Blessing of the Phoenix: The Enigmaverse Episode 2 @ghostandmiracle42
Interludes I

INTERLUDES


Hannah

May 17th, 2006

Hannah Abbot's feet had barely touched the ground, and she was already grinning like a kid in a candy store.

"I'll never get used to those things," Cedric muttered, pulling himself upright from where their portkey had deposited him on his ass.

"You just have to put y' ur knees into it, Cedric," Hagrid exclaimed, whole body vibrating with barely contained energy. He was wearing an enormous backpack and carried a massive pole over his shoulder.

The trio had arrived on a rickety wooden platform currently suspended three-thousand metres above the Italian countryside looking towards the Alps. Or, rather, what was now being dug out of the alps. Dozens of cranes and other floating structures were hovering around a broken mountainside, and on the ground below about a dozen giant rune-stones had been buried half deep in the earth. They formed a perfect circle around one particular peak and exuded iotas of magic. As much as Hogwarts once had in Hannah's fondest memories.

"Hannah, Hagrid! Good, you're here!" Bill Weasley exclaimed, hurrying over to them with a gleeful expression etched into his face.

"You're father, Charlie, Snarkback and Gárin are already on the landing below. You got everything, Hagrid?" the Cursebreaker asked.

"Everyth'in I could think off Bill. Is it a dragon, do you think?"

Bill shrugged.

"We have absolutely no idea!"

If it was possible, Hannah's smile grew even louder.

The platform started to move, floating closer to the mountain top, and Hannah got a better view of the ruins lining the broken peak.

Two entire levels – separated from one another by thick white walls – were now visible protruding out from the rock. Another five levels were still entirely buried, but the archaeologists had focussed on exposing the upper layers of the ruins first. Their goal was the Citadel, and – if it was still intact – the great Tower of Ecthelion.

The wooden platform touched down gently on the top tier of the city, an enormous pier of sorts that protruded out of the mountain face. The debris of what appeared to have once been a fountain dominated the space, but the object that had Hannah literally geeking out was the thick trunked white tree planted in the earth beside it. Despite being underground for thousands, perhaps millions of years, the tree still had white gold flowers growing from its branches. It was, undoubtedly, one of the most incredible things she'd ever seen.

And she'd been there when Voldemort was blown out of existence, so that was saying something.

A few paces beyond the tree, staring up at a giant heavy-looking door that reminded her of the one before the Hogwarts Great Hall, was her father and two separate teams. One was a group of Goblins all dressed in some sort of hybrid between miners clothing and chainmail. The second team were a group of dwarves, armed to the proverbial teeth with assorted Warhammers and axes, all of them covered in Ancient Runes. The leaders of the two groups, Snapback of the Gringotts Goblins and Gárin of the Dwarves of Kata Tjuta, were arguing with one another, weapons bared.

"If I see a single goblin hand touching the ancient relics of the House of Elendil of Andúnië I will ensure not a single one of you leaves the Hall of Kings alive!" Gárin fumed, hammer clenched in a death grip.

"Ha!" Snaptooth snorted. "You would try, Dwarf, but my warriors would crush your pathetic…"

"Bizaric Kobalus!" Gárin snarled, voice slipping into a harsh sounding tongue Hannah could only assume was Khuzdul, the ancient language of the Dwarves. "Khazâd ai-mênu!"

Hannah winced. That phrase she knew. Dwarves and Goblins in the same place… never a good idea.

"Alright, that's enough!" Her father yelled, brandishing his wand and casting a cannonball spell. He spotted them approaching, and gave her a wave and a tired smile.

As if sensing them, something crashed into the doors, jolting them on hinges that should have rusted centuries ago. A blood-curdling roar followed, and Hannah started shivering with excitement, forming her ancient armour around her.

Her father slapped Bill on the back, and a few seconds later, Fleur Weasley emerged from one of the nearby buildings with Betsy Braddock, Charlie Weasley and several other Cursebreakers and exotic animal handlers.

Charlie and Hagrid hugged one another, and his team members all introduced themselves before everything was ready.

The Cursebreakers – Bill on one side, Fleur on the other, and Betsy in the middle flanked on either side by the Goblin and Dwarf expedition leaders – assembled in a half-circle around the door. Then, steles in one hand and wands in the other, they began to chant in… yes, that was ancient Sindarin for sure. Hannah was practically bouncing on her feet by this point, and her father looked just as excited. Hagrid readied his poll – which, upon closer inspection, had several runes engraved along the haft like buttons – and Cedric drew his two wands and shifted into a ready stance befitting his status as combat specialist.

