As Ashley wallowed in her darkened thoughts, wishing that Steve was there to comfort her, something odd happened. There was a sudden violent flash of purple light in the doorway of her room, and out of it tumbled a man clothed in his robe and slippers with a syringe clutched in his hands. His hair was a mess and his spectacles were slipping down his nose in a slanted position. He landed in a heap on the floor, and despite Ashley's surprise, she clicked flames into her hands and backed up in preparation. Before she knew it, her father's voice was ringing in her head for the first time in years.

"Ashley, this is the doctor. Rogue's mutation is in his pocket!"

"How the hell did he get here? And how did you get in my head?" Ashley hissed back to him as the doctor let out a pained groan.

"Ashley, syringe first - questions later!" Charles hurried her. Ashley began to approach Dr. Luka, but he was too quick. He took the syringe of blue liquid out of his pocket and forcefully shoved it into his own arm.

"Don't you dare come any further!" Dr. Luka threatened her with his thumb hovering over the plunger. "You won't get it back, I promise you that." Ashley held her hands up in surrender, taking a step back.

"Alright, fine," she told him quickly.

"I just wanted this for my son," the doctor sniffed, eyes darting across the room to where Rogue was lying dying in the bed. "I wanted to save my son." That's when Ashley felt something within her break. He looked desperate, he sounded like he was-

"Ashley, no - he ruined his son. The reason his son is so sick because he did experiments on him repeatedly for this HYDRA group," came Charles' solid interruption in her head. "That is why he's sick, don't let him manipulate you!"

"You experimented on your own son?" Ashley spat in disgust, clicking another flaming rock into her hand yet again. "You think all we're useful for is so that you can do experiments on us? Huh? Your own child, you sick-"

"You're her," the doctor suddenly breathed with dramatically widened eyes. Ashley closed her mouth and gulped at those two chilling words, whilst Rogue chewed the inside of her cheek at stared at him in confusion. "You're the one, you're the one we've been looking for. We almost caught you at the-"

"Thai restaurant and I got the hell out, yeah," Ashley hissed. "I'm not letting you get that close to me again, so your entire organisation might as well give it up from now."

The doctor let out a sickly bitter laugh, throwing his head back.

"You have no idea, none, what we could do with what you have living inside of you. Now that I can extract mutations, and I've given the formula to them, we're going to get you and it's going to work," he muttered excitedly with twinkling eyes. Ashley quickly thought about how she was going to do this. Anything would be risky, given that whatever she did could break or crack the glass of the syringe, and Rogue's entire mutation would swiftly go to waste.

"A-Ash, I don't wanna die!" Rogue suddenly spluttered in a panic, only now realising that she was nearing the end of her life.

"Yeah, I got that Marie," Ashley hissed back. She understood that Rogue was scared, but she definitely wasn't helping at this morning.

"Uh oh…how are we going to sort out this, then?" the doctor hummed sarcastically, eyes darting between both Ashley and Rogue in interest. Ashley looked across at her best friend with sorrowful eyes as the feeling of hopelessness completely washed over her. Her mind was all over the place, so she did the one thing she knew would silence him, or at least give him a chance to bargain with them.

"It's me you want!" she suddenly shouted at the doctor with her hands up in the air. Dr. Luka dropped his shoulders slightly and his eyebrows knitted together. "Hand over the syringe, and I'll voluntarily give myself to HYDRA-"

"ASHLEY!" Rogue gathered the strength to scream. "NO! Don't be stupid!"

"Rogue, how else are you going to survive you silly girl?!" Ashley cried back, slowly approaching the doctor with small but steady steps. "You're getting weaker by the second!"

"Oh no Ashley please," Rogue sobbed with the tears running into her mouth, shaking her head as the doctor grabbed Ashley by her neck. He restricted her breathing as he pulled a new syringe from his briefcase and injected that same familiar liquid from the Thai restaurant into her neck with a violent shove, making Ashley shout out a yelp of pain. "Ashley!"

Everything around Ashley began to go hazy already. She couldn't see anything clearly, her hearing sounded like she was trapped underwater again. Her limbs felt heavy as the doctor released her from his grip again and her body went limp as she fell straight onto the floor in a crumpled heap. "Please, why are you doing this? What have you done to her?" Rogue wept as her own body continued to gradually shut down.

"Relax, child. Nothing can happen until the sedative works its magic, or, in your case, a mutation duller. But now I'm going to wash my hands," the doctor answered with a bright smile. It was like he was excited all of a sudden as he leapt to his feet and scurried into Ashley's bathroom to prepare himself for the extraction.

