Well, I've been away for a while. Nearly three months, actually. Sorry about that – though as my entirely-unconnected-to-this Dresden/MCU oneshot A Patchwork Knight shows, I haven't exactly been idle on the writing front. As it happens, I've mostly been writing a mix of later stuff and sorting out real life commitments. I am in my final year of my undergraduate degree, I have quite a lot of them. Also, I'll admit, I procrastinated a little on this chapter.
But now I'm here, and the chapter should hopefully make up for absence, in length if nothing else. Enjoy.
Before we get going and before I forget, I have commissioned AMAZING couple of pieces of art by the brilliant HelenaMarkos, in return for reading and reviewing her Lord of the Rings fic Splint, which I heartily recommend. One of them is now my desktop background. You can find them on her Deviantart profile under the name of Helena-Markos, or there are links in the 'Fanworks' section of COS' tropes page.
Lotusblossom: You were pretty sure that it would be Harry/Diana? Huh. What made you think that?
As for your question – whether Harry/Carol is going to be the main ship for Harry, well. That would require me to give a straight answer, which I almost never do. I will say that their brand of chemistry and 'will they, won't they' will be a running thread throughout the story for a very long time.
As for Harry/Diana, in all seriousness, I am very fond of Diana and did at one-point try shipping them. Weirdly though as I've carried on writing, I've found that Diana's someone with whom Harry has no romantic chemistry. As he gets older he won't be blind to how she looks, but there's no romantic spark. So it is vanishingly unlikely.
White Emperor: Your question is a fair one. And I am, by the way, 22 as of this September, in my final year of my undergraduate degree. However, I have considered this in the past and the simple answers are that in the short term, I am trying to streamline the story, shorten chapters, with mixed success. In the long term, if I ever lose inspiration or am unable to carry on, well, I have hundreds of thousands of words of work that is as yet unpublished and a fairly clear plan. I will either hand them over to a writer who I trust to do justice to the work, or I will post sections on the net in combination with a synopsis of what would have happened. Rest assured, one way or another, there will be a resolution to this 'verse.
Deciding the composition of those who were to go to the World Cup was, Harry found, a somewhat difficult one. Ron and Hermione's invitations had been politely but firmly rebuffed by their respective parents; in the latter case, the Grangers were on holiday in Australia and apparently intended on enjoying a holiday without magic, though Harry had no doubt that Hermione would have stuffed her bags with as many magic books as she could fit.
As for Ron, that had hurt at first, until Thor had gently pointed out that as he had not especially wanted Harry to leave his sight for any length of time, so Mrs Weasley did not want her two youngest leaving hers. Indeed, the Weasley clan had been gathered, rallying at the Burrow, excepting only the Twins, who were apparently interning at Stark Industries over the summer, and Mrs Weasley had been assured that they would be kept well away from any Avengers business.
Jean-Paul had politely turned his down as well, gravely explaining that his sister was having a difficult period – and while sessions with Professor Xavier, recommended months before, were doing her considerable good (apparently her imaginary friend, Eva, wasn't quite as imaginary as first thought), it was a long road, and sometimes she needed her brother's help traversing it.
Jean had also turned down the offer, on account of a sudden and virulent Summer cold. While it was hardly a recurrence of the Spanish Flu, it left her in quite a miserably stuffed up state, subsisting on a diet of honey and lemon tea, chicken soup and, after Loki had heard about it, a potion that smoked alarmingly, but significantly alleviated the symptoms.
However, Jean had insisted that she not get near to Pepper while she was ill on account of the possibility of transmitting her cold to both mother and baby, and after he visited her had extracted solemn promises from Harry to do everything but burn his clothing and put himself through nuclear grade decontamination. While Harry was spared a fair amount of worry, the possibility that the Avengers, Earth's foremost defenders, and among them the baby's father, might also be at risk of infection was treated as a mere footnote. But anyone who suggested risking the infection of the heavily pregnant Pepper confronted Jean's previously demonstrated mile wide maternal streak, thereby arousing a fury of such a scale that it would have had the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse taking notes.
Who would be so foolish to do such a thing? Scott Summers would, with the unwise remark, "Go on Jean, you're doing much better today: it'll be fine."
Needless to say, he regretted it.
Wanda had regretfully declined, saying that this year's Halloween and Winter Solstice were likely to be especially turbulent and she had to give her apprentice some intense training to catch him up in time. Harry, most of a year of the Avengers' influence and puberty making themselves known, had failed to conceal his snickers at the double entendre. Wanda had simply smirked and said, "Yes, that too. Your godmother might be an old lady, but unlike some in this room, she's getting some." At this point, with the tables turned, Harry had blushed horribly while Darcy, who had been around, had let out a piercing wolf-whistle. With that, Wanda had ruffled Harry's hair, given him a kiss on the cheek and departed.
As for Darcy, she and Bucky had also said that they were staying, at least nominally so Darcy could give Bucky the parts of the guided tour of New York that Steve either didn't know about or didn't want to know about. Unspoken, however, was his desire to avoid coming into contact with those whose relatives he might have killed or, at least, failed to save. And considering the multinational nature of the World Cup, there was a very slim chance that someone might recognise him from some of his earlier exploits. What exactly he was doing was unclear, but Harry noticed that he spent a fair amount of time with Natasha's friend, Ivan – whose ever twitching moustache, dry sense of humour and palpable fondness for Natasha had all immediately endeared him to Harry. While Harry couldn't be certain, he suspected very strongly that it had something to do with his time with the organisation known only as the Red Room.