It took almost an hour before anything happened, but, as quickly as they'd begun, the wizards all cut off their chanting as one, and the doors blazed with white light. The two sides snapped free of the hinges and magics holding them to the stone and fell inwards, crashing to the stone floor with twin echoing clangs.

"Oh crap…" Hagrid muttered.

In the darkness of the Hall of Kings, two golden eyes looked out at them from within a lion's face and mane. Only, two enormous horns grew out its head, and the creature's body was covered in scales, not fur. Powerful legs, wrapped in shaggy hair and ending in hooves bigger than Hannah's head, held the monster off the ground, and it's tale… the tale was lined with giant razor-sharp spikes and ended in a wicked triangular barb.

"Chimera."

The monster raised its head towards the sky and screeched out in a harsh voice for all the world to hear. Instantly, what had been blue sky not a moment ago, was covered by storm clouds of the darkest grey. Then the beast turned its gaze on the assembled wizards and opened jowls filled with rows upon rows of crystalline teeth.

"SCATTER!"

Seconds later, the landing was flooded by torrents of flames all burning a violent florescent blue.


Peter

May 17th, 2006

Meanwhile, on Earth 84…

"Okay, let's do this one last time…

My name is Peter Parker, I was bitten by a radioactive spider, and for ten years, I've been the one and only Spider-Man. But I wasn't always. My best friend, Gwen Stacy was bitten too, and we fought crime together with our other friend, Mary Jane.

"I'm pretty sure you know the rest. We saved the city a couple of times, fought some magical terrorists… and Gwen… died. Because I was too arrogant for my own good.

"Since then, I've saved the city a couple more times on my own, MJ stopped talking to me, I graduated from college, and got a job. Then my friend Hermione Granger asked for my help to finish a project Gwen started before she died.

"We blew a hole in the space-time continuum, and I got sucked into the vacuum, and spat out in New York City. Only, it wasn't my New York.

"Now, I'm working with a group of Spider-Men and Women from across the Multiverse to reactivate the Particle-Collider that brought us together and go home. There's hobo me, 1920's cop me, teenage anime-girl me (no, I'm not kidding), a version of me that's an anthropomorphic pig (and you thought the anime-girl was a joke), and… and Gwen. She's ten years younger, but it's her alright. A Gwen from another world where I died instead of her. It should have been me here too. Oh, and there's this newb called Miles. He's alright."

"You should probably go and watch the movie…"

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is available where-ever you like to stream movies.

Peter flipped over a troop of goons lining the walkway beneath him, wand in hand.

"Reducto!" The orange curse shot free from his wand, slamming into the metal gangway and detonating. He disapparated as gunshots littered the air, reappearing a few metres away and going into free-fall. The metal walkway, and all the goons on it, were blown into the abyss as the explosion ripped through the air, and Peter launched a web at the closest wall.

The seven spiders were inside Kingpin's Super-Collider, an enormous cylindrical underground chamber about the size of a football stadium, lined with white chrome panelling in all directions. At either end, two metallic cannons were affixed to the wall, pointed directly at one another.

Peter swung around towards a signal tower built into the side of the collider, catching sight of Gwen… NO! Not-Gwen. She's not your Gwen.

This alternate-universe incarnation of his friend was on another level. She'd only had spider-powers for two years, less than everyone save the newbie Miles, but she had a mastery of swinging and acrobatics none of them could match. She was like a ballerina who'd made the sky itself her stage. It was… humbling and magnificent. My Gwen would have loved you.

He glitched. His magic vanished, he lost hold of his webbing, and his whole body spasmed in agony. He screamed as his body tried to tear itself apart, falling down down down into the machine, and the gunfire.

A small arm grabbed him around the waist as his body reconstituted itself, then they slammed into the wall. Peter grabbed the chrome before he could slip and shook his head to clear it. And his eyes settled on Gwen.

"Thanks," he groaned as the pain faded away. They couldn't stay here much longer.

"No problem," Gwen said, scanning the collider for the others. Noir and Peni were fighting Scorpion on one of the overhead gangways. Ham was nowhere to be seen. "You'd do it for me."

"I tried," he whispered to himself. He should have realised Gwen, with spider-senses of her own, would have heard it. She turned to him and pulled up her mask, revealing the face of his best friend. Identical to how he remembered her in all save the eye-piercing. And the shaved side. It was a good look for her.

