours, in the dark night, trying to be very careful so as not to be discovered, and with nothing but the stars to guide him in what he hoped was the right direction (he'd only gotten a quick look at Col. Phillips's map, after all).

He'd just reached a spot from where he could see the lights coming from the factory, when he heard a voice speaking to him from above.

"Well, well, well... what have we here..." The female voice drawled.

Rogers actually froze in shock for a second, giving an involuntary step backwards when the figure dropped from a branch on the tree closest to him, to stand right before him.

"Miss Serrure..." He barely managed to keep his voice to a somewhat loud whisper.

"Please, it's Sia..." She told him with a smile. "I believe I told you that back in Brooklyn. Miss Serrure... is way to stuffy for me..."

Also, Sif was completely unused to surnames. She hadn't had a family name since her father had pretty much disavowed her, after she'd insisted on becoming a warrior, rather than accepting her place as another of the 'golden ladies' of Asgard (like her mother, and her sisters...). It'd been a hard choice to make, no doubt about it, but by that point Sif had already fought too hard, gone too far, to back down (she'd actually participated in the annual tournament, where gifted amateurs were chosen to be trained by the best among the Einherjar; she'd won, and prince Loki of all people had taken her directly to Val, the quartermaster).

In any case, she knew that the name Serrure was necessary, it was part of the facade they had created for themselves upon arrival to the past; that didn't change how much not-used to it all she was. The name Sia at least was familiar to her, it was the one she'd use in the past, whenever she happened to join Loki and Tinúviel in their trips to Midgard (those two had also had aliases of their own: Serrure and Rossi -short for rossignol-).

"So, where are the troops?" Sif asked him, though a part of her already suspected the answer.

"I'm afraid I'm all there is, ma'am." He shrugged a bit sheepishly at her as he said it. "It was decided that any significant group would call too much attention and only bring more danger to the prisoners. Also, the possible casualties were considered unacceptable."

"You don't have to sugar-coat it, you know?" She said quietly, an understanding hand high on his arm. "Phillips, or his own superiors, they decided not to send anyone. That's not exactly a surprise, considering the situation. Still, I'm glad you decided to come. I can work with this..."

"Excuse me...?" Steve obviously wasn't expecting that.

"Well, you don't think I'll just stand here and let you go into enemy territory all alone, do you?" It was a rhetoric question, so she didn't wait for him to even try to answer. "Besides, I've been here for two days now, and have done an in-depth research of the place..." She cut her off, deciding to get to the point. "I know the way in."

Steve probably wouldn't know for sure what made him decide to accept that. With anyone else, he'd have insisted she turn back, get away as far as possible before anyone realized he was there. Even with Peggy (or maybe it was, specially with Peggy); but Sia was different; even if they were both women, both strong (both agents) there was something about Sia Serrure that told the young blonde that she understood war in a way few people did, in ways that went beyond the knowledge gained from a book, or even the battlefield, as if war were in her own blood (and maybe Steve was getting too poetic for the time and place, but still).

Neither of them said a single word more, Steve following Sia quietly through the last few trees and right into enemy territory. His last conscious thought before instinct took over a quiet prayer that Howard and Peggy might not be getting in too much trouble because of him.

xXx Nightingale's POV xXx

Howard and Peggy arrived shortly before dawn, alone, of course. Luke and I did everything we could to keep Phillips from finding out what had happened. And even the dancing girls had done their best to help us; but, of course, eventually he realized. Not only where Rogers was, exactly, but also who'd taken him there. It was bad.

Phillips didn't wait quite 24 hours before deciding there was no way Steve could have survived. It's not like he didn't try, he'd sent pilots out, and even a few volunteers as scouts, none of them had been able to find any sign of him. Though I still thought he was giving up much too soon.

"Senator Brandt, I regret to report that Captain Steven G. Rogers went missing behind enemy lines on the third." He was dictating a letter to one of his subordinates. "Aerial reconnaissance has proven unfruitful. As a result, I must declare Captain Rogers... killed in action. Period."

I had a few choice words to say to him about his rather obvious lack of hope and, some might say, faith... but was interrupted by the arrival of none other than Peggy.

"The last surveillance flight is back." She announced evenly, settling some reports down before Phillips. "No sign of activity."

Phillips sent the corporal away before turning to Peggy (I was quite sure he'd have sent me away too, if he'd thought for even a second I'd listen... though by then he'd already learnt that I simply didn't work for him).

"I can't touch Stark. He's rich." He stated in a tone that was somewhere in between nonchalant and almost threatening. "And he's the Army's number one weapons' contractor. You are neither."

"With respect, sir, I don't regret my actions." Peggy replied, rather calmly. "And I don't think Captain Rogers did, either."

"What makes you think I give a damn about your opinions?" Phillips practically snapped. "I took a chance with you, Agent Carter, and now America's golden boy and a lot of other good men are dead' cause you had a crush!"

"It wasn't that." Peggy honestly didn't seem bothered at all by his words, she remained calm through it all. "I had faith..."

She had faith on someone, instinctively, even against all odds... that was a sentiment I could empathize with.

"Well, I hope that's a big comfort to you when they shut this division down." Phillips insisted.

For a brief moment I wondered what he'd think, were he to know that over seven decades later their organization would still exist... granted, SHIELD wasn't exactly the same thing as the SSR... but they were connected enough, the SSR being/having been one of the 'mother agencies' to SHIELD. I didn't actually get the chance to ponder on that for long, as a sudden rush of elation filled me.

Every inch of my body could feel it. It came so fast I almost gasped in shock. And then the shouting and cheering began:

"What the hell's going on out there?!" Phillips demanded as he stalked out of the tent.

I chose to stay at the back, letting Phillips and Peggy make their way through the soldiers that had gathered together to receive the newly arrived group. Captain Rogers, Sergeant Barnes and Sia were standing at the front of that group.

"Some of these men need medical attention." Sia pointed out.

"Girls!" I called automatically. "We've got wounded!"

In an instant the nurses were walking out of the infirmary and to the nearest wounded soldiers. Though most refused to move until the formalities were over.

"I'd like to surrender myself for disciplinary action." Steve stated formally.

"That won't be necessary." Phillips stated evenly.

He was no fool, he must have known the crowd would have never allowed that, not after the miracle Rogers had managed to pull.

"Yes sir." Steve bowed his head respectfully.

"And what are we going to do about you?" Phillips turned to Sia next.

"I don't see why you would do anything about me." Sia drawled.

"You ignored orders, refused to return to base..." Phillips began.

"I must remind you, Col. Phillips, I'm not, technically, one of your subordinates." Sia told him evenly. "I am here to help, but I'm not a soldier you can order around. And regarding my choices and actions... I did what was necessary to ensure good men survived. I do not regret it."

"She was awesome!" Several men began calling, loudly. "A goddess!"

"No!" A man with what sounded almost like a northern accent, called. "Nothing so plain as a goddess, the lady is a Valkyrie!"

I was almost sure there was a tinge of hysteria in Sif's laughter right then, and it wasn't surprising because, really, what were the chances of that man calling her by her very title? Still, there was no way he could know the truth, it was simply an extraordinary coincidence.

The comments went on though, some talking about the things Captain America had done, but a few were talking about Sia, about her own actions...

Phillips move was sudden and violent, as he drew his gun and pointed it at my dear sister. Sif's reaction was immediate, she was moving before the Colonel had finished his own motion; he hadn't quite managed to aim before the gun was already in her hands, having been twisted out of his in a move too fast for anyone except maybe Steve, and my own family, to follow.

Phillips didn't seem angry at her actions; in fact, it seemed like he'd actually been expecting for exactly that to happen...

"I was lead to believe that Rogers was the only success of Erskine's experiments." Col Phillips said rather bluntly.

"I am not an experiment." Sia almost hissed. "And for that matter, neither is Steve, he's a lot more than what that serum made him..."

"Still, there is only one super-soldier registered..." Phillips insisted.

"That's because I was never subjected to any of that." Sia cut him off. "I am what I am, what I've always been. What you need to understand here, Colonel, is that I was born like this. No one made me into what I am, no one but myself."

"I see..."

I doubted he did, but at least it didn't seem like he'd be insisting on the matter. Really, the last thing we needed was for the world to go crazy over there being two super soldiers... one was shocking enough, I wasn't sure the world could take two. And there was no way we were explaining Norse gods, Asgard and the Nine Realms to the 1940s human-race. They'd hardly been ready for that in 2011 (some might argue they still weren't ready, not even in 2016, but they'd found out, so it was a moot point).

Phillips turned away from Steve and Sia then, only stopping before Peggy briefly.

"Faith, huh?" He muttered, it sounded actually rhetorical.

Peggy didn't reply to him, instead she went straight to Steve, where she began berating him... something about being late. I wasn't paying attention. And then came Barnes own words:

"Hey!" He called loudly. "Lets hear it for Captain America!"

"And the Valkyrie!" Someone else added.

The cheering that followed would have blown the roof... if we'd been inside a building. As it was, I felt almost drunk on everyone's joy an excitement.

And so it began. In the following days the dancing girl's tour was officially canceled, and Captain America was given an official promotion and put at the front of the team that would be taking down HYDRA, one base at a time. Phillips had wanted to create the team himself, formed by the soldiers he considered to be the best, Steve declined, creating his own team, out of some of the men he'd saved: the Howling Commandos. Sia, publicly known as the Valkyrie, was also part of the team. Luke and Peggy, while not official Commandos, were part of it as well.

It was the start of something new, something that would change the world...

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

Agent Sia Serrure, dressed in her 'agent' suit, with her favorite leather jacket on top for good measure, snorted quietly into her drink as the loud-singing from Captain America's (increasingly inebriated) new team reached her ears. She'd chosen to have her own drinks away from them after she began getting a few disbelieving looks at the quantity and speed with which she drank (of course, they had no idea that Sia was in fact Sif, Aesir Goddess of War... and how hard it would be for her to ever get drunk on midgardian alcohol).

The actual surprise had been when Sergeant Bucky Barnes had chosen to join her. He'd eyed her mug (she'd lost count of just how many she'd drunk that night), but didn't say a word; instead toasting her in a heartfelt tone before drinking heavily from his own. She knew that Steve Rogers had told him about her own actions, and how they'd helped with his rescue. The soldier being unable to face her with that knowledge and actually thank her for her actions wasn't exactly surprising (nor the first time it happened to her); and it wasn't like she needed the thanks or the recognition. A commendation had been added to her file, and she was supposed to return to the States to receive a medal, along with the Captain... however, they'd both decided they'd rather stay in Europe and continue helping with the war.

And so they'd come to where they were in that moment, with Steve explaining to his new team what he was planning. And the fact that she was part of said team.

"See?" Bucky called to his old friend as he joined them. "I told you, they're all idiots."

Steve shook his head at his best friend, his almost-brother, before turning to Sia:

"And I told you they'd have no problem with you being part of the team..." Steve commented, then revised. "I think Jim and Gabe might actually be relieved to know that the 'Valkyrie' is joining us on the missions."

Sia snorted, that nickname had apparently stuck, people were beginning to address her by it, rather than Agent Serrure... though that might also be to differentiate her from the other Agent Serrure, her brother Luke...

"Think that's part of them being idiots too?" She asked Bucky in a drawl as she raised her mug to take a swing.

"No, I think that might be the only smart thought in their heads." Bucky deadpanned.

Sia opened her mouth once, then closed it again, choosing to drink instead of trying to come up with something to say; truth was, she could think of nothing at all. She had no idea if that was supposed to be a joke, though it sounded like he meant it... which was exactly why she'd rather not say anything at all.

"How about you?" Steve asked his best friend. "Are you ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?"
"Hell, no." The Sergeant's answer actually froze both Steve and Sia for a second, until he went on. "That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb not to run away from a fight... I'm following him."

That made them all smile. Sia knew the two of them were best friends, had been for many years. She also knew there were things her sister in law, Arianna, knew, thanks to her studies... and many that no one knew, and might never know, for they were too personal. From the moment they'd landed in the middle of nowhere, and about three quarters of a century in the past, Sif had been asking herself the same question (or variations thereof) Why? All the Hows in the universe were irrelevant when compared to that question. Why? Why had they been thrown into the past? If the Norns watched over the Fates of the universe, they wouldn't allow such a trip, unless it was supposed to happen, possibly even needed to a point... why?

The raven-haired woman was distracted from her brooding when she picked up on the sudden silence. Even the drunken soldiers had stopped their crazy singing. And then she saw the reason: Agent Peggy Carter had just entered the bar, wearing a simple but quite fetching red dress, and no one could miss the fact that she had eyes only for Steve...

"Captain." She called, somewhat stoically.

"Agent Carter." He greeted her respectfully.

"Ma'am." Bucky murmured, somewhat at a loss by the situation.

Sia could have snorted, at the amount of attention Peggy paid him... which was none at all.

"Howard has some equipment for you to try." Peggy informed Steve. "Tomorrow morning?"
"Sounds good." Steve nodded in agreement.

The part of him that was still the Steve Rogers of old (the small, scrawny kid) could remember the Stark Expo he'd been to, before Bucky had joined the army, before he'd become 'Captain America'; he remembered the flying car (even if it didn't do so for more than a few seconds). At the heart of it, Howard Stark was an inventor, and Steve couldn't wait to see what he'd come up with for Steve and the new Howling Commandos to use.

"I see your top squad is prepping for duty." Peggy commented, and while there was certainly a tone of chastisement to her tone, there was also a hint of humor beneath that.

"You don't like music?" Bucky spoke up, trying to make conversation.

"I do, actually." Even as she answered, Peggy's eyes never strayed from Steve. "I might even, when this is all over, go dancing."

"Then what are we waiting for?" And Bucky kept trying.
"The right partner." There was little doubt of who exactly she considered to be that partner.

The comment hung in the air for several seconds, as if Peggy... as if the whole universe were holding its breath, waiting for something... which never happened.

"0800, Captain." She stated crisply before turning around and leaving.
"Yes, ma'am. I'll be there." Steve called to her retreating form.

Sia really wanted to smack herself, or maybe just smack him (and she could do it), could the boy be any more oblivious?

"I'm invisible." Bucky blurted out unexpectedly. "No, I... I'm turning into you. It's, it's like a horrible dream."

Sia chuckled into her drink at that. Granted, she'd never seen Steve before he'd been 'improved' (she'd been on another part of the building, working on a different matter, until the explosion happened, but by the time she'd rushed to the scene it was already too late).

"Don't take it so hard. Maybe she's got a friend." Steve quipped.

"Oh, and wouldn't you guess?" She'd no idea what made her speak up, Sia just followed her instincts and did it. "I'm actually Peggy's friend!"

For a moment Bucky honestly looked like a deer caught in the headlights, so much the raven-haired agent decided to cut him some slack and change the topic.

"And you," She turned to Steve. "Could you be any more... stupid?"

She was going to call him blind, possibly oblivious, she honestly was, but in the end it just came out like that; and it wasn't like she wasn't thinking it.

"What...?!" Steve obviously wasn't expecting that.

Bucky let out a loud guffaw.

"Do you honestly think that woman came all the way here, in that dress, only to tell you to be at some meeting tomorrow morning?" There was honest disbelief in Sia's tone as she said that. "If that had been all they could have sent someone else, anyone else..."

"But I... she... I... she said..." The 'super soldier' was honestly speechless in that moment.

"And the dress!" Sia insisted. "It's a sin for someone to dress up like that and not to be asked to dance, at least once!"

She was probably exaggerating by that point, but it was just so much fun! Who would have thought a man like Steve could get that particular shade of red... a part of her mind wondered how far that blush went, the other part reminded her she wasn't actually attracted to Steve Rogers; not like there was anything wrong with him (aside from the fact that one of Sia's few friends had already set her sight on him), he just wasn't her type: too sweet, too... good. She liked her men darker, both in looks and in disposition (not cruel, just a bit... wild).

"She said she would dance when the war was over." Steve tried to excuse himself.

Sia wasn't the only one snorting at that.

"We might all be dead by the time this war is over." Bucky said, somewhat bluntly.

It was crude, though, as Sif well knew, painfully true.

"I'm not trying to mock you Steve." She said, voice kinder, quieter. "But you cannot keep your life on hold, waiting for the 'right time'... because that time might never come... and there's nothing worse in life than regrets."

Steve didn't answer, though Sia believed he looked thoughtful and might actually be taking her words to heart. She honestly hoped so because, knowing what she did (which, granted, wasn't much), Steve would still be alive over seventy years from that day... she'd no idea how that would come to happen exactly, had never thought to ask, but the point was, he'd most definitely be there, and the chances of either Bucky or Peggy being... well, he didn't deserve to have to live with such regrets for however long his life might actually last.

Steve left shortly after that, and at first Sia expected Bucky to do the same; instead he finished the last of his beer, and then turned to her.

"Would the lady let me buy her another one?" He offered in a very gallant tone.

Sia looked down at the mug in her hands, only then realizing it was empty. She'd no idea how many she'd had; and the same could be said about the man beside her, for that matter; though he didn't seem any more drunk than she. In the end she decided to take her own advice and she offered her mug over with a smile.

"Sure, why not?" Why not indeed...

xXx Nightingale's POV xXx

It wasn't quite eight o'clock yet and I was doing some paperwork. Hakon was sitting before a desk in a corner, doing some math exercises. My husband had just stepped into the little office, carrying what looked like several more inches of paperwork, when we both heard the soft boom of an explosion somewhere in the building. I had no doubt that my brother was involved; yet that wasn't my focus, not really, as a second later we could all feel the wave of power as it expanded.

"Is that...?" I couldn't quite believe it.

My love didn't reply, but the fact that he pretty much dropped all the papers before taking off at a run was enough confirmation. After giving a quick order for my boy to stay in that office, I rushed after him.

*That feels a bit too much like the Tesseract.* I started a mental conversation as we moved.

*It's not, not directly.* He replied. *But, as I'm sure you must realize, there's a connection.*

*Like with the weapons SHIELD created... will create.* I began, then revised.

We got to the area where my brother's labs were located, in time to see a technician helping first Howard and then his new assistant, back on his feet.

"What did you just do Howard?" I asked even as I went to stand beside him.

It took no time at all to find his wounds, thankfully they were slight and it took me no effort to heal him. Regretfully I couldn't do the same for his assistant; at least the injuries weren't bad.

"Thank you sis." He murmured quietly before adding, louder. "Quinn and I were looking over the little device Rogers brought us from the HYDRA base."

"You were doing more than looking it over Howard." My love pointed out.

"Very little!" Howard defended immediately. "Honestly!"

It was hard to believe him, considering his track record, and yet I could sense his honesty.

"We had it contained, and were using machines to hold the piece up and extract the nucleus." Howard elaborated. "The moment we touched it... it blew!"

"That thing sure packs a punch." Assistant Quinn wheezed as he recovered his bearings. "I have no idea how much TNT it would take to replicate that."

"A serious amount, that's for sure." A technician offered.

"We need to bring this before Col. Phillips." Howard decided. "If HYDRA has many more of this... and according to Rogers, they sure do... we need to do something about it. And fast."

We let them move past us. I didn't quite pay attention as Howard told me to be on the lookout in case Steve arrived before he made it to the main floor; both Luke and I were a bit distracted watching the result of the explosion that had taken place, and while in containment... granted the technologies available in 1943 were nothing compared to what they had in the 2010s, but still.

*HYDRA is making weapons that let out an energy similar to that of the Tesseract.* I summed up. *Most likely because they're using the Cube to make them... much like SHIELD did, or will do. You get my point!*

Luke just nodded. For a brief, wild moment I wondered if there was something we could have done to stop that from happening, to stop Johann Schimdt and HYDRA as a whole from getting their hands on the Tesseract. Or was that supposed to happen?

*We're going to have to be very careful.* Loki murmured quietly into my mind.

*Why?* I didn't understand his sudden attitude.

*You and I have been in contact with a number of Infinity Stones thus far.* He reminded me. *Between the Tesseract, the Mind Staff, the Aether... and then there's the fact that, if our theory holds, we were all in very close contact with the Time Stone... That's four of six stones. There's no way of knowing what might happen if we end up coming in contact with the remaining two. And not just that, while I came in much closer contact to the Cube than you, there's a trace of its energy in you too; there's no way of knowing what will happen if we were to come in contact with the Tesseract of this time. Will it recognize us? Will it react to us? Granted, there's always a chance that nothing at all will happen... but I don't think that's a chance we ought to take.*

I agreed with him wholeheartedly. The situation was already complex enough without adding things like legendary stones into the mix, particularly long before humans were supposed to find out that things like magic, and gods, and other worlds existed.

"Steve's here." My husband announced.

A second later I felt a rather sharp spike of jealousy. I'd no idea what had just happened, but something told me it had involved Steve. Perhaps his obliviousness had finally gotten him into trouble (we all knew that was going to happen sooner or later).

By the time we got to the main room it was too late. Steve had most definitely gotten into trouble with Peggy, as was quite graphically demonstrated when she shot at him repeatedly (more like, at the prototype shield he was trying, but still).

"Oh man," Bucky, who'd apparently arrived just in time to witness it all, called. "Just what did you do to her?"

Steve shrugged helplessly; and, the worst of it, was that he looked like he honestly had no idea...

I also couldn't help but notice that Sia had arrived right with him, after not getting home (or to what passed for home, for the time being) the night before. I had no idea what was going on there exactly, I just knew something was. Still, I could be patient; Sif was a dear friend, she'd tell me in her own time.

xXx

Time passed. A little over a year. During which Captain America and his Howling Commandos took down a great many HYDRA bases. Destroying high-tech weapons, killing enemy soldiers and rescuing prisoners as they went. And while they weren't going against most Nazis, or Hitler's troops, their actions with HYDRA were proving more than enough in the war.

They also gained allies along the way, mostly parts of the army of allied countries. A few they met while in camps, like the friends we'd made while in Italy, others had to be rescued. Like was the case of Miss Cartier, a french singer that had played the part of 'courtesan' a number of times in order to spy on the German and pass on information to the allies. She'd been captured, threatened and nearly tortured for her actions; though, thankfully, the Commandos had gotten to that particular base in time to save her. She was then sent into hiding, along with others.

Many short videos were filmed through those months, recording the campaign that Captain America was leading, with his Howling Commandos, against HYDRA. In each and every one, Sia always made sure that they wouldn't take her face (much like the rest of us had tried very hard not to leave any pictures of ourselves). It'd be easier, rather than having to explain, at some point, why someone in a picture in the 1940s looked identical to us. In her case it also helped that with her extremely short hair (an accident in Howard's lab had burnt a lot of it on her left side, and she was forced to cut the rest to match) and dressed in fatigues and a bulky leather jacket, she could pass as any of the other Commandos when caught from behind.

Luke was always working with Howard to create all kinds of gadgets for the group, while I mostly assisted the medical teams, and would sometimes attend meetings of the higher-ups, to act as interpreter (either when another wasn't available, or when they believed the contents of the meeting to be too important to risk with those they couldn't fully trust).

Through it all I saw Sif in Bucky's company many times (though she always called him James, in a tone that seemed to be hiding a dozen secrets). She never came to me, or to my love about it, and I wasn't sure if that was because, whatever was going on between them, meant nothing to her, or because it meant so much she just wasn't ready to face it.

The plan had been to give her space, give her time to make her own mind. That became next to impossible when January of 1945 came... according to some spies, Arnim Zola would be on a train moving through the mountains. The security was said to be minimal. It was probably the only chance we were going to get to catch the insane scientist and weapon's developer in time to possibly stop HYDRA's master plan.

I also remembered something else, from my (past) studies (in the future). The 'casualty' from the mission, the only Howling Commando to have been lost in the war: Sergeant James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes... I didn't know the details, never had (WWII really hadn't been my specialty), but I knew the gist of it. Something would go wrong in the mission, and Bucky would fall off the train, while still in the mountains.

In the past (my past, at least) I hadn't thought much about it. It was the past, history, something that was and couldn't be changed... in that moment I wasn't sure anymore. What if it could be changed? In the end, things weren't so simple anymore, Bucky was no longer just a name, a soldier lost in war... he was a comrade, a friend, the lover of one I called sister in all but blood. He deserved more...

I caught up with Sif before they could all get on board Inanna (she wasn't just part of the team on the field, she was also their pilot in the missions that required it).

"Sia, a word please." I asked her quietly.

She followed he to a corner of the hangar, obviously curious about why I would be calling her. To make sure we wouldn't be overheard I chose to switch languages, to Old Norse:

"Do you love Bucky?" I asked straight out.

She might have actually squeaked at that.

"I'll word it differently, do you care for him?" I said next.

"Very much." She answered, finally, I could sense something in her, or more like the edge of something, something so huge she couldn't fully contain it inside... or maybe it was just the start of it, like the bud of a flower preparing itself to bloom...

"Enough to challenge the Norns for him?" I worded it as carefully as I could, but by the way her eyes widened, I knew she got it.

"How bad?" Even as she asked the question, we both knew the answer was quite obvious.

"According to the registries, only one Howling Commando lost his life during the war." I was dead honest. If she was going to do something about it, she'd need to have all the information I could possibly give her. "It happened... or will happen, tomorrow."

"What?" She demanded. "What happened? What will happen?"

"I don't know..." I began, and when seeing the wildness slipping into her eyes I hurried to add. "I speak the truth, sister! Steve... in the future, he never talks about it. All I know I learnt during my studies. And even then the information was rather scarce. Something went wrong... or will go wrong. All anyone knows for sure is that Bucky fell off that train and down the cliff. His body was never found; and believe me, they tried to find it. No one ever knew if the snow covered it, or something else happened to it. Some say the Captain tried to save him and failed, a few even used to say that he almost died trying to save him, but there was nothing that could be done. In the end, like I told you, very little is actually known, Steve and Bucky were alone, inside the train when it happened, no one else saw anything, aside from Bucky falling..."

And, of course Steve would never talk about that, the day he'd lost his best-friend, his brother...

"Well, then it's quite obvious what I must do." Sif announced with a huff.

I arched a brow, wondering if she was pretending for my sake, or if she truly felt that confidence about her chances defying the Norns over Bucky's fate.

"Is it?" I inquired softly.

"I'm not leaving them alone." She stated simply. "Wherever those two go, I go. They're not leaving me behind this time."

With her being a pilot, and one of those with the most experience, whenever the Commandos needed to be 'dropped' somewhere, Sia would fly them over, as close to the bases as possible, and give them the chance to jump, before flying off. Apparently, she wouldn't be doing that for that particular mission.

"I need to go talk to Howard." She stated, before walking away.

Of course, they'd need another pilot, and I didn't think she'd trust her bird to just anyone... I quietly wondered if Sif's presence alone would be enough to change things.

xXx

A week later I couldn't help but wonder if it'd all been a punishment, for daring to try and change what was supposed to be, what the Norns had decreed would be... not only had Sergeant Barnes fallen off that train and the snowy cliff, but Sif had very nearly fallen with him. She'd tried so hard to save his life that she'd almost ended going down with him, if it hadn't been for Steve's quick actions, she'd have been lost too. I'd have never forgiven myself, if that had happened, because it'd been my idea. I was the one who wanted to change things, who even gave Sif the idea to try and do it. And even with all her Aesir abilities, it'd been a near-miss.

Which was precisely why it'd taken a week before we were ready to 'ring the bell' as it were. We didn't have a body to bury, and no time to go back to Brooklyn and do a proper ceremony, though everyone had agreed it'd be done... as soon as Schmidt was dead and buried. At least Zola was captured, the mission, as it were, had been a success. Bucky hadn't died in vain... I didn't think that Steve, or Sia, believed it to be worth it.

In any case, a week later we all met in a small wooded area, not far from base (though enough to be private). All the Howling Commandos were present, in dress uniform, my family in what we had that could be considered funeral attire, and even Peggy and Howard had asked to be there. Words were spoken, in remembrance of Bucky, most of the Commandos had things to say about his missions, or the insanity he got into while they had time off. Peggy spoke of his loyalty to Steve above anything and everything. Steve and Sia got more personal, they'd gotten the chance to see other sides of Bucky, one as brother, having known the man for almost his whole life... and the other as his lover over the last year. Howard and the rest of us hadn't known him much, but we still offered what we had.

Then the moment came. A bell was placed on some rocks and it was tolled three times by each: Steve, Sia, and Dugan (in representation of the Commandos). Then Jones insisted on everyone having a drink in memory of their comrade, Howard agreed wholeheartedly, he'd also apparently been planning something like that, seeing how he had a bottle of whiskey (very good whiskey, according to the others) with him. They each took a swing (they had no glasses) and even Luke accepted the bottle when it was passed over to him. Then, when there was only a little left, they placed in on the same rock where the bell had been... Bucky could have the last of it.

No one said a word for a while, and it was beginning to look like we might break off, allow each to grieve on their own. Only I didn't think it was a good idea. Steve and Sia were still crumbling inside, and I was still feeling guilty, and neither of us truly knew what to do...

So I did the only thing I could think of, the same thing I always did, when I needed to let my heart, my soul speak... I sang:

"Just wait though wide he may roam
Always a hero comes home
He goes where no one has gone
But always a hero comes home..."

"He knows of places unknown
Always a hero comes home
He goes where no one has gone
But always a hero comes home..."

It probably wasn't enough, nowhere near enough to express all the grief I could sense in the air. Even though they were soldiers, and we were at war; even though we all knew, in our heads, that we could die at any moment, without warning, that there were no guarantees in a conflict such as the one we found ourselves in... Bucky's loss had still hit us hard, and completely by surprise.

In the end, the Commandos were the first to leave, one by one, after offering their condolences to Steve and Sia one last time. Howard, seemingly wanting nothing more than to cheer things up, picked Hakon off the ground abruptly and began running with him, calling something about flying and some game they'd apparently interrupted at some point... as I heard my son's shrieking laughter I could only feel relief, that the grief had not affected him too badly.

My husband and I were about to take our leave, give the others their space, when Steve and Peggy approached us unexpectedly.

"There's something we'd like to talk to you about." Peggy murmured, when Steve's words seemed to fail him. "It's about us..." She took a deep breath before blurting it out. "What just happened. It's showed us that life is too fragile, and we have no guarantees. We said we'd wait until the war was over, but I don't want to wait anymore. I don't want to risk there not being an after..."

"What are you talking about?" I murmured, though I was beginning to get an idea... a crazy idea. They couldn't possibly mean what I thought they meant...

"You've told us about you, your origins and power." Steve finally spoke us. "We want your help."

"Nothing we can do will guarantee your survival in this war." Luke pointed out, apparently he hadn't yet reached the same conclusion I had.

"It's not about survival." Steve tried to explain. "It's about having no regrets..."

"We want you to marry us." Peggy finally blurted out.

Chapter Text

Safe and Sound

One day the war would end, one day we'd all be safe.

So apparently Steve Grant Rogers, the Captain America had been dating Margaret Carter, SSR Agent for... stars knew how long. It was hard to wrap my head around it, not because I had anything against it, not at all; but because I'd gotten so used to Steve being totally oblivious to the women making passes at him, to the potential between him and Peggy... only, apparently he'd only been faking, they both had, to keep their relationship in the down-low.

"Who did you think gave him that picture?" Peggy asked flippantly.

She was talking about the picture of her Steve kept in her compass; of course, we should have realized that a man like Steve wouldn't be keeping a gal's photo without her permission, in particular when it was no secret that he had it (the picture had even appeared in one of the reels, from what I remembered). But since they'd never spoken about it, most people had simply assumed; I knew better than to make assumptions (people made such about me all the time), and yet even I had fallen for it.

"We had a plan." Steve tried to explain. "As soon as the war was over I was going with her to meet her family, to ask for her hand, and then we'd go back to the States and live there. Make new lives for ourselves with the money of my commission and her own service. Perhaps we might even work for Howard..."

"It's a good plan." I offered, not quite sure what else I could say.

"Bucky was going to ask Sia to marry him." Steve said, very quietly (he knew, better than most, how good Sia's hearing was, and didn't want his words to hurt her further. "He didn't have a ring but he thought that would be alright, she could choose one she liked and he'd buy it for her. Even though they had never made any promises to each other, Buck knew she was the girl he wanted. He asked me if I'd be his best man..."

I had no words to reply to that. In my eyes James Barnes had always been a bit of a wild-card, not only as a soldier, but also as a man. He flirted with every woman on base, even after he began 'seeing' Sia; I'd thought that meant that whatever was between them wasn't serious. Then again, I should have realized Sif wasn't the kind of woman to allow a suitor to stray, not without dumping him (and quite possibly beating him up before it was all said and done). Even then, the idea that he'd been contemplating marriage... Had their relationship really gone that far? Was it possible... Could they actually be a match?!

Sif had told me, not long after we'd all recovered our memories of Tinúviel, that after seeing Loki and I together she'd decided to never settle for anything less. She'd seen how a match was supposed to be and simply couldn't see herself with someone who didn't see her a their whole world, and whom she saw in the same light. But was that even possible? What were the chances? Sif was an Aesir, and James a man who belonged to a time when Asgard had hardly had any contact with Midgard... until our little time-jump. It was all too twisted to contemplate.

Still, none of that changed what Steve and Peggy had already said, about their plans, and what they wanted from me, from us.

"It was a good plan." Peggy agreed. "But what if that moment never comes? We might be making headway against Schmidt and HYDRA, particularly with Zola's capture... but that might still not be enough. And even if... when we manage to defeat them, there is no guarantee we will survive. I don't want either of us to go into the next life with such a regret."

"That's understandable." Loki nodded, understanding, probably better than many, where she was coming from. "That doesn't explain what we have to do with anything."

"We cannot call a justice of peace, or go to a chapel and simply marry." Steve explained sheepishly. "Or, I suppose we could, if we wanted, and if we didn't care about our superiors finding out... but we do care. If Col. Phillips, or even worse, his own superiors, find out about what we're planning, even that we're together... well, there are fraternization rules for a reason. They would split us up, send Peggy away, they might even use our relationship as an excuse to demote her. I will not allow that."

"It's also more than that." Peggy added for good measure. "When you told us your story... you said that the vows you had used to marry, they were stronger than conventional marriage, they were about forever. We want that."

"You understand that when we speak about forever, we mean that literally, and not in a figurative sense?" I tried to make them understand. "For us, for a marriage done by the Ancient Vows, forever isn't simply a concept, or a pretty word; it's a reality. We will be together to the end of time, till the last star falls from the sky..."

As poetic as the last phrase sounded, it was also quite literal, and the way Ljósálfar chose to express the sentiment.

"This is no 'until death do you part'." My match added. "You will be bound for this life, and for every life that comes after this."

"Is it possible that we might have been bound before?" Steve asked suddenly, it looked as if the thought had just occurred to him.

"It could be." My Maverick actually stopped to think it over before answering. "There's no way of knowing for sure, of course. People, mortals in particular, hardly ever remember their past-lives. And that's when they have them, not all souls are willing to go through the hardships of life more than once, not after they've known True Peace."

Thankfully neither of them asked if it was possible to bind themselves to different people in different lives; my love wouldn't have taken such suggestions kindly. There was only one match, ever, after all. That was something we'd fought tooth and nail to prove when Odin had refused to accept me by Loki's side. Eventually we'd managed, but still.

"We understand that this is something serious." Steve assured us solemnly. "It's still what we want. More than anything."

"It gives me hope." Peggy added, very quietly. "Hope that even if the worst might happen, if the war might take one or both of us... we'll find each other again."

Memories rushed through my head, hard and fast: I remembered dying, in the middle of the New Mexico desert, in my beloved's arms, after having unlocked the deamarkonian, to keep Thanos from using me against him... I remembered standing in the middle of the Throne Room, in Asgard, revealing myself during my match's trial, to speak for him, and to give him a reason to keep on living when he was pushing himself into a self-destructing path (again)... I remembered being a she-elf, pregnant, and dying as a consequence of a curse from the Enchantress. I didn't quite remember what I'd been feeling that day, thankfully the memories of my life as Tinúviel were distant enough they didn't hurt as much as some of my current one did (I couldn't imagine getting over the loss of my baby, days before I'd have given birth... somehow it seemed much more traumatic than the miscarriage I'd gone through in my current life, months after marrying Loki, at nineteen)... but most importantly of all, I remembered waking up after spending a night regaining the memories of a past life, to find my match by my side, and realizing we were meant to be, in ways I could have never begun to imagine; that we were a match, and beyond life and death, we'd always be together...

"We'll do it." I said simply, there really was nothing else that needed to be said.

xXx

Two days later everything was ready. Luke and I had managed to convince the higher ups that Steve and the Commandos needed a few days off, to get over the loss of Sgt. Barnes. Peggy too had filed for a short leave at the same time. Then, in the evening, Steve, Peggy, Howard, Sia, my love and I gathered together in the same clearing where we'd said our goodbyes to Bucky.

"So, with this ceremony, you'll be married forever and ever?" Howard, who was the last to learn everything we were planning, asked. "You die, I die, kind of deal?"

I was just about to answer in the affirmative, when Sia interrupted unexpectedly.

"That won't be enough." She blurted out.

"What...?!" None of us were expecting that.

"It takes a century for a bond formed by the Ancient Bonds to become strong enough to allow for a 'you die, I die', as Howard put it." Sif elaborated. "You know this, you've been through it, remember? When Tinúviel was lost to us..."

The memory came fast and hard, and while it wasn't the first time I'd remembered recently, it still felt just as sharp. It was true, Loki and I (Tinúviel) had been married for over ninety years... not quite a hundred, and it hadn't been enough. I had died, and my love hadn't... it was precisely that which pushed him to the edge of his sanity, which made him act so self-destructive; he'd wanted to die, in order to follow me.

"She's right..." I breathed out in shock.

"Then how?!" Peggy demanded.

Steve didn't say a word, though I could sense the desperation in him. He really wanted the kind of bond my love and I shared, the knowledge that they would be able to find each other, no matter what might come their way, who or what might try to get between them...

I didn't quite realize it, as I reached for my right wrist with my left hand, but when my fingers grazed the marks on the tender skin there... they were like scars, or perhaps birthday markings, but their significance went much deeper. The marks had been left on my skin by an object of great power, a unique relic... and I wasn't the only one with such symbols engraved on the skin of my wrist; my love had them too, only on opposite sides.

*I really don't know if that's a good idea my Nightingale...* My Maverick murmured quietly into our bond, he'd been able to follow my line of thought.

*It's their only chance, my love.* I mind-whispered. *And we both know it.*

As one, we turned to face Steve and Peggy, hands extended as a pair of golden (though they were not gold, but rather another much more durable, Asgardian metal) wrist-cuffs materialized.

"What's this?" Steve asked, not quite touching one.

"They are called deamarkonian." My love began the explanation. "A set, completely unique... you see, I created them."

"You've heard our story, or at least the short version of it." I stepped in. "You know there are things we've never told you; some because they're personal, others because they simply aren't important... this is a little bit of both. I was sick, very sick, when I was fourteen. So much it should have killed me. The demarkonian is the only reason I'm alive."

"How does it work?" Peggy inquired, thoughtful.

"They bind life-forces." My match took over. "Basically, you share energy, what is at your core. In our case, the sickness kept Ari weak, but when my energy became hers... that strengthened her, it allowed her to recover. The demarkonian didn't cure her, it just allowed her to live with the illness... it also affected us when we took the Ancient Vows, our bond became tighter much faster than it should have..."

"But, wait a second." Howard called in. "You're not sick anymore, are you? Because you aren't wearing those things right now, and you just said they were unique so..."

"They are unique." My husband cut him off. "And no, we're not wearing them anymore. She..."

He couldn't say it, and I understood it, of course I did. My death (both of them, in fact) would always be traumatic memories for the both of us.

"Things happened," I said, somewhat vaguely. "The demarkonian were no longer necessary. And in any case, that's irrelevant right now."

"What you need to focus on, is the effect the super-soldier serum might have with this." My love commented thoughtfully. "If it were two normal humans wearing them, the effect would be so small as to be considered irrelevant. If it were a healthy human trying to help a sick one... it's unlikely they'd manage... in our case, my power compensated for my match's weakness, and the differences were considerable enough that she didn't gain any great advantages... at least nothing that was immediately notorious." The magic had come later. "In your case... well, Peggy is perfectly healthy, and Steve has been altered to his core. It's likely that would slip into the bond."

"So, what? Peggy would gain some of my abilities?" It was completely understandable that Steve wanted to understand before committing to anything.

"It probably won't be obvious straight-away." I offered. "It certainly wasn't with me. But yes, Peggy will gain some of what the serum has given you, and it's possible that you'll loose a small degree as well, to balance out."

Considering they had no idea what the super-soldier's limits were, exactly... well, I wasn't actually sure if that made the side-effect something we didn't need to worry about (because it wouldn't really affect Steve) or if we should be very worried about it (we'd technically be gaining a second super-soldier when we still didn't know fully what one was capable of).

"This will guarantee that we will stay together, or manage to find each other, no matter what?" That was the deal-breaker for Peggy, for them both, probably.

"Yes." I could guarantee them that much, I'd benefited from it, after all.

It wouldn't occur to me until much, much later, on the effect the use of the deamarkonian would have on Peggy, after a certain plane went down...

xXx

The final mission took place exactly a month after Steve and Peggy's secret wedding. Phillips had questioned Zola extensively and with a lot of help from various spies, and a little of my match's magic they'd managed to make a decent plan. It was beyond insane, what with Steve pretty much walking to Schimdt's door and knocking (figuratively, he'd be on his bike, and there would be less knocking on a door, and more knocking some skulls... but still). Most agreed that the insanity was the reason why it'd probably work.

It was an all or nothing kind of deal. If we succeeded Schimdt would be defeated and one of the greatest threats to the allies would be dealt with... if we failed, the whole world would feel it. So, of course, there was no way we could fail.

I even managed to convince them to let me tag along. In the end even my husband had agreed that it would be useful to have a healer of my 'talent' along, and someone who would be able to communicate with prisoners (both ours and HYDRA's) that might not speak English.

The first part went easy enough. Steve took down as many as he could in his entrance, before 'surrendering' and allowing the enemy to take him in. Sia and a number of Commandos broke through a window and straight into the room where Schmidt had been trying to question the Captain, in the nick of time. And then, at a signal, the remaining Commandos and Luke burst in through what looked like a wall (thanks to some of my Maverick's magic). Another signal and the Colonel lead all the soldiers we'd been able to gather in the last two days, through the front door; Peggy and I were with him. I was no good with a handgun, though I still had my training with knives, and that was good enough.

Several soldiers were vaporized around us by HYDRA's weapons, and while the shock was great, I forced myself not to focus on that, to keep moving, we had a battle to fight, to win. And yet when I actually noticed one of the enemies fire their gun, pointing at a soldier running right beside me, I couldn't help myself, I was waving my empty hand before I knew it, and then the ray was hitting a whiteish-lilac translucent barrier (Which lasted for barely a fraction of a second, and yet that was enough), before bouncing back to its origin point, vaporizing the HYDRA goon instead. The soldier beside me turned wide eyes at me for a moment, but there simply was no time to focus on that.

"Peggy!" I called, making my mind in a second. "I need you to cover me!"

She was not blind, she'd seen what I'd just done, and I was quite sure she was able to follow my line of thought. She didn't doubt, in a second she was running in front of me, making sure to keep any possible enemies off me, while I began waving my hands, throwing up shields everywhere I saw soldiers being targeted. I didn't manage to protect them all, but I did my best.

Once inside the base things went even more insane. Peggy went looking for Steve right away, and while the original plan was for us to stick together, the moment I heard the cry of someone injured I couldn't help but follow it. It was my instinct as a healer, I had to help, so we ended splitting up. Some soldiers actually ended following me around, bent on keeping me safe while I looked after their comrades.

When I found Peggy again she was sitting before a communications console in the command room of the base. Phillips seemed to be guarding the entrance, keeping everyone out while giving her space, giving her and Steve the chance to say goodbye... I paid him no mind, ignoring both his sharp look and his half-whispered half-shouted orders as I slipped past him and into the room, going to my knees beside Peggy.

"Peggy... this is my choice." I could hear Steve through the radio, from somewhere on the North Atlantic, on board of Schmidt's plane, the Valkyrie. "Peggy..."

"I'm here." She half-whispered half-sobbed.

I placed a hand above hers, trying to offer some silent support.

"I'm gonna need a rain check on that night of dancing we've been planning." Steve said suddenly. "I know we've been planning it for a while now, and you even taught me how to dance, and I've finally stopped stepping on your feet..."

"That's alright." Peggy mumbled, so low Steve probably could only hear her because of his enhanced senses. "We'll go as soon as you get back. We have our whole lives... just come back..."

"We'll ask the band to play something classy, something slow." Steve stated. "We'll show everyone how it's done."

'How the marriage dance is done...' I couldn't quite remember where or even when I'd heard those words, but they'd stuck with me, and they seemed to be made for that moment...

"We'll find each other again." He reminded her.

"Yes we will." Peggy agreed wholeheartedly. "No matter how long it takes." She made a pause before adding, very quietly. "Mo Anam Cara..."

Her pronunciation wasn't the best, but still, it was the thought that counted.

"Mo Anam Ca..." Static.

Steve's voice cut off before he could finish the phrase.

"Steve...?" Peggy called, refusing to believe the obvious truth. "Steve? Steve!"

There was no answer, of course they wouldn't be, because Steve Rogers had crash-landed the plane somewhere in the North Atlantic... possibly even the Arctic, and between the water and the ice, there was no way he could answer (it was also quite possible that the radio had been ruined in the crash).

However, I couldn't allow my mind to wander through that particular line of thought. Peggy was fast approaching hysteria, and I needed to make her focus, otherwise she would hyperventilate and lose consciousness. And that wouldn't be good, not for us, but especially not for her.

"Peggy..." I called her, softly but authoritatively. "Peggy, look at me."

It took a while, but eventually she did.

"I need you to focus Peggy, just a moment." I told her kindly, before grasping one of her wrists with both my hands... or more precisely, the object there. "Look at this? Do you remember what this is? What it means?"

"The dea-marko-nia-n..." She breathed out brokenly.

"Exactly." I nodded. "Do you remember what it signifies?"

She didn't answer. I didn't know if she just couldn't find the words, or if her grief was so strong she really couldn't remember in that moment.

"It's a symbol of your bond to Steve." I reminded her anyway. "Your love, your commitment..."

"Yes..." Peggy's tears stopped falling, her breathing became less labored and, ever so slowly, her eyes regained their spark.

"Once put on, the deamarkonian are sealed, they can only be released when they're no longer needed." Usually at the moment of death, but I knew I didn't need to go into that. "As long as that stays on, you know Steve is alive."

"We'll meet again." Peggy finished for me. "With our bonds... we'll find our way back to each other, no matter how long it takes..."

Even if it took them decades...

I didn't mention there had been a time when a key had existed, for one of the deamarkonian (and unlocking one would release both). That key had been lost in the New Mexico desert the same day I'd died as Silbhé, the day when I'd left my human life behind, to then make a choice between the peace of a human death, and an eternal life by my match's side... I'd never hesitated. In any case, there was no longer a key; the deamarkonian would only be released when they were no longer needed, and in no other way.

I had no idea how Peggy and Steve would actually get to meet again. And while I had met Steve in the future (my past), I couldn't remember having ever seen Peggy in that time. Did that mean that something would happen to Peggy before Steve woke up? Or had we changed history, in a way we hadn't managed on that train? I was afraid to ponder too long on those questions. We'd be finding the answers sooner or later.

xXx

At the end of March, almost four weeks to the day since Steve had gone down with Schmidt's plane Peggy seemed to fall sick for the first time. She'd been somewhat depressed ever since the mission; she'd go on missions with the Commandos, work at the SSR HQs, sleep a lot and hardly eat, she had no social life whatsoever. We believed it to be normal, perfectly natural; she'd just lost her match, after all. He wasn't dead, of course, and she knew they'd meet again, but he wasn't there with her, and the absence hurt. However, what truly shocked us into action was when she fell asleep and then didn't wake up (no matter what we tried) for 24 hours straight.

That was the start, but certainly not the end. In the following weeks she'd sleep more and more, and every week or so she'd take a 24-hour nap.

"It's her connection to Steve." I told Sif and Loki privately one day.

"Are you sure?" Sif inquired.

"What do you know of this time?" My husband asked almost at the same time.

"Steve froze in the Arctic." I blurted out. "I don't know the exact location, I'm not sure anyone does. Howard spent... will spend, decades looking for him, only to never find him."

"Never, but then..." Sif didn't understand.

"Someone else found him, completely by accident, from what I know." I explained. "In 2010 or 2011... not sure the exact date. He was encased in ice, and somehow still alive."

"Cryostasis..." My Maverick murmured thoughtfully.

I nodded.

"The serum allowed him to survive in the ice." My sister realized. "In suspended animation..."

Her eyes widened as she came to the same conclusion my love and I had reached.

"The bond is what's causing this to Peggy." I whispered. "Steve has no energy, and no way to produce more, so it's pulling on hers. It's why she eats more, and sleeps for so long. The bond is still strengthening, which I think is the only reason that she didn't drop into a coma the moment Steve froze."

"We have no way of knowing for sure that he froze completely right away." My love reminded me grimly. "Even if he did fall unconscious right away, there's a chance his body took longer to fully freeze." He shook his head, probably hating the thought as much as I did. "The point still remains, though."

"But that means that Peggy's condition will keep getting worse, until..." Sif broke off, not daring to finish the thought.

We all knew it though.

"There's no way to know for sure if she'll truly sleep until Steve himself is found and awakened, or if she'll wake up sporadically until then." Loki said quietly. "We have no way of knowing how she'll react to all of this."

"We were preparing for her developing Steve's super-soldier abilities, but not for how it might affect her, if something were to happen to him." Sif nodded.

Which had probably been stupid, at least my beloved and I had known it was coming. And it's not like we didn't have at least some basis of comparison, I'd never forget learning that my love was being sent to the Pit, and weeks later going to sleep, and not waking up. I'd been in a coma for a month, before waking up in a hospital, with Darcy and my Maverick by my side. And there was no way of knowing how much worse things might have gotten, if Thor hadn't pushed for his brother being released from that cell, after learning of what had happened to me.

"We need to make plans." Sif stated, in a tone that allowed for no opposition. "Right now... the world simply isn't ready for Peggy Carter to disappear."

No, it wasn't, I wasn't sure it would ever be. Which meant we definitely needed to make plans, and they'd need to be good... really good.

xXx

Several meetings took place through April, top secret meetings, the contents of which only Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, the Serrures, and three other people were privy to.

In the first days of May, the last mission of the Howling Commandos happened. Peggy and Sia were there for that one. They captured Werner Reinhardt, one of the highest-ranked HYDRA members that had survived after the fall of Schmidt. They released a good number of prisoners, including the inhabitants of a small village in China (some of which had already been killed by Reinhardt during some experiments). They also confiscated a strange object of unknown origin, which Reinhardt referred to as the Obelisk (and tagged it with the code 0-8-4, to make it harder for their enemies to find it, if they were to ever come looking).

The next day, the Commandos were celebrating. The final 'head' of HYDRA had been cut off. Reinhardt had attempted to cut a deal, and failed; Peggy had felt an inordinate amount of pleasure in locking his cell personally. WWII wasn't quite over yet, though I knew it wouldn't be long (and I really didn't want to think about what was missing...).

While Peggy had never been one for drinking, or at least not in public (her standing as a woman in the military was precarious enough, the last thing she'd needed was for her to get drunk in the presence of comrades, or worse, superiors); she chose to make an exception that day. She handled herself quite well, according to everyone who saw her. She never turned down a drink and, by the end of it, she'd consumed at least as much as most of the Commandos (more than Sia even), and while the soldiers kept laughing at stupid jokes and it was unlikely that they'd manage to so much as get on their feet without toppling down, Peggy didn't seem to have such problems. She stumbled a bit when getting on her feet, and didn't complain when Serrure went to help her walk, but she didn't make a fool of herself either.

She only half-heard as the seriously drunk Commandos offered their respects to her and called for 'one last toast' for their Captain and his Agent... she didn't say a word, just walked away.

The moment we all stepped back home (Howard had insisted on buying a townhouse right there in the outskirts of London when realizing what was coming, and that we'd need a private place) Peggy straightened up, moving away from Luke without a second's hesitation. It still took us a moment or two to fully process what it meant.

"You're not drunk." Sia blurted out in realization.

"Not in the slightest." Peggy deadpanned. "The most I got was a slight buzz at some point, probably some lightheadedness, but it didn't last. I haven't felt anything in the last hour."

We all knew what that meant, her bond with Steve was fully formed and her body was adapting to the changes the serum caused (she might be getting them second-hand, but still). A lack of ability to get drunk wasn't the only side-effect, not even the most important:

"I could barely get up this morning." Peggy declared rather bluntly. "I know I won't be waking up tomorrow morning, or the day after... even now it's hard for me to stay awake."

It was what we'd been waiting for, for a little over a month; that didn't make us any less nervous though. Even with all the plans we'd made, there was no guarantee things would go well. But there was no going back, decisions had been made, the bond had formed. Both Steve and Peggy had known, from the start, there would be consequences for putting the deamarkonian on; now they needed to deal with those consequences (we all needed to).

"I'll phone the others." Howard announced, suddenly all business. "Make sure they'll be ready."

Final arrangements were made. Peggy took a long, relaxing bath before getting dressed in her favorite nightgown, a beautiful ivory-white sleeveless piece that I'd given her as a wedding present (and which Steve apparently had loved, both on her and on the floor...).

Peggy laid on the center of the bed (the same bed where she and Steve had consummated their marriage, as a matter of fact), allowing me to tuck her in, while my husband went around the room, making sure the wards were in place.

It was part of the plan, something we all considered very necessary, to make sure Peggy would remain safe while she slept (it wasn't like we could be there to guard her for the following sixty-six years or so). It was quite possible we'd need to move her at some point; and we'd definitely need to recharge the wards every so often, but she'd be safe, Loki and I would make sure of that. We'd promised Steve, after all.

"All arrangements have been made." Howard announced as he stepped into the room. "I've spoken to Dugan, Sholto and Miss Cartier. We shall meet them tomorrow morning to deal with any final details and put everything into effect."

"You will make sure Marge's alright, will you?" Peggy asked quietly.

"We will make sure everything's just fine with her, and with everyone." I assured her.

"I also promise to you, I will keep looking for Steve, and I will find him Peggy." Howard assured her. "Trust me on that."

"I trust you Howard." She nodded. "If anyone can find Steve, you all can."

"Who knows, maybe you'll be waking up next week, with your dear husband by your side." He offered as an option.

I knew that wasn't going to happen and I think deep down, instinctively, so did they. None of us said a word anyway. We let the feeling of hope remain.

"Will you sing for me?" Peggy asked me suddenly.

She had settled down, finally, a picture of her and Steve in their 'secret wedding' was on her bedside table, and she'd laid just in the right angle to keep it in her line of sight; the picture was also spelled, anyone who didn't know about the wedding would just see a picture of Steve Rogers before the super-soldier serum (they'd probably believe Peggy to be the nostalgic kind, but not much more than that).

"Like you sung in Sgt. Barnes's memorial?" Peggy insisted. "There are few things that I'd like to take into my sleep with me. I have the memory of Steve's love, my family... and I'd like to hear you sing one more time..."

How could I ever say no to that? (Not like I ever actually planned on saying no to her anyways, so...). So I settled more comfortably by her side, right on the edge of the bed and, after thinking it over for several seconds, I began humming softly, and then finally singing:

"I remember tears streaming down your face
When I said, "I'll never let you go"
When all those shadows almost killed your light
I remember you said, "Don't leave me here alone"
But all that's dead and gone and passed tonight..."

I couldn't help myself, the moment the second sentence passed my lips, memories filled my mind, and I was sure they weren't just mine. I could see my love, and myself, in a memory that began double before fusing into a single image; with Princess Tinúviel laying half on the marble floor of the Asgardian Palace, half on her husband's lap, blood staining her beautiful gown. There were tears in both their eyes, for the life already lost, of the little one that wouldn't be born, and for the life that even then was slipping from in between the prince's fingers, he was losing his wife and there was nothing he could do to stop it from happening. And all she herself could do was sing, try and pass on as much of her love as she could to her match, let him know that he was loved, he would always be loved, and one day they'd be by each other's side again (and it had happened, even though back them neither of them had known for sure such a thing was even possible).

"Just close your eyes
The sun is going down
You'll be alright
No one can hurt you now
Come morning light
You and I'll be safe and sound."

And that hadn't even been the only time. By far the most traumatic death in my memory (if mostly because it was the one I could fully remember) was the one that had taken place in the dessert. That time too I'd died in my love's arms, with the taste of our last kiss on my lips, after having chosen death over being used by Thanos as a pawn to make my beloved hurt. It'd been an easy choice to make, so-to-speak; if only because I refused to allow myself to think about the consequences of my actions, not for myself, but for those I was leaving behind: my aunt, the woman I loved like my own mother (and who'd been such for most of my life), my father (we might have become estranged, but he was still my father), my friends, and most important of all: Loki the love of my existence. I'd never be able to stop thanking the spirits, the stars, whatever Higher Power that might exist, that I'd gotten a choice in the end, a choice to be with my love. Regardless of what I might have had to give up in the end, it'd been worth it. Nothing would ever be more important than the love I felt for that man (god... jotun... the race didn't matter, never had and never would): Loki, Luka, Luke, my Maverick, my husband, my match... my everything.

"Don't you dare look out your window darling
Everything's on fire
The war outside our door keeps raging on
Hold onto this lullaby
Even when the music's gone..."

So much was unknown in that moment. Had we actually changed history by allowing Peggy to survive, giving her a chance to be with Steve in the future, like she couldn't be in the 40s? Or would something happen in the following decades that would keep her from being there by the time Captain America was thawed out? If we had actually changed history, did that mean the future was no longer the one we remembered, had we missed something, or had we created a new world by changing things? And if we hadn't changed anything, what then? So many questions, and no answers at all... and no way of getting them, not until the years had actually passed.

"Just close your eyes
The sun is going down
You'll be alright
No one can hurt you now
Come morning light
You and I'll be safe and sound."

After a little over four years in the past, we were no closer to finding out what had happened, how we had ended traveling to the past, than we'd been when first arriving to 1941. We had our theories of course. The favorite was that somehow we'd come in contact with the Time Stone at some point, it was the only proven way to break down time barriers. Especially considering the fact that Hakon and I had traveled back to a time when we didn't actually exist yet. Were it to be proven true, my match thought it was either an amazing coincidence or the Norns intervening; because what were the chances of yet another Infinity Stone being on Midgard/Earth?!

"Oooh, Oooh, Oooh, Oooh
Lala Lala
Oooh, Oooh, Oooh, Oooh
Lala Lalaaaaa..."

And following that same line of thought. What were the chances that, upon traveling to the past, we'd landed in the general area of the Tesseract? We'd been in Norway after all, and while no history book had ever been too concise on the exact location of the Cube before it'd ended in Schmidt's hands, it was generally accepted that it'd been hidden somewhere in Norway... That hadn't occurred to any of us at the time, not when we'd first arrived, not until much later. Especially considering that upon arrival (and upon realizing what time it was, exactly) our first priority had been to get to the safest place we could think of... New York had seemed like a good idea at the time. Not like we could have done anything about it, anyway. In the end the fate of the Space Stone had never been in our hands. Schmidt had gotten it, and in that moment it was somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean. I knew Howard would be finding it soon, while in the search for Steve. I also knew the kind of consequences finding it would have in the long run, and while a part of me considered telling him the truth about the artifact, the danger it was, to make him change his mind about what was to be done with it... I wasn't sure anything could be done to keep it truly safe. And if anything could be done, what would that mean for me (for my past-self, for the future)? What would that mean for my love? And for the Avengers? Somehow, changing that particular piece of history seemed much more dangerous than anything else we might have attempted (and the situation with Bucky and that train had been enough of a mess).

"Just close your eyes
You'll be alright
Come morning light,
You and I'll be safe and sound..."

Peggy fell asleep as I was going through the last lines of the song. No one said a word, everyone simply taking turns to silently kiss the woman's forehead. Saying their goodbyes. Much as we might want to be hopeful, there were simply no guarantees that we would all be together when she finally got to wake up. Though she would be waking up one day; one day she and Steve would be reuniting, they would get their chance to be together like they couldn't during the war. I promised that silently to her, and it was one promise I'd fight like hell to keep. We all would...

"Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh oh oh..."

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

Almost four months after the last mission of the Commandos, and three days after the official end to World War II, a very important meeting took place in Washington DC. It was to celebrate the Allies' victory, and the heroes who'd been part of it all. Both those living and dead.

Howard Stark received a medal, both for his work in Projects Rebirth and Manhattan. Col. Chester Phillips and a number of other soldiers received medals and special commendations (and some were promoted as well). The Howling Commandos received the highest medal for valor, as well as special commendations, and job offers (they'd all be needing them, with the end of the war). Agents Sia Serrure and Luke Serrure and Nurse and Interpreter Arianna Stark-Serrure received special commendations and the highest medal that could be given to civilians.

The last person to be called to the stage was Agent Margaret 'Peggy' Carter, both to be recognized for her service to the SSR and the Allies as a whole during the war, and to receive the medals intended for Captain Steve Rogers, Captain America.

It'd been a subject of contention, for a while, as the Captain (officially declared as MIA, though most believed him to be dead) had no next of kin. The closest one had been reported as KIA almost two months before the Captain himself had disappeared in the Arctic. There was no mother, wife, no sisters, no one who could claim a blood relation to Steve Rogers. In the end, the closest he'd had to family had been the Howling Commandos, Howard Stark, the Serrures, and Agent Carter... and they'd all agreed that if anyone was to receive a medal meant for him, it should be Margaret Carter.

And so Margaret Carter climbed on the stage. A medal was pinned to her chest, before another was handed to her in a beautiful case, along with a carefully folded flag. All the authorities in place were treating her like a widow, and while that made her somewhat uncomfortable, she did not complain, simply received the objects, thanked everyone and went back to her place, in between the Commandos, right behind Howard Stark and the Serrures.

The rest of the ceremony proceeded without problem, and soon they were all being guided to another room, were dinner was being offered, and a band was already playing. The presence of so many high-ranked militia meant that the Howling Commandos had to keep themselves in check, unlike the times when they went celebrating to whatever bar they were favoring at the time; but in the end they did it without complaint, the last thing they would do was embarrass each other, or the memory of their fallen comrades.

After the party Howard Stark, the Serrures, as well as Peggy Carter drove together to one of Howard's houses. Agent Carter was staying with them until she found her own place, or went back to London, she hadn't quite decided yet. The Commandos themselves were staying on a hotel before going down separate paths the following morning.

Right before taking leave for the night (though it was actually past midnight already), Peggy turned to Arianna, taking the medal off her jacket before offering it, along with the Captain's, and the folded flag, to the auburn-haired woman.

"I believe you can take this to where it belongs." She offered as an explanation.

"You should keep the medal." Luke said, signaling to the one that had been pinned to her chest. "The world will expect you to have it, possibly to wear it on special occasions. It will be easy enough for you to justify keeping Steve's elsewhere, but not one that's meant to be yours."

"I'm just not quite comfortable with it, you know?" She explained, shifting a bit, even as she returned it to her jacket. "I don't feel like I earned it."

"You did your own part in the service of your country, and us all." Luke assured her. "And if we hadn't had to report Marguerite Cartier dead for this ruse to work, the world would know."

"And my reputation would be forever ruined." 'Peggy' finished for him. "It's why I filed for asylum after the last mission... and they denied it to me. Regardless of what I might have done, your superiors simply didn't believe it to be enough."

"Even right now they're trying so hard to bury us." Sia muttered. "All the women who enlisted, who fought as hard as men, or even harder... they're trying to bury us, what we did; like it never happened, like we never existed."

"But they cannot do that to Peggy." Howard reminded them. "The whole world know who she is, what she's done."

"They cannot erase her, but even now they're doing all they can to make her less." I murmured. "Ignoring her actions as an Agent, and making the public focus more on her relationship with Captain America. Turning her into a 'damsel in distress' when Peggy was anything but."

"How true that is..." The woman playing the part of Peggy Carter: formerly known as Marguerite Cartier. "I don't know how I'll ever be able to fill her shoes..."

"You don't have to, Marge." Howard assure her. "Just be the best you can be. You're a wonderful woman, we all know that. Make the best of this chance, and above all remember..."

"No one is ever to know I am not Margaret Carter." She finished for him. "I know, I remember." She made a pause before adding. "Will she be alright, the real Peggy, I mean?"

"She will be just fine." Luke assured her. "You need not worry about her. Just focus on living your life, on enjoying it."

Marge nodded before finally taking her leave. She might not know where the real Peggy Carter was, or what had happened to her exactly, to make it necessary for someone else to take her place. In the end, Marge chose not to focus on that, instead she focused on the opportunity she'd been given, of a new life, one where she was respected, appreciated, where she didn't have to sing to men who only cared about undressing her with their eyes, where everyone called her a whore even though she'd never slept with a man. A life where she could be with the man she truly loved, and who loved her in return. Aside from the people in that house, Dum Dum Dugan and Jacob Sholto were the only ones who knew the truth, and it would stay that way. Marge had no idea of what might come in the future, what might happen if the real Peggy Carter ever returned, but she chose not to focus on that. Instead she'd do as the others had recommended and enjoy her new life: her life as Margaret Carter.

Chapter Text

Cradle Song

Every mother knows at least one song, that which she sings her baby at night.

On March 20th 1949, at 17:48 EST, Rose Alfdis Stark Serrure was born in Stark mansion in Upstate New York. With assistance from a discreet, well-paid midwife. We'd gone down that route in case either the baby was born looking different in some way, or if my magic happened to act out somehow (it'd happened a number of times during the pregnancy). Thankfully it was a normal (if long) birth. Rose came early, barely eight months, and she was a bit on the small side, with a head full of what looked like the beginning of bright-red curls. Her eyes had been a shocking mix of red, orange and black at the moment of her birth, but had turned brown by the time the midwife turned her full attention to her.

I also had a dream, the last night I was pregnant, of two girls: one with long waves of mahogany hair and eyes like the tiger-stone, in an off white dress with red accents; and beside her a slightly taller girl, the same age, with bright red hair and dark-chocolate eyes in a sand colored dress with yellow accents... the most shocking part though, was that they were both surrounded by fire, scarlet flames dancing around them, never quite touching either. There was also the fact that I was only pregnant with one child...

Rose Alfdis was, in many ways, our dream-child. None of us had forgotten Helena, and we never would. But she was a grown woman, and had been so for centuries. She'd been Tinúviel's first (and only) child, my past-life had gotten the chance to watch her grow, be there for her... but Rose, even in my life as Tinúviel I'd lost her; and then again when I had that miscarriage at nineteen. Finally, after years of fearing that the day might never come, she was there.

Hakon adored his little sister too. Even if their age difference was considerable (13 years). We made sure he never felt less, even if he wasn't ours by birth, he was our son, and we made sure he knew it. They were our children, and both my match and I loved them with all our hearts.

Things did change though, in the following years. In the early-fifties, I was supposed to be in my early-thirties, but I didn't look it (I hardly looked past my early-twenties, according to some), and while that was perfectly normal, seeing how I'd pretty much stopped aging at twenty-one, it was dangerous, with the kind of public lives we lead. The world wasn't ready to know about all the non-humans who lived among them. So we decided it was time for a change.

After making sure that our friends would be alright, we as a family packed our bags and moved to London. It was a temporary arrangement, of course, the last thing we needed was for us to disappear and the whole world to begin looking for us. So we planned our departure from the public-eye in stages. Howard didn't even complain, he just wished us best.