Carol, Uhtred, Diana and the Twins, however, all accepted happily and everything went smoothly. Up, naturally, to a point. Because never mind the Avengers, when Harry was involved, nothing went smoothly for all that long.
Nevertheless, setting up camp went fairly easily, especially since Tony had reacted to the information that magical tents were less tents, more small portable palaces by getting the most luxurious one he could find – it had eleven bedrooms, each with a square footage more appropriate to a small apartment, a Jacuzzi, a bath the size of a small swimming pool with hot taps, cold taps and scented bubble taps, a large dining room, a larger living room, a kitchen fit for a five star restaurant, a sauna, a lab, an armoury containing two Iron Man armours, spare arc reactors and everything required to make repairs, as well as the full combat gear for the rest of the Avengers and fully stocked medical facilities, just in case Pepper happened to suddenly give birth. The gentle explanation that women didn't give birth within five minutes of going into labour like on television seemed to cut no ice. There wasn't, however, any remark on the armoury. The Avengers knew better than most how quickly even the most innocuous situation could go pear shaped.
For the time being, though, those still present were mostly concerned with cooking up sausages, eggs and bacon on a fire outside, this being the traditional way to do things, and utterly ignoring the five star kitchen inside. Those present consisted of Thor and the kids, Pepper having a bit of a lie down, Tony, Jane and Bruce doing what was ostensibly lab work which was actually, in Tony's case, an excuse to hover protectively, while Clint, Natasha and Steve went to explore – or, most likely, scout for trouble.
"Ludo!" Thor said cheerfully, standing up to greet a large man in Quidditch robes who had come bouncing over like an excited Labrador. "How are you?"
The man, Ludo, enthusiastically shook Thor's hand, and said, "Excellently, James, Excellently!" He grinned. "Or is it Thor these days?"
"I answer to both," Thor said. "Have you met my son?"
"No, I can't say that I have," Ludo said, bright blue eyes swinging to Harry and performing the usual flick to the fringe and Harry's scar. "But I've heard of him, of course - I don't think there's anyone who hasn't."
"I live in hope," Harry mumbled, earning a snort of amusement from Carol and sniggering from the Twins.
"I never heard about the white hair, though," Ludo added, curious gaze rising to Harry's hair, and the thick white lock at the front.
"It's a recent development, Mister…" Harry said, trailing off.
"Harry," Thor said. "This is Ludo Bagman, current head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports at the Ministry of Magic. He was also once the best beater the Wimbourne Wasps ever had."
Bagman laughed and shook Harry's hand. "Pleased to meet you, Harry," he said. His gaze shifted to Carol. "And is this charming young lady your sister or a cousin? Or maybe," and here his tone turned conspiratorial and he nudged Harry. "A lady friend? If so, you're doing well there!" His gaze flicked to Diana. "Two, even," hadded, grinning.
Harry flushed, embarrassed, but before he could say anything, Carol, with a hard smile that did not reach her eyes, reached out and took Bagman's hand. Then, she squeezed, hard enough that bones were visibly being ground. "Hi," she said sweetly. "I'm Carol. I'm a friend of Harry's. Just a friend."
Bagman, no stranger to bone crunching handshakes, first chuckled and tried to match grips with her. As Carol tightened her grip, however, his eyes widened and he began to subtly try and pull away from the handshake as he went white with pain. After a long moment, Carol, looking deep into his eyes, very deliberately let his hand go. Eyeing her warily, he forced a laugh and said, "Pleased to meet you," before shaking out his slightly mangled hand. When he looked at Diana, he simply got a cool, regal stare and a raised eyebrow that Loki would have been proud of, before lowering the eyebrow and looking away as if he was now simply beneath her notice. This was all the more impressive since she was simultaneously keeping Uhtred from standing up and making his displeasure definitively known by pinning his nearest hand to the floor. Coughing awkwardly, Bagman turned back to Harry. "You're a pretty useful Seeker from what I hear, aren't you?"
"I play for Gryffindor," Harry said, a little embarrassed.
"Don't be modest, Harry," Fred said boisterously, clapping Harry on the back.
"He's the best seeker Gryffindor's ever had," George said.
"The youngest in a century," Fred added.
"An accolade indeed," Bagman said, impressed, and Harry flushed somewhat. "And you two, you're Arthur Weasley's boys, aren't you?"
The mood darkened somewhat.
"Yeah," George said.
Bagman nodded, some of his air of jollity deserting him. "A good man, Arthur was," he said. "Hardworking, honest... brave." He was silent for a long moment, then clapped his hands together. "But I'm sure that he wouldn't want us wallowing in misery," he said bracingly. "You haven't seen Barty Crouch anywhere, have you James?"
"No," Thor said. "I think he's been avoiding me. Why do you ask?"
Bagman waved a hand. "Oh, nothing serious," he said. "The Bulgarians are getting on at me about something and languages are Barty's thing, so I really need him to translate."
"I can help with that," Thor said.
"You speak Bulgarian?" Bagman asked, surprised.
"I am Asgardian," Thor said. "We speak every language."
"Sounds dashed convenient," Bagman said. "Oh, and James, you know the muggle security services, right?"
"Some of them," Thor said. "Though that is more Clint and Natasha's department. Why?"