"Wiz… Peter… I lost my best friend too. I was too scared, too frightened of my powers. He… he tried to help me, and I failed him. But… I couldn't be the Spider-Woman I am today without him. When I swing, I do it for him. And every life I save, I know he'd be proud of me. If your Gwen was anything like me… she'd want the same thing for you."

Peter swallowed and watched as she flipped away.

What would Gwen want for him? He'd never stopped to consider it before.

She would want him to live his life.

To be happy.

Could he do that? Could he sleep at night without being haunted by his best friend's face?

He looked up to the Collider roof just in time to see Miles, Hobo Peter and Gwen take control of the collider stream. The beam in the centre of the room flared with electric white light, then stabilised a soft red.

"Time to go home everyone!" Miles shouted, and Peter grit his teeth.

Yes. He could go home, and instead of mourning Gwen, he could fight for her instead.

He crawled to the top of the collider and watched as his new-friends, Spider-Men and Women from a half-dozen other realities, bid farewell.

"Your turn Wiz," Miles said, taping away at the holographic screen built into the side of the Super-Collider. He snorted.

"Well… nice meeting you all. Us web-heads need to stick together, you know."

They all laughed, and Peter turned his gaze onto the younger Gwen one more time.

"Thank you," he whispered, offering a weak smile, which she returned softly.

"Go get 'em, Spider-Man."

He let go of the roof and let himself fall into the beam.

The collider vanished, and he was yanked into a tunnel of blue and white light, hurled across the Multiverse in a fraction of a second.

Then it was over, and Peter was flung out of the Window with a horrible 'snapp!'. He crashed into cobblestones, rolling to a stop.

Voices of shock and surprise-filled the air, and Peter shook his head rapidly, scanning his surrounds.

He was back at Hogwarts. The ruins of it at least. The Window hovered high above him, rapidly folding in on itself, a screeching whistle of air ripping through the sky. The torn space sealed shut, effervescent gas sucked through the opening and back into the ether beyond. Then, with a final, sickening, 'crack!' the portal vanished.

Or, no. Not entirely. He could, still, just see a slight warping to the air. The Window was still there, but it had sealed itself closed once more.

He let out a long shaky breath and put his hands on his knees.

Only then did he realise a dozen wizards and SHIELD agents had their wands pointed at his head.

"Um… I can totally explain."


Jemma

SHIELD Academy of Science and Technology; Oregon, USA. 2001

Jemma Simmons stood outside in the fresh air, SHIELD issue backpack slung over her shoulder, staring at the campus across the field from her. It was a gorgeous scene. Elaborate fountains, perfectly maintained footpaths, walls so pristinely white it looked as though they might have been polished, and all of it set to the backdrop of Oregon forestlands. The SHIELD Academy. The building in front of Jemma – the square-shaped white-walled building with the glass roof – was the Science Academy. It was gorgeous. And it would be her home for the next three years.

"Well, that is impressive, isn't it?" Leopold Fitz stated, stepping up beside her with his own backpack. Behind them, roughly fifteen students were filling out of the bus that had brought them out into the middle of nowhere. They were from all across the world, which had surprised her at first. Wasn't SHIELD an American agency? But there were two people – brother and sister – from Indonesia; a small fidgety boy from South Africa; a tall girl from Brazil; another from Mongolia; a pair of twins from the Czech Republic; and finally, a pasty girl from London, though she spoke with a Scottish accent stronger even than Fitz's. The other eight were from across the United States. Fitz and Simmons – both at age twenty – weren't even the youngest in the group, that title belonged to Miss Barbara Gordon – a seventeen-year-old who'd created an intelligent virus designed to break into corporate systems to search for possible links to terrorism. Rumour had it she had caught a very big fish, but Jemma didn't know who.

Finally, their minder/instructor stepped off the bus, which promptly drove away.

"Well kids…" The instructor was a tall woman, with greying hair (though she dyed it blonde, it was quite noticeable), with a clipped way of speaking that reminded Jemma of Madame Umbridge. She suppressed a shiver. "This is the Academy of Science; let me be the first to say congratulations to all of you for making the cut."