In London Sia went straight to work in the local SSR offices (her status as the Valkyrie, while highly classified, meant that the few who did get to know her there, knew better than to ask questions about her own mostly unchanged appearance). Luke, for his part, chose to go to Oxford as a teacher (History and some Culture Studies). I joined the Faculty of Linguistics, also at Oxford, adding a new degree to the list. It was also there I first met Charles Francis Xavier...

Hakon had joined his father and I in Oxford in Fall of 52, aiming for a BA in Jurisprudence, with an option for an additional year of Law Studies in Europe. Even at 16, he knew what he wanted of life, not only when it came to being a lawyer. He'd told my love and I, in no uncertain terms, that he'd be joining the army once he had his degree (either the American or British one, both were possible, since we all had double citizenship). Hakon had been truly marked by WWII and the two years we'd spent going from base to base; but more than that, he'd been greatly influenced by the Commandos. They were his heroes, not just Captain America, but the team as a whole; he admired them greatly and wanted to be a soldier, and a hero, just like them. And while my beloved and I didn't quite agree with some of his beliefs (while Steve, James and the rest of the Commandos were certainly remarkable people, that didn't mean all soldiers were good), we would still support him in his decisions, we could do nothing else. So my son would grow up to be a lawyer, and a soldier; in a world that, I knew, had still way too many wars to fight.

In the Fall of 1953 I was dividing my time between teaching my daughter to read and write and the beginnings of math, and working on my Philosophy and Linguistics degree. I was taking a psychology class (it was a requirement), though I'd never been a fan of the topic (mostly because I'd always believed that if I ever had to actually talk to a shrink they'd believe me to be crazy and I'd probably end up in a straight-jacket in five minutes... and that's not taking in consideration how my family would react to that). Mostly I found the class somewhat boring and halfway through it I began scribbling things on the margins of my notebook, notes to remind me of going to store and buy some things for Rosie, maybe supplies to make the chocolate-chip pancakes Hakon loved so much (my daughter preferred them with fruit). I got distracted enough that I didn't actually notice when class finally ended; not until I was practically alone in the hall. Then I cursed mentally in Gaelic, threw my things inside my bag and rushed to the door; it was my last class of the day and I really wanted to get home...

I didn't see him, not before I crashed into him and always went down. I think he might have tried to hold me to stop my fall, but I reacted instinctively before he could do anything at all, twisting in a half-controlled spin, my feet almost tangling with one-another; a small skip to a side and I finally managed to regain my equilibrium, half-crouched in front of the lecture hall's door. I'd even managed to keep hold of my bag and while a couple of things were precariously on the opening, nothing had actually fallen out.

"Oh my apologies!" I heard the person I'd crashed into apologize.

I recognized his accent as British and it was almost instinctive to adopt a somewhat similar one as I responded (it was a quirk that I'd gained during the war, imitating the accents of whoever I was talking to; it'd helped put some people at ease, as they didn't think of me as much of a stranger).

"It's quite alright." I assured him. "No harm done."

"That was some incredible footwork." He praised me. "You must be a terrific dancer."

I briefly wondered what he'd think were he to know I'd learned such footwork while learning how to fight, rather than to dance. He looked at me oddly. For a moment I could feel something, like a sort of touch on my surface-thoughts. I didn't react, letting the memory of the recent lecture color them, along with some relief for having avoided a fall. As I did that I also continued looking at him carefully, waiting for the signal, and then I got it, as he raised a hand to the side of his head, his eyes narrowed minutely before widening.

"Remarkable..." He breathed out. "Absolutely remarkable."

I knew then it was definitely him, his mind was touching mine, or my surface thoughts at least; and not only that, he'd realized that he could go no further. A part of me wanted to snap at him, didn't he know that minds were private. It was one thing for our minds to touch instinctively, a passive scan; if he was some kind of psychic that was only natural; but for him to actively try to get into my head... at the same time, I really didn't want to call any more attention to myself. So I chose evasiveness as my tactic.

"I have no idea what you find so remarkable, aside from the fact that I didn't fall on my face just now." I stated as I moved past him. "But I really don't care. I have places to be and I'm already late. Have a good day!"

I walked away, fast but without quite breaking into a run, before he could say anything else; hoping that would be the only time I had to deal with him.

Of course it wasn't. It actually was until the second meeting that I realized who he was exactly:

"Did you know your beautiful eyes are consequence of a very specific genetic mutation?" I heard him before I saw him that time.

"Excuse me?" It was late afternoon, on a Friday, and I was walking out of the library after finally finishing a tedious project for my phonetics class (I was also late for dinner).

"My name is Charles Xavier and I'd really love to admire your eyes over some drinks, or dinner if you're amenable." He offered.

"Drinks? Dinner?" Half of my mind was freaking out over the name, trying to fit the blue-eyed, brown-haired young man before me with the aged, wise, Professor X; while the other half responded almost automatically. "Has anyone fallen for your genetics talk yet?"

"Not quite yet, I'm still perfecting it." He admitted with his most charming smile. "You're a... Psychology major?"

"I'm studying Philosophy and Linguistics." I corrected him. "Psychology is, regretfully, a requirement for the term." I shrugged. "Also, my name is Arianna Serrure."

I'd dropped the Stark shortly after arriving to London; the last thing I needed was to call attention upon myself simple because of who my 'brother' was.

"So, what do you say about dinner?" He insisted.

"I know your kind." I told him bluntly.

"My kind...?" I couldn't help but notice his defensiveness.

It was also about then that I felt, again, his touch as more than just a graze in my head. It made me realize how my words could be interpreted (not that that excused him trying to violate my privacy... or that he would succeed).

"Yes, the whole Casanova-thing." I shrugged. "More often than not it's nothing but an act. I cannot help but wonder, are you truly attracted to me, or have you just run out of girls in your own department?"

"I've found that the girls in the Science-Department aren't quite as beautiful as some in the Humanities." He was really laying it on thick.

"As flattered as I am by your words, I will have to decline." I told him as kindly as I could. "I'm afraid I have a previous engagement."

"So, not tonight." He nodded. "Perhaps some other day..."

"I'm afraid it's the kind of engagement that will keep me busy for the rest of my life." I cut him off with a small smile.

I was about to call attention to the tattoo around my ring finger and its significance (both my love and I still preferred those over actual wedding bands), when two completely unexpected arrivals interrupted us:

"Mama!"

My reaction was instinctive, which was probably the only reason why I was ready, with arms wide open when the tiny dark-red haired, chocolate eyed, human-shaped missile slammed into me, small arms winding around my legs instantly.

"Lovely little love!" I cooed automatically.

"Mama!" She cried out again, smiling brightly at me. "Missed you mama!"

"You missed me?" I asked her with a bright smile. "I missed you too, sweetheart. I was on my way home, I promise."

"I not want to wait!" She said in a rush (her grammar still needed some work). "I missed mama and come see mama!"

"I'm glad you came to see me, darling." I assured her.

There was no need to ask about her papa, I sensed him before I actually saw him.

Luke appeared from around the corner right then, chuckling at our daughter's rush even as he reached us, kissing me quickly yet with a sense of longing, before pulling back. It was until then that I remembered Charles, as I sensed his discomfort (though whether it was at the PDA or the fact that I was quite sure he couldn't be able to properly read any of our minds I wasn't sure).

"Right!" I called brightly. "Charles, this is my family: my husband Luke, and our daughter Rose. This is Charles Xavier, he and I have Psychology together."

"Pleased to meet you." Luke nodded at him, offering a hand. "Professor Luke Serrure."

"Professor?" Charles repeated.

"Social Sciences Division." My love clarified. "I teach Cultural Studies."

"Oh..." He seemed to be absolutely speechless. "Charles Xavier. I'm studying to be a geneticist."

Luke nodded. I could guess from Charles's embarrassment that he probably feared Luke might go against him for flirting with his wife; though of course my love would never do that, he knew better than to bother with such things.

"Well, I'm afraid we must leave." Luke announced, turning to look at me briefly. "We have reservations for that Italian place you like and will miss them unless we hurry. Hakon has promised to pull himself away from his studies for one night and join us."

That was more than enough reason for me to drop anything and soon we were on our way. The picture of the little happy family...

xXx

That wasn't the last time we saw Charles, not by a long shot. We met several times over the next couple of months, mostly as we came and went from Psychology class, the library, and even a few times in some pub or bar (we only went to those when Hakon offered to watch over Rose for the night). At some point we also met his sister: Raven Xavier, who was taking a few classes (though nothing really formal), and working as a waitress. I liked her, even if I'd no idea what could have happened to her in the future... I didn't remember Professor X having a sister (and considering how much of a public figure he'd become in recent years, we'd have known of her). Still, I chose not to focus on that, after more than a decade since our initial time-travel we'd all become used to living 'in the present', whichever year that might mean.

A particular Saturday night in early November found us all in one of Charles's favorite bars. It was someone's birthday, and as both Charles and I shared classes with him (if different ones), we'd both been invited. I hadn't been so sure about it at first, but Hakon had insisted that Luke and I should go out (we'd been so busy with midterms and hadn't gone on dates recently). I was being careful with my drinks, while my love didn't have such care (he knew it was unlikely he'd ever get drunk on Midgardian wine and ale).

Charles was involved in some drinking game with some of the other students, while Raven and I had joined a group of girls focused on gossiping (I wasn't saying much, actually, mostly listening to them). At some point Raven left for the bathroom, she took a bit longer to come back than expected, though that wasn't exactly uncommon so I didn't pay much attention to it, until I noticed something was off with her attire. It took me a few seconds, but eventually I realized what it was: before going to the bathroom Raven had been wearing a short-sleeved circular skirt dress with rose floral print over black fabric, the collar and inch-wide trim on the sleeves was black as well, no belt. In that moment she was wearing pretty much the same dress, except with no collar, no trim and sleeves that almost reached her elbows. I also suspected her hair might be an inch or so shorter than it had been, but with her thick blonde curls I couldn't be quite sure.

As discreetly as I could I approached her, pretending to be busy laughing at some joke one of the other gals had just old (Jenna? Jemma?) taking a sip of my drink as I got close enough to whisper in her ear:

"Raven, I think you need to fix your clothes." I told her quietly. "While most people here are quite drunk, some still remain sober enough they might notice sooner or later, and I really don't think that would be a good thing."

Blue eyes, that shifted into liquid gold for a fraction of a second, stared straight at me briefly. I could see the shock, the slight fear.

"I don't mean you any harm," I tried to reassure her. "I don't know what it is you can do, or how you do it. But unless you can explain how you lost your collar and your dress's sleeves got longer in the last ten minutes, you should really hurry before someone else notices."

There was a slight blue-tinted shimmer and in a second she was back to how she'd looked before going to the bathroom.

"Perfect." I nodded at her.

I looked away from her, only to find Charles suddenly standing right there; and while I was sure that he'd been on the way to a drunken stupor just five minutes earlier, right then he looked perfectly sober, and even a bit somber. I also didn't miss the moment he got into my head.

"Stop doing that." I hissed quietly at him, mentally pushing him out.

"So I was right." He sounded half-nervous, half-awed. "You do know when I read your mind. And you just pushed me out, how did you do that anyway?"

"Don't you know that a mind is private?" I chastised him, ignoring his questions altogether. "I mean, I understand you reading surface thoughts. It's part of your nature, part of who you are, you not reading them would be like asking someone to blindfold themselves, or block their ears and go around like that. But it's a whole different thing for you to pick up on whatever I happen to be thinking about in that moment, and to try and delve deeper, into my secret thoughts, my memories. That is a violation of privacy I will not allow."

Charles didn't say a word, just stared at me, and I couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking right then. The look he was giving me was so odd!

"Charlie!" Another young man called, throwing his arm around Charles shoulder. "Where did you go man! I had money on you winning that contest, and then you just walked away! And Kit won! Kit of all people! It's absolutely ridiculous..."

"I'm sorry Greg, I think the alcohol affected me more than I thought it would... I came over here to tell my sister I was leaving." Charles made up immediately.

"Oh man!" Greg cried out, he was evidently drunk himself. "But the night's still young..."

"Yes, and I'm sure you'll have as a great a time without me, as you will with me." Charles said dismissively. "I gotta go."

I wonder if he really didn't notice. The fact that most of the girls that had been circling their table all night had been there because of Charles, not Greg... then again, maybe he did know.

"I'm leaving too." Raven announced. "I think I have a headache..."

The looks both she and Charles were directing my way told me our little conversation wasn't over just yet, so I decided to take the opening they'd given me.

"If you give me a second I can call Luke and we'll go with you." I offered. "Charles has drunk quite enough tonight, and with Raven's headache it might not be a good idea for the two of you to go on your own."

"Of course..." Raven began.

"I'm right here." Luke announced, offering me my jacket even as he finished putting his on.

We left the uni-bar together. Not a word was said until we reached our building (because, as it happened, we lived in the same building; our flat was on the second floor, while theirs was on the top one), a few blocks from Oxford.

"Lets talk then." Raven announced the moment we were in their flat.

I didn't say anything at first, neither did Luke, we just sat in the Xavier's living room, waiting for their opening:

"You know what I can do... what we can do." Charles said eventually.

"Yes." I didn't bother trying to deny it.

"How do you know?" Raven asked.

"How long?" Charles inquired at the same time.

"I have good observational skills." I answered Raven first (and I had to admit, if only to myself, that it'd been a huge shock to realize who exactly Raven Xavier would become in the future: the lieutenant of the Brotherhood of Mutants: Mystique), then turned to Charles. "With Raven it took several outings, but it was there. Details in her attire would change through the evening, most of the time they were minor, unnoticeable to anyone else: things like a slightly darker or lighter shade in color, slightly longer or shorter skirts and sleeves, same with her hair, or the colors of her makeup. Like I said before, nothing extraordinary, but it was there, I have a good eye. As for you," I fixed my eyes on him. "I've had an idea of what you can do from the first time we met. From the very first time you tried to get into my head."

"How do you do that?" He wanted to know. "How do you feel me?"

"Who knows?" Even in the future we'd never known. "I guess I just have a very good awareness of myself."

"I've been curious for months!" He admitted. "I could never get past your walls, I can never see into the shadows of Luke's mind and Rose..."

"You tried to read our daughter's mind?!" It was the first time Luke had spoken since our arrival, but he really didn't like that.

"Well, surface thoughts and the like... I can't really help that part, unless I try really hard and..." Charles began babbling.

"And that's hard for you." I finished for him. "It probably hurts you even, trying to hold yourself back, going against your nature..."

"It's discomfiting." Was all he was willing to admit.

By the expression in Raven's face I could tell she hadn't known that. I chose not to focus on that.

"What about Rosie's mind?" I insisted.

"Chaos." He seemed like he'd tried to find a better word, and in the end he couldn't. "Even her surface thoughts. I don't know if it's because she's thinking many things at the same time, if it's some kind of natural shielding, perhaps part of her power... It's not like there's nothing there, there is, a lot, so much that it's absolutely chaotic... I have a feeling that no one but she truly understands what goes on in her head at any given time."

I couldn't help it, I began giggling. We probably should have expected something like that from the daughter of Loki... a child of chaos indeed.

"So, you know about what we can do, what we are..." Raven seemed to want to clarify things. "What can you do?"

Luke and I turned to look at each other, we didn't need to say a word, not even inside our bond, before deciding what we'd say:

"Not much." I spoke first, looking straight at her. "I know you're nervous. You want to be excited, but there's a part of you that's insecure, possibly even afraid of what we might do..."

"You're an empath..." Charles was the first to realize what it all meant. "How long since you first manifested, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Couldn't tell you." I shrugged. "Almost my whole life I've been able to tell how others feel. At first it was general, and there might have been times when I was wrong, but I kept getting better. I didn't actually realize there was anything extraordinary about what I was doing until much, much later. I've known about the existence of the... supernatural, so-to-speak, since I was eleven, though I suspected even before that. It was until I met Luke that I realized the truth though; both about myself and him."

I was taking liberties, of course, keeping a lot of our story secret, but I had no intention of explaining it all to him, to either of them, our true origins. The last thing we needed was to end up involved in the kind of messes the X-Men would be... it would be too risky, especially as time passed and we got closer to our time, to our past-selves.

"Just how old are you?" Raven blurted out unexpectedly.

I couldn't help myself, I laughed.

"Older than I look." I told her eventually. "I won't tell you my exact age, it's not important. I will tell you this, though, Rose isn't my only child, nor my eldest."

Again, there was no reason to explain the details. They might meet Hakon one day, and they'd then believe him to be my eldest; he called me mama, and looked enough like Luke... and it was unlikely they'd be meeting Helena any time soon. So that would have to be enough.

"And you?" Charles chose to focus his attention on my husband next.

My love didn't answer him, not verbally, Instead he waved a hand at the bottle of beer in Raven's hand, it went cold instantly, and some frost appeared near the top of the liquid.

"Hope you don't mind your beer a bit chilled." He said for all explanation.

Raven didn't wait, she took a swig of it, letting out a satisfied breath afterwards.

"Awesome." She announced.

"You control the cold." Charles muttered, seemingly trying and failing to find a single word to describe the power, like he'd done with me.

"Much like cryokinesis, yes." Luke gave him the word he was looking for.

"And Rose?" Raven was really intrigued by that point.

"Who knows?" I answered honestly. "She hasn't manifested yet."

"With both of you being gifted I have no doubt her own will be magnificent." Charles offered.

"Even if she turned out to be perfectly normal, we wouldn't care." I said honestly. "Rose is our daughter, and we'll love her no matter what."

Raven looked at me with the oddest expression, as if she were trying to make up her mind between challenging that statement, and asking me something. And then... she rippled, much like when she'd fixed her dress in the bar, except on a much bigger scale. The dress disappeared completely, all her clothes did, her hair, and even her pink unblemished skin, leaving behind blue, somewhat scaly skin, shoulder-length straight red hair and golden eyes.

"Wow..." I breathed out, unable to help myself. "You look amazing."

"You really believe that?" She whispered.

In that moment I wasn't hearing the strong-headed, sassy young woman I'd known for over two months... but instead a scared little-girl. I couldn't help it, my mothering instincts were just too strong; before I realized what was going on I'd moved to her couch and was holding her tightly in my arms.

"You're beautiful Raven..." I whispered into her hair. "Beautiful and exotic, like the fae of old..."

Luke and Charles didn't say a word, they just sat there, in silence, letting us have our moment.

And so began a friendship that would last for decades... even if we didn't know it then. It was also a friendship that would leave none of us unchanged...

xXx

In Summer of 1954, we as a family decided to spend our school-break traveling through Eastern Europe. We'd visited over half the countries in Western Europe before and were looking for something new; and while there was still war in some of those countries, we didn't think it'd be too hard to avoid trouble (were we wrong!). In early July we were staying in a rented cottage in Istanbul, enjoying the new and exotic sights all around us. Rose seemed particularly excited by the newness of everything.

Three days after first arriving to the cottage, we were woken in the middle of the night by a shrill scream. We didn't think about it, in seconds Luke and I had thrown the first clothes we found on and had practically teleported from our bedroom to our daughter's, for she was the one screaming. There was an odd illumination in the room, a number of candles had been lighted up at some point and were casting an eerie glow around the room, and particularly on our little girl.

"Rosie?" I called, sitting on the bed beside her and extending my arms to her.

In an instant she had thrown herself into my arms, face buried into my chest, I could feel her tears on my skin; but more than that, I could feel her pain, her sadness, and something more I couldn't quite name...

"Sweetheart?" I called very softly. "Are you alright?"

For the longest time Rose did nothing except cry, and every sob, every hiccup was like a stab into my heart. How could my little girl be suffering so and me unable to help her? I didn't even know what was going on!

"We have to save her!" She cried out eventually. "We have to save her, or she's gonna die!"

"Who's gonna die?" Hakon, standing on the door, bleary eyed, asked abruptly. "Little sis..."

"Willow!" Rose cried out.

"Who's Willow?" Hakon asked next, approaching the opposite side of the bed slowly.

"She's my little sister... but she doesn't know it yet." Rose answered quietly.

For a moment I felt lost. I wasn't pregnant, I was quite sure of that. I also knew, instinctively, that it was unlikely I'd ever again have a child of my own flesh and blood, not after Rose. Her birth had been hard on me, and after the damage the Cancer had caused (even if I'd technically died and come back to life, some of that damage had remained, like a stain on my soul)... the doctors had warned me of the unlikelihood of it happening, and while most of the time I wasn't one for believing everything doctors told me (they also told me I'd die when I was fourteen... it's hard to believe everything when you have a god on your side...), deep down I knew that, at least on that particular instance, they were right. At the same time, hadn't I always said that Hakon was my son and would always be, regardless of who might have given birth to him.

"Where can we find Willow?" I asked her softly. "And how can we save her?"

"Her name's not Willow yet..." Rose murmured, she seemed a bit thoughtful before adding. "Her papa calls her chikni..."

Everyone turned to look at me instantly. Knowing I was the one to know the most languages (while my love knew many old ones, he hadn't visited Midgard much in recent centuries; and even after he began visiting again, his interest hadn't laid in learning new languages).

"That's Romany." I told them. "I remember some of the prisoners we rescued during the war speaking the language, it's what the gypsies speak. I think that word means: daughter..."

I hadn't actually learnt much Romany beyond the basics, there simply hadn't been any time, the same had happened with Yiddish. I'd learnt enough from the people around me to be able to help them some, but not much more.

"So, we're supposed to rescue a girl?" Hakon tried to put the pieces together. "A girl who has a father too. From who or what exactly?"

"Fire!" Rose cried out abruptly.

I wasn't sure if I imagined it, but for a second the candles around the room seemed to burn brighter and even hotter.

"We need to save her Mama!" She cried out to me. "We need to save Willow! She'll burn!"

I couldn't process it, I really couldn't, the idea of a child burning to death... it's not like I didn't know such things had happened before, and probably would again, but still. How could I possibly learn of it and not do something to stop it from happening.

"We need to go!" Rose seemed to be getting hysterical again. "We need to go now! Mama! Papa! Hakon! We need to save Willow!"

Before we could stop her she was rushing to her closet, looking for clothes. The rest of us went to leave the bedroom, trying to make up our minds.

"Are we actually believing all this?" Hakon asked us bluntly.

"Sounds insane... but it's not actually impossible." I pointed out.

"So you think she's... what? A seer?" Hakon obviously had a hard time grasping the idea.

"It's quite possible." I nodded. "Lady Frigg is one... and Naneth was as well... my mother in my other life, I mean." I let out a breath. "We all know that Rose ha inherited Ljósálfar traits, more than even I possess right now. Why not the Sight as well?"

"But she's just five!" Hakon tried to insist.

"I've been feeling other people's emotions for as long as I can remember." I pointed out. "I may not have always known what it meant, or that not everyone could do it, but it was there."

"So... we're going to go out, drive who-knows-where and hope we find this Willow before something happens to her?" Hakon inquired.

Not something, Rose had been quite specific, she'd seen a fire... still, I could see why my son would rather not think about that part.

"That's exactly what we're going to do." My love agreed.

In a matter of minutes we were all dressed and climbing into the car. I'd taken a moment to pack some food for the road. We'd no way of knowing how far we might have to drive, how long it might take us to get there. All we had to go on was Rose's dream and her sense of urgency (and our own, a child's life was in danger, we needed to get there in time...), that would have to be enough. We'd no idea what was yet to come.

xXx

Luke drove, following our daughter's instructions. She didn't say much, only telling him to take a turn here or there whenever it was necessary. We'd no idea where we were going, yet we both trusted our daughter enough to believe that she'd get us to where we needed to be. We drove through the northern side of Turkey, Eastern Bulgaria, Romania and the South area of Moldova, before eventually getting to South Ukraine, just past a town called Odessa. We'd been driving for almost seventeen hours (just stopping briefly for bathroom breaks and to buy some food and gas a couple of times), when I sensed a change.

"Daro (Stop)!" The word was out of my mind before I could even think about it; I didn't even notice at first that I hadn't spoken in English, but in elvish.

"What is it?" Luke asked, immediately staring at me, he knew that my instinctive choice of language was important, somehow.

"I don't think it's a good idea to continue by car." I wasn't quite sure how I knew that, I just did. "There is a great power touching the earth beneath us... it might be safer for us all to continue on foot for now."

I knew that was nowhere near a proper explanation, but it was the best I had for the time being. Even I didn't know what power I was feeling exactly, only that it was reaching deep into the earth and it had the potential for being extraordinarily dangerous (it also reminded me of Charles, for some reason I couldn't comprehend...).

The moment we were all out of the car, Rose began running, a single word leaving her lips as she went, the only explanation:

"Phey!" Sister... she was calling someone sister, possibly the girl Willow...

We didn't stop to think about it, the rest of us ran after her. It was absolutely insane. I knew that any normal parent would have been calling for their daughter to stop running, to go back to them, would chastise them for trying to go on their own, tell them never to do it again... but we weren't normal parents, and neither was Rose a normal child. So we didn't try to stop her, we just ran after her as fast as we could.

I realized then just how much Rose had inherited of the Ljósálfar, her body might be on the small side, like mine, but she wasn't as dense as humans, she was lithe, agile, and very, very fast (just looking at her brought very old memories to the forefront of my mind, of myself, running through the forests in Alfheim, fleeing from the palace and straight to my sanctuary).

We'd almost reached the end of the forested area, when Hakon and I picked up on something almost at the same time.

"Hey," He was the first to speak up. "Does anyone else smell smoke?"

"There's something burning up ahead." Luke nodded grimly.

As if that were some kind of cue, Rose seemed to find strength inside her, enough to go even faster than before. She crossed the tree-line several feet ahead of us, and there, just a few more yards away, we could all see black smoke coming from a building.

"That looks like a hostel..." Hakon commented, trying to sound casual, yet failing.

We all suspected what that meant, and it was nothing good.

I was the last to cross the tree-line, and the moment I did I almost collapsed at the rush of dark feelings that hit me: fear, anger, hate, terror, horror, fury, loathing... they were all there, like a dark blend that threatened to drown me. And it would have, if I hadn't suddenly felt my match's presence right there with me. He managed to ground me just in time, and I used our bond to pull myself back to reality.

By the time we reached Hakon on the street just behind the hostel things seemed to be completely out of control. There was shouting in a mix of Russian and another language I did not know (I guessed it must be Ukrainian). Windows shattered on the top floor of the hostel and pieces of glass rained down. I could distinguish a female voice screaming... not in any of the other two language... no, she was speaking in Romany, a rush of words I couldn't fully pick out, but I instinctively knew she was calling to someone inside the building... might she be the girl's mother? And as that question entered my mind, I became aware of something else.

"Rose!" I cried out. "Where is Rose?!"

What kind of mother was I, that I completely missed the fact that my daughter wasn't standing right there, as she should be.

"Inside." Hakon answered grimly. "I tried to follow..."

He didn't finish the sentence, but he didn't need to either, both his father and I could see the burns on his arm. Being jotun, or at least half one, things like heat and fire affected it more than it did most people. It was likely that just the hot air, the smoke had bother him a lot... and yet he'd still tried to go after Rose.

"Mama..." He called me right then. "I know this might not seem like enough but... the fire didn't hurt her..." He let out a breath. "I saw Rose go into the hostel, saw her step into the fire, and it did not affect her; I can almost believe it didn't actually touch her."

An image flashed in the back of my head, put there not by myself, but by my love: the candles in Rose's bedroom in cottage, earlier that same day... and the knowledge that none of us had lighted them at any point...

Before anything else could be said, the backdoor into the hostel slammed open and two figures stepped out. It was Rose, in her off-white shirt and kaki pants; and she was holding a pale, red-haired, brown-eyed girl in a pale-yellow worn-out dress, about her same age. The redheaded girl's clothes look a little singed, same as a side of her hair.

"Oh Rosie!" I cried out, rushing to her.

"Mama!" Rose called. "Help Willow please! She's hurt!"

She was indeed, as we soon found out. The little girl: Willow, had burns on the left side of her face, near her ear and hairline, and a more serious one down her neck and reaching to her shoulder, where the sleeve of her dress seemed to have been almost completely burnt. I couldn't even imagine what that meant; what would have happened to the little girl if my beautiful, brave Rose hadn't gone inside. I'd also noticed the same thing Hakon had mentioned, as the two girls stepped out of the burning hostel (the flames having finally reached the ground-floor), fire was all around them, but it didn't quite touch either of them. That also brought yet another memory to me, of the visions I'd had the night before giving birth to Rose: the two girls holding hands, surrounded by scarlet flames...

I pushed all that aside instantly as I dropped to my knees beside them. The burns looked bad and I couldn't believe how Willow wasn't crying; there were tears in her eyes, but not a single sound escaped her, and then I saw how tightly she was holding onto Rose. Somehow she was drawing strength from my daughter...

Slowly, very carefully, so as not to hurt her further, I raised a hand to Willow's face; she flinched very slightly, but Rose whispered something to her in broken Romany (my daughter had been pouring over a dictionary that we'd bought on the way there, memorizing words and phrases she thought, or perhaps knew, she would need). Willow settled then, allowing me to touch the very tips of my fingers very slightly to her burns. Healing magic came easy to me, always had, from the very first time I'd used it (in both lives) back when I hadn't known such a use of magic was possible (and neither had I known it wasn't supposed to be possible, which was probably the most important part).

I did my best to undo the hurt, and the damage, and yet there was too much of it, and as Eir (Goddess of Healing) had explained to me once, there's only so much physical trauma we can heal before the body resents it; it might even go into shock if we cross that line. So I knew there would be scars left, which Willow would have to bear for the rest of her life... at least she was alive, and no longer in pain, that had to count for something right?

I was about to say something else, when we all felt it. The power that had been simmering until then lashed out. It was as if something in the world snapped. I could practically feel the power, like the echo of an explosion, coming our way.

*Get us out of here!* I mind-screamed at my beloved.

In an instant he had a hand on me and Rose, while we were both holding onto Willow, Hakon had barely touched his father, and then we were all gone.

We reappeared right beside the car, right on time to watch flocks of birds fly away in a hurry, as if fleeing from something. The very earth seemed to shift beneath our feet.

"That was no earthquake." Hakon commented, letting go.

"No, it wasn't." I agreed, what I didn't say was: It was much, much worse.

I had no idea what had just happened, none of us did, we just knew it was bad.

We drove to Odessa, it was all we could do for the time being. Willow was still with us, the little girl was traumatized and wouldn't speak to anyone except Rose; we also had no idea what had happened in that little town exactly, what had become of her parents? Why had she been in that hostel when it caught on fire? And why had no one else gone inside to get her? People had been outside, a woman had been calling, probably for her, so why hadn't anyone else rescued her? It was obvious we were missing something, probably something huge, but we had no idea what.

That evening, after the girls had settled, sharing a bed in the little suite we were all sharing (after the events earlier on the day we didn't want to be apart), Hakon and Luke decided to go back to the little town, see if they could find Willow's family, maybe even discover what had happened. The news they brought upon their return were worse than anything I could have been expecting:

"The whole town was leveled." Hakon informed me. "There was nothing but rubble and vague foundations left anywhere. Some kind of power just... destroyed everything."

"And the people?" I dared ask, though I knew already the answer wouldn't be anything good.

"Dead." Luke nodded grimly. "Everyone's dead, their bodies strewn over the town, some had their throats slashed, or their heads bludgeoned... others were worse than that..."

"I'm so glad you didn't see that mama..." Hakon offered. "It was awful."

What he didn't know was that I'd probably end up seeing it, sooner or later, in my husband's memories; that, and I had seen many things, some that bad, some even worse, during the war.

"And Willow?" I asked next.

"We could find anything." Luke admitted. "Whoever she might be, whoever her parents might be... we don't know. They might have escaped the disaster, or they might have died..."

Or they might have been the ones to cause all the horror... We both knew that was as much a possibility as the other two.

"What do we do now?" Hakon wanted to know.

"That will be up to Willow..." I offered.

Luke nodded, I knew he agreed wholeheartedly; if she wanted to, a new member would be joining our family.

xXx

The next morning we took the ferry back to Istanbul. We would be making about the same time it'd taken us to get to Odessa, but at least we wouldn't have to drive the whole time. We boarded that ferry, all five of us: Hakon, Luke, myself, Rose and the newly renamed Willow Anya Serrure. According to what she'd told us earlier that day, her birth-name was Anya, she'd lived in the hostel with her dai (mama), who washed and sew clothes, and her (dadro) papa, who worked in a mine. She didn't know who'd started the fire, or why; apparently her mother had been the one screaming, trying to get inside, but people wouldn't let her for some reason. Her father had been screaming too, fighting the people around him. Anya had no idea what the fight had been about exactly. She also told us something about a 'magic-trick' her dad could do, but she didn't seem to be able to find the right words to explain it (the fact that only Rose and I knew any Romany, and it was very limited, made things harder too).

In the end she agreed on joining our family, though only after we promised that we'd help her find out what had happened to her parents, and that she'd be allowed to meet with them if we ever did find them alive; I just hoped she wouldn't be abandoning us eventually if/when that happened. The fact that Rose kept calling her sister, and so sure of it too, told me that Anya... Willow, would be part of our family for many years to come... possibly for the rest of our lives.

We were back in our cottage by the evening. We'd made a list, of the things we'd have to do, mainly the fact that we needed to go shopping for everything Willow would be needing... and we needed to find someone who might help us get her papers (magic could only do so much). We were also planning on returning to London sooner rather than later, so she might have time to settle into her new life before the new school-year began (good thing I was still planning on home-schooling them both). A part of me wondered what some of our friends might have to say about the new member of our family...

"Mama, mama!" Rose called as we put them to bed (Anya in a nightgown Rose lent her), once again both in the same bed. "Sing us a song, please...?"

I rolled my eyes good-naturedly, Rose knew I could hardly ever tell her no. So, with that, I got comfortable on the side of the bed, placing my hands over them, as I closed my eyes and began singing, quietly, allowing a Celtic accent to change my voice just slightly:

"Rest tired eyes a while
Sweet is thy baby's smile
Angels are guarding and they watch o'er thee"

"Sleep, sleep, grah mo chree *
Here on you mamma's knee
Angels are guarding
And they watch o'er thee."

As I sang the old cradle song to my little girls (and I still could hardly believe it, I had a new daughter, a new baby girl...), I couldn't help but call upon some of the oldest memories I had of my current life, vague memories of my own mother: Aislinn Caoimhe Kinross-Salani, singing that very song to me as I lay in her arms, or my crib. It'd been her favorite song, one her own mother had sung to her during her infancy, back for more generations than I could probably count. It was an important part of our Irish heritage (hence the endearments and the accent).

"The birdeens sing a fluting song
They sing to thee the whole day long
Wee fairies dance o'er hill and dale
For very love of thee"

"Dream, dream, grah mo chree
Here on your Mamma's knee
Angels are guarding and they watch o'er thee
As you sleep may Angels watch over
And may they guard o'er thee."

I didn't need to turn around to know my match and my son were both standing at the door, watching the scene, listening to me sing. My Maverick had always loved listening to my songs, and I knew the whole thing probably brought memories to Hakon as well; after all, I'd sung that song for him too, during the first years after he'd joined our family (and until the day he decided he was a 'big boy' and didn't need his mama to tuck him in bed anymore... though he still got advantage of every opportunity he had to hear me sing, or even just play an instrument for him).

"The primrose in the sheltered nook
The crystal stream the babbling brook
All these things God's hands have made
For very love of thee"

"Twilight and shadows fall
Peace to His children all
Angels are guarding and they watch o'er thee
As you sleep
May Angels watch over and May the guard o'er thee."

Rose and Willow were deeply asleep by the time the song reached its end. I smiled before placing feather-light kisses on their brows. The two men in my life followed before we all left the girls' room to go back to our own. Even then I knew, without a doubt, that we'd all be getting up during the night (possibly more than once) to go look in on them, make sure they were alright. Those were our little girls, and we'd always do our best to look after them, protect them, love them...

Chapter Text

In Dreams

No one we love truly dies, as long as we keep them in our hearts.

Charles and Raven arrived to our flat just a few hours after we did; carrying several bags of groceries, having guessed that we wouldn't have anything in (since we hadn't planned on returning before mid-August at the earliest). Raven was the first to see Willow and Rose sitting in the living room, working on a colorful wooden puzzle together.

"Alright," She called. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but six weeks ago you only had one daughter."

"Actually, Rose is our second daughter." I revealed with a shrug. "Helena is grown, much like Hakon is, and making her own life."

They'd met Hakon, of course, and while the fact that we had a son in his late-teens had certainly shocked them, neither of them had asked our ages again.

"But you're right." I went on. "Willow wasn't part of our family before we left London."

"We found her in Ukraine." My love explained to them quietly. "Rose saw her dying in a fire... we barely got there in time to save her."

"More like Rose saved her." Hakon corrected half-absently. "Actually went into the burning hostel and got her out..."

"Saw..." Charles was saying, and then did a double-take. "Fire?!"

"Wait," she looked at Luke and Hakon. "So the two of you are ice and the little one's fire. How does that even work?"

We all shrugged. We honestly had no idea. It shouldn't have been possible, for the very reasons Raven had just implied: fire and ice were complete opposites. That didn't change what was though, we'd all see the fire surrounding Rose, yet never hurting her.

"She's pyrokinetic... and a Seer?" Charles asked next.

"It would seem like it." I nodded. "It's impossible to know how strong her powers will be, she just manifested after all... but something tells me this is just the beginning."

"Are you a seer?" Raven inquired, interested.

"Not at all." I told her honestly. "It's just an instinct."

"What about her family?" Charles inquired, looking at Willow.

"We don't know." I admitted.

"We had to get out of the town fast, and by the time we could go back the whole place had been razed to the ground, everyone was dead." Hakon informed them quietly. "We have no way of knowing if her parents were among the dead, if they survived and got away... nothing at all. We don't even know why no one tried to save her; her parents were there, outside, she remembers that much; they were fighting against others..."

"You think they were prevented from going in?" Raven asked, horrified. "From saving their daughter? But why?"

"We have no way of knowing anything." Luke said. "We already told you, Rose saw the fire and decided we had to save her. By the time we got her it was almost too late. We heard arguing in Russian and Ukrainian, and then Rose got Willow out and we had to leave..."

"I only caught snippets of the argument." I whispered. "I don't know Ukrainian, only Russian... it wasn't good. There were accusations being thrown around, about monsters, a demon, death, and some other word I do not know the meaning of: доктор. I have no idea what it means..."

"Languages aren't my thing..." Charles began.

"Monster... demon..." Raven repeated very softly. "Do you think they might have been talking about a mutant?"

"Willow doesn't have any powers." I said without a doubt. "We'd have noticed..."

"No, not her... but maybe one of her parents." Raven insisted. "Maybe the townspeople saw one of them do something and that made them turned against the family, made them believe they should die... that would explain why none of them were in any hurry to save the child. They might have even been planning on killing the parents."

"But if that's true, does that mean that the parents are among the dead...?" Hakon began.

"Or whoever of them was the mutant killed them all." Luke finished for him.

I had no words to offer to that, not sure which possibility was worse. And really, if Willow's parents were dead, we'd done right in taking her in; but if they, or at least one of them, was alive, were we protecting them from a possibly murderous individual... or were we doing a disservice to both parent and child by keeping them separated? It's not like we could actually do anything to change that, we still had no idea where the parents, or parent might be, how to even begin to try and find them...

*We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, my Nightingale.* My match said softly in our bond. *Until then, our focus must be on our little girls.*

He was right, of course, and I promised myself that they'd always be my priority. Always.

xXx

Two years later, at age twenty, my son graduated from Oxford, first of his class, as a Lawyer. Two months later he joined the army as a specialist. On the same year I began working on my MBA, as well as aiming to certify myself in two more languages: Romanian and Yiddish (the ones I strove to learn so my youngest child wouldn't lose that part of her past). Raven had said it was ridiculous, I was already certified in twelve languages, wasn't I getting tired of learning more? Truth was, I wasn't, I loved learning languages, and I was good at it, had always been (even in my past life, when I'd known sindarin (elvish), khuzdul (dwarvish), the Ancient Tongue (which was close to Ancient Norse), Old English, Ancient Egyptian and an old form of Arabic.

At some point, Charles had offered to go into Willow's memories, so we might all know what her parents looked like. I actually thought about it, but in the end we refused. It wasn't easy, but we decided it was for the best. We knew that eventually Willow's memories would become fainter, they were already loosing their potency; there was a chance that a day would come when she wouldn't be able to remember what her parents looked like, exactly. But she'd always remember the best of them. Just like I'd always remember that my mom had the same eyes as me (or I had her eyes, however one wished to look at it), and her voice singing that Ballyeamon Cradle Song when I was very young...

She had nightmares sometimes, mostly about the fire, about her parents calling to her, unable to get to her, about Rose not getting to her in time... most of those times Rose herself was enough comfort, waking her up, reminding her she'd gotten there in time, that the two were together, sisters, as it was meant to be.

She'd a particularly bad nightmare the night after Hakon left for basic. Bad enough that Rose went to get me so I could help (Rosie had managed to convince us, over a year before, that she could handle her sister's nightmares, so while most of the times we did wake up, we didn't interfere unless we really had to).

"Mama..." The seven-year-old whispered very softly. "Willow had a really bad dream... and I cannot help her..."

I reacted instantly, slipping off the bed and pulling a robe over my sleeping clothes (it probably wasn't necessary, I wasn't going anywhere except my daughters' bedroom, but still, it was habit). Little had changed in the room even after Willow had joined our family. While the flat was a decent size, it only had three bedrooms, and we hadn't been able to fit an additional bed anywhere at all. The girls hadn't minded. Willow apparently was used to sharing a bed with someone else, mostly her mother (and we hadn't been too sure about bunk-beds, as it'd have been hazardous, if one of them happened to fall off the top bed. So in the end we'd simply changed the twinbed for a full, just the right size to still fit inside the room, and for the two girls to be able to sleep in. It was an arrangement that wouldn't last forever, but for the time being it was good enough.

Actually just before leaving Hakon had made a joke about Willow taking over his bedroom in his absence, which the chocolate-eyed girl had denied emphatically.

"Mama..." She called, in still somewhat accented English.

"What is it my little sprite?" I asked softly as I sat on the edge of the bed.

Rose had immediately rushed around the bed to cuddle into her other side. Hakon had first called Rose a nymph when she was still an infant, due to her apparent fascination with flowers and trees; when Willow had first heard him call her that, she'd wanted to know what she was. My son had known that was important, a moment of bonding, he also believed it to be only right for the two girls to have related nicknames, and so Willow became a sprite...

"You're never gonna leave me, are ya mama?" She asked with a slight hiccup.

"What...?" I had trouble understanding that. "Of course not! Why would I ever leave you, darling. I love you and your sister so much, I could never leave you..."

"Dai (mom) loved me too, and dadro (dad), and they left me..." She pointed out quietly.

"That was beyond their power my dear." I did my best to reassure her. "I promise you, if it had been their choice they'd have never left you..."

"What if one day it's not your choice?" She insisted. "I don't want anyone to take you away mama? I love you! And sisi, and papa, and big-bro..."

"Just like we all love you, my sprite." I kissed her brow, caressing Rose's arm next. "Just like we all love you and your sister both. You must know that we'll always do our best to stay with you." I wished I could promise nothing would ever happen to me, but I knew better than to make promises that might not be in my power to keep. "However, if the day does come when we're forced to separate... that doesn't mean we don't love you, or that we don't want to be with you. The people we love... they never really leave us. They're always with us..." I touched her temple. "here," then her heart. "and here. Whatever the future might bring. Whether we're together physically or not, as long as we keep each other in our minds and hearts, we will always be together. Forever..."

"Do you promise mama?" She asked me, very softly.

"I promise you, baby." I embraced her tightly. "I will always love you."

I was quite sure that what I'd told her probably wasn't really what she wanted to hear; but I wanted her to trust me, to trust I wouldn't lie to her. That was important. So I did my best to comfort her, without making impossible promises. Hopefully nothing would happen that might pull us apart any time soon...

"How about a song?" I offered quietly.

"Yes mama!" Both said at the same time.

I settled a bit more comfortably then, a hand on each of my girls as I sang the first thing that came to mind; the song wasn't quite finished, not even in my own head, but it was good enough:

"When the cold of winter comes,
Starless night will cover day
In the veiling of the sun,
We will walk in bitter rain."

"But in dreams,
I can hear your name.
And in dreams,
We will meet again."

"When the seas and mountains fall
And we come to end of days,
In the dark I hear a call
Calling me there
I will go there
And back again."

xXx

In 1959 Rose and Willow turned ten, Hakon was 23 and had been Sergeant for a little over a year (according to what we'd been told by some contacts in the military he was good and on the fast track, earning promotions as fast as they could be granted). We were all there the day Charles received his first doctorate (he was aiming for one, maybe two more... Raven thought he was insane); Raven herself had finished all the classes she attended, eventually earning a BA in Literature. I had my MBA in Linguistics and had been teaching languages at Oxford for a year, but then things changed:

The SSR offices in New York wanted Sia to transfer there, had been asking for it for years apparently; and since hardly anything happened in England, it was finally happening. Also, Howard had phoned to invite us to his wedding.

It was supposed to be just a thing of a summer, but in no time at all Luke was spending hours with Howard in his workshop, creating new things, while Sia went on missions with Marge Sholto (nee Carter). Anna Jarvis, Edwin Jarvis's wife (he was Howard's butler, and she his housekeeper) just loved the girls and would play dolls and tea-parties whenever they asked. I could see she felt alone.

It was Marge who told me about the mission they'd been involved in where Anna had been shot, her unborn child had died, but worst of all, the bullet had caused such damage to her, the doctors had said she would never have any children. I actually decided to throw caution to the wind and offered to heal her womb, but she refused. Anna was a woman of faith, the kind who believed that everything, both good and bad happened for a reason, that it was the will of God. Therefore, if she couldn't have children, that's how it was meant to be, and we shouldn't mess about with God's plans... while a woman of faith myself, I just couldn't understand her thought-process. What I could do was a gift, and it was meant to help... still, I did not insist, let her hold onto her choice and her faith.

In any case, what began as a summer soon turned into six months, then a year, and by the time we noticed we'd fully settled in New York once again. I gave a few guest lectures in a number of universities in the states, and became well-known as a private tutor for languages. We phoned Charles and Raven every so often, first to apologize for not going back, later on to try and keep in touch; though even that began failing, ever so slowly. Between all the classes Charles had to take in order to finish his degrees, and Raven's unexpected rebellious phase, we'd pretty much lost contact with them by 61.

There are days when I wonder if it was our fault. If maybe living in the past, knowing how long our lives would be, how many people we'd have to lose before the end had made us colder than necessary; had made it so we didn't try as hard to keep friends. Maybe things would have turned out differently if we had... then again, maybe they turned out exactly as they were supposed to.

xXx

The next time we saw Charles Xavier was late summer of 62 and we were spending our summer break in a penthouse Howard had bought just the year before, of a newly built apartment complex. He was on California, overseeing the expansion of Stark Industries, while Sia was... off somewhere in South US on a top-secret mission. Hakon was still in the army, Sergeant First Class, he'd told us in one of his latest letters. The girls had recently turned thirteen and while most still thought of them as twins, the changes between then became more and more obvious as time passed; and it wasn't Rose's darkening red, compared to Willow's still bright shade, or the fact that while both had eyes like melted chocolate most of the time, Rose's would shift into a mix of red, orange and black whenever she used her powers (her visions were still sparse, and mostly came to her in dreams, but with fire, it'd gone beyond it not burning her, she could control it... and I had a feeling she'd eventually be able to conjure it too). It wasn't even the fact that Rose was gifted, while Willow was clearly human, simply the fact that they were different, meant for different things in the world, and even young as they were, they both knew it.

The meeting actually took place by the lake shore. The girls had insisted on going and were having fun playing in the sand and getting their feet wet (though they both knew better than going into the lake without an adult accompanying them). I sensed a familiar presence, though couldn't quite identify it, and then a man approached my daughters...

My reaction was instinctive, in seconds I was standing beside the girls, using a hand to hold my wide-brimmed summer hat in place, while in the other I held my sandals (I too was barefoot).

"Excuse me," I called to him. "Who are you? Do you not know it's bad manners to approach children without an adult present?"

He arched a brow in my direction and I could almost guess he was about to say something I wasn't going to like when...

"Please forgive my colleague." I heard, in a posh tone of voice and British accent I knew quite well. "We mean no disrespect ma'am. This is Erik Lehnsherr and I am..."

"Charles Xavier..." I finished for him as I spun around to face him. "Charles is that you?"

"You two know each other?" The one called Erik asked, eyes narrowed.

"Oh, my friend." Charles said in a tone that I knew hid a lot he wasn't saying, not aloud, and possibly not even in his mind. "This is a very good friend of mine, Arianna Serrure, we knew each other a few years ago, in Oxford. Ari, like I said before, this is Erik Lehnsherr." He made a pause before taking a look at the girls. "I should have known, when I saw through Cerebro what she can do... I should have realized it was your daughter."

"You've known what she can do since she first manifested." I agreed. "So how come you didn't know it was us?"

"I didn't see you." He told me honestly. "There's this installation, called Cerebro. It helps amplify my powers, allows me to find other mutants... I could see Rose, but I couldn't see you, or Luke... Luke is around, isn't he?"

"Yes." I nodded. "He went to get us some drinks, the girls were getting thirsty." I shook my head, refocusing. "So, are you going to tell me what you're doing in Chicago? And how come you were looking for my daughter?"

"We cannot possibly recruit her Charles, she's a child." Lehnsherr put in his two cents.

"Recruit?!" My voice went through an octave or so in my shock.

"Cerebro is less trustworthy than we expected." Charles admitted. "We've been looking for other mutants, off-age mutants of course, to help us with something important..."

"Should we even be telling her anything?" Lehnsherr demanded.

I could tell he was dismissing me, seeing me as unimportant. I couldn't help myself, I hated when people looked at me like that, so I called on just a little bit of Luke's ice, and then touched the back of Lehnsherr's hand, just where the sleeve of his leather jacket ended, with a single finger. He pulled back instantly, hissing.

"Does that answer your question Mr. Lehnsherr?" I asked him sharply, then ignored his shock to focus on Charles again. "Now Charles, what's really going on? I thought you would still be in Oxford? And where's Raven?"

"I graduated from my last doctorate in June... you missed my graduation." He informed me.

"Oh..." I wasn't expecting that. "I didn't know that. Honestly, Charles. I thought you still had another year to go or so..."

"I understand, our last call was, what? Almost eighteen months ago." He nodded in understanding and shrugged. "I'm not blaming you for anything Ari. But that's not the point I'm trying to make. I met a woman right after graduation, a Moira MacTaggert, she works for the CIA and was on a case when she came across mutants. Mutants that are trying to start WWIII..."

That was more than I could process right then and there, I swayed in my spot.

"Ari?!" Charles cried out, hurrying to catch me.

Before I was fully conscious of it I was sitting on a bench, Charles crouched on one side and my little girls on the other. Luke also was there by the time I recovered, while Lehnsherr stood a few feet away, watching me with a mix of disdain, and a tiny hint of curiosity.

*Nightingale...?* It was my love's voice that finally finished bringing me back.

*I'm alright...* I began, then revised. *Well no, I'm not, but I'll be.*

Charles was still looking intently at me, and I could sense his presence in the edge of my mind, while he knew better than to try to go deep into my head, and I was quite sure he'd never be able to spy on our bond, he was still there, and I knew he was worried about me.

"Another world war?" I asked very quietly. "Wasn't the last one bad enough?"

"You were there?" Surprisingly it was Lehnsherr who spoke then.

"We worked with the Allies." Luke nodded. "Arianna as a nurse and I did some missions for the SSR, as did my sister."

"Then you have experience in this sort of thing!" Charles explained (he'd long given up learning our real ages and past history, so he didn't focus on that). "You could help us."

"Help you with what?" Luke inquired. "All I know thus far is that you came here trying to recruit my thirteen-year-old daughter for a CIA operation!"

"We'd have never recruited her, I didn't recognize Rose when I was in Cerebro, or that she was a child." Charles tried to explain. "We're looking for grown-ups, with powers that might aid us in the confrontation that's coming..."

"You're looking for soldiers." My love corrected him. "We're not soldiers Charles."

We'd lunch together on a small diner by the lake edge, through which Charles kept trying to convince us to join the team.

"We cannot do it... I cannot do it." I told him finally. "You don't understand Charles. I'm sure your intentions are good. But I cannot go through another war..."

"We're doing this to prevent a war Ari..." He insisted.

"I know you are, but against that man and his followers... you cannot tell me that the kind of confrontation you're marching to won't be a war in and of itself." I tried to explain. "I believe in what you're doing, but I cannot do it. Not again. You have no idea the things I saw in the war, I still have nightmares!" I took a deep breath, trying to focus. "You know the power I have Charles, what I can do..."

"You're an empath..." He began, then grew quiet, as if the implications finally hit him.

I was an empath, and I had been a nurse, I'd been at the front... he could connect the dots. The fact that I'd seen death... and I'd felt it.

"And it's not even just that." I went on. "If it were just Luke and I... that would be an acceptable risk. But if we get involved now we'll be putting the girls in danger."

"Not necessarily, the CIA..." Charles began.

"I know you're an optimist at heart Charles, but don't take this personally when I say: hell no!" I cut him off. "Rose and Willow are my daughters, they're two of my greatest loves, I trust no one with their safety but myself, my husband, and my other children."

"Hakon..." Charles began, as if just then remembering him.

"Still in the army." I shook my head. "I'm sorry Charles. I know this is not the answer you want, and a part of me really wishes I could offer you more, but I cannot. Not this time. The girls have to come first."

"I understand." He nodded.

And I knew he did, I'd no doubt that if he were a father his children would come first; we had different priorities, it was as simple as that.

"I honestly believe you'll get the help you need, that you'll succeed." I murmured.

"Thank you." He nodded.

"So we're leaving then." Lehnsherr stated, already getting on his feet.

"Hopefully we'll meet again." Luke offered politely as he paid the check.

We split outside the diner, I knew Charles and Erik had a car parked nearby, while we'd be walking to the penthouse.

"If you ever need help with that school of yours don't hesitate to call us." I offered as I embraced him in goodbye.

It didn't occur to me until much later that he'd never mentioned a school... I didn't even know if he'd even thought about it before then. In any case, it was likely that if he hadn't he'd think Rose had seen something and mentioned it to me; the chances of him realizing the truth, how exactly I knew about the future Xavier Institute were practically nil.

xXx

Mid-October, there was a blockade in Cuba, it seemed to be like some kind of cue, as Rose began having dreams, violent dreams, fights between two teams of gifted individuals: a furry-blue man with super-strength and great agility, a red-skinned teleporter with a sword, a blonde young man that shot lasers from his chest, a black-haired Spaniard capable of conjuring cyclones, a redhead whose voice could shatter glass, a blonde woman with diamond-skin and telepathy, a dark-skinned young man who could adapt, a young latina with insect-like wings, a man with the power to control pure energy, a blue-skinned red-haired shapeshifted: Raven... a tall, steel-eyed man who can control magnetism: Lehnsherr... and a blue-eyed telepath: Charles...

Rose actually woke up screaming Charles's and Erik's names on the 28th of October. The moment we reached her room she began demanding that we get to them, that we help them, much like she'd once demanded to save Willow... but it wasn't the same. It really wasn't... in the end fear won out. Fear over what might happen to our family, to our girls if we got involved in the mess. The whole situation was already volatile enough what with two teams of mutants, the CIA and the military of two superpowers involved... who knew what adding our presence might have caused? Who knew if we would have been able to help or only made things worse...? In the end, it'd be impossible to know, because we didn't go.

On the 29th Rose woke up screaming again, screaming and crying. She also refused any comfort from anyone except Willow. A part of her seemed to blame us for not having interfered (a part of me did the same...).

It was Hakon who eventually told us what had happened. While he couldn't be considered exactly as high-ranked, he'd connections, and friends in high-places. He was the one who told us about what had really happened in Cuba: the Russian ship that had come so close to breaking the blockade, so close to provoke a start to WWIII... until the sudden appearance of a plane that seemed to have been taken out of a comic-book... and the people to come out of it had been no better. Individuals who were so obviously not human, more than human, displaying extraordinary powers. Two sides, with one eventually winning... and the moment when the leaders of the military of both countries had given the order to fire on the beach in Cuba, where the victors were standing, recovering from their battle... they'd come so close to destroying a group of valiant warriors, of innocents who'd fought to save the world... and they would have, if Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, hadn't stopped almost a hundred missiles in their tracks...

It only got worse when Sia arrived home. The mission she'd been in had been with Division X in Richmond Virginia, apparently they'd been the sub-division of the CIA working with Charles, Lehnsherr, Raven and their team of young mutants against Shaw and his minions... and it had been an absolute disaster. Sia had been on the border of Russia, running back-up for Moira's team, when the facility in Virginia was attacked, almost everyone in the base had died... that had probably influenced the decision of attacking the team after Shaw was defeated. Not that it could be considered in any way right, or even remotely justified. But people in power tended to become quite irrational when the status quo was threatened, and what could be more threatening than a new generation of individuals with powers no one could comprehend yet? Who would surely change the world?

I got a phone-call from Raven days later, she sounded more than a little off and asked to see me in person, she needed someone to talk to. I couldn't help but feel something was off, but immediately agreed and we decided to meet in Central Park.

I sensed her before I saw her, but I didn't say a word, just stayed sitting on a bench, beneath a huge dogwood flowering tree. Eventually she sat beside me, wearing the blue-eyed, curly blonde facade I was used to. For a couple of very long minutes neither of us said a word, until eventually I was the one to break the silence:

"What's happened Raven?" I asked her softly.

"The name is Mystique." She nearly snapped at me. "Not Raven."

"Mystique..." I repeated tasting the name. "It's a beautiful name, well-suited to your gift, I think. But you know, just because we take a new name, doesn't mean we have to lose the old one. As we grow we might change, might want a name that shows that change, that doesn't mean that the other parts of us stop existing."

"You don't know what you're talking about." She hissed, in a way a sulky teenager would... it actually reminded me of Hakon in his early teenage years, when he'd trouble understanding why his father and I were so insistent on him going to college, getting a degree, before joining the army... he'd wanted to enlist the moment he was the right age for it.

"Actually, I do know." I corrected her calmly. "You're aware already that I'm considerably older than I look..."

"Charles said you were there, in WWII, that you were a nurse..." She interrupted me suddenly.

"That's correct." I nodded. "But that's not what I wanted to talk about. The point I was trying to make is that I've had other names: Arianna, Silbhé, Rossi, Nightingale... they've all been my names, at different times, and with different people..."

"Nightingale?" She inquired.

"It's the name I hold closest to my heart." I admitted calmly. "It is to me what Mystique is to you... but the fact that I am Nightingale doesn't mean that I stop being Arianna (or Silbhé)."

"I still rather you call me Mystique for now." She said, more settled. "It's easier..."

I could sense her turmoil. Whatever had happened had left her emotionally affected, and it was likely that the change in name helped her find a balance.

"Very well Mystique," I nodded. "Will you tell me what's happened?"

"I'm not sure how much you know of the mission we went to, Cuba..." She began, hesitantly.

"I'm aware of most of it." I nodded at her. "I know about Shaw and his minions, what happened in Richmond, and in Cuba, up to the missiles that Lehnsherr stopped."

Mystique looked at me in shocked silence.

"I have some contacts, and friends in high-places." I explained with a light shrug. "So, what is it that's bothering you, exactly?"

"If you know about the missiles, that means you know almost everything." She began, twisting her hands together nervously. "The only thing that you're really missing is... well... after Erik stopped the missiles... he actually turned them around. He wanted... he..."

"He wanted to kill the men for daring to shoot at you all." I finished for her with a nod. "You do realize it wasn't really their fault, right?"

"Charles said something about innocent men following orders..." Mystique blurted out, then winced. "Erik didn't like it."

"No, I imagine he didn't." I admitted quietly.

Curious as I'd been I'd actually researched Sebastian Shaw, and his former alias: Klaus Schmidt... the things I'd learnt would probably feed a whole new chapter of nightmares for years to come. They'd also included some basic information about Lehnsherr's past, including the fact that he was Jew by birth, and had been in Auschwitz... Not for the first time I wished we could have done more for all the people in those awful camps. But our focus had been on Hydra, so the rest of the military could handle Hitler's armies; otherwise we would have been spreading ourselves too thin. It'd have never worked.

"I wouldn't go as far as that." I went on. "Only children are ever truly innocent in this world... but that's not my point. The point is that killing them wouldn't have changed anything. The people who gave the orders for those missiles to be fired were nowhere near Cuba that day; and they'd have continued giving the same order, if they'd found a reason to do so... Killing those men... at best would have turned them into martyrs for the people in power to use, to make humans fear those who are different."

"Erik did say they would turn against us." Mystique muttered.

"He said that, then gave them a reason to fear him, not exactly the best plan, if you ask me." I offered, then raised a hand to stop her objections. "I'm not telling you that doing a certain thing or another would have been better, I simply don't know. The situation was so volatile that day... I don't know if things could have been any better, or any worse..."

"I seriously doubt they could have been any worse." The blonde, blue-eyed girl whispered, so quietly I barely heard her.

"Mystique?" I inquired, confused by the mix of sadness and resignation I felt. "What happened?"

"I left... we left." She announced, still very softly.

"'We' who?" I asked her to clarify.

"Erik and I." She explained. "Even after the humans shot us, he still insisted that integration was possible! Even Moira turned against us! She shot at Erik, hurt Charles, and Charles blamed Erik! And Erik wanted Charles to be on our side, but Charles refused and then Erik decided to leave, and I knew I couldn't stay and..."

The rant broke off abruptly as I placed what I hoped was a comforting hand on Mystique's shoulder, only to have her throw herself at me, crying into my chest. I held her tightly in silence and just let her cry it out.

Eventually Mystique settled down, enough to stop crying, though she still didn't speak.

"You know, there's nothing wrong with wishing for independence." I told her, running a hand through her short hair.

I wasn't sure if she'd noticed yet that her facade had fallen at some point and the real her was right there (naked and all). Still, we were completely alone in that particular corner of Central Park, so I saw no point in making her focus. Instead I tried to help her, it was why we were there, after all.

"It's the natural course of things." I went on. "One day children will grow up and leave their homes and their parents, make a life for themselves. Granted, Charles was your brother, not your father, but the same applies."

"So I didn't do wrong?" She asked in a half-broken tone.

"If you did it for the right reasons." I qualified. "That's the point here. If you left Charles to make a life of your own, that's your right. But did you leave him for yourself, or for Erik?"

Mystique froze, she didn't seem to have an answer for that.

"I'm not here to judge you." I assured her. "In the end only you know the answer to that question, and only you can decide if the answer matters, if it makes a difference to you or not. I know Charles is not perfect, no one in the universe is. He tried, and I know he probably failed in many ways... it is said that we always hurt those we love the most. And I think that's true for both of you, but that doesn't mean you love each other any less. Charles will always be your brother Raven, just like you'll always be his sister, and both of you will always be my friends."

She didn't even complain about me calling her Raven in that moment; though I wasn't quite sure if that was because I was getting through to her, or just that she was so overwhelmed by our conversation she hadn't even noticed it.

In the end no answer was forthcoming, not that I was expecting one either, like I'd already said, only Raven knew the answer to that question, and only she could decide where to go from there.

"Just remember, whatever might happen, wherever you might go... you're never alone Raven..." I finished, kissing her brow.

In that moment she felt like my own child, and following that same instinct I began humming a lullaby softly.

We stayed where we were for an indeterminable amount of time and when she eventually stood to leave I remained where I was. After her explanation of what had happened in that Cuban beach after the missiles I couldn't help but have a very good (or very bad) feeling about who else had left that battlefield with the two of them, and it was a guess I rather not confirm, so I stayed sitting, waiting until she disappeared completely from my radar. Then I stood and walked away myself, back home.

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

Agent Sia Serrure presented her resignation from the SSR in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Officially she cited the need for time to recover after loosing so many friends in Division X, especially Agent Oliver Platt, the agent who was commonly referred to as the 'Man in Black' and head of Division X had been a good friend of hers, one of very few who knew how far (both deep and back in time) her involvement with the SSR went; he'd also loved listening to stories about the Commandos, even if he knew he couldn't share them with anyone else. The truth was not so simple though; while another important factor was how long she'd been there, it'd been almost twenty years, and even those who were low-level enough that they didn't know anything and didn't need to know, were beginning to notice something was different about her. Finally, knowing what had truly happened in Cuba that day... Sia simply couldn't bring herself to continue working for a government that so easily turned against their own because they were different. She knew that was not something Peggy, Steve, James or any of the other Commandos would have ever stood for. So she turned in her resignation and walked away.

Hakon Serrure did stay with the army, though there were rumors about a quite intense argument he'd had with his superiors and (some claimed) even with millionaire, inventor and successful founder of Stark Industries: Howard Stark (of course, most of those who would be scandalized by that event, ignored the fact that Hakon was actually Howard's nephew... or as close to it as he could get, legally).

A group called the Brotherhood of Mutants was created, the government saw them as a terrorist organization, whose members went around killing humans and destroying private property. Those who might suspect heir motivations behind such actions either never came forward, or were permanently silenced before they could.

The government created a project they called WideAwake, supposedly to investigate the X-Gene cases, as they began calling them (following an article written by Dr. Charles Francis Xavier, trying to explain such mutations as natural and part of evolution... something very few people were willing to accept). Officially they were meant to do nothing more than research; the truth was much more sinister than that though...

In the 22nd of November of 1963 president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The government immediately blamed the mutant known as Magneto, the well-known (and feared) leader of the Brotherhood. Sia, however, sent a covert message to the family; while Lehnsherr had definitely been in the area, and involved to some degree, he wasn't the one to pull the trigger. No, she believed the shooter to be a spy and assassin known as the Winter Soldier. Up to that point the man was believed to be nothing more than a myth. A handful of assassinations over the past twenty years were attributed to him, but no one had ever seen more than his shadow, therefore there were no records of anything that might help establish that it'd been him, that a single man had committed all those assassinations, not even that the Winter Soldier existed at all. Except that Sia was sure, somehow. She finished her secret message announcing she was going after him and would get in touch when she could... it was the last they heard from her for a considerable number of years.

The following year Erik Lehnsherr turned himself over to the police (some tried to make great claims about an operation to catch him and the like... but those with the right connections knew they'd only caught the man because he'd chosen to surrender). A secret trial took place and soon enough the mutant was sentenced to life in prison... in a very specific, secret prison only a handful even knew the existence of.

In 1965 the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters was founded. Charles never did call on Arianna or anyone else from her family for help; and she herself never went looking for him. Truth be told the young woman felt such guilt, refusing to intervene even when her daughter had had those dreams, had insisted on them to go to Cuba, that she simply didn't know how to deal with it, couldn't imagine how to even begin to apologize to Charles for not having been there when he'd needed her, needed them all. Then days passed, weeks, months, years... until eventually it became easier to simply ignore it altogether.

It was said that Charles Xavier did seek help from someone though, an old family friend and once colleague of his father, Brian Xavier: Howard Stark. No one knew what was said in that conversation, though it was the belief that things hadn't gone well, as the two never spoke again after that day.

In the end it didn't last. Not long after the school opened its gates the war in Vietnam got worse, men were being drafted, many of them either teachers or even older students in the Institute... they were eventually forced to close.

When Hakon found out about the developments in Vietnam, and most importantly, about how the military was 'using' mutant soldiers in the front, he immediately requested a transfer to the front, ready and willing to do anything to protect those who might have great power, but in the end couldn't, or simply didn't know how to protect themselves (and whom the government wouldn't protect either). He was a Mayor at the time, until 1971, when he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, which granted him more power and authority, and made him better able to look after the mutants he kept finding on the front. He might not have been able to do anything about Cuba... but he hadn't forgotten the things Steve, James and the others had taught him, he would fight for those who needed him.