Bagman sighed. "Oh, Peter Wisdom is triple checking security for the fifteenth time or something like that and he keeps demanding I give him another full run-down of security measures, personnel and things like that. I told him, 'ask the DMLE, ask Barty, ask Cornelius, anyone who's not me - I just do the commentating!'" He paused. "He didn't like that very much. And he keeps bending my ear about Bertha."
"Bertha?" Thor asked.
"Oh, you know, Bertha Jorkins," Bagman said.
Thor nodded. "A few years ahead of me at Hogwarts," he said. "Ravenclaw. Not all that bright, but very nosy."
"That's her," Bagman chortled. "Forgetful too. You see, she went on holiday to Albania and isn't back yet. Now me, I think she's just forgotten, lost track of time, or got lost - she's probably in Australia instead! She'll turn up sooner or later, probably in October, still thinking it's July." He shook his head. "But Wisdom's got a bee in his bonnet over the matter and he keeps hounding me about it."
"He may be right to be worried," Thor said, frowning. He was not the only one. Harry and Carol were both discomforted, with Carol outright glaring at Bagman. The Twins, for their part, looked more pensive than worried, taking Bagman's words at face value.
Bagman sighed. "Not you too," he said. "Ah well. Come on, let's figure what the Bulgarians are trying to say."
As the two left, Carol glowered at Bagman's back, and said, "Okay, I'm filing him under asshole."
Uhtred let out an inarticulate growl that nevertheless suggested that he very much agreed with this assessment.
"Don't be so hard on him, Carol," Fred said. "He's right about Jorkins. Dad said she'd been shuffled from department to department for years, no one wanted her because she was so absent minded."
"And she always turned up fine," George said. "Sort of like Harry does."
"I've actually died once and been on the edge of dying at least twice," Harry said. "And I doubt Ms Jorkins has the advantages I do."
"Yeah, speaking as another member of the should-be-dead club," Carol said. "It only takes once." She frowned. "Besides: if she's just some nosy dumbass, why is the head of Britain's SHIELD so interested in her?"
"He wouldn't be," Harry said, sharing a look with her. They had met Wisdom during the debriefing following the Battle of London, and aside from an astounding resemblance to Sirius (which happened to be because he was Sirius' brother) and what seemed to be a perpetually foul mood, the impression they had got was that he wasn't the sort to head on a wild goose chase. "Not if there wasn't more - a lot more - to this than meets the eye..."
What that was, however, was not immediately discovered. Instead, in fairly short order, they demolished the food and found themselves wandering through the camps of supporters. Carol, what with her Irish ancestry being one of the few things that she actually didn't mind about her father's side of the family (and since it was something that was also present on her mother's side of the family, she felt that she had plausible deniability) and being an enthusiastic sports fan, soon wound up festooned in Irish rosettes. She was also, thanks to Harry's basic explanation and the Twins' supplementary commentary, familiar with the basics of Quidditch and therefore well able to have many an enthusiastic conversation on the subject, ably supported in this by the Twins.
While neither Uhtred nor Diana was especially knowledgeable about the sport and both found it somewhat puzzling, Beating was essentially constructively applied violence and thus a subject Uhtred could happily discuss at length. For Diana's part, she seemed mostly content to listen and talk to those few who weren't interested in Quidditch.
This in turn meant that the attention was mostly off Harry, thanks to his token Irish rosette, and since his fringe covered his forehead, all that really happened was that his white forelocks got a few curious glances. As a result, he could look around the camps in peace. He was actually rather curious – for the first time in his life, he was seeing witches and wizards at leisure, not heading to school or at school, not doing the back to school shopping in Diagon Alley, just relaxing and having fun.
And these witches and wizards came, apparently, from all over the world and in more than one variety – a few wandless practitioners from Spain were demonstrating colourful illusions for some stoic looking Nordic witches, while two large Russian wizards who were wearing furs despite the warmth were playing a game that looked like table tennis without the table, with wands taking the place of bats and rocks the size of two clenched fists taking the place of balls, and two wandless practitioners, one an African woman of regal bearing in late middle age who was wearing colourful clothing that a keen eye would recognise as Ghanaian and the other a young Chinese man in Western style muggle clothing, examined a set of equipment that was variously made of glass that looked like it had come from a factory struck by simultaneous bouts of coughs, hiccups and sneezes, carefully carved and perfectly clear crystal and gold gilded copper piping, all with strangely coloured liquids bubbling away inside and having an extremely technical debate in what sounded like Latin.
Looking around, Harry could see witches and wizards from Africa, China, Japan, India, Australia, North America, South America and all over Europe, some distinguished by styles of dress, others by flags and banners, many of which Harry didn't recognise, and still more by the distinctive smells of national specialities cooking inside or outside tents. The former carried notable risks, as was demonstrated when a tent caught fire.
Harry, quite without thinking, ripped the fire away from the burning tent and lacking anything better to do with it, blasted it upwards, resulting in a pillar of flame most of sixty feet high. If nothing else, this got quite a lot of attention, since in the grand lexicon of attention-grabbing tricks, blasting pillars of flame into the sky is a mere one step below using that same fire to write ominous or rude messages in the sky.
As the crowds gasped and gathered at this astounding feat, and it was astounding. Generating fire wandlessly was held to be relatively easy. Oxygen, after all, is flammable and so are most materials in the natural world, once given ample persuasion. Controlling fire, however, is not easy at all and it only becomes more difficult when you are controlling fire you did not conjure. Deftly controlling and redirecting fire in a specific direction, without the use of a focus or a standard wand, and with apparent ease at that, is extremely impressive.