That was rich. There had been over 200 students trying to get into this course, and each of them already had a bloody PhD to their names! Fitz and Simmons had spent the past year undergoing intensive study in fields like Engineering, Biology and Physics so they'd actually be able to back up the five University degrees The Magical Intelligence Bureau had created for the pair of them. Fortunately, rebuilding an alien spaceship/city sitting unused under a sheet of ice for 10,000 years was a good method of 'on the job' learning. It had been absolute murder – and she'd had more fun than at any other time in her life. Thanks to their dedication, both had passed the entrance exams with flying colours and impressed at their interviews. She didn't know if MIB had interfered in the selection process to ensure their acceptance and didn't want to know. They had earned their spots here, and that was that.

Though their real objective was to infiltrate SHIELD from the ground up so they could be in a position to protect Harry, Ginny and Atlantis; the SHIELD Academy was still the best possible opportunity she could imagine to learn about how the world really worked. Jemma would use that opportunity for as long as it was available to her.

The instructor continued blabbering as she led them towards the building, and Fitz slid his hand into her hers. She grasped it tightly, holding to the familiarity he provided. They were on their own now. They couldn't use magic – the risk was too great. They couldn't contact Lance – the other sleeper, sent to the Combat Academy. And they had no means of contacting Atlantis, or MIB. But they had each other, and that was something.

Orientation did not involve a party. Instead, a group of senior students took them into a giant observatory and spent two hours giving them an in-depth look at space using SHIELD's powerful telescopes. It was thrilling, and, for a group of socially awkward geniuses, sooooo much better than a party. Jemma and Fitz had both seen the star charts in Atlantis and perused the Ancient Database's planetary logs, but that didn't take away from the sheer amazement that came from actually looking out at stars and exo-planets in high definition.

Neither did the older students try and force them into making friends or socialising. They had been where Jemma and Fitz now stood, and they knew that doing such things would have done no good. For geniuses, interactions came through shared interests, identity and respect – not through forced social situations.

However, Jemma's first month at the SHIELD Academy of Sciences was just what she expected. Hell. With a capital H. The first half of the day was comprised solely of fitness classes. From sun-up to lunch, they'd be doing exercises and standard weapon operation. Then, from midday until well after dark, they'd attend scientific operations seminars. Basically, presentation after presentation about scientific subjects so varied and seemingly unrelated it was driving her insane. Then there was the homework. Jemma had thought Snape was terrible when it came to assigning ungodly amounts of homework with no practical application. Merlin had shebeen wrong.

Things became slightly easier in the second and third months, mostly because of their increased fitness and energy levels. Not only that, but Fitz started worrying about the subjects they were studying. He thought there was some sort of pattern, some hidden test that they were missing, and as they wore into the fourth month, Jemma started to agree with him.

They didn't make many friends. All the other first years were older than them by at least three years, most by over five. But they weren't top of the class – to Jemma's disappointment – and that meant they weren't deliberately ostracised like Sammy Ramirez was. Jemma, and by association Fitz, did make friends with young Barbara, and with an older boy called Ray.

It was Barbara who discovered the link between all the mismatched subjects – to Fitz's eternal shame and frustration.

Barbara slammed the door to Jemma's dorm shut, then twisted the lock in place, eyes darting around frantically. Jemma was so startled she eepped, dropping her Quantum Physics textbook to the floor. Fitz did slightly better; shooting up from his seat at her desk and maintaining his feet. Ray Palmer – who had been sitting on the floor leaning against Simmons' bed frame – smashed his head against the metal.

Barbara ignored all of their complaints, throwing a hefty tome onto Jemma's bed and pointing at it.

"I figured it out!" She exclaimed eagerly, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet.

"Figured what out? That you're crazy?" Jemma said, taking a few deep breaths to ease her racing heart. Fitz stepped up to Barbara's side, then peered down at the book. He gasped softly.

"What?" Ray asked, picking himself up off the floor as he rubbed the back of his head.

"The subjects we've been covering, each one is listed here in the SHIELD Handbook – under the section 'Infiltration and Preservation.' Each one has to do with some skill needed to infiltrate a secure facility or protect oneself or others in the event of a foothold situation. Fitz was right. The subject order hasn't been random at all. It's been a test. Now, if I was a betting girl, I'd say that there's going to be, like, a surprise exam where we'll have to break out of a place or something, and the trick is that if you figured out the subject order, you'll beat the test… If you didn't…" She drew her finger across her throat. The others all swallowed.

"The one time I actually wanted to be wrong," Fitz grumbled.

"Well," Ray said, taking the book, "We best get studying how to break out of a secure compound…"

Their wisdom paid off, as, at the end of the sixth month, randomly and separately, each of the fifteen students were sent – entirely without warning – into a randomised simulation of exactly the nature Barbara had guessed. Jemma was proud to say she beat her sim – a stealth incursion of an African Prison – the third fastest of all the students in her percentile.