As he disappeared, Ashley slowly lifted her head to look up at her old friend the best she could.

"Rogue," she breathed shakily, gaining her attention.

"Yes?" she quickly hissed back with wide eyes.

"What's…what's the first r-rule of being an agent? What…what did Christie tell you?" Ashley croaked out, giving her an incredibly weak smile. Rogue's bloodshot eyes went even wider as she silently opened the bedside drawer beside her and desperately rummaged around it, just as the doctor breezed back out of the bathroom, this time with gloves on and a larger syringe, flicking it although there was nothing inside. Ashley glanced up at Rogue and gave her the smallest of nods, causing Rogue to quickly aim the pistol in her hands and shoot the doctor once, twice in his shoulder and his blood spurted all over Ashley. He released a shout and fell to his knees with shock registered on his face, before he he could even realise what had happened. He looked across at Rogue in horror and hatred, all colour completely draining from his skin.

Suddenly, something evil registered in his eyes.

He pulled the syringe back out of his back pocket with the light blue liquid and, before the girls could register what was happening, broke the glass in half, snapping it in two. "NO!" Ashley attempted to shout, although she could barely do it. The liquid trickled out onto the floor and seeped into the dark carpet and the girls could only watch in horror. Rogue bit down on both her lips before aiming the pistol and shooting him again - not once, not twice, but three times with the last one being a headshot.

There was a silence as the his body slumped to the floor and the shells clattered onto the carpet, neither one of the girls able to speak.

"Ash are you okay?" Rogue was the first one to ask shakily, squinting across at her as her own vision started to go cloudy. Ashley couldn't really string words together, but she had to, just for her.

"My body always rejects their sedation fluid and I'll be f-f-fine…but you, Marie," she whispered thickly through her tears. Her sobs were making her body feel even heavier - she was about to pass out. She was in no immediate danger, so she knew that she wouldn't have a power attack, but passing out in what could be Rogue's final moments wasn't what she wanted.

She was holding on with every bone in her body.

"It doesn't matter, Ash," Rogue whispered as her eyelids started to flicker. "I saved him from getting his hands on you. That's all we needed, was him d-dead. Right?" Ashley attempted to answer, but her body was failing to stay conscious. "Ash? Oh Ashley please, please don't go," Rogue cried desperately, her hands beginning to shake in terror. "Don't leave me Ash…As-"

"Ashley? Come on, Ash," came a distant voice of familiarity.

"Come back to me honey, come on."

It was still dark, everything still felt heavy and there was a horrible white noise stinging her eardrums.

"You got it, Ash. I know you can hear me…come back to me, honey."

Ashley placed the voice and immediately, something inside of her recharged as if her body knew that she was in safe hands. She forced her eyelids open and squinted at the rush of light that was suddenly consuming her senses. Her eyes slowly refocussed on the beautiful sight in front of her and she let out a gasp of relief.

It was Steve, of course, and the concern on his face made her heart swoon, even though she was still reasonably weak. But his worried demeanour softened once she finally looked up at him. "Hey pretty girl, welcome back," he breathed out in relief, stroking her warm face with his thumb. "God, Ashley…we were so worried about you."

"I'm fine," Ashley smiled up at him, nuzzling her face into his palm for comfort.

But the smile quickly dropped from her face as soon as she began to remember what had happened. Her heart plummeted into the pits of her stomach.

"Oh my god, Marie!" she cried, leaping out of Steve's arms and across his apartment floor, opening his balcony door and staggering outside. She blasted air from her feet, although she was wobbling quite a bit, and carried herself up to her own balcony with her heart racing and tears welling up in her eyes. She heard Steve shout after her, but she ignored him, going higher and higher until she was at her own balcony. She landed with ease but as she stood up, she noticed two S.H.I.E.L.D agents carry a body bag out of the room through the glass - and her heart shattered into a million tiny pieces.

She slid open her balcony door and let out a choked up, "NO!" as she watched them leave.

"Ashley?" came the sudden familiar Southern drawl that she both knew and loved from the far left of her. Ashley held her breath and turned her head, nervous that this was all in her mind. But there she was alive in the flesh, sitting upright in her bed with glowing skin, with Charles seated to the right of her and another random young man to her left. Ashley could barely believe it. It felt like a dream.

An odd dream.

"You're up!"

"Marie," Ashley gasped, gingerly taking a few steps towards her. "Dude, you're okay? How…"

"The syringe was a fake," Rogue explained with a little twinkle in her eyes. "The liquid inside was fake, the doctor just used it as a bargaining chip to get you. He had no interest in giving up my mutation without saving his son."