This led to a lot of excited enquiry, enquiry that got a lot more excited when Uhtred made a loud proclamation of Harry's identity, which, while made with the intention of gaining some respectful space, achieved the exact opposite.
Once they finally managed to extricate themselves from the crowd, Harry having reluctantly answered some of the less technical questions, he complained about this. "Surely they would understand that my lord would wish for space?" he asked.
Harry sighed and the Twins grinned briefly, before turning to Uhtred.
"Well, you see, Uhtred," Fred began. "Us mere mortals don't see gods very often."
"Or demigods," George added. "They're something of a rarity."
"So?" Uhtred asked, frowning.
"So this is probably the only time that they have ever seen, or will ever see, one of Harry's birth," Diana said thoughtfully. "Remember when Lady Jane first came to Asgard? The reactions were not so different."
Uhtred frowned, then nodded grudgingly. "I suppose so," he said.
"And Harry's some kind of folk hero around here," Carol added. "Right?"
"The Boy Who Lived," Harry said sourly.
"Survived a killing curse and sent Voldemort packing at the grand old age of a year old," Fred said.
"That wasn't me," Harry said. "That was mum. She…" He trailed off. He hadn't really brought up his discovery of his mum's post-mortem merging with the entity known as the Phoenix, nor really the Phoenix itself. It wasn't exactly something he wanted to discuss. "Remember when HYDRA attacked Hogwarts?" he asked.
The Twins nodded.
"Remember when I… when I died?" Harry asked. "And came back? When a giant bird of fire appeared around me?"
They nodded again, the words 'and it obliterated the HYDRA Agents, destroying about half the castle in the process' hanging unspoken in the air.
"That was mum too," Harry said. "She invoked something. Something old and powerful. That reflected Voldemort's curse back on him and protects me." He shook his head. "So it wasn't really anything to do with me."
"That makes sense," George said, after a long moment. "Even if it does feel like it's missing a few bits."
"Which," Fred added hastily, as his twin was fried in several glares. "We won't ask for until they're offered."
"But good luck explaining that to the Wizarding public."
Harry sighed. "You mean that I've got no chance whatsoever of doing so," he said.
"Pretty much, yeah," Fred said. "Sorry about that."
Harry's mood, however, perked up when they returned to the tent and everyone made their way to the stadium. Once again, he was just another face in the crowd, another spectator in the crowd, part of the excited hubbub that juggled tickets, omnioculars and favours of all kinds as they made their meandering way into the vast stadium that had been erected for the occasion. This last was something Carol remarked on.
"This stadium was made for the match, right?" she said, gaze tracking over the velvet smooth oval field that rested in the heart of the layered stadium, every bit of which was infused with a soft golden light, like an emerald in a gold ring.
"Indeed it was, built from the ground up," Thor said. "It took most of a year and it is the largest stadium in the world."
This drew several low, impressed whistles.
"When magic goes out to impress, it doesn't hold back, huh," Carol said.
"Indeed not," Uhtred said, sounding reluctantly impressed. "I did not think that mortal magic was capable of such things."
"It is," Loki said. "And it would be capable of much more if only its practitioners realised it."
Any further philosophical discussion was halted, however, by the emergence of the teams, both flying in arrow head formations to colossal roars from the fans and veritable torrents of green and red sparks.
"How don't people notice all this?" Steve wondered.
"You'd be amazed at what people will and won't believe, Steve," Tony said. "I bet you dollars to dimes that Britain's defence department or MI13 have put out some excuse about a night exercise, testing out new flares, that sort of thing."
Steve frowned, but didn't dispute this.
The next piece of excitement was generated by the mascots, first the leprechauns who soared overhead like a green and gold comet, leaving a rain of gold coins in their wake. "Don't bother," Thor said, pitching his voice to cut through the cheers, whoops and inevitable arguments as spectators tried to catch as much of the apparently free gold as possible. "It is only an illusion."
"Feels real enough to me," Clint said, inspecting one coin with a critical eye.
"They are constructs," Loki explained. "Which vanish or transform back into leaves, twigs and other debris after a few hours."
Carol and the Twins, who had formed a kind of partnership, one that consisted of the Twins using their magic to guide as many coins into Carol's upturned shield as possible and then dividing the spoils, shared looks. "So," Carol said. "What I'm hearing is that we need to spend this quickly."
"And carefully," George added.
"Spread the spending around so it won't be so noticeable or easily traceable," Fred continued.
"You guys have an idea about where to start?" Carol asked, shooting a wicked smile at Steve. While she was, at heart, too honest to really start scamming people like that, she took a certain glee in shocking her great-grandfather. As for the Twins, they were practically the living incarnations of the Artful Dodger and so, presuming they found deserving victims, what they would do was anyone's guess.
The Twins shared an almost offended look. "My dear Miss Danvers, we don't have an idea."
"Perish the thought: we have several."
Steve looked absolutely horrified, while Tony seemed to be on the verge of hysterics, in large part at Steve's expression. Natasha looked amused, Jane looked mildly scandalised, Pepper was rolling her eyes and keeping half an eye on Tony to make sure that he was still breathing and Clint looked like he was considering adding a few suggestions of his own. Of the divine contingent, Thor let out a thunderous roll of laughter, Diana looked amused, Uhtred raised a puzzled eyebrow, Loki looked suspiciously innocent and Harry introduced the flat of his palm to his forehead with some force and sighed.
"And now the Bulgarian mascots," Bagman boomed.
"This could present a problem," Natasha remarked.