Barbara

Location… Unknown; 2002

Barbara slung her backpack over her shoulder, whistling softly to herself as she exited the bathroom. The second she stepped into the hallway, a hand shot out from nowhere, wrapping around her mouth. A sharp stinging jabbed her stomach, and darkness overtook her.

When she came too, she was in a dank room with six other people – four girls all younger than her, a woman in her thirties, and a boy about the same age she was. The floor was concrete, the walls and roof too. The only light came from the hallway beyond the one wall that wasn't solid – it was obscured by metal bars instead. A prison cell. Rubbing her head, she hesitantly rose to her feet.

"Are you okay?" The woman asked. Barbara pulled up her jumper – she was still wearing the clothes she'd been wearing in the school – and ran a hand along a small electrical burn on her lower abdomen. Nothing to worry about, she'd suffered far worse during her years on the streets of Suicide Slum.

"Fine. I take it this is our exam?"

"Exam?" the woman asked incredulously. "We were abducted by terrorists! You think this is an exam?!"

Ah, so that was the simulation. A terrorist situation. Only this place seemed too clean for the Middle East. She must still be in Europe or America – assuming she wasn't just in a simulator. Barbara ignored the woman, instead stepping up to the cell door and peering out. Two guards stood at the end of the hallway, murmuring to one another in Russian.

Carefully, she reached through the grate and felt at the lock. It was built into the door itself, rather than an external padlock or bolt. Bugger. It was times like this when she really wished she had Kara's superstrength.

Pursing her lips, she turned back to the cell. It was a small space, with barely enough room to house all its occupants. No windows, no air vents. The kids were all in different states of malnourishment, with one girl with matted blonde hair definitely the worst of the lot. The smell was terrible as well, but, again, Babs had smelt far worse sleeping behind Samwell's Diner. It had been a favoured haunt of hers, with most not going near it because of the butchery across the road. Compared with the smell of rotted offcuts, a little body odour was nothing. But, here was the interesting thing. There was a toilet seat in the cell. Battered and old, but it was there. She stepped up to it, ignoring the woman – who was telling her to stop moving lest she call the guards – and the boy, who was staring at her curiously. She placed her hand on the outside of the bowl and felt… thumping. Active plumbing. Good. That meant there was a mechanism to flush the waste.

This was an exam. That meant there was a way to get out of here – though it wouldn't be easy. Fortunately, Babs had been studying how to escape from prison cells – not to mention, she'd committed her fair share of robberies. Her father – the Metropolis Police Commissioner – would be incredibly disappointed in his daughter she knew. But he'd gone and gotten himself killed when she was eight, so she didn't really care what he thought.

A hand grabbed her shoulder.

"I said leave it alone! Do you want to call those guards down on…" She grabbed the woman's wrist and twisted, snapping it. Then she shoved her back to the floor. The kids whimpered and muttered, but didn't scream out. They had been beaten down too far for that.

"Shut up and let me work," she hissed. Then she reached for the bottom of her shirt and pulled both it and her jumper over her head. The room was far colder than she'd thought it would be, though there was no air circulation. Underground perhaps? Regardless, she reached behind her back and unfastened her bra. Being sure to stay bent over and pointed away from the others, she removed the garment and – trying to quash the embarrassment factor – scrutinised the clasp. It was larger than most bra clasps, but that was very much intentional. You couldn't hide something in a small flimsy plastic one. She removed the covering, and the Luthor Core was right where she'd hidden it.

Barbara would be the first to admit that she wasn't a genius. She wasn't a molecular biologist like Simmons or an experimental physicist like Fitz. That didn't mean she wasn't smart – you had to be freakishly smart to get into SHIELD in the first place. She was an exceptional engineer – the benefits of growing up around Lex fucking Luthor – in both software and hardware. But her real talent was with computers. Programming, software design, hacking, if it could be done with code, she was a master at it. She had built the Oracle Virus – the world's most advanced piece of code – at sixteen. A virus capable of bypassing any firewall. A virus that used a pattern scan of her very brain as its core programming. No one had been able to stop the program, because it wasn't merely a piece of code you could counter. It was as complicated as a human mind. She had done that all by herself. And no one could replicate it either – because you needed her brain to do it. She wasn't a genius – but she was clever enough to never go anywhere without her best tool.