Then one hot summer night in 1972, Rose Alfdis Stark Serrure woke her whole family with an unholy scream.

xXx Nightingale's POV xXx

One might almost think we were all awake before the first note of the scream left my daughter's lips, they'd be nearly right. It wasn't quite like that, but still close. Rose's scream was enough not only to wake us up but to get us moving so fast that it was but a matter of seconds before we were all inside her bedroom.

After Tony's birth the 29th of May of 1970, Luke and I'd decided it was probably about time we gave Howard and his little family some space. The girls had been off at college at the time: Rose studying Music and Nursing (an odd combination, but still her preference), while Willow opted for Art and Psychology. Luke and I'd chosen to travel.

In the summer of 1972 the girls were 23, they'd just returned home after earning two Master Degrees each (not counting the number of languages each of them was certified in). Hakon was still in Vietnam and none of us had heard from Sia in almost a decade. We were staying in Stark Manor in upstate New York (Howard and his family were living in Malibu, California), when it happened: Rose woke us all up with a scream, like she hadn't since October of 62...

It's not like she hadn't had a vision since that fall, because she had. Just like her mastery over fire, her Sight had been growing in the intervening years, to the point that she no longer needed to see things in her dreams. In fact, most of the time it was more about her noticing things, sometimes even simply seeming to know them... And that was precisely the point, from what I knew (and either of the girls would have told me if it were otherwise) Rose hadn't had such a vision in more than five years...

Whether because of her gift with fire, or simply some personal preference, almost every flat surface in Rose's room had at least a couple of candles; from the plain old white candle-sticks to others in every shape and color of the rainbow, some even with certain scents (she favored flowery ones, not just of roses, but also orchids, lilies, jasmine...). Every single candle was alight and practically blazing when we stepped into the room. And not only that, the flames were reflected in my daughter's tiger-stone eyes, making the different colors in her irises seemingly dance and twist together.

"Rose, phei..." Willow whispered, running a hand through her sister's hair.

That seemed to be enough to pull Rose back to reality, to the present place and time. She looked at each her father and I in turn, before turning her eyes to her sister.

"A friend needs us." She said simply. "We need to go."

Considering her screams it was quite obvious she was understating things, radically. Still, we didn't say a thing, just waited.

"Things are coming." Rose said next, this time turning to look our way. "Events that will mark the path the world will take for years and decades to come... Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr will be at the epicenter of it all... and so will I."

I knew what her words meant, beyond the obvious. Our daughter wasn't asking for permission, her future was no longer in our hands; she'd made her choice.

Chapter Text

Please Remember

Memories are tricky, and sometimes we forget that which we ought to remember...

For the first few weeks, the first few months even, after Rose and Willow left, nothing special seemed to happen. The girls let us know they'd made it to Westchester, to Charles's estate, and then took to calling us once a week. They were short, simple calls, greeting, asking how we were, telling us they were fine; sometimes they would talk a bit about Anya's gardening projects, or a new melody Rose might be practicing in the piano (or a new mess Hank had caused in his lab... that seemed to be the source of a great amount of hilarity... and sometimes awe).

There was one week, in the second half of October, where Rose couldn't be on the phone. Willow told us that Charles had gotten ill and Rose was playing nursemaid... we knew it couldn't be that simple (the girls wouldn't have split, if it had been that simple). However, we had all agreed never to talk about mutations or gifts in general over the phone, just in case either side was tapped, so in the end we didn't ask.

In late November I found an article in the New York Times that I could have never expected: Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, the former leader of the Brotherhood, who'd been involved in President Kennedy's assassination in '63... was dead. According to the news, there had been an accident while he was being transported to another prison. I could read between the lines just fine (as could my love), whatever the accident might have been, it was no coincidence, and not only because Lehnsherr was the only reported casualty. Something had happened. Yet, as curious as I was, I knew better than to ask the girls anything about it, so I pushed the matter aside for later.

The war against Vietnam ended early the next year, and I was hopeful that meant we'd get to see Hakon more often. Ever since he'd been sent to the front we'd hardly seen him. In fact, he hadn't had leave in years, and all we knew about it was that he hadn't taken leave because he refused to leave his unit to the 'mercy' of someone who wouldn't care for them. Somehow I didn't think he was exaggerating about that.

We even knew he'd gotten the Commandos involved in a scheme to help his men reincorporate themselves to society and civilian life after being discharged... though I had no idea why he'd gone through such lengths exactly. I wondered if the fact that all of our children were involved in the kind of things that couldn't be talked about in an open line was more telling of the way we'd raised them, or their own choices... or perhaps it was a mix of both.

And, of course, there was always Sia. Who would send us a telegram or a postcard every several months, yet we hadn't seen neither hair nor hide of in more than half a decade! All we knew was that she was still tracking the Winter Soldier, that it... he was important for some unfathomable reason only she knew. Still, we trusted her, if she believed it needed to be done, then it must be necessary... hopefully she'd trust us enough to tell us the truth eventually.

In February, just a day after my birthday, we got a visit we weren't expecting: it was Howard:

"Howard!" I called, probably a bit too loudly, I was taken completely by surprise. "I didn't know you were coming! How are you?"

"Alright." He answered immediately, though I could tell there was something off about him.

"Howard?" My love called as he entered the house. "Everything alright? We thought you would be too busy to visit right now... you'd said something about back to back meetings for the whole month or something..."

"That's still the case." Howard nodded, a bit seriously. "However, I was forced to drop everything when I got called into a top-secret meeting in Washington..."

"If it's top-secret, should you even be mentioning it?" I interrupted him.

"I think I should." He replied. "Came here as soon as the meeting was over. Perchance, have you any idea where the girls are right now?"

To anyone else the question would have seemed like an attempt to change the topic, because it couldn't possibly have anything to do with a top-secret meeting in Washington... except I knew it very well could. Even if we didn't know exactly what Rose and Willow might be in. We at least could make an educated guess...

"You know the Peace Accords taking place in Paris?" Howard asked next.

I nodded, waiting to know what exactly connected everything up, already suspecting I wasn't going to like it; in the back of my mind I could hear my husband's similar line of thought.

"There were a few more meetings taking place than originally scheduled." My 'brother' explained rather calmly. "Trask and some military-minion of his were discovered trying to make business with the Communist leaders."

"Bolivar Trask...?" I inquired, surprised by that.

"The very same." Howard nodded grimly. "The kind of things he's apparently been involved over the last few years... you don't want to know, Ari. I didn't think anything could ever be worse than some of the things we saw in the war, and yet..."

That was enough to make me swallow, as well as decide I need never know more than that on that particular topic.

"Trask is in jail, his minion... I've no idea actually." Howard admitted with a slight shrug. "And once I'm done there will be nothing left of that company, or Bolivar's reputation."

I could sense a deep hatred inside him; it was rare, Howard wasn't the kind of man to truly despise someone. But he obviously despised Bolivar Trask... and I still had no idea how the girls were supposed to be involved in the whole thing.

"Anyway, that's not the actual reason why I was called in." Howard went on. "I was asked for my opinion regarding a new alliance our government has made... with a team of gifted individuals, known as the X-Men..."

I lost my breath. The X-Men... I'd known it was coming, someday, but wasn't it too early? Also, I couldn't actually remember if the X-Men had been allied with the government in the future... though, seeing how I'd only been to the Institute once or twice before, and hardly come in contact with the X-Men, it's not like I had to know.

"Apparently a group of gifted went to Paris to stop Trask's deals with the Communist leaders, they also ended meeting with the leaders of the CIA, British and French representatives, and military leaders of a number of countries..." He made a pause before adding. "Hakon was there, apparently because he's the leader of a unit in our country's army that's formed entirely by mutants!" He ran a hand through his head. "Oh, yes, and the group of gifted that met with all of them, they were lead by a young woman, reportedly in her early twenties, with auburn hair and eyes like fire. She called herself the Rose of Chaos..."

I froze, could hear Loki cursing colorfully in a variety of languages in the back of my head. We had no idea what had happened exactly, but there was no doubt who the Rose of Chaos was. Our daughter had just revealed herself to people of power from at least four different countries...

"That's not all." Howard went on. "I was also told that she used the civilian name of Alfdis Eisenhardt, sister of an Anya Eisenhardt, and daughter of Max Eisenhardt, German immigrant, field commander and generally second in command of the X-Men..."

Alfdis Eisenhardt... it wasn't hard to guess why exactly she'd done that (or even who had helped her to get papers good enough that no one had been able to tell they were fake); she was putting distance between us, both Willow and her were. As a way to keep us safe, and while a part of me couldn't help but think that it was us, my Maverick and I, who taught her (both of them really) to do anything necessary to protect those we loved, the family... it was still hard to accept the fact that it was them protecting us rather than the other way around. My husband and I... we had done all we could, but they were grown girls, living their own lives, making their own choices. It was no longer up to us to protect them (though that did not mean we wouldn't do our best if the opportunity ever arose).

"How do you know all this?" When the question came from my love, I couldn't believe it hadn't occurred to me to wonder that before.

"I was called by the Secretary of Defense to inquire my opinion regarding the X-Men." My brother announced, stoically.

I didn't know what to say, not for the longest time, and when the words finally came from my mouth... they weren't what I'd been planning: I didn't question why the Secretary of Defense would call on him; my brother was well known as a patriot for his service during WWII, and his continued creation of weapons that had helped the American military for decades. I also knew that he'd been one of the few civilians present on a certain top-secret meeting, in October of 1962, when two navies had decided to make a truce and fire their missiles on a Cuban beach, filled with teenagers and young adults, almost all of them gifted, most of them those to whom we owed the fact that there had been no WWIII... And yet, I didn't question him about either of those topics; I knew, instinctively, neither of them was the crux of the matter:

"Howard, how much do you know about the X-Men?" I finally asked him.

"Officially, nothing at all." He answered in a perfect deadpan. "Unofficially, more than you would expect, more than even Charlie realizes..."

Charlie... I knew he was talking about Charles Xavier. He'd had a laugh about it a few time, back in the early sixties, knowing we'd become such good friends of the Xaviers. Had told us all about Brian Xavier, the nuclear physicist with such a promising carrier... until his life was cut short by a tragic accident. And the fact that Howard himself had almost been there, if he hadn't gotten stuck in traffic and arrived late to the labs...

Howard had considered Brian a dear friend, and also held a special affection for little Charles Xavier, a young child at the time of his father's death. He'd tried to be there for the boy, as a caring uncle, and possibly even a father figure (spirits knew his step-father had never cared for it) but it hadn't been easy. According to my brother, Kurt Marko had hated him, seen him as a mere jump-start, not good enough for high-society (never mind that Marko himself had had more debts than money to himself before marrying Charles's mother); while Sharon herself was the youngest daughter of a family who had the name, but not the money... In the end, Howard had tried, at least until the war, when it had simply become next to impossible.

We also knew that Charles had sought Howard at some point during the early sixties (after Cuba), and something had happened, something had gone wrong. Though we had no idea what. We also knew Hakon had talked (more like argued) with his uncle about it, but they'd never talked about it with us, and we had chosen to respect their privacy...

"How much did your son tell you about the argument we had before he was shipped off to Vietnam?" He asked, very quietly.

"Nothing at all." My love told him.

"We asked him once, but he claimed it was something personal." I put in my two cents. "You have your right to your privacy, both of you, so we didn't insist."

"I suppose some might consider it personal." Howard conceded thoughtfully. "Though probably not in the manner you would expect. We had a disagreement over personal opinions. Choices I made... Hakon did not agree with them at first... I think it's possible that even after I explained my reasoning, he probably didn't agree with me. But he respected my choices. Then went on to make his own, as was only right. You raised him well, Ari, Luke. The boy might have been furious with me, but in the end he seemed to realize that, wrong or right, our choices are exactly that, ours, and they must be respected."

"Howard..." I murmured, not quite sure what to say. "What happened?"

"Charlie came to see me in the Spring of 64." Howard began.

"Spring of '64..." My husband repeated, seemingly thinking back on where we'd been at the time.

"Why didn't we know about that?" I decided to go the more direct route.

"You were laying low." My brother reminded me. "After the mess in Dallas... there were too many people coming and going. If one of them had seen you, had realized you and Luke hadn't changed at all over the previous twenty years... you spent a couple of years in Boston, until things settled down, remember?"

Actually, I hadn't. The move hadn't changed much, as I hadn't thought much about it.

"Anyway, Charlie came, he was in a wheelchair..." He shook his head grimly. "Talk about shocks. I couldn't believe it when I saw him. And all he would say about it was that it had been a tragic accident. I have a feeling that something about that accident hurt him worse than the actual loss of his legs." He shrugged. "Anyway, that's not the point. The point is, he came to talk to me about the school he was planning on opening..."

"The Xavier Institute." I finished for him.

"Exactly." Howard nodded. "I think he was hoping that I would agree to ally with him, that my name would grant his school better standing, as well as protection..."

"It was a good plan." Luke admitted, thoughtfully. "Your influences, money..."

"I declined." My brother interrupted him. "I actually said something disparaging about his ideas, and made veiled comments about what had happened in Cuba... about gifted."

I drew a sharp breath, not quite believing what I was hearing.

"But... Howard... I don't understand..." I mumbled.

I really didn't. From the very beginning he'd been so accepting of all of us, of our abilities. How could he have said something like that?

"Charlie was being careless." Howard explained. "He didn't even realize that I knew more about his children than I should."

"That's a good point." My love agreed. "How do you know so much?"

"Oliver Platt." My brother replied. "I knew him... before I got to where I'm today. Back when I was just a kid in the bad side of town... His dad was a cop, and a damn good one. He realized I was just a kid, in over his head, helped get me out of some things before they became too bad, and too big. And when I began making money... I did my best to pay him back. Oliver and I were never exactly close, but we did enjoy a drink together now and then. He always had some outlandish ideas about gifted and enhanced individuals, believed in magic, even without having seen anything to prove it... He was a good man." He shook his head with a nostalgic sigh. "The last time I saw him was in the Summer of '62. He was thrilled, like a child at Christmas, saying he was right, that gifted people did exist, and they were simply wonderful. You know, of course, how high my clearance is. It was enough for him to send me a few files... I couldn't believe it when I saw Charles's name... Couldn't believe he'd been careless enough to not only reveal himself to the government, but to give them his real name!" He let out a sigh. "It was I who convinced Oliver to make sure there would be no personal files for any member of his special team. And he agreed with me that it would be too risky, so he had them destroyed."

Which explained why Trask and whoever else that had been with him hadn't been able to go after Charles and his students in the last decade.

"If you did that," I asked softly. "Why did you turn him away?"

"Because Charlie was being reckless!" My brother explained, running a hand through his hair. "If he had managed to convinced me, do you know who he'd have gone to afterwards? The Worthingtons, they are the only other family with the same economic and social levels as us; but they're snobs, the worst kind. No amount of money, influence or the Xavier and Stark names would have ever been enough for them, they would have sold out Charlie and his kids at the first opportunity."

"Why not accept to help him, and warn him about people like that?" Luke wanted to know.

"Because Charlie's too trusting." Howard said grimly. "He'd have believed he could convince the Worthingtons to see thing his way. The only way I could think to stop him from doing that, was to force him to see the risks he was taking."

"So you made them very real for him." My Maverick suddenly understood. "You made him believe you were the very kind of person the Worthingtons would have been."

"Yes." My brother admitted. "Though... it's not just that." He seemed to think it over for several seconds before adding. "I don't know if you're aware of this, but Maria comes from a Jew family. Her birth-name is actually Mirele Zimmerman."

"But..." I couldn't understand.

"I know that's not the name you know her by." He nodded. "She came to the country with her mother, and the name of Maria Zimman, before the worst of the war. Her father couldn't come with her, he was 'detained'."

Neither my husband nor I needed him to explain that part. We knew what it meant.

"Maria's mother wasn't Jew." Howard went on. "She managed to get out of country, taking her daughter with her. I met them during a ball, for one of the charities we created after the end of the war. Mrs. Zimman was a volunteer in one of the refugee centers we created. In any case, I knew Maria had issues with what had made her become a refugee, serious issues. When Magneto and his Brotherhood first made themselves known, and they killed all those navy-men... she was terrified. Had awful nightmares for days, she would wake up asking why people had to keep killing others for being different. She was absolutely terrified that one day Magneto and his brotherhood would try to do to humans, what the Nazis did to the Jews, to her father and his family..." He let out a sigh. "I knew what would happen if she ever knew I was aiding mutants. She wouldn't have seen any difference between Charlie and Magneto."

It was absolute insane, how people kept making the exact same mistakes, letting fear drive them. Would it ever end?

"So you turned Charles away, made him think you couldn't be trusted..." My match revised. "That no one could be trusted..."

"Exactly." Howard nodded. "It might not have been the kindest thing I've ever done. But if it aided even in the slightest in keeping Charlie and his students safe, then it was worth it." He made a pause before adding: "And who knows, maybe now that the little nymph is with him I'll get away with a few anonymous donations..."

He seemed so eager at the prospect, while I was still trying to wrap my head around it all. The things he'd done, the things he'd made Charles believe... I remembered from the future, someone saying that the X-Men and SHIELD didn't work well together. Tony's own suggestion that it was probably his father's fault, that he could never stand mutants... They were so wrong! Or weren't they? Had we changed Howard so much that he'd come to accept gifted? Or had he always done that? Was history changing or were the people who talked about Howard so negatively simply wrong? I did not know what to believe anymore. Wasn't sure which one would be worse, which I would prefer either. Was it better to think that we were changing things, for better or for worse, or that things had simply always been like that, and we'd just been too blind to see it?

xXx

In May we celebrated Tony's third birthday. Luke and I used magic to glamour ourselves into looking older for the day. It was necessary, otherwise it'd have been impossible for the people around us not to notice that we were different (the fact that I still looked exactly the same as I had twenty years prior, and even back then I'd already looked young for my age...).

We went through the usual pleasantries, greeting Howard, Maria, Obadiah, and several other guests; most of which were either friends or co-workers of one of the first three. Then I left my husband to chat with the man about the latest advances in technology, while I sat beside Tony on a big blanket by the beach. I had already promised to take the boy into the sea when he wanted to go (she apparently had just done something to her hair and the sea-water would have ruined it). I chose not to comment.

I was having a lot of fun, I really was. Tony was such a bright, precocious child. I loved him dearly (and it hurt knowing all he would go through in his life).

"You know." Maria, splayed elegantly on a beach-chair beside the blanket, called to me. "I never quite understood why you and your husband did not have more. Children, I mean." She seemed to think it over. "I mean, I know you have Hakon and the twins, but you were still young. It's obvious you like children so, why not have more?"

I could have turned the question back to her. After all, she was quite a few years younger than Howard, and she'd still chosen to have only one child (and had waited a decade after getting married to have him). But I knew already the answer to that question: Maria didn't like children; or no, it wasn't that she didn't like them, she didn't like taking care of them. She liked showing off her family, either in person or in pictures; but she didn't like most every day duties, like feeding, changing diapers, bathing. Anna Jarvis had handled most of that. Of course, that was a very well kept secret of the Stark household.

"I couldn't." I said eventually. "After the twins..."

I just let my voice drop off, allowing it to sound like some kind of tragedy. The truth wasn't quite so dramatic, though still serious enough. My spirit was of a Ljósálfar, my body... was a mix of the human I'd been, and the immortal I'd turned into after my mortal death. My spirit and my body managed to fit well enough, though it was still hard to get all of me in sync enough to create new life; there was also the fact that Ljósálfar weren't known for having many children, nor were Aesir, or Jotun... so, in the end, it was a mix of things.

"Oh..." Maria's expression turned almost pitying. "I'm sorry Arianna... I had no idea."

"Not many do." I murmured simply. "And really, I love my children dearly. It doesn't matter if I cannot have any more of my own, there will always be nieces, nephews, and some day grandkids to spoil rotten."

"So you have heard from Sia then?" She inquired, interested.

"She's still of in Europe doing her own thing." I shrugged.

"Oh." The Stark matriarch sounded honestly surprised. "I didn't expect... I just thought, a woman her age... I expected she'd have settled down already..."

"Settling down and Sia Serrure aren't exactly compatible, I don't think." I admitted with a slight chuckle. "But that's alright. If it makes her happy..."

I could see (and feel) that she didn't exactly agree with me, but she was too well educated to argue with me over it.

Not for the first time I felt thankful that, in the end, we'd decided not to tell Maria the truth about me, about us... she believed, like most of the world, that I was Howard's illegitimate half-sister. And just the emphasis she'd put in the word illegitimate when first hearing about it was enough to let me know she wasn't the kind of person I'd ever be able to trust with my true story. It was obvious Howard loved her dearly, and that was enough to make me give her a chance, to accept her as a sister-in-law... but I would probably never truly see her as a friend. There was a part of me that wondered if things could have been different, if Luke and I'd stuck closer to them over the past twenty years, instead of keeping our distance. But I just couldn't imagine having to live every day with a glamour to hide my true image; just a few hours using it, and it already made me feel almost itchy somehow.

xXx

When I put the sleeping boy down and tucked him in at the end of the night, I couldn't help but feel like I was about to cry.

"Ari..." Howard murmured, going to stand behind me. "What's going on?"

I shook my head, making vague motions for silence; the last thing I wanted was to wake up Tony and have him see me on the edge of tears... it was his birthday, he didn't need to worry about his depressed aunt.

For all answer, Howard took hold of my arm and guided me to his private study, there he went straight to his 'stash, prepared two mojitos and placed them on the small table in between the two armchairs where we were seated. While I didn't like most alcoholic drinks, I could stand the mojito (as long as it wasn't too strong... and Howard knew how I liked it).

"Now, will you tell me what has you so upset, sister?" He asked quietly.

I took a deep breath, took a heavy swig of the drink, breathed again, and finally blurted:

"We cannot keep doing this Howard."

"What...?" He obviously hadn't expected that. "I don't understand..."

"This!" I pointed straight at myself, at my true image. "You didn't even notice, did you?"

"No." He admitted with a shrug, settling back against the chair. "After all these years... I suppose I just don't notice it anymore."

"The fact that I'm supposed to be in my fifties yet look like I'm barely legal?" I deadpanned. "You may not notice, but that's not the case with the rest of the world."

"What about what you did earlier to look older? You and Luke..." He waved his hand as he tried, and failed, to remember the right word.

"The glamour." I offered. "It's not fool-proof. As should be obvious. If our focus fails... well, you have seen what happens. Also... it feels wrong. It's one thing when I change the color of my hair, the shade of my skin, to keep people from recognizing me... but the level of glamour needed to make me look over fifty..." I shook my head. "It's also dangerous. What do you think would have happened if Maria had been the one to slip into Tony's room and find me there, like this?"

Howard didn't answer the question, just nodded, he got the point.

"What then?" He asked, taking a drag of his own drink and beginning to play with a cigarette.

He'd become addicted to the damn things at some point... and the cigars, which, in my opinion, were even worse. The only reason he wasn't smoking already was because he knew how much I hated the smell.

"Will you just disappear?" He almost demanded. "Make pretend like you never existed?"

"That was always going to happen." I admitted very quietly.

"What?!" He was obviously not expecting that.

"We never planned for this, you know?" I asked in return.

"And what is this?" He asked, very evenly.

"This... you, your family... us being a family..." I shook my head, letting out a sigh. "We don't belong here Howard, we never did. You know that, always have... you just don't know how far it goes. The powers we have... we're not mutants..."

"No, you're more than that." Howard agreed. "From the very beginning I knew that. I think that even before I saw your boy with his blue skin, I knew that."

"And it's not even just that." I went on, not allowing myself to think much on what I was about to reveal to him, after so long. "You know Luke and I... we're older than we look. That we don't age the way most people do."

"You will go on living long after I'm dead and buried." My brother blurted out unexpectedly.

"Yes." I didn't see the point in lying to him.

"That's why you say you weren't planning on me, on us as family. You know we'll die long before you. Because we're only human..."

"Yes." I whispered, so very, very softly.

I could have left things like that. Let him believe that that was the crux of the matter. Let him think that I couldn't handle watching him grow old and die... it would have been so easy... But I wasn't the kind of girl to choose a path simply because it was easy.

"It's not just that." I added. "I need you to listen to me very carefully, brother..."

"I'm listening." He nodded, staring straight at me.

"It would pain me, to have to watch you grow old and die." I admitted. "But that's not what's pushing me to make such choices. It's something else..." I took a deep breath, and dove straight in. "The truth is, I wasn't born in the 1920s... or the 1910s... I wasn't born at any time over the last century, or the last millennia for that matter."

"I don't understand."

"I was born on the 2nd of February... in 1992..."

Howard pulled back so fast he knocked his head against the armchair... and probably got whiplash to boot. Still, he didn't say a word, just stared at me.

"Howard..." I began, hesitantly, was he finally going to snap at me, over that of all things?

Instead, his reaction was completely different.

"Time travel?!" He gasped, the tone of a child receiving a long-dreamt-of toy. "You truly... you time-traveled to the 1940s...?! But how?"

It was probably a good thing I'd put up wards after we got into the study, otherwise we'd have already called Jarvis's attention to us... at the very least.

"No idea." I deadpanned. "We were on a mission for SHIELD and... something happened. None of us can remember what exactly, or where we were... not even why exactly Hakon was with us that day. We never took him with us on missions, he was just a child, after all! All we know for sure is that it was some day in early March of 2016 one moment, and the next we were somewhere in Norway, and it was March of 1941..."

"Seventy five years..." Howard gasped in wonder. "You traveled back 75 years."

"I don't even know if it was our choice, or some kind of cosmic accident!" I pouted.

"Still, it's amazing." My brother admitted. "To think that one day the world will advance to the point where we will be able to travel back in time."

"I still wouldn't recommend it." I admitted, shifting a bit, uncomfortable. "I've spent the last 22 years terrified I'm going to change too much and the world will implode or something!"

"But you have changed things, haven't you?"

"I've tried. Haven't always succeeded..."

"Sgt. Barnes... Cap and Peggy?"

I just nodded, not daring to go into either situation. How could I explain to Howard that the first had been a definite failure and I still didn't know how the second turned out?

"Wait a second." Howard said suddenly. "You said you couldn't keep doing this, keep coming here, because you cannot pretend. And while things with Maria might be hard, you wouldn't have to pretend with Tony, we could explain things to him. He's a bright little tyke, unless..."

"Unless I knew it couldn't be." I finished for him.

"So..." I wasn't sure if Howard didn't dare ask the question, or didn't know what to ask exactly.

"I do know Tony in the future, Howard." I agreed. "And the thing is... when he first met me, he didn't know me. And not only that. In the years I've had of knowing him, he's never mentioned an aunt Arianna, or any other family aside for yourself and Maria... and Jarvis, he holds him in high esteem. But that's about it. And well, you and I both know what that's likely to mean..."

"He has no memories of you." He finished for me.

I had just nodded, when something else occurred to him, something I couldn't believe I hadn't realized myself before.

"But... but even if he had no memories of you, I would tell him." He said. "I would never let him forget, even if he couldn't know at first. I would explain it all to him... unless..." I didn't say a word, in the end I didn't need to. "Unless I wasn't there to explain things to him. When...? No, you know what? I don't want to know." He made another pause before adding. "Just tell me one thing. Is my son a good man?"

"One of the best men I've ever known." I told him quietly.

Perhaps I was embellishing, but just a little. Tony truly was a remarkable man; it didn't matter if he'd made mistakes, who hadn't? And then something else occurred to me, and before I could even stop to think about it, the words were leaving my lips:

"A man who was everything you could ever ask of your heir, to your company, your genius and your name... and yet couldn't understand how true that was, because he couldn't believe that you were ever proud of him... ever loved him."

"What?!" Howard stood so fast hie glass fell, the contents spilling on the rug, he didn't care. "What the hell does that mean?! That's impossible. I love Tony..."

"I know, I know you do." I comforted him, hurrying around the table to embrace. "I know you love him Howard, I can feel the love you hold for him. So much, and the pride... the boy hasn't done anything and you're already so proud of him... I can only imagine what you'll feel when he begins to show his genius..." Something that would be happening in just over a year from that day... "Which is why I cannot understand the way Tony himself remembers you... It just... It's like the man he remembers, and you... it's like you're two completely different individuals!"

"How different?" Howard asked, in a tone that made me think he wanted to demand answers, yet instead ended pleading... "Ari... tell me... please..."

And so I did. I told him everything I knew. The things Tony had told me, and the things I'd found through other people (mostly Pepper). There was much I did not know, of course. I knew there had been a falling-out with Obadiah Stane at some point, shortly before the man had died in an awful plane crash (Darcy always said that had to have been a cover up for something...). I also knew he'd been betrayed, more than once, by people he trusted; some he had forgiven, and others he hadn't. I knew about Afghanistan, and the Ten Rings, and that he'd been hurt much worse than any SHIELD reports showed; that he had finished at least two projects his father never could, and had created the second ever Stark Expo (much greater than the first). I also suspected (didn't know for sure... had never dared ask) that the one thing that hurt Tony the most, was not knowing if his father ever loved him; there had been off-handed comments made about Howard's genius, the company, his legacy, his goals, and the way he never seemed to care for his own son...

Howard and I stayed in that study until very late (closer to early, than late), though mostly I was the one to talk. Afterwards I would never be able to believe I'd actually done it, that I'd told him the truth (all I knew of it at least). I didn't plan it, we didn't plan it; there was no way of knowing what would happen due to it. For the second time I was trying, truly trying, to change history as I knew it. And I was terrified about it.

xXx

My match might not have been in the room with me when I confessed everything to Howard, but he knew I'd done it, and while we'd never planned on doing it, he agreed that it felt right. Tony Stark... the Tony Stark we knew, was a good man, but still a man who had perhaps suffered more than was his due; the Tony of 1973 was a little boy still, innocent and so full of curiosity and joy and a light I'd never actually seen in his older counterpart. I know a part of us truly hoped that our actions would allow him to retain some of that light.

That wasn't the last trying moment of that year either. A few months later we got a call from Hakon. The X-Men had been on their first mission, Hakon had been there, seeing how he was the military liaison... apparently the facility had been a trap. They had managed to rescue many young mutants, but the place had been filled with Sentinels, and had pretty much blown up on their way out. One of our girls had almost died...

I wanted so much to rush to Westchester in that moment. To shadow-walk straight there and reassure myself that Rose was alright. Even if Hakon had already told me exactly that, and Charles had confirmed me; a part of me felt a need to see her with my own eyes... but I couldn't. Moira MacTagger, the CIA Agent was still in the premises, and she was exactly the kind of person who couldn't know the truth about me, about us. The kind of person that had made Rose and Willow decide to change their names...

So, in the end, I stayed put. Luke and I stayed in the mansion in New York, waiting until Rose phoned us, two days later. It helped, hearing her voice; knowing she was, without a doubt, alright. According to her she'd only been unconscious at the time of Hakon's call because a rock knocked her out for a little while, and the concussion gave her nausea and an awful headache for a while; still, nothing life-threatening; many people had concussions in their lives. It helped... and yet not being there with her still hurt.

That experience probably influenced what happened on Christmas Eve. Luke and I were trying a new 'trick'. We'd arrived, again, with the usual aging glamours, but after the necessary exchange of pleasantries with our hosts and the other guests, and a round to allow people to see us; we slipped away from a moment to change things a bit. The new glamour was the softer kind, that didn't itch so much. My hair was platinum blonde, my skin perfectly unblemished, my makeup heavy, I looked like a teenager trying to appear grown-up; while my love made his hair into short dark-golden curls, his eyes looking almost blue under the right light; he also had some facial hair and a more casual attire than he usually wore to such events.

Howard was the only one who recognized us, and he seemed to find it all extremely funny for some unfathomable reason. I almost expected him to suggest that we just get new papers, a new identity, and stick around. It's not like we couldn't have made it work... probably. But he didn't suggest it, and we never mentioned it either. A part of me still believed that it was too risky. It was one thing to trick a bunch of people for one party (most of them would end too drunk to remember many details of the evening anyway), and an entirely different one to try to hold onto the farce for an indeterminate amount of time.

The party went on until the early hours of the morning. Though the last hour was mostly spent finding people sober enough to drive those drunk to kingdom come, to their homes. A few, like Obadiah and some 'close friends' of the Starks, actually spent the night in the guest bedrooms, on the opposite side from the family rooms.

Luke went to gather our things (what few we'd kept in that house), while I slipped to Tony's rooms... Howard was waiting for me right outside.

"I'm guessing this is goodbye then." He murmured quietly.

He was quite sober, which surprised me, though it probably shouldn't have; and yet... and yet I'd seen him having drink after drink all night...

"Sparkling water, lime soda, a few were even apple juice." He answered the unasked question. "I haven't had more than a glass of wine all night, I promise you."

I actually smiled at him, knowing he'd done it all for me... and for Tony too, of course.

"So, you've come to say goodbye to my son, then?" He asked again.

"We don't want to..." I admitted quietly. "But we have to. If Tony is to have no memories of me... of us... then we have to go before they come into being."

"I'm gonna miss you sister." He said, suddenly embracing me tightly.

"No more than I will miss you brother, as will Luke." I assured him. "Perhaps some day..."

I didn't dare finish the sentence, there was no point, and he knew it as well as I did.

"Promise me something, Ari." He said suddenly, holding me by the shoulders and looking straight into my eyes. "I know that by the time you get back to where you belong I will no longer be around but... Promise me that the moment the opportunity arises, you will go straight to Tony. You will go to my son, and you will tell him everything. The whole truth. The good, the bad, and everything in between. Can you promise me that, sister?"

"I promise you Howard." I assured him.

How foolish was I, that I couldn't see that with those words he meant a lot more than just my identity as Arianna Stark? How blind... I wouldn't realize the truth until it was too late.

He embraced me tightly once more, kissed my brow and then turned to walk away.

"I know what I'll do." He announced, even as he moved down the hall. "I'll send you a present when you're born. That sure will make things interesting..."

I chuckled, a watery laugh that I couldn't quite let out, nor fully hold in. It would truly make things interesting, only... Only, if my suspicions were right, if the memories I had of the past, were still the future that was to come, then that gift had never come... which meant my brother would die before my other self (my younger self? True self?) was born... he would be dead before the 2nd of February of 1992...

I pushed the thought aside, knowing that if I lingered on it, I would end up crying, and it wasn't time for tears, not yet... So instead I slipped into Tony's bedroom, and went to sit by his bed. I watched him sleep for what felt like a long time, though it couldn't have been more than a few minutes at most. I didn't even notice it when I began singing softly, a hand on Tony's blanket:

"Time, sometimes the time just slips away
And you're left with yesterday
Left with the memories
I, I'll always think of you and smile
And be happy for the time
I had you with me
Though we go our separate ways
I won't forget so don't forget
The memories we made"

"Please remember, please remember
I was there for you
And you were there for me
Please remember, our time together
The time was yours and mine
And we were wild and free
Please remember, please remember me"

I was singing to Tony... and yet, at the same time, I wasn't just singing to him, or about him. It was also for Howard, and for every other friend and family we'd made and found in the twenty two years since we'd first arrived to the past. Like I'd told Howard, we'd never expected to make friends, family even less. And while it'd hurt, having to say goodbye, losing them one by one... I would never regret having known them, having loved them; and I knew neither would my love.

"Goodbye, there's just no sadder word to say
And it's sad to walk away
With just the memories
Who's to know what might have been
We'll leave behind a life and time
We'll never know again"

"Please remember, please remember
I was there for you
And you were there for me
And remember, please remember me"

There was always the chance we'd meet again. It'd be years yet before Luke and I had to leave the US (we might one day have to leave Midgard as a whole, once the other 'Loki' began traveling around... but not yet). SHIELD still had to be created, and I wanted to stick around to see that, if nothing else. But still, we would no longer be as we'd been since the day Howard took us all in and made us a family. Whatever else might come, after that day I would no longer be Arianna Stark-Serrure... I would no longer be Howard's little half-sister. No, no more... that life was over.

"Please remember, please remember
I was there for you
And you were there for me
Please remember, our time together
The time was yours and mine
And we were wild and free
And remember, please remember me"

"And how we laugh and how we smile
And how this world was yours and mine
And how no dream was out of reach
I stood by you, you stood by me
We took each day and made it shine
We wrote our names across the sky
We ride so fast, we ride so free
And I had you and you had me"

A part of me wondered what we would find when we finally got back to 2016. Would everything be exactly the same? Exactly as we remembered? Or would everything have changed? Perhaps nothing had to change, we just needed to see, see underneath what we'd always seen as real.

"Please remember, Please remember"

It was insane... beyond insane even. The whole point of leaving, of never visiting again, was to make sure Tony would have no memories of me, of us. How could I ask him to remember me when I needed him to forget?

I couldn't handle it anymore then. I fled. The room, the house... I didn't even realize how or why it happened exactly, but suddenly I found myself standing in the middle of an overgrown garden. It took me almost a full minute to realize exactly where I was. Home, my garden... except it was not my home, and it was not my garden. I couldn't help myself, I broke into tears.

Chapter Text

Into the West

There is another world, across the sea of stars, where one day, we will all meet again.

In early 1975 we got a visit, one we could have never expected. Our youngest daughter, Willow, had chosen to drop by; she wasn't alone, though it wasn't Rose accompanying her. It was a man: Johann Reynolds, veteran from the Vietnam War, old friend of Hakon, and with a younger sister who was mutant and attended the Xavier Institute... he (the two of them, really) was there to ask us for Willow's hand in marriage...

I couldn't believe it at first, our youngest so grown up... it saddened me, to think that she'd found a man she loved, a man she wanted to marry him, and we hadn't been there to see it all happening from the start; to see her fall in love, see him make her happy, and when he proposed. He was quite the gentleman, it had been his idea to ask us for her hand, even though Max had already agreed (and as far as most of the world knew, it was his opinion that counted); but he was one of the select few who knew the truth about the woman he was going to marry, her full story, and he respected that she had two fathers; and thus it was only right to ask my love too.

Of course we were delighted to give our approval. Loki took an inordinate amount of pleasure in telling Johann, in great detail what would happen to him if he ever so much as thought about being unfaithful to Willow, or making her in any way unhappy... The man was horrified at the mere thought of being unfaithful; and he was also quite honest when stating that he couldn't promise things would be perfect, but he'd do his best. I beamed at him.

"I'm surprised." He admitted at the end.

"At what?" I inquired as we drank some tea. "Luke's threats? I know some people find him... unsettling when he gets in one of his moods."

"Not really." He admitted. "I already got my fair share from both Max and Alfdis... I'm still trying to decide which was worse. Max might look more like the violent kind... but there's something about a young woman threatening you with a slow death, all while smiling pleasantly at you..."

Luke had to laugh uproariously at that; I could hear his crowing in my head, his pride at Rose...

"But no, that's not what I meant." Johann went on. "What surprises me is... Well, you don't know me, at all. And yet you're so accepting of me... of us..."

"It's quite easy actually." I told him serenely. "Luke and I... we raised Willow as best we could, the same with Rose. We taught them to make their own choices, to make their own lives; and we also made sure they knew that whatever happened, whatever they did, we'd always be here for them... always. It doesn't matter if we don't know you, because Willow does, and she's chosen to marry you. And if she's done that... I know she's not being pushed into it, she's not doing it because she has no other choice, but because she wants to. And I know she knows that if anything goes wrong, she can always come home..."

That applied to both us and the Institute, of course.

I knew not many would be able to understand it, but it was the truth. And the way Willow smiled at us told me she knew it too. She'd made her choice, and she was happy with it, in the end that was all that really mattered.

We arrived to Westchester the day before the actual wedding, got the chance to meet with Rose, Charles, Max, and Max's twin children, Anya's younger siblings. Wendy in particular seemed to find us fascinating; we soon discovered that regardless of what glamour we tried to use, nothing working with her, she could always see right through it. It was fascinating; a facet of her power no one had ever contemplated. Also, we confirmed our suspicion, that Max Eisenhardt was none other than Erik Lehnsherr (though not a comment was made about it).

My husband pouted when being told in no uncertain terms that Max would be the one walking Willow/Anya down the aisle (as most of the guests didn't know about our connection). At the same time, we could be there with no serious glamours, nothing more than the blonde shades in our hair and different styles of clothes. When anyone asked it was simply said that we were friends of the family, from Europe. It was believable enough.

At some point I thought I could see something between Rose and one of the young men present... but it was there one moment and gone the next, and they didn't appear especially close. So in the end I decided to wait and see if she said anything about it, she needed. I couldn't help but feel I was missing something, but chose not to ask about it. Rose had a right to her own life; I could only hope that she would tell me about it, when the time was right.

Willow had asked us to sing for her and Johann's first dance as a married couple, and we were honored to. We chose the song "Tonight I Celebrate my Love" the same one we'd first sung for Ylva's and Fenrir's own ceremony, so many years before (it'd been the start of a good marriage, we could only hope the same for them); it was quite fitting really. It was also on that day that I was officially given a 'mutant name', Charles's students named me: Canary.

"What...?" It took me so much by surprise that for a moment I didn't know what else to say.

"She means no insult." Wendy hurried to reassure me. "The children are just so used to all gifted having a 'special name', and when they learned you didn't have one they jumped at the chance of choosing it. You may, of course, decline..."

"No!" I exclaimed, then formed myself to calm when I could feel several of the children flinch, so I went to my knees, and looked at all of them. "I'm very, so very sorry if I scared you. I didn't mean to. I'm not angry, not at all. I just... I wasn't expecting it. I'd be delighted to be Canary..."

"Yay!" The children all began cheering right away.

They were so young, so innocent, and so full of joy; I was glad my shock hadn't affected them negatively; of course, they couldn't know the true cause for my shock, only my love did, for it was in his mind as much as it was in mine:

The year was 2014, our first visit to the Xavier Institute. We'd been in contact with the leaders of the Institute, and most of the mutant community, during Spring of '13, but we'd never traveled to Westchester. It was a decision based on the fact that we didn't want to risk drawing Thanos's attention upon the Xavier Institute, and especially the children living there. I was already putting everyone at Avengers' Tower at risk; I would never forgive myself if I ended doing the same to kids, innocent children who shouldn't be involved in the upcoming war...

So we'd waited. Past the battle, our six months of 'palace arrest', and settling back in New York. It had been Darcy's idea, back when Hakon was still so young, and his control over his power was kind of flimsy. She'd recommended we attend one of the open classes, see if they could help.

The 'open class' was sort of like a workshop, meant to give the visitors an idea of what the school was like, what young mutants could learn if they were to attend, while at the same time not making them feel too out-of-sorts, or like outsiders. We knew we couldn't exactly have Hakon attend, not when we weren't living full-time on Earth; but still, it was a good visit. Hakon got a few tips on how to control his power better, and had a lot of fun playing with a teenager called Iceman (he seemed to be a favorite among the younger kids).

By the time supper came around Hakon had actually made a few friends (something that made all of us very happy, indeed). He went to find me afterwards, explaining to me how he'd been telling his friends all about me, and how I had the prettiest voice, like magic, and they didn't quite believe him, and could I please sing so they knew he wasn't lying?

I knew it was a bad idea to laugh, much as I wouldn't have been laughing about my son. So instead I kissed his brow and told him to lead me to his new friends. They were just outside. So I ended being lead down several halls and to a small sitting room, the children's sitting room. There I went to sit by the window, with Hakon in my lap, and sang the first song that came to mind, the same one I'd first sung during a Samhain ceremony, back when I was the to-be-Queen of Alfheim: Lalaith Mirloth...

By the end of the song the sitting room was filled, and not only by children; there were also a number of teenagers, and what I imagined had to be at least half of the staff. Charles Xavier smiled at me from the door, a look that seemed to hide a thousand secrets (so much that, ever so briefly I wished I were the telepath, to know what he was thinking exactly), and then...

"Canary!" Someone cried out. "It's you!"

The mutant to call out was a woman, she looked like she could be in her late twenties or early thirties (though I knew better than to trust impressions when it came to the age of mutants... after all, Charles Xavier looked nowhere near the 82 he supposedly was... and lets not mention Raven Xavier-Darkholme); she was brunette, and there was something in her hair, it looked like small feathers of some kind... and instead of arms, she had bird-wings.

"Sirin..." Charles began quietly.

"I'm afraid you have me confused with someone else, miss." I told the woman, not unkindly.

"Oh..." She directed a brief look at the Professor, and I couldn't help but wonder what was being said in their minds, then added. "Apologies ma'am. You just reminded me of someone else, an old friend of the Professor... she has quite a beautiful voice as well."

I vaguely heard my match saying something about no one's voice comparing to my own, didn't hear what (if anything) Sirin, or Charles, or anyone else said in return. I didn't pay the whole thing much mind, choosing instead to focus on the half-asleep child on my lap.

*Oh Stars...* I gasped straight into our bond. *It was me... all along.*

Yes it was, and I had no idea what that meant anymore.

xXx

1976 was quite the eventful year. First we moved out of the mansion in New York, instead going to Hanover, New Hampshire. To the modest apartment where the girls had lived while attending Dartmouth College. It was still in their name, but we knew they wouldn't mind. I even took a few classes, to keep busy, and eventually ended working as a tutor, as did my husband. We took the names of Risa and Lucas Grayson (with our blonde disguises) and began making new lives for ourselves. They were easy lives, with low profiles (especially compared to being related to Howard Stark...).

Hakon retired from the military early in the year. Not because he wanted (both his Papa and I knew quite well he didn't want to), but because he didn't look his age anymore. He was forty, had been in the military for twenty years, and hardly looked a day older than thirty. While he could have probably pulled it off for a few more years... it would have been risky, especially with the volatile attitudes those in power seemed to have towards gifted (one day they saw them as allies, as heroes, and others as risks, potential enemies...).

Our son spent a while with us, took enough classes to validate his law degree (with a new name) and then went to work as a paralegal, before eventually joining a team doing pro-bono work all around the world (it's not like he was in it for the money, and that allowed him to travel, and help other gifted... and for most people not to notice his lack of aging). And while a part of me liked the idea, and would have loved to go with him... another just wasn't ready to give up on my country, and those still living in it, just yet.

And then my first grandchild was born: Django Maximilian Eisenhardt-Reynolds. He was a lovely little boy, completely human, and still the apple of his parents' eyes, and everyone else in the Institute (even those who claimed to be separate from humans).

The greatest shock however, came in 1980... Peggy woke up.

No one understood how it happened, exactly. Steve was still very much lost in the Arctic (which she didn't like, at all). Howard had gone half-crazy over the whole thing, promising time and again to up his efforts to find that plane; and a part of me wondered if that was how it all began... or ended, depending on who you asked.

In the end Marge suggested having Peggy join the SSR again, as a way to keep her busy, and make use of her talents. And so Peggy took the name of Shannon Carter, and soon she'd made herself a figure in the intelligence business again. Officially she was Marge's niece, daughter of his younger brother: Johnathan Carter, a widower and war veteran who didn't doubt to lend his name to the creation of an identity to some top-secret agent, even without having met her (and he couldn't meet her; to others they could easily explain Shannon's likeness to Peggy with familial connections, but Johnathan would have never taken that).

It wasn't a good idea for Lucas or I to get anywhere near the SSR (the people in that business tended to have long memories), so we had to content ourselves with getting calls from Shannon every so often. It was how we learned when they recruited a young agent with great potential from MI5, a young woman called Kathryn Adler...

Tragedy hit our family in 1982, with the death of Johann in a car-accident. There was nothing any of us could have done; he was dead before the ambulance got there. Then, eight months later, my second grandchild: Nina Raisa, was born. Such a lovely little girl...

Lucas and I offered Willow to move in with us for a while at least, to help her with the baby, and the growing Django, but she refused. While she and Johann had had a house in New Jersey, they spent most of the time at the Institute, and that's where she and the children would be staying. It hurt, not being able to help her, but we knew Rose, Max, Charles and everyone else would take good care of all of them. And we were always but a call away.

And then the phone rang, in January of '83; it was Rose, Willow was sick, very, very sick...

I went nearly hysterical, the moment I heard. My husband had to pretty much pack me into the car so we could get to Westchester. There, people were waiting for us, and we were immediately lead straight to our daughter's bedroom. She was in bed, pale, and coughing every so often. Lucas went straight for the medical file on the bedside bed so we would know what was going on exactly, while I went to sit beside my baby and began running a hand through her sweaty hair.

"What's wrong with my baby?" I asked, very softly.

She was half-sleep, and even then it was obvious her sleep wasn't exactly restful, she kept tossing and turning, as if trapped in a nightmare.

"It started as a simple cold, but then it turned into pneumonia..." Lucas murmured quietly. "She appeared to be on the path to recovery, and then the fever came..."

Suddenly there was a pale alabaster hand, with the slightest blue-tint to the skin in my line of sight, as my love pressed his cold palm to Willow's forehead. She shivered almost violently once, then began to settle. The cold touch helping more than a dozen cool compresses would have.

Even as he did all that, I kept focusing on my powers, trying to find something to treat, but I couldn't. Whatever was wrong, it wasn't new, and I couldn't find it...

"A doctor from New York was consulted on the matter." He went on, quietly. "It would appear that Willow's lungs suffered more damage in the fire than we knew... The pneumonia aggravated things and, well..."

"And what?" I demanded, already knowing I wasn't going to like it.

"They've given her a month, perhaps two." He said quietly.

"Yeah well... doctors gave me three months when I was fourteen and here I am!" I couldn't help but snap, holding onto my sanity with teeth and nails.

"You also had an unfair advantage." My love reminded me.

"And couldn't you create another set?" I asked. "The deamarkonian could save her..."

"No." Shockingly, the reply came not from my husband, but my daughter. "No deamarkonian..."

"But Willow..." I began, voice watery.

"Mama, you're here..." She murmured, pressing her face into my touch.

"Of course I'm here, baby, I told you I always would." I assured her, pressing a kiss to her forehead, which was already warming up again. "Won't you let us help you?"

"Not the deamarkonian." She insisted. "It wouldn't be fair. Who could I even ask to do something like that for me? Binding their lives to mine..." She shook her head. "I know Rose would do it, but it wouldn't be fair, not to either of us. Besides, I've already accepted this... I'm going to join my Johann on the other side..."

I couldn't help myself, I burst into tears.

It was worse than accidentally shadow-walking to Salani manor and finding a place that should be my home yet wasn't, a garden that looked nothing like the place that had been my Sanctuary for so many years, the place where I'd met the love of my existence... Even knowing exactly what was wrong, pushing my magic in that direction, nothing could be done. I had no idea what, of everything I was feeling, was wrong with my daughter, and thus, I couldn't fix it.

We stayed inside only long enough to make sure the fever wouldn't spike again, then Lucas was forced to pretty much pull me out of the room, and to where the rest of the extended family awaited us. The moment they laid eyes on us they knew it wasn't good news.

"Oh..." Charles breathed out.

He was the first who saw us enter, the way I practically slid down the wall and curled up against the wall; I was in no mood to look at them, to watch their hopes crumble. They had placed all their hopes on me, on my healing powers, and I was disappointing them...

"I'm no doctor." I tried to explain to the family. "This kind of delicate work... it's the same reason why I could have never healed Charles's spine."

I might be a nurse, I might have read any and all anatomy books I could get my hands on... but books and theoretical knowledge simply weren't enough. If I was honest with myself (which I tried to be), I wasn't sure that, even knowing exactly what was wrong, would have been enough. Some things were just beyond my power, beyond anyone's power...

"Also, it's been so long." I added, even knowing that wasn't really the main point, just to give them something.

"But you can heal!" Max insisted, voice tinted with despair.

"I can, but it's not perfect, it's not absolute." I tried to explain, even as the tears finally began falling. "What I do is heal, not cure. I cannot undo damage. I can coax the tissue into getting better faster, and even that is hard sometimes, and can be dangerous. If I do too much, too fast, I risk having the person go into shock. Their bodies unable to deal with the change... But in Willow's case... I healed everything I could when we found her. I truly went to the limit of what my gift could do, and what she could take."

"And couldn't you have done more, later on?" Peter demanded, testily.

"I honestly don't know." I admitted, regardless of how much it cost me. "I've never been in that kind of situation. And also... I cannot heal something I don't know is there. None of us knew her lungs had suffered such damage. So even if I'd used my powers on her more later on, enough to erase the scars on her body, it wouldn't have changed anything for her lungs. I... I cannot work miracles, and I especially cannot heal what I don't know is wrong!"

My baby! My baby girl was dying... and there was nothing I could do to stop it!

xXx

We didn't plan it, not really, but Lucas and I ended pretty much moving into the mansion for the following months. We helped wherever we could, with Willow/Anya, with baby Nina, Django, even with the younger students sometimes. They took to getting as close to my daughter's rooms as they could every night in order to hear me sing, or play the flute. And eventually I just began singing for them too.

In the end, we managed to give Anya a lot more than a month, we gave her six. She still had that persistent cold, which no matter what we did, simply didn't end; but we made her as comfortable as she could be, and stayed by her side through it all. Then, almost three weeks after Nina's first birthday, the goodbyes began.

"Don't cry Mama..." She whispered when my turn came, I was the last. "You know this is not an eternal goodbye. We'll meet again, one day... All of us. The whole family will be together."

"Yes we will, one day." I nodded at her, kissing her brow with all the love I had.

I knew death wasn't the end... having been dead twice and all that... and I knew that a part of Anya felt relief at her coming departure, because she'd no longer be suffering, she would be at peace, and she would be with Johann again... She had nothing to worry about, she knew her family would be well looked after; we'd be alright. And one day we'd all join her on the Other Side. Or, who knows? Perhaps she'd join us on this one...

"Do you remember what the Other Side is like?" She asked me suddenly.

We'd talked about my deaths before. I'd thought it might be a good idea, to help her not be afraid of death... though I wasn't sure if she'd ever been, not really. She was such a brave girl, my Anya, my Willow... she might not have been of my blood, but she was a child of my heart and I loved her as much as I did any of my other children.

"Not really." I admitted, cocking my head sideways. "I only know it's a good place, a place where you can rest, where you'll find True Peace... where you'll never have to suffer, or feel pain, or worry ever again. Where there's only light..."

"Sounds nice..." She murmured quietly, looking like she was about to fall asleep.

I didn't plan it, not really, but from one moment to the next, I began singing a new song:

"Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You have come to journeys end"

"Sleep now and dream
Of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore"

"Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You're only sleeping"

I was sitting on her bed, with my baby (no matter how old she might be, she'd always be my baby) in my arms, her head in my lap as I ran a hand through her beautiful hair. My match was on her other side, half curled against her back and an arm around her waist, and I could tell he was wishing he never had to let her go. Though we both knew that was an impossible wish. Our little girl was leaving us, and there was nothing we could do to change that. All we could do was love her, love her with all our hearts and pray to the stars that she would be happy, wherever she went.

"What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea a pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home"

"And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass"

A part of me did wonder, what the Other Side might be like. I had most of my memories of my life as Tinúviel, and the memories of my life as Silbhé... but I had no memories of the intervening years, the time I'd spent... elsewhere. And my death as Silbhé... that time I'd gone no further than Hel's Hall, so there was nothing to remember from that experience, not really. I knew the Other Side (the Afterlife, Heaven, whatever some people might wish to call it) existed, that we didn't just cease to exist... but I couldn't remember what might exist there. Maybe I wasn't supposed to; maybe it was just the kind of truth those of the living simply weren't equipped to comprehend...

"Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time"

"Don't say
We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again
and you'll be here in my arms
just sleeping"

I wasn't sure when it happened, exactly, but at some point the room became really crowded. Hakon was sitting on a corner of the foot of the bed; Django in the other side, with the half-asleep Nina in his arms. Peter, Wendy, Max, Charles, Raven, Irene and Kurt were all standing in between the bed and the window, in silent vigil; the rest of the staff and a number of students either sat on the floor or stood against the walls of the opposite side of the room, and I could sense that those that hadn't fit inside were just out the door. Anya/Willow was someone special, so very special, not just for us family, but for all of them too and they would miss her dearly. They too were there to pay their respects in whatever way they could and to say their goodbyes.

"What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea a pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home"

"And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass into the west"

Anya Willow's eyes closed as the song came to an end, a serene smile on her face... she never woke up again.

xXx

The next year we got a message from Shannon, it was to let us know that the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division had just been founded, from the remains of the SSR (which, in recent years had been operating mostly as a private corporation, ever since MI5 and MI6 had risen high enough to take its place in keeping the UK safe), Division X (mostly defunct since the Cuban Missile Crisis), and top-secret departments within other intelligence agencies (like the CIA, FBI, NSA, Interpol, and the aforementioned MI5 and MI6) that had been devoted to dealing with the more 'extraordinary' events (or, in other words, less-normal things that might take place). The founders were Chester Phillips, Marge Carter-Sholto and Howard Stark; though only the first two were truly in command (since Howard wasn't intelligence, or military, he served more as an advisor).

They were working on creating teams by putting together agents of both countries, those who seemed most compatible. The first team had already been approved, formed by former SSR star duo (and Marge's proteges) Shannon Carter and Kathryn Adler, and an ex-military man, who was said to have been one of the best in the CIA, before joining the new agency: Nicholas Fury.

We didn't get the chance to ponder much on that, as we got a call from Westchester, asking us for help. They'd been attacked by Stryker and a team who'd tried to abduct several of the students. They'd fought them all off quite successful, the only real injury was (of course), Rose, who'd been shot in her flank. And it was bad...

Though, if I was honest, I didn't know what I was even surprised. We were talking about a girl that was a mix of my love and myself... of course she'd be the kind to get into heaps of trouble (sometimes caused by herself), of course she would fight tooth and nail to protect those who'd earned her trust, those she loved... of course she'd rather take a bullet than watch someone else be hurt, or worse.

There was a somewhat... odd event, that happened at some point. There had been some rumors in recent months about an operation, or possibly an organization called 'Checkmate', which, was supposedly acting in service of the government and the population, by seeking to keep control of 'inhuman individuals'. In my book that was a very twisted way of saying they wanted to take control of the gifted. SHIELD couldn't take an official stand, since the group didn't officially exist at all (much like the Winter Soldier, really); but at least a few decided it might be cause for worry. So, having nothing better to do, my love and I decided to offer a hand.

We made it all the way to Kansas where we, thankfully, didn't have to wait long. As something happened the very first time we got there. A fight, between individuals in rather... interesting costumes. The ones that called my attention most were the two with bird-wings on their backs... their images, I'd seen such images before...

*Is it just me or...?* I began, speaking straight into my love's mind.

*It's not just you.* He replied, eyes fixed straight on the same two. *They look just like the ones in that old painting, in Kontar's and Sharifa's palace...*

*Of Prince Khufu and his consort, Lady Chay-Ara...* I finished for him, calling the memory to mind with a little effort.

*Exactly.* He agreed.

*Is it possible?* I asked, intrigued. *Could it really be them?*

*I do not know.* My love admitted. *Remember that old legend Kontar told us about the people in the painting?*

*How they were cursed by one of their enemies, to find and fall in love with each other lifetime after lifetime, only to then have to lose each other?* I remembered. *You know, I always thought that perhaps, if the curse did exist, it was simply them having to remember; their falling in love could be easily explained by them being a match, and even by the memories themselves. And if they were Warriors...*

If they were anything like Kontar and Sharifa (always fighting for those they saw as their own) then their dying time and again was really no surprise.

Eventually it seemed like the enemies, a bunch of people in odd suits, and a male that appeared to be completely covered in ice, seemed to decide that retreat was necessary. My husband and I looked at each other and silently agreed that whatever 'Checkmate' was, it was probably in some way connected with the team of superheroes and the villains we'd just seen fight... and it probably wasn't a good idea to approach them when they were still on an adrenaline-high caused by the fight. No, it was probably best to try and find them later... at least that was the plan until I felt a stab of dark glee, a second before I saw what looked like a ray of ice, from the corner of my eye.

I didn't stop to think about it (really, was it a surprise the kind of trouble my daughter got into when I was exactly the same...? Or she was the same as me... same difference); I dropped off the balcony where we'd been standing, teleporting mid-fall to appear right in the attack's path, fingers already tracing runes in the air as I re-appeared:

"Algiz!" The shield materialized at my finger-tips just in the nick of time.

"What the...?!" I could hear vague, loud cursing at my back, however, before any of them could move my love was standing right there.

"Who are you?!" The man with the bird... hawk? Wings demanded sharply, weapon (medieval style) raised threateningly.

"Wait!" His partner, the young woman in a similar attire and wings, stopped him suddenly. "Don't attack them! They... they just saved my life..."

"Hawkman! Hawkgirl!" A man in a blue, red a white suit that seemed almost a mock-up of Captain America's get-up, called as he approached. "Are you alright?"

"It was Icicle!" A blonde woman in dark bodysuit called as she approached. "He turned back at some point, shot that ray, then ran away. I'm sorry Hawkman, he slipped away."

"It's alright." Hawkgirl assured them. "We're alright... thanks to them..."

"That still doesn't explain why they did it..." Hawkman practically growled.

"You were in a bind and I knew I could help." I answered simply as I let the shield fall (finally deciding there probably wouldn't be another attack coming). "The right question would be: why shouldn't I do so?"

"Do you always speak in riddles?" The man in the colorful suit asked, sounding confused.

And then, as if the situation weren't already way too complicated, the next words to come out of Hawkgirl's mouth sealed the deal:

"Serrure...?"

For a handful of seconds no one said anything at all, and then.

"What?!" That was Hawkman.

"It is him!" Hawkgirl insisted. "Just look at him!"

"That's impossible, Serrure lived a thousand years ago." Hawkman snapped.

"So did we." She reminded me.

"So it really is you." My love interrupted them, cocking his head sideways. "We'd wondered..."

"We...?" They both turned to me instantly.

"Sharifa? Kontar?" I said the names purposefully as I went to stand beside my husband.

"Rossi?" Hawkgirl asked in return.

For all answer I stepped forward again, using a finger to trace a slash on one of Hawkman's arms, healing it as I went. It was only a flesh wound, easy enough to deal with:

"I may not look the same, but it is me." I nodded.

"How is this possible?" Hawkman wanted to know. "You should have died..."

"You always knew we weren't exactly 'normal'." My match pointed out quite calmly for our situation. "And, in any case, shouldn't we be the ones asking that question? Particularly when we quite clearly remember you dying..."

I flinched slightly at the memory, of the battle, the blood, their refusal to abandon their people, to survive without each other... and the song I'd sung for them as their souls departed the world...

"Someone mind explaining the rest of us what exactly is going on here?" The blonde in black asked with a hint of annoyance.

"I think this kind of conversation is better had in private." I suggested.

And really, civilians had ran away when the battle had begun, but they wouldn't be staying away forever. It would be better if we left before police arrived, or worse.

"Of course." Hawkgirl agreed instantly. "Follow us please."

xXx

We were guided to a town-house which seemed to serve both as living quarters and base of operations of the team; the 'Justice Society of America', we were told they called themselves. The moment we arrived Hawkman and Hawkgirl took off their helmets, setting them on the round table before taking a seat.

"Hey man!" The man in blue and red called loudly. "What are you doing? How do you even know you can trust these guys?!"

"Because we know them." Hawkgirl told them simply. "We've known them for a while..."

"It really has been a very long time, hasn't it?" I asked quietly. "A lifetime..."

"More for us." Hawkgirl murmured. "Quite a few more."

"So you did die." Hawkman said almost at the same time. "Though you were only reincarnated once? And how does he look exactly the same?"

Loki and I looked at each other silently, trying to decide what to say and what not to. In the end we decided to go with the truth... but a somewhat broad version of it.

"That's because he hasn't died, not yet." I began. "I, however, did die. Several decades after the two of you. I don't know if I've had other incarnations, if I did I don't remember them."

"You didn't die?!" Hawkgirl exclaimed in shock.

"You always knew we weren't human, not really." My love reminded them. "Lets just say I belong to a very long living race... Rossi was reincarnated as a human, but our reunion changed her, into a mix of who she was born as, and who she used to be back when you first knew us..."

"Were you cursed?" Hawkman wanted to know. "Like us?"

"No." I shook my head, remembering what I'd told my love not two hours before. "We're not cursed. We're a match."

"A match...?" The blonde in black inquired curious.

"A pair meant for each other." I explained softly. "Whose love shall last till the last star falls from the sky... I speak of soulmates."

"Soulmates?" The woman repeated. "That's nothing more than children's tales..."

"I disagree." My love and I stated at the same time.

"Love isn't a curse." I added for good measure. "The kind of lives we lead... I knew someone once who told me that knowing they were a match gave her hope, hope that even if the worst came to pass, they would have a chance to meet again, to love each other again..."

No one replied to that. Though I couldn't be sure if it was because I made them think, or because they thought I was insane...

Things got better afterwards. Introductions were made, and eventually the other two (Star Spangled Kid and Black Canary) trusted us at least enough to take off their masks and sit down. We didn't really talk much of the past; those were other lives and didn't have much impact in our current ones. Though they did tell us some about the JSA, the team of superheroes they'd formed in the last decade, seeking to keep the world protected. And 'Checkmate', the government group that sought to either turn them into their lackeys or, if that failed, destroy their reputations and their lives as a whole. They were the ones who sent Icicle and the others in the odd suits, seeking to destroy the heroes and, if possible, discover their true identities.

At the end of the day we were offered membership, but we declined. Being heroes was simply not our style. Though we did tell them some things about the X-Men, and how to know when they could trust others (like in SHIELD).

When we reported back to SHIELD we told them very little. We told them what we'd discovered about Checkmate, citing 'anonymous sources', which Shannon knew better than to ask about. We didn't tell them anything of the Society though, much as we might believe in SHIELD and everything it stood for, Loki and I'd never been exactly supportive of the 'Watchmen' approach. If they eventually wanted to get in touch and ally with SHIELD, or any other team or government organization; that would be up to them.

xXx

We never did go back to New Hampshire after Willow's passing. It just didn't feel right. Instead we took to traveling for a while (it's how we eventually ended doing that mission for SHIELD), before eventually ending somewhere in Wisconsin, where we took new names (Rossi and Serrure Zabo, this time), I decided to re-qualify as a nurse, while my love worked fixing things (he'd learned a lot, working with Howard). It was a good, easy life; though not really enough. Which was why when, in 1988, Calvin Johnson, a doctor I'd worked with for a while, who'd gone for a summer to work with Doctors Without Borders in Asia, called to tell me he was planning to stay in China to open a clinic in a small town in the Hunan Province that had no doctors, and to ask me for help... I said yes immediately.

It was truly a small town, with very little resources, and it was not surprising that the people were so glad to have Calvin, and later even Serrure and myself there. Though, from what he told us, it had taken a bit to earn their trust, as they were the kind of town that didn't usually like strangers. He probably wouldn't have been able to stay if it hadn't been for Jiaying...

Jiaying was a beautiful Chinese woman, as Calvin explained to us, she assisted him, as a nurse before I arrived, but more importantly, with translations, as his Chinese was very poor. I myself knew the basics of the language but wasn't exactly fluent, she helped me with that.

Eventually we learned that Jiaying was one of the Elders of the village, which we all found somewhat odd, seeing how she looked like someone in her mid-thirties at most; while the rest of the elders were at least in their sixties. My husband suspected that she wasn't exactly human, but neither of us felt there was enough trust to ask. So we chose to ignore the obvious signs and go on with our lives, deciding that if it truly became important someone would mention it at some point... it never was.

Calvin and Jiaying got married in 1988, in a small but quite heartfelt ceremony. It was obvious how much those two loved each other (I was quite sure they were a match, actually), and both Serrure and I wished them all the best. I suspected that neither of them had had much cause to be truly happy in their lives.