"Consider it a problem that is catered for," Loki said calmly, weaving a series of gossamer thin spells that fell around the box like mosquito net, before apparently fading away – though Harry could, when he reach out, still feel their subtle power.
"What problem?" he asked, puzzled.
"Veela," Thor said. "They are a variety of magical being that…" He trailed off and coughed uncomfortably.
"That what?" Harry asked.
Loki rolled his eyes. "Veela are related to Sirens, the Sidhe and most closely to the Rusalka. They are found throughout Europe and, to be frank, the entirety of Midgard, though they prefer temperate climates. They are almost invariably female, astoundingly beautiful and incredibly beautiful, capable of entrancing men and women alike via their glamour – though usually only women of a certain persuasion, and men of a certain persuasion are largely immune. They mostly breed true with humans, and part Veela retain a significant amount their ancestral allure." He paused, then added, as if an after-thought, "Oh, and when angry or feeling threatened, full blooded Veela tend to transform into bird like forms and throw fireballs."
Tony looked interested. "Tell me more," he said, earning an unamused look from Pepper. He kissed her on the cheek. "I just want to know so that I can program JARVIS to identify their… allure."
"I'm sure," Pepper said dryly.
"Indeed," Loki said, just as dryly. "It is simple enough to filter out once you know how, but it is also excellent at catching people off-guard and it tends to make them want to do something impressive – sometimes something terminally impressive, if you follow me." He glanced at Harry, expression amused. "I can think of more than a few people here who I would rather didn't try to show off for them."
Harry flushed. I wouldn't, he complained inwardly.
I believe you, millions wouldn't, Carol replied matter-of-factly, before both blinked in surprise.
You heard that? Harry asked.
Okay, that's strange, Harry said slowly, then raised an eyebrow. Wait, you believe me?
Carol's reply was wry. When I was in my swimsuit, you spent over 90% of the time looking at my face. Considering how most guys our age and older, most straight guys anyway – and a few girls too. I'm pretty sure that Diana's got an eyeful a couple of times – usually react when I'm in that kind of gear, and the fact you're a telepath, I think I'm gonna give you the benefit of the doubt as and when some hot bird lady gives you the magic equivalent of fuck me eyes.
Harry, who had been in the process of swallowing a mouthful of butterbeer, promptly choked on it. Uhtred gave him a borderline rib-cracking thump on the back as Harry wheezed, "Thanks."
"It was not a problem, my," Uhtred began, then on seeing Harry's expression, changed tack with visible difficulty. "Harry."
No problem, Carol added, and Harry could tell she was smirking without even looking round. Hey, who's the Bulgarian guy who everyone's focusing on?
That would be Viktor Krum.
The wonder-kid? Best Seeker in the world, all that jazz?
Pretty much, Harry replied.
Okay, Carol said, and paused thoughtfully. He's kind of hot. You know, in a weird, kind of stringy sort of way.
Harry rolled his eyes.
"Uh, Harry?" Fred said. "The match has started."
"What?" Harry asked, then flushed again and focused on the play.
"He was having a chat with Carol," Diana explained, and Fred's puzzlement evaporated, to be replaced by a dirty grin. "Not that kind of conversation," she added perfectly calmly. "And I can't read your mind, but I can read your emotions, which is close enough."
Fred stared at her for a long moment, then shared a look with his brother. "You know, Miss Herculeis," he said. "It strikes me that that could be a very useful gift."
"When properly applied," George added. "With infinite possibilities in the realms of opportunity."
Worryingly, Diana looked thoughtful.
Thor turned to Loki and Tony. "I'm not sure which one of you is responsible, but you are a bad influence on them," he said.
Loki and Tony shared a look. "Sixty forty," Tony said.
"Considering the time they've spent with you over these last months? Fifty fifty," Loki said.
"Fifty five, forty five," Tony said.
Loki considered this, then conceded with a nod. "Fifty five percent of it is my fault," he said to his brother. "The rest is Tony's." He eyed the Twins. "Though to be honest, all we really did was encourage their natural inclinations."
"I know," Thor said. "That is what worries me."
The match was, Harry felt, exciting, no, enthralling, and it only got more so as time went on. While he was nominally supporting Ireland, as a seeker himself, he was in awe of Krum's skill. The Irish seeker was good, very good, but Krum was something else, gracefully through the air like the broom was an extension of himself rather than the other way around.
"He's good," Diana agreed, having apparently picked up what he was thinking. "Especially for someone not flying under their own power."
Harry nodded. "I've never even seen a seeker half as good," he said. "No wonder everyone says he's the best in the world."
"Some people are gifted," Diana remarked. "I think that he is one of them."
Harry watched Krum weave past both bludgers, then suddenly drop into a stooping dive, the Irish seeker belatedly following him, drawing neck and neck, before Krum suddenly pulled up and away. The Irish seeker, however, didn't pull up in time and ploughed into the ground with horrible force and a loud, "Oooh," and a collective wince from the Irish end.
"Holy shit!" Carol said. "What the hell was that?"
"Krum sold him," Clint said, as medics poured onto the pitch to tend to the bleary Irish seeker. "There was no sign of the snitch, but Krum tricked him into thinking it was there."
"It's called the Wronski Feint," George said. "Standard seeker move."
"Well, standard if you're completely mad," Fred said. "But if it works, well, look at Krum."
Krum was circling high above, eyes sweeping the stadium.
"There aren't many seekers who can pull off a Feint that well," Thor said. "But I have seen one seeker who's his match."