The Luthor Core, on the other hand, was Lex's masterpiece, a microchip that could interface with any piece of technology. But, she had redesigned this chip herself to do what she needed it to do.

She tagged the Core onto the bowl of the toilet, and waited.

Without the Core Remote or a computer, she couldn't use the chip to upload the Virus – it was a toilet after all. But what the tag would do was interrupt the plumbing as it tried to sync to technology that wasn't there. And that would…

Footsteps. She pulled her shirt and jumper back on, then resumed her position crouched on the floor as two men, dressed all in black, approached the door.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?!" The man on the left said, hitting the cell door with his fist. The other prisoners all started crying, retreating into the corner furthest from both the door and Barbara. Barbara remained crouched and tried to fiddle with the tag. She didn't think she was very convincing, but the guards did, as they opened the cell door and moved towards her. Barbara lashed out with her leg, knocking back the first man, then she punched the second man in the balls. She sprang to her feet and grabbed the sidearm from the man's holster. She slammed it into the man's gut, then rolled away. The first man recovered, but it was too late. She fired, taking him in the side. He dropped, and she pounced on him, slamming the weapon into his head, knocking him out. The second guard tried to get up, but he was cradling his balls with one hand – not a trained soldier – and she sent him into unconsciousness too.

Slowly, she rose to full height and released a long shaky breath. Nine months of training to take down armed assailants. Nine months of strength and fitness training she hadn't thought her body could even handle. But… well, apparently, she'd learned something. She stared at the gun in her hand in shock, until the crying of the prisoners brought her back to the moment.

Taking a breath, she retrieved her bra and the Luthor Core. Then she turned to the prisoners.

"Do you want out of here or what?" She barked, then she retrieved the keys from one of the men and exited the cell. No alarms blared. She should have a few minutes before the guards had to check-in, and security discovered her escape. The question was, what was her objective? Was it simply to escape? Or did she have another task…

In the next cell over from her was someone she recognised. Lance Hunter. He was an Operations student, training to be a Combat Specialist.

"You stuck in this sim too?" He asked, stepping up to the cell door with a cocky grin.

"Yep. Don't suppose you have a directive, do you?"

"I was told to wait for a contact, then escort them to the central control centre. You Barbara Gordon by any chance?"

"Better believe it," she said, then unlocked the door. The other prisoners had not followed her out of the cell.

He stepped out, and she offered him the weapon, but he shook his head.

"I'll get my own." Then he frowned, seeing the open door. "How did you…"

"I'm very crafty," she told him, then, without a glance backward, they marched down the hallway.

Three other cells were occupied – two full of women, one with two men in it. Babs insisted on unlocking each door and giving them all the opportunity to leave, but none took it. Figuring she'd given them a chance, and that trying to force them would just endanger their mission, she dismissed them and followed Lance. He seemed to respect her for that.

They reached the door, standing backs against the wall. She clicked off the safety and nodded to Lance. He opened the door and slipped inside. Immediately yells erupted from beyond the portal, followed by the sounds of bones breaking. Barbara ducked in behind Lance, and she shot one guard who was trying to sneak up on her companion from behind, but otherwise, she didn't help much – he was simply that good.

Once Lance had subdued the four guards in what must have been a break room – judging by the tables, chairs and bunkbeds – they crossed to the other side, Lance retrieving a gun and extra mags from one of the fallen guards.

"So, is it Bobbi? Barbs? Barbie…"

"Babs. And no, I'm not dating you."

He smirked slightly. "I think my wife would have something to say if I tried that. Her names Barbara too, hence the reason I asked."

"Ah."

She and Lance moved into the next hallway, which, thankfully, was empty. Though Lance shot out the security camera the second they entered.

"Which one is this for you?" he asked as they approached a metal staircase.

"First. They do this often?"

"This is my third. I'm in my second year at Ops. I think we get more use out of it than the other Academies."

"Makes sense," she agreed, "What actually is it?"

He laughed, "Wait and see. I'm not spoiling anything."

He put a foot on the step and winced at the soft sound it made.

"Bugger. Keep your steps soft. One at a time. Hold my six, alarms should be going any minute." He led the way up the staircase, and all their talking ceased. Sure enough, an alarm started ringing when they reached the third floor up. She assumed Lance knew the floor plan of this place, as he seemed to know exactly where he was going.

Five floors up, he kicked open a door and shot three people on the other side. Babs followed and took in their assailants. Caucasian, reasonably tall and well built. They were definitely underground as well, because she'd yet to see a window.