In the Fall of 1991, the four of us were watching in a mix of sick fascination and gut-churning horror the footage of what had happened in Egypt, a mix of pictures and even video people had been taken at the time of the catastrophe, and more recent images of the aftermath; neither of us quite paying attention to the reporter, going into the theories people had of what had happened, and what little was known... we all practically jumped when the phone rang.

It was a mobile-phone. One of the best (which was really nothing compared to what I'd grown used to in the time we originally came from); but the little community really had no landlines, and therefore no phones; so the mobile was our best way of communicating.

"Hello... this is Serrure Zabo speaking..." My husband answered, very formally.

While the phone technically belonged to us, it wasn't uncommon for calls to come in, meant for someone else, most of the time Calvin, but even others in the town.

"What?!" The yell definitely made us all jump that time.

"Serrure..." I call quietly, as he hang up the phone almost violently enough to break it. "Love..."

"We need to go." My love announced instantly. "A plane is being sent for us. We need to get to Changsha Huanghua International Airport."

"A plane...?" Jiaying called, completely confused.

"What's happened?" Calvin inquired, very worried. "Do you need any help?"

Serrure ignored their questions, probably didn't hear them at all; instead he looked straight at me as he four words:

"Rose was in Cairo."

I could have screamed. I could have, but in the end I didn't. There was simply no point. Instead I forced myself to focus. Jiaying and Calvin knew exactly who Rose was (even if they knew not how old she was... or how old we were for that matter). In minutes we were ready to go and Calvin was pressing the keys to his car into Serrure's hand, telling him not to worry about anything and that they'd be waiting for us, they hoped our daughter would be alright.

xXx

It was the worst twelve hours of my life. Calvin's car did help, since it would have been a bad idea to end up calling attention to ourselves by using the Shadow Paths or anything... and since the CIA was sending a plane, we couldn't exactly explain to them why it wasn't necessary. I had no idea how anyone had explained the need of us, when no one knew of Rose's connection to us. So we got to the Changsha Airport, got on the CIA plane... which thankfully turned out to be one either Stark or McCoy had worked on at some point, as it was faster than most planes. That and the fact that no stops were made allowed us to get to Egypt much faster than we'd have in any other circumstances... it was still absolute torture.

Raven was waiting for us at the airport in Cairo. Apparently she'd arrived but a couple of hours earlier, having put her son through his paces, teleporting across half a dozen countries (at least) to get to Egypt, the moment she'd heard something had happened in Cairo and somehow Rose was involved. Her son was keeping watch over my daughter, along with the very Agent who'd gotten her involved in the mess (not like I thought Rose a defenseless child who couldn't make her own choices, but still): Moira MacTaggert.

Raven must have repeated a dozen times how she, Charles and Max had had no idea anything was going on, how they'd have never allowed Rose to go into a potentially dangerous situation without backup. I wasn't really paying attention to her, completely focused on my daughter.

Rose was in a private room in the area of the American Embassy that served as the Infirmary. Apparently the hospitals were filled to capacity with people who'd been affected by the explosion in some way or another; and Agent MacTaggert had believed it to be safer to keep Rose inside the Embassy. The official version of events was that ChaosRose had become aware of the explosion right as it began and used her powers to try and minimize the damage; I knew instinctively that was not what had happened. However, I chose not to ask, instead focusing on using my own gifts to heal my child as much as I could. Even then, it was a full week before she opened her eyes:

"You need to stop giving us these scares Rosie..." I whispered, kissing her brow. "I thought your Papa was gonna go berserk this time."

It really had seemed like that for a moment, he'd been beyond insane with worry.

"You know I cannot make such promises, Mama." She said softly, but dead-honestly. "Not when my taking the risks might make a difference between others living or dying."

"I told your Adar (Father) you would say that." I had, he hadn't liked it anymore than I did, but there was nothing we could do to change it, she was exactly as could be expected from a mix of us, and being raised by us (I could quite clearly remember jumping off a balcony and calling on a shield to stop an attack that could have killed Hawkgirl). "Cannot say I'm really surprised, we're very much alike, you and I; and not just in looks. There are times when I wonder if it's a consequence of your soul coming into being when I was Ljósálfar myself..."

It wasn't something I liked to ponder on for long, as the mere idea of having lost her once hurt, even if it'd been another life and there had been nothing I could do (not the least because I myself had died but minutes later). Still, I didn't think it to be a coincidence that, from the very start of my pregnancy, I'd known her name to be Rose (the name I'd chosen for my baby back then had been Meril, the elven word for 'rose'). And it wasn't about me, or us, trying to substitute one child with another... it was simply an instinct, a knowledge we couldn't quite explain, it was just there.

"Where were you this time?" Rose asked to change the topic.

"China." I smiled as I answered. "The Hunan Province. There's a small village there, they have limited resources. A man I knew, he left his practice in Wisconsin to join Doctors Without Borders. It was supposed to just be a few weeks, but then he apparently realized that there were villages far away from the main cities, they didn't have doctors. So he went to one and built a clinic there. I knew him briefly years ago, when I sought to re-qualify as a nurse. He invited us to join him." She let out a breath. "We knew all along we wouldn't be able to stay where we were forever. People would eventually begin noticing that we don't age. So we waited just long enough to make sure things were alright with Howard and his family, with Marge and hers, and with the newly formed SHIELD, then we packed our bags and left. It wasn't originally the plan to go to China, but there just came a time when we felt like we could no longer stay in America, the risks were too great (and not just of someone suspecting something about us, but of us changing things we shouldn't). So we left."

She nodded. I suspected she'd already been expecting us to do something like that. Maybe not China exactly, but still.

"That's related to something else we need to talk to you about." I decided that time was as good as any to bring the topic up.

"You're leaving." She said, apropos of nothing.

For a moment I wondered if she'd 'seen' it, then I decided it made no difference. It was still coming, and I needed to explain things to her.

"Yes." I nodded. "I will be born next year... or the girl I used to be will... the point is the same. It'll be too risky for us to stay after that."

"I don't understand." She admitted, confused. "I though you didn't meet Papa until you were 11."

"That's true." I agreed with a small smile. "But even before that, Loki took to traveling to this world. We don't know if my birth was somehow connected, or if it was entirely coincidental, but from the summer of next year on, the Loki of this time will begin traveling more often to this world. Eventually meeting me, or the eleven-year-old me. Your Papa and I cannot be here when that happens, it'd be too risky."

I had no idea what would happen if the other Loki realized something was off, much less if he happened to see one or both of us... but I... we'd rather not risk it.

"So you're leaving this realm." She'd obviously caught on to the comments about 'world'. "Where are you going then? I know you cannot go to Asgard, or Jotunheim, or even Alfheim."

"No, none of those." I shook my head slightly. "Not Helheim either. Much as I'd love to spend time with your sister, it's not time yet. We're going to Vanaheim. Few enough people there knew us, even during my past-life, and the way the realm exists, in separate sectors rather than a single Kingdom, it'll allow us to live there without being bothered, or bothering others."

"When are you coming back?" She asked next.

"2012, most likely." She answered.

I didn't tell her why that year exactly, and she didn't ask. Truth was, I wouldn't have known what to say even if she had asked... if there was one thing we'd never mentioned, to anyone at all, but especially not the children, was everything that concerned the Chitauri and their two invasions: in 2012 and 2013. If they knew they'd want to intervene, it would be impossible for them not to... and that was something that couldn't be allowed, the risks were simply too great.

Serrure and I stayed in Cairo for a week more after our daughter woke up, until we were sure she would be alright. Then, accepting that there was nothing else we could do,, that Raven and Kurt would get her back to the Institute safely (and it would be suspicious if we stayed for much longer) we said our goodbyes and went back to China.

Calvin and Jiaying were very happy to see us again, even more when they heard that our daughter would be making a full recovery. We also got the chance to celebrate the news they had for us: Jiaying was pregnant. Things were definitely looking up.

xXx

The terrible news came less than two months later. It was Shannon who phoned us. Howard and Maria Stark had died the night before in an awful car accident. Preliminary investigation seemed to indicate that Howard had lost control of the car (some said he might have been drunk) and crashed. I didn't want to believe it, didn't want to believe that the man I'd called brother for almost fifty years was the kind of man who would get drunk and drive... but it'd become obvious in recent years that I didn't know him as well as I thought I did.

The hardest part was, perhaps, not being able to be there for Tony, Shannon, Marge, even Jarvis, all the people, all our friends and family that were hurting over the loss of both Howard and Maria. But we couldn't be there. The press (the tabloids) had finally gotten tired of speculating about the 'reclusive half-sister of Howard Stark'... we couldn't risk it, not even with glamours.

So instead we waited until the service ended, until the last person left and the workers finished filling the graves; waited until there was no one near who might see us, and then my love and I approached the grave.

"Oh Howard..." I murmured quietly as I dropped to my knees before the tomb. "What happened to us? How did we end up here?"

I'd always known he'd die, before meeting him even, had even had a general idea of when it would happen and yet... even all the theoretical knowledge in the world couldn't have prepared me for what I was feeling in that moment. It reminded me of when I'd lost Willow, though that had been in many ways infinitely more painful.

"Our daughter was here..." My husband murmured quietly.

I saw the perfect black rose amidst all the other funeral flowers quite easily, there was no doubt at all who it was that had put it there.

No more words were said, they weren't needed. Memories kept piling up, conjured by either my Maverick or I, relived by both: memories of the times Howard had tried to meet us, and the coincidental meeting in that park, the day I'd become his sister, when we'd met Peggy, and Dr. Erskine, and then Steve... when we'd joined the war... so much that happened over those years, and even more afterwards. A lifetime word of memories, things we'd never forget, not if we lived thousands of years. And perhaps that was a good thing, perhaps then Howard will live just as long, in our minds, and our hearts... and so would everyone else we'd ever known.

We didn't talk, but we weren't fully silent either. I pulled the black jade dizi from a pocket in my jacket and sitting right there on the snowy ground began playing a quiet melody, my own version of a goodbye to the brother I'd never forget.

Chapter Text

The Call

It wasn't the end... barely a new beginning for us all.

Daisy Johnson was born on July 2nd, 1992. Jiaying had a long labor, but aside from being quite exhausted, she was completely healthy. Truth was I hadn't been sure how good an idea it might be for her to give birth at home, instead of a hospital, but in the end Calvin and I'd managed just fine. The baby was born, her parents were healthy, and very happy. We left China the next day.

Even then, Calvin managed to convince us to become Daisy's godparents.

"This is a bad idea." I tried to argue. "We're leaving tomorrow! What kind of godparents would leave their godchild... and you know we cannot stay."

"I still don't understand what makes you think you cannot stay." Calvin argued in return. "I mean. I know you and Serrure aren't exactly... normal, but so what? I'm not judging." He shrugged. "In any case, Jiaying and her people don't exactly follow the tradition of godparents... I do, and you're my friends, so of course I want it to be you." He made another pause before adding. "Even if you leave now. I know that if one day Daisy really needs you, you'll be there for her."

"Always." I assured him without hesitation.

"See?" He smiled widely at me (he'd been smiling so much in recent months). "That makes you the perfect candidate for godmother."

In the end I stopped fighting him. We had a small naming ceremony for Daisy, were named as godparents, and then we placed a necklace around her neck. It was quite different from anything we might have done before. First, because we didn't have access to asgardian metals (Rose's and Willow's bracelets had used up Loki's last reserves), but still we used the best metals we could. The chain was long, and twisted to make a double necklace, one longer than the other (and Daisy would be able to pull on one or the other to decide which one she wanted higher and which one lower); one had two small plaques with engravings connected to Jiaying and Calvin, symbols that identified them; the other had a smaller, round mantra pendant.

"It's beautiful..." Jiaying murmured quietly.

We just smiled at her. What we never told her was that the necklace was spelled, meant to protect Daisy when possible, and also so no one except her would be able to take it off. The spells were not as numerous or as strong as the ones in my nightingale pendant or in our daughter's bracelets, but that was because, without a true connection, there was little we could anchor those spells on (it wasn't a matter of blood, Willow's hadn't been ours by blood after all, it was a matter of being ours, and while Daisy might be dear, she wasn't our daughter, she already had wonderful parents, she didn't need us).

Calvin drove us to the airport (we needed to keep appearances after all), but the moment he was out of sight we dropped into a shadow and traveled back to America (no way were we sitting for eighteen hours on a plane). We dropped by for a brief visit with Hakon (he was busy, working some black-ops for Shannon -seeing how she actually knew who he was, and knew better than to reveal his identity to anyone-); and we phoned Howard, Marge and Shannon to say our goodbyes (for obvious reasons we couldn't do those in person). Then, we finally traveled to Westchester for our last goodbyes.

We spent the rest of our day there, enjoying the time, playing with our grandkids, and the rest of the mutant children staying the summer at the Institute. We, of course, also spent time with our daughter, making sure she'd be alright, that she'd know how to get in touch with us if it ever became necessary (though both Loki and I knew she was quite capable of looking after herself), and simply just having a good time.

At the end of the time the kids practically begged me to sing to them one last time; they knew we were leaving on a trip, and wouldn't be back for a while, even if they didn't know why we were leaving or exactly where we were going (then again, no one but Rose and Hakon knew that). I mock-pouted for a while, but eventually gave in (which brought some cheering). And so, soon enough we were all sitting in the children's favored sitting room, all of them around me as I thought of the best song to sing; eventually I ended doing what I usually did... making one up:

"It started out as a feeling
Which then grew into a hope
Which then turned into a quiet thought
Which then turned into a quiet word
And then that word grew louder and louder
'Til it was a battle cry
I'll come back when you call me
No need to say goodbye"

"Just because everything's changing
Doesn't mean it's never been this way before
All you can do is try to know who your friends are
As you head off to the war
Pick a star on the dark horizon and follow the light
You'll come back when it's over
No need to say goodbye
You'll come back when it's over
No need to say goodbye"

"Now we're back to the beginning
It's just a feeling and no one knows yet
But just because they can't feel it too
Doesn't mean that you have to forget
Let your memories grow stronger and stronger
'Til they're before your eyes
You'll come back when they call you
No need to say goodbye
You'll come back when they call you
No need to say goodbye"

As the song came to an end I held Nina tightly against my chest, kissing her hair and breathing in her scent. My match had an arm around Django, while our daughter was curled up in between us, like she used to when she was a little girl... I was going to miss them, both Loki and I would, dearly... but we just couldn't stay.

We'd already stayed longer than we should have. I could still remember the odd sensation I'd gotten on the 2nd of February, when Silbhé Salani was born... my love had called it an awareness, I could sense my younger self, because inside we were practically the same person (not exactly, because a person is made not only of DNA, but also of memories, and experiences, and many other things... but still). In any case, it was risky for us to stay, but once Jiaying had expressed her decision not to go to a hospital I knew we couldn't leave Calvin to handle the birth on his own. Even if we'd never told them the truth about us... I knew that if something had gone wrong I'd have rather revealed our secrets and used my power to heal either Jiaying, Daisy or both, than letting something happen to them. Still, she'd been born, the Johnsons were all safe, they'd be alright, and it was time for my love and I to leave...

Nina, Django, Rose, Charles and Max followed us all the way to the gates of the estate. There we didn't say a word, goodbyes simply weren't our style (at least those that weren't songs), so instead we just shared kisses and hugs, and then my love and I walked away. We walked down the street, until we were sure no one would be able to see us anymore, then we clasped hands, dropped into the shadows; and just like that, we left Earth behind.

We wouldn't be back for almost twenty years...

xXx Hakon's POV xXx

One might wonder if the Norns, the Fates, or whatever other Higher Power might be out there, were the kind to laugh at us. It seemed like too much of a coincidence when so much began happening exactly after my parents left Earth... too much to really be one. But what do I know? Gifted I might be, but I cannot presume to be the kind to grasp the 'big picture', no, I'm more the kind to fight with all I am, to protect all I can, and hope for the best.

Hakon Stark-Serrure was my name (or, I suppose Salani-Hvedrungr... it depended on where, and when, I was exactly); I'd also been given the nickname/codename of Frostbite by some friends due to my power over ice (and the fact that, before I could control it, I'd give frostbite to all who touched me... except my parents, they'd always been immune to that). Former military man, I served my country for twenty years, reaching the rank of Colonel before retiring at forty, not because I wanted to, or because I couldn't continue... but because, being Jotun by birth, I simply wasn't aging anymore. It would have been too risky to stay, even with the alliances several governments had with the X-Men and other, smaller, groups of gifted, there was no way of knowing how my superiors would have reacted, had they found out. So when they gave me an out, an opportunity to retire honorably, I took it. Of course, my idea of retirement wasn't the same most veterans would choose. I didn't go back to civilian life, not by a long shot, instead I did my best to help people, gifted and human alike, with whatever skills were needed (whether they were my elemental powers, military training, or some of the other tricks under my sleeves).

Through the years I got the chance to help the X-Men a number of times, assist in CIA missions, other gifted who weren't fortunate enough to have someone near to help them. I even got to help a young mutant-girl train her powers, when no one else knew how to deal with the fact that her powers just seemed to be too great for her body. That was a nice experience, to know I wasn't just good at fighting, I could also teach...

In 1992 I was 'working in the shadows' doing secret missions for Shannon Carter (who was in truth the real Peggy Carter, having been affected by her bond to Steve Rogers... making it so she hadn't really aged since the 1940s, she had enhanced senses, strength, speed and endurance... and she was liable to fall asleep at any given time and not wake up for months, or even years), and, indirectly, for SHIELD.

A copy of a report reached me almost a month after my parents departed. An operation in South America had gone very well, and very wrong, at the same time. On the one hand, fifteen young mutants (from young children to a teen-aged girl) who had been kidnapped and sold into literal slavery had been rescued from a secret base in the Andes... on the other hand, their rescuers had died keeping the mercenaries holding them captive back, while the children escaped, and they'd been none other than Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Peter and Wendy Maximoff were dead...

By the time I managed to get in touch with the people in the Xavier Institute there was nothing I could do. Rose was gone, had gone to ground so thoroughly no one had the slightest idea where my sister was (or so they said). I knew better than to think I could find her; tracking had never been my thing, and I wasn't a sorcerer, so that was out too. All I could do (however much I might hate it) was sit and wait, wait for my sister to either ask for help, or recover herself from whatever she was going through exactly.

Less than three months later, another report came. That one about something that had happened in Three Mile Island... a former military facility that was supposed to have been abandoned for more than a decade... I really didn't like the smell of that. It was only made worse as I looked through the report. The Elite SHIELD team (meaning Shannon Carter, Nicholas Fury and Kathryn Adler) had flown to the island after a report of 'something' happening there. Only to find the remains of a fight, including the bodies of several people, most of them military, including a General who had suspicious connections to William Stryker, as well as a civilian woman called Kayla Silverfox, a Canadian school teacher (and what the hell was a school-teacher doing in a secret military facility of all places!); though the worst of all was the man, who showed evident signs of both having been gifted, and having been experimented on. The pictures were almost enough to make me sick (worse than even some of the things Bolivar Trask had done to his own 'subjects' in the early seventies... and I'd always thought that to be bad enough).

As if that weren't enough, some of the other bodies in the island had also quite obviously been experimented on, and some had clearly been mutants. I wasn't sure what emotion ought to be stronger in me in that moment: the horror and the fury at what those poor people had gone through, or the relief that they were dead, that they were at peace... Also, there were twenty cages in that place, most of which had been obviously filled recently, and not nearly enough bodies. I had no idea if that was supposed to be a good or a bad thing and judging by the notes Shannon had made on the margins, she agreed with me).

SHIELD had no idea what had happened in that facility. There were those who suspected that the X-Men had been at the location before SHIELD (there were apparently signs of an aircraft, quite different from those military used), but the mutant leaders were being especially tight-lipped about it all. Even Moira MacTaggert, married to a former X-Man herself and in good relations with all of them had gotten nothing (or perhaps she did know and wasn't sharing the information, for whatever the reason...).

Bottom line, we had no idea what had happened in that place, or what was causing the sudden tensions between SHIELD and the X-Men; though I suspected they couldn't be good, not at all (it would be a while before I realized how right I was).

Then, as if those two messes weren't enough, there was yet another on March of the following year. Two full tactical teams disappeared, last known locations: China, more specifically: the Hunan Province... I went covertly and what I found... it was like a scene taken out of a nightmare (or out of the past... of the war), a small town in the middle of nowhere, while the place as a whole seemed to be mostly fine, everyone was dead, their bodies left abandoned in their homes, the streets, like so much trash. Some looked like they'd tried to fight, showed signs of struggle, even wounds, but more than half had no signs of anything at all, as if they'd just dropped dead for no reason at all. It was a chilling prospect.

I tried to find my parents' friends. I had never known their names, but from their few stories, there had been a single doctor in all the place... the clinic was a mess, the greatest struggle appeared to have taken place there. Yet there were no bodies inside. I had no idea what to believe. None of the bodies looked like they might belong to a doctor (or an American, for that matter)... too many questions, and no answers at all.

The worst part perhaps was when I turned in my report and Shannon informed that, officially, SHIELD wouldn't be pursuing the matter. Two full tactical teams missing, a small town pretty much massacred, and SHIELD wasn't investigating?! What the hell was going on?! Of course, 'official' meant very little when it came to a woman like Agent 13... she informed me she'd keep an eye on things, see what she could find. If nothing else, all those people deserved justice.

xXx

I was given a new mission in 1994. According to reports from another government group, there was a group of gifted gathering in Kansas of all places, causing trouble. While the other group claimed to have things under control, and most of the people at SHIELD seemed to be willing to take them at their word... Shannon was more of a skeptic. She couldn't go, as she was too well known, so it was left to me.

What I found... I could have never imagined. The backstreets of Metropolis, Kansas seemed to have pretty much turned into a battlefield for the war between the government group: Checkmate, and the team of gifted in 'colorful' attires.

It took me no time at all to realize who the good guys really were. (One only needed to see who was more interested in keeping innocents safe, sometimes even at cost to themselves). I never actually planned on getting involved, it wasn't part of the plan. I knew I needed to gather proof to take to Shannon, so SHIELD would know Checkmate weren't the good guys... and yet, again, the Norns decided to laugh at me, at us all.

It was the worst fight yet since I'd arrived to the city. I was using a sniper's sight to try and pick up things, anything that might serve as proof to the higher ups. I was also trying to deduce why it seemed like the 'heroes' appeared to be loosing all of a sudden; they'd dominated the previous fights, and not only because Checkmate had many soldiers, but only one gifted (and the heroes' teamwork was much better...). When I suddenly sensed an attack... one coming my way.

My reaction was instinctive, I dropped the rifle and threw myself to a side. Spinning around on one knee to see what looked like a staff hit the very spot on the rooftop where I'd been not three seconds before. It was being held by a man in blue, red and white (and I still couldn't help but feel like he was mocking the Captain with that getup).

"Why are you attacking me?!" I blurted out before I could think better of it.

"I make the questions kid." He retorted. "Who the hell are you?! You don't look stupid enough to be with Checkmate."

"Excuse me?!" I wasn't sure if that was supposed to be an insult or praise...

For all answer he touched my rifle with the side of his staff, I couldn't help myself and rolled my eyes at the implication.

"Really?" I drawled. "If I wanted you dead, you would be dead, period."

"You really think so?" He arched a brow, probably intrigued by my cockiness.

"I know so." Twenty years in the military hadn't passed in vain, and I hadn't survived Vietnam by letting others protect me, it just wasn't my style.

"Who are you then?" He asked, a bit less hostile than before.

I was just about to answer that question, while at the same time trying to find a way to explain what exactly I was doing in the city, without telling him that I'd originally thought him and his friends to be the villains, when I became abruptly aware to the steep drop in temperature.

"Icicle!" Someone on street level cried out.

Both of us turned our eyes down just in time to see the woman with the hawk wings (Hawkgirl I'd heard someone call her) trying to get up, yet too dazed to do so, something I guessed was caused by a hit to the head, judging by the slight dent in her helmet. And there was a blue man, skin covered completely in frost, approaching her, power gathering in one hand... or on the device he held. I didn't need my sister's powers to know what was coming.

Yet again my reaction was instinctive... though not my instincts as a soldier, but those as a Warrior. It didn't occur to me to reach for the rifle (then again, it's unlikely the man with the staff would have allowed it, and time was short), so instead I jumped off the ceiling, allowing my body to shift midfall, just in time for the attack that 'Icicle' had just released to hit me instead of the woman on the ground.

"Hawkgirl!" A man yelled with more than a hint of panic.

I imagined he hadn't seen me, and the frost all around us wasn't helping matters any. Still, there was no time to stop and talk, I conjured a spear made of pure ice and threw it at the enemy.

A scuffle followed, the man kept shooting ice, and kept being surprised when, instead of dodging his attacks, I took them straight on, never stopping, never slowing down.

"What the hell are you?!" He roared at some point, furious at not being able to kill me.

"I, unlike you, truly have ice in my veins." I answered cryptically.

I was trying to take him down without killing him, I really was, and then the man went truly nuts. He used his gun to hit me in the face, making me fall. Then he was upon me, his bare hands around my neck, trying to choke me. My power reacted instinctively to protect me, only he didn't just get frostbite in his hands, they covered in ice, an ice that soon expanded, covering his hands, arms, and almost all of his body. By the time the heroes got him off me, it was too late, the man was already dead.

"Merde (Shit)!" I cursed in French. "Putain (Fuck)!"

"Interesting vocabulary you got kid." One of the heroes deadpanned.

"Not a kid." I replied automatically as I pushed myself to my feet. "I'm screwed. How am I supposed to explain to my boss what the hell happened here?! This is a royal mess, and I'm absolutely screwed... Boss's gonna kill me..."

I broke up as I realized the sideways glances they all kept giving me.

"I'm not going to turn around and kill you all, you know?" I said in a drawl, rolling my eyes. "Like I told your friend on the roof, if I wanted you dead, you'd all be dead, period."

"Yes, because that's so comforting..." A man in a long coat, a hat and a freaky gas-mask spoke up.

"It should be." I snapped. "You're alive, aren't you?"

"We are." Hawkgirl stepped in. "You saved us, saved me... why?"

I decided there was no point trying to sugarcoat things, they either would believe me, or they wouldn't, and there was no point fretting about it.

"I have... well, she's actually more of a friend than a boss." I admitted with a shrug. "She works for the government. And sometimes, when she cannot investigate something herself, because she is too well-known, or it's a delicate situation, she asks me to do it." I shrugged again. "Not like I have anything better to do. So I came. Initially I was lead to believe that Checkmate were the good guys, working for the government and all that, and you were the villains, creating mayhem in the city." It looked like more than one of them would complain, but I waved a hand to stop them. "Of course, I'm not blind. The truth was fairly obvious once I saw one of your fights."

"What did you see?" A man in a dark blue and gold suit, with a golden mask-helmet asked, sounding honestly curious.

"I saw you taking risks, taking hits, to keep innocent civilians safe." I answered honestly. "In my experience, villains don't do that. Evil people don't do that."

"And you have much experience, do you?" The man with the bird wings asked with a scoff.

"I was in Vietnam, twenty years in the army all told, and have been helping gifted and humans around the world for almost as long, so you tell me..." I retorted.

"But..." Hawkgirl sounded half-lost. "How is that possible? You look so young..."

"I'm older than I look, miss." I answered politely.

"Wait a second, wait a second!" A blonde woman in a black bodysuit spoke for the first time. "You're one of the freaks, and you work for the government?!"

"I am gifted, not a freak." I corrected, taking offense at her choice of term. "And yes, though only indirectly. My friend is the only one who knows... well, the truth about me. And my family of course, but they aren't around right now..."

"Your family..." Hawkgirl called suddenly. "Are you related to Serrure and Rossi?!"

"Hawkgirl, you cannot think..." Hawkman began.

"How do you know those names?" I interrupted him, curious.

"So you do know them!" Hawkgirl sounded honestly delighted by that fact.

"My parents have used those names." I answered honestly.

"Wait, so you're their son?!" Hawkman was evidently shocked.

"Just how old are those two?" The blonde in black demanded.

"Oh..." I breathed out, as I suddenly saw the winged couple and it came to me. "You're the prince and his consort aren't you? From Egypt..."

The rest of the team began quietly ribbing them, I could guess that Hawkgirl was blushing, while Hawkman looked straight at me.

"You know of us." He said simply.

"My parents used to tell me your story when I was a little boy." I admitted with a very light blush. "I always loved hearing about the friends they'd made during their travels."

"Guys..." The man with the staff (who'd finally gotten off the rooftop... thankfully with my rifle) called as he joined us. "As enlightening as this conversation seems to be. I really think we should go before the police gets here... or Checkmate returns." He turned to me. "You got a name kid?"

"I'm not a kid." I repeated. "And you may call me Frostbite."

Really, they might know my parents (either from another lifetime or their current one, I didn't know for sure yet), but there was no way I was trusting those guys without proof.

I did trust them enough not to stab me in the back, though, and agreed to follow them to their base, where we had a long talk about who they were, what the JSA was supposed to stand for... and what Checkmate truly intended. I couldn't believe we'd gotten the situation so wrong (and a part of me feared that had been no accident or misunderstanding on either part either).

I got in touch with Shannon a couple of hours later, but by then the shit had already hit the fan, in a mayor way. Apparently Checkmate had reported that a new 'rogue enhanced' had killed the leader of their squad, a man called Joar Mahkent. No report was made of his cryo-gun, or any other thing that might make them look bad. No, as far as official versions went, the JSA were the villains... and so was I.

"You cannot come back, Hakon." Shannon warned me. "Not to DC, it's too dangerous. They have a picture of you. With blue skin and red eyes... but still, it's too risky."

"You do realize something is rotten in all this, right?" I muttered darkly. "First Three Mile Island, then China, and now this? What the hell is going on inside SHIELD, Shannon? I mean, isn't it a bit fast for the higher-ups to go all dark on us? Allow themselves to become corrupted?"

"I have no idea what's going on." She admitted, and I could tell how much it cost her. "Though I agree with you that something is really wrong. We cannot keep using this line, it might be compromised. I'll try to get in touch with you once it's safe. You better not get killed Hakon, what will I tell your parents then?"

I rolled my eyes before saying something else (a meaningless platitude) and hanging up.

"Everything alright kid?" Hakwman asked.

I'd given up on telling them I wasn't a kid, there seemed to be no point.

"No." I admitted, running a hand through my damp hair (the frost having melted on me). "I... nothing's alright at all..."

xXx

I ended up staying with the JSA for almost two years, helping them evade Checkmate. It wasn't easy, especially when, as far as the public was concerned, we were the villains (and when they did not care about hurting or even killing innocents during our confrontations).

Things went to hell (again? Even more?) in '96. I was finally getting used to things with the JSA (had semi-officially moved in with Carter and Shayera and took great delight in helping them take care of their baby, who'd been born exactly six months after I'd met them), when my mobile rang... everyone shushed instantly, that phone hadn't rung in months, and everyone knew that only three people in the world had the number (my sister, my former student, and Shannon...).

It wasn't made any better when I heard a near-panicking woman on the other side. Shannon... no Agent Peggy Carter did not do panic. She was too smart, too calm to panic... but she was on the edge of a panic attack. I was packed and on my bike in less than five minutes.

By the time I reached her... I was quite aware of the fact that, had it been anyone other than her (anyone not enhanced) she wouldn't have survived. There was a still-healing bullet wound on her chest, just beneath her collarbone. It was bad enough that, even with her superhealing it was probably going to scar...

"Shannon!" I cried out, practically stumbling as I saw her.

She had managed to get herself to a safe house, one few people inside SHIELD knew about (a part of me wondered darkly if that was the only reason she was still alive).

"How bad is it?" I asked, as I focused on helping her change her bandages (she'd been trying to do that with one arm and it wasn't easy). "I'm not a healer and have no idea how to help."

"It's alright, it's mostly healing on its own." She admitted, panting just a little. "That's not the real problem, though."

"Then what is?" I asked her.

"I'm falling asleep." She admitted grimly. "The kind of sleep I don't think I'll wake from any time soon, probably not for a good few years..."

I knew her condition, of course I did. My parents had always suspected she'd be falling asleep again at some point before the Captain was found (they knew when that would be, though they were the only ones... I think they hadn't wanted to create false-hopes, in case something changed or went wrong or anything).

"What happened Shannon?" I asked, quietly.

And then the dreaded word came out, the last I could have ever expected to hear her say:

"Hydra..."

xXx

"Hydra?! What the hell do you mean with Hydra?!"

I'd listened to Shannon's explanation about what had happened, growing increasingly worried and horrified as she went on. Then I'd managed to get us to another safe-house, helped her into a bath (which she, thankfully, could handle all on her own), and then helped her into bed. She knew she couldn't stay there, it wasn't safe.

A couple of days later arrangements had been made and I'd gotten her to the original house, in the outskirts of London, to the same warded room where Peggy Carter-Rogers had first fallen asleep. Marge's youngest: Stephanie, would keep an eye on her (the woman wasn't connected in any way with SHIELD, was in fact retired from the SSR, and in that moment was one of few people we could trust with the safety of the sleeping wife of Captain America).

During that time I'd also gotten in touch with some contacts and arranged for SHIELD to find the safe-house where I'd found Shannon; they wouldn't be finding her, obviously, or any sign of me; but they would find her bloody clothes and bandages, and traces of enough blood to have her declared dead (cruel, perhaps, to her friends, but necessary nonetheless). I'd also made a single call to Carter, apologizing and explaining in as few words as I could why it was a bad idea to go back to Metropolis, I wasn't about to put them, and especially not their kid, in danger. In two years I'd grown to see them almost as family, I would protect them if I could.

Then, once all that was finalized, I took a plane to New York, to Westchester... Max and Charles had received me quickly enough. However, all that ended when they heard the news I was there to deliver to them...

"I mean exactly what it sounds like." I retorted. "Hydra still exists, and it's inside of SHIELD..." I thought back to Peru, the authorities with little interest in finding the missing mutants; Three Mile Island and its corpses and empty cages; the JSA and Checkmate; China and a devastated little town... Shannon had been pursuing that, she'd apparently gotten too close, and almost paid for it with her life. "Actually, I think it might have infiltrated a lot more than just SHIELD."

"Wasn't Hydra supposed to have been eradication?" Charles asked quietly.

"We were told they were defeated." Max's own reaction was much stronger, almost visceral, which was probably no surprise, all things considered. "That they were finished with the war!"

"Don't you think I know that?!" My reaction was just as intense, I couldn't help myself. "How do you think I feel?! I was there, the Howling Commandos? I consider them my friends. The Captain... Steve... and now to learn that everything they fought for was for nothing, that all the loses were in vain because Hydra is still around, and apparently stronger than it was! This should have ended fifty years ago! And instead it's only gotten worse!"

"Hakon..." Charles began, very softly.

"They almost killed my friend." I added, forcing myself to calm down (frost was beginning to appear on my clothes, and the chair I was sitting on). "Shannon... she got too close to them, came close to discovering... something. They tried to kill her, if she didn't heal as fast as she does she would have died for sure." And Steve too, still alone, in the ice. "I... I just don't understand how they could have gotten so far with no one noticing..."

"What if they did notice?" Charles offered.

"They just weren't as lucky as your friend." Max added for good measure.

A shiver ran down my spine as the possibility ran through my head. The people who'd died under mysterious circumstances over the last fifty years, a list that began with almost a handful of Howling Commandos, including Jacob Sholto, Marge's husband... Marge herself, she was supposed to be in that car, with her husband, but Stephanie had been sick... The thought of cars brought another idea: Howard... I suddenly felt sick, was forced to swallow down bile.

"If you're right... if you're right this is so much bigger than I imagined, that even Shannon believed." I forced myself to speak, as I ran a hand through my hair. "What are we supposed to do now? I... I have no idea what to do now. My parents are gone, they won't be back for more than a decade... Rose... I have no idea where she is... though she's probably safer far away from this mess and... I don't even know who we can trust anymore."

"Ourselves, our family." Max stated, his voice sounding surprisingly soft after his initial rage. "That much we can trust."

"We might not be able to do much, not at this stage." Charles stated, thoughtfully. "Then again, if they aren't revealing themselves, that means they're not ready to be out in the light either."

"How does that help us?" I didn't understand.

"It means we have time." Max clarified for me. "Time to solidify our position, to prepare..." He turned to face his partner. "I told you war was coming."

"That you did." Charles agreed. "And yet, this is not a matter of humans vs. mutants..."

"No." I stepped in. "It's a matter of a few Neo-Nazi sympathizers against those who might be willing to fight them, with the world as a battlefield and the rest of humanity as pawns..."

It was much, much worse than any war Magneto could have ever envisioned.

"We'll get through this." Max stated, surprisingly strong.

"How are you so sure?" I couldn't help but ask.

"Because the opposite isn't an option." She replied simply.

It really wasn't, because the opposite would mean that evil had won, it would probably mean the end of the world... no, that definitely wasn't an option.

xXx

So we made plans, and contingencies, and even contingencies for the contingencies. For the good of all of us, and of everyone under our care, we wouldn't be able to stay in contact after that day. Checkmate already had me in its crosshairs, and there was a chance the same could be said for SHIELD, sooner or later.

Charles and Max promised to train their X-Men, have a team ready to fight when the time came to do so. Max might be the kind who would prefer to go after his enemies, instead of waiting for them to come, and Charles might be a pacifist who never wanted there to be a war; but in the end they were capable of compromise. There was a war coming, there was nothing they could do to change that, but that didn't mean they had to risk it when they weren't ready, and they would take advantage of that time to make sure they would, indeed, be ready when the time came. They apparently had some quite promising young students, not just Jean Grey, but also my former subordinate, Alex's, nephew: Scott Summers (the kid had been in Three Mile Island, was one of those who were rescued... and the X-Men had definitely been involved; though less than I had expected); and then there was Ororo Munroe, the oldest of the young mutants to have been rescued in South America. And of course Kurt, and the older mutants like Raven, Irene, Suzanne, and so many others. Yes, a promising bunch indeed.

One last, encrypted call to the Halls made sure that they, and everyone else in the JSA would go to ground (or at least as much as they could, considering their respective situations). Even if that meant that their 'hero' reputations would be pretty much ruined, it was the lesser of two evils in that moment. I seriously suspected that if Checkmate managed to do what it'd planned, and destroyed them... not only that wouldn't have helped them any, but while a reputation could be recovered, with time and effort, a life couldn't.

My little sister was still missing (and to make matters worse, so was my nephew. And all Max and Charles knew for sure was that he'd left a letter where he explained he could no longer live in a place where everyone was so absolutely different from him; he'd taken his inheritance and left the country; and that had been two years prior.), and while I could have contacted Rose (she'd left me her mobile number in case of an emergency), I couldn't help but think she'd be much safer, if she stayed where she was. So I decided to let her be. Whenever she decided to rejoin the world would be soon enough.

I trusted Shannon was safe (Stephanie would take good care of her, she was a good woman), and there was nothing I could do for Cap, or for Tony Stark (I had a feeling I'd only put the both of us in danger if I tried to approach him; especially if my insane hunch was right and Hydra was somehow connected to the death of Uncle Howard and Maria). So in the end I hoped for the best, and then disappeared myself.

The plan wasn't for me to hide, not at all. Instead I planned on traveling. Hopefully if I kept moving Hydra (or Checkmate, or whoever else might be working with/for them) wouldn't be able to find me. Meanwhile I would try to find allies, keep those who might be threatened safe, and above all, find out as much as I could about Hydra and what they might be planning. Just how much they might have changed, how many governments and organizations they might have infiltrated or allied with.

Charles and Max were right, after all, a war was coming, and we needed to be ready for it if we wanted to win it (there was no other acceptable result).

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

In the fall of 1995 Sia finally reached the goal she'd been working towards for more than thirty years... she found the Winter Soldier. Of course, the fact that he was in Russia, inside a facility known as the Red Room made things more than a little problematic. Sif, however, was nothing if not brave and resourceful (and more than a little insane), so rather than trying a covert approach (which would have probably failed anyway), she went into the situation straight on.

After nearly a month of interrogations and tests, the Red Room welcomed the Valkyrie into their group. It had been quite easy to convince them all that she was as much as a Super Soldier as Captain America had been, though less known (the Captain's Shadow, someone called her). It also took no effort to spin a story they could believe, and even corroborate to a point: that she'd worked as an agent for the SSR after the end of WWII, that she'd quit after the Cuban Missile Crisis (though she made them believe there had been something darker behind it all, rather than how emotional she'd been at the time), and most importantly, that she'd seen the Winter Soldier in Dallas in 1963 and had been trying to track him since. She knew exactly who he was, had known since that day, known that he was none other than Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes...

By the end of the month the Red Room were convinced that the Valkyrie was a deserter from their enemies, and how convenient for them? Also, as it turned out the Soldier's programming had a few... glitches. He kept remembering things at the worst possible times (for them). Two people in particular seemed to fight to stay in his mind: Steve Rogers, and Sia Serrure. The fact that one of them was there and willing to join them was simply convenient for everyone involved.

Once convinced that, even if they didn't exactly have the Valkyrie's full loyalty, she at least was not their enemy, and was unlikely to be a mole, they put her to work. She was given the name of Taisia, and she was given the task to train the girls that had been recruited into the Black Widow Program, along with Yasha (the name the Red Room had given the Soldier).

Most days the Soldier acted like little more than automaton, and while that hurt Sif deeply, she made sure never to show it. Showing feelings would be the same as showing weakness, and that couldn't be allowed, not when both her life and that of her beloved hung on the line.

The happiest moment of Sia's life was the first time Yasha had one of his episodes. She was given permission to be with him while the girls attended their ballet classes. There, as Sia cradled him in her arms in the privacy of his room, Yasha's eyes suddenly gained a light that had been absent for so long, as he fixed his sight on her and a single word left his lips:

"Lover...?" He asked, sounding more lost than she'd ever heard him.

The word alone was almost enough to make Sia burst into tears, instead she crashed her mouth against his, kissing him like she wanted to swallow him whole, and he responded just as strongly. It was as if they just clicked.

Clothes were shed, until they were skin on skin. They both knew it was insane; she especially knew that there would need to be some fast thinking afterwards, she would have to think of some way to convince the Red Room not to kill her (or him) or send her away. However, that was a worry for later, in that moment all that mattered was the two of them. And as they reached their climax entwined in each other, words began spilling from the goddess's lips:

"I promise you that from this day on, you will be my only one. I shall look at no other the way I look at you, I shall think of no other the way I think about you, I shall talk to no other the way I talk to you, I shall desire no other the way I desire you, and I shall with no other the way I lay with you. I shall be with no other for you are now and forever shall be my one and only; my friend, my lover, my partner, my match..."

And, with just those words, the balance changed... forever.

Chapter Text

Celestial Transversing Melody

More than just a return, it was the pieces of two lives slowly coming together.

We had a wonderful time in Vanaheim, twenty years of peace. We'd truly never had such easy, almost normal lives; not when I was human, and certainly not when I was an elven princess... and yet, as easy and nice as it was, there was something missing; or more precisely, a number of 'some-ones'. Our family and friends, all the people we loved. As beautiful as Vanaheim might be, as nice as it might be to be able to live in peace, not expecting a conflict to pop up any day... it just wasn't the life we'd chosen. The life full of dangers, of risks, and occasional battles and death-defying events, that was the kind of life we'd chosen, the lives of Warriors...

We were quite happy when the time of our 'self-imposed exile' finally came to an end. We waited a bit more than was perhaps entirely necessary, to make sure we wouldn't be found, and then we were ready to go. We had made a few friends in our time in Vanaheim, but no specially strong connections, no people we found it specially hard to leave behind when twenty years had passed. It was better that way.

We used Rose Alfdis as our anchor, since we couldn't exactly return to the point we'd departed from, or any of the places we'd once called home, we ran the risk of being discovered, and it wasn't time for that, not yet. It was still quite surprising when I took in our surroundings.

"We're in China." I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"Near the border with Nepal, to be precise." My love agreed, also looking around him.

We were still wearing tunics, the traditional clothing for the particular sector of Vanaheim where we'd been living (not that we'd spent much time in the company of other people, but still).

The oddity of the location wasn't what was making me feel strange, though... but an elusive memory in the corner of my memory banks, just out of reach.

"You think we were here when we jumped back in time." Maverick said what I was thinking.

"Maybe not exactly here." I conceded. "But I think I remember the general area... and yet even when we lived in this country, it was nowhere near here..."

"It's an interesting idea." He decided. "I can sense power to the west, great yet muted somehow."

"Blocked?" I asked, curious.

"Warded." He corrected. "Whoever is in that direction, they have power, know it, and how to use it. This is interesting..."

I knew what that meant, he'd want to investigate the matter sooner or later; though first we'd be spending some time with our daughter.

She was nearby, almost waiting for us as we approached her. She was wearing a maroon chupa dress, floor-length, with a long-sleeved off-white tunic underneath and tanned leather sandals. Her hair was a darker auburn than it had been when we'd left, though still shining an almost golden-scarlet under the sun.

"Mama! Papa!" She exclaimed, and I could sense the delight in her, before her tone turned questioning. "Is it safe for you to be here?"

I knew why she asked. It had been a concern of ours too. We had wondered if perhaps we should wait longer, perhaps even until the date where we'd time-traveled, and yet in the end we couldn't do that. We missed our family and friends too much.

"It is." I nodded.

"By now my younger self is confined to the Pit, and the younger Nightingale is at Salani manor, in Maine." My love elaborated. "They'll stay there until near the end of the year, then they'll be in New York for several months..." He shrugged. "This was really the best time for us to return."

"What's happened?" I wasn't sure what it was, but I could sense something in the air. "I can almost feel the... anticipation in the very air that surrounds us all..."

"Hydra." Our daughter answered grimly, then went into the story.

It was a terrible tale indeed, much worse than anything either my match or I could have ever imagined happening; especially because neither of us had seen it coming. Even when Howard had died, even when I couldn't believe it that he'd really fallen so far as to driving drunk and causing the accident that killed him and Maria... it didn't matter if Rose said they had no proof that it had been assassination, it fit in my head and my heart, and that was enough. Still, it didn't make the rest of it any less awful.

A part of me wondered if we'd have been able to do something, if we had stayed... but perhaps even then we wouldn't have done anything. I... we had been so careful to limit our influence in historical events after the end of the war. And there was no way of knowing for sure if our intervention would have made things better, or only worse.

Perhaps the only good part was knowing that our children knew, and they were taking steps to try and deal with things, when the right time came.

"So, let me see if I got this right," Papa began summarizing: "Steve's been found, Peggy is awake and doing something with Hakon's help, Hydra has managed to infiltrate every single intelligence agency in the world, or thereabout, and you are traveling around the world recruiting allies?"

"In general terms, yes." I nodded. "We all agree that while Hydra may want to keep their actions a secret for now, things won't stay that way forever. Sooner or later they will come out, and that's when our new allies will take them down."

"How are you so sure this people will reveal themselves when the time comes?" Papa wanted to know. "Especially those who've spent their whole lives hanging, or those who might have had bad experiences with the past?"

"I know, I believe in them." I assured them vehemently.

There was such belief in her voice, such faith... I realized then that our daughter had finished growing up while we were gone, a knowledge that mirrored in my husband's mind as he realized it too. Rose hadn't been a child for a very long time, but that moment was beyond that, it was the understanding that before me stood a grown woman, a warrior lady... a goddess in her own right.

We had a good night. Rose was renting a room in what probably passed for a hostel in that town, and it was easy enough for us to get another room. While I didn't speak the particular dialect of the region, I was fluent enough in Chinese to get by, Rose was too. We had dinner together and at our daughter's insistence I played the dizi for a while while she hummed an accompaniment. It drew some attention, but we didn't mind.

Loki and I enjoyed so much being with our daughter again. We couldn't visit our son, had to be content with a phone call, but as Rose had explained (and Hakon insisted) the situation was quite delicate, and none of us could risk Hydra discovering the truth about us, or that we were onto them. It was especially difficult because aside from Peggy, and possibly the Avengers, there was no way of knowing who would be on our side, and we couldn't get in touch with anyone else among them, not even Steve, seeing how he was under watch almost 24/7.

Three days later we were woken, in the middle of the night, by a sudden rush of heat, a sense that wasn't quite physical; accompanied by a psychic scream. It was the second part that made me react instantly, because even I wasn't hearing the voice with my ears, but with my magical senses, I still recognized who it belonged to... I'd barely thrown a robe on (since I'd been wearing nothing at all) and my feet were still bare, when my match touched my arm. I realized what he was about to do and had the sense to jump in place right as he teleported both of us straight from our room and onto our daughter's.

We found Rose sitting up in bed, panting, one of her hands holding tightly onto the silver pendant hanging from her neck.

"Little Rose...?" I called ever so softly, as I sat beside her on the bed.

"Mama..." She murmured quietly, eyes boring into mine. "You need to go..."

"What...?" I wasn't expecting that, neither of us were.

"You and Papa." She began practically babbling. "You need to go, and you need to go now. To Kandahar... he needs you. He'll need you, soon. He's about to get shot..."

"Who's he?" My husband inquired, already beginning to consider possibilities.

"How can we save him?" I asked instead. "How do we keep him from getting shot?"

"That cannot be stopped... it must not be stopped." She murmured.

A part of me wondered, vaguely, if Rose realized those were two different things, and which one it actually was; still, I decided that wasn't really the important part.

"What do we do then?" I inquired.

"You make sure he survives." She answered, her expression cleared, mostly, though her eyes were still shining in that mix of red-orange-black. "He's family, even though he doesn't know it yet." She turned to her father. "And his name is John." Then back to me. "You need to go, you need to go now. Now!"

The urgency in her voice... I didn't doubt her. In a matter of seconds Loki had called all our possessions to us. We were dressed in Earth-clothes again, a bit old-fashioned, but not too bad.

"Take care of yourself, sweetheart..." I whispered softly, kissing her hair.

"I will Mama." She assured me. "Don't worry, we'll meet again. But you need to go now. John needs you more than I do."

I wondered what she wasn't saying, what else she might have seen, but I didn't ask. If I were supposed to know she'd have told me, told us. Her Papa returned then, he said his own goodbyes, and then we were dropping into a shadow and straight to Afghanistan.

xXx

We arrived right in the middle of an absolute mess (and even that was probably putting it kindly). From what we learned listening to a few conversations, a group of Americans, among which was their best sniper, had been on a mission, only to find themselves ambushed. Another team was dispatched to help them and it had turned into a fight in the middle of one of the worst regions of Afghanistan, where extremists were known to dwell.

The situation was so bad, and they were so limited in medical personal that hardly any questions were asked when I presented myself as Arianna Kinross-Hvedrungr, nurse and part of Doctors Without Borders. I actually had the paperwork for the identity of Arianna Kinross, part of it had been ready since before I left, the rest was easy enough to arrange (at least for us, who had more than enough experience creating new identities). My love only had to use a little magic to make sure I'd be on the DWB rooster, if anyone were to look.

Maverick (under the name of Serrure Hvedrungr) helped carry the injured, which were a lot, and handle first aid with those who weren't too badly off (which were dangerously few); while I took to moving around, helping everyone I could, as much as possible. I'd almost completely forgotten what Rose had told us right before we'd left Tibet when a man entered. He was big, muscled, tanned, with sun-bleached hair and pale-green eyes... and half of his torso seemed to be covered in blood, blood that was still falling...

"Oh God..." The nurse beside me (an actual DWB volunteer) gasped, then paled so abruptly she looked like she might pass out at any moment.

She wasn't the only one. Most of the medical personnel present were young, probably relatively new to the profession, and even more so to working in a war front; a part of me wondered how many had never seen actual war wounds before... For my part, I pushed the sudden flashbacks from WWII to the back of my mind, allowing the learned calm to fill me as I rushed forward.

"This way." I instructed the newcomer, leading him to one of the few empty and clean beds. "We need to get him off you so I can see to you..."

"I'm not the one injured." He informed me. "Nothing more than scrapes and bruises in any case. He's got a bullet in his shoulder. It's bad... really bad."

He laid the man on the bed, he had sun-bleached blonde hair, was small yet obviously well-muscled; he also had a shoulder so badly mangled I was actually surprise he hadn't lost it already. (Yet again I was reminded of WWII).

"Fool insisted on treating that boy from the American contingent, even when bullets began flying..." There was a mix of tired annoyance and rueful admiration in his voice as he said. "He managed it, of course. I thought his devil's luck would hold, until the bloody bullet got him. How is the boy by the way?"

"If you mean the American sniper," I stated half-absently, as I focused on fixing an IV, called for blood, and set everything for emergency surgery. "He's on the far end of the tent, took a bullet to the leg, but aside from that, he should be alright."

"Unlike this berk." Murray shook his head.

"Indeed." I nodded. "We need to get the pieces of the bullet out, or he won't make it... Even then his chances aren't great right now."

He was right, of course he was. The bullet that had hit the blonde was high-caliber, it had gone straight into his shoulder, shattered the clavicle, shredded through muscle and articulations; there was also the chance that either the bullet or the broken pieces of bone might have done further damage to the lung... I wouldn't know until he was opened up.

"It gets worse." I admitted grimly. "All doctors are currently busy, and it's not like we had that many surgeons on hand."

"He was the best." He admitted.

"Still is." I retorted. "He's not dead yet."

"No, he's not." He agreed. "So you'll be opening him up then?"

"If I had other options I wouldn't, but I think I have to." I admitted. "I'll need your help."

"Bill Murray." He finally introduced himself. "Though I warn you I'm only a nurse."

"So am I." I quipped with dark humor. "Though worry not, I have experience doing work on the field, and assisting in surgery."

The part that I wasn't saying was that I had no experience being the one to lead a surgery, but we really had no time. And so we began.

There was a lot of blood, the smell of it so thick I felt like I might be sick, the heat beneath my fingers only made it worse. And yet neither of us stopped. The bullet had broken into pieces and we needed to make sure to get everything out. Then we set the bone as best we could. At least the pieces weren't so small that it was an impossible task. The worse part, however, was that I was right, there had been damage to a lung, it had taken all our effort for it not to collapse, and I could tell that our patient was fast reaching its limit. A minute or so more and his body would give out. I wasn't sure why, but I just couldn't allow it...

"Bill," I called, as an idea suddenly came to mind. "Tell me something, can you keep a secret?"

"I can." He answered immediately, though I could tell he did not understand what I meant.

"I hope so." I replied, and then I put down my instruments, took a deep breath, and pressed both my hands to the sides of our patient's grievous wounds.

I could vaguely hear Bill begin to say something, only for his mouth to snap shut a few seconds later. I could sense muscle and bone beginning to knit together under my touch. Articulations slowly repairing themselves and then, finally, the skin. I couldn't fix everything, it took a lot out of me, and there was still a limit to what the man's body could handle without going into shock. He was left with a really bad scar both on his chest and his back, and I had no idea of how long he'd be feeling the internal damage the bullet had done. But at least his lung had been completely repaired, his bone was healing nicely (as if it had had a clean break, rather than been totally shattered), his muscles would be tender for a good while, but that too would recover.

I swayed, as I finally pulled off.

"How did you do that...?" Bill breathed out, absolutely shocked, and still quietly enough so that we wouldn't be overheard.

"It's a gift I have." I answered honestly. "It has limits, and I'd rather not be found..."

"You just saved my friend's life." Bill cut me off. "Thank you..."

"It's been my pleasure." I assured him. "Now..."

I swayed again, stumbling slightly. Apparently the man had been worse off than even I had thought, judging by how much it'd taken out of me.

"You need to rest." Bill told me. "You're dead on your feet."

"I'll make sure she eats something and takes a nap." My husband was suddenly at my side (and pretty much holding me up).

"Thank you again." Bill called one more time as I was lead away, I only vaguely heard the next part he said, to the man I'd just saved. "It would seem you still have the devil's luck John..."

John! His name was John! He was the man Rose had mentioned... the one who'd been shot, whom I was supposed to save... I wasn't exactly egocentric, but I knew enough medicine to make out the likelihood of him having survived that wound without me. If nothing else, that made our abrupt trip more than worth it.

xXx

I kept helping at the field hospital for the rest of the week, though I used my healing gift very little, only to make sure soldiers wouldn't die on me, and only when I was completely sure no one would realize it. Murray hadn't tattled on me, and when someone had begun saying something about miracles he'd been quick to say that Melanie (the nurse making the claims) had probably misjudged the gravity of the wound, shocked as she'd been at the sight of the blood.

When I finally got access to John's file, I was floored.

"He's not just any John." I told my love after supper that evening. "He's John Watson!"

"John Watson?" He didn't seem to pick up on things right away.

"He's Stephanie's son!" I explained.

That name he did know instantly. Stephanie Marge Watson, nee Sholto, youngest child of Jacob Sholto and Marge Sholto, nee Carter. The last time we'd seen any member of that family was in 1980, when Peggy woke up. Stephanie was the youngest of Marge's children, and the only girl, however, her older brother James was in the army, so she was the one tasked with periodically checking over the sleeping Peggy. Back in 1980 she'd been a retired SSR agent (had retired when choosing to marry), married to Henry Watson with a four-year-old daughter: Harriet, and heavily pregnant with her second child and first son: John...

"Rose did say he was family." My Maverick pointed out.

"She did." I agreed.

Truth was, I'd thought that she meant family like Willow, someone who'd be joining our family for some reason... I didn't imagine to get back in touch with Marge's descendants in such a way. I had once promised to her to do my best to look after them, all along knowing that might not be possible, not when we couldn't stay in the same place for long.

"I wondered what happened to Steph..." My love admitted.

"She's dead." I told him grimly. "Breast cancer three years ago. Henry is also dead, of alcohol poisoning, over a decade ago, apparently he was an alcoholic."

My husband shook his head; he apparently was wondering, just like I was, how someone as bright as Stephanie had ended with a man who preferred the bottom of a bottle to the company of his own family, his own wife. Still, there was nothing we could do about that, not about the loss of either of them, or Jacob's death in a car accident; Marge herself might not be dead, but she was in an institution, diagnosed with senility and possible Alzheimer's disease.

I almost felt like crying. We'd been gone for less than twenty years and things had changed so much, and while things had apparently gone well enough with our children, the same couldn't be said for our old friends' families (I hadn't forgotten what Tony would have gone through by that point: part of it also in Afghanistan... and the part we'd never known). The worst part was having to accept that, even if we'd known, and if we'd been there, chances were we wouldn't have been able to change a thing.

"The past is the past." My love told me serenely. "Nothing we can do to change it. I doubt even we would be so lucky as to travel back twice..."

I didn't think so either, and I didn't want to. Once had been crazy enough.

xXx

John woke up a week after being shot. As had become usual by then, I was spending my break sitting on a chair beside him, reading an European paper one of the British doctors let me borrow. I put it down even before I heard the grown coming from him, as I sensed the shift in his presence the moment he touched awareness.

"W'r am ah?" He mumbled through parched lips.

I'd made a point of dripping water through his lips several times a day, and giving him ice-chips to help keep him hydrated (for the most part they weren't easy to come by; but then again, it was easy enough for me to freeze the water).

"The field hospital in Kandahar." I told him honestly. "A nurse called Bill Murray got you here badly wounded after an ambush."

"Ah..." He muttered in half understanding.

The way he winced and tried to curl upon himself at the same time he reached for his injured shoulder with the opposite hand told me he was remembering... either that or the pain helped make at least some things quite obvious.

"How did I even survive that?" He asked after what seemed like forever.

I guessed he at least remembered enough to realize it had been bad.

"Murray says you have the devil's luck." I shrugged. "I rather think the spirits were watching over you a week ago."

"A week...?" He repeated, a mix of shock and wonder in his voice. "So that's how long it's been... What about the rest of my unit? And the Americans?"

I told him the truth. A total of two men had died, neither of them had ever made it back to the base, so there was nothing anyone (not even I) could have done for them. Of those remaining, half had some pretty serious injuries, while others weren't so badly off. One would never fully recover and was being sent home, and there was at least one other who might choose to do the same (the American sniper, to be precise).

We were sent to Kabul, and then to France (Technically John was the one being sent, along with the soldier that had been discharged for his injury; Loki and I were tagging along to assist them). We stayed in Kabul for a few weeks, and then in France for almost two months as John was seen to by a number of doctors. I had to stay through it all, as it'd gone on record that I was the one to lead the 'field surgery' that saved his life.

Not everyone liked that I'd done it, even if I was a nurse (we'd managed to make it legal and all), I wasn't a doctor and wasn't trained for such a thing. In the end it took John practically shouting at the board how he'd be dead if I hadn't acted to get them off my back. I was still taken off the DWBs rooster (not that much of a loss, if I was honest). Also, after a number of long sessions of PT, and even longer studies, it was determined that John simply wasn't fit for duty anymore.

Apparently, I messed up his nervous connections. While his muscles and articulations had healed just fine, and the bone was healing amazingly well (callosity was forming already, and that might cause him some pain in the future, but it was still much better than it could have been). His nerves, on the other hand... some of the connections had become messed up. Enough to cause his hand to tremble at times, as well as excruciating pain when he moved his shoulder a certain way. They weren't life-threatening things, but certainly enough to make it impossible for him to go back to active duty, or to being a surgeon.

We were still with John as we got to London, and drove him to his sister's house; but it was when my husband actually parked the car and we got out that he realized there was more going on that he knew up to then.

"You don't have to stay, you know?" He said.

"Yes, we do." I told him simply.

I suspected that he didn't know anything about what his family had been doing for us for decades, generations technically. But if Stephanie was dead, that meant Harriett would know; which meant she was the one we had to talk to.

The door was opened by a woman in her mid-thirties, with shoulder-length blonde hair with dark roots and curly at the tips; she had beautiful blue-gray eyes and was dressed in casual clothes.

"John!" She exclaimed, wide-eyed. "This is a surprise." Then she turned towards us. "Who are you two? Did you come to bring my brother?"

"We did bring your brother, but he's not the only reason we're here." My love pointed out, as I tried to find the best way to explain things.

"Excuse my forwardness," I said eventually. "But are you Harriet, the daughter of Stephanie Sholto-Watson."

"I am..." She answered slowly. "Though no one has called mum that in a long time. Who are you two exactly?"

"My name is Arianna, and this is my husband, Serrure." I introduced us. "We knew your mother."

"What?!" John turned abruptly to look at us. "You said nothing about that."

"If you do, where were you when she died?" Harriett demanded, angrily.

"I'm afraid we were unreachable." My love admitted, very quietly. "We left years ago and only returned last June..."

I knew there was no way John would be able to miss the fact that it had been still June when we met in Kandahar, and it was barely mid September.

Harriet was still looking at us with distrust, and then something else occurred to me.

"The house on the outskirts of London, it belongs to us." I told her.

Harriett's eyes widened considerably at that, while John simply looked at each of us in turn, evidently confused.

"Why don't we step inside?" The blonde woman said, finally. "It would appear we have much to talk about, all of us."

We did, indeed.

We talked for a long time. Harriett was the first member of the family to have had nothing to do with the government. She was a lawyer, and that was that. James, Marge's oldest was a career military man, who'd been discharged after a quite delicate situation (we still did not know all that had happened, only that it wasn't good). Stephanie had worked for the SSR, choosing to retire after marrying Henry, a policeman who was pushed off active duty and onto a desk when an injury left him with a permanent limp as well as chronic pain, which was why he'd turned to drinking, eventually becoming an alcoholic.

"I am not alcoholic." Harry pointed out when John made a comment to that effect. "I know that's what Clara's been saying, but it's not true. After what happened with Dad I promised myself I'd never fall that far, would never put that kind of stain on our family name... and I don't mean the Watson one..."

John didn't understand, not yet, but he would.

"I got drunk, really drunk, one time." Harry went on. "When she gave me an ultimatum... I knew what I was going to have to do..."

"What kind of ultimatum?" John inquired, curious.

"She wanted to know the 'family secret'." Harry shrugged.

"What family secret?" John insisted. "I didn't even know there was a family secret."

"We couldn't tell you." Harry tried to explain. "It was too dangerous, with you in the army... it was safer for you not to know. Though the plan was always for you to learn all about it once you left active duty..."

"You know, you could have told her." I told her quietly. "Even though secrecy is necessary, we never intended for it to get in the way of family, of love..."

"I know." Harry nodded. "But mum made me promise, after what happened with dad..." She shook her head. "He knew. Had promised to keep the secret, to help mum; and then one day he got pissed and began babbling about spies and heroes of the war... he put her in danger! He put us all in danger! All because he couldn't keep his mouth shut." She shook her head, angrily. "It was after that that mum made me promise never to reveal the secret to anyone except John."

"Will you finally tell me what this secret is?" John practically demanded.

"What do you know of WWII, of Captain America, Agent Peggy Carter, and the Howling Commandos?" I asked as a way to start.

He gave a generic answer, the kind of basic information that could be found in any book.

"That is all correct, for the most part." I nodded. "However, there are a few things that were never made public. Now, what do you know of your grandmother?"

"Nana?" John obviously wasn't expecting that question. "She's in an institution, they say she's old and sometimes makes up things. I always liked her stories though... stories about the war..."

I could almost hear the moment it clicked for him.

"Your Nana's name is Marge Carter-Sholto, what does that tell you?" My love asked with a half-smirk, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"I've seen the medals." John nodded. "I heard her stories, both the ones she said in later years, and before she was ever institutionalized. I always thought the books exaggerated things, of what had been between her and Captain Rogers I mean. She never gave the impression of there having been anything special between them..."

"That's where things get interesting." I told him. "You see, your family has been tasked, for the last three generations, to look after one person. A woman who spent most of the last seventy years or so sleeping in a house in the outskirts of London..."

"A house that belonged to you." John nodded, beginning to get it. "Who is this woman?"

"Less than a dozen people ever knew it." I tried to explain. "But Peggy Carter had a bond with Steve Rogers, the kind that few people could ever comprehend. When he was lost in the Arctic, near the end of the war, it affected her. It took a while for it to become obvious, but eventually it couldn't be helped. She fell asleep, and didn't wake up."

"But Nana..." John was having a hard time grasping things.

"The world wasn't ready for such things to be revealed." My love explained the next part. "We all knew Peggy Carter couldn't just disappear, and we couldn't reveal what was really going on. So decisions were made, plans put into motion. Peggy fell asleep and we hid her away, where she'd be safe, and someone else took her place."

"Nana." John understood. "Her name isn't really Marge Carter-Sholto..."

"It is." I nodded, legally and everything. "But she wasn't born with that name, though. It was necessary, and she accepted it. Since we couldn't really stay around, she was the one who made sure Peggy stayed safe, and later on that tasked passed on to Stephanie, and finally to Harry..."

"And you couldn't tell Clara this..." John half-asked.

"No, I promised mum I wouldn't." Harry explained. "I didn't think it would be a problem. Peggy woke up last year. I thought that would make things easier, I would no longer need to disappear every week to check on her, and the house... but it took a while for her to truly recover, and while I got help eventually, I still needed to be there. And I couldn't tell Clara where I was going... She kept picking up fights with me about it, accusing me of cheating on her, of having gambling problems, and then of being an alcoholic... eventually she gave me an ultimatum; either I told her the truth, or she filed for divorce. I couldn't tell her the truth, she probably wouldn't have believed me anyway, she was so willing to think the worst of me..."

"So you left her." John finished for her, and there was such compassion in his voice, a complete opposite from how he'd been at the beginning.

We knew why that was. Clara had been his friend first, he was the one who'd introduced her to Harry. John hadn't been very close to his sister since she'd come out as a lesbian, and after what had happened with their father it really hadn't been hard for John to believe that he could become an alcoholic (I believed a part of him probably feared going down that same path himself). It wasn't good, distrusting his own blood that much, but to a certain point it was understandable.

"Why didn't you contradict her, when she spoke bad about you?" John wanted to know. "It cannot be helping you, for people to believe you're an alcoholic..."