Ordinarily this would've made sense, but given that Ashley's head was still all over the place, she just didn't understand.

"How did…so…wait-"

"Ashley, take a seat and they'll explain it properly," came Christie's amused voice from the doorway. Ashley looked up and saw her standing there with Natasha, the two of them clearly not trying to kill each other for once. In fact, Natasha was holding a very relaxed looking Lady Bucky, who was purring non stop in her arms at the sight of her mother.

"So how did he get here? If he wanted me from the start, how did he know where I was now?" Ashley crinkled her nose as she took another sip of water.

"His son, Sammy," Charles gestured towards the boy sitting opposite him, "his mutation happens to be opening teleportation rings. After I used Cerebro to contact him, he opened a teleportation ring and sent his father here directly, who we believed at the time had agreed to return the mutation. We only discovered that it was a replica when Scott and Storm went to fetch Sammy to bring him back to the school, and found the real syringe wrapped up in a safe. It looked…suspicious."

"Woah," Ashley breathed out shakily, running her knuckles over her forehead. "So he literally….smashed it in front of us for what, special effect?"

"I mean you had just brutally killed the guy," Christie reminded her sister with a proud smirk from where she leant against the wall, "I know he was mad as hell. He had to do something dramatic - that's men for you."

Ashley bit back a smile and waved her off playfully.

"So then, when did you guys get here?" she continued to ask her father.

"Shortly after you passed out. Sammy's mutation has really been a joy to us," Charles chuckled lightly. "If we were a moment too late, Rogue would be dead. In fact, she was pretty much dead by the time we arrived."

"Damn. So…you have your mutation back?" Ashley blinked at her friend. Rogue nodded and ducked her head, practically blushing with relief.

"Yeah. But the Professor said he can easily help train and regulate it, and so maybe I'll be able to touch people again, even with my mutation," she announced with a small grateful smile. "So I don't mind nearly half as much, you know?" Ashley looked over at her father to verify what Rogue was saying was true, and was surprised to see him nod.

"It's true. All mutations can be controlled," Charles confirmed gracefully. "Some are self sustaining and others simply need a bit of guidance."

"Ironic, as if you'd bothered to double check that little point from the start, we wouldn't be in this predicament," Christie whistled casually, leaning her head against the wall. Charles nodded fairly.

"Oh Rogue, I am so happy for you," Ashley smiled over at her friend, genuinely pleased. She glanced over at the other boy, who hadn't said a lot. "And you must be Sammy? I am so sorry for us, you know…killing your father-"

"Don't apologise," Sammy quickly croaked out as he shook his head rapidly. "Please. You did a wonderful thing….he was hurting me and his experiments just made me weaker."

"And now you have a place in our school so that you can fully heal and be safe," Charles assured him with a comforting smile. He turned to Rogue too. "The both of you can, in fact. And Ashley…"

"Don't even go there, Dad. I'm still safest here, give or take a few accidents," Ashley interrupted him tiredly as she ran her fingers through her messy auburn hair.

"Yes yes, I was going to say that I'm proud of you," Charles spoke over her instead. Ashley frowned and closed her mouth again. She wasn't expecting that. "We heard that you were willing to give yourself up for Rogue. As dangerous as it was - it was also admirable." Ashley pushed her tongue into the side of her cheek. It was sweet and all those lovely things - but it was clear that she was high on HYDRA's most wanted list. It was that uncertainty about when they'd try it again that she hated the most.

She wasn't scared per se - but she was on edge.

Rogue was up and ready to go that same evening, the healthiest and happiest she had ever looked. She was back wearing her lace gloves again, but she no longer seemed to mind. She looked proud, in fact. Ashley stood with Coulson, Steve and Christie as they watched them load the aircraft with Charles, Sammy, Storm and Scott who had come to pick them up again. Ashley had that same feeling of dread that she couldn't shake, but she forced a smile on her face to see them off. "Thank you for all your help - and I'm so sorry for bringing all this drama to your door," Rogue sighed to the group as she did up her coat. "I'm kinda embarrassed about it to be honest."

"Don't be, it's literally what we're here for," Christie gave her a small smile and stretched out her arms before casually leaning on Coulson's shoulder.

"Honestly Rogue, you have a good eye on you when it comes to aim. So maybe there is always a place for you here after all," Coulson shrugged with a little smirk, making Rogue giggle back and duck her head.