"Soviet era base, Eastern Europe probably," She whispered, "Russian sponsored insurgents maybe, or ex KGB affiliates."

He nodded, but said nothing, discarding his weapon and taking a semi-automatic from one of the downed men. Babs grabbed an extra mag from one of them as well. Finally, they reached a bulkhead door.

"Can you crack it?" He asked, gesturing to the keypad lock on the outside.

"Cover me." She placed her pistol on the ground, and pulled off the cover of the panel, exposing the wires beneath. Boots thudded on the ground, shouting echoing off the concrete walls. She grabbed two wires, crossing them, before pulling a pin and moving it between ports. Lance opened fire behind her, and she winced at the kickback, trying to focus on her work. 'The input needs to be routed around the door mechanism, force a security open…' She switched two more brackets, and Lance pivoted, aiming down the T-junction to fire on two men coming up behind them. Two bullets ricocheted off the door above her, but she ignored them and the rising beat of her heart. Come on…

The door clicked, then slid open. She shoved Lance to the floor, just in time to miss the barrage of bullets that came out the open door. He immediately pushed her off, then aimed through the door and fired wildly. Then he rolled forward and dove for cover behind a desk inside. Babs retrieved her pistol and fired back into the hall, taking out a man who'd rushed around to take advantage of the distraction.

Legs shaking with adrenaline, she rose slowly to her feet, trying to still her heavy breathing.

"Clear!" Lance said, and she followed him inside. She used the panel on this side to lock the door, then turned to see five guys lying on the floor in puddles of blood. One of them was Lance.

"Shit!" She exclaimed, kneeling beside him. He was leaning up against the same console, and blood was seeping through a hole in his side. He groaned in pain, shaking his head.

"Yep. Gonna lose marks for that," he hissed.

"Who cares about marks! You've been shot!"

"Finish the mission," he snapped. I'll hold the door. GO!" She jerked backward at his tone, then did as she was told. Moving up to the central console, she scanned the half-dozen screens showing layouts of the facility and security camera feeds until she found the main terminal. She withdrew the Luthor Core from her pocket and slapped it onto the hard-drive. Immediately, the machine booted up, and Babs began typing rows of code. She'd been right. The computer language defaulted to Russian. Within seconds, the Oracle Virus imprinted on the Core had uploaded to the system, and she'd broken through the password and into the secure network. She retrieved a disk-drive from a shelf behind her and plugged it in, then set the Virus to search for anything irregular in the facility files. If she was supposed to extract something, she imagined it would be… Bingo!

'File Ex-08417: SHIELD mission index 957376cxv.'

A SHIELD mission file, on a Russian computer. That didn't bode well. She downloaded the files, as well as any document that mentioned the mission key, then sent the building into lockdown – with the exception of a set path to the exit one floor above – and wiped the server. She retrieved the hard-disk and the Luthor Core, then moved back to Lance.

"Data secure. Let's get out of here." He nodded, and she helped him to his feet.

They hobbled back to the staircase – thankfully without meeting any other guards – and Babs helped Lance up to the top floor. Here, five men – and a woman – waited for them, each carrying full automatic weaponry. Babs and Lance split to either side of the corridor, keeping hidden behind the wall. She ignored Lance's wince of pain as he tried to keep himself upright.

"Five," she whispered, "Four, three, two, one…" The alarms shut off abruptly, and in the brief second the guards were disorientated by the sudden lack of sound, she and Lance rounded the corner and opened fire. She shot one in the chest and another in the leg as he moved out of the way. Lance hit the other four – downing three but only grazing the fourth. Babs ducked back around the corner, but wasn't fast enough to avoid taking a hit to the shoulder as shots peppered the concrete behind her. Lance tried another shot, and just missed taking a bullet to the head. But he did it, sending the two final guards to the ground.

Babs bit down on her lip to distract herself from the burning pain in her shoulder, and spun around the wall, gun trained on the fallen men. She advanced down the hallway and kicked the weapons away from two of the men – who'd been trying to reach for them. She stepped on one for good measure.

Lance made his way down the corridor, using the wall to support him. When he reached her, she took his arm around her shoulder, and he smiled gratefully. She opened the exit… and everything vanished in a flash of bright white light.

When the glare finally cleared from her eyes, she found herself in a giant dome with clear white panelled walls – electrodes fastened to each corner. It was easily the size of a football field, and just as tall.