"It hasn't helped, no." Harry agreed. "But it's easier than having people wonder what was really going on then. I will survive, and so will my career."

I could tell it was hard for John, to rearrange what he thought he knew about a number of people, mainly his old friend and former-sister-in-law, and his own big sister.

"Why didn't you tell me Harry?" John asked in the end, looking more hurt than anything else. "I... I would have helped you. Clara might have been my friend, but you're my sister, you will always be my sister."

"I know Johnny..." Harry smiled softly at him. "I think... I think I needed to get through this on my own. To know I could, you know?"

He did understand, something told me he was just the same.

We changed the topic of conversation then. Harry wanted to know what had happened to John exactly, all of it. She got particularly worried when learning that John had an appointment with a doctor who was to examine him the next week, decide if he'd need another surgery.

"It's the nerve damage." John explained. "It's causing me chronic pain..."

"That's kind of my fault." I admitted. "I may be a nurse, but I am no doctor. The kind of thing I did back in Kandahar... I shouldn't have done it, not really, and I wouldn't have, if your life hadn't depended on it. Also, if I hadn't had something of an unfair advantage."

I revealed my healing gift to them, its reaches, and its limitations.

"So you managed to heal enough to save his life, but not to prevent this problem." Harry concluded a bit succinctly.

"That would be correct." I admitted. "Bones, muscles, skin... even articulations for the most part, are relatively easy. And even then I crossed the limit of what should be healed, I think the only reason John didn't go into shock due to my actions was because he was already past that point. And the only reason I dared do as much as I did was because... well..."

"Because I'd have died otherwise." John finished for me. "I'd been wondering, you know? I could tell, the moment the bullet hit me, that the injury was bad, the odds of me surviving it were extremely small, especially considering that we were miles into 'enemy territory', and I was the only doctor in the team."

"Nurse Murray did what he could." I pointed out.

"And you saved my life." He insisted.

"I did my best." I replied. "Nerves... they are tricky. I will also admit to have been more worried about the damage that was threatening your life at the time..."

"Couldn't you finish healing him now?" Harry wanted to know.

I wasn't sure if she was really taking the whole thing of my gift that easy, or she didn't believe me at all and was testing me.

"I don't know nearly enough about the nervous system." I shook my head. "Chances are, I might end up making things worse. After the tests are done, if they give us enough information I might be able to give it a try... but I cannot make any promises."

"You saved my life, that's good enough in my book." John assured me. "We'll deal with the rest of it as it comes."

Harry insisted that we all stay for dinner, and afterwards a cup of tea. I wasn't exactly expecting it when John asked one question:

"Can you tell us about Nana?" He inquired. "The real her, I mean."

It was obvious, just by his tone of voice, how much he loved his grandmother; I imagined it could not be easy, to know she was in an institution, to see her growing old, becoming fragile... I hadn't actually gone to see her yet, but it was something I honestly feared: aging... not myself, I knew I wouldn't truly begin aging for a long time yet, millennia (if something didn't kill me beforehand), but knowing I would have to watch the people around me, my friends and family, age and eventually die... it was one of the things that terrified me the most. Even the loss of Howard and Willow hadn't lessened that, if anything it had only made things worse, knowing that they were all so fragile, that they could be lost at any moment... it was perhaps the hardest consequence of the choice I'd made, of remaining by my match's side, of living as long as he would... and even with all that, he, his love, made it all worth it.

"Let me see..." I pulled myself back to the present forcefully.

We'd pretty much buried Marge's real past decades earlier, and while Peggy was awake, and making yet a new life for herself, we still couldn't reveal the truth, not yet, not until the threat of Hydra had been dealt with. Didn't mean Marge's family didn't deserve to know at least a little of how extraordinary she was...

"Her name was Marguerite Cartier." I told them. "And we met her in 1944."

We'd already covered that part, in general terms at least. The fact that Serrure and I (and Hakon, whom Harry remembered as the man who'd arrived to help with Peggy and had eventually left with her) didn't age like normal people did, and that we'd been around (publicly at least) since the forties (which obviously meant we'd been born before that).

"She was French, and a singer." I went on. "She accidentally overheard a conversation between a group of Germans once, and instead of ignoring it, of playing it safe, she chose to take the risk and passed on the information to the allies. After that she became a contact. She even played the part of 'courtesan' a number of times, to get information. Until she was found by the Germans. They captured her, had every intention of torturing her to find out how much she knew and whom she'd told, but the Commandos found her in time, rescued her along with a number of other prisoners. She was sent into hiding then."

"Why is none of this known?" Harry wanted to know. "She was a hero."

"And she was not the only one." My husband couldn't help but point out. "It was the theory of a few people, like Peggy, Marge, my sister and a few others, that the government, all governments, tried to bury the women who served in the war. It was one thing to accept them when it was necessary, but afterwards..."

"They weren't ready to admit that the 'great men' needed help." Harry snorted.

"Something like that, or so we assume, at least." Serrure nodded calmly. "They couldn't really bury Peggy, of course, she was too well-known. Sia... she passed into legend for the most part, the fact that she pretty much disappeared after '62 didn't help matters any."

"And Nana?" John's focus was, of course, his grandmother.

"She petitioned for political asylum, both here and in America, was refused on both." I told them honestly. "The worst part, is that her contribution to the allies had been made public record, for whatever the reason, which put her in grave danger, and also pretty much ruined her reputation." I shook my head at the memory. "When we realized what was going on with Peggy we offered her to take on that life and she accepted. Then it was simply a matter of changing the records, of filings papers stating that Marguerite Cartier had died in the refuge, victim of an infection and a terrible fever..." I sighed. "It probably isn't right. She did so much for us, and people don't know."

"But at least she had a life, she still does..." John murmured. "What life it might be..."

"Nana's not senile, John." Harry revealed quite unexpectedly.

"What?!" He obviously hadn't seen that coming.

"She's not senile." Harry repeated.

"Then why is she in a bloody institution?!" The former Captain demanded.

"Because what she does have is a degree of Alzheimer." His sister informed him. "It makes her forget recent things... she sometimes forgets the life she has now. Once... once she began asking for Peggy, and for Howard Stark and... she came back from it, but she knew it was dangerous. What if she ended saying the wrong thing, with the wrong people around? It was her own choice, she told me to institutionalize her, to make sure her files said she's senile, so people wouldn't take her seriously if she began saying such things, so she wouldn't endanger our family, or Peggy..."

I couldn't help but smile, even as a part of me wanted to cry, that was just like Marge... even back in the forties, when the offer of a new life had been made to her, she'd never stopped to consider the risks, or what she might be giving up; instead she was always more worried about not making a mistake, not disappointing us... And more than fifty years later, she kept on doing exactly the same thing, always thinking of others before herself.

"Could I go visit her?" John asked quietly.

"Of course." Harry said immediately. "I'm sure she'd like that. And now you'll have stories of your own to tell her."

There was such an expression in John Watson's face in that moment, I didn't know what he might be thinking exactly, but I had a feeling that he had a lot more stories than either his sister, or us could ever begin to imagine...

xXx

John's visit to the doctor didn't go well. His nerves were more of a mess than anyone could have expected (it was probably a miracle that no one was even suggesting he sue the one who'd performed surgery on him). I did try to heal him further, but there was nothing I could do, like I'd said more than once before, nerves were too delicate. At least I tried, I really didn't want to some day have a repeat of my experience with Willow, spend the rest of my life wondering if I could have done more, had I just thought to try... It was the worst kind of sensation, really, even if no one blamed me, it was something I'd never be able to forget.

John underwent surgery at the end of the month and then had to go through three more months of PT. Meanwhile Harry had quit her old law firm, when the situation there became untenable, and ended opening her own. She got a hell of a good start when a number of families unexpectedly changed from their old lawyers and chose her; she thought it was a change of luck, John might have suspected something was afoot, neither of them ever looked deep enough to realize what all those people had in common, the fact that they were all related, in one way or another, to veterans of WWII... to people who'd known and respected Peggy Carter (and Marguerite Cartier).

John moved in with us after his surgery, at our insistence. We had purchased a townhouse in central London, in Lisson Grove. It had four bedrooms, quite big if it had been just my Maverick and myself; but we had hope, that one day our whole family might spend at least a while there. We took the master bedroom, which, along with the bathroom for two people and wide balcony took the whole top-floor. There were two other bedrooms in the second floor, which shared a bathroom, and then there were the common areas in the ground-floor; finally there was a basement level, which was divided between the laundry-room, boiler, central heat and such; with the other half being the last bedroom and an en-suite bathroom. It was that last one which John took for himself during the following months.

The surgery did help, to a degree at least. They took away the chronic, debilitating pain, though certain motions, and excess of activity could still make half his chest and most of his arm hurt. There was nothing they could do about his leg though, mostly because there was nothing that needed to be done, he hadn't been hurt in the leg, not even a graze, though someone else had been, that day, someone under John's care; which told me that he had PTSD and the memories of that day had left him with a psychosomatic limp.

There was nothing any of us could do about that. Psychiatry wasn't my thing (or psychology for that matter...). It also isn't like I wasn't familiar with PTSD, I knew I suffered it to some degree myself, something only natural after being in war. WWII... it didn't matter if I'd technically been in battle before, as an elf, as a human, and as whatever I'd become after my human death; nothing in my life had ever been so traumatic as the things I'd seen in that war, both as a nurse, and the one time I was actually in the front lines, in the battle in Red Skull's base. Nothing had ever been worse, not even the battle that claimed my human life (or the attack that claimed my elven one... the closest was perhaps the first attempt on my life as Tinúviel, when Sif almost died protecting me... then again, the memories of my previous life were usually distant enough not to traumatize me too much). In the end all I could do help John was be there for him, and sometimes play the flute, or the piano, hoping it might help sooth him.

We established ourselves soon enough. Serrure found a job teaching a few classes at the City of Westminster College, not too far from where we lived; while I gave private classes in languages (I knew enough), a few of them even my husband's own students. John had even agreed to teach some first aid during the weekends, mostly to keep busy. Though I knew the arrangement would not last, not with him.

It was really no surprise when he informed us, near the end of January, that he was moving out. He already had a place, a flatshare. We were quite sure he hadn't been looking, not yet (we'd offered to help him, if he ever chose to move), and yet we didn't ask any questions. It was his life after all... We did wonder though, who exactly Sherlock Holmes might be... We had no idea...

Chapter Text

Never Knew I Had a Heart

Every heart has its own beat... and sometimes two hearts might beat in sync...

Both my Maverick and I had a lot of fun reading John's blog. It was proof that one didn't need to be supernatural, or gifted to have an insane life. We did worry sometimes, that something might happen to them. It didn't matter that we'd never met Sherlock Holmes, he was John's friend, he was helping John in ways no one else had been able to, no matter how hard we tried. Harry worried that they were becoming too close, too fast, but I couldn't help but feel that it was right, somehow... Maverick chose not to comment. I wondered if he was thinking of how close he and I'd become, very fast, once upon a time; how in less than a year I'd been willing to give up everything for him...

It was quite a surprise when I met John that particular evening, in the first week of May. I'd just finished a class in Italian with a couple of students, and he looked quite stressed out. So I asked if he'd like to go for a bite, hoping I'd be able to get him to talk to me, tell me what was going on. When he agreed I warned my match that I'd be eating out, with John, I felt his answering smile. He knew I worried about him, and that he was more likely to talk to me alone, than to the both of us together (which was why he didn't offer to join us).

I myself wasn't having a good day, had been feeling under the weather all day (all week really); which wasn't exactly a surprise, all things considered. We went to a little diner that had the best croissants with ham and cheese filling. Something simple but tasty.

"So, tell me what's got you so stressed out." I said as we were done with diner and drinking our second cup of tea.

"There's a case in progress." He began. "As you could probably guess. I... I really cannot tell you much, you understand."

"I do." I nodded. "It has something to do with those explosions, doesn't it? The one across the street from your flat, on on those apartments... the supposed gas leaks?"

"How...?" He obviously hadn't expected me to know that much.

"I can tell a government cover-up when I see one." I deadpanned. "Really, it's not the first time I've seen such things. You do realize that's going to complicate things, once you write up this case for the blog, right?"

"Yes." He let out a breath. "I suppose I'll deal with that once it's all over."

"If it's not over yet, why are you here?" I asked him, finally. "I've never known you to go far from Sherlock when the two of you are working on a case."

"I usually don't." John admitted. "He can get in so much trouble... but right now, I just. I needed some air, you know? I told him I was going to spend the night with Sarah... and that's yet another problem I so don't want to deal with right now..."

"I thought things were going well with Sarah." I commented.

Really, the woman had managed to get past the fact that her first date with John had ended with the two of them kidnapped and almost killed by a criminal group! And the fact that John, who was technically her employee, would up and leave the clinic, or simply not show up if Sherlock so much as called him... Perhaps that was it.

"They are, and yet..." He let out a breath. "I don't know, I just don't think it's going to work, long term I mean. You think I should keep trying?"

"I think you should do what you feel is right." I told him. "Only you can know how much you love Sarah, how much you're willing to do to make your relationship work. And if she's not the one... there's nothing wrong with that."

"I just... she's great and all but I cannot help but feel like something's missing." John explained. "It's just... I see you and Serrure, and there's something about you two, even when you're not touching, there's something in the way you look at each other, in the way you even stand, as if you angled yourselves towards each other all the time, like you're magnets, or bound in some inexplicable way... I want that."

I smiled, I knew exactly what he meant of course. I hoped he'd find it some day.

"So, that's Sarah." I nodded kindly. "But that's not why you're so tense..."

"No, it's not." He let out a breath. "It's... Sherlock."

He told me about the conversation they'd had, about not caring... it obviously bothered him a lot.

"I just cannot understand it." He finished. "How can someone honestly not care?! How can anyone be that cold...?"

"It has nothing to do with being cold John." I told him quietly.

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

"You know how much I care about people. I've told you I'm an empath... I've also told you some things about my life, my past. Can you imagine what it was like? Being an empath, during the war? I was a nurse, it was the best way I could help people, save lives. And I was even in one battle, in the midst of it all. Have you any idea what that was like? The fear, the horror, the pain, the despair... it was excruciating..."

"How did you survive?"

"I had Serrure to ground me, always. He's more level-headed than me, also older, a lot more experienced, and more capable of compartmentalizing..."

"That means..."

"What your friend does... I don't think he doesn't care, not really. I think that what he does is compartmentalize. Push his personal feelings to the side, so they will not interfere with his work. You yourself admitted that caring wouldn't make him better at what he does, and he must know that. There's nothing wrong with emotion, but some people do find it easier to do what needs to be done when they can push it aside." I could see the way he was looking at me. "I'm not saying that he's wrong in what he does, or right. But everyone deserves to deal with situations in their own way. You deal with your PTSD by running after the world's only consulting detective, solving cases and chasing criminals; I deal with mine by playing the flute and singing..."

"And Sherlock solves cases, does crazy experiments, and when he gets bored shoots at the wall, with my gun!"

I couldn't help it, I laughed.

We finished our teas and decided it was time to leave. While I hadn't been sure at first if it was a good idea, I ended offering him his old bed for the night and he accepted. We'd barely walked a couple of blocks or so, when I sensed it, the danger. I spun around just in time to see one man rush John from behind, piercing his neck with a needle, before someone else did the same to me.

xXx

I spent what must have been a couple of hours or so in a state of near limbo. It was insane, the drug obviously hadn't affected me the way it should have, I hadn't stayed fully unconscious for long, but even when I woke up I had practically no control over my body, and even trying to pay attention to my surroundings required an almost extraordinary effort. Even my connection with my match wasn't enough. I knew it was that, and my own changed nature that made it so the drug affected me differently, but it wasn't enough. And not for anything either of us might have done. Then there was the day... I had died just a few days before, or rather my other self had, almost a week earlier; and just like I was able to sense when she was born, I sensed when she died. It'd be a few more days, I honestly couldn't remember exactly how many, before my younger self would be leaving Helheim, having made the all-too-important choice, gaining a new body and a new life. Until then a part of me couldn't help but feel like something was off, almost like I wasn't entirely 'there' so-to-speak. In the end it was a mix of all those things that made it possible for Moriarty to get his hands on me (and on John).

Most of that time I ended spending inside my match's head, it was easier. He had managed to track me, eventually, and was preparing a plan in case of an emergency. The idea was to let John and Sherlock handle things, unless my life was put directly in danger; then we'd intervene, and deal with the consequences of that (we'd heard John rant enough about not only Sherlock but Mycroft Holmes as well to know the man wouldn't take it lying down if we had to intervene).

I was pulled back to reality as I was manhandled across a slippery floor. I was wearing a dark top with a print of small, colorful flowers, dark jeans, calf-high charcoal-gray boots and a coat of the same color. My shoulder-length hair, which I usually kept in a small, tight bun in the nape of my neck (mostly to make sure I'd look nothing like my other self) was beginning to fall off its do. I didn't pay attention to that, instead I focused on the hands pushing me out of a hallway and quite close to a swimming pool...

"You can't be allowed to continue. You just can't." A man, very close to me, said in a high, quite annoying tone of voice. "I would try to convince you but..." His laughter was sickening, and his voice took a sing-song quality as he began talking again. "Everything I have to say has already crossed your mind!"

"Probably my answer has crossed yours." A second, deeper, much more serious voice replied.

And then I was stumbling out of the shadows, after a last push from the person who'd been manhandling me. About at the same time the drugs finally finished clearing from my body (probably thanks to the sudden rush of adrenaline). I found myself standing in front of a madman, James Moriarty I would guess, with a bomb-vest still blinking less than three feet away from me; and past it: John and Sherlock...

"Ari!" John exclaimed, apparently unable to hold back his shock at my sudden appearance.

"Hey John..." I greeted him, blinking rapidly as I cleared the last of the cobwebs from my head. "And I presume you're Sherlock Holmes..."

"And you're Arianna Hvedrungr, and I am Jim Moriarty, hi!" The 'consulting criminal' cried out dramatically. "Now that we've gotten the boring introductions out of the way..." He turned his full focus back to Sherlock. "Bet you didn't see this one coming, Sherl... See, she wasn't part of the plan, only Johnny-boy was, but when I saw the two of them... it just was so convenient! Now tell me Sherlock, you're willing to die, and to kill your little friend, and me... but are you willing to kill an innocent?"

"Why should I care about her at all?" Sherlock asked coldly. "She's nothing to me."

"No, but she's something to your friend." Moriarty replied, an almost giddy expression.

I couldn't help it, I rolled my eyes. While I wasn't too worried about Sherlock deciding to truly shoot the bomb at my feet; I could sense his worry, for both John and myself, I wasn't just going to play damsel in distress, it really wasn't my style...

"So, we're at an impasse Sherlock..." Moriarty went on. "It's so... disappointing. I believed you to be more interesting, perhaps even my equal. And instead you're boring."

He probably would have gone on and on with his spiel, but by that point I just couldn't handle it anymore, I began laughing out-loud.

"What...?" Moriarty demanded hotly, pressing a gun to my neck. "What?!"

"You know, you've made so many mistakes, it's almost funny." I commented in a drawl. "First of all, you're underestimating me, acting like I'm a victim, someone that needs to be rescued. Why people always look at me and see a defenseless little girl I'll never know. Second of all, you keep focusing all your attention on Sherlock Holmes, you cannot see reality, the fact that you've lost control of the situation; if you ever had it in the first place." I've scoffed. "Tell me, Mr. Moriarty, how many red dots do you see?"

That called everyone's attention instantly, as they noticed that they had all disappeared.

"That's impossible." Moriarty hissed. "No one could find us here, no one knows we're here!"

"Yet another mistake." I pointed out evenly. "My husband always knows where I am, he can always find me. We'd actually agreed that we wouldn't be intervening with any of Sherlock's and John's cases unless we were pulled into them, or their lives were in danger... and guess what, you've managed to do all three!"

"Are you done?" It was obvious Moriarty still didn't believe me, he still thought he'd won...

"There's one more thing." I added, the beginnings of a smile appearing on my lips. "You allowed me to get too close."

The moment the last word crossed my lips I was on the move. Mentally cursing (not for the first time) my small stature, while thanking that yet another opponent had managed to underestimate me so thoroughly, I elbowed him as hard as I could before spinning on one heel and using the opposite arm to push his arm up, and eventually twist his wrist enough that he let go of the gun he'd been threatening me with. I didn't try to take it, guns really weren't my thing, very briefly considered pulling out the knife I hid in my ankle, but in the end I decided not to. So instead I dropped into a crouch and used one of my legs to sweep Moriarty's own from beneath him, causing him to fall hard enough his head cracked against the tiled floor.

I winced mentally at the sound, and the pain I could sense coming off him, even as another part of my mind became aware of the sudden rush of icy coldness behind me. I realized my match had decided to freeze the bomb, just in case.

It'd all happened in less than fifteen seconds. Then I stood, slowly but fluidly, staring at the man on the floor, he wasn't fully unconscious, but it was obvious he'd banged his head hard enough to at least stun him temporarily.

"Ari...?" John asked slowly.

"I'm fine John." I told him softly as he approached me.

In seconds he was all around me, checking me over, probably making sure I wasn't hiding an injury or something. I couldn't help but notice that he'd stopped trembling and he looked strong again, as if looking after someone else allowed him to ignore the effects the sudden low in adrenaline caused him.

"Really, I'm alright." I assured him. "I wasn't hurt. A bit drugged... but I'm alright now."

"You don't look like you're about to crash..." Sherlock commented, looking me up and down.

"To be perfectly honest, this isn't exactly the first time I've gotten into a bind." I shrugged. "People tend to underestimate me."

"You told him that." Sherlock commented.

I shrugged again.

"I don't even know why I am surprised." Sherlock admitted, with some hesitation. "You are John's cousin, after all."

"Oh... but is she?" The question called everyone's attention instantly.

"Mycroft..." Sherlock hissed. "What are you doing here?"

"Really Sherlock, announcing your meeting on your website isn't exactly conductive for privacy." A man that could only be Mycroft Holmes, said in an almost condescending tone.

"What makes you doubt that she's my cousin?" John asked defensively, as he stood beside me.

"Aside from the fact that until last June Arianna Kinross-Hvedrungr didn't exist?" Mycroft asked in a drawl, eyes fixed straight on me.

Instantly, Sherlock turned to me.

"We will be having a long, serious talk, as soon as James Moriarty is taken into custody." The elder Holmes announced in a stuck-up tone.

I shrugged, not like I wasn't expecting that already.

"You shouldn't forget the snipers upstairs." My husband spoke up as he joined us. "There were three, two men and one woman... regretfully, the woman managed to escape; the two men are unconscious. If you're interested the woman is about 5'3'', with dark, very short hair, and she's wearing what might be called a cat-suit. She escaped through the nearby rooftops." He made a pause before adding. "And no, I did not go after her. My wife is more important."

No one argued with that. Soon enough a team (that I was sure weren't with Scotland Yard) had taken the two snipers and James Moriarty (who looked like he might be waking up). Then Mycroft lead all of us to a car. None of us argued, we just followed.

We ended in a private office in what I would later learn was Mycroft's private office, above the Diogenes' Club.

"So, where shall we start?" My love asked.

He was on-guard already, waiting to see what Mycroft might try.

"How about we start with your real identity?" The man proposed, looking straight at me.

"My real identity?" I asked, feigning ignorance, I needed to know how much he'd been able to realize, to 'deduce'.

"As the illegitimate Salani child. The Kinross heiress." Mycroft clarified.

I couldn't help the puzzled expression on my face. As he soon proved, he'd managed to find out a lot more than I ever expected anyone to, and yet the way he put it all together... it was unexpected in many ways.

"This is Silbhé Salani." Mycroft stated, placing a picture of my younger self on the table, a copy of my SHIELD profile picture in fact. "Professor in European History, English Literature and Mythology, as well as certified in nearly a dozen languages."

"She works for SHIELD?" Sherlock asked, curious.

"She did." Mycroft nodded solemnly. "Until last week... The official version is that the cancer in her blood, which she'd been living with since she was fourteen years old, finally claimed her life... However, some of my sources say she was in New Mexico, where SHIELD just fought a second battle against the same alien invaders that attacked New York last year..."

Yes, Mycroft knew way too much!

"None of that so much as suggests that I am a Salani." I really wanted to know how he'd reached that conclusion.

"No?" Mycroft actually smirked at me. "One just needs to look at that picture, and at you, Miss Kinross. And that's not all." He pulled out my (younger self's) file next. "Silbhé Salani, daughter of Sebastian Salani, and Aislinn Salani nee Kinross, who in turn was the second and youngest child of Alasdair Kinross, Lord Brechin and Navar and last descendant of the Duke of Ross. It is known in certain circles that neither of Lord Kinross's daughters could claim the title, as they chose to marry beneath their station; but if one of their own children had married well..."

"I am already married, and Serrure is no aristocrat." I said simply. "And that still doesn't mean I am connected to her in any way."

"True." He nodded. "And about it meaning nothing.. one just needs to look at that picture, and then at yourself. You must be twins!"

I swallowed, mind working a mile a minute. I knew in that moment, without a sliver of a doubt, that Mycroft Holmes wouldn't be giving up on that line of inquiry. He knew that the identity of Arianna Kinross was a fake, and the mere fact that I'd come in contact with his brother meant I couldn't be allowed to keep my secrets anymore. Also, as convenient as 'twins' could be, it would not stand in the long run, not when one day I... we'd have to go back, to deal with Hydra, and SHIELD, and everything else that might yet come our way (and I'd rather not add the enmity of a man with the power Mycroft Holmes possessed to that list).

Really, even if I'd been away for a while, I knew who the Holmeses were. One of the oldest families in Britain. Technically they only had an earldom, but I knew their power went far beyond what the old peerage system could grant. Also, there was an instinct inside me that told me I might need them one day, and it was better not to lie to them... or at least not too much.

"You're so amazingly right... and at the same time so incredibly, utterly wrong." I finally said after what seemed like a very long time.

I could feel Loki's eyes on my temple, he was looking straight at me, wondering what decision I'd made, even if he'd followed most of my train of thought, he didn't know what I'd do exactly:

*Trust me...* I whispered to him mentally.

*Always.* He told me simply.

"The truth is..." I took a deep breath, before diving head first into my new 'lifestory'. "The truth is that I am no 'illegitimate Salani daughter', or an Evans for that matter..." I spoke, of course, of Aunt Siobhan's family. "Neither am I Silbhé Salani's twin... as interesting as I'm sure that particular twist would be."

"It's never twins..." John muttered.

I turned to look at John briefly, wondering about that comment, and noticed the way Sherlock smiled. I didn't find out until later, but he was quoting the consulting detective.

"I am she." I finally finished.

For several seconds no one said a word, I was beginning to wonder if they'd even heard me and then... total disbelief.

"That's impossible!" Mycroft stated.

"Not impossible, just improbable." I smirked at him, before spinning my own file around and pointing at a very specific line. "Why don't you read that part, very carefully."

"A name?" Sherlock scoffed.

It was John who read it in the end, out-loud:

"Silbhé Arianna Kinross-Salani." He smiled. "It's really that simple?"

"It really is." I nodded. "Most of my SHIELD records have me as Professor Salani, or Professor Silbhé Salani. But I've always used both my surnames, I'm as much my mother's daughter as I am my father's, even if she died when I was three." I focused on Mycroft. "If your contacts are as good as you implied, what do you know of Silbhé Salani's activities over the last year or so?"

"She was sent with Dr. Foster and her assistant to Tromso, Norway less than a week before the first invasion." The elder Holmes began enlisting. "All three women returned after it was all over. Two weeks later she took an indefinite leave of absence..."

I couldn't help it, I snorted.

"Then, near the end of the year she was admitted into the hospital, first in Maine, and then in New York, some sort of coma." He went on. "Official causes were never discerned, but it was the belief of several doctors that it might be the cancer... She eventually woke up and was discharged and taken to Stark Tower... or so it was claimed and then..."

"And then nothing, until her death several days ago, yes?" I asked.

He nodded. He still didn't seem to believe me, but I didn't mind that; I knew I was going to need to be

very careful how I spun the story, otherwise he wouldn't believe it. Sherlock... on the other side, I wasn't sure he believed any of it just yet, but he certainly was interested in it all. So I took a deep breath and went into the hardest part:

"You never go to work in an organization like SHIELD without an exit strategy." I explained evenly. "In fact, I'm quite sure Aunt Kathryn would have preferred that I never work with any government, but it couldn't be helped. In any case, this..." I signaled to myself. "Arianna Kinross, it was always my exit strategy. I actually began building the identity years ago, during my breaks from college. Though back then it was mostly a game, it was until last year that I became serious about it." I sighed. "Serrure... he almost died in New York, during the attack. I was supposed to be there, we were supposed to meet that weekend, but SHIELD sent us to Norway unexpectedly. And when I found out what was going on..."

I left the rest in the air, letting them assume that I had become 'discontented' with my employers because they hadn't done 'something' to protect my husband, and people like him.

"You say I took an indefinite leave of absence..." I snorted again at the mere words. "The truth is I simply left and didn't go back, but SHIELD wouldn't report that, wouldn't admit that I refused to dance to their tune... or maybe they just didn't care enough. I did end up in the hospital, though it wasn't quite as bad as the files make it sound. Still, it was useful, it put the idea in people's heads, that the cancer was coming back..."

"It wasn't?" Sherlock inquired, interested.

"The cancer hasn't been a problem since I was fourteen and lived past the three month deadline the doctors gave me." I deadpanned.

I didn't tell them how exactly I had managed that, it was easier that way, I didn't lie, and didn't risk them catching me at it.

"Still, it was convenient." I shrugged, then focused again on Mycroft. "If you manage to talk to someone who attended my 'funeral' they will tell you there was no casket, no body, only an urn filled with ashes, they will tell you those were my wishes... It was all part of the plan. My ticket out of SHIELD..."

"Why go through such lengths?" John asked, curious. "Why not just leave?"

"Because I'm one of two people in the whole world who specialize in the subjects I do." I explained. "The people in SHIELD call us 'Asgard experts'. Also, from the two of us I'm the only one who actually lived in the country, and was willing to be in their payroll... do you really think they would have let me go?"

All that was true enough, and at least I knew that the other times my younger self had been involved with SHIELD (after my 'human death') Had been top-secret, and thus there was no reason for the Holmeses to find out about them.

"So you're Silbhé Salani..." Mycroft began.

"I am Arianna Kinross-Hvedrungr." I corrected him calmly. "That's all that matters anymore." My eyes narrowed. "And do not even think about blackmailing me with this information, Mr. Holmes. I could disappear once, from underneath SHIELD's thumb, I can certainly do it again; but if you force my hand I will be quite annoyed... I'm so enjoying life here in England, and spending time with my cousin."

"The Watsons aren't related to the Kinrosses in any way." Mycroft shook his head.

"Our families are connected by something a lot more important than blood." I told him serenely.

"What?" He asked, frozen by that prospect.

"Choice." It was as simple as that.

xXx

In the end Mycroft didn't try to blackmail me, which was good all things considered. Though what I really wasn't expecting, was when, less than a month later, a courier arrived to our home, carrying a lot of papers for me to sign, the papers necessary for me to claim my title. I was shocked, but certainly not enough not to see the potential trouble. I phoned Mycroft.

"This isn't about me." He didn't even wait for me to say anything.

"I'm not going to owe you a favor Mycroft." I grumbled.

"Again, that is not the intent." He insisted. "But you've chosen to claim John Watson as family. Who, in turn has become attached to my little brother. It is my hope that, if it ever becomes necessary, you might extend your protection to him..."

"Exactly what do you expect my protection to consist of?" I couldn't help but ask, something just wasn't adding up. "A minor nobility title will not do much."

"Perhaps not in the hands of most people, but something tells me you can get creative with it." The politician stated. "Also, I might not be able to find out everything, but I know you have... shall we say, other capabilities..." His voice went very low before he added. "I know that bomb vest did not freeze by some sort of chemical miscalculation..."

I didn't reply, there was really no need. From the start we'd known we were taking risks, acting that night. My knowledge of martial arts, my ability to remain perfectly calm even with a gun against my neck, and then, of course, my love's gift with ice... We'd already decided to take things as they came. And apparently thus far that meant having Mycroft Holmes know and willing not to say a thing about it. All things considered, it could have been worse.

xXx

We became a bit more involved with Sherlock's and John's lives after that, though not too much. We still lived in the same house, still taught classes often. They knew I was a certified paramedic and had training as a field nurse (even if no one could pinpoint with any certainty when or how I'd gotten that training), which meant that when John got injured they came to me (since he had some difficulty treating himself), and there were times when a car would pick me up and I'd be taken to some secure location to treat one of Mycroft's employees (if he knew back then that I'd more at my disposal than training as paramedic and nurse, I have no idea). We also assisted, mostly by accident, on a few small cases (I was still quite good with linguistics, and my love was a superb strategist).

The time we got the most involved was the following year, in March, in a case John eventually called the 'Hound of Baskerville'. Apparently Sherlock had used Mycroft's security pass to enter a military facility, so Mycroft asked us to go make sure those two wouldn't get up in more trouble than they could safely deal with. I was even given security clearance of my own (and the fact that Mycroft had had that ready told me he was playing the long game, and planning for something... I wasn't sure I liked that).

In the end the case wasn't that complex, or dangerous; aside from the poor sod that pretty much blew himself up when he stepped on a landmine. I called on a shield on instinct alone, to protect us from the explosion, but no one seemed to notice, everyone too shocked to pay much attention to anything right then.

And then James Moriarty reappeared, and things really got complicated...

"Wasn't he in prison?" I blurted out after the daylight robberies. "He was supposed to be in prison after what happened in that bloody pool!"

As it turned out that wasn't even the worst part. No, because not only Moriarty wasn't in prison anymore, the two snipers that had been arrested that day were dead, had died under 'suspicious circumstances', and people were beginning to believe that James Moriarty had never existed, that Sherlock Holmes had made him up, along with his own reputation as a consulting detective.

"This is absolutely ridiculous!" I snapped, mentally cursing in over half of the languages I knew. "How can people be so... so..."

"Blind?" John offered, as he was there with me.

"Stupid." I corrected, 'blind' just wasn't strong enough a word. "Blatantly stupid."

"They are so quick to throw accusations now." John agreed. "When just two weeks ago they were singing him praises..."

"And just wait and see what they do the next time the Yard cannot solve a crime!" I scoffed.

John just nodded and the two of us sipped at our teas.

"You know you have to stay away, right?" He asked me eventually. "For your own safety."

"I assumed as much." It was the truth, I had seen that coming.

"Moriarty... or Richard Brooks, as he keeps calling himself, hasn't mentioned you, at all." John explained to me. "We rather not give him a reason to."

I hated it, very much so, but I knew what he was thinking. It'd be dangerous to put me on the stand; if someone happened to realize that Arianna Kinross wasn't my original name... it would complicate things way too much. Even if we managed to get away with the story we'd spun for the Holmeses, what would I do... what would we do when our younger selves arrived to London with Thor, Jane and the Secret Circle to stop Malekith? We were almost a year away from that event still, and yet...

"We will stay away, as long as that doesn't put one of you in danger." I told him calmly. "The moment that changes, all bets are off."

He nodded, I knew he'd understand that, he was 'wired' pretty much the same way. Except he was a soldier, in ways I'd never been, not even when some had begun considering me a 'Warrior Lady' (in either life). It was in that very moment that I, for the first time ever, wished, truly wished, that I had killed... Perhaps if I'd chosen my knife instead of my own foot when I took Moriarty down he'd have died that night, wouldn't have been able to engineer a return, to torment John and Sherlock as he was doing in those very moments...

It wasn't in my nature, in fact killing downright went against my very nature. It was one thing to be willing to fight, to injure, but I had a hard time even thinking about taking a life. I knew my match had done it, not few times either, and I accepted it, didn't think any less of him because of it. But doing it myself was an entirely different matter.

The situation kept getting worse as summer passed, and we all knew it wouldn't be long before something snapped. Even then, nothing could have ever prepared any of us for what happened that late July night...

It was rather late and the two of us were wearing robes over sleeping clothes, sitting on a small bench in our balcony, watching the night sky.

"Rose is here." Loki announced abruptly.

I was about to stand, to go down and open the door, when I watched a creamy white hand take hold of the edge of the balcony, two seconds before the rest of a body followed. It was, indeed, our daughter, wearing a pale-red wrap-dress over a leather body-suit, a pair of boots hung over one shoulder, and her feet bare; her hair pulled in a braid and over her other shoulder.

"Did you just climb three stories?" I asked, unable to conceal my disbelief.

"Technically it was only two... and a half." She commented as she plopped down on the railing. "I really needed to get to you."

"Rose...?" My love murmured quietly.

He could see it as easily as I did, our daughter was strung tight, so much it couldn't be healthy. She looked like she hadn't slept in at least three days, and hadn't rested properly in a week, at least; and yet, even with all that, there was a sense of urgency about her.

"You need to stop it." She said, sounding completely breathless. "You need to... it's all going to go so wrong... again! You need to stop it before it's too late."

"Stop...? Stop what?" I really didn't understand. "What's going to happen? Is someone's life in danger? Your brother...?"

"Some things are worth more than a life..." She muttered, seemingly to herself. "This is not about Hakon, he's just fine, Peggy too, even Steve! No, this... your friends! John Watson and Sherlock Holmes... they..."

"Are their lives in danger?" Maverick asked instantly. "It's Moriarty isn't it?"

"This is not about life or death!" Rose shook her head vehemently. "It goes beyond that... They... they're like us." She waved her hand at us before a single word could be said. "Not from another realm, no. They're a match, perfect soulmates... and they don't know it. And everything's going to go absolutely wrong tomorrow. Not death, but worse, and they will never recover from it, not really. And it's happened before! Time and again. They always meet, and they always fall in love, but something always goes wrong and everything is ruined! And it's gonna happen again! And you need to stop it!"

Rose went off the railing right then, practically collapsing at our feet, crying almost hysterically. And all I could do was kneel beside her, hold her tight. My daughter was well past the edge and I had no idea how to help her.

I had a flash of memory right then, of my mother; not my human mother, but my elven one, back in my previous life, the last time I'd seen her, before everything had gone so wrong, before the Bloody Night, before I lost my sister, and her... I'd woken up to loud sobbing one night, and had found her in a corner of her room, crying hysterically, muttering under her breath. I'd just stood there, at her door, watching, not knowing what to do... I was but a child, I had no idea what was wrong, how to help my crying mother... Looking back on it, I couldn't help but wonder if she'd known, everything that laid ahead of us; if she'd known what would happen to her daughters... She'd had the Sight, just like Rose did, and I still didn't understand it.

"What can we do?" I asked, hoping that if I could help make things right, that would somehow be enough to help her too.

"I... I don't know!" She admitted in a sob. "I keep seeing them, keep seeing everything that went wrong, time and again, and I don't know how to make it right! I don't know if it can... but if it doesn't... It will be yet another wasted opportunity, two lives that will never reach their full potential. And it's not right, it's not right because the world needs them, the universe needs them, and they need each other and They Don't See It!"

"What if we could make them see?" The words coming from my match's mouth were enough to freeze us all in the spot.

"What...?" Neither of us really understood what he meant right then.

"You say you don't know how to fix it, but if this is a matter of them, of a match, then you're not the one who needs to fix it, not us either." My husband explained quietly. "They are the ones who need to do it. And if they don't know it right now, if they don't see it; that we can do. We can make them see..."

"Yes." Rose agreed immediately. "Yes."

And so a plan was made.

xXx

It was an insane plan, beyond that even, in ways that few could ever begin to comprehend. And yet, it needed to be done. So we went ahead and did it:

The easiest part of the plan was finding Sherlock and John. They were holed up in the basement lab at Bart's. Also, as we soon found out, there were warrants for their arrests, John's apparently was for 'interfering in an arrest', Sherlock's, as it happened; while Sherlock was a 'person of interest' in the kidnapping of two young children, the same children he'd just rescued earlier that same day. Added to the so-called news of 'Kitty Riley' about Richard Brooks, and Sherlock being a liar... it was absolutely insane.

In any case, Molly at least knew them well enough, she'd allowed them to stay inside the Lab. It obviously wouldn't work in the long run, which meant that something would have to give... I could see why Rose was so desperate that something be done. Our side of the plan was a bit more complex, but still we managed to make one.

From all three of us, Rose was the one who'd actually seen it. The way things would go, the way they'd gone in the past, all the mistakes, time after time, life after life... and yet she was no telepath, and no spellweaver, she couldn't share what was in her head (she cursed for not thinking about asking Charles or someone called Jean to accompany her... but there just was no time to get them to London). Loki was a spell-weaver, he had the ability of pushing his own thoughts onto other people, though it was hard, and if that person couldn't handle it, it could be very dangerous (which was why Thor had been so disbelieving the first time he'd shared his memories with me, back before he knew who I truly was). And then there was me, I couldn't use magic to pass on visions, and I couldn't read minds, but I could serve as a bridge... or so I hoped.

"How are we going to do this?" Loki asked at one point. "I mean, we cannot just show them everything and tell them: this is a mistake!" He made a pause, then revised. "Well, I suppose we could do that, but with the kind of men those two are..."

"It wouldn't work." I agreed completely with him. "Sherlock will go crazy trying to find the logic in something that has none, and John will be too shocked to act."

"Then we make it personal." Rose decided. "Don't let them see the whole thing as something that concerns someone else, but about them."

"How?" We didn't understand.

"A song." She explained, and it was obvious she had an idea already. "I can do it, I've done it before. I go so deep into someone else's life, the things I've seen of them... it's almost like I become them, for a little while. When I sing I'm them..."

I wasn't quite sure how that was supposed to work, I'd never sung for anyone other than myself. Even when the song was about my daughters, or a friend, it was always my own voice, my own heart behind it all. I couldn't imagine channeling someone else like that... then again, I didn't have the Sight.

It was easy enough to allow Rose to take the lead, agreeing that I'd join in when the time felt right. I would act as a bridge, between her and her Papa, between them and our friends; and hopefully we'd be able to change things for the better...

When the melody began, it was like none I'd ever played or sung before. Rose was sitting before the piano, her fingers slowly pressing keys, and yet the true rhythm lay in her feet, her bare feet which hit the floor (rather than the pedals), marking the real tempo of the song, even as the music adjusted, several seconds before her voice joined the melody. And it was until a fraction of a second before she began that I realized one thing: I'd never before heard my daughter sing...

"Total disconnection
Alone was my protection
Till you,
You walked into my life"

"Love was just a weakness
'till you left me speechless
Till you,
Opened up this heart of mine"

"And I'll never see,
What you see,
When you look at me"

"But I'll never cease,
Never sleep,
'till I'm worthy of your love
'till I'm worthy of your love"

The effect was immediate, images began flowing, between all three of us; and if all went well, on to John and Sherlock. There was a lot, whole lifetimes even, more than I could fully grasp in the seconds they took before being gone. Though there were some that stayed with me: like the moment a figure with sun-bleached hair (sometimes a wheat-white, others a dirty-blonde, or at times even a golden-brown) was hit by a projectile; it was one of the constants, which seemed to repeat in every lifetime. Then there was the other figure, with darker hair, standing alone, in the shadows, battling an evil that couldn't always be seen. In most of their incarnations they seemed to be men, both of them, but even that wasn't an absolute; there were variations, like with everything. The only constant was that it was the two of them always; and that whenever they stood apart, they were fragile, vulnerable, but when they stood together they were invincible...

"I've never been accepted
So loved and protected
Till you,
Your friendship knows no bounds"

"But I've been keeping secrets
Lodged in me like bullets
Can you,
Help me take these bullets out?"

"I must confess
Must express
What I think you know"

"But I'm so damn scared
Unprepared
To declare what's in my heart
To declare what's in my heart"

It was amazing, the partnership. I got to see the first meeting of those two so many times, in each incarnation, a moment came when I simply lost count. It was amazing, how two completely different individuals could meet each other one day and simply... trust. With no reason, no logic, no evidence, as if that trust in one another, in their partnership, were as natural to them as the beat of their own hearts...

Each pair we saw hailed from a different time and, I suspected, some might not have been human at all, or even from Earth. They were old souls, probably even older than the Realms as we knew them... they kept finding each other, and yet something kept going wrong. At some point during their lives, one of them made a mistake, and from that point on everything was forever ruined; metaphorical abysses and walls separating them, and nothing was ever enough to bring them together again. It seemed almost like a curse, one of eternal, irreversible failure. It reminded me of our old friends: Sharifa and Kontar, his belief of their own curse, and mine that getting the chance to meet and love each other every lifetime wasn't a curse; but what about meeting each other, falling in love, and never getting a chance to live that love as it was meant to be lived?

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
I'd do anything for you"

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
I'd do anything for you"

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
I'd do anything for you"

By the time Rose reached what I knew instinctively to be the chorus I felt like I could understand the melody she was weaving, enough to add my voice to it. Even then I did little more than provide a background chorus, an echo that might serve to emphasize certain lines. She was the one carrying the song, because she was the one who knew, who understood, she was the one with the power, and the belief to really help Sherlock Holmes and John Watson... I'd never been so proud of her as I was right then: Rose Alfdis, my daughter, my Goddess of Chaos and Faith...

"I'd do anything for you
I'd do anything for you
I'd do anything for you
I'd do anything for you
I'd do anything for you"

And then I saw it, we all did. The mistake: a fall... sometimes off a waterfall, sometimes off a cliff, one of the pair would fall alongside their 'eternal enemy', and be lost. Sometimes that loss was permanent, but most of the time it would turn out that he/she had survived, only to keep that fact from their partner. And then came heartbreak, and loss, and grief... all which would morph into despair and rage once the falsehood was revealed... and by then it would already be too late. The wound too deep, having festered already, never to fully heal. The worst were perhaps those where the truth was never revealed, for the second half of the pair was lost (either to accident or on purpose) before the first one could return to reveal the 'magic trick'. A whole new tragedy...

Time and again, a cycle that always seemed to end in either grief and loss and death, or grief and loss and rage. And even the few times where they managed to push past that, to allow the wound to heal (as much as such a wound could heal...) the scar would always be there, on the surface, never to fade, an eternal reminder of what could have been, what will never come to pass.

"Shadows in your eyes say
I'm already too late
Now I have to let you go
Now I have to let you go"

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
But I'd do anything for you"

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
I'd do anything for you"

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
I'd do anything for you
I'd do anything for you"

There was more, of course there was, scenes that belonged after the rip, and yet, deep down, I did not want to see them. I knew they couldn't be good. Yet some were just too strong somehow to really ignore. Like the one where an older John Watson returned to the flat he'd left behind to help his old friend deal with his last case, his greatest failure, before writing one last book, a 'corrected' version of events, and hiding the few pieces of evidence of what had really happened. Or the one where an elderly Sherlock Holmes, in his last days, looked back on his life, finally able to admit that his greatest regret was the way things had ended between him and his best friend, the way the two of them slipped away and could never truly settle their differences. They grew apart, and they died apart; even though deep down they had to have known that wasn't how things were supposed to be. Be it due to pride, grief, anger, sadness, disappointment, fear, or a combination of two or more of those, things were simply never made right between the two. A mistake that the current Sherlock Holmes and John Watson seemed to be cursed to repeat... Was there really any hope left when nothing had changed in hundreds of years, in dozens of lifetimes?

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
I'd do anything for you"

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
I'd do anything for you"

"Never knew I had a heart
Till it beat for you
I'd do anything for you
I'd do anything for you"

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

The next morning Sherlock Holmes was standing on the edge of St. Bart's rooftop, phone in hand, saying goodbye to his blogger, his best friend, his partner... John Watson stood on ground level, across the street from the hospital, looking up at his friend, seemingly insane with grief.

"I'm a fake." Sherlock pronounced, a tone of finality such that it was like the end of something, something huge.

"Sherlock..." John seemed to not know what to say.

"The newspapers were right all along." The consulting detective said, voice turning tearful. "I want you to tell Lestrade; I want you to tell Mrs. Hudson, and your cousin, and Molly... in fact, tell anyone who will listen to you that I created Moriarty for my own purposes."

"Okay, shut up, Sherlock, shut up." The doctor snapped. "The first time we met... the first time we met, you knew all about my sister, right?"

"Nobody could be that clever." Sherlock retorted.

"You could." John insisted.

Sherlock laughed quietly, a wet laugh, though John couldn't see him crying, he could hear it, and there were others able to see him, to see them both...

"I researched you." The detective said suddenly. "Before we met, I discovered everything that I could to impress you." His voice turned quieter as she added. "It's a trick. It's just a magic trick."

If anyone was listening in, spying on them, they'd have thought those last words to be simply the end to the consulting detective's damning speech; that his so-called deductions were nothing more than lies, cheap tricks... for the two of them though, the words had an entirely different meaning, one only they truly understood:

John started awake, hands reaching immediately for another, one he knew wasn't there. It was a dream, just a dream, and yet... the moment he raised his head he saw his friend, his best friend, his partner, his... everything, looking straight at him, and the doctor could see tears hanging from his dark eyelashes. And then the words that came out of his mouth...

"I never knew I had a heart..." He whispered, voice hoarse.

"... until it beat for you." John finished, breathless. "It wasn't a dream."

"Oh, it was." Sherlock told him. "And yet I think it was also more, so much more..."

John didn't stop to think about it twice, not even once, he pushed himself away from the desk and off the chair he'd been dozing on and rushed to Sherlock, dropping to his knees before the other man. The two simply stared into each other's eyes for the longest time.

"Your cousin..." The detective began after what seemed like forever.

"Wha...?" The doctor didn't understand what that had to do with anything.

"You saw what I did, yes?" He didn't wait for an answer, it was obvious enough. "The voices in the background, the song... I do not recognize the main voice, but the other one, it was your cousin's voice. She's somehow involved in this."

"But how?" John didn't understand.

"I have no idea." Sherlock couldn't help but admit. "This is not logical John, there's no evidence and yet... and yet I believe it."

"As do I." The blonde agreed immediately. "God, I've been so stupid!" It looked like the dark-haired man would say something, but wasn't given a chance. "But then again, so have you!"

Sherlock never got the chance to interject anything, in his own defense, or John's... suddenly his mouth was busy, kissing and being kissed. It wasn't a first kiss, for either of them; and yet they couldn't help but feel like they hadn't experienced anything like it before. In that single moment everything was absolutely perfect. Though of course, such perfection simply couldn't last forever:

"He'll burn the heart out of me..." Sherlock blurted out suddenly, eyes reflecting a horror like none John had ever seen before.

"What...?!" Not for the first time John felt a bit stupid, not getting it.

"You John!" The detective snapped. "Moriarty is going to use you to destroy me!"

"Well, good luck with that!" The doctor smirked at that. "I'm not exactly a damsel in distress. Just let him try something, I'll destroy him."

"Not if you don't see him, see it coming." The younger man denied. "And you won't see it, John, not in time. He'll make sure of that."

"Sherlock..." The older man could see his partner was on the edge of a panic attack and he didn't know how to fix it, it wasn't like he was wrong, after all.

"If he hurts you... if he kills you... that'll destroy me John." Sherlock admitted, very, very quietly.

"Then we make sure that doesn't happen." John announced, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. "We can do it... together we're invincible."

"Together." Sherlock agreed, then took a deep breath and confessed. "There is something..."

John couldn't believe it when he heard the plan, the plan the Holmes brothers had created together, without him...

"No John!" Sherlock cried out suddenly. "It's not that. I do trust you, so much!"

"Then why?" John asked, very quietly, almost afraid. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I wanted you to be safe." The detective explained. "You need to be safe John, you need to. Otherwise it will be all pointless."

"But you can see it now, can't you?" The doctor asked, more kindly. "You can see how your choices would have destroyed me?"

They'd both seen it, the things that could and would have been... and the ones that had already happened. Even if none of them truly understood what it was they'd seen, or how, they believed in it enough to make a different choice this time.

"It will work John, you'll see." Sherlock assured him. "It will be like a magic trick..."

"The best magic trick ever." John agreed.

So there they were, one of them on a ledge, the other on the ground, performing for an unseen public they knew was around, preparing themselves to perform the greatest magic trick... so great most wouldn't know it was a trick at all, not until the time came, for the truth to be revealed...

"Keep your eyes fixed on me." Sherlock called. "Please, will you do this for me?"

They both knew he would, and they both knew they would hate it. The last thing Sherlock wanted was to hurt John, and the last thing John wanted was for Sherlock to put his life on the line like that. But they had to, they had to because there simply was no other way; and there were others whose lives were in danger as well, their friends... and they would protect them, no matter how hard it might be.

More words were exchanged, about notes... words John refused to process, even as his face showed how much he understood. It still wasn't easy for him, when Sherlock finally dropped his phone, opened his arms wide and then just fell... jumped. The scream that came from his lips was very, very real.

"No... SHERLOCK!"

It was hard, they'd both known it'd be hard. Even though the positioning of certain buildings, and even a lorry made it so John didn't actually have to see a body hit the ground, the mere thought of it was enough to make a flashback seize him. It took all his will to force himself to move. A bike almost hit him, would have if he hadn't tripped and half-fell right as he did. He was dizzy, and only the memory of the last kiss they'd exchanged in that lab, Sherlock's whispered promise about magic tricks, and his plea that John trust him, managed to keep him in the present.

The blonde man managed to stumble to where Sherlock's body laid on the pavement, blood all over and around his head in the most gruesome display. For all of two seconds John wasn't sure whether he'd cry or laugh at the absurdity of it all (he was a doctor, for god's sake, even if his PTSD was acting up and making it harder for his brain to work right, he knew that wasn't how a body would look if a person had really jumped... however many floors Barts had, he couldn't focus enough to remember right then). In the end he dropped to his knees beside Sherlock, mumbling nonsense and denials as he pretended to search for a pulse. The lack of it actually shocked him briefly, but the slight light in Sherlock's open eyes was enough to remind him of what's really going on. He'd seen into the eyes of the dead, he knew what they looked like, and it was nothing like Sherlock's eyes looked right then. It's all a magic trick...

Very quickly, being careful not to be seen by anyone, not even by those who were supposed to be on their side, John traced the base of the ring finger on Sherlock's left hand... It was a very specific move, one that, even if noticed, no one else would realize the true importance of. But Sherlock would, because he'd seen John's cousin and her husband, and the tattooed rings they themselves had, their wedding bands...

And just as fast as the touch happened, it was gone. A group of the Homeless Network, dressed like orderlies and nurses, picked up Sherlock and placed him on a stretcher, which was wheeled inside immediately. John stumbled a bit, ignoring the people trying to 'comfort' him, until someone finally guided him inside. He knew what was coming: eventually someone would go to him, tell him Sherlock was dead, catastrophic organ failure or something, he would rage, call out denials, shout his grief until he was left alone... and then he'd have to leave Barts, go back to Baker Street, face the world with the lie that had been concocted... Sherlock Holmes was believed to be dead, and it needed to be that way, for him, and Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson, and John's cousin, and probably even Molly...

Some day the truth would come out; someday the world would know that Sherlock Holmes really was a genius, and a good man; but until then John Watson would keep his silence, he would play the part he was given, wait, and believe... he wouldn't be making the same mistakes again, neither of them would, never again... their hearts would forever beat together...

Chapter Text

Never Stop

Let the universe know, that now and forever, you're the only one for me.

We came across our past (figuratively) three time in 2014, in the months following Sherlock Holmes's fall (and of course we were aware it was all a trick... though Mycroft had no idea how we'd found out, exactly).

The first time was in Ireland. My husband and I were there, under the cover of a sort-of second honeymoon, while our true focus was to research Richard Brooks. It was the biggest spanner into us being able to prove Sherlock's innocence, and his genius. Because, it turned out, Richard Brooks did exist, he'd been an actor, disappearing after the cancellation of his show, around the time most believed he'd have had to declare himself bankrupt, judging by all his debts... I could still remember what Rose had told us, just before leaving:

"He is Richard Brooks indeed, that is no lie." She'd said, her voice gaining an odd cadence, which reminded me of the elves. "Yet he is also Jim Moriarty. He's one and the other, he's both... and deep in the very center of the web where he loves to play, an even more dangerous Spider still lays... this death is not the end..."

We'd been able to draw a number of conclusions from that: first, Richard Brooks did exist, the man had had two identities. That one was actually easy to process; considering all the names I had (Arianna Kinross, Silbhé Salani -throwing the Hvedrungr name in for good measure-, Rossi Zabo, Risa Grayson, Arianna Stark-Serrure, Nightingale, Canary, Tinúviel, Lalaith...). Yes, a man being both Richard Brooks and Jim Moriarty was easy enough. It was the latter half of her speech that truly worried us. The fact that there was someone else behind him, that Moriarty wasn't the true head of that web...

Sherlock was out there in the world, hunting down criminals, slicing pieces of the web, one at a time; trying to find the snipers that had put his loved ones in danger... but what would happen if the true leader of the crime syndicate found him? Realized that it'd all been a ruse? Would that put Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, John and possibly myself in danger again; or Sherlock?

There was nothing we could do about that, though. John had to remain visible, in case someone was still keeping watch, make sure no one so much as suspected it was all a trick. Serrure and I weren't quite as limited, yet we couldn't just drop our responsibilities and disappear, that risked calling way too much attention. So we pretended vacations, and weekend breaks and helped where we could.

So we were in Ireland, trying to track Richard Brooks past, trying to discover where the switch between the two identities had occurred exactly. The most obvious moment would be after he disappeared, following his failure as an actor; but that had been so sudden, the change had to have begun before, or if not, there had to have been some clue, we needed to find his connection to whoever the other spider was; it was the only way.

We never expected to find none other than Phil Coulson and Darcy Lewis... they'd been on a mission of their own, a failure according to what little they told us. I could tell they didn't realize we weren't the same Loki and Nightingale that had left Midgard several weeks earlier to attend to duties commanded by Odin Allfather. Still, we didn't say anything.

The greatest surprise, though, was when we ended being two of four witnesses to Phil's and Darcy's wedding, before the end of the weekend.

It just so happened that the small town where we were, was pagan, they even had a priestess, and it was she who married them. Darcy and Phil had decided beforehand not to marry legally; as their marriage wasn't the kind of information (leverage) they wanted to give SHIELD. (And to think they didn't know about Hydra...) A handfasting ceremony was good enough for them. I wasn't sure who'd called Natasha and Clint, though. They purchased the rings, claddagh, as they knew Darcy had liked them since seeing my tattoo and hearing the explanation behind the design. When my match and I saw the bands, we suddenly realized something... those were the bands we'd seen Darcy and Phil wearing on chains, when we'd come across each of them, following the mess with the Aether and Malekith. Only those rings had been spelled... we did that ourselves.

The next encounter happened while we were in Switzerland. That time I was actually there with Mycroft's PA (whom John knew as Anthea, while I knew her as Cassia... she was actually Anna Isabel Kemp-Holmes, Mycroft's wife). Officially I was her interpreter during a series of political negotiations Mycroft hadn't been able to attend; unofficially we were there to research a possible thread of Moriarty's web, one that lead us directly to the Bernese Oberland region, and something called the Reichenbachfall... and wasn't that ironic? Considering that the painting of those very falls had been the start of the huge mess we were still in right then...

Hakon and Peggy were there (under their new identities, of course). My son looked past me, as if he didn't know me, though I could sense a brief burst of love for me. Peggy on the other hand, didn't seem to recognize me (though that might have been because of my attire, and the fact that I'd dyed my hair platinum blonde for the duration of the mission). We never spoke, but a moment came when we were close enough for my son to whisper a single word into my ear:

"Hydra..." It was just one word, yet the implications were huge.

In the end we didn't find much there, aside from the ruins of a property that had once been a summer home or something of a foreign lord by the name of Muirchertach... I also recognized the place as the one where at least two of the past incarnations of Sherlock Holmes had 'fallen', one from the top of the actual falls, and another from a balcony (probably the property back before it was mostly destroyed).

The third time was in early November, though that one was quite different, as it didn't technically start with me. It began with Mycroft calling me to request my 'assistance'. It was his way of asking me to go and heal someone. So I got on a plane, was flown to the south end of Italy. Sherlock was there, hiding in a safe-house, looking more than a little scorched... and yet, as I soon realized, he wasn't the reason I was called. No, the reason was the man laying on a cot in the next room, with serious burns on about a quarter or so of his body, and a stab-wound to his chest that had probably not killed him only because the blade hadn't been strong enough to get past his ribs (though it had cracked one of them). That man was Phil Coulson...

It hit me abruptly, the memory of a conversation we'd had so long ago (or, from a different point of view, hadn't had yet):

"... It was a risky assignment, so I was doing the work mostly on my own, though Darcy kept track of me, just in case. We didn't realize it but, they knew I was there. Not sure how long, but eventually they went after me. I'm not even sure how I survived that assassination attempt, it was a miracle, if I'm completely honest with you, and a close call... close enough that I was actually reported dead before I got the chance to get in touch with either Nick or Darcy in a safe manner. By the time I managed to get back, word had spread about my death. Nick decided to leave it that way, said it was for my own safety, as well as everyone else's..."

Phil hadn't known how he'd survived the assassination attempt; one that, just looking at him, had obviously been much more serious than I'd imagined; yet in that moment, as I laid my hands less than an inch from his skin and called on the power at the very core of my soul... I knew. It was always meant to happen like that.

So I healed him to the best of my ability (and of his body's own endurance), and when my magic hit its limit I used my other talents to help it along.

While we waited for him to wake up Sherlock told me how they'd met. Sherlock had been in Malta investigating a rich man called Ian Quinn, who'd apparently had some business with some men in the lower rungs of Moriarty's criminal web; he wanted to find out if Quinn knew about the criminal side of things, or if he'd been used to launder funds, or even as cover-up... He'd managed to get onto a yacht where the man was attending some sort of party, in his attempt to get close enough to deduce him. He still didn't know, he never got close enough to Quinn to deduce him; and then he'd seen Phil being stabbed and thrown off the side and into the ocean.

Sherlock claimed not to know why he'd chosen to give up what was perhaps his only chance to get to Quinn to try and save a man's life, especially a man he didn't even know... but I knew, he'd done it because it was what John would have done, and John would always be Sherlock's measure of what a good man was like.

It took two days for Phil to wake, and stay awake more than a few minutes. Sherlock had some tea ready (something he always made, one of the routines that helped center him). He was also taking the opportunity to spend time in his Mind Palace and sleeping. And that, above anything else, showed the trust he put in me, the fact that he was willing to sleep with an unknown man in the next room, in an unknown place, secure in the knowledge that I'd keep him safe.

Once Phil woke and drank a cup of tea, I made sure to get some broth for him; he was halfway through that before he finally spoke:

"I don't know how I didn't notice it in Ireland, but you're not Nightingale, or at least, not the Nightingale I knew before." It wasn't a question, but a statement.

"No, I'm not." I didn't see the point in lying, I respected Phil too much for that. "We are not. The Nightingale and Loki you last saw in that party in Stark Tower in May... they are in Asgard right now." I reconsidered. "Well, all things considered he might be in some other realm, helping deal with the Marauder problem..."

"Then who are you?" Phil finally got to the important question.

"I am Nightingale, what she will become." I answered, somewhat cryptically, before elaborating. "Something happened... or I guess something will happen, in less than two years, that will throw them back, far into the past..."

"What she will become..." Phil repeated in sudden understanding. "How far back?"

"75 years." I was dead-honest about that.

"The war... you were there..." He murmured. "How do we not know?"

"We were careful about that, very careful. And... well, you probably do know, to a point, you just don't know it was me... us... Howard was a great help with that."

"Howard..." I could see the moment Phil connected the dots. "Arianna Stark..."

I just smiled widely at him.

"What happened exactly?" He asked next. "I mean, shouldn't we be doing something to help or... well, I don't know!"

"There's nothing you can do, it's already happened Phil." I smiled softly at him. "I know it's hard to understand, and to be perfectly honest it took me many years to come to terms with it. When it first happened I tended to worry day and night, if we should try to change the past, if we should be careful of everything we did and said, least we change things too much and ruin something... but I realized the truth eventually."

"What truth?" Either he didn't get it, or he was having trouble accepting it.

"That it had already happened. That it was always meant to happen. Even if we could somehow do something to change things, I wouldn't... not like we could do anything, really, after all these years we still cannot remember what happened that day, exactly. We don't even know for sure if that's coincidence or on purpose."

"Someone made you forget how you got back so you couldn't undo it..."

"Perhaps, though the fact remains, it cannot be undone. Because, technically, it has already happened, all of it."

"So you're one of those people who doesn't believe in changing the past."

"I believe that it's possible for there to be more in the past than we knew..." Arianna Stark, Anya Reynolds, Alfdis Eisenhardt, Canary... and so many more people and places and events. "But no, you cannot change the past, because changing something makes it history, and then its all you know, therefore how would you know anything's changed? And it's not like we're about to create some insane paradox; like killing our own ancestors or ourselves or something equally insane!" My tone turned quieter as I added. "We were very careful. Distanced ourselves from Howard and his family before Tony turned four, so he would have no memories of us, stayed away from all who met us before the travel first, so we wouldn't cause confusion. Used disguises, new names and glamours as necessary. Even ended living in a different realm for twenty years!"

"How many people know about... well, all of this?" He asked, curious.

"A few people know some of it." I told him, considering. "No one outside of the direct family knows all of it. We didn't think it prudent. There's just so much going on..."

"I suppose that means you know what I was doing..."

"Some of it, yes." I admitted. "I cannot really tell you, as I don't really know how much you know already, and how much you've yet to piece together. But we will be meeting again, before the jump, and you'll tell me."

"I suppose that's only logical. But wait a second, the rings..."

"We... They won't know. If questions are asked just tell them we asked you to keep our identities a secret, to be allowed to stay in the shadows for a while longer. It will all come out eventually."

"Isn't it odd? Keeping secrets from yourself?"

I didn't respond, truth was, Phil had no idea. One only needed to start with those rings and end with the code-name Canary... and I had no doubt there were even more instances I simply hadn't become aware of yet. Already Rose had told us how she'd seen our past selves from the distance, purposefully making sure we wouldn't see her; though Sirin had recognized us (I remembered her, the one who'd called me Canary that day...).

xXx

I managed to convince Phil to stay put the rest of the week, but the moment I admitted that I could do no more to help him he thanked Sherlock and took his leave. I didn't worry too much about him. I knew SHIELD had already declared him dead, but Darcy would find him, and that would put other events into motion, things that were necessary.

I still found it funny that my love and I had actually looked straight at tokens we had spelled, and yet hadn't realized it. Never imagined we could change that much... and yet the moment we'd seen Darcy and Phil there, about to marry, it had been so obvious. Only one more thing to convince me that things were exactly the way they were supposed to be.

"How much did you hear?" I asked Sherlock the moment Phil left.

Because I just knew he had heard something, his very aura seemed to be screaming it, both his knowledge and his doubts. His need to understand...

"I would say I heard all of it, but I'm not sure I understood a lot of it." I could see how much it cost him to say that. "You... it sounded like you were talking about... time-travel?"

"That is correct." I nodded.

"But that's impossible!" He exclaimed immediately.

"Is it?" I asked with a small smile. "Want to know why I'm not worried about Phil leaving right now? Even though he clearly isn't fully recovered just yet?"

Sherlock looked puzzled, but he didn't ask, he knew he didn't need to.

"I know SHIELD already declared him dead." I went on. "I also know his wife knows better. She will find him in the next few days. She will get him some place safe, where she will help him finish his recovery. And eventually they will go see their boss, who will take advantage of this opportunity, the fact that Phil is believed to be dead, to send him on another mission... Much like you, except that his death wasn't exactly planned." I let out a breath. "Want to know how I know all that? Because some time next year, me, or a younger version of me, will meet Phil, and he will tell her why all their friends, all our friends, believe him to be dead. He will also tell her he does not know how he survived... which is actually true, since Phil never actually saw you, all week. And through all our conversations, I somehow forgot to tell him..."