"Thank you, but I think I'm good where I am. You guys face almost too much danger on a regular basis and that kinda freaks me out," she admitted, half jokingly and half seriously. Steve glanced down at Ashley with a frown, obviously having missed what had happened, but said nothing in the moment so that he didn't interrupt. "Ash, I adore you. Thank you so much," Rogue was smiling at her closest friend. "I can't hug you cos you're weak as it is, but I love you." Ashley blew her a kiss with tearful eyes, having to settle for that instead, and Rogue blew many back before turning round to board the aircraft.

Ashley turned round as they took off, going back inside again. She couldn't really handle this anxiety merged with the sadness of seeing her friend go - everything was pushing her to her limit.

Steve turned to Christie with a frown once she had gone.

"Christie, what the hell happened?" he asked her quietly.

"HYDRA is after Ashley's ass," Christie told him with a tired sigh. "Like, really after her ass. I thought they tried to get her on your date just because, but now I think they want her for something else - something bigger." Steve's jaw clenched and he slowly let out a steady breath through his teeth.

"How do you know?"

"The guy that told us about the doctor basically worked with me when I went undercover on The Winter Soldier mission. He spilled the beans, explained they were after her for something, made a few rapey comments and…well, I ended up killing him," Christie explained breezily. Steve was completely unsurprised by this news. He didn't really expect anything less from her. "But we also managed to extract a lot of HYDRA material from his apartment, so now we have a lot of intelligence. And more importantly, we got him down before he could warn anyone else. Which means of right now, we're a good few steps ahead." Steve nodded distractedly.

"Does Ashley really think we're gonna let HYDRA get anywhere near her?" he ended up asking with a sigh. Christie let out a little scoff.

"I don't think Ashley cares whether we 'let' anything happen to her or not," she told Steve honestly as she rubbed his shoulder. "She's not that type of girl. She'll protect herself but she's probably a bit overwhelmed. Being a celebrity in the secret terrorist organisation sector isn't a pleasant feeling, I'm sure. Go and talk to her, she'll probably love it if you do based on the fact that she loves every and any thing you do."

Steve found Ashley not in her own room, but in his apartment a few minutes later. She was sitting at his kitchen counter with her head in her hands, miserably stirring round a bowl of tomato soup that didn't really intend on eating. Her head nudged up at the sound of Steve opening the front door, but she couldn't even bring herself to smile at him. He shut the front door behind him and slowly made his way over to her, unsure of whether she wanted to be left alone or not. "You okay?" was all he managed to ask tentatively.

Ashley gave him a half hearted nod and continued stirring the soup.

"Alright. I'm…I'll be in the bedroom if you-" But then Steve saw what he was hoping he wouldn't. A small dribble of blood exiting the corner of her left eye, running down her cheek and into her slightly parted mouth. Ashley could taste it before Steve could say anything and she shook her head in horror.

"Sh*t," she swore, leaping up and trying to calm herself down. Steve grabbed her before she could run anywhere, holding her by her shoulders. "N-no Steve let go, I don't wanna hurt you-"

"You're not gonna hurt me, Ash. It's okay," he assured her quietly, placing both hands on either side of her face to stop her from looking elsewhere. "Breathe. You're not gonna lose it, Ashley. Just copy my breathing, breathe with me. In and out…in and out." Ashley did as she was told, attempting to regulate her shaky breaths by following everything that Steve did as she looked deep into his eyes. He didn't break eye contact with her once, continuing to breathe with her until her breathing slowed down and the shakiness had finally smoothed out again. He had successfully pulled her out of a power attack within less than a few minutes and now there she was, sobbing in his arms. "Ash, you know you can tell me what's going on?"

"Steve, everything's getting too heavy," she cried into his top, clinging onto it like a little child would. "If I get into HYDRA's hands, the damage I could do-"

"Ashley, stop worrying about things that haven't happened yet," Steve told her firmly as he lifted her chin so that she was looking up at him again. She didn't look too sure, though. "We will cross that bridge if and when we come to it. I promise you - we'll be okay. You'll be okay." Ashley nodded, scrubbing her tears away and trying to compose herself.

"Thanks, Steve," she smiled shakily, pressing a quick kiss onto his lips. "Seriously, thank you for everything."

...

THAT'S THE END…of this book! Next book [The Xavier Sisters of S.H.I.E.L.D] is already up and running, which is more of Ashley, Steve, the team and Christie's adventures together. I just had to end this one here because the X-Men don't really re-appear for a while, so it wouldn't be fair to keep the rest of their story here!

Feel free to stick around for the next chunk of their journey, which will include Ultron, HYDRA, new faces, some love, some heartbreak, some jokes and a whole lot of feeeeels! Thank you for sticking around, it's been amazing!