"Who?" Harry asked, curiosity piqued.
Thor smiled at him and raised his eyebrows, and Harry got it, flushing.
"Dad! Don't be daft!"
"He's right, Harry," Fred said. "Our brother Charlie could have played for England."
"And trust us," George said. "You're definitely better than Charlie."
"Not like I could now, even if I wanted to," Harry said.
"Why not?" Carol asked.
"I see the snitch, my first instinct is going to be to grab it," Harry said. "Which, since I'm a telekinetic…"
"Oh. Yeah, that could be a problem."
"You feel it would be dishonourable," Uhtred said.
"Just a bit," Harry sighed.
"There'll be a way around it, Harry," Fred said breezily. "There always is."
Harry, for his part, wasn't quite so sure about that.
The game went on, the pattern of the past continuing – the Irish Chasers were making their Bulgarian counterparts look about as effective as the spectators, the Bulgarian Beaters were apparently trying to kill the Irish Chasers and Krum was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch.
There were interruptions as the Leprechauns and the Veela got into a standoff and the aforementioned fireballs made an appearance, as well as the allure, rather distracting the Egyptian referee, to an amused declaration of, "Somebody slap the referee!" from the commentating Bagman.
Then, all of a sudden, it was all over. Krum made another dive, and once again, the Irish seeker ploughed into the ground, but this time, Krum emerged with the snitch. The final score: Ireland, 170, Bulgaria, 160.
"Wait, hang on, I thought catching the snitch meant you won, instantly," Carol said, startled.
"That was what I was given to understand as well," Uhtred said, frowning.
"Usually it does," Thor said. "Catching the snitch both ends the game and earns 150 points. But the Irish were far enough ahead that it didn't matter. The Bulgarians were never going to catch up, the Irish Chasers were too good. Krum knew that, so he chose to end it on his own terms."
"He wanted to retain some of his people's pride," Diana remarked.
"Exactly," Thor said, then smiled. "Though having played Quidditch myself, I think at least a small part of him was acting out of personal pride. He does, after all, have a reputation as the best seeker in the world to protect."
The debate this sparked carried them all the way back to the camp.
And that, naturally, was when it all went pear-shaped.
It started with fire later that night, and terrified screams that were chased by the flames across the camp.
Harry, naturally, immediately bounced out of bed, grabbing a pair of jeans which he pulled on over the boxers he was sleeping in and, considerin that this with a t-shirt constituted suitable attire, dashed outside.
The Avengers, in varying states of dress, were already there, and his father's grim expression was lit up in the glow of the burning tents.
"Death Eaters?" Loki asked.
"Aye," Thor spat. "Most likely drunk and out for a little fun."
"We need to stop this," Steve said. "Tony, armour up. Clint, Natasha, get ready." Tony nodded, slipping back into the tent, the two assassins following close behind.
"I can help," Harry said determinedly.
Carol and the Twins both coughed in unison. Uhtred simply nudged Harry, while Diana gave him a pointed look.
"We can help," he amended.
"No," Thor said.
"I doubt neither your power nor your skill, Harry," Thor said. "And your courage goes without saying. That goes for all of you. But for all your power, you are not an experienced duellist. You do not know how to fight wizards. Any one of you would be vulnerable to a killing curse."
"I feel that I would be able to withstand such a curse, my lord," Uhtred said. "And in any case, I would be glad to lay down my life in protection of my prince."
Harry let out a strangled noise. "Don't you fucking dare," he managed, tone furiously.
"I am your sworn man, my lord," Uhtred replied calmly. "It is my duty."
Before Harry could reply, Loki cut in. "If cast by a sufficiently powerful wizard, a killing curse could leave you in a death like state at least, young Uhtred," he said. "In which you would be no use to anyone, least of all your liege. Indeed, you would be a dead weight and an unneccesary distraction." He shook his head as Uhtred sagged. "Wanded practitioners may lack your power, Harry, but each and every Death Eater, even drunk and out of practice, will be an experienced fighter and a sadistic killer."
"I've fought them before," Harry said somewhat mutinously. "At Hogwarts."
"And you were killed," Thor said, voice intense and full of a mixture of grief, anger, frustration and pain, clamping his hands on his son's shoulders as he stared into his son's eyes. While he still looked down to do so, he no longer had to bend down as well. Harry, meanwhile, flinched and Thor sighed, loosening his grip. "I am sorry," he said gently. "For bringing it up. But I nearly lost you once, and it only takes one spell."
Harry looked away and said nothing.
"You can best help by staying here," Thor said. "If Death Eaters do make it this far – and in the darkness, if they split up, they may well do – you will be needed to protect your friends, Jane and Pepper too. You are the only one here with any experience of facing this brand of magic in battle."
Harry frowned, then nodded reluctantly. "Fine," he said.
Thor nodded in reply. "Good," he said. "Steve…"
"You take the lead on this one, Thor," Steve said. By his somewhat martyred expression and Carol's sour one, they'd been having a similar, less cordial, version of Harry and Thor's discussion. "You know how the Death Eaters fight."
"Aye," Thor said, whipping his hammer in preparation to take off. "And sometimes I wish I did not."
When he bore down on the Death Eaters, however, Thor felt a surge of furious delight run through his veins. While a considerable portion of him was enraged by the fact that scum such as this had walked free to torment ordinary mortals, to torment children, once more, a portion that was just as large thought, 'good. Now I can show them what it truly means to be afraid.'