"But time travel is... it's impossible, fiction!" The repetition revealed how affected Sherlock was.

"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Sherlock, than are dreamt in any philosophies, or explained by any sciences." I said, somewhat dramatically.

"What the hell does that mean?" He demanded, obviously not getting it.

"I was paraphrasing Shakespeare." I admitted with a shrug. "The bottom line is, even if you have never seen proof of things, that doesn't mean they do not exist. There is a lot in this world, in this universe that you don't know about. It's too big, knowledge itself is too big for you to possess it all Sherlock, and there's nothing wrong with that."

"How much does John know?" I was actually surprised when he chose to ask that next, rather than wanting more information himself; though in hindsight it was probably obvious.

"Not much." I shrugged. "He knows that Serrure and I were there, back during WWII, somehow. We met his grandmother there, Marge... that's our connection. Especially because, after the war, Marge her daughter and granddaughter each helped us in certain ways. They've kept secrets for us, that's what's made them family. John wasn't in on it, not back then... Even now there's a lot he doesn't know, doesn't care to know. As long as it doesn't really affect him..."

"He told me once you met in Afghanistan, that you saved his life..." Sherlock revealed.

"I did." I nodded.

"You knew he'd need you." It wasn't a question.

"We were told by a very reliable source."

"How would that source know?"

"Magic. And it's not a lie, or a joke. I mean that quite literally. It's a gift. She has the Sight, can see things others do not: future, present, past..."

"Future, present, past..." Sherlock repeated, and I could see the moment an epiphany hit him. "It was you! That dream! The song! It was you!"

"She saw it, and she came to us, for a way to show you, make you understand, stop you from making the same mistakes again..."

"It was never logical. To see that, to believe it; yet I did. It was insane... yet the mere possibility of it. The chance that I might lose John... I had to believe it."

"You do insane things for the one you love. It's the most illogical yet unshakable truth in the universe." And I really did believe that.

At that moment, Sherlock and I reached an understanding. There was still a lot he didn't know about me; might know one day, might never learn. But that wasn't really important. He knew I cared for John, and he trusted me to be on their side, in the end that was all that really mattered.

I drove to Syracuse on a rental car and then took a plane back to London the next day, while Sherlock himself went off to the next part of his mission. There were things to do, places to be, people to see... and time was running short.

xXx

There were a few other instances where the assistance of one of us was needed, but for the most part Sherlock seemed to be able to handle things just fine, with some help from a few trusted members of MI6 (though we weren't supposed to know that part).

Months passed and, on the first of May of 2015 I made a somewhat abrupt decision (though not quite so abrupt that my match wasn't aware of what I was doing and why). I phoned Cassia and told her I needed to see Mycroft, talk to him about something, that it was a matter of National Security, and Top Secret, and no, it had nothing to do with Sherlock and/or Moriarty. Minutes later there was a nondescript car outside my door and I was taken straight to Mycroft's office.

"What is it?" He asked, going straight to the point.

"I'm not sure if you're aware by now of the abnormal events taking place across the country, though mostly centered in and around the Greenwich area." I began. "Places where things like gravity, space, the very laws of physics seem to bend for no apparent reason..."

"How do you know about that?" Mycroft demanded, then changed tracks. "Do you know what's causing it exactly?"

"It is called the Convergence." I told him seriously. "An alignment of Realms..."

I was quite sure if it had been anyone else, he'd have snorted.

"Ms. Hvedrungr..." He began.

"Arianna." I interrupted him evenly. "I think we've known each other long enough for you to call me Arianna, Mycroft. And do not expect me to refer to you by your surname, or worst, your title! Because I'm not one of your lapdogs."

"No, you're not." He admitted, and there was a hint of respect in his voice. "In any case, I expected something more serious. Besides which, planetary alignment only happens every five centuries or so, and we aren't due for another until a bit over three centuries for now...

"I didn't say it was an alignment of planets." I pointed out serenely, waiting for him to catch up with the implications. "I said it was an alignment of Realms."

"You're talking about Asgard..." He began.

"And Vanaheim, Alfheim, Jotunheim, Helheim or Niflheim, however you wish to call it, Muspelheim, Svartalfheim, Nidavellir and, of course, our own Earth, or as they call it: Midgard." I enlisted calmly. "There are more realms, certainly, but those are the main nine, and the ones this matter concerns."

"What matter?" I had obviously taken him completely by surprise.

"The Convergence." I reminded him kindly. "It essentially means that the Nine Realms will be aligned. That particular event is even rarer than the alignment of planets in our solar system. It only happens every five thousand years or so."

"What does it mean for us?" Mycroft was fully focused by that point.

"It means that, for a short while, the realms will be closer than they usually are." I explained. "I imagine you will soon begin receiving reports of people seeing odd things in the sky, almost like mirages of some kind. There's also the space and gravity situation, which happens because the fabric so-to-speak that separates the realms thins, making it easier to cross from one world to the others. That, on itself isn't too dangerous, though there are those who might try to take advantage of this event for nefarious purposes."

"You know more." Mycroft stated, low and full of authority. "I know you do, tell me."

"Something will happen in a few days." I admitted. "I cannot tell you what exactly, or how I know. What I can tell you though, is that you must not interfere, and keep your people away from Greenwich once things begin happening. For their own safety."

"I could send people to handle whatever this is..." Mycroft began.

"You cannot." I cut him off. "This is not something you can handle Mycroft."

"Who then?" He demanded.

"The only people who have the power to do so." I answered, somewhat evasive. "They will come when they need to. You need not do anything. Just let things happen as they must. I promise you, they will deal with the situation. It's better if you don't send anyone, give them less people to worry about. It will be alright."

I didn't know it then, but Mycroft had decided to listen to me (he was probably the reason why the emergency services took so long to arrive to 'ground zero' that day, and why no one tried to crowd us, not until Hand and the SHIELD contingent made an appearance, at least).

Still, that all only meant that, the day after the Convergence, Mycroft was waiting for me in my living room when I arrived after my latest Spanish Class...

"Mind explaining to me Arianna, how is it that yesterday afternoon, while you were working as a volunteer at St. Mary's Hospital, CCTV caught this picture of you just outside the University of Greenwich, in the aftermath of that Convergence event you mentioned before?" He asked, his even tone not quite hiding the undercurrent of authority, the demand to know what I was hiding.

What I found almost funny was that he was able to see through the very different clothes and hair-style, and yet he hadn't seen through my love's. Because Loki was right there too, in those same pictures, some even standing beside me (though none revealed any particular closeness between us); yet Mycroft wasn't seeing him.

"I wasn't aware that being in two places at once was a talent of yours." He added stoically.

"It's not." I answered calmly. "I wasn't in two places at once Mycroft. I was at St. Mary's." I raised a hand to stop him before he could accuse me of lying. "The person in those pictures was indeed me... but to me that happened years ago..."

"What are you saying?" He asked, eyes narrowed.

"You know exactly what I'm saying." I told him, more calmly than I actually felt.

"How?" He asked next.

I would have to admit to being surprised he didn't try to deny, or claim it to be impossible.

"We do not know." I admitted. "And that's the truth. The events of that particular day are a blur to us all. No matter how hard we try, we cannot remember..."

"You all..." Mycroft repeated, as he caught on. "Serrure as well..."

I could see the moment he realized the truth, his eyes widened minutely, before he turned to look at me again, as if he were seeing me for the very first time:

"What surprises me is that you're not claiming it to be impossible, like Sherlock did..." I admitted after a little while.

"So Sherlock knows... I'd wondered." He shrugged, though I could tell he was discomfited, by the fact that his younger brother knew before he did (there was the old rivalry again).

"He overheard a conversation I was having with an old friend." I shrugged.

"I've been in a position of enough power, for long enough, to know there's a lot more going on around us than most people realize." He said somewhat cryptically. "Both good and bad." He made a pause, before looking straight at me again. "You're not human..."

"Not really, not anymore anyway." I confessed. "I was once. I am, indeed, Silbhé Salani, and I was born human (I decided not to reveal the whole past-life just yet, my life was complicated enough even without that part). Then I died... that wasn't a lie either. But my love, my bond to my husband, allowed me a choice few are ever given."

"You cheated death." I wasn't sure if he was envious, or unsure by the prospect.

"It would be more correct to say that I gave up on the chance at resting, at knowing true peace, to stay by the side of the man I love." I told him quietly, waving a hand before he could interrupt. "And don't try your whole 'love is a chemical defect', 'caring is not an advantage' spiel on me. I know you don't believe that as strongly as you claim to and, thankfully, neither does Sherlock. Love is not a matter of science, the opposite exactly, and while caring might not be an advantage, and in certain circumstances it can even be a weakness, it's also such an intrinsic part of us, it's in our hearts, and our souls, and there's nothing wrong about that. Loving someone so much you'd die for them... but more importantly, you'd live for them, there's nothing stronger than that kind of will, that conviction. It's the kind of power that can move mountains, that can, has and will shape the world..."

Mycroft didn't interrupt me, or contradict me; I wasn't sure if he agreed with me, or if he was just ignoring me, but I didn't care. I'd held onto my beliefs for centuries, and I'd do the same for many more, to the end of my days...

xXx

Sherlock returned to London on the first week of August, almost an exact year after his 'fall', his supposed suicide. Though, no one but a select few knew of his return, or that he wasn't and had never been dead at all.

It was all part of the 'master plan'. The sniper contracted to kill Mrs. Hudson had been laughably easy to find; the one on Lestrade less so, but it hadn't taken long either. My love had even had some fun tracking down the men stalking us and 'playing' with them before eventually releasing them into Mycroft's custody; they'd been left so affected that they were willing to tell everything they knew (pitifully little as it was) if Mycroft only promised not to let my husband near them again. Which actually made several people quite curious about what exactly my match had done to make them so frightened... the funniest part? He hadn't so much as touched either of them, it had all been mind-games.

The real problem? We hadn't been able to find John's sniper. There was no trace of him or her at all, and that was putting us all on edge. Especially when Sherlock reported his suspicions that Moriarty's criminal syndicate was either much bigger than they'd initially deduced... or it was just a small part of another operation.

"Hydra." The word left my lips before I could think better about it.

"What?!" All eyes were instantly on me.

"Hydra, the Nazi's top-secret scientific branch." Sherlock spouted all he knew. "Lead by Johann Schmidt who, at some point, separated from the Nazis to make his own attempt at world domination... so boring! He was stopped by the so-called Captain America and his Howling Commandos several months before the end of WWII. The Captain was said to have been lost back then, only to reappear three years ago, in New York..."

"That's mostly true." I nodded.

"Mostly?" All three Holmes present knew that was important.

"We believed it was over, we thought we had won." I admitted grimly. "We were wrong."

"The suspicions began in the eighties." My husband took over. "A number of events took place, things that shouldn't have happened... yet we weren't close enough to be able to really investigate them. Get to the bottom of it. As we've more-or-less explained to you, we had to leave in 92 and stay away for a while. It was until we returned that we were informed that our worst fears had come true..."

"Hydra isn't as gone as we thought, it probably never was." I went on. "They have somehow managed to infiltrate SHIELD, the CIA, FBI, and doubtlessly a number of other government organizations. And it's not just America, they're all over the globe."

"Are you sure about this?" Cassia asked, seemingly fighting to grasp the implications.

"We are." My love nodded, knowing what she was thinking.

"What's their goal?" John inquired, though he probably suspected the answer already.

"The same thing it was in the 40s, World Domination." I shrugged.

"If they've managed to infiltrate intelligence organizations and governments..." Cassia broke off.

"Even if they're destroyed, the world will go with them." Sherlock finished for her.

"Why didn't we know this before?" Mycroft demanded. "We could have done something! We could have been preparing for this!"

"Exactly for that!" I cut him off. "Are you listening to yourself? You're about ready to unsheathe the sable you keep in that bloody umbrella, and yes, I know about that, don't look at me like that. That's not what's needed. Hydra won't act until it's ready, and we must not show our own hands until then. Regardless of what you might think of us, we've not been ignoring the problem, hoping it will just go away. Even if we weren't around when it was first revealed, there is a plan."

"What kind of plan?" Sherlock was intrigued by the prospect.

"Contention and Elimination." My match announced. "The moment Hydra reveals itself... well, they probably will have affixed some kind of signal, something that allows all cells to reveal their existence simultaneously. When that happens they will be taken down, the damage limited as much as possible. We've got only one shot at this."

"But that would require... a world-wide operation, the logistics alone..." Mycroft couldn't believe it, the mere idea was beyond him.

"This is no operation, because it's not being undertaken by any particular organization." I tried to explain. "We couldn't do it that way. We would risk being infiltrated."

"Then how?" Cassia didn't understand how such a move could be possible without protocols and plans in place.

"An alliance." I told them calmly. "Groups of gifted, enhanced and similarly-minded individuals across the planet. They've all been made aware of the situation, and the consequences, should Hydra succeed in their attempt. When Hydra reveals themselves, that will be their signal to act."

"You really think such a thing is possible?" Mycroft didn't scoff, but it was a near thing.

I thought about Rose, my daughter's face as she'd explained the plan, everything she and Hakon had been doing, all the people they had met and talked to, all willing to step up when the time came. People who'd been persecuted before, been misunderstood, some who'd spent so long hiding, making sure no one knew they were different, gifted; they were all willing to potentially give up their anonymity, to risk their own lives, because they believed in Rose, and in her ideas. The dream of a world were gifted were accepted as part of society, as protectors, as human as everyone else... My daughter had faith, and because of that, so did everyone else.

xXx

There was only one true hiccup (or, some might think, a huge complication) in Sherlock's and John's relationship during those months, and I ended being accidental witness to the blow up. As it happened Sherlock had returned to London after yet another mission, and gone straight for John, the excuse was that he needed treatment for some wounds he'd gotten (mosquito bites in Africa were a very serious matter in that moment). Because the world is extremely small (I can hardly believe how much) he'd actually met my aunt while hunting down another piece of the web. I'd told him about Aunt Kathryn in one of our conversations, about how I wanted to let her know I was alive, but couldn't track her down (and with Hydra and everything else, it was too risky going around myself).

So, Sherlock told her, he wet as far as accessing some pictures online to prove it. It was probably a good thing because when things went pretty much to hell in a hand-basket (the man Sherlock had been tracking down turned out to be a diamond and weapons smuggler; and he had what amounted to an army of thugs willing to go after the man 'asking too many questions'; of course, none of them expected the kind, unassuming nurse in her early-to-mid fifties to have no fear of them at all, pull out a handgun and begin shooting at them like nobody's business... (then again, none of them knew that Nurse Salani had once been Agent Adler of MI5, the SSR and eventually an Elite in SHIELD. And like Maria Hill seemed to be so fond of saying: you can take the man out of the agent (when they became emotionless, machines) but you can never really take the agent out of the man (or woman, the point remained).

In the end she'd thanked him for the information and promised to return home as soon as it was convenient (making sure no one would suspect anything); then she helped him cross into Wakanda, where she'd contacts who then aided Sherlock in getting to England. Aside from the injuries caused during the confrontation, Sherlock had been bitten by mosquitoes more than once, and with things like ebola and zika and the like being very real risks in Africa... well, it was better if we were all careful.

All in all, he'd been going to see John, and that was where the trouble came, as I found when I ended witnessing an argument as I was doing a check-up on my unexpected patient.

"She's just a friend, Sherlock!" John defended himself. "Actually, she's not even that. She's an acquaintance and..."

"She was all over you!" Sherlock's voice came out almost too high.

I could sense the hurt he was trying to hide, the insecurities he wanted to conceal, and I knew there was no reason for them, I could sense John's love as clearly as Sherlock's own; yet I knew that one cannot tell someone else how they or anyone else feels inside. It doesn't work like that, they needed to communicate.

"She's a Black Widow!" John exclaimed abruptly.

That threw us all for a loop.

"Mary Morstan..." John began, they grimaced. "Well, I'm quite sure that's not her real name, but regardless. She's a Black Widow, one who's apparently trying to turn the page, make a new life for herself. Yes, she's shown interest in me, but I have no interest in her. I love you Sherlock, not her. I respect her decision to change, to fight against her past, but that's it."

"How do you know she's a Widow?" I asked.

Sherlock wasn't saying anything, he was too shocked, probably still processing John's rather blasé love declaration (which only proved how true it was, the lack of hesitation, of delay...).

"I've seen her before, in Istanbul a few years ago." John explained. "Her name was Alisa back then, and she claimed to be Canadian. She was also involved with an attempt to blow up the British's ambassador's car..."

"You were involved with an SIS mission?!" Sherlock, probably for the first time ever, looked absolutely flabbergasted.

John just smiled at him.

"How come I didn't know that?" Sherlock pressed.

"It was a while ago, was... technically still is, I suppose, confidential." John shrugged. "Though to be honest I expected you and your brother to know already."

"Mycroft doesn't know either." Sherlock said, completely confident of that fact. "I've hacked the file he keeps on you, it's not there."

"It's not that important." John shrugged, trying to make it seem irrelevant. "I was there because they needed a doctor, after the initial assassination attempt, and my arrival was a good excuse to get the actual Agents into the country without being noticed. In the end nothing too interesting happened. Nothing like the movies..."

He was trying to hide something, something that had happened in that mission, and I knew it, and Sherlock obviously did too. And he was like a dog with a bone, he wouldn't let go until he knew, but that wasn't the time to talk about secret missions, so I changed the focus of the conversation.

"So she's under an assumed identity." I offered. "Doesn't necessarily make her a Widow..."

"Her fighting style." John finally revealed. "I'd seen it before. During my first tour, one of them was caught by one of the patrols. Her name was... I suppose it still is, Yelena Belova. That day was a mess. She was supposed to be picked up by MI6 or something, to be interrogated about her connection to terrorist activities in the area, and the group known as the Ten Rings. She claimed to be pregnant and that made the people in the base feel some pity for her..."

"That's impossible..." I began, knowing as I did what was done to Black Widows upon graduation from the program.

"I know that now, but we didn't back then." John admitted. "She escaped her bonds, killed all who tried to stop her. I was one of the lucky few to survive, and the only one she didn't maim or scar permanently. Supposedly she had mercy on me because I was respectful to her when she was captured. Didn't treat her like trash, or like someone weak..." He shrugged. "Anyway, I can respect someone wanting to make a new life, separate from all that. Doesn't mean I'm in any way interested in her."

I left after finishing my physical, reminding both of them to be careful until the test results came back, then left them to finish making up.

xXx

We'd always known that eventually something would have to give. It happened in the first days of November; when separate informants of Mycroft, Cassia and Sherlock all reported some rather suspicious activity from a number of key individuals, activity that hinted at something big being planned (like rats fleeing a sinking ship, Sherlock had explained it).

As it turned out it was a rather serious situation. A train-car full of explosives, with even more charges carefully placed down a very specific tunnel; one that happened to pass just beneath the Houses of Parliament... In the end Sherlock and John handled the situation masterfully, dealing with the bomb, finding the man behind it all. And yet, the damage was done already, the world knew Sherlock Holmes was alive and back in England.

It wasn't so bad. Of course the press was all over them. Especially when John ended being almost burned alive by someone on Guy Fawkes' Night. I was the one who received the code meant to be used to save him, though it was Loki and Sherlock who deciphered it. And then it was Loki's and my magic which got us to the right place in time. Though I never expected it when, instead of waiting for one of us to do something, the consulting detective pushed his bare hands through fire and wood to pull John out. I healed him afterwards, of course, but I will never forget how willing he was to risk his life to save John... none of us will.

Of course the press went nuts over that too. Especially because the first thing John did, once he was free, was pull Sherlock to him and kiss him silly, in front of everyone there.

The reactions to that were mixed: some were convinced it was all a publicity stunt, or something; some said it made Sherlock seem more human; others supported it wholeheartedly. Mary Morstan was not one of them; for some odd reason she kept trying her best to flirt with John, even when it was so painfully obvious he wasn't interested.

And then the announcement came: John and Sherlock were getting married. It would be a small ceremony, only the people who truly knew them, accepted them. They asked me to create a song for them, for their first dance... I was honored, and nervous beyond anything. Unlike Rose Alfdis, I had never created a song for someone who wasn't my love, myself, or one of my children; even the time I'd sung during Ylva's and Fenrir's wedding, or during Willow's and Johann's own, the song hadn't been exactly about them... Still, it was a great honor, they were trusting me with something so important. And I knew Sherlock was composing a melody for John, but he couldn't exactly play and dance at the same time, so it'd be my song they'd dance together to, their first dance as a married couple, which made it all the more important. I spent days sitting before the piano (because I convinced myself that it'd be easier to compose with the piano than with the flute... even though I'd never done it that way before...) I had no idea how to do it, and was terrified things would go completely wrong...

"You're overthinking it, Amaelamin (my love)..." My match finally told me one day, lips brushing softly against one ear as he stood behind me, by the piano.

"I... I don't know how to do this Fintalë-haryon (trick-prince)." I admitted, softly.

"You're trying to go about things the same way other people do." He pointed out calmly. "But you, my love, aren't like any of those other, boring people. Music follows the voice for you, not the other way around, remember? You know the words, in your heart, you always do. So let your heart sing, and the right music will find you, as it always has... You can do this, my Aquarius, it's in your heart, in your soul... and it always has been..."

And just like that, it came: the memories, the feelings, every time a new song had been created. He was right, of course he was right. As elves, songs were the way we chose to express ourselves, it was something that was imprinted into my very core; and as a human... at first it'd been the dizi, but only until I found my voice, until I could use it the way I was meant to...

When the wedding finally came, there was no doubt, no nervousness in me anymore. I knew what I was doing to sing. I had no sheets for the music, none at all, and I didn't need them. I knew the words by heart, and my husband was right; the music would follow.

Of course, because it was John and Sherlock, there was no way they could have a simple, normal wedding. I almost expected there to be some kind of crime to interrupt things (there wasn't). Still, the surprise they gave us, it was one thing none of us could have ever seen coming...

Mycroft had handled the official part of the ceremony. It was a civil ceremony as John, while technically still Catholic, didn't practice religion as much ever since joining the army; while Sherlock claimed that all religions were the creation of men, and therefore inherently flawed, he believed in order, in logic, in things like cause and consequence, but no specific set of beliefs, traditions and the like.

They did choose to have rings; though they weren't the traditional wedding bands, instead my Maverick had created a spell that would tattoo bands around John's and Sherlock's left ring fingers; the design that of simple celtic knots. They'd chosen such bands because it was simpler and safer than traditional wedding bands, less likely to be lost or damaged during a case or one of Sherlock's experiments, or even stolen; they were also easily disguised, if that were ever to be necessary (for undercover work). And, while they had never told anyone, there was another reason: they were permanent in a way physical rings could never be.

However, that wasn't the true surprise, no the surprise came when the two grooms asked for a chance to say their chosen vows, after rings had been exchanged, as they were holding onto each other hands', the words to leave both their lips in sync; they weren't unknown words, weren't something they had made up on the spot, or in the weeks since becoming engaged. No, they were works that some of us knew by heart, and the use of them gave it all a whole new dimension:

"I promise you that from this day on, you will be my only one. I shall look at no other the way I look at you, I shall think of no other the way I think about you, I shall talk to no other the way I talk to you, I shall desire no other the way I desire you, and I shall with no other the way I lay with you. I shall be with no other for you are now and forever shall be my one and only; my friend, my lover, my partner, my match..."

Mycroft rolled his eyes at what he probably saw as an excess of sentiment (nevermind that he was married too, and I knew how much he and 'Cassia' loved each other); Mrs. Hudson was crying outright, and even others like Greg, Molly and Harry looked a bit misty-eyed. None of them could see the things we did, the significance behind those words, those vows... the Ancient Vows. The fact that John and Sherlock had just tied themselves to one another for the rest of eternity, and there had been no doubt, no hesitation... and I could sense their love, the fact that they knew, somehow, what they were doing, understood the implications... but how?

*We didn't tell them.* My love pointed out mentally.

*Huh...?* I didn't quite understand the significance of that, not yet.

*We didn't tell them those vows, nor did we say them before those two.* He enlisted patiently, guiding me to the answer instead of telling me outright. *If it wasn't us... there's only one way they could have known...*

*The vision.* I realized. *Rose's vision, which we shared with them.*

*Exactly.* He agreed.

*But it's not just that, is it?* I could see it so clearly in that moment. *The vision was about them, after all. Which means...*

*It means that they probably had made those vows before.* He finished for me. *It's quite likely even, all things considered...*

Which meant they'd been bound already, in some distant past, some previous life. It might have taken them a long while to get back to each other, but it was always meant to be. Always... That thought also brought another to the front of my mind. How had We known the Vows, when we chose to take them in my previous life? I didn't know the answer, couldn't remember, and my suspicions... wasn't sure if it could even be called that, or mere wishful thinking.

The ceremony was over relatively soon and we sat for dinner (all of which had been prepared by Angelo and his people, a menu formed by Sherlock's and John's favorites). Once that was done Sherlock took his opportunity to play the piece he'd composed for John, a beautiful, heartfelt symphony that seemed to be able to tell the two men's whole story even without words.

Once that part was over, came my turn. I couldn't help but feel a hint of nervousness, but I forced myself to focus; I was doing what I loved, for people I cared about, considered friends and as close as family, what could ever be better than that?

"Hello everyone," I greeted as I stood beside the great piano Mycroft had had placed in a corner of the great room. "Everyone knows who I am, and what my connection is to the two grooms, so I won't bore anyone with that. When I was asked to perform the song for their first dance I was honored, and a bit nervous too." I smiled. "Those who know me, know how much of a believer I am in true love, and in soulmates. I honestly believe that each and every one of us has a perfect match, someone we're meant to be with in body, mind, heart and soul, who compliments us absolutely. Gender, race, age... such things don't matter when it comes to a match. That kind of love is unbreakable, it can stand up to anything and anyone, and it will last until the last star falls from the sky... I hope you will all be fortunate enough to enjoy that kind of love..."

With that I took my seat before the piano and I let go, my fingers moving across the keys and the words coming from my mouth automatically. It took no effort at all, I only needed to look at John and Sherlock, think about what I knew about them, about their love, and it all simply flowed:

"This is my love song to you
Let every woman know I'm yours
So you can fall asleep each night, babe
And know I'm dreaming of you more"

"You're always hoping that we make it
You always want to keep my gaze
Well you're the only one I see love
And that's the one thing that won't change"

"I'll never stop trying
I'll never stop watching as you leave
I'll never stop losing my breath
Every time I see you looking back at me
And I'll never stop holding your hand
I'll never stop opening your door
I'll never stop choosing you babe
I'll never get used to you"

John and Sherlock were dancing the moment the song began. And it was both funny and so very endearing at the same time, the way that they seemed to almost be taking turns leading and following, especially because not a word was said, by either of them, they just flowed through the dance-floor, shifting from one move to the other like it was the most natural thing in the world. They didn't even have to think about it, it was an instinct... much like loving each other was...

"And with this love song to you
It's not a momentary phase
You are my life, I don't deserve you
But you love me just the same
And as the mirror says we're older
I will not look the other way
You are my life, my love, my only
And that's the one thing that won't change"

"I'll never stop trying
I'll never stop watching as you leave
I'll never stop losing my breath
Every time I see you looking back at me
And I'll never stop holding your hand
I'll never stop opening your door
I'll never stop choosing you babe
I'll never get used to you"

"Still get my heart racing (you)
Still get my heart racing (for you)
Still get my heart racing (you)
Still get my heart racing (for you)"

As I sang I couldn't help but think of the things Rose had shared with us, the scenes of all those lifetimes, and some that might have been of the future. Those two belonged together so much that regardless of all the mistakes that might have happened (and those that were prevented), they were always meant to end as they were in that moment... together. It was absolute perfection.

"I'll never stop trying
I'll never stop watching as you leave
I'll never stop losing my breath
Every time I see you looking back at me
And I'll never stop holding your hand
I'll never stop opening your door
I'll never stop choosing you babe
I'll never get used to you..."

 

Chapter Text

Writing's on the Wall

Always a day comes when you must stop fleeing, and start fighting.

The first envelope came in mid January, the second at the end of the month, then in February there was one every week. They were all the same: several pictures and a printed letter with the same initials in the end CAM. There was no actual signature, but I wasn't stupid, I knew CAM stood for Charles Augustus Magnussen, and even without reading the messages, the photos painted enough of a picture. Still, I said nothing about them, just kept collecting them, until the first week of March, when my husband and I finally went to see Mycroft.

Sherlock and John were there too, and as I soon found out, they'd been in contact with the man as well. It had started as a case, Lady Smallwood had requested that Sherlock try and recover some material the media magnate (because Magnussen owned a well-known company that handled the media, mainly print) had in his power, related to her husband, and which he intended to use to blackmail her. The man had gone as far as trying to humiliate Sherlock, threatening to expose his past as a drug-addict, and when that failed, he'd made some comments about John's past in the army, particularly certain off-the-books missions. To which John had calmly explained to the man exactly what would happen to him if he attempted to do that: he'd get killed. It was one thing to blackmail artists, models, even nobles, but military? That was the height of stupidity.

I could tell that Mycroft's mind was working overtime, trying to deduce what John might have been involved in, in the past (he knew better than to outright ask, John was stressed out enough as it was). Though everyone's attention was diverted the moment I walked straight to the center and dropped half a dozen letters and thrice as many pictures.

"You too?!" John exclaimed. "What could he possibly have on you?"

"My true identity." I answered calmly.

"You don't seem worried at all." Cassia offered.

"I'm not." I nodded as I sat down. "Truth is that Magnussen has taken a few true facts and twisted them to fit his purposes... In other words, he put two and two together... and came up with 22 instead of four."

Everyone blinked, not quite getting it.

"Magnussen got a few pictures." I signaled to the pertinent ones. "From London and New York and was able to connect me with Asgard, particularly thanks to what I was wearing in London. He also, surprisingly enough, managed to connect me to pictures from across Europe during WWII, Oxford in the fifties, one from Chicago in the sixties (I hadn't even known that picture existed at all), and even a few from social events connected to Howard and SI in the sixties and early seventies... All in all, I have to admit it's some quite amazing investigate journalism..."

"And you still aren't worried." Sherlock pointed out.

"What was it he got wrong?" John inquired. "If he got all that right? What was the mistake?"

"He thinks I'm in hiding." I explained with a half-smirk. "He believes that I faked my death as Silbhé Salani in order to run away, either from Asgard or from SHIELD. That I'm here under an assumed identity to hide from them. He's threatening to take this information to SHIELD, and to Asgard... though I haven't the slightest idea what makes him think he could achieve that part..." I shook my head. "In any case, he made a huge mistake."

"But you are staying away from them on purpose." Sherlock reminded me. "You told me, the time travel..."

"Indeed, but you see, that was Magnussen's last mistake." I explained, my smile widening. "That stopped being an issue, exactly three days ago."

No one got it.

"Three days ago Loki and his family made a trip to Asia while trying to trace an unknown energy, only to disappear without leaving a trace." I explained to them. "Officially no one has any idea what happened, they've been listed as MIA. Unofficially..."

"They're now back in 1941..." John finished for me.

"Exactly." I nodded.

"In others words, the overlap has ended." My love summarized. "There's only us left now. Even if Asgard were to learn about us tomorrow, there would be no problem at all. There, effectively, is nothing for them to find odd anymore."

"Are you planning on telling them?" Cassia asked, curious.

"One day." Maverick nodded, thoughtfully. "Though right now our priorities are others."

"What will you do then?" Mycroft realized that was the important bit.

"I'm going to go see Mr. Magnussen, tell him how little I care for his blackmail." I answered calmly. "Perhaps once he understands who exactly he's threatening, the fact that I am not a refugee, or a runaway, but a princess of Asgard, and who exactly is my husband... well, some people haven't forgotten the kind of power my husband can wield, even if he is a 'white hat', for now at least."

"Do you really think that will be enough?" John asked in disbelief.

"Perhaps not." I admitted with a small sigh. "But being in the same room with him will allow me to get a better feel of the man, something that will help us decide how to deal with him for good. One things is for sure: we cannot allow him to continue as he has thus far: blackmailing artists and the like was one thing; that kind of people... well, their scandals are tabloid fodder, but most people forget about such things as soon as the next thing comes out. But politicians? Military? And now even visitors from other realms? He's walking on dangerous ground, and sooner or later the consequences are going to get out of his hands. You and the rest of our government have allowed him way too much leeway. It's time someone stops him."

"Are you aware of what he could do to you?" Mycroft asked quietly. "He could effectively destroy your reputation."

"And you think he will not do that, eventually, to all of us, when we're no longer useful to him?" I scoffed. "Men like him... you cannot give them what they want; because once you've done that once, they'll never stop taking from you. Well, if you think that your own reputation is more important than the welfare of this country, and possibly beyond that... I disagree."

"You think this goes beyond him..." Sherlock said suddenly, before Mycroft could interject.

"You think he's connected to Hydra." John added for good measure.

"It is a possibility." I shrugged. "I need to know for sure. And if he's indeed connected to Hydra... Then it's even more important that we deal with him soon."

I knew Mycroft didn't like it, but he wouldn't get in our way either, he knew better than to try it. And so plans were made for Serrure and I to meet Magnussen by the end of the week.

xXx

That day I was wearing a coral-pink gauzy floor-length dress with short sleeves and a black collar, black flats on my feet (I simply despised heels), hair pulled into a bun at the nape of a my neck, with a few curls escaping and framing my face. My husband wore a gray two piece suit with a sky-blue button up and no tie, tanned-leather shoes. I knew the image we gave off, of a perfectly normal, human couple... We also looked quite different from our younger selves, as the suit was more casual than what my match had usually worn back then and, in contrast, I was in a more elegant dress, rather than the long-skirt and peasant-blouse ensemble I'd favored in my youth (back when I'd actually been the age I looked).

Ms. Hawkins, Magnussen's personal secretary, met us just outside the elevator, on the top floor of Magnussen's building. She greeted me quite formally, informing me her boss would be 'delighted' to meet with me, but it was to be a private meeting, Meaning Serrure would have to wait behind, with Janine herself. I could only wonder at how clever the man thought he was, only to have made yet another mistake: dismissing my husband out of hand. Then again, even Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes hadn't realized at first who he really was... (did a change in clothing and hair-style really make someone look so different?).

I could sense a mix of chagrin, sadness and what could almost be called pity, coming from Ms. Hawkins as I moved down the hallway she'd indicated, and I realized it then: she knew what was going on, what Magnussen did, probably had a very good idea of what he was planning even right then, and she felt all that for me. For what she thought I was going to have to go through. It made me feel sad for her in turn. I was going to face Magnussen of my own will, and I knew I could do it; but I also knew that I could always back down, there were people who would help me, would protect me... Janine apparently didn't have that. On the plus side, my actions might just be enough to help her too.

"Oh, my Lady Kinross!" Magnussen greeted me dramatically. "It is such a pleasure to meet you. "Or would you prefer I call you Professor Salani?"

"I care not what you call me." I announced in a completely even tone, looking him straight in the eye, posture straight, allowing him just a glimpse of the real me.

I could see the moment it clicked in his head, the fact that he wouldn't be getting what he wanted.

"Such bad manners my lady..." He tried to go on, though I could sense his trepidation. "And here I thought we were on our way to being great, intimate friends..."

"If you think blackmail counts as the start of a friendship you're even more insane than I first believed you to be." I told him rather bluntly. "No, I'm not here to be your friend. And I'm certainly not here to try and convince you of anything, much less beg." I was dead honest as I spoke. "I came because I thought it was only fair. To help you realize what a huge mistake you've made. You chose the wrong person to try and blackmail Mr. Magnussen..." I glared at him. "You believe me to be a poor little girl, defenseless, afraid, perhaps even on the run? You have no idea. I am none of those things. I live the life I choose to live, and your threats mean nothing to me. But for the sake of full disclosure, lets look at your threats, shall we? Telling SHIELD who I am and where I am... SHIELD and I parted ways years ago, though I've been willing to give my help where it's needed. That remains unchanged. As for the other part... I seriously doubt you have the means to communicate with Asgard, but even if by some freaky miracle you did... what makes you think they don't know already exactly where I am?" That wasn't strictly true, but still. "Truth is Mr. Magnussen, I'm not a runaway, far from it. And I'm not scared of you, you made a huge mistake trying to blackmail me; and what's worse, you tried to use me as a pressure point for John Watson, and him in turn for Sherlock Holmes." I shook my head. "Did you really think you would get away with it? Best case scenario, for you at least, it works for a little while, perhaps as long as a few months; until someone, somewhere, decides we're all too much of a liability and they put a bullet in each of us. Worst case scenario, again, for you; this mad scheme of yours never gets used. As it's an utter failure... You know, that might even be the best case scenario for you, since it's less likely to get you killed and all!"

I was close to actually ranting by that point, and was considering telling him, straight out, exactly who I was just so he'd get an idea how much he'd screwed up, when my mobile phone rang quite unexpectedly. And it wasn't the generic tone that signaled most (unimportant) calls, but a string of piano notes, my daughter's personal ringtone. I knew she wouldn't be calling unless it was important, so I ignored Magnussen, turned my back on him and answered the phone.

I hadn't even fully pressed the mobile to my ear when my daughter's quite hysterical voice rang out, sharp and loud:

"She's going to shoot him!" She was really beyond hysterical. "You gotta hurry Mama! She's going to shoot Papa!"

At that moment I didn't process the fact that my daughter was talking in a language not English (therefore making it so Magnussen wouldn't be able to understand, apart from probably knowing it was something urgent); in any case, I didn't pay any attention to the man. The moment the first phrase had left my daughter's mouth I was off and running as fast as I could. Even before the rest of her words registered in my head I knew already who 'he' was (no idea who 'she' was supposed to be, but that mattered little).

I skidded around a corner, almost slamming into a wall, and even several feet from the action, my eyes immediately took in everything going on. Ms. Hawkins was crouching behind her desk, trembling in fright, and looking like she might pass out from a panic attack at any moment. My husband was standing, very still, holding both hands before him in a gesture that was obviously meant to be pacifying; judging by the feelings coming from the third person in the room, I immediately could tell it wasn't working.

I forced myself to a stop before I could be seen by anyone in the room, though I knew my love had sensed me already. I got the cliff-notes version of the situation in an instant. The person that was pointing a gun at him was none other than Mary Morstan... and if that weren't shocking enough, she'd gone there to kill Magnussen... and Sherlock! Apparently she knew about the attempts at blackmail and she truly believed that Sherlock would be there that night, wanting to investigate the man. Her intention when breaking in that night was to kill the consulting detective and Magnussen himself (apparently he knew her truth identity); she also had some delusion about John finally falling in love with her once Sherlock was gone! Like the detective was nothing more than an insect troubling her! It was insane!

And to think that I wanted to believe John was right, that Mary really wanted a second chance, that she was more like Natasha... rather than like Yelena.

All in all, not even five seconds had elapsed since I'd stopped in my tracks, and then the shot came. My reactions were automatic. I threw one hand out, calling on my magic to either create a shield or simply destroy the bullet, I didn't care which (I knew my Maverick was perfectly capable of handling it himself, but still, after Rose's hysterical call my protective instincts were pretty much in overdrive). The other I threw out as well, though in a different motion, and with a different thought in mind; I moved like one who'd just thrown a blade... and while my hand had been empty, that was no impediment for one with magic at her disposal, a small metal dagger materialized at my finger tips and flew from my hand, and straight into Ms. Morstan's chest. She was dead before she hit the floor.

Mary Morstan's death (or Alicia Giselle Reyna Addams... as her name turned out to be) will probably stay with me for many years yet, quite possibly the rest of my life. It wasn't the first time I'd fought someone, not even the first time I took a life... but it was the first time I killed a human being (even when we'd helped Kontar and Sharifa with the war, all those years prior, I had never killed anyone). It wasn't an accident, and it wasn't a thoughtless action, it was a decision I made. That woman was threatening my match's life, and the life of other people I cared deeply about, I acted then, didn't hesitate; and while her death hit deep inside me, changed me in ways I never expected to be changed, I will never regret the choice I made that day.

The police arrived minutes later. Apparently in between all the chaos Ms. Hawkins had managed to dial 999. The Yard was soon taking control of the situation, and then Sherlock and John were there. I was told I'd need to give a statement, but the fact that both my husband and Janine had told the police, quite clearly, that Mary had had them at gun-point, and John's later revelation that she was (had been) one of the infamous Black Widows, made for a pretty good case of self-defense, it was unlikely I'd ever be prosecuted. Once Mycroft arrived even the statement was unnecessary (I had no idea what he'd said, or done, but in that moment I was traumatized enough to decide I'd rather not ask).

Then, as if the evening wasn't shocking enough already... Charles Magnussen was found dead in his office. Single gunshot wound to the head. I obviously hadn't been carrying a gun (I really did not like guns); also, there was a hole in the windowpane...

"Sniper." John announced once he and Sherlock were allowed into the office.

He seemed to make some mental calculations before pointing to a balcony on a building about half a block away and on a diagonal from us and stating the sniper had made the shot from there.

"If he says it, it's the truth." Sherlock said simply when everyone turned towards him.

They were so used to him knowing things, but not John.

"How would you know?" Donovan asked with a hint of derision.

"Why wouldn't I?" John retorted with a roll of his eyes. "In case you've all forgotten it, I'm not only a doctor, I was also a soldier. I went to Afghanistan, and I wasn't the kind to stay on base. How do you think I got shot and almost killed in the first place?"

No one seemed to know what to say to that. I couldn't help but wonder if they'd really forgotten that; or perhaps they'd never thought about it. They were so used to John in his fluffy jumpers, his kind smiles, John the doctor, the blogger, Sherlock's sidekick... they'd never seen him as a soldier, as a Warrior...

Of course John was right. The Yard couldn't find anything conclusive, but Sherlock detected just enough to confirm that there had been, in fact a sniper.

Things reached a whole other level when we got a single call, from Sif of all people, letting us know who exactly had been the shooter: the Winter Soldier... who, by the way, was none other than believed-to-be-dead Sgt. James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes...

xXx

"Is this a joke?" Mycroft demanded. "Magnussen cannot possibly have been assassinated by a ghost, a myth!"

"No, he cannot." My love agreed calmly. "But then again, the Winter Soldier is neither. He's a real man, flesh and blood. He was once Sgt. James Buchanan Barnes..."

"One of the Howling Commandos?!" Cassia gasped in shock.

"Captain America's best friend." John nodded, grieved by the thought.

"How exactly is any of this possible?" Mycroft was obviously stressed out by the whole thing.

"There's a lot we still don't know, but, here goes." I decided to be the one to explain. "As you all know, early in 1945 there was a mission in the mountains. Captain America, a small group of his Commandos and Agent Sia Serrure, who's been relegated mostly to legend; the Valkyrie, she's called. Not that she minds much..."

"The Valkyrie's real?" Cassia interrupted, surprised.

"Very much so." My love nodded. "Back then she was believed to be my sister, Sia Serrure. Though in reality she's Lady Sif, Goddess of War, she traveled back in time with us and our son. She was the one most involved in direct combat, since I mostly helped Howard, and my wife chose to assist in the infirmary, or sometimes as an interpreter. She was always careful not to be too noticeable, which is probably why history has mostly forgotten her. There's also the fact that she went off-grid back in 1963... but we'll get to that."

"They boarded a train carrying Arnim Zola, intent on capturing him, as he was the Red Skull's second in command." I continued the story. "The mission was technically a success, though not without losses; one loss to be more specific. Something went wrong, we don't know what exactly, but Sgt. Barnes fell off the train. Sia tried to save him and almost fell with him. Very few people ever knew this, and of them even less are still alive now but... Sia and James were lovers. She took his loss as hard as Steve, Captain Rogers." I shook my head. "After the war she went to work with the SSR, first here in England, before eventually being transferred to the States. In 1962, after the mess that was the Cuban Missile Crisis, she resigned."

I could see in Mycroft's eyes that he knew I was leaving things out, but he wouldn't ask, not yet.

"She happened to be in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated." I went on, thinking things over before adding. "I actually have no idea why, exactly. The point is, after that she went off the grid completely, as she took on the task of tracking down the Winter Soldier."

"He was the one who killed the American president." Sherlock realized. "He, and not that other man, the mutant, Erik Lehnsherr."

"That's correct." My husband nodded.

"Did she find the Soldier?" Mycroft wanted to get back to the important point.

"She did, sometime in the nineties, I think." I wasn't actually sure. "We don't know when exactly it was that she learned his true identity, but we're sure it must have influenced her choice to keep searching for him for decades. She did, indeed, find him eventually, but she couldn't free him."

"Free him?" Cassia asked, doubtful.

"Most of the time there is very little of Sgt. Barnes in the Winter Soldier." My Maverick said, very quietly. "According to Sif, he's been tortured and brainwashed in so many ways, for so long, it's actually a miracle that any part of him still remains. Still, there are times when he's little more than an automaton, dedicated solely to going after the chosen target. He always goes in, makes the hit, and leaves without trace. It's why most people consider him a ghost, or a myth, almost like a sort of bogeyman."

"At some point, Hydra got to him." I added. "We assume that, once they make their move, they'll try to use him. We plan on getting him out then."

"You do realize that, even if you do succeed, that'll only be the start of your troubles?" Sherlock asked us, very seriously. "Once it becomes known that the Winter Soldier exists, many deaths will be pinned on him, and it won't matter how many or how few he was actually responsible for. Governments and agencies... they will all be after his blood."

I had no response for that, none of us did. Truth was, we knew Sherlock was right. We also knew Hakon kept researching during his scant free time, trying to find something in the law that would allow him to help Barnes, but thus far he'd found nothing. It's not like there was precedent for a situation such as his... or at least I didn't think there was. Really, how many people had ever been turned into brainwashed assassins and sent to kill innocents across the globe in a lapse of seventy years? Particularly after they were believed to have died? No, I didn't imagine there were that many such cases.

"So Magnussen's case will stay as it is, then?" John commented eventually. "I mean, it's not like we can tell the Yard the Winter Soldier did it. They'll think we're nuts."

"I have a feeling that, soon enough, not even the Yard will care much for finding his killer..." Sherlock muttered quietly.

"Sherlock, what have you done?" Mycroft asked suddenly.

As it turned out, he'd done nothing, it was all Ms. Hawkin's doing. A last issue from Magnussen's newspaper had come out, and it revealed all the truth about the man: as an abuser, blackmailer, and everything else. No names were given, but there was enough information there that I had no doubt Sherlock was right, once people read that, no one would really care who'd killed him.

xXx

We took off for a quick trip to the States at the end of the month. It was something my love and I had been talking about since the end of the overlap. My promise to Howard, of going to Tony, telling him the truth as soon as it was possible. The time had come. I knew Loki still thought that it was safer for us to wait until the situation with Hydra was over (while there was no reason to believe they'd been in any way involved with the event that had thrown us back in time, he could not fully discount the possibility either); and yet every day I couldn't help but remember the little boy that Tony Stark had been, so sweet, so adorable... and the strong, hard man he'd become. I felt a need to go to him, to tell him the truth... and so eventually he'd given in.

We'd just appeared in Malibu (after briefly dropping by NY, only to find out they were living in California for the time being). It felt right, in a way; after all, it'd been in Malibu where we'd last seen the Starks, back when Tony had been a child... We were across the street, watching Happy open the door for Tony to step out, and then he was turning around a helping Pepper... a very pregnant Pepper Potts-Stark!

I was so completely taken by surprise by the development that it took me a couple of seconds to register the sound of my phone ringing: a single word came the moment I answered the call:

"Assassin!"

It was all we needed. My Maverick and I didn't even need to make a plan, I jumped from my spot to stand right before the Starks, hands raised and tracing in the air even before I had materialized fully. A shield appearing at my fingertips, just in time to block the three blades that had been thrown, one for each of the people behind me.

"Nightingale/Silbhé!" They exclaimed in obvious shock.

*She's dead.* My match whispered into our bond. *I tried to capture her and she committed suicide rather than allow it.*

*Someone really doesn't want to risk us knowing whatever it is she knew.* I offered.

*We need to get them out of here.* He told me. *This assassin might be dead, but there are no guarantees that another, or even more than one, aren't somewhere around... *

We didn't even need to talk about where to go, we both thought of the same place at the same time; once again, it was only fitting.

"No time for explanations." I told Happy and the Starks before a word could be said. "You cannot stay here. Hold on." I focused on Pepper. "I'm really sorry but this might make you a bit sick. I promise it's necessary."

The moment I was sure they were all holding onto each other, and I had a hand on each, I jumped in place and then we were gone. Loki siphoning magic into me so I would have any trouble taking three (or should it be four?) people along.

We came out of the teleportation in the middle of a kitchen. Pepper did look a bit green: but in the end it was Happy who was actually sick (thankfully he made it to the bathroom).

"What the hell just happened back there?" Tony demanded, even as he checked his wife over.

"Someone just tried to kill you." I deadpanned. "All three of you."

I washed some glasses and filled them with water from the tap, after running it through the pipes for a little while. The place was still furnished and with everything necessary but hadn't been used in years; which was obvious by the sheets covering the furniture and the layers of dust that were on everything.

"Where are we?" Pepper asked after taking the glass of water I offered.

"Chicago." I informed her. "I'm sorry by my lack of hospitality, but aside from tap water and perhaps some form of alcohol there's nothing here. We haven't lived here in years..."

"Why did you bring us here then?" Pepper wanted to know.

Happy didn't say anything, just listened.

"On the one hand, it was the first place I thought of when it became obvious I had to get you out of there." I answered honestly. "On the other hand..."

I broke off, whatever I had been about to say forgotten, as I sensed the change in Tony's mood. Instantly I went looking for him. Found him standing in a corner of the living room, holding in his hand a framed picture, he'd just used the cuff of his own shirt to clean the dust.

"What the hell is this?" He demanded, looking straight at me.

I didn't even need to see the picture, I knew instinctively which one it was: one that showed a three-year-old Tony Stark, in dark-blue bathing shorts with white stripes on the side, smiling widely, hands held as if displaying the amazing sand-castle beside him. I was in the picture too, kneeling on the other side of the castle, a white semi-transparent beach-wrap tied in imitation of a short dress, though allowing my lilac two-piece swimsuit to be seen. Most importantly, the photo had been taken at a point when I'd been distracted so the glamour was loose enough on me one couldn't be sure the age I was supposed to be. People who hadn't really known me would have bought that I was the age I claimed to be back then (in my fifties), perhaps with a few 'treatments' to help me; but someone who'd only known me in my youth...

"Oh..." Pepper breathed out in obvious surprise as she looked at the picture. "Tony you were such a sweet kid..."

"Thanks Pep, but this isn't about me." Tony stated seriously. "What I want to know is how the hell she's in this picture!"

Everyone's attention was on me then. And just in time for my Maverick to make an appearance, he was carrying drinks for everyone, and some pastries (Happy, Tony and especially Pepper were likely to need the sugar after recent events).

"Ana took that picture, the day of your third birthday." I told him honestly.

"Ana?" Pepper inquired, confused.

"Ana Jarvis, Edwin Jarvis's wife, the Stark's housekeeper and..." I began, before Tony cut me off.

"And the woman who raised me as if I were her own son." Tony finished for me.

"Yes." I nodded softly.

"I don't remember you." Tony announced.

"I know." I let out a breath. "We left the Christmas before your fourth birthday, believing it would be better that way..."

"What would be better that way?" Tony demanded, obviously on the edge with all the revelations coming his way.

And so we told him. Loki and I worked together and it took us hours, but we managed to tell them everything. From the moment we had landed in the middle of Norway, in 1941, to earlier that morning, when we'd made the decision of going to find them, to finally tell Tony the truth.

"The last time I saw Howard..." I had to breath deeply, to force myself to push aside the tears the memory still caused me. "He made me promise, that the moment I could, I would come find you, would tell you the truth. I... I didn't realize back then that he wasn't talking only about my time as Arianna Stark. I... when I told him about you, about your future, I never imagined, could have never expected him to... I just..."

"You were just trying to help." Pepper told me quietly, a kind touch on my arm. "You thought it would make things better."

"And instead it might all be my fault." I whispered, unable to hold my sob back.

"It's not your fault!" Tony snapped suddenly. "It's really not. I... it was his choice. How... Dad chose to be that way, probably because he considered the possibility and decided it was the only sure way I'd survive."

"What...?" I wasn't expecting that, none of us were.

"Just think about it." Tony stated, with an ease I knew he didn't really feel. "He heard that I'd be kidnapped, nearly killed multiple times. And he knew I'd survive... but what if the only reason I survived that, was because of everything I'd already gone through by then? To be fair, he was probably right. What chances would a pampered, rich boy have had of surviving three months in captivity in Afghanistan? My whole life I fought to make my father proud of me, and at the same time, kept trying to surpass him; it pushed me into creating Dummy, JARVIS, all the weapons I once built, and later destroyed. It was that same mindset which I pushed myself into when Yinsen gave me the nudge I needed to not give up in that cave, and then with the palladium poisoning. If Dad... if he'd given me the attention I wanted all along, how different would I have been?"

"You still would have been a good man." Pepper tried to insist, evidently shaken by the whole thing (both the assassination attempt and Tony's own rationalization of his past).

"I'm sorry Pepper, but we have to be honest here." Tony murmured softly, kissing her forehead. "There's no guarantee I'd have survived..." He kissed her eyelids, then her nose. "And if this is the reward, for everything that's happened. You, and this little one... if you're my blessing after all the trials... then it was all worth it. All of it." He turned back to me. "And thank you. For giving me something I never thought I'd get a chance to have, my family..."

And in that moment, as he smiled at me there was a light in his eyes, such as I hadn't seen since that last Christmas; a light I'd once feared he might have lost completely; only he hadn't. The cute, incredible child that Tony had been was still inside the brave amazing man that he'd become after so many years; he'd just needed a reason to let him out.

xXx

The attempted assassination had some consequences we could have never predicted, as less than 24 hours later we found ourselves at the Prentice Women's Hospital, with Pepper giving birth to her baby. With some clever talking I managed to be allowed into the delivery room, which was a good thing when it turned out that the baby was in distress. She wasn't breathing by the time she was born, though the doctors still never gave up. I just got close enough to place a single finger on her. Didn't even do much, just the slightest push, and the doctors handled the rest. She would still need to be in an incubator for a few days, but the danger soon passed.

And so Aylen Mariana Potts-Stark was born. According to Tony, the name Mariana was in honor of the three most important women in his life (aside from his wife, obviously): his mother: Maria, his Nana: Ana, and myself, Arianna. Aylen, on the other side, was a name meant to be only for the little girl; that part had actually been at Pepper's insistence, when Tony considered giving the baby her name (Virginia), or her mother's (Victoria); she thought the little girl was going to have a hard enough time with their family, she deserved to be her own person, and thus have a name that was just hers.

They asked me to be Aylen's godmother, I of course said yes. Bruce was to be the godfather and, according to Tony, that meant we were family, and so were our respective families. It was nice. And then the phone rang, it was Mycroft.

We could hardly believe how bad things had gotten in just a week that we'd been away. Still, after reminding our 'nephew' and his family of the danger Hydra represented (and the longer they all stayed out of sight the better), Loki and I were turning our focus to the friends we'd left back in England, and the mess they'd gotten into.

Surprisingly enough it wasn't Sherlock's fault, not this time. He'd been doing the right thing, and the situation had gotten entirely out of their hands (then again, the situation had been much bigger than any of them had known going in); and while measures were already being taken, Mycroft really wanted us (especially me and my healing) there, just in case.

xXx

Mycroft was angry... no, beyond angry, he was furious. Heads were going to roll (hopefully only figuratively). He couldn't believe that the people working for him were so completely useless! Because there was no other way they could explain how no one had so much as suspected there was a connection between Magnussen and Lord Moran, until the proof was staring them in their faces. Because apparently, 'mental vaults' and all, Charles Magnussen had still kept a few things in a deposit box, the details of which they'd found in the safe in his office, when they stripped the whole place down after the man's assassination.

The deposit box had proof of a few of his blackmails, including the very letters he'd tried to blackmail Lady Smallwood with. There they'd found his connection with Lord Moran, apparently it had been Magnussen who'd ordered the man to place that bomb. The poor sod hadn't even known the bomb was real, thought it to be just a stunt for Magnussen to gain the compliance of a few people he hadn't found pressure points on.

And that wasn't even the worst part. Sergei Moran was an idiot, he was also the uncle of former-military man Sebastian Moran (dishonorably discharged under suspicion of aiding a criminal organization in the Middle East), who'd been one of the snipers working for Jim Moriarty (the one on Lestrade).

Magnussen's own documents also included a few mentions of Moriarty; except he called the man 'Professor Moriarty', no one was 100% sure what that meant, but the implications sure weren't good (Jim's death was supposed to be the end of that particular problem!)

The Holmeses suspected that Magnussen had planned the bombing in order to take out those he couldn't control, so as to make sure all of Parliament would be comprised of people under his thumb. Allowing him to effectively rule from the shadows. He was connected to Hydra, and while that had at first brought up the question of why then Hydra had sent the Winter Soldier after him; it was John who realized Magnussen must have acted without authorization, perhaps ahead of schedule or something. Hydra had had him killed in an attempt to keep things from being discovered; they probably expected the authorities to be too busy trying to find the assassin to see everything else, they hadn't expected the intervention of people like Arianna Kinross (Lady Navar) or Sia Serrure (the legendary Valkyrie).

And that wasn't all. No, that would have made things too easy... Days later Mycroft found himself in a closed-door meeting with his wife, brothers (he counted John Watson as a brother too), the head of MI6 M, his secretary: Miss Moneypenny, the young Quartermaster, one of the famed 00s: James Bond and the believed-to-be-dead former M... She was believed to have died during the last confrontation with Silva in the Skyfall Estate, Bond's family home, in Scotland. Apparently not. Mycroft also noticed the acknowledgment in Bond's eyes as John and Sherlock entered... it really annoyed him not to know the reason behind that look. He hated not knowing things.

It was Sherlock who set the ball rolling, as he placed a heavy ring (titanium or some similar alloy) meant for a man in the middle of M's desk; it had a black engraving, of something that looked almost like a children's drawing of an octopus.

"Spectre..." Bond, Moneypenny and the former M (Olivia Mansfield, he later learned her name was) hissed practically at the same time.

"Where did you find that ring?" Mansfield asked, looking straight at Sherlock.

"On Charles Magnussen's finger." Sherlock answered, oddly calm. "He was wearing it at the time of his death."

"We found this on his safe deposit box." John added, placing a file beside the ring. "It details his connection with the Spectre Organization, with another one called Quantum and... and the fact that both are apparently strongly connected to Hydra."

Yes, things were definitely complicated.

By the end of the meeting there was still a lot Mycroft didn't fully understand. He didn't know how Mansfield had survived the attack on MI6's HQ, or the following disaster at the Skyfall Lodge; though after some loaded looks and half-sentences he was able to deduce that John had somehow been involved... and quite possibly Arianna as well.

Spectre (which was an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) was a global criminal organization that had been behind a number of events MI6 and other Intelligence Organizations had been forced to deal with over the last few decades (at least). Mansfield had been the first to pick up on the connection between several missions, after the events with Quantum, years prior; she'd researched it herself, until her near-death, when she'd enlisted the assistance of Bond, and eventually Moneypenny as well.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was when a new player got involved: former Agent Kathryn Eileen Salani-Adler. Mallory still remembered her, from the sole mission she'd gone on with MI6, back in the eighties. And despite having been retired for more than twenty years, there was no doubt that the woman still knew a few things, she was the one who found Dr. Madeleine Swann, the only one who could tell them what the code 'L'Americain' meant.

A few things had been relatively easy to handle. Like the cancellation of the Nine-Eyes project, and the attempt to discontinue the 00 program; or the infiltration of a Spectre meeting in Rome (though that one did end with a high-speed chase through the city); others weren't quite so easy. And so Bond was sent to Morocco, to the hotel L'Americain; where he eventually found a secret room in the suite Dr. Swann's father had always taken, it was filled with files, pictures, videos and everything that could be considered proof of Spectre's actions, power and influence... nothing on their connection to Hydra though. Still, Bond had packed everything and gotten it back to London, for Q and his people to go through it.

John and Sherlock, for their part, chose to pursue the only clue they'd found regarding the so-called 'Professor Moriarty': the Muirchertach estate by the Reichenbachfall... And that was where things went wrong, as they discovered when, after the two failed to report for two days, Mycroft sent in a team that found Dr. Watson on a ledge several feet down from the top of the falls, bruised, contused and with clear signs of hypothermia... with Sherlock nowhere to be found. It appeared that they had been expected, men who worked for this new Moriarty, they'd tried to kill John, and abducted Sherlock...

Mycroft was reaching the end of his rope by then, he'd never liked the idea of Sherlock going on such a dangerous mission in the first place, not after everything he'd already done during the months he took on the eradication of Moriarty's web... and yet he still hadn't expected things to go so wrong. He knew he'd to do something, but had no idea what.

Bond preparing to go to Africa, to track down what might be Spectre's Headquarters, he had suggested the possibility of Sherlock being there (not entirely impossible, considering they all knew there was a connection between Moriarty and Spectre). John was being quite vocal about people letting him out of the bloody hospital, and exactly what he was going to do to the people who thought they could take his husband and get away with it. And all Mycroft could think was that Bond was still in London, John was in Switzerland, and what if they didn't get to Sherlock in time? And what could he even do?

The answer came to his fingers, in a way, before it even registered in his mind, as he pulled out his phone and dialed a number:

"Arianna?" He called, very seriously. "We have an emergency. Sherlock has been abducted... John is in Switzerland, injured... Agent Bond offered to help but he's still here in London... There is reason to believe he might be in Africa, in the Spectre HQs in the Sahara, but we have no way of knowing until one of our own gets there."

The answer came soon enough, and while he'd been hopeful, it still surpassed his expectations.

"John can track down Sherlock." She informed him seriously. "We'll drop by London to pick Agent Bond, then to Switzerland to get John... and then wherever we might have to go next. Tell them we'll be there in twenty and twenty-five minutes, and they better be ready to go by then. If things are as bad as they seem there's no time to lose."

No one asked who Mycroft had just called, not even how that person expected to be picking up 007 and then be in Switzerland just five minutes later; whether that was because they suspected (the elder Holmes was almost sure at least Mansfield and Bond himself, aside from his family and Ms. Adler, knew about Arianna Kinross's gifts), or simply because they were used to things being secret (they worked in the Intelligence business, after all) he did not really care. All he cared about in that moment was his brother, Sherlock's safety, everything else was secondary.

xXx

It took my love and myself almost fifteen minutes to get in to see the Starks (though they were supposed to be staying in the penthouse with us, Tony and Pepper spent every minute they could in the hospital with little Aylen, which didn't really surprise me. I did feel a pang though, seeing Tony there... he looked so much like Howard back when Tony had just been born. I could almost cry, knowing that my love and I were the only ones who remembered that anymore, Tony would never have memories of his father's love. Even with everything we'd revealed, and the fact that I was quite sure he believed me... there were still no memories to be had.

Once inside we explained to Tony and Pepper the fact that we had to leave, I left them my keys to the penthouse and assured them they could call us if anything happened. Tony also promised he'd be right there the moment the time came to fight Hydra.

The moment that was done our clothes were changed (into nondescript black body-suits rather than our preferred fighting attires, as we had no intentions of announcing our true identities and power just yet). Then we dropped into a shadow and were off to London.

It took almost another ten minutes for us to get into MI6, until an announcement came through that we were expected. I actually had to blink when I saw Olivia Mansfield sitting in that room, considering that almost everyone believed the woman to be dead... I could still remember when John had phoned me, desperate, pleading for my help. I hadn't even thought about it, hadn't had the first idea of what was going on when I teleported straight into what seconds before had been a battlefield (got shot for my troubles too! Even if the bullet never touched me). I'd known some old friend from his army days had called John days earlier, asking him a favor, John had told me to call him if news came in about Sherlock, and then took off. I never expected it when I arrived to find the head of MI6 shot and bleeding out, the man responsible for the destruction of several important buildings on London, and the death of Intelligence personel in a number of countries (Mycroft had been spitting nails about the whole situation, worried to death that whoever had gotten into MI6's files might have found something on Sherlock... thankfully that hadn't been the case). Still, I was a healer first and foremost, didn't actually think to ask for an explanation before dropping to my knees beside the woman and getting to work. She also didn't ask how I was able to heal with just my will...

In any case, Olivia Mansfield was there, everyone was talking about James Bond's top-secret mission, and Sherlock was missing... we really didn't have time to wonder about the whys and hows of anything. We just told the agent to follow us and went straight back out they way we'd come; the moment we were sure we were off the cameras' reach, both Maverick and I reached for James Bond at the same time, and sank into the nearest shadow.

Picking up John was a piece of cake. His healing also didn't take long (his watch had some protective spells, which had helped him some), and then we were off again. Unknown to almost everyone the ring-tattoos Sherlock and John had, carried some spellwork, similar to what we'd done on the bands Darcy and Phil had: that, summed to the soulbond those two possessed, made tracking the missing consulting detective relatively easy (our magic did the rest).

The lack of guards in the premises made it obvious no one had been expecting us; they probably didn't think we'd be able to find them, or if we did, it still wouldn't happen so soon. Of course, Spectre had no idea of the kind of enemies they'd made the moment they put a hand on Sherlock Holmes (and I wasn't even talking about my love and I... no, the real danger was, and always would be John Watson. He'd do anything to protect his match).

We split, with James and Serrure doing a sweep of the facility and taking people down as they did, while John and I went straight for Sherlock. It didn't take long to find him, and yet the sight that met us there was such that I couldn't help but freeze in shock:

Sherlock was on a medical chair, restrained, a surgical drill ready and about to pierce straight into his skull; and an insane man was going on and on about how the 'Professor' would have to reward him, and how there would be nothing but a shell left of the 'great Sherlock Holmes' once he was done, his mind lost to his drills...

"You are, of course, incorrect." Sherlock announced, rather calmly for someone in his position.

"Oh, am I?" The man (whom I later learned was called Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and in MI6's Most Wanted List), asked with a creepy level of glee.

"Of course you are, you're an idiot." Sherlock scoffed. "Your greatest mistake of all was to underestimate your enemies."

"I think you overestimate yourself, Mr. Holmes, after all, I have you right here, tied down, about to lose everything that makes you Sherlock Holmes..." Blofeld stated with sickening delight.

"I wasn't talking about myself." Sherlock replied. "I was talking about my husband..."

"John Watson is dead." Blofeld snapped. "You insisting on pursuing this matter shows that, in the end, you're like any other man, Mr. Holmes, holding onto ridiculous hopes of being saved, even when faced with insurmountable odds..."

"No, he's not." Sherlock cut him off. "But you are..."

Whether that was some kind of cue, or the fact that the man had just reached for the drill's switch probably didn't really matter in the end; he was dead from a bullet through his head just a second later. John didn't even wait to confirm the kill, he just put the gun away and rushed to free his husband immediately.

"Are you alright?" John asked, checking the consulting detective over.

"Of course I'm alright John, no reason to panic." His husband informed him. "I knew you were coming after me so I had no reason to worry. I'm just fine. Everything's fine."

And then they were bursting into giggles... I imagined there was some kind of private joke, but had no idea what it might be.

All in all the mission was a tad anticlimatic, especially compared to most missions involving 007; something he seemed to take as some kind of affront.

"I didn't even get to blow up anything!" He actually pouted.

"I suppose this means you'll be bringing your equipment back in one piece this time, 007..." Q's voice came in a drawl through the comms.

"I make no promises Quentin." Bond quipped.