"What the fuck?" she breathed. A door slid open in the wall on the far side of the room, and three nurses rushed out with stretchers. She lowered Lance down onto one, and he grinned stupidly at her.

"Told you it was cool," he said. Babs couldn't help but nod dumbly. She sat down on the second stretcher, and a nurse began working on her shoulder. He handed her a green whistle, and she took a puff, then released a long breath.

"Nice job Gordon. You should have joined Ops," Lance said as they were wheeled towards the door. She closed her eyes as the morphine began to flood her system, and the adrenaline proceeded to ebb away, leaving her tired to her very bones.

"No thank you," she said softly, "That, was utterly terrifying."

"He's right, though. You did very well out there," a new voice said. One she didn't recognise. She cracked her eyes back open and came face to face with a man with thin blonde hair and a rectangular face, wearing a suit and tie. He looked down at his clipboard and pointed at several things she couldn't see.

"Cell escape… very well handled. Fastest time in two years, though, I should point out you weren't exactly supposed to have access to any technology." He stared at her pointedly. "That being said, the fact that you were prepared enough to have that on you, and nobody caught it – and believe me, we checked – means as far as I'm concerned, you get bonus marks."… Yay? She'd gotten fucking shot!

"Following instruction from a senior agent: A+. Moral code: B+. Good call on not trying to force the other hostages out of the cells. The boy was a plant who would have stabbed you in the back and raised the alarm." She resisted the urge to blanch at that. "But, you did release two serial killers back into the wild, so points off for that."

"Serial killers?" she exclaimed before she could stop herself.

"The two men. If you had looked closely enough, you would have recognised one of them from the SHIELD list of most-wanted, and their clothes and temperaments should have been an indication of possible hostility." He flipped the page, and Barbara slumped. She had missed that?

"Marksmanship – Sci-Tech: Solid A. Willingness to risk oneself to help your partner, proficiently demonstrated. Ability to act cool and find a technological solution to a problem under fire: A+. Awareness: A. Computer science skills: A+. Data examination and extraction: A++. You set a new record for that one actually. Quite impressive."

This time her jaw really did fall open. This man must be a high-level agent. She had set a record?

"You didn't leave your partner behind when he was injured – you'd be surprised how many people fail that one – and kept your head as you escorted him to the surface. Finally: pain threshold. Could be better, but you maintained focus and remained on mission, which is more than many can say. All in all, that's an A grade. For your first time in the Arena, that's an incredibly good score, Miss Gordon." The agent folded his clipboard against his chest and stared at her inquisitively.

"Miss Gordon, have you thought about what you want to do at SHIELD once you finish your training?" Babs was struggling a bit to think straight with the morphine in her system and the nurses cutting away the shoulder of her blood-soaked shirt to clean the wound.

"Um… I mean… not particularly. I was kind of more concerned with trying to survive the classes, to be honest." The agent chuckled.

"So was I when I first came through. But don't worry, things get a lot easier now. We have to push you hard the first year, so we can weed out the people who aren't here for the right reasons. Have a think about it. If you want my opinion, sign up for some communications and ops electives. Don't get sucked into the trap of only studying your best field. You might be great at Computer Science and Engineering, but you could also be a good analyst or a good fighter. Those are the types of qualities I look for in Field Agents."

"Who are you, sir?"

He smiled at her then, a kindly smile. "My name is Phil Coulson, Agent of SHIELD. If you decide you want to get out of the lab and into the field, give me a call. And you can tell your friends Fitz and Simmons the same thing." He winked at her, then turned on his heel and walked away, leaving the nurses to fuss over her as Barbara's head continued to spin.


Authors Note:

Hey everybody! Ghost's mother is on the mend, and we're finally getting back on a sort of schedule. Hopefully, we'll have the next chapters ready to go up by Halloween.

On another note, while Ghost has been away from the keyboard, I've done some solo work, including a new chapter for the Light in the Darkness Anthology series, and a Dark Multiverse Gemini Curse oneshot AU inspired by some of our reviews that I might turn into a fully-fledged Dark!Harry/Dark!Ginny/Dark!Daphne AU.

Finally, who else is super pumped for this Skyrim style Hogwarts RPG game? I saw the trailer a couple days ago, and I have to say, I really, really hope they put some decent effort into the different subjects you can learn and not just the standard DADA and Charms. Fingers crossed it isn't a total crapshoot like Square's Avengers game. Boy was that a disappointment.

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