He announced his presence with a vast crack of lightning and a rumble of thunder that knocked over a few of the remaining tents. A moment later, that was followed by a sudden downpour of rain, each drop of which pelted downwards like a bullet, drowning the flames of burning tents in clouds of steam and momentarily blinding and disorienting the vast majority of the Death Eaters, who had been foolish enough to look upwards in response to the thunder and lightning.
Some, crying out in shock and fear, began to disapparate, but a number of those who tried were laid low mid-spin by unerringly accurate arrows – not all of which were tipped with tasers – or, in a few cases, a well thrown shield. As for the Death Eaters' captives – though as Thor thought with distaste, toys might be a better description – they did not go unattended. Flashes of emerald green light severed the strands of magic that kept them bobbing around in the air, while bubbles of that same emerald light encased each, carrying them off to one side. In no time at all, the Death Eaters had gone from marching forward unopposed to penned up in an ever tighter mass on slippery ground, ground made even more slippery by Loki's enchantments – which made it that much harder for them to disapparate.
Then, a few moments later, a quinjet erupted from the rainy darkness with a colossal roar, its flashlights blinding the assembled Death Eaters and neatly distracting them, as four thick poles, tapering at one end and surrounded by a nimbus of purple energy, slammed themselves into the ground around the somewhat dishevelled Death Eaters, who were by now in complete disarray. The poles themselves hummed with power and blue light, and when one Death Eater managed to break away and attempt to disapparate, once, then twice. Both times, nothing happened. A third attempt also came to naught.
Effectively relegated to a spectator, Thor watched as in frustration, the wizard ripped off his mask, revealing himself to be a certain William Mulciber, and aimed a powerful blasting curse at the Quinjet, hitting the wing and visibly damaging it – not critically, insofar as Thor could tell, but badly enough that another hit could cause serious problems. Just as the other Death Eaters looked like following his example, the Quinjet responded by swerving away with astonishing grace for something so large, regaining its metaphorical balance and revealing an underslung machine cannon, of the sort that was somewhat disingenuously known as a minigun. The gun let out a brief buzzing roar that seemed to fill the air even though it lasted no more than a fraction of a second and as it did, William Mulciber practically vanished into a cloud of blood, bone and pieces of black cloth. Everyone stared, stunned, for a moment. MI13, it seemed, were done playing nice. Then, the Death Eaters as one threw down their wands, attitudes shifting from a mixture of fear, anger and confusion to craven submission.
And Thor, for his part, was very glad that Harry had not been present to see it. While he did not question that Mulciber deserved death, nor that the Quinjet and its pilots had had every right to defend themselves, the way it was done… well, there was something about it, something beyond the gore, something about the way the Death Eaters were being herded and slaughtered like animals, that stuck in his throat. He was no stranger to gore, to blood and death; he had known the sight of death from childhood and he had not turned away in fear. But a cold-blooded execution such as this, where a superior power crushed an inferior like a boot crushing an ant, had never sat well with him. The Death Eaters deserved much, but, he felt, even scum such as they did not quite deserve that. And sometimes, he felt, just sometimes, the sight of virtue triumphant could be worse than that of villainy ascendant.
It was then he noticed that, not counting the late Mulciber, there were rather fewer Death Eaters than there had been to start with.
Harry sighed as rain started pouring down.
"You know," Carol said. "I was wondering. You got the telekinesis and telepathy from your mom, and probably a fair bit of the fire stuff too. Did you get some weather manipulation or rain stopping powers from your dad?"
"Uncle Loki says that that's a combination of wind and water magic," Harry said. "Which I've only just started on."
"Ah," Carol said. "Maybe a psychic, you know, umbrella might be an idea?" she ventured, as Pepper, Jane, the Twins and Diana prudently retreated inside the tent. Uhtred, meanwhile, seemed to regard the rain with supreme indifference, as if it was only worthy of notice due to the fact that it signified his crown prince being in a fight. Since he was from the mountains of Asgard, which Harry gathered were host to some of the most fearsome monsters in Asgard and the weather to match, this wasn't entirely surprising. Indeed, his only concession to the rain was to swiftly and briskly braid his hair back. While he did this, his eyes continued scanning the surroundings, and his axe remained in easy reach. This was not his only weapon, however.
Jean-Paul had previously made mention of Uhtred's proclivity for carrying a truly alarming number of knives, some for throwing, others for close combat, in some truly improbable places. The tone in which he had said it had been casually artless and thus been designed to draw Harry into asking exactly how Jean-Paul knew this. A year or so ago, Harry would have been baffled and done exactly that. Now, the older, wiser Harry had simply said, "good to know," and left it at that.
Harry himself did not carry weapons, unless one counted his wand, which he only tended to use for precision work these days. Indeed, it could be argued that he was a weapon.
As for Carol, she had her shield, Bucky and Natasha had been teaching her how to fight, and Clint had been teaching how to throw the shield, being the only person other than Steve who had figured out exactly how. Said shield, however, was now serving as an ad hoc umbrella, and its owner gave a meaningful cough.
Harry, who had been extending his psychic senses, looking for trouble, jumped slightly, then created a thin bubble of psychic force, sufficient to stop raindrops.
"Thanks," Carol said. There was a long moment of silence. "So," she asked. "Do you think that those wizards are going to come this way?"
Harry shrugged. "I've never really dealt with Death Eaters before," he said. "Except for Quirrell."
"Evil teacher being possessed by Voldemort in my first year," Harry said. "He was trying to get the Philosopher's Stone for Voldemort."