Just from listening to him during a few minutes I'd been able to tell that he'd no idea what the young Quartermaster's name actually was; which was probably why he used every opportunity to call the man by every name-starting-with-Q he could think of. Made me wonder what it was he expected to achieve exactly. If he eventually did discover the name, what then? I had no idea, and I suppose, in the end it wasn't really my business.

We stayed in that facility in the desert until a team of Special Ops. arrived to take over the duty of dismantling the place and making sure any information Spectre might have had was destroyed before it could be used against anyone.

"Do you really think they will give up the chance of having something on their enemies?" My husband asked, not quite believing things would happen as everyone claimed.

"No." Bond admitted honestly. "Which is why I have this." He showed us a very small thumb-drive. "Q made it, it had a special virus, I only needed a few seconds to plug it into the first computer I saw in the place and it destroyed all data-banks. There's nothing left."

"Why?" I didn't understand, didn't he work for MI6?

"Because I think, and some people agree with me, that there might have been some files in those drives that no one should have... not even MI6..." Bond admitted grimly.

"Won't you get in trouble over this?" John asked, sounding honestly worried. "You might have been the old M's favorite James, but Mallory is nothing like her."

"I know." James admitted, then shrugged. "It's alright. I'm awful at computers, so who will ever believe that I had anything do to with that?" Then, as if to reinforce the idea, he pulled the thumb-drive apart with his own nails before throwing the pieces out the window of the military jeep we were on, one at a time, straight onto the sand.

The trip back to London took longer than the one out; but in the end it was easier than explaining Special Ops. and a number of other military personal why we didn't need a flight out... It also gave us all time to rest, something we sorely needed.

xXx

Hours later I woke up from my nap to find we were still on the military plane, about a quarter of an hour from London. It soon became obvious that I wasn't the only one to decide a nap was a good idea. James was the only one not sleeping, instead bent over his mobile (I wasn't sure if he was playing a game, or perhaps talking to Q... he seemed to do the last one a lot).

As I sat there I allowed my mind to stray... and as it often had in the last several weeks, soon I was thinking about Mary Morstan (or Alicia Adams), about the fact that for the first time in either of my lives I had killed someone; the hardest part for me to deal with, though, was perhaps the fact that I didn't regret it. Even though I had truly hoped John would be right when he inferred that the woman might be truly trying to make a new, peaceful life for herself, away from the stigma of being a graduate of the Red Room... she had threatened my match's life, and the moment she'd done that her life was forfeit. I'd never allow anything to happen to him.

In my life (both my lives, actually) I had gone through a lot, and at different times I'd fancied myself a Warrior-Lady, and been sure I could never truly live up to such a title. Even when I'd learned to shoot a bow, throw knives, fight hand-to-hand, even the few times I ended having to fight for whatever the reason, never before Adams had I taken a life. I had injured, I'd aided friends in defeating and killing their enemies, but I'd never ended a life myself. It made me wonder if doing so would end up changing me more than I could stand, more than my love...

*Never...* Loki interrupted my line of thought. *I will never think less of you, my Nightingale. You're the most beautiful, courageous, wondrous creature and I'm blessed to have you as my match. Whatever might happen, I will always love you... Always...*

*Till the last star blinks out of the sky...* We finished in tandem...

And just like that, I felt the imperious need to sing, to get it all out: my feelings, my thoughts, my doubts, my resolutions. All of it... I didn't even have to think about it, I settled more comfortably into my husband's embrace, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and then I began singing:

"I've been here before
But always hit the floor
I've spent a lifetime running
And I always get away
But with you I'm feeling something
That makes me want to stay"

"I'm prepared for this
I never shoot to miss
But I feel a storm is coming
If I'm gonna make it through the day
And there's no more use in running
This is something I gotta face"

"If I risk it all
Could you break my fall?"
"How do I live? How do I breathe?
When you're not here I'm suffocating
I want to feel love run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
For you I have to risk it all
'Cause the writing's on the wall"

"A million shards of glass
That haunt me from my past
As the stars begin to gather
And the light begins to fade
When all hope begins to shatter
Know that I won't be afraid"

"If I risk it all
Could you break my fall?"

"How do I live? How do I breathe?
When you're not here I'm suffocating
I want to feel love, run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
For you I have to risk it all
'Cause the writing's on the wall"

"If I risk it all
Could you break my fall?"

"How do I live? How do I breathe?
When you're not here I'm suffocating
I want to feel love run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
For you I have to risk it all
'Cause the writing's on the wall"

The song finally reached an end, and ever so slowly I opened my eyes, feeling more relaxed than I had ever since that day in Magnussen's building. I'd finally come to terms with my own actions, and the feelings those actions brought me. The fact that those decisions did not change who I was, all the opposite, they were a confirmation of my own self.

"You have quite a beautiful voice, ma'am." Agent Bond murmured softly.

I blinked, not having noticed before that all eyes were on me in that moment. They'd all woken at some point and were looking straight at me.

"She has the most perfect voice in all the universe." My Maverick announced calmly.

"You were thinking about what happened that night, weren't you?" John asked me softly. "What you had to do..." He let out a breath. "I'm sorry Ari..."

"It's not your fault John." I assured him with a small smile. "We both want to believe the best of people. We wanted to believe that she was trying to make a new life... but all bets were off the moment she aimed that gun at my husband."

I could sense the moment it all clicked in Bond's head.

"You killed Adams..." He breathed out in absolute shock. "But the reports..."

"Certain things were kept off the reports." Sherlock stated stoically. "And it'll stay that way."

"Of course." Bond seemed to have no problem with that. "I imagine some people would never leave her alone if they were to find out... you do realize at least the US and Turkey had a reward for her death?"

"We know." I nodded. "Mycroft made arrangements for the money to be placed in a new Charity Organization we just created: the Willow Foundation. Which will be focused on aiding young orphans who are in danger of going down the wrong path. Who knows? Perhaps we might prevent other girls of ever becoming like Alicia Adams..."

We couldn't save everyone in the world (or worlds), especially those who didn't want to be saved, we knew that, had learned it the hard way... didn't mean we would stop trying any time soon though. We would never stop trying...

xXx

The day we had been waiting for finally came and on the 4th of May of 2016 (exactly two months and a day after the end of the overlap) all hell broke loose... on a global scale.

It had actually started on the 1st. After an insane car chase that wrecked everything in more than half a dozen street-blocks in Washington D.C., and a shoot-out that ended with at least a handful of civilians dead and thrice (or more) as many injured, Director Fury was tracked to Captain Rogers' apartment, where he was shot by an unknown sniper, whom Rogers had tried and failed to keep up with. Fury had finally been declared dead just past one in the morning of the 2nd...

"He's not dead." I told Mycroft calmly.

He was the one who'd informed us of what wasn't on the news (which was, of course, a lot).

"What makes you so sure of that?" I suspected he shared my suspicions, but wasn't willing to admit it, due to lack of proof.

"Tell me Mycroft, what would happen if you died?" I asked in turn.

For a moment no one said a word, but John's eyes widened in understanding.

"Fury is not in your level, of course not." I went on.

"He only wishes he had that kind of power." My love muttered with a half smirk.

"The point is, I have no doubt he must have contingencies upon contingencies in the case of his death." I went on. "The man isn't stupid; arrogant, reckless, and with more trust issues than all of us combined... but certainly not stupid."

"If he were dead something else would have happened already." John finished for me.

"The witnesses' reports..." Cassia said quietly. "SHIELD tried to silence them, but we managed to acquire a copy. The description of the shooter fits the man you call the Winter Soldier..."

I couldn't help myself, I let out a string of curses in at least half a dozen different languages.

"I recognized all except the second to last language." Sherlock pointed out when I was done.

"You wouldn't have, that was quenya, the most archaic form of the elven language." My husband informed him. "Not from this world, and even in Alfheim it's only ever spoken during the most important ceremonies..." He turned to me. "Most wouldn't even think you can swear in it..."

"I'm creative like that." I quipped.

Curiously enough, neither of us realized then that Sherlock hadn't marked as unknown the last dialect I had used; another which wasn't of our world, it was khuzdul, and aside from the dwarves of Nidavellir only a handful or so of people could recognize it, much less speak it.

So in the end we all agreed that, all things considered, Fury probably wasn't dead. We didn't get much time to ponder on it though, as that was just the beginning. Hydra was on the move (hence my cursing a storm).

On the 2nd I'd gotten a secret coded message from Hakon: Captain America had just been declared a Rogue, he was being hunted down by SHIELD... I reckoned that probably didn't sit well with Peggy. And yet they weren't doing anything, which meant that either something else was going on, or they were waiting for something else to happen... and it did.

There was yet another car-chase and a shooting in the middle of Washington DC, and SHIELD couldn't keep it quiet, it was all over the news and the internet minutes after it began. We were all in Mycroft's office, watching the footage, my love was the first to recognize the figure in the worn military-styled fatigues... I picked up on it a second later: Sia had arrived...

"Who's that?" Sherlock asked, transfixed.

It really was fascinating to see, the way Sif and the Winter Shoulder exchanged blows, like a very complex, highly lethal dance.

"Sia Serrure." John answered for us.

"That's the Goddess of War?" Cassia was in awe.

We nodded vaguely, my attention more on the words my love wasn't saying out loud:

*You can see it, can't you?* He asked mentally.

*They're a match.* I said for all answer.

Yes, we could both see it, and there was something more, something that looked like a one-sided bond. I couldn't be sure, had never seen anything like that, but it was the best way I knew to describe it. My love agreed with me. Neither of us had the slightest idea how much that might help or hinder the situation.

Eventually either the transmissions were cut or the cameras destroyed, and we could no longer see what was going on. And so we spent the rest of the day fidgeting, waiting for the other shoe to drop (and we all knew it would, sooner or later).

It did happen, though not until the next day, early afternoon (the middle of the morning in DC). There was no footage, and in the end we didn't need to go looking for anything, as the recording was broadcasted through the web, popping up all over the world at the same time (a corner of my mind was flabbergasted by whoever had managed that, wanting to meet the hacker and find out how it was done exactly); somehow, the message ended being even more shocking than the method used to transmit it:

"Attention, all SHIELD agents. This is Steve Rogers. You've heard a lot about me over the last few days, some of you were even ordered to hunt me down. But I think it's time you know the truth. SHIELD is not what we thought it was, it's been taken over by HYDRA. Alexander Pierce is their leader. The STRIKE and Insight crew are HYDRA as well. I don't know how many more, but I know they're in the building. They could be standing right next to you. They almost have what they want: absolute control. They shot Nick Fury and it won't end there. If you launch those Helicarriers today, HYDRA will be able to kill anyone that stands in their way, unless we stop them. I know I'm asking a lot, but the price of freedom is high, it always has been, and it's a price I'm willing to pay. And if I'm the only one, then so be it. But I'm willing to bet I'm not."

"And so it begins..." My love murmured quietly, nothing else really needed to be said.

Chapter Text

Centuries

Some histories take ages to be written, while others are written in a moment.

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

In the Summer of 1985 retired Colonel Chester Phillips from the USS Army, Senior Agent Marge Sholto (nee Carter) from the SSR and businessman and inventor Howard Stark founded the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (which would later on be known simply as SHIELD) from the remains of the SSR, Division X, and a number of black ops divisions of certain Intelligence organizations (like the CIA, FBI, Interpol, etc.).

SHIELD was created with a single, simple purpose: Protect; which in turn had rather broad interpretations, as people may need protection from enemies within and without their own countries, and sometimes even from themselves (and, as they'd eventually find out, from other worlds too!).

After creating the new organization, its new leaders decided to form teams by putting together chosen individuals with different specialties, whom they believed might work well. The first such team was formed by: Shannon Carter, Margaret Sholto's niece and protege, her own partner: Kathryn Adler (once, and later on known better as Kathryn Salani), and former CIA operative: Nicholas Fury. There were some difficulties as the three got used to working together, but after a while they'd come to be known as the Elites, the first such team, and the best of their generation.

Attempts would be made in the future to create another such team, the closest being the one created by Agent Adler herself, which's training was taken over by Fury after she chose to retire; and yet even they'd never managed to reach the same level their predecessors had.

Others also came to be granted the title of Elites, usually along with a code-name that separated them from most Agents (Kathryn had been known as the Sphinx, while Shannon was the second of three women to have been known as Agent 13; eventually others would come: like Hawkeye, the Black Widow and Agent Shadow; even then, they were always few, their abilities doubtlessly surpassing those of their peers).

Some people expected SHIELD to be the culmination of the dreams many people had had in the past. Good men and women fighting the good fight, keeping the world safe... it would take a long time, almost too long, for anyone to realize that dream had been corrupted even before it began. There were too many compromises made, compartmentalization, deals with the devil, and in the end the SHIELD that truly came to be was completely different from what had once been dreamt... and yet for the longest time no one realized it.

It was actually in 1996, after a number of suspicious events, that culminated with the loss of Agent Shannon Carter (SHIELD and the world as a whole believed her to have been murdered, though the truth was a hell of a lot more complicated). It was after that, that a few people finally learned what was going on, what had been going on all along: Hydra. It was still alive, had never died, and not only that, but it had grown, its tendrils extending so much they'd managed to infiltrate almost every single intelligence agency and government organization of the planet, to the point where it'd probably take a miracle to ever bring them down for good... (then again, Hydra didn't really know who they were going up against...).

In 2011, when most people had long since given up on hope, a small group almost accidentally came upon the Red Skull's lost airship, the Valkyrie; and inside it was the frozen form of Steven Rogers... most expected him to be long dead, yet he wasn't. He was very much alive. And so he was transported to New York, where they carefully thawed him out, and then allowed him to wake up. There had been a very elaborate plan to make him believe it hadn't been long, and then slowly explain things to him in a controlled environment. It didn't work.

Also, unknown to all but a chosen few, at the same time that Captain Rogers woke up in a top secret SHIELD facility in NY; on the other side of the Atlantic someone else was waking up too, after a fifteen-year 'nap': Steve's wife: Margaret 'Peggy' Carter-Rogers... It was quite probably the best kept secret of the age, the fact that the woman everyone believed to be Peggy, though most people actually knew her as Marge Sholto... wasn't the real Peggy Carter, but a former French singer and informant: Marguerite Cartier. Who'd been made an offer and agreed to take Peggy's place when it became obvious that Peggy's soulbond to her husband would have consequences after he was lost in the Arctic. She'd woken briefly between the 70s and 90s and, refusing to remain hidden, had taken the name of Shannon Carter and joined first the SSR and later on the newly founded SHIELD. She was believed to have been murdered in 1996, after discovering Hydra inside SHIELD and its connection with a series of terrible events that had taken place in recent years. In the end, the changes Peggy had undergone (again, due to her bond to Steve) had allowed her to survive the attempt on her life, but she'd fallen asleep again, just like in 1945...

With Loki and Nightingale in Vanaheim for security reasons, Howard Stark dead since 1992 and Marge suffering from Alzheimer and living in an institution, there was only one person left who was aware of the situation, and in a position to help at all: Hakon Serrure/Hvedrungr, second child and only son of Loki and his Nightingale, former military man (twenty years in the army before retiring), he'd done a few black ops. missions for SHIELD in the past, all off-books. He answered when Harry, Marge's eldest grandchild and current guardian of Peggy, called, and got to the safe-house in the outskirts of London as fast as he could.

Peggy really didn't like it when Hakon refused to take her to see Steve straight out. While she was a very intelligent woman, and understood the reasoning behind that decision, a part of Peggy was almost overwhelmed by the imperious need to be with her match as soon as humanly possible. In the end, though, reason won out. Arrangements were made for new identities, not just for Peggy, but also for Hakon; if they were to get close to Steve without being discovered by those of Hydra within SHIELD they would need to be clever, far more clever than them... thankfully that was not a difficult thing to achieve. She dyed her hair blonde, the more different she could look from the pictures of the young Peggy Carter (and of Shannon Carter) the better; where finger prints, blood exams and other records were concerned Hakon ended calling in a few favors from extremely skilled hackers (he'd learned it was good to have contacts on both sides of the 'fence').

And so Sharon Margaret Carter (with papers claiming she'd changed her name from Watson to protect her siblings) and Macbeth Grayson entered the SHIELD academy for Specialists. They passed through all 'classes' and levels of training with flying colors and after breaking all records they joined the ranks of the Agents of SHIELD. By 2013 Sharon had made enough of a name to herself that she was offered the chance to become the new Agent 13, the third woman to hold that code-name (of course, the ones making the offer had no idea that it'd always been her...). Mac, for his part was doing quite well as a specialist, had done some work with people like Victoria Hand, Isabelle Hartley, John Garrett, his protege Grant Ward, and even Elites like Black Widow and Mockingbird; he was also marked as a good candidate for joining the STRIKE team.

It was in the same year, after the Nightingale's death, while the Avengers scattered to the four winds, that Mac and Sharon finally got the opportunity they'd been waiting for. He was the one who approached the Captain, as he stepped into a bar to have a strong drink and a short break in his impromptu road-trip (the fact that it hadn't been planned working in their favor, as SHIELD hadn't had a chance to put bugs or trackers on the Captain or any of his things).

"Cap...?" Hakon called quietly after having ordered a drink for himself and taking the first sip.

He heard the tired sigh from the blonde man who probably expected Hakon to be one of his fans, and while that was mostly correct, he wasn't the kind of fan Steve had known in recent years.

"I'm not sure if you remember me, you were friends with my parents back in the war." Hakon said quietly, making sure no one was listening in, before throwing the real-bomb. "They were guests at your wedding."

Steve's reaction was instantaneous, and as expected, he stared straight at the young man. Hakon knew that he looked just enough like his Papa, Steve just might recognize him...

"Hakon...?" Yes, he recognized him. "Is it you?"

"It is me Cap..." Hakon grinned, finally looking straight at the blonde. "It's been a while..."

"Quite." Steve agreed. "Shouldn't you look... well, older?"

"You always did know me and my family weren't exactly normal." Hakon pointed out evenly.

"True." The blonde nodded. "Your parents are around too?"

"Not right now." The black-haired shrugged a bit. "They're living abroad for the time being, for security reasons. Should be coming back eventually. I'm here on behalf of another 'mutual friend', she wanted to come but it's not safe. Her cover could be blown... and that wouldn't be good."

"So she is alive..." The 'man out of time' let out a long sigh, a relief so strong it was almost euphoria, and Hakon had just enough empathy in him to pick it up (his mother had been an elf, after all, even if he took after his father almost completely).

"I'm sorry Cap." Hakon murmured, honestly contrite. "We wanted to contact you before, we really did. But it's just too risky."

"Why?" Steve realized something was going on he probably wouldn't like. "What's going on?"

Hakon ran a hand through his hair, not sure how to really explain the mess the worlds, and their lives had become; he knew that no matter how much he adorned it Steve Rogers really wasn't going to like the situation, and he needed to make sure no one would be doing anything stupid. It wasn't yet time to act, they weren't ready, wouldn't be for a few more years yet, probably. Still, he couldn't just ignore the question, and so he answered:

"Hydra..."

Steve really, really hadn't liked hearing that. But at least being lead by Hakon to the small cottage (safe-house) where they were staying, where his wife was waiting for him, helped stave off his bad mood. Regardless of how awful their situation might be, just having his Peggy back, learning that they'd both, somehow made it, was enough to give Steve the hope that things would turn out alright in the end.

It became like a sort of game. Finding moments when Sharon and Steve could meet, never allowing others to know about it: not SHIELD, not the Avengers, and especially not Hakon's parents. It was something Steve and Sharon hadn't understood at first, having recognized their dear friends from the war.

"Haven't you realized it yet?" Hakon inquired softly. "They don't know you. Not because they have forgotten you, trust me, sixty or seventy years may be a long time... but it's not that long. No, truth is, they haven't met you yet..."

It took a second or two for the two 'super soldiers' to realize the implications, and then their eyes widened abruptly.

"Time travel?!" Sharon exclaimed, in shock.

"Insane as it might seem, yes." The black-haired boy nodded. "The Loki and Nightingale you're seeing right now aren't the Luke and Arianna you met in the past, not yet. They will travel back in time in a few years."

"And the ones who traveled? Where are they?" Sharon wanted to know.

"Staying in Europe." The younger man told them honestly. "They actually stayed in another world for twenty years to make sure they wouldn't cross paths with their younger selves. Now they're staying where they're less likely to be found, until the overlap comes to an end."

"When will that be?" Steve was curious.

"March of 2016." The black-haired man answered promptly (it was 2014 at the time).

That same year, after Phil Coulson was declared KIA and Darcy went off the grid, Steve was informed he was going to Washington. He didn't complain, just did as ordered. He almost laughed his head off days later when his new neighbor: 'Nurse Kate Grayson' introduced herself; Sharon's own eyes were dancing with humor as well. The downside was that, with her put undercover to protect Captain America, it made it harder for the two of them to meet in secret. Mac just about laughed his head off at the whole thing.

By early 2016 Steve was really about to lose his patience. Knowing what he knew he'd begun to notice the inconsistencies in the way SHIELD handled some things; their treatment of gifted was deplorable, to say the least. And he knew there was a lot going on that he wasn't seeing...

"You need to be careful Steve." Mac told him one day, as they shared a drink (the two of them at least had been on enough missions together to be able to justify going to a bar or something like that together). "If you get too close... you're gonna get burned. They got awfully close with Shannon in '96, we might not be so lucky next time."

"I hate just standing back, doing nothing, when we should be fighting them, taking them down." Steve hissed between clenched teeth.

"I know, and I hate it as much as you do." The black haired man nodded. "Don't forget I've seen first hand what these people... these monsters are capable of. But we will fight them, when the time is right we will reveal ourselves, and we will take them down... but not just yet."

"What are we waiting for?" The blonde didn't fully understand that part.

"For the world to be ready." Hakon admitted. "When Hydra reveals itself... it will not be pretty. They have become huge, infiltrating organizations and governments all around the world. We need to be ready to fight all the pieces at the same time. And that won't be easy..."

"You really think it can be done?" Even with all his experience, the Captain couldn't wrap his head around such an operation.

"It has to." The younger man stated evenly. "There's no other option."

All in all, things weren't so bad. There were missions, and mostly Steve and Sharon felt like they were doing good, and if at times they felt like they were compromising their morals with some things; they reminded themselves the day would come to make those things right.

Probably the only thing he could do without was Natasha (and sometimes Clint, whenever he wasn't off doing... something else) trying to set him up with any number of women she could think of. She even tried setting him up with Kate! (that one at least wasn't so bad...). Still, it wasn't like Steve could actually tell her he was quite happily married, someday...

They'd grown so used to their routines that when things finally started happening, it almost took them by surprise. Steve was still in a bit of a strop about what had happened at the Lemurian Star, and then the attack on Nick Fury, what happened in his apartment (learning the place was bugged hadn't really been a surprise, but still!). When Fury was declared dead just past one in the morning, that certainly forced both of them to stop and take notice.

Steve wasn't quite expecting the little 'talk' with Pierce to go the way it had, or to then have STRIKE go against him. He especially hated it when Mac pushed him until he was forced to knock out the young man. The blonde hated it, he could still remember the little kid who had idolized not only him but all his team; the same who'd gone and joined the military because Steve and the others had been his inspiration (Hakon himself had told him that over drinks one night). And yet he understood, Mac would only be able to help him as long as he was able to keep his cover; which meant he'd to be given the same treatment as the rest of the STRIKE team... at least Steve knew Hakon healed fast.

It certainly didn't sit well with Sharon when she learned of the manhunt, but she was a good Agent and had a supreme poker face (as the multiple people whose pockets she'd cleaned in their weekly game-night could attest to), she acted as was expected of her, all while bracing herself for what she knew had to be coming.

Zola, his (its?) algorithm, the true plan behind project Insight, and a freaking bomb falling on their heads certainly conspired to make Steve (and Natasha) decide that had to be the worst day in their lives (and considering some of the days each of them had, had, that was saying something).

Going after Sitwell had almost been fun, until Steve realized the implications of it all. It wasn't just the fact that millions of people would be pretty much dead the moment those helicarriers went online; but the fact that he was pretty sure he knew the names of quite a few of them... he was so shocked by the whole thing he almost called for Loki and Nightingale (during the last visit of those two, he and the other Avengers had been told that if one day they really needed Asgard's help, or even just the help of one of them, all they needed to do was call and believe and their voices would reach them). In the end he did not, Hydra was his problem (or theirs, Peggy would certainly refuse to stand back), they'd be dealing with it. The Captain really hoped Hakon was right and that others were ready to deal with the rest of the organization, once they handled DC...

They had a plan, it was even a good plan, all things considered. Natasha and Sam had no idea how they were supposed to get into SHIELD when they were wanted people, even having Sitwell might not be enough. Steve wasn't too worried about that part, he knew he could count on Sharon and Mac to help when the time came. They never saw the attack coming.

Sitwell's loss wouldn't have been that much of a loss, in the grand scheme of things. They still weren't ready for what followed, though.

A group of men that were quite probably mercenaries, lead by none other than the Winter Soldier was soon upon them. The trio was forced to split, running for their lives while at the same time trying to fight back, and keep civilians out of the way... certainly not the easiest thing any of them had ever done.

Steve managed to stop the Winter Soldier from killing Natasha (who was already dealing with a bullet to her shoulder), and then they were involved in a vicious hand-to-hand fight (with guns, knives and the shield thrown in for good measure every so often). The army might have taught Steve to fight, but it was Bucky who'd taught him to win, to take advantage of anything and everything, and fight dirty if it was necessary; it was probably the only reason Steve managed to hang on as long as he did.

It seemed like he was about to lose, as the Winter Soldier held him by the neck, and then a shot rang. The bullet hit the edge of a metal shoulder, which pretty much meant it didn't do much. Though what it did do, was call the Soldier's attention, enough he chose to drop Captain America, rather than snap his neck. And then all eyes turned to the newcomer:

The woman was tall, taller than the average, though not quite as tall as the Captain and the Soldier. She had lightly tanned skin, raven-black hair pulled back in a messy twist (in such a way it was impossible to tell just how long her hair was), and was wearing a white sleeveless muscle-top, dark jeans, black combat boots, and a half-unzipped leather jacket that looked like it had seen better times. Dark glasses hid her eyes (which the others would eventually learn were hazel), and she was holding a handgun, which she promptly dropped without a care, before pulling a pair of stiletto daggers from holsters on her thighs and throwing herself at the Winter Soldier.

"Who the hell is that?" Sam asked, as he joined the other two.

"I have no idea." Steve answered honestly.

"She seems familiar somehow." Natasha murmured, almost without noticing.

"Is she... is she actually talking to the guy?!" Sam exclaimed, as he noticed that very thing.

The other two turned their attention to the fighting pair, trying to make out what was being said.

"Yasha!" The woman was yelling at him, in Russian and with a rather heavy accent. "By the Valkyrie you either wake up or I'm going to wake you up! And you won't like my methods!"

"She knows him..." Steve realized.

"It would seem so." Sam nodded.

Neither of them seemed to notice the way Natasha's eyes had widened, or how a hand went almost unwillingly to the back of her left ear, to the scar there, as broken memories rushed through her mind, making her almost nauseous.

"Incoming!" Sam called sharply, as he saw the black vans heading their way.

He had no idea who might be on them, but considering everything already going on he had a feeling they wouldn't be on their side.

The dark-haired woman seemed to hear him too, as she suddenly began moving faster, hitting harder, eventually one such hit was strong enough to render her opponent unconscious. The surprise though, was when, instead of finishing the Soldier off, she stepped back and put away her dagger (one, as the other had been broken during the fight, the pieces lost). Sam reacted instantly, raising the gun he still had in hand, ready to shoot.

"Don't even think about it." The woman hissed sharply.

It was then, as she turned around, and her hazel eyes bore into all three of them (her sunglasses having been lost during the fight too), that Steve recognized her:

"Sia?!" He exclaimed, shocked.

"Hey Steve, long time no see..." She greeted him in a drawl, before turning piercing eyes to Sam, still with the gun ready. "You so much as think about pulling that trigger and I will make you regret it." Her eyes moved on then, only to stop altogether as they met the green ones of the red-haired Black Widow. "Hello, бабочка..."

Neither of the men knew what had just been said, exactly, though Steve did know the language was Russian; the way Natasha's eyes widened abruptly, and she stopped breathing told them that not only she understood, but it had been enough to shock her.

"What did you just say?" Sam demanded, hands still tight on the gun.

"Look, I know we all need to sit down and have a long chat, but if we could do it elsewhere, and get away before more Hydra goons were here, that would be preferable." Sia deadpanned, eyes on Steve. "The time to fight back is coming, but not yet, and not here."

"She's right." Steve nodded. "We need to get out of here while we can."

"What about him?" Sam signaled to the Soldier.

"He's coming with us." The dark-haired woman replied, in a tone that allowed for no reply. "There's no way I'm losing him, not again..."

xXx

It wasn't as easy, getting away, when they had STRIKE on their tail; and yet at the same time, it wasn't as hard as it could have been. As it would have been if they hadn't had Hakon running interference with STRIKE or Maria Hill to pick them up. She too was more than a little shocked by the figure Sia had slung almost carelessly over her shoulder, but didn't say a word.

They eventually made a stop, underneath a bridge, on the edge of DC, and that was when things truly got interesting.

"Who are you?" She asked Sia, first of all.

"I've had many names." The woman answered cryptically. "Some time ago, during the war, people knew me as Agent Sia Serrure... they also knew me as Valkyrie..."

There was no reaction coming from Maria, which seemed to surprise not only her, but Steve too, and even Natasha (though she mostly still looked dazed).

"Really?" Sia snapped. "I know history forgot me, we all agreed it was necessary... but I at least expected SHIELD to have a better memory."

"I don't understand." Hill admitted, and it obviously cost her.

"She was there with us, in the war." Steve explained quietly. "She fought with me, with the Commandos. She was even there in Assano... one of the prisoners we rescued gave her the name of Valkyrie. The Captain's Shadow, others called her..."

"The Captain's Shadow?!" Maria exclaimed. "But I thought that was a legend..."

"We knew it would happen, it was a necessary evil." Sia shrugged. "Though I have to admit I expected at least a few people to remember me..."

"And how does he fit in all this, exactly?" Sam asked, pointing at the unconscious soldier.

"He's the Winter Soldier..." Somehow Hill hadn't realized that until then, and when she did she immediately pulled her gun.

Sia's reaction was immediate and vicious, as she took the gun out of Maria's hand, twisting her wrist (and almost spraining it) in the process; Sam could only be thankful he'd put his own gun down. The woman was violent.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Hill demanded.

"It's taken me over fifty years to get this man out of Hydra's clutches, this is the closest I've been to getting him back since I knew for sure it was him... and you won't be ruining that." Sia's voice was a near snarl as she said those words.

"Out of their clutches?" Sam seemed to be the first to pick up on that part.

"He's been programmed, isn't he?" Natasha finally spoke, and there was a softness there that no one had ever seen before. "Like us..."

All eyes snapped to her instantly.

"Mistress Taisia..." The redhead whispered in a heavy Russian accent.

"I wondered if you'd remember me, little butterfly." Sia nodded softly at her. "When I visited you in that hospital you didn't know me..."

"Just what the hell are you talking about?" Hill and Sam demanded at the same time.

"He's Yasha, isn't he?" Natasha asked, signaling to the Soldier.

Sia just nodded.

"Everything I have, everything I am, I owe it to you..." Natasha whispered softly, two fingers tracing the golden arrow pendant around her neck. "I will help you in any way I can."

"How do you even know each other?" Hill insisted, quickly running out of patience.

"The Red Room." The Black Widow finally revealed. "It's where I became what I am... they were the ones who trained me." She revised. "Well, there were others, of course. But they were the ones who really counted. Yasha and Mistress Taisia, the Winter Soldier and the Valkyrie..."

"You were in the Red Room?!" Hill focused on Sia, shocked.

"I lost him, once." Sia explained quietly, signaling to the still unconscious man. "Then I found him again, in 1963... he'd just shot the bullet that killed Kennedy, and the Secret Service were so busy ganging up on Magneto they didn't see him... but I did. Went after him... Got fairly close in 69, found him in Spain, but he was gone the next day, before I could truly get in contact. After that it took me decades to get that close again. I finally found him in 1995, in Johannesburg, working for the Red Room... I convinced them I could be useful, that I could help train their girls. And so they allowed me to stay."

"You stayed with those criminals, in a place like the Red Room, because of a man?" Hill couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"He's my match." Sia announced, as if that explained everything.

"Bucky...?!" No one was expecting it, when the breathless word came from Steve's lips.

Sia's eyes softened as she turned them on him.

"It is him." She nodded, stopping the blonde before he could touch the other man. "We cannot wake him up, not yet. There's things we need to do. To make sure it's James that wakes up, and not the Soldier. Don't worry, I can do it. I've been preparing for this for a very long time..."

Indeed she had, fifty-three years in fact.

The story came out slowly and with some obvious effort: the story of the woman who'd fought side by side with Captain America and his Howling Commandos during the war. Who'd lost her lover to an icy mountain, and then found him again in a most unexpected manner, in the middle of yet another mess; who tracked him across the world for more than half a century, who put everything on the line: her life, her mind, her heart, her very soul... to get back the man she knew was meant to be hers, as much as she was his.

Eventually Hill made up her mind and guided them all to some forgotten base in the middle of nowhere. A doctor was there to see to Natasha, though Sam had already handled first aid. Then they came face to face with none other than Nick Fury...

"Cannot say that I'm surprised." Sia said simply before ignoring the whole thing and taking herself and her 'cargo' to another room.

Steve and Natasha eventually joined her. By then she'd already taken the heavy armor off the Soldier, disconnected the metal arm (she'd learned how to do that while in the Red Room), and was tying him to the cot with asgardian chains.

"Is all this necessary?" Steve asked softly, worried.

"While I trust my method will work, I have no way of knowing how he'll react initially to it." She admitted quietly. "I wasn't there when they first programmed him, but I happened to be around during several of his 'treatments'." She cringed, even as her fists tightened convulsively with the desire to bash in a few skulls. "It wasn't good."

"What exactly are you going to do?" Natasha asked.

"I'll use this." Sia announced as she pulled at the long chain around her neck.

At the end of it hung a heavy medallion, it looked like some dark gold piece, mostly round, though with a decoration like the flames of a sun, the middle mixed shades of gold, and had what looked like an eye engraved...

"What is that?" Natasha insisted.

"A relic." Sia answered somewhat cryptically. "A magical artifact of some power, which once belonged to a powerful order." She made a pause before elaborating. "I saved a person's life some time ago, and that person insisted on paying me back. Ever since that mission on the mountains, when James was lost to us, to me, all I've wanted was to have him back. I was told this relic would grant me my wish. I thought it was all just a joke, nothing can bring back the dead, not really. Even reincarnation is not a sure bet, unless you are bound to that person... and being bound has its own set of problems..." She shook her head. "Then I happened to be in Dallas when the president was assassinated... and I saw him. I wasn't sure at first, even when I followed him for years, I didn't get a definite confirmation until 69, when I got close enough to see him directly, while in Spain. Then I knew it was him, and I also knew I'd do anything that was needed to save him. Anything at all..."

"Including infiltrating a criminal organization like the Red Room and helping him train a new generation of assassins, the Black Widows, like me..." Natasha finished for her, then gasped as she seemed to suddenly realize something. "It was my fault, wasn't it? You were going to get him out, after that last mission with Ronin in Siberia... You were going to get him out of there and yet... and yet instead..."

"It was our choice, and not your fault." Sia corrected her.

"But that's what happened, isn't it?" Natasha insisted. "You were going to get him out, and instead you got me out... and in doing so you lost him."

"James loved you, he still will, once we get him back." Sia stated. "We both saw a part of each of us in you... we loved you like a little sister... or a daughter. We could have never left you there. No way. And we knew that once we got you out, that would be it. It was James's choice to go back. The Red Room would accept the loss of a Widow, you were so young still, they'd believe the mission had been too much; and they never truly bought that I was loyal to them... but if James had tried to run too... They'd have never allowed that. So, in the end he did sacrifice his chance at freedom for us. However, it was always the plan to get back to him, get him out. It's taken longer than I ever expected it to, but Hydra has hardly let him out since that day... the moment my contacts informed me he'd been seen in Washington I rushed here. I knew this would probably be my last chance to get him."

Steve could hardly believe what he'd heard, and he knew there was a lot more he wasn't being told. So many years, and his friends had gone through so much. He'd thought he'd the worst luck, losing so many years, so much of his life, trapped inside the ice in the Arctic and yet... maybe he'd been the lucky one, he'd no idea how his best friends had managed to survive everything they'd gone through, and what was yet to come...

xXx

Neither Nick Fury, nor Maria Hill, nor even Sam Wilson said a word when the four people stepped into the room. Two men and two women, each completely different from the others, and three of them didn't quite belong to their time; or perhaps it'd rather be said they weren't limited by one time... Maria couldn't help but trace the image in her tablet, a photo that included Captain America and his Howling Commandos, as well as Agent Carter, Howard Stark, and four other people Maria was still trying to wrap his head around: it wasn't even Sia Serrure, or not just her (though that one was mind-boggling enough), but the other three... In his own tablet Fury had one photograph he'd copied from Stark's own computers, the Avengers and families in that huge party Stark had insisted on throwing, before the Asgardians left, in 2014; three people were there, looking almost exactly the same as they did in the black & white picture from 1944... How could Loki, his Nightingale and their son possibly have been in both places?

"The Winter Soldier I presume?" Fury called, eyes fixed straight on the man he trusted least.

He completely ignored the nonverbal snarl that crossed Sia's lips and even the dark look coming from Steve; though Maria couldn't help but flinch at both, while both Sam and Natasha were left shaking their heads at the stupidity of some people.

"I rather prefer James." The man in question replied evenly.

"Not Bucky?" Sam inquired, curious.

"I don't feel like Bucky." The Soldier admitted. "Aside from the time spent with Stevie I haven't felt like Bucky since that bastard Zola first got to me." He shook his head. "The Winter Soldier is what Hydra made me, not what I am, or who I'd have ever chosen to be. James... James I can be."

"Want to explain this?" He asked to Sia next, turning both tablets to them.

Sia... Sif, looked at both pictures and just shrugged. It was quite obvious that the Director had already drawn at least a few conclusions, and it wasn't really her business.

"They're in London." James blurted out unexpectedly.

"Huh?" They all turned his way in confusion.

"Sorry." James shrugged slightly. "I just remembered seeing them, well, Arianna at least. She was in Magnussen's tower..."

"Magnussen's Tower?" Sam repeated. "Wait, isn't that media magnate who was...?" He broke off as he realized the obvious. "You killed Charles Magnussen?!"

"On Hydra's orders." James wouldn't sugarcoat things, but he refused to take responsibility for the things Hydra made him do. "I've killed a great many people on Hydra's orders..." He shook his head. "Magnussen wasn't a good man. He was actually one of them."

"Why order you to kill him then?" Hill demanded, not sure she believed it all.

"Because he wanted more than was his due, and he acted without waiting for orders." James told them honestly. "Arianna was in his office that day. She was probably to be another of his victims. He had a thing for blackmail..."

"Well, as interesting as all this is, Magnussen is not our problem." Natasha reminded them all. "Hydra is. And that's one problem we better deal with, now."

"See, it's stuff like this that gives me trust issues." Fury said coldly. "We have a bunch of people who've apparently been involved in key events of our history, with us humans never knowing they were more. A man who's supposed to be a dead hero and at the same time a myth and the biggest assassin in history, an organization that is supposed to be devoted to protecting our world and instead appears to have been working against it from the very beginning... and lets not forget the man who declined the Nobel Peace Prize. Who said peace wasn't an achievement but a responsibility... that's the man I gave my respect, my loyalty to, over the last twenty years; a man I believed was worth all that..."

He broke off then, but no one was paying that much attention to him. And even if they had, no one could possibly have imagined what he was thinking about right then: the chestnut haired, sea-blue eyed woman he'd given up, believing his duty to the world, to SHIELD, to be the most important. He'd chosen duty, she'd chosen family, and just like that, any potential they might have had for something was lost. And for the longest time he'd believed he'd been in the right, that it had been worth it, SHIELD was worth it... with everything going on he wasn't so sure anymore.

"We have to stop the launch." Natasha announced, nudging everyone back to what was supposed to be the important topic of conversation.

"I don't think the Council's accepting my calls anymore." Fury said in a drawl before opening a case holding three chips and showing them to the rest of those present.

"What's that?" Sam asked the question he was sure must be in everyone's minds.

"Once the Helicarriers reach three thousand feet, they'll triangulate with Insight satellites becoming fully weaponized." Maria Hill elaborated.

"We need to breach those carriers and replace their targeting blades with our own." Fury added.

"One or two won't cut it." Hill added. "We need to link all three carriers for this to work, because if even one of those ships remains operational a whole lot of people are gonna die."

Like they needed the reminder...

"We have to assume everyone on those carriers is HYDRA." Sia stated, coldly but not unkindly. "Even if they aren't, that's no guarantee they will believe us, take our side once the fight begins."

"Some people will." Steve stated confident.

"And many will die because of that." James said grimly. "I'm not saying this to make any of you change your minds. This is the right thing to do; what's more, it's what needs to be done... you all just need to be aware of the can of worms we'll be opening here."

Everyone nodded, they understood why James thought it was important to mention it. And that was just taking the Triskellion in consideration, once the ripples began... the whole world might end up at war all over again... Steve really, truly hoped Hakon was right, that there were people ready to take on the challenge, to bring down Hydra once and for all. He'd failed once already, he wouldn't be able to handle failing again...

"Yes, yes, so to summarize." Fury intervened. "We need to get past them, insert the server blades, and maybe, just maybe, we can salvage what's left..."

"We're not salvaging anything." Steve cut him off. "We're not just taking down the carriers, Nick, we're taking down SHIELD."

"SHIELD had nothing to do with it." Nick seemed to almost be pouting as he said that!

"You gave me this mission, this is how it ends." Steve declared, in a tone that allowed for no reply. "SHIELD's been compromised, you've said so yourself. HYDRA was right under your nose and you did nothing, didn't even notice..."

"Why do you think we're meeting in this cave?" Fury retorted. "I noticed."

"And how many paid the price before you did?" Steve pressed on.

"Look, I didn't know about Barnes." Fury tried.

"Maybe you didn't, though even then I have no doubt you would have compartmentalized that too." Steve retorted evenly. "It doesn't change anything. It's all rotten to the core. SHIELD, HYDRA, it all goes."

"He's right." It was obvious how much it pained Maria to say it, but she still did.

"Don't look at me." Sam spoke up when Fury did exactly that. "I do what he does, just slower."

"Well... Looks like you're giving the orders now, Captain." Fury drawled.

"Didn't you know? He's been doing that since the forties." James deadpanned, then chuckled.

"He's just a bit slow on the uptake." Sia said in something of a conspiratorial tone.

Fury just rolled his eyes, and Hill decided to move the conversation forward.

"How are we even going to get in?" She asked. "Fury is supposed to be dead, Natasha and the Captain are fugitives, and they most likely know about the rest of you by now."

"We have people inside, they'll get us in." Steve said, confidently.

"What?!" No one had seen that coming.

"You may not have noticed you had snakes in your backyard until the last few weeks, Nick, but that doesn't mean others were so blind." Steve pointed out.

"Then why has nothing been done?" Maria demanded.

"Because you're not seeing the big picture." It was Sia who answered. "Tell me, you're so ready to implement your part and stop those helicarriers, you probably even have something in mind to deal with Pierce and the others at the Triskellion... what about the rest of the world?"

No one seemed to know how to answer that.

"Hydra isn't just here in Washington." Sia insisted. "Or even just SHIELD in general. It's infiltrated more than half of the agencies and governments in the world. And once things blow here, it'll cause a ripple. Have you thought what you'll do about that?"

She didn't need an answer, it was obvious enough.

"Some people have known about Hydra, have known it was coming, since the mid nineties." Steve admitted. "They didn't do anything at the time, because they weren't ready. But plans have been made, alliances forged. I suppose our own actions here in DC will be the signal for everyone else to act. To fight."

Fury opened his mouth a few times, only to close it again. It was quite evident he'd no idea what to say to all that. Steve was obviously right that he hadn't planned that far. He wasn't sure he trusted whoever else had known about Hydra and been planning since, alliances with people he'd never met... but considering he himself hadn't sought any help at all, until he'd phoned Maria and told her to get to DC covertly; and even that was but seconds before he was almost killed. He wasn't the kind to trust people he did not know, but maybe he didn't have to. It wasn't his show anymore, after all, it was the Captain's... A part of Nick did wonder if trusting others would have made things better, or worse... he'd never know.

"There's one thing neither of you have taken into consideration." James said unexpectedly, so serious no one dared interrupt. "You have a plan for getting into that building, perhaps even into that bastard's Pierce's office, but have you considered who exactly you're going against? And I don't mean Hydra as a whole, Pierce, or his goons..." He broke off, seemingly having trouble finding the right words to explain himself. "There are others... they are worse... they are like me and..."

"You think they would wake them?" Sia asked, eyes wide, the only one apparently able to understand the half-broken sentences.

"They already woke one, Tatia, sent her after Stark, Anthony Stark... she didn't come back. They were furious about that." James admitted grimly. "It was then that they changed my orders from stopping Cap to eliminating him..." He grimaced at his own words. "When they realize they've lost me... I wouldn't be surprised if we had all of them standing between us and those carriers..."

"Just what the hell are you talking about now?" Sam demanded, he hated being at a loss, especially with how serious everything was. "What could they possibly have? I mean, you're the freaking Winter Soldier..."

"No..." James began.

"No?" Hill interrupted. "Is this really the time for denial? You cannot say now you're not the Winter Soldier! We've seen..."

"I'm not saying that!" James cut her off abruptly. "I said I'm not THE Winter Soldier..."

No one could miss the emphasis he put in one of the words.

"What the...?" Even Fury hadn't seen that one coming. "Just how many are there?"

"Five." James answered honestly. "Well, there used to be five. With Tatia dead that leaves just four, besides me that is: Josef, Vladimir, Ezra and Klaus."

"You know them all by name?" Hill couldn't quite wrap her head around it all.

"I know each and every one of them." James said honestly. "We trained together for years. The most elite death squad. More kills than anyone else in history, and that was before the serum..."

"Serum...?" Someone repeated, dismayed.

Really things just seemed to keep getting worse and worse...

"The one Zola used on me couldn't be replicated, not really, but Howard did something." James admitted. "I don't know how, or why. They had me steal it from him, and it was used on them. It enhanced them, but also made them unstable, more so than me even, and I was bad enough, fighting the programming and refusing to fully forget my past and the people I loved. It was then that they decided to freeze us all, and keep us like that until we were needed for a mission."

"You killed Howard Stark." Even Nick wouldn't be sure exactly why he fixed on that, but he did.

"Yes." James admitted, and the grief in that single word was quite obvious. "I tried not to, I fought like hell not to... but in the end all I could do was try and make it quick."

For a moment it looked like someone, possibly Nick, most likely Maria, was going to question exactly why that had been allowed to happen; why, if Sia had spent years tracking him, she hadn't done something about it; thankfully that part of the conversation never got a chance to happen.

"Guys, as interesting as this conversation might be to some, I really don't think now's the best time for it." Sam interrupted. "Shouldn't we be dealing with Hydra first?"

"Indeed." Everyone agreed.

Plans needed to be made, they'd only be getting one shot at it, they couldn't miss.

xXx

The following day was one that would go down in history, one that no one in the whole world would ever forget. It started with Sharon supervising the techs running through the protocols that would allow Project Insight to be activated (and reminding herself why pulling out her gun and shooting at all the computers wasn't a good strategy for keeping those things on the ground). Before the end of the day she'd end up witnessing one of the most amazing and unexpected displays of bravery she could have ever imagined.

Mac did his best to delay his team at every turn. He knew that when the time came he'd have to take them down, hard and fast. Not all of them were really evil, but he couldn't take risks, not with the situation being as complicated as it was already.

Natasha took the Councilwoman's place as a way to get close to Pierce, and access his private servers. The original plan was for her to dump everything into the web once she'd gotten past the firewalls. Their way of burning down Hydra and SHIELD both. That was until Sia pointed out how monumentally stupid that was, not just for them, and that was bad enough: how were any of them supposed to have any sort of personal life if everything they'd ever done became public knowledge? and their personal information too! And what about all their various contacts, their informants, allies, what of the agents working deep undercover? Yes, it was really a good thing that Sia had stopped them from that course of action.

The changed plan instead was to burn it all, delete everything, and while that would probably make it harder for them to prove some of the things Hydra had done, it was still better than the alternative (and Natasha had placed a call to Agent Shadow, who would be working with them, from a distance, to try and get whatever files might be useful against Hydra).

Maria Hill was left running comms and keeping an eye on things from the security area of the Triskellion, while Sia, James, Steve and Sam were tasked with getting the chips into the helicarriers, before they were fully online.

And so the time came, and it all began, with a speech from the one and only Steve Rogers, the Captain America, ringing through the speakers, to be heard by everyone in the Triskellion (and, unknown to them, by many others around the world...).

"Attention, all SHIELD agents. This is Steve Rogers. You've heard a lot about me over the last few days, some of you were even ordered to hunt me down. But I think it's time you know the truth. SHIELD is not what we thought it was, it's been taken over by HYDRA. Alexander Pierce is their leader. The STRIKE and Insight crew are HYDRA as well. I don't know how many more, but I know they're in the building. They could be standing right next to you. They almost have what they want: absolute control. They shot Nick Fury and it won't end there. If you launch those Helicarriers today, HYDRA will be able to kill anyone that stands in their way, unless we stop them. I know I'm asking a lot, but the price of freedom is high, it always has been, and it's a price I'm willing to pay. And if I'm the only one, then so be it. But I'm willing to bet I'm not."

All hell let loose.

Sharon cursed loudly, her old British accent slipping through without her noticing when Rumlow managed to get the drop on her. At least she managed to save the poor brave techie who'd refused to initiate the launch sequence (nevermind that Rumlow had done it himself after shooting around and scaring everyone... they were techies and low-level agents, mostly newbies, and the whole thing was already quite stressful, of course they were scared). Sharon just stopped long enough to make sure everyone was alright, checked her gun was in working order, and then ran after the leader of the STRIKE team (being careful not to move too fast... though she supposed everyone around was shocked enough they probably wouldn't notice).

Mac took advantage of the momentary shock from everyone in STRIKE to go into action and began taking them down. He made sure to use just enough force that they wouldn't be moving any time soon, but not so much as to kill them. Some loses couldn't be helped, particularly when the others began shooting themselves, he was too fast for them to be able to hit him, thankfully. Some managed to get past him and, according to Maria, to the top floor with Pierce and the Council; Mac didn't worry about that, Natasha could handle them just fine. So instead he focused on those he knew had to be Hydra (like the Insight crews); when they wouldn't cooperate the man simply knocked them all out too and then tapped into his ice to destroy the machinery.

"Ok, so what do you prefer first, the good news or the bad news?" Mac asked into the comm.

Since he'd been the one to let the others into the Triskellion, one had been passed to him, though he was perfectly aware that only Steve, Sharon and Sia really knew and trusted him.

"Who are you again?" Maria asked over the comes.

"Mac Grayson, and this really isn't the time." He said stiffly. "STRIKE has been neutralized, same with most of the Insight crew... couldn't get them to stop the launch though, which means the helicarriers are still rising and they're still going to kill a fuck-ton of people unless you all do something to stop them."

"On it!" Steve and James called at the same time.

"We're having some foreseen complications." Sam added.

He was talking of the Winter Soldiers, of course. Those were no easy fights, still, they were all strong, and they knew what was at stake, should they lose... they wouldn't allow that.

It took little time for Sharon to catch up to Rumlow, he was obviously trying to get to Pierce, but what looked like the remains of a fight blocked completely one flight of stairs, which had made it necessary for him to go through that floor, looking for another way up. It was the 41st floor. She took the opportunity to catch up to him, then timed things just right and kicked a chair across the floor and to his feet, causing him to trip.

"What the...?!" He turned towards her, obviously surprised by her. "13?!"

She smiled almost wolfishly at him, taking a stance. Sharon knew he hadn't heard her coming, it was something Sia had taught her during the war, to be completely silent, neither her feet nor clothes made even the slightest whisper of sound. She'd practiced the ability until it became instinctive for her to move like that. He obviously wasn't expecting it, or her, at all.

Rumlow tried to shoot her a few times, but soon 13 was too close for that to be feasible. The two fought hand-to-hand for several minutes, with her mostly dodging, until she realized she couldn't continue like that, it'd never end then. So she waited for him to throw the next punch, and instead of moving back, she moved in, she took the punch, straight into her left flank. And while it was hard enough to make her flinch and leave her a bit breathless, that was it.

Rumlow was deeply shocked when his strongest punch didn't even make Carter stagger. It also made his hand hurt, as if he'd just hit a wall or... or as if he'd just hit Rogers...

Sharon didn't give the man time to connect the dots, her actions had allowed her to get close enough to punch Rumlow straight in the face, shattering his nose and quite probably one of his cheekbones too. He dropped to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.

Just in time too, Sharon did not have a comm., but she didn't need one to realize something was most definitely off. She could see the helicarriers shooting one another out of the sky, and one of them was going straight for the Triskellion...

Sharon didn't even need to think about it, she rushed to the nearest wall, where she pulled down the fire alarm. Hopefully most of the civilians would have thought to get out of the building when all the fighting began. Having done that, and understanding she would never make it down the stairs in time she ran to the nearest window, shooting the glass down before jumping straight out. Shifting her body into a dive and landing straight in the river, only belatedly remembering how much she did not like being underwater.

Peggy had slept for a very long time, years and years, as a consequence of her soul-bond with her match, her Captain, her Steve... she did not regret it. She could never regret getting the chance of being there, of having him with her, the both of them together, like she always wanted... Most of the time she slept had passed without mayor consequence, she didn't remember it passing at all. Didn't think she'd even dreamt at all then. However, during the time she'd been mostly awake, since 2011, and back between the eighties and nineties, she'd had dreams.

Most of the time they were simple, boring, at times even nonsensical things, influenced by her latest mission, or whatever else might be going on in her life. However, on the days when nothing interesting happened, when she had too much free time in her hands, and the memory of her love, still lost in the Arctic, threatened to overwhelm her... it was different then. It was almost always the same dream, feeling tired, sluggish, cold, water surrounding her, burying her in a liquid tomb than turned solid ever so slowly. She didn't die, and yet it didn't feel like she was really alive anymore either... She was quite sure that was how Steve had frozen; though he'd told her he didn't actually remember himself, all he remembered was the crash itself, and losing consciousness. She didn't know if she somehow had the memory, or if it was something her mind had conjured up, still, it was enough to make her hate large bodies of water.

She could take a bath just fine, as long as she didn't submerge completely, and the beach was still a place she liked to go; but she refused to go into pools, or anywhere else where she couldn't be sure beyond any doubt that the water wouldn't cover her completely...

Sam, who was using the code-name Falcon, was just outside the Triskellion, ushering the people running out, and covering them from any possible attacks. He was grounded after losing his wings in a fight against one of the Soldiers... at least he'd managed to take the bastard down at the same time, and his opponent hadn't had an emergency parachute... He could only hope the other three would succeed with the chips...

Minutes later, seeing all guns on the flying machines pointing at one another told Sam they had, indeed, succeeded... or at least he wanted to believe that was a sign they'd succeeded, any other possibility simply wasn't worth mentioning... nor the fact that he hadn't the slightest idea where Steve and the other two were, exactly...

A gasp from one of the civilians called Sam's attention in the direction of a figure falling from high on the building... or no, not falling, the figure was diving.

"Guys!" He called straight into his comm. "We have someone diving off the freaking building and about to go straight into the river..."

He broke off as he heard Steve's strangled cry... and he wasn't sure but he could have sworn he was calling a woman's name but... wasn't Peggy Carter like eighty-something years old and in an Institution in the UK or something?

At the same time, on a chopper that had served as emergency transport to all three enhanced who'd just managed to take down the 'helicarriers of doom' as Hawkeye had dubbed them (that the archer couldn't be there to help them didn't mean he wasn't aware of what was going on... it really wasn't his fault that he was on a mission at the time it all went to hell), Steve pushed off the arms trying to calm him down; really, they should have realized that the moment he saw his beloved diving off a freaking building all bets were off. He didn't even try to explain, just pushed himself off the seat and jumped off the helicopter and straight into the river. Ignoring all the voices calling for him, nothing except Peggy mattered...

A shiver ran down the super soldier's spine as his body hit the frigid water. It might be May, and the weather might even be nice, but the river was still cold... he also believed that it was probably less the actual temperature of the water, and more his past experiences making him feel that way. He'd never told anyone: not any of his SHIELD therapists (which was probably good, all things considered), not the Avengers, not even Peggy (which probably wasn't too good), but while he didn't consciously remember anything after crashing the plane, his body did remember the cold, remembered the heaviness in his limbs, the cold creeping through his skin, past his muscles and into his very bones, remembered feeling like he was trapped and might never get out...

Steve didn't realize it, but his own feelings were being compounded by his beloved's memories of her own nightmares, which made things all the harder. And yet he never gave up, he wouldn't, he couldn't. They'd already managed so much, gotten so far... he wouldn't give up. Not then, and not ever, especially not when it was about Peggy, his dame, his Agent, the love of his life, his wife... he so couldn't wait to make that official!

Natasha, Sia and James soon joined Sam and Mac on the riverbank; Nick and Maria had already left (he was supposed to be dead, and she wasn't supposed to be in DC at all), neither of them truly breathed until they saw the two blondes emerge from the river, they were breathing hard, and were obviously injured (Steve more so than Peggy), but they were out, they'd made it, they'd all survived; and more importantly: they'd won.

"So," Sam called, looking at the destruction all around him. "Now what?"

Now what indeed... neither of them had the slightest idea.

xXx Nightingale's POV xXx

The events in DC were all over the news by the night (our time). A lot of people had heard the Captain's message, someone had even recorded it and they played it over in one of the shows that evening, before showing footage of the shooting that claimed the life of Director Nick Fury (they were still claiming that, and I still didn't believe it), the car-chase and shooting through DC the following day, and finally what had happened in the Triskellion just hours earlier. A lot of people were being called in for questioning, including Councilwoman Pamela Hawley (Mycroft seemed to know her, and he clearly didn't like her), the Black Widow, Captain America himself, and some high-ranked agents like Deputy Director Maria Hill (who was said not to have been directly involved with anything, but she's still the second in command of an organization that had just been revealed to have been infiltrated by Hydra), Sharon Carter, Macbeth Grayson (I did a double take, at seeing my son on the TV screen) and some ex-military by the name of Samuel Wilson.

It was until the next morning that the shit really hit the fan, as it was revealed that more than just SHIELD had been infiltrated by Hydra. Fights and outright battles were breaking out all over the world, and the news could barely keep up; it still took them almost half a day to connect all that was going on to what had already gone down in DC, and to realize that it's no coincidence.

Gifted were coming out everywhere and not only that, but they were showing themselves as Warriors, as Protectors. Mutants, metas, shapeshifters, sorcerers, priestesses, and many other groups with names no one outside of their own communities had ever known. In 2011 humanity learned they (we) weren't alone in the universe; and after five more years they had come to learn that they weren't alone, not even in their own world. There's a lot more going on than any one person ever knew, or could have imagined.

It was amazing, because the inhabitants of most realms still saw midgardians as little more than children... they had no idea just how fast those children were growing...

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

Seven days after the attack on Nick Fury (which was seen as the start of the chain of events), and less than twenty-four hours after the end of the last battle, in Mexico (between a Hydra cell and a group of young gifted, five couples, all with powers related to nature and wearing tunics in styles that preceded the arrival of Europeans to the continent), a committee was formed in Capitol Hill, to evaluate the actions taken by some people (at least those they had access to).

No one in that Committee was expecting it when they saw the group formed by Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, Sam Wilson, and the two other super-humans that had participated in the battle, being lead by an unassuming man who looked to be in his mid-twenties with shaggy obsidian black hair, light-blue eyes and dressed in a dark-blue suit with an ice-blue button up and a charcoal-colored tie.

"Who are you?" One of the Senators in the Committee demanded.

"Agent Macbeth Grayson." He announced. "I'm also a lawyer and I'm here on behalf of my friends..."

The Committee really didn't know what hit them. They couldn't get away with anything, Mac wouldn't allow it. He knew all the tricks, seemed to be an expert at verbal battles, and appeared to have a lot of experience for someone who'd supposedly never practiced law before.

Perhaps the only one having any fun in the Committee was the Senator for Kansas: Johnathan Kent, since one of the biggest battles in the country had taken place in his state he was chosen to be part of it. Of course, when that decision was made most of the people heading the group hadn't been expecting him to actually be on the side of the gifted (normal considering no one outside his little hometown had the slightest idea of what went on in there...).

Things went well on the Committee (at least for Mac and his friends). Some of the people trying to formally indict them of anything were obviously frustrated, but there was nothing they could do. The few times Mac hesitated, there were others ready to lend a hand, like Nina Eisenhardt-Reynolds, known popularly as the 'mutant lawyer' (and a descendant of Erik Lehnsherr, who was a scandal in and of himself); and Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer of Hell's Kitchen.

It got especially interesting the third day of the proceedings, when Mac presented a series of photos, audio-recordings and other such files that not only freed his friends from any guilt and/or responsibility concerning Hydra, but also proved the guilt of none other than Senator Stern, the head of the Committee himself...

Another highlight was when, near the end of the 4th day, when things were getting pretty intense, with people wanting the (last) Winter Soldier to pay for the assassinations he (and the others) had been responsible for over the last decades, others intervened:

"Should I remind this Committee of what happened the last time people were so quick to judge someone for Kennedy's assassination?" Nina asked in a tone that mixed fury and contempt. "My grandfather was put in a concrete box for almost a decade over a crime he did not commit. And if that weren't enough, the government then thought it was a good idea to turn him over to Trask... I don't think anyone in this room needs me to remind them who exactly that was. So, how about we all calm down and consider the facts before you condemn yet another innocent man to hell!"

"Please, the Winter Soldier isn't innocent." Someone scoffed.

"Isn't he?" Nina's smile turned almost feral. "Tell me, Senator Carmichael, is that correct? I seem to remember you served in Irak." The man obviously wasn't expecting that, no one was. "Tell me Senator, how many people do you think you killed in Irak? And I'm not talking only about the enemy combatants, but also the civilians... the 'collateral damage'..." Her usually warm eyes went harder and colder than her grandfather's ever were. "It's true we're not here to judge war crimes, and whatever you might have done in the Middle East. I'm also sure that, even if we were, you'd be quick to remind everyone to you were just a soldier, a subordinate, and you were following orders..." She snorted at her own words. "And if that is an acceptable defense for you, what about the Winter Soldier? He was a soldier, what's more, he was a prisoner, tortured, brainwashed, programmed into going against everything he believed in, and you want to condemn him for the actions others forced him to take or, in the best of cases, actions he was forced to take in self-preservation? James Barnes might not be an innocent man, in the strictest sense of the word, but neither is he the monster you wish to portray him as... then again, none of us in this room are entirely innocent, are we?"

No one seemed to have any words to say. Even those who might have known Nina before that day, they could hardly believe what they were seeing. While she'd always been known for being a strong-willed woman, passionate about the defense of those most saw as less (mostly mutants, as she specialized on them and how the law and authorities treated them most of the time), no one had ever seen her be so hard, like the hardest, least bendable steel. She truly was Magneto's descendant in that moment.

As if that weren't enough, on the last day of the Inquiry, Tony Stark strolled into the room. He dramatically apologized for being late (he'd apparently been summoned to testify against Stern), before reminding everyone he'd always known he was no good, and that he had better things to worry about, like his wife and newborn daughter, and were they aware Hydra sent an assassin after them a few weeks prior? Then, as if his mere entrance hadn't been shocking enough, he went and began a very elaborate speech... in defense of none other than the Winter Soldier...

Hardly anyone could believe what they were seeing. Especially Steve and James themselves, they just kept looking at Tony, and at Pepper, who was standing with a little girl in her arms, who could be no more than a few weeks old, Happy by her side, ready to spring in her defense.

"Mr. Stark." The Committee General said in a very serious voice. "Are you aware that, among the kills the Winter Soldier known as James Barnes is known for, are Howard and Maria Stark?"

Steve flinched, bracing himself for what he knew (or thought he knew) was coming.

"Oh I am aware." Tony nodded calmly (to everyone's surprise). "What? Did you expect me to rant and rave and demand he be given the capital punishment? Should I be charged for the men I killed back in Afghanistan? Men that, I should say, kidnapped and tortured me over the course of three months, and who only refrained from killing me because they wanted me to create weapons for them, better than the ones they'd been able to acquire already through black-market deals? That, at least, was my own choice. I chose to fight back, I chose to kill those people. James Barnes did not choose to kill my parents, or however many other people he might have killed. The fact that he's standing here, today, once again whole is enough of a miracle, don't you think? So why then do you insist on condemning him for something he's not responsible for? What is it you're really trying to achieve here? Making justice for all the lives lost? Or are you just looking for an excuse to go before the cameras and tell the people you're doing something? Get some good publicity for yourself out of this whole mess?"

There was no answer, but then again, he wasn't really expecting one. The Inquiry ended soon after that. Those found to be Hydra would be put to trial, charged and condemned accordingly, those known to be fighting for the good would be free. It was as it was supposed to be.

Tony just smiled, satisfied with himself, as he joined his little family. He knew he'd done good, and that made him happy. He also knew he'd managed to shock a number of people (which made him even happier). There was no need for any of them (no one other than Pepper), to know about the e-mail he'd received three days earlier, full of pictures, and videos, and other files, recording everything Sgt. Barnes had gone through, ending with the events of December, 1991... If he was honest with himself, Tony knew that if he'd just seen the last file, the video about his parents' murder, he'd have probably raved and raged indeed; probably even tried to kill Barnes himself. But after seeing everything else, after learning all the man was put through, the ways he was hurt, tortured... there was no way he could feel anything more than compassion for the man who was used like little more than a tool, a killing machine...

No, there was no need for anyone else to know about those files, he'd already erased them all, same with the e-mail itself, which had included a short message, requesting he keep an open mind, signed by a name that had been pronounced and heard in quite possibly every country in the last week, and in the last few years. A name that had become less a person and more a symbol, and yet he knew it, he knew her, had since he was a child, since his Uncle Charles had introduced him to those he considered his family: his partner, Erik Lehnsherr (known back then as Max Eisenhardt), and Max's own children, the eldest being her, the brown-eyed, auburn-haired lady who some believed to be one of the strongest gifted in the world: the Rose of Chaos...

Chapter Text

Endless Love

Some things do last forever: like Hope, and Faith and... Love...

We never planned to get involved in the abrupt war that had broken out all over the planet. We watched from the distance as Mycroft lead his most trusted people against those who were found to be Hydra inside the British government (as well as MI5, MI6 and Interpol); Sherlock, John and Lestrade dealt with those in NSY. The closest we got to things was when my Maverick secretly stopped an assassination attempt on Mycroft (even he didn't know).

Of course, when we made those plans we never expected to suddenly hear our daughter's voice in our heads, screaming for us...

We didn't even need to think about it, in a second we were holding hands and dropping into the nearest shadow, allowing our magic and our bonds pull us in the direction of our youngest daughter. We found Rose in the States, somewhere in New Mexico.

The moment we stepped out all my senses were on finding Rose, while my love focused on our surroundings. We were in what looked like some kind of factory. There were a number of men who felt 'wrong' around us, signs that a battle had been fought, and a bunch of people we both recognized: Phil and his team, as well as Darcy and a man we hadn't met before.

"Nightingale... Loki..." Phil named us, and I got the sense like he was understanding something, though I'd no idea what, exactly.

"Hello Phil," I acknowledged him with a nod before going to where I sensed the pain.

There was a man, probably in his early thirties, with short, tousled, dark hair and light-brown eyes, he was wearing tactical gear, which meant that he was a field-agent, a Specialist. He also had a gunshot wound in his stomach, which I immediately got working on. With a little magic I extracted the bullet, then focused on healing him. It was a really bad wound, but I didn't let that discourage me, I needed to focus and work fast in order to save his life.

I also vaguely noticed that aside from Rose, there was another young woman kneeling beside him; with average height (for a human), long honey brown hair and dark eyes, she too was wearing a tactical suit, and looked (and felt) incredibly distressed. Rose was doing her best to console the girl, making assurances about my talents, while my love kept watch over us. He said something to the girl at one point, but I wasn't paying attention, all my focus on the man's wound. It took several minutes, several very long minutes, but eventually he was alright. I heard him and the girl beside him talk about what had happened, I also heard when she told him how the danger (someone called Garrett) was gone, that Rose had killed him... I felt for my daughter, not because I thought she'd done wrong, or anything; I understood that sometimes you needed to resort to such things to protect those you care for, and that some people simply don't want to be saved... (especially since the situation with Mary). Still, I felt bad that my daughter, my youngest, needed to do something like that at all. And I knew it wasn't the first time.

"Rose, my little goddess." My match called with a knowing smirk. "Still causing chaos wherever you go, are you?"

"Of course." Rose's smile was bright as she spoke. "It's in my nature after all."

Yes, yes it was, our dear Goddess of Chaos...

"Thank you for saving my life." The agent (Grant Ward) said, sitting up slowly.

"It's our pleasure." I assured him kindly. "Rose called, and we answered..."

Never would we fail to answer when one of our children called.

"We had no healing stones and we needed help fast." Rose explained quietly, looking straight at us. "I knew you would hear me if I called."

"They're your parents..." The girl beside her, Skye, said suddenly, as if just realizing it. "Why didn't you say so before? It's... it's even more awesome!"

"It's not that I was trying to hide it." Our daughter clarified before anyone could think that. "It's just... back when I first joined the X-Men in the early 70s I changed my name, both Willow and I did, in order to protect the rest of our family, keep them safe from any possible enemies of ours. After that it just became natural... I haven't used that name, or introduced myself as their daughter for decades, more than half my life, in fact."

Maverick and I just smiled; we of course understood her reasoning. If we'd been anonymous people it wouldn't have been a problem. But back then I'd still been Howard's little sister... and it's not like a change of name meant she loved us any less.

"Mama, Papa, I'm sure you must know almost everyone here right now." Our girl said. "But there's someone I'd like you to meet again... This is Skye, my daughter."

I smiled. From the first time I'd seen Skye, that day when she said the words that eventually lead me to dealing with the fact that I was the reincarnation of an elven princess, I'd known she was a special girl. Seeing Rose, I could tell how much she loved the young woman. As much as Loki and I'd ever loved Willow, and her, and the rest of our family. The prospect of a granddaughter was odd to me (mostly because I did not age, as such my children would at times look older than me, and so would Skye), but no less welcome.

I opened my mouth to welcome the girl into our family when I noticed something: a chain around her neck, she was playing with it. It was a double necklace with two oval pendants and a small round one... I knew that necklace!

"Daisy?!" I blurted out, not quite able to believe what I was seeing. "It is you! Daisy! Oh Spirits! How are you here? Where are your mom and dad? And you're with SHIELD..."

"Wait, wait a second." Rose interrupted me abruptly. "You know her?"

"Daisy?!" Several others asked at the same time.

"Daisy Johnson." My husband clarified with a short nod. "It is her."

"Are you sure?" Phil inquired, intently.

"Absolutely." My Maverick waved a hand, using his magic to make Skye's necklace move, calling attention to it. "We gave her this."

"What?!" Again, the shock.

"Does that mean you know my parents?" Skye/Daisy asked very, very quietly.

"If we know..." I froze, as I realized what was really going on. "What?! But that... that means... You call yourself Skye, you've no idea who Daisy is, do you?"

"No." The young woman shook her head. "The nuns at St. Agnes called me Mary Sue Poots, I dropped that name as soon as I knew how to do it, and chose the one of Skye."

"St. Agnes...?" I repeated, shocked. "But then... what happened to your parents? What happened to Cal and Jiaying?"

"Cal and Jiaying?" Skye asked, sounding like she was testing the names, the sounds, all of it.

"Calvin and Jiaying Johnson." I elaborated. "Cal was from Wisconsin, I knew him in the mid-80s while I was working on re-earning my credentials as a nurse. In '88 he joined Doctors Without Borders and left for what was supposed to be a summer in China. He called me months later to tell me was going to stay, establish a clinic in a little town in the Hunan Province that had no doctors. He asked me, asked us to join him. It was risky for us to stay in the States, surrounded by people who might come to recognize us in the future, something that would only have confused them, and our younger selves. So we left. Jiaying was Chinese, she assisted Cal until I got there, even after that she helped us, as we didn't know the language; even did her best to teach us. The two of them married before the end of the year. It was obvious how much they loved each other."

"How long did you stay?" Rose asked softly.

"Until the day after you were born." I told Skye kindly. "We'd made plans to leave earlier, but Jiaying didn't want to go to another town to give birth in a hospital, and Cal didn't want to be alone when his wife gave birth. So we stayed longer, I was there when you were born, helped y... Cal bring you into the world."

I was careful not to use words like 'mother' or 'father', that was something for Skye/Daisy to decide, same with her own name.

"We're technically your god-parents." My husband added from behind me. "Jiaying didn't believe in that particular tradition, but Calvin did. He insisted we were his best-friends..."

"We told him it was a bad idea." I admitted, feeling guilty. "We told him we were leaving, but he insisted. Loki created that necklace, the two smaller pendants carry symbols that represent Jiaying and Calvin, their names in an ancient form of Chinese only Jiaying among us all really knew. The other one was supposed to serve as a blessing of sorts."

"We also spelled it." Maverick offered. "Not much, because we didn't have enough of a tie to you, and you aren't a spell-weaver, to be able to support elaborate arrays... but just enough to help you survive, to maybe give you a push in the right direction when necessary. We knew it'd never be a substitute of actual godparents, but we simply couldn't stay..."

Only Phil and Darcy really knew about our time-travel; and there was really no need for the rest of them to know. Still, it didn't keep me from feeling guilty. I had told Cal we'd be no good as Daisy's godparents! We left so soon, we hadn't even known anything had happened! The worst part? We'd been back for years and aside from a brief excursion during the short time we'd spent with Rose in Tibet right after our return, we hadn't really looked for them. Even then, we hadn't found them (hadn't found anything but what some might have called a ghost-town), and we never again tried to track them down, choosing to believe that they'd simply moved out at some point. It was easier for us to believe that than to even consider any possible alternatives. Spirits! What kind of godparents did that make us?!

We talked for a while longer, Loki and I ready to tell her anything she might want to know about her parents and the time we'd known them. When, in turn, we found out what she'd been through since our leaving our horror only grew. I'd never felt such guilt in my life! Mentally I knew my match and I couldn't have stayed, it was simply too risky, we'd taken enough of a risk staying those extra six months... and yet, learning what she'd been forced to go through, because there had been no one there to claim her, to protect her, like all children should be protected, no one to be her parent and love her as such... Perhaps the only comfort was the connection she had with Rose; we could see the bond, in the ways they referred to each other, and their touches. It was obvious they considered each other family. And then Dai... no, not Daisy, Skye said something I never expected her to say, much less feel (though I could sense the sincerity in her every word):

"I don't regret it." She said calmly. "I might have, in the past, when I was young and insecure, and so afraid that no one wanted me, that no one ever would... But if I hadn't gone through all that, I wouldn't be here today; wouldn't be part of this amazing team, this family... I could never regret that. And if going through all that was the price to be here, right now... then I will never regret everything I've lived. It's made me who I am after all..."

Rose embraced the girl then, kissing her forehead and I realized that she was right. We were all what and who our memories, our experiences made us. Not everything in our pasts might be nice, or happy, but all experiences were important; the sadness and the anger just as important as the joy and the peace.

In the end, we were still family, we always would be, and that was all that really mattered.

xXx

It was something of a surprise, when we got that call from Asgard, Odin and Frigg wanted to see us. My husband and I had gone back to the apartment in Chicago after the thing with Rose, Phil and his team in New Mexico. We made no promises to our goddaughter, we knew we couldn't. Other than recharge the necklace and hope for the best, there was little we could do. Then again, she didn't need us, she had her team-family and she had Rose... We went to Chicago to find that the Starks were gone. I wasn't sure if one could actually consider things to be safer, or more dangerous than ever, with the fights between Hydra and a number of other groups breaking out across he globe, but in the end, it was their choice. We'd given up our right to get involved in Tony's choices when we left him when he was three; much like we'd done with many others. Some might say we'd given up on a lot of things... the other side of the coin was that we'd met a lot of people, got to care for them, help them when we could, when they needed us. And if they didn't anymore? That meant they were strong, and the possibility that we might have had a hand in that made me, made us both, very happy.

We stepped out of the Shadow Paths just outside the golden palace of Asgard. After the war with the dark-elves a new layer of protection had been added: no longer could one enter or exit the Shadow Plane while in the palace; there were a few exceptions, like our private garden, but that was actually farther than the front gates. Ylva and a couple of guards were soon there to receive us, they lead us to one of the sitting rooms in the royal wing, Frigg's favorite one. She and Odin weren't the only ones there, so were Thor, Jane, Helena and Sigyn (Frigg's head handmaiden).

"Nana!" Helena smiled brightly as she hurried to greet me.

It took but a few seconds to greet everyone else. Then it was Thor who mentioned something:

"Sif didn't come with you?" He asked.

"No, I'm afraid she's been a bit busy." I told him apologetically.

I could almost hear my love crowing in the back of my head. He couldn't wait to see Thor's face when our brother learned what (or more like who) was keeping Sif busy, exactly. For so long he'd seen her as a warrior, as one of his own, that he'd failed to see her as a lady (which was probably why he'd failed to see she fancied him...); I still thought it was a good thing. Thor and Sif had both gotten their loves. It was perfect!

"You've all taken a long, hard journey, have been through a lot, but it was worth it, now all is as it should be." Frigg announced with a serene smile in her face.

Loki cocked his head sideways, as if trying to unravel what his mother meant by that. I wasn't sure why, but the meaning of her words hit me then.

"You know...?!" I blurted out.

My Maverick caught up with my train of thought but a fraction of second later and his eyes went wide as he looked at the Queen.

"Oh don't look so surprised, an old woman can still know a few things, can't she?" She smiled almost playfully as she said that.

"You're not old mother, not at all." My love assured her, kissing her hands. "But Nightingale is right. You know about our time-travel."

"Time-travel?!" Thor and Jane exclaimed in unison.

Odin would never do something like that, but I could tell he was just as surprised.

"There is a trace of the energy that allowed you to travel, still in you." She explained. "It feels very much like one of the Stones..."

"The Time Stone..." I finished for her, before letting out a wordless cry of triumph. "I knew it!"

Everyone turned to my love, obviously wanting clarification.

"We did time-travel." He explained to our family. "Seventy-five years to be exact. But we don't know how. We have theories, of course, but no actual proof. None of us really remember what happened on the day of our travel, aside from the belief that we were somewhere around the Western Chinese border and that, whatever had brought us there, was of vital importance. After the fact we also heard rumors of people with abilities who supposedly inhabit the area but haven't been able to find any of them."

"What were you doing before going there?" Jane asked, going all scientist-mode on us.

"That's just it." I admitted. "We'd been doing a few missions for SHIELD... or more precisely for Fury directly. Helping him and sometimes Darcy with a few things..."

"Is Darcy alright?!" Jane cut us off, her mind doing a sharp turn abruptly.

"Perfectly alright." My husband assured her. "We saw her just yesterday. Some things are going on that you might or might not know, but we'll go into that. Still, you need not worry, Darcy is doing well."

"She hasn't been well since Phil died..." Jane murmured. "Always looking so absent, getting more and more lost in her computers..."

It pained me, seeing my future sister like that. But it wasn't our place to tell her the truth about Phil. He'd be the one doing that (and it better be soon). Helena's eyes met ours; she knew the truth, of course, you couldn't lie about death to the Queen of the Dead, but she too kept quiet.

"Like I was saying." I went on. "We'd been going on a few missions. Sif helped us too, every now and then. And yet, we'd have never taken our son on a mission, I know we wouldn't have. We might be a tad reckless, but we're not that irresponsible!"

"No, you're not." I wasn't expecting it when Helena spoke.

"Cala amin (my light)?" I called questioningly.

"You don't remember this, but I called you that day." My eldest daughter explained quietly. "I'm the one who gave you the idea of going to that place, and of taking Hakon with you. It wasn't a mission for SHIELD. You were looking into the sorcerers said to live in the area. I told you it was safe, that you could see it as a short holiday. You made me promise to join you there if I could..."

"But you didn't." I finished for her, half-absently, trying to wrap my mind around everything she was saying.

"You knew." It was my match who reached the obvious conclusion first that time. "You knew what would happen if we went there..."

"Not exactly, I..." Helena hesitated, before trying to explain herself. "There's someone... someone I know and trust... I was asked to get you all there. I knew it wasn't dangerous, and the place is beautiful, which is why I told you it was safe to take Hakon. I didn't know that was when you would be sent into the past."

Loki looked like he was about to descend into a funk, but I couldn't miss the specific choice of words of my daughter (I knew word-games very well).

"You said 'when'." I pointed out, eyes narrowed. "You said 'when', not 'if'. You were surprised we were sent back in that moment, but not about our time-travel. You knew it would happen!"

"I knew, I've known for longer than Silbhé Salani has existed in this world." Helena nodded.

Again, her choice of words was telling, but I didn't mention it, just waited for my daughter to explain herself, I knew it was important.

"I was there." She said, after what seemed like forever. "I was there when your soldier friend was experimented on and he almost died. I was there to give him a choice, to surrender to peace or fight a war for his loved ones. I was there when a five year old dove into the flames and tore another little girl from the hands of death; unknowingly rewriting her fate, and that of many others as well. I was also there when a woman breathed her last, to guide her to the one who'd been patiently waiting for her..."

I couldn't stop myself, I sniffed, I knew exactly who she was talking about.

Helena wasn't done yet.

"I was there when a young man got a second chance at life on a riverside, and later on, when his to-be-godson got the first at his own. When a good woman died, a good man lost himself and their child was left to fight for her own survival. When another man, another soldier, almost bled to death in the sand, only to be saved, and find his way to the one who's been waiting for him for lifetimes. When a young girl was shot and it took her more strength than most would believe humanly possible to survive, and when her match almost died to protect her..."

I wasn't quite sure about all of those, though I could make a decent guess at a few. Still, to realize that she'd been there, through it all... It was like gaining the memories of my past life, finding out the truth... only to then learn she had known it all along.

I wasn't sure what to say, or do, wasn't sure anything could; the past was exactly that, the past (though, as we'd proven, time-travel was possible... though it wasn't as simple as they made it seem in the movies). In any case, I could think of only one thing: I threw my arms around her and embraced her tightly.

"I love you so much..." I whispered into her ear.

It was enough. In the end, love, family, would always be enough.

xXx 3 rd Person POV xXx

Nick Fury, the former Director of SHIELD (or was it the Director of the former SHIELD?) got to the military cemetery in Washington DC, early on July 15th, exactly two weeks since the so-called Winter Soldier (or one of them, at least) had tried to kill him and started the insane mess that somehow ended with the fall of not just his enemy, but also his own agency. He wasn't very happy about that. No, it went beyond that, he wasn't willing to just accept it. He had plans. Plans he'd concocted a long time ago, before he even began suspecting about Hydra in fact. He had known who his successor would be for a long time... and he was still planning on that. The good Captain might think things would be better if SHIELD too was gone, but he'd been on ice too long to be objective (or so Fury kept telling himself), also, what Rogers didn't know, wouldn't hurt him. He would appoint his successor and then... who knew? He'd considered going on his own for a while. Perhaps hunting down some of the remains of Hydra. Except there was the whole crazy Alliance that had been formed sometime and he'd no idea about. Alliance with gifted? It never ended well, either one of the gifted went crazy and took the path of mutant-supremacy and human annihilation, like Magneto; or... well, what happened in the nineties could actually be tracked back to Stryker, if he stopped and thought it over; he'd had his suspicions back then but hadn't been able to do anything about it (on hindsight, Hydra probably had something to do with that...). Still, he didn't trust gifted, which complicated the whole 'solo' idea; also, he had no idea how much of Hydra had actually been taken out over the course of the past two weeks. That one too stung, he wasn't used to not being the one to know things, to call the shots.

So, bottom line: he had a lot of time on his hands, was ready to go out and fight, yet had no idea where or against who exactly; he'd all the plans about the right person to become the next head of SHIELD, but hadn't the slightest idea of where to find him! That was the other thing bothering him. He'd left Coulson the clues he'd need, and yet when he'd gone to Providence, Eric Koenig had told him that no one had been there. In fact, the last thing they knew of Coulson and his team was that they'd been en-route to the Triskellion the night before it all went to hell (before Cap's attack and everything that followed), then they'd vanished from every radar. And since Romanoff had deleted everything from all of SHIELD's servers he'd no way of tracking them down by their identification code.

All that contributed to Nick Fury not being exactly the happiest person on the planet as he arrived to the cemetery, where he'd planned on meeting with Captain Rogers and quite possibly some of his friends (he still wasn't sure how he was supposed to feel about most of them, especially the ones with no allegiance to any formal organization...). Rogers and Wilson were already there, seemingly waiting for him. Fury couldn't help but think that at least one thing was going according to plan... he'd no idea how utterly wrong he was.

"So, you've experienced this sort of thing before?" Fury commented, signaling to his own grave.

It would be impossible to know if he was trying to make a joke (and it wasn't that great) or if he simply didn't know what else to say.

"You get used to it." Steve shrugged.

"Nah!" Another voice called, it was James Barnes. "No getting used to it. I still say I'm taking a sledge-hammer to mine the moment I get one. It gives me the creeps! Seeing my name in a god-damned grave! I'm alive!"

"Indeed." Sif nodded simply.

"Listen, I need to talk to your friend, Grayson." Fury finally said.

"And why is that?" Steve arched a brow, curious.

"I know you're putting a lot of trust in your little alliance, but I don't." The ex-Director said rather bluntly. "Even if Hydra as a whole is gone, I'm willing to bet not all rats will be going down with their ship. We need to route them out, and eliminate them."

"Even if you're right, that's not your job anymore, is it?" Sif asked, somewhat coldly. "SHIELD is gone Fury, you're no longer the one calling the shots. If you want to fight, you can very well help those doing it, but it's just not your show anymore."

"You may not trust the alliances that were made, but I do Nick." Steve added, more calmly than her. "Still, I do agree with you that it's unlikely all the pieces of Hydra went down last week, plans will need to be made..."

"Then you agree?" Nick nodded. "I can get to Europe tonight, you'll send me the intel..."

"Ah, ah." Steve shook his head. "That's not how this works."

Nick was about to try and be more 'persuasive', when someone else intervened.

"What? The old war-hawk doesn't like playing with other kids?" A young-looking man in a dark-blue henley, jeans and sneakers asked as he approached. "Or is it that he doesn't like other kids playing in what he still wants to believe is his sandbox?"

"Aren't you laying it on a bit thick on the metaphors Hakon?" Sif asked, rolling her eyes.

"Hakon?" Fury cut in, eyes narrowed.

"Right." The boy in blue smiled almost predatory at him as he spoke. "The public knows me as Macbeth Grayson nowadays... but you may call me Hakon if you want, Nicholas Fury... Hakon Fitz Salani-Hvedrungr."

"Salani Hvedrungr..." Fury repeated, not quite processing.

"He means, of course, that he's our son." Another voice called.

Everyone turned to watch as Loki and Nightingale approached. She was wearing a coral-pink, floor-length, short-sleeved dress with a black collar; it looked a bit out-of-fashion but still good on her; Loki was wearing a suit, lighter than the shades he'd favored before, but went well with the lighter tone of hair he was sporting. They weren't alone. Helena, Thor and Jane were with them, the first two in their usual Asgardian attires, and Jane in a blue and golden gown in the style that had become almost normal for her since first getting to the Realm Eternal, the year before (she'd since been acknowledged as Thor's betrothed and was using her knowledge of science and understanding of the Bifrost to earn her place as future Queen Consort of Asgard).

"But your son is a child!" Fury blurted out.

"Our son was a child, many years ago, before we were sent seventy-five years back in time while on a little trip." Nightingale deadpanned.

Quite a number of people had to do a double-take at that.

"Time-travel is not possible." Fury stated stoically.

"Oh Nicholas, you still believe that if you cannot do something it cannot be done." Another female voice stepped in.

Everyone turned to the most recent addition. She was a woman in her mid-fifties, with blue-green eyes, short brown, somewhat wavy hair; she was wearing an off-white two-piece knee-length pencil dress, with a ¾ sleeved cardigan with a print of yellow blossoms over an ivory background and five-inch ivory heels.

"Katharine..." Nicholas breathed out, obviously not having expected it, her.

"For those of you who don't know me." She called. "I am Kathryn Salani Adler, retired SHIELD Agent and Silbhé's aunt. Nowadays I work as a nurse, and have offered my services as a consultant, both to the King of Wakanda and to the British government."

"You're a part of this." Nicholas murmured in realization.

"My niece is a part of this. In what universe would I not be a part of anything she's involved with?" She asked rhetorically.

"You believed her to be dead." Fury said what he thought should have been obvious.

"And now I know she's not." Kathryn pointed out the obvious. "Your point being?"

Clint's laughter gave away his presence, and Natasha was with him.

It was probably in that moment that Nick Fury realize that things weren't exactly going to plan. He had no idea how bad they would be getting yet... though the Starks and Banners joining their 'little party' should have given him an idea. Especially since Maria Hill, Peter Parker and his own little group weren't far behind.

"What exactly are all of you doing here?" Fury demanded right then.

"Did someone organize an Avengers meeting?" Sam asked, eyes wide, as he began realizing what many of those present had in common.

"I called them." Yet another female voice announced.

It was Darcy Lewis, and she was wearing dark jeans, a white fitted top and short dark jacket, black leather boots finished the ensemble; her chestnut brown hair was down, somewhat messy. There was also a gun (electric) on her hip (and other weapons inside her boots, though those were less obvious).

"Agent Shadow..." Fury began, he had a really bad feeling of what was coming.

"Not Agent, just Shadow." Darcy interrupted him with a smile. "Or Darcy. That never stopped being my name, not even when SHIELD existed." Her smile widened as she added. "Though at least now I can legally change it to my married name:" She waited a second, as if to make sure everyone was paying attention, then dropped the bomb: "Darcy Marie Lewis-Coulson."

On cue, the man she'd taken the last name from stepped out from behind a tree. For several seconds not a word was said, it was as if they were all too shocked to react, and then...

"Agent you're alive!" Tony cried out dramatically.

He spoke like he was saying a bad joke, or like he was drunk... and yet those who really knew him could see the well of emotion behind his brown eyes, the mix of shock, confusion, disbelief and honest joy and relief that filled him as he watched the man standing there.

Phil Coulson just stood there, bracing himself for what he thought was coming... only it never did. Instead Natasha Romanoff's attention turned to Darcy.

"You knew?" The Russian asked the younger woman in a somewhat clipped tone.

"Always." Darcy nodded sharply, raising her left hand to show the wedding-band, finally where it belonged. "Loki and Nightingale spelled these, made sure I'd always be able to find him, know he was alright. That others couldn't lie to me for the 'greater good' or some other bullshit."

Natasha seemed to consider those words before nodding once. Her approval of it all. Which made everyone turned their attention to her.

"What?" She shrugged. "Cannot say I'm exactly surprised. At least he wasn't alone and she didn't have to needlessly grieve his death."

"She's right." Clint agreed. "I might hate it, but we... well, most of us knew what we were getting into when we joined SHIELD. The two of them actually having each other was better than I'd have expected, all things considered."

It certainly wasn't what Fury would have preferred, but then again, the choice hadn't been his.

"Why weren't we told before?" Bruce asked quietly. "Why now? Why let us believe for more than a year that he was dead?"

"Because the kind of enemy I... we were going after was too dangerous." Phil explained calmly. "I actually did almost die that day, following a lead. One of Nightingale's friends saved my life." He didn't actually know who, had never cared to ask for names. "She eventually got there, healed me. By the time I got back I'd already been declared as MIA and most likely dead. Nick simply took advantage of the opportunity we were being presented with."

"So you went back to chasing that enemy, alone?" Jane was horrified at the prospect.

"Not alone." Phil shook his head, before waving behind him.

Somehow, they'd all missed the arrival of the people behind him, his new team.

"You have a new team?!" Tony called loudly. "You've replaced us! I'll cry!"

Everyone laughed at that.

"At least they follow my orders without me having to taser them Stark!" Phil barked, unable to fully erase the smile on his face.

"You tasered Iron Man?" Skye asked before punching the air in jubilation. "Yay! Way to go AC!"

Quick introductions of the newcomers were made, and soon small conversations were taking place. Tony and Bruce were both very interested in the Centipede serum and the abilities it gave Mike; that also called Steve's and James's attention; while Mike himself felt almost bashful at having so much attention, especially of the super-soldiers he'd been trying to emulate while training in SHIELD.

"Are we done with the surprising arrivals?" Fury asked, almost petulantly.

A few people really wanted to laugh right then... the man had no idea.

"Not just yet, Nick..." It surprised everyone when they realized it was Steve, Captain-freaking-America, practically taunting the former Director.

Before anyone could ask what exactly he meant by that another person stepped into the clearing.

Everyone recognized the woman as she joined the group, though she was wearing clothes that were very different from what she had while working in SHIELD. In a short-sleeved, knee-length, loose, v-necked navy-blue dress with turquoise and pink abstract prints and pink lace on the neckline; pale-pink low-heels on her feet.

"Agent 13." Fury acknowledged her.

"Sharon is just fine." She stated, her face taking on an expression that immediately remind everyone of Darcy just minutes before, and with good reason. "Sharon Margaret Carter-Rogers. Pleased to meet you all."

Again there were a few seconds of silence, more than with anyone else, which was probably understandable, since none of the earlier surprises had been quite so shocking as that one.

"You married Cap!" Clint finally cried out.

"Why weren't we invited to the wedding?" Darcy asked, quite surprised herself.

"It would have been quite impossible to invite you all." Steve said with a sheepish smile. "Seeing how I actually got married back in 1945..."

That certainly broke several minds.

"You what?!"

Sharon/Peggy laughed uproariously, she hadn't had so much fun since the old days!

"Oh come on people, use your brains!" Sif snapped.

And it was then that people began noticing. While Sharon's hair still looked mostly blonde, close to her roots it looked darker, either a very dark red, or perhaps light brown. The answer was obvious, really, though perhaps too obvious.

"No way!" Skye cried out.

All eyes turned on her.

"Don't you see it?" She asked. "It's her! She's Peggy Carter!"

"That's impossible Skye." Simmons shook his head. "Agent Carter... well, actually former-Agent Sholto nowadays, is over ninety years old and living in an institution in England..."

"Actually, she's quite right." Sharon nodded. "I am that Peggy Carter. The woman you know as Marge Sholto is a decoy. She took my place when a few things happened and it became obvious that I wouldn't be able to stay around."

"But... but you haven't aged at all, since the forties!" Fitz blurted out, trying and failing to wrap his scientific mind around what was being revealed.

"Neither has Steve." Sif pointed out calmly.

"Or I." James added his own two cents.

"Well yes, but you were on ice." May said, somewhat bluntly.

"And I was asleep." Sharon replied, just as bluntly. "It's why the decoy was necessary." She took a deep breath before explaining. "After... after James fell." She directed an apologetic look at the man. "Steve and I'd been dating secretly for a while. We wanted to marry, but knew we couldn't do it legally, not without someone pulling me out of the front with the excuse of inappropriate fraternization, or some other ridiculous excuse. And so we went to our friends, and they married us, in a magical ceremony." She knew better than to mention the deamarkonian.

"Friends?" Hill raised a brow.

"She means us." Nightingale clarified.

"How is that possible?" Hill couldn't believe it.

"Didn't we say it already?" Loki rolled his eyes. "Time travel. We were there. Only back then we used the names of Luke and Arianna Stark-Serrure."

No one reacted at that name; though some already knew, and the rest had probably exceeded their quota of shocks by that point.

"Anyway." Sharon took over the story. "We wanted no regrets. So we did it. We knew I would undergo some changes, due to the serum filtering to me through our bond... we still never expected it when Steve getting lost in the Arctic made me fall asleep, to wake up years later."

"So what?" Phil asked, awed. "You didn't wake up until we found the Captain, in 2011?"

"Not quite." Agent 13 said, honestly. "I woke up once, in the eighties. Joined SHIELD until there was an attempt on my life and while I survived it, I fell asleep again."

"Shannon..." The name came from Kathryn's and Nick's mouths at the same time.

"Hey guys..." Peggy greeted them with a nostalgic smile. "Long time no see..."

"You were reported dead." Kathryn murmured, looking at her once-best-friend like she'd never seen her before.

"And I'd have been, if it weren't for the serum, and for Hakon." Sharon nodded.

All eyes turned to the black-haired, blue-eyed young man, who just shrugged and ignored the attention. Sharon, Shannon, Peggy, whatever her name; she was his friend, so of course he'd helped her, he'd always help her.

Fury could only look around him, at all the people gathered, all the secrets being revealed (all the secrets he'd have hoarded jealously had he been given the option). He had no idea that it wasn't over just yet.

"Now this is some party." Yet another individual announced herself.

All eyes immediately turned to her. A woman in a knee-length off-white wrap dress with a print of dark-red flowers, red leather boots on her feet. Wavy, dark-auburn tresses fell down her back, with two locks pulled back to keep it mostly in place, a red rose adorning her hair.

"Who are you?" Fury demanded, who had about had it with the surprising arrivals.

"I am the woman you want to talk to, Nicholas Fury." She told him, her voice taking a strange cadence. "I am the one behind the creation of the Worldwide Alliance, the very same alliance that fought and mostly defeated Hydra over the last week." She arched a brow silently, as if waiting while hearing something no one else did and added: "Rosalie Kane, Rosalie Nova, Alfdis Eisenhardt, Rose Serrure..." Again, a pause. "Yes, those are all my names, and they are all real, one way or another." Again. "No, I'm not reading your mind. I know every single question you will think of asking, knew it before I even stepped into this cemetery. You see, I have two main gifts, one is fire." She made a little flame dance between her fingers. "And the other, the other is Sight." She smiled serenely at him. "Oh yes, I know also what you're wondering, what you refuse to really consider, even though it's the obvious answer. So I'll make it easy on you and say it: I am the Rose of Chaos."

"The Rose of Chaos is a legend, a symbol." Fury stated instantly.

"As much as I'm sure some would rather believe that, we know it's not true." Rose told him rather calmly. "After all, I'm quite sure your Deputy informed you I was one of those standing between your minions and my second father not too long ago, when you tried to have him unlawfully imprisoned, again."

"You mean the terrorist Magneto." Fury hissed.

"I mean Max Eisenhardt, Erik Lehnsherr, the man the United States government imprisoned for the assassination of President Kennedy, when he'd actually been trying to save the man's life, the man whom that same government turned over to a sick bastard called Bolivar Trask to become an experiment." She waved a hand before Fury could interrupt her. "They knew exactly what they were doing, and didn't care. They didn't care because to them he wasn't human, he was mutant. Very well, I'm not human, nor a mutant, I'm something else entirely."

Fury was probably about to ask what exactly she was supposed to be then, when Loki gave him (and everyone else) the answer:

"She's the Goddess of Chaos and Faith." He announced.

"Rose Alfdis Salani-Hvedrungr." Nightingale added for good measure.

"Or just Rose Alfdis Lokidottir, as the case might be." Rose finished with a bright smile.

Silence was the answer. All those present might have had more than a few shocks since first arriving to that place; but that probably surpassed all the previous ones.

Skye just smiled widely, yeah, she'd always known her mom was awesome.

xXx Nightingale's POV xXx

Nick Fury looked more than a little miffed when he finally left, and the looks that Rose directed his way told me she knew exactly why he was so angry, but she probably wouldn't say. My little rose was good like that, a trustworthy secret keeper.

"Oh Nicholas..." I heard Aunt Kathryn say from beside me suddenly.

I was surprised by the degree of grief I sensed from her. I'd known she had worked with him, with him and Peggy both. And I'd seen the way both women embraced each other, delighted to be able to meet again. Nick, in contrast, had been rather aloof. And then, in that very moment, I noticed something else, something I'd somehow managed to miss even in all the years I'd known my beloved aunt, even when I considered her the closest thing I ever had to a mother (Aislinn Kinross-Salani would always be my mother, no doubt about it, but it was Kathryn who raised me, even more so than my father). I remembered the sphinx sculpture which turned out to be a secret jewelry box, and the two things inside it: a heart-shaped piece of white sea glass, wire-wrapped with a silver key charm, resting on a titanium chain that was probably long enough that, when worn, the pendant would rest between a woman's breasts; and with it was a very small piece of paper, yellowed with age: For my Sphinx, my Princess of the Nile...

It was so obvious in that moment, I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. SHIELD called Aunt Kathryn the Sphinx, and I knew exactly who'd given her that code-name...

"You're soulmates..." I blurted out in shock. "But then... why aren't you together?"

"Oh sweetheart..." She breathed out, looking at me with eyes that hid more emotions that I knew the names of.

And for the first time in many, many years, I honestly felt the age I looked. I, who had memories of two lifetimes, who'd lived for almost a century in my latest one, felt like little more than a child while standing before Kathryn Salani Adler...

"You are so incredibly fortunate Silbhé." She might know I went by other names, but to her I'd always be Silbhé, her brother's daughter. "You have no idea how much. You've found your other half, and not only that but you share a life with him. Share interests and dreams, and that's allowed you to live a wonderful life." She shook her head. "Truth is, sometimes love just isn't enough. It doesn't mean that it's weak, that it's any less than your own, it just isn't enough. I know Nicholas loves me, as much as I love him, and we probably always will; but in the end each of us made our choices, we found something that was more important than the love we share. For me it was my family: both Sebastian and you; and while I'll admit it was hard at first, I do not regret it. The choice I've made has brought me great rewards, not the least which has been watching you grow, making a family of your own, reach heights I didn't believe possible." She let out a breath. "For him, his choice was duty, to the government, to SHIELD; I think that's why it's so hard for him to accept that it's gone." The possibility that it might not have been worth it...

I did not need Aunt Kathryn to finish the sentence. She was honest that she didn't regret her choice. She was happy with her life. Nick Fury on the other hand... And yet, it's not like they were dead yet, or like the world had ended. Life might not be eternal, but for as long as it lasted, new decisions could be made, dreams could still be fulfilled.

"You made your choices once." I told my aunt quietly. "But who says you have to live with them for the rest of your lives? Who says you cannot change them now?" I smiled gently at her. "It's not too late yet Auntie... Go..."

I wasn't sure if she had been thinking the same thing and just needed someone to tell her the same thing, or if maybe it hadn't actually occurred to her before. Still, her smile right then was dazzling, it actually made her look younger, like she had in those pictures I'd seen from her first op as a SHIELD Agent, in Cairo in the mid-eighties... And then I noticed something else, a titanium chain around her neck...

"Whatever else might come, you will always be my niece, my Silbhé." She assured me, hugging me briefly and kissing my hair. "Never forget that sweetheart."

"Never auntie." I assured her.

And then she was gone.

I happened to turn in Rose's direction, she too was focused on the direction Aunt Kathryn had just gone. And then she turned to look at me, and she smiled. Even without her saying anything I knew things would be alright.

"I saw what you did just there..." I heard as a pair of lean, strong arms snaked around my waist.

"She deserves to be happy." I said simply, resting against my husband's strong chest. "Like we all are. Isn't that the purpose of living? Being happy?"

"Don't know." He shrugged. "I suppose it's as good a purpose as any, better than some even."

"What would you say is your purpose then?" I asked with a brow arched. "Doing mischief?"

"No." He shook his head, looking me straight in the eye. "My purpose in life is loving you, nothing more than that."

I actually blushed, he hadn't managed to make me blush in a while. Still, even that didn't stop me from kissing him, pouring all the love I felt into that kiss, until we were both breathless.

"Hey! Not here!" Tony called loudly. "There are children present."

"Yes Tony, and you're the biggest of them all." I retorted playfully.

"Of course I am, auntie." He replied, tongue-in-cheek.

I couldn't help it, I laughed at that. Really, so long feeling that he might not understand, might not forgive me my extended absence; things had gone much better than I dare ever hope.

"So, now what?" Clint asked then. "I mean, SHIELD is gone. Does that mean the Avengers are gone as well?"

"Of course not!" Steve shook his head.

"He's right." Natasha agreed. "The Avengers might have worked with SHIELD, but weren't actually a part of it. We're still a part of it... if you want to be that is."

"And Avengers Tower is still Avengers Tower." Tony stated for his part. "I'd be delighted to offer our newest super-soldiers membership into our little band, and of course, their own floor."

"I say yes to the Avengers, though I don't need a floor, I'm staying with my husband." Peggy announced, and everyone could hear her giddiness at the prospect.

"We'll be staying together as well." James spoke up for him and his own lover.

"Sif?" Thor called to his old-friend.

"Oh Thor..." Sif smiled at him softly, so different from how she used to be, from the woman Thor had known for so long. "I'm still your friend, I will always be your friend. But my life is here now, with James and our friends."

I looked at Thor and I could tell he felt like one of his oldest friends was abandoning him; and he was so wrong. So I said the first thing that came to mind:

"I'm glad the two of you found each other again." I told Sif with a smile. "Every match deserves a chance to be together."

Thor turned wide eyes towards me as I said that. Then he turned towards Jane, who was smiling at him in turn. I could sense the moment he understood. He turned back to Sif then, embracing her tightly but briefly.

"I'm so happy for you, my friend!" He exclaimed, before turning to James. "I hope you realize what a lucky man you are."

"I know, of course I know." James assured him wholeheartedly.

"So then, are we all going back to New York now?" Tony asked eagerly. "I have a plane and we will probably all fit."

"Much as I'd love to, I'm afraid that will not be possible for some of us, Tony." Rose was finally the one to say what I was sure at least a few of us were thinking.

"We cannot stay." Phil offered, first of all. "According to some things Darcy and Skye have gotten, not all of Hydra is gone. We'll be handling that."

"Would you like some help?" Steve offered.

"Not right now, though possibly in the future." Phil nodded. "We're coordinating with another superhero team, might do some joint missions in the future..."

"No Agent!" Tony called, again very dramatically. "You're replacing us!"

"As much of a relief as that would be, no, I'm not doing that Stark." Phil deadpanned.

"What team are you working with?" Peggy asked, curious.

"Right now, the Justice League." Phil explained, then turned to look briefly at his wife before adding. "We also have a meeting with the mutant leaders for early next week, might be able to coordinate something with the X-Men as well."

"There's one thing I don't understand, though." Sam offered. "I mean, SHIELD is gone... because it is gone, right? I didn't misinterpret that?"

"No, no mistake, you're quite correct about that Mr. Wilson." Phil nodded.

"Then how are you doing this?" Sam finally asked. "I mean, you're not SHIELD anymore... I'm not actually sure if the question should be how you're doing it, or why?"

"The second is easier to answer." Darcy told him with a small smile. "Because someone has to. And to be fair. We were part of SHIELD, which means that in some way, no matter how big or small, we were part of the problem. Who better to fix it than us?"

"We're not SHIELD anymore, but our goal remains the same one that pushed us all to join." Phil added solemnly. "To protect. We will protect this world. From Hydra, and whatever else might come our way."

I wasn't sure if I was the only one who noticed that the whole 'how' issue was never addressed. In any case, I didn't ask. If they needed help they would ask for it, I hoped... I also knew that Darcy was quite the proficient hacker, so if someone could handle things, it'd be her; and without a doubt the rest of their team would be talented in their own ways.

"We aren't staying either." Loki announced right then.

"What?!" The exclamation was general. "Why not?"

"That's a tad more complicated..." He muttered.

"We've told you we time-traveled." I began the actual explanation. "While Fury was wrong about it being impossible, truth is that it's not so easily done either. There might be a few among the gifted capable of sending either themselves or someone else back in time a few days, weeks, months... perhaps even as much as a year. But traveling seventy-five years... that's practically unheard of. It's something that no one individual, however powerful, would be able to achieve. The drain of the power alone would kill him long before they managed it."

"Then how?" Banner demanded.

"The Time Stone..." Sif was the first outside our little group to connect the dots.

"Excuse you," Tony called. "Time-what?"

"Time Stone." Sif repeated. "It's one of the Six Infinity Stones."

"Which are..." Peter began, waiting for someone to finish that statement.

"Time, Space, Reality, Power, Mind and Soul." Helena enlisted evenly.

"In simple terms." I took over, because I knew my husband was quite capable of complicating things just to make fun of the so-called geniuses present, like Tony. "The universe was created... however many thousands and more years ago, by a higher being, or beings. When creation was finished and the universe came to be, or at least an ancient version of the universe we know now, the remnants of the power that was used took shape into six singularities, the aforementioned stones. Those stones hold so much power it's impossible to measure, to even fully comprehend. They literally have the power to shape the universe, to change it..."

"Or destroy it." My love finished for me.

"Or destroy it." I agreed grimly.

"O-kay..." Even Tony had to blink at that one. "What does that have to do with anything? Particularly with you leaving?"

"It's obvious, isn't it?" Darcy called right then. "I mean, think about it. If only the Time Stone could have sent them back... well, that one is obvious enough, but considering that at least three other Stones have popped up right in this planet in the last five years..."

"Three?" Steve blinked.

"The Tesseract is obviously the Space Stone." Darcy began enlisted. "Seeing how it opens doors between worlds and all that. The Aether too is obvious enough... though I'm not exactly sure if that one is supposed to be the Power Stone, because of the sheer destruction it can cause, or the Reality one, seeing how Malekith intended to use it to change reality itself..." She shook her head. "Anyway, then we have the nifty little staff-thingy our friend Loki was carrying during the Invasion, the one that gave some people those creepy glowing blue eyes."

A Staff no one quite knew where it was, exactly. It had vanished in the aftermath of the invasion. Back when no one had known that the Mind Gem was actually one of the Stones. And once the trouble with Loki and Odin was finished... no one had any idea where it'd ended. Finding out that Hydra had been within SHIELD didn't exactly make things better; it just made the prospects of where the object might be, and what it might be used for, worse.

"Is that normal?" Peggy asked suddenly. "So many of those stones, more than half if you're right, being found in the same planet, in less than five years?"

"Not at all." My Maverick shook his head. "Truth be told no two Stones had been seen together even once since the Celestials last held them..."

"Celestials?" May repeated, questioningly.

"The only beings known to be able to wield them without being torn apart by the power inside them." Rose qualified. "They're believed to have become extinct in the last millennia or so." she made a pause before adding. "Some believe that there might be a few descendants left across the galaxies, mixed-bloods... Though, of course, no one has actually been able to prove that theory successfully."

I was abruptly reminded of my own theory, so long ago, of my love's origins, of him possibly being half-Titan, and how that might give him a bigger chance against Thanos. Back then we hadn't given it much importance, the focus being on the actual battle that was coming our way. One we thought to have won... and while we hadn't exactly lost, I wasn't sure anymore that we had truly destroyed our enemy. Wasn't even sure why, there was just a feeling I had and couldn't get rid of. It could also be because of how the Stones seemed to be popping up.

"In any case." Loki took over. "That's why we cannot stay. Rumors have reach Asgard about another of the Stones surfacing, this time in another galaxy. We need to investigate those rumors. Then there's the Collector, Taneleer Tivan, if anyone in the known galaxies knows more than us about the Infinity Stones, it might be him. He's always shown a remarkable... interest in them. If we knows something we don't, we need to find out."

"We also plan on dropping by Alfheim at some point." I added.

"Alfheim?" Pepper asked, cocking her head sideways. "Isn't that the world you said your past life came from? Princess Tinúviel?"

"Indeed." I nodded with a small smile. "My people, the Ljósálfar, or Light-Elves are known for a number of things, among which is their Sight. Many powerful psychics have been born among them. My mother... or rather Tinúviel's was one of them. Lady Thenidiel is the current leader of the elven coven of spellweavers, as well as a particularly talented psychic. She's also a friend. I think she might be able to help us. Also, even is she's unable, another thing Alfheim is known for, is for their records. Elves keep the most extensive and comprehensive record of history, going back farther than most of the other Realms. There might be something in those records about the Stones, something that the rest of the universe might have forgotten."

"Even though we're leaving our children will be staying, and they're each perfectly capable of helping in an emergency." My match reminded our friends.

Truth be told, in the most recent situation two of our children had done a lot more than we had. One might say they'd simply been in a better position to do it, but a voice inside my head insisted that if we'd wanted we could have done more... we'd grown too used to letting things happen as they may and only interfering when we considered it absolutely necessary (usually when one of our loved ones was in danger). Perhaps we'd grown too used to letting people sort out their own problems. That would have to change especially if the sudden appearances of so many of the Infinity Stones was truly a warning of some great confrontation coming.

Of course Thor and Jane wouldn't be staying either, that one didn't even need to be said, they both had too many duties in Asgard; though they did promise to visit more often.

Things seemed to be winding down, finally, when James and Sif approached us unexpectedly.

"Hey..." James called, he sounded almost... shy? "My man Steve told me you two were the ones who married him to his lady love."

"That is correct." Loki nodded. "They decided a usual marriage wasn't possible for them at the time, not when it would cause their superiors to split them, quite possibly take Peggy away. I suppose they might marry legally now."

"Yeah well, I don't actually have a legal identity right now, neither does Sia for that matter." He muttered, twisting his body, uncomfortable. "The point is..." He took a deep breath and blurted out: "I would like you to marry us."

We all stared at him in shock, all of us, even Sif!

"James..." Sif murmured, seemingly at a loss for words.

"Twice I've let you go, doll..." He murmured quietly to her.

"It wasn't your fault James!" She defended.

"Perhaps not." He shrugged. "I'm still not making that mistake a third time." He cocked his head and said: "Though, of course, if you don't want to be married to his old soldier..."

"Ha!" Sif snorted. "You have no idea. I'm already married to you, dumbass!"

Again, surprise; even Sif blinked, like she hadn't planned on saying that at all.

"When?!" He demanded, instantly.

"December 21st 1995." She said, precisely. "Almost three months after I finally found you in Russia. You had an episode that day, the first one since I'd been cleared by the leaders of the Red Room to be in close proximity to you. You remembered pieces of your past; not enough, nowhere near enough, but you were responsive, more than usual. It was the first time we made love since the train..." She shook her head almost violently, pushing that memory aside. "You fell asleep first that night, and then I whispered the words I knew would bind me to you for the rest of this life, and every other life that might follow."

"Why would you something like that?!" James couldn't believe it.

"Because I'd already lost you once." Sif told him in a near hiss. "It took nearly twenty years for me to even have an inkling that you were alive! And then 32 more before I actually found you! If something happened again, I wanted a guarantee that I'd find my way back to you, in this life or the next."

"In every life doll." James stated, low and heartfelt. "Every single one."

Sif could only nod, tears beginning to shine in the corners of her eyes.

"Now doll, tell me the words." James ordered in his strongest voice.

"I... what for?" Sif actually hesitated at that.

"So I might say them back to you! That's why." James said in a near 'duh' tone of voice. "Now tell me the words."

I knew we could have done it, both my match and I knew them by heart, but it was more significant, more romantic, if Sif did it. So we stayed quiet.

And so it went. Sif said one line, waiting until James repeated it, before continuing with the next, on and on until the whole of the vows had been pronounced by both. Loki and I could see the moment the half-bond they already had (which I'd noticed but not really paid attention to before) flared brightly, a second before it doubled as James's part was added and then the two pieces twisted together, strengthening the bond further. The sharp inhale that came from both of them told me (told us) that even though they weren't spellweavers, both Sif and James had been able to feel the moment the bond snapped into place.

Nothing more was said, and the two lovers seemed to get lost in their own world for a while, until Sharon/Peggy called our attention unexpectedly.

"You know what I've really missed the last... god-knows-how-many years?" She asked suddenly.

"What?" Steve asked promptly.

"Seamed stockings!" Clint called loudly.

Laughter broke out automatically. We could all remember that interview, the way a reporter had managed to catch the Captain so completely by surprise... and yet none of them had ever seen the way his eyes (and those of many other men) would go wide at the sight of women wearing dark stockings; or how difficult they were to get during the war; a luxury few could afford. I imagined his answer that day had come from a memory, the memory of Peggy and their relationship... something no one had known back then, because for the longest time everyone had believed Peggy to have never been more than the Captain's crush, a woman who grew up, and grew old... most of the world still believed that, and probably would continue believing it for many years yet. Who knew? Time would tell.

"No!" Peggy shook her head, though she too was giggling.

I thought she might have whispered something to her husband, so quietly no one but he would hear, but I couldn't be sure.

"Sing for us, please." Peggy finally requested.

I smiled, remembering the times I'd sung in her presence before, especially the day she'd first fallen asleep, when she'd been so afraid of what the future might bring. And yet, the memory that stuck the most into my mind, was that of the song I'd sung during Bucky's memorial, months earlier. It came to me right then, only it wasn't exactly the same. As if the song, like each and every one of us had changed, grown, almost evolved in the years that had passed.

I began, as I sometimes did, with humming, several seconds, as I tested the rhythm, and then:

"Out of the mist of history
He'll come again
Sailing on ships across the sea
To a wounded Nation"

"Signs of a savior
Like fire on the water
It's what we prayed for
One of our own"

"Just wait
Though wide he may roam
Always
A hero comes home
He goes where no one has gone
But always
A hero comes home"

It took no time at all for everyone's attention to be on me and my singing. It didn't even surprise me anymore. Even those who'd never heard about my past lives, about those who believed that I had the most beautiful voice in all the realms, they still stopped to listen to me and I... I liked singing, and I especially liked knowing other people enjoyed my singing, it made things all the more especial, to have such a gift and be able to share it with those I held close to my heart.

"Deep in the heart of darkness sparks
A dream of light
Surrounded by hopelessness
He finds the will to fight"

"There's no surrender
Always remember
It doesn't end here
We're not alone"

"Just wait
Though wide he may roam
Always
A hero comes home
He goes where no one has gone
But always
A hero comes home"

By the time I finished the first choir I knew that the new song bore little resemblance to the one I'd sung that particular night, so many years prior; though the message remained the same. The hero comes home... the heroes had come home, all of them. After so many years, so many trials, tribulations, and dangers that few could have been expected to survive. They... We, had not only survived them, some might even say we thrived on them, on the challenges. They allowed us to push past our limits, to grow, become better. In the end, it was those difficulties, the bumps in our lives that had made us who we were. As men and women, as warriors... perhaps even as heroes.

"And he will come back on the crimson tide
Dead or alive
And even though we know the bridge has burned
He will return
He will return"

"Just wait
Though wide he may roam
Always
A hero comes home
He knows of places unknown
But always
A hero comes home"

I knew it wasn't over just yet, not by a great deal, and yet that was alright. We were together, we each had loved ones (whether they be family, friends, the love of our lives...). In the end all that really mattered was that we weren't alone, and as long as we had even just one person by our side, to support us, to have our backs, nothing would ever be enough to take us down. I truly believed that, as much as I believed in every members of my family (by blood and choice), and as much as I believed in the love that bound me to the love of my existence; a bond that had been there for two lifetimes; possibly (probably?) even longer (much longer) than that. I believed...

"Someday they'll carve in stone
'The hero comes home'"

"He goes and comes back alone
But always
A hero comes home"

"Just wait
Though wide he may roam
Always
A hero comes home"

There was so much to be done yet, but that was alright, we could do it, I knew we could. We'd been able to handle things thus far, after all. The last seventy five years had been no picnic, but we had survived, and not only that, we'd achieved good things, some that were even great. And the things our children had done during that same time... they were perhaps even more amazing. I couldn't begin to imagine what might yet come.

Still, perhaps we should focus on the present, on enjoying the peace while it lasted, because it wouldn't do so forever, but that was alright. The light wouldn't be so beautiful if it didn't shine through the dark, and the sun wouldn't shine so bright if we didn't have the night to compare it to. All the same, it was knowing war, having gone through it, that made the moments of peace all the more special to us all.

So there we were. The war was over, the world had been saved (again), it was time to relax, and to rebuild...

xXx

The Shadow Plane only allowed us to travel in between the Nine Realms, the ones connected by Yggdrasil. The Collector was in another world, one we'd need to travel to through space; which meant a space-ship. It also meant it'd take longer. In any case, a ship was being readied for our use in Asgard, and meanwhile we decided to stop procrastinating and visit Alfheim. It was a complete coincidence that we ended arriving on Midsummer's eve...

Of course the moment the news reached the Council that we'd arrived they wanted Loki and I to make an appearance at the festival. I still wouldn't accept until Queen Faelwen agreed (she was the ruler, after all; and I didn't want her to feel like we were trying to steal her show or something, that kind of thing would have been an insult). So, after those plans were made, my match and I took off in search of the people we were actually there to see: Erynion and Thenidiel.

As expected, they were waiting for us. Thenidiel knew exactly why we were there; which was why, after some basic greetings and reassurances that we were all alright (no mentions were made of time-traveling, but I was quite sure they knew that part too), we got down to business:

"You want to ask me about the Infinity Stones." Thenidiel said, it wasn't a question.

"Thus far one or both of us have been in direct or indirect contact with three, possibly four of the Stones." I explained quietly. "They were all either found in or ended in Midgard at some point."

"And lets not forget the fact that Thanos had one of them, and interest in another." My Maverick added. "We cannot risk another one like him getting the same interest."

"That's not your only worry though." Thenidiel pointed out calmly. "You worry the Titan might be alive still..."

"Yes." My husband didn't bother trying to deny it. "The day we fought that battle in Midgard... the tragedy of losing my Nightingale may have affected me more than I was willing to accept back then. I know I left the Mad Titan seemingly defeated, allowing my brother to take the killing shot, as I was more interested in trying to save my love. While Thor can confirm he did deliver the blow, well..."

"There's no way to know if his memories can be trusted." Erynion finished for him. "Or that the Titan did not switch with another, letting one of his subordinates to die in his stead."

"Exactly." My love needed.

"Why the interest now?" Erynion arched a brow. "Why not when this battle took place?"

"Because until recently we hadn't had a reason to doubt our victory that day." I explained softly. "The surfacing of at least half the Stones in less than five years, and the way things just seem to keep happening on Midgard..." We hadn't talked for long with Rose, but certainly long enough to know what she'd been getting into during our time away; and when put together with what the rest of us had been through, either together or apart... "It seems like too much of a coincidence."

"A coincidence it is not." Thenidiel agreed with me. "The gathering of the Stones is a risk, with or without the Mad Titan. Though I'm sure you already know that. Not two Stones have been in close proximity since times immemorial; much less all of them. It's impossible to tell what effect the mere proximity of them to one another would have to the realm, the universe as a whole."

"Have you seen nothing of the future?" I couldn't help but ask.

"I know what it is that you really wish to ask, and I'm afraid I can give you no answer to that." The Seer informed me quietly. "Great as my Sight might be, there are limits still. I can see Fate, that which must happen; and sometimes Destiny, that which may happen, when I happen to have some kind of connection to the hands writing it, or to the ones it affects most. However, there is always a degree of chance, free-will is a tricky thing; if too many people change their minds, my visions may turn out to be wrong, and when it comes to people who are more impulsive, it makes it near-impossible to predict their future."

"So you cannot tell us what's to come unless it's something that must happen, no matter what, or someone is really focused on causing it." Loki tried to summarize.

"It's a way of putting it." She nodded. "Though even then, like I said before, it's never absolute. Contrary to what some might choose to believe, the future isn't written in stone, and even Fate is subject to change. The Norns themselves do not know it all, much less those of us they've blessed with but a fraction of their sight. The more the chance for havoc, the less clear my sight becomes. And whatever is coming... it's as close to a blank space in my Sight as I've ever found."

I blinked. A blank space? I'd never heard of something like that... hasn't sure what it meant, though I had a feeling it couldn't be good.

We talked a little more, made plans to meet each other later in the evening, during the festival. We were about to leave when Thenidiel called me back unexpectedly.

"A thought just occurred to me." She told me quietly. "Your daughter..."

"Meril?" I switched to the elven version of her name automatically.

Even I wasn't sure why my thoughts had gone immediately to Rose, rather than to Helena; especially considering that while Thenidiel might have met my eldest daughter, and even my son, she'd never personally met my youngest one. Still, I instinctively knew I was right.

"Yes." Thenidiel nodded softly. "She's a blank space in my sight too."

I really, really had no idea what that was supposed to mean. I could only hope it wasn't anything especially dangerous; we had enough trouble already...

xXx

Unsurprisingly, an outfit had been laid out for me when Loki and I arrived to the ambassadorial quarters that had been arranged for us (though we weren't planning on staying more than a few days, a week at most, and I had plans on spending most of that time in Jewel Forest, rather than in the capital). The gown looked very much like the ones I would wear when I was crown princess (which meant big, heavy, stuffy and completely uncomfortable), I was horrified; my husband broke into laughter at my expression.

Of course I didn't wear that gown. Though at the same time I chose not to wear any of the Asgardian dresses I'd favored in either life. Instead I got Loki to help me and we managed to conjure a near-exact replica of my favorite dress from my past life. My husband, for his part, chose a more casual version of his usual attire.

No one said a word when the two of us arrived like that. Though I could sense that some of the Elders didn't quite like it. Too bad, it was my choice.

There was a feast, a song from the princesses and the queen, celebrating their bond to the realm, to Alfheim and all of the Ljósálfar... then, then they turned to us. They managed to surprise me, though I should have seen it coming. Apparently our love was something of a legend, in more ways than even we'd known. Songs had always been the way the elves communicated best; and the fact that Loki, even without being one, had chosen to follow those traditions and express himself, his love for me through song... The elves valued that. All in all, they wanted to hear him sing again; they wanted to hear us both sing, together.

Duets were so rare, even in bonded pairs. It was said that only a match who'd been together for more than a thousand years could achieve the kind of harmony for a true duet, one that showed their bond, the merging of their souls...

I actually wasn't sure how much of that last part was actually true, and how much was just legend but it didn't worry me either. I knew we could sing together, we'd done it before, after all. The fact that we hadn't prepared any song mattered not one jot. We'd always been rather good at improvising after all. And singing about our love? Nothing could be more natural than that.

So, much as we'd done in the past, we wove our magic into the instruments to follow us, our voices, our hearts. The piano began, several soft notes in the air, and then Loki was singing:

"My love,
There's only you in my life
The only thing that's right"

The moment I heard those lines from him, I knew what was to come, and so I sang next:

"My first love,
You're every breath that I take
You're every step I make"

And just like that, the song began truly flowing, and we began to sing together, a true duet:

"And I (I-I-I-I-I) I want to share
All my love with you
No one else will do

And your eyes (your eyes, your eyes)

They tell me how much you care
Ooh yeah, you will always be
My endless love"

I don't think either of us noticed, in that moment, when the magic began to flow; beyond the spell on the instruments. It was something that had happened to me before, when I would instinctively infuse my voice with power, allowing others to pick up on the feelings fueling my song; we were doing that right then, projecting our love to everyone listening to us, to the earth, and the stars...

"Two hearts,
Two hearts that beat as one
Our lives have just begun"

"Forever (oh)
I'll hold you close in my arms
I can't resist your charms"

"And love (oh, love)
I'll be a fool
For you, I'm sure
You know I don't mind
Oh, you know I don't mind

'Cause you,
You mean the world to me
Oh
I know (I know)
I've found (I've found) in you
My endless love"

I realized something right then, as we stood there, swaying softly to the music and holding onto each other (I had no idea when that had happened exactly... and it wasn't like I was about to let go of him either). I realized that the exact number of years we might have been together did not matter; whether they were ninety-nine, nine hundred, a thousand, or as long as the universe itself had existed. In the end, the important part wasn't the time spent together. It was the love. A love so perfect that could turn a single second into an eternity and the other way around, that could (and had) defy life and death, and everything in between... a love that would never, ever, end.

"Boom, boom
Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom
Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom"

"Ooh, and love (oh, love)
I'll be that fool
For you, I'm sure
You know I don't mind
Oh you know
I don't mind

And, yes you'll be the only one
'Cause no ('cause no) one can deny
This love I have inside
And I'll give it all to you
My love
My love, my love
My endless love"

xXx

We ended staying in Alfheim for a week and, as planned, we spent most of that time in Jewel Forest. As it turned out, my old home was still empty. I wasn't sure if it was because others were too respectful of Tinúviel's memory to occupy it, or something else entirely, but no one had any trouble with me claiming it. It felt nice, getting a chance to connect with some of my oldest memories, the few I had with my mother and my sister, before the attack, before the Bloody Night, before everything had changed irrevocably.

I also got a chance to chat a bit with Queen Faelwen. It took some effort to get her to stop seeing me as some kind of symbol or superior being, to convince her that I was just like her (some might say that she was my superior even, since I was never really Queen). I gave her a few tips, for when the Council got too overbearing, and told her it was important that she took some time to herself every so often, even showed her how to get to my old spot. Assuring her of its safety, and that in case of an emergency Erynion would know how to find her.

My 'brother' just rolled his eyes at me, said something about me 'corrupting' their royalty; though I got the feeling that he actually approved of my actions. The Council certainly wouldn't, but I was beyond their sphere of influence.

In the last days of June we went around in Midgard, saying our goodbyes to our family and friends. I made sure to hand copies of the keys to all our properties to our children, in case they were to ever need a safe place to stay. We knew that Rose had the ranch Howard had given her, as well as a house and an apartment in different cities in Kansas, the apartment in New Hampshire, as well as access to other properties of contacts and friends around the world; Hakon had a small townhouse in Virginia, and a loft in San Francisco; and probably enough contacts he could crash with he didn't worry much about it; Helena only had a little cabin near Salem, Massachusetts, but didn't seem to care about that (probably since she still spent most of her time elsewhere).

Rose was the last one we met to say goodbye. She was still with Phil, Darcy and their team; though probably for her the important one was her daughter. I was glad, to see that she'd found a family, the lack of blood connection didn't matter. They were family and that was that. Also, there was something Rose had said one day, before we'd intervened to help Sherlock and John; I hadn't paid it enough attention then, but hadn't forgotten it either. She'd said that those two were like us; not like her Papa and I, but like all three of us... She had a soulmate, she had found him or her... and the fact that Rose was alone told me that something terrible must have happened. Something she wouldn't share with me. It hurt, but I understood that she was a grown woman, with the right to her privacy. I also knew that whatever might have happened, it was unlikely I could help her, and could only hope that she'd had someone there for her, when she needed them; even if that person wasn't me.

"So, you're leaving now?" She said, though it wasn't really a question.

"We have to." Loki nodded at her. "Before something else happens."

"Did your friend give you any clues of what might happen in the future?" Rose wanted to know.

"She doesn't know." I admitted with a sigh. "Apparently a lack of order makes it harder for her, and for most Seers, to see the future."

"Lack of order?" She repeated, cocking her head to a side in contemplation. "You mean chaos?"

I blinked as I processed her words. And then I remembered what Thenidiel had said, about Rose too being a blank in her visions. She couldn't see the future where it related to the Stones because it was filled with chaos... and she couldn't see Rose's future because she herself was chaos... But then what did that mean for Rose's own visions?

We didn't plan it, but suddenly all three of us extended our hands. Our fingers barely brushed, but that was enough. Rose was pulled into a vision and, somehow, our bonds made it so Loki and I managed to pick up at least part of it. Not all of it, and I believe that even if we'd seen it all, we wouldn't have been able to understand it, foresight wasn't our gift; still we saw enough:

Five colorful pieces of something, they were solid but looked unlike any other material we'd ever seen, and they shone like miniature stars, they were surrounded by a reddish-black cloud of something, dust? The Aether?! They were the Infinity Stones... Six huge beings with power and looks that were beyond comprehension (though I almost thought... did they have two heads?! And multiple arms? I wasn't sure, it was like my mind couldn't quite grasp what I was seeing)... A world, a perfect world... or were they many? There were several races? All the ones I knew, and at least one I didn't remember ever seeing before... The realms as we knew them, Yggdrasil... A growing shadow, a being that seemed to be darkness personified. It wasn't chaos, it went beyond that... it was... I didn't know, but it was as if his mere shadow could freeze my soul. I knew, instinctively, even before anyone said anything, what it was I was looking at:

"Thanos..." Loki was the one to breathe out aloud.

It was awful, because that wasn't the monster that had attacked us three years prior. He looked the same and yet his presence... it was much, much worse. A true monster...

"The Mad Titan is alive..." Rose murmured in realization.

That confirmed our worst fears. What was coming was bad, it was really bad...

"He wants the Infinity Stones..." Rose added quietly. "And will stop at nothing to get them, and if he does..." She shook her head almost violently.

"It won't be just Midgard in danger, but the whole universe." I finished grimly.

Which meant we needed to hurry. Thanos was on his way, time was running out.

"Xandar." Rose blurted out suddenly.

"What...?" We weren't expecting that.

"It's another place where you need to go." She elaborated. "Yes, you need to find the Collector, he has information that you need, some which even I cannot see. But afterwards, you need to go Xandar, find the Nova Corps."

"Why?" I inquired, confused.

"Because they have the fifth Stone." She answered quietly.

The fifth Stone?! There were five Stones in the out already?! Just how long had we left?! We had no way of knowing, though one thing was for sure. It wasn't long. We needed to get moving. War was coming, a Titan was coming our way, and it'd probably take a miracle to survive, and even more than that to win.

"It's alright Mama..." Rose murmured suddenly, quietly as she hugged me. "Everything is gonna be alright..."

It was... it was like a light suddenly shining bright. I couldn't quite understand it. It wasn't magic, Rose wasn't a sorceress; and yet, and yet her words calmed me in a way nothing else could have. It was her faith, her faith that things would really go alright, somehow, made me believe it too. She had such strength of belief... how could I do any less?

"Yes, it will." I agreed, finally.

"You need to go." She reminded me. "I promise we will protect Earth, and the rest of the Realms until you get back." Her lips formed a half-smile as she added: "If the Mad Titan comes calling he'll soon learn Earth isn't the primitive planet he probably expects it to be, nor is it unprotected... not by a long shot."

No, Earth wasn't unprotected. The Rose of Chaos was its guardian, and she wasn't alone, she had a worldwide alliance at her back, gifted and baseline ready to fight for their planet. Which meant we had to do our part. We had to find out what we were missing; which would hopefully include a way to defeat Thanos once and for all... A way of defeating a Titan... if that wasn't a tall order I had no idea what was!

"Take care of yourself sweetheart..." I whispered, kissing her brow.

"My nymph..." Loki added, as he did the same.

"I will, Mama, Papa..." She assured us.

My match held me then, and together we sunk into the shadows, straight to Asgard, and to the ship waiting for us. My husband already composing a message to leave to Thor once we were gone. He, all of Asgard really, needed to know the kind of danger that was coming our way, and we really didn't have the time to stop and argue with the Council, and possibly even Atar about the probabilities of Thanos still being alive and after the Infinity Stones. We had a mission, and time was running short. But that was alright, we could do it; like Rose had said, things would be alright. I believed in her, and her friends... our family. I had faith...