"The what? And why?"
"It turns anything into gold and produces the elixir of life, apparently," Harry said.
"Oh. What happened to him?"
"He tried to kill me. Mum, and the protection she put on me, didn't approve," Harry said.
"Ah," Carol said, and while she didn't say it, the question 'and what did she do to him?' floated at the top of her mind.
"I'm not sure," Harry said, replying out loud. "I collapsed halfway through. But by that time he was a bit… crispy. And though Dumbledore said that Voldemort leaving his body killed him…"
"Oh. Yeah. Also, ew."
"Yeah," Harry said. He was silent for a moment. "Apart from when he tried to kill me as a baby, I've run across Voldemort twice. Well, technically once, I suppose. I'm not exactly sure what Riddle's diary really was."
"You mentioned that," Carol said. "Something about an evil book that tried to eat that Ginny girl's lifeforce."
Harry nodded. "She's Fred and George's little sister," he added. "And the book was alive. It had Tom Riddle, Voldemort as a teenager or a copy of him anyway, stuck inside it. He tried to get out."
"I stabbed the book with a basilisk fang, Riddle sort of melted and Ginny was fine," Harry said, then paused, and added, "physically, anyway. She's still working on the mentally."
"No wonder," Carol muttered. "So, you've faced the big bad, but not many of his minions."
"Aside from Lucius Malfoy and maybe one or two who wound up working for HYDRA, no," Harry said.
Carol nodded. "If they come this way… you think they'll be tough?" she asked.
"If they come this way and try to hurt any of you, I'll melt their brains," Harry said flatly. "So you probably won't find out."
Carol gave him a long look. "Okay," she said carefully. "But maybe knocking them out instead might be a better idea? Because even if these people are as awful as I'm guessing they are, based on what I've heard and the way you and your dad have been acting, brain melting shouldn't be step one."
Harry turned to her, then went somewhat pink and grimaced. "Right," he said. "Sorry."
Carol shrugged. "You've got reason to hate these guys," she said.
Harry eyed her and caught a little flash of insight, one that didn't have much, if anything, to do with telepathy. "When I get like that," he said. "It scares you."
Carol opened her mouth to instantly deny it, but caught Harry's expression and sighed. "Honestly?" she said. "Yeah, a little bit. One of the reasons that I respect, not just like, but really, honestly respect you is the way you are with your powers. Even without your mom's help, you are insanely powerful, like, top ten in the world powerful. And going by Jean, your dad and your uncle, plus the whole thing in the Rockies at Easter, you're going to get one hell of a lot stronger and you know that much better than I do. But it doesn't -go to your head. You control your power, you don't let it control you, even though it's literally based on what you're thinkin so you have to second guess everything. I had that kind of power dropped on me when Doc Strange's super mood ring, the Green Lantern Ring, powered up and it was… scary. Really, really scary. And even then, I actually had to consciously will something for the ring to do it, plus, I only had it for a few hours. I'm not even sure if you have that safety net and you have to live with it every single hour of every single day. I don't think I could live with that - I have enough trouble just remembering not to break stuff."
"But?" Harry asked, having sensed the coming caveat.
"But…" Carol said, and sighed. "You are capable of being a very, very scary person Harry. At the start of the Battle of London and before, what you nearly did to those HYDRA Agents in New York, what you did to Daken, Gravemoss… it scared me. I mean, you had every reason in the universe to hate them, god knows. No one would blame you if you'd done way worse. Each and every one of them, they more than had it coming. But it, it and the way you were when you did it, all cold, was still scary." She chewed her lip. "You're my friend. Maybe my best friend. God knows, you probably know me better than practically anyone else. Which means that I reserve the right to be worried. To be scared of you becoming something you're not."
Harry couldn't hide the spasm of pain that flashed across his face, but nodded. She wasn't exactly wrong. "I know," he said. "It scares me too. It's why I don't use my telepathy much – I know what I could use it for and…" He shivered. Nothing more needed to be said.
"Well," Carol said after a moment. "Isn't this cheerful?"
"Not especially," Uhtred said dryly, and both Carol and Harry jumped. It was easy to forget that Uhtred was, as an Asgardian, not just strong and tough, but had pretty sharp senses too.
"You were listening?" Harry asked, surprised.
"And you didn't say anything?"
"It seemed like the sort of discussion that you needed to have between yourselves, my lord," Uhtred said calmly, forcibly reminding them both that for all that Uhtred came off as simply a bluff, boisterous – and increasingly in recent months, professional and patient - warrior in waiting, he was considerably more perceptive than most gave him credit for. This was something that Harry partially credited to his oath-man's growing maturity and Jean-Paul and Diana's influence, the two being practical prize winners for observational skills.
"For my part," he said. "I would merely say that there is some truth to what Carol says: your powers are considerable and grow with each and every day and considering their nature, your control over them is remarkable indeed. As for the part about battle?" He shrugged. "In Asgard, coolness in battle, the ability to control and direct rage, is considered the mark of a great warrior. And in each case mentioned, you dealt with each as they deserved, and with rather more mercy." His expression grew a little troubled. "I did not receive a full account of what happened after your father, Prince Thor, was shot – I presume that that is the incident to which you refer?" At Carol's nod, he continued. "But I believe that you had them at your mercy?"
Harry nodded tightly. "I wanted to kill them," he said quietly. "With their own weapons. And when their leader took a child hostage, I wanted to make him kill himself." He looked away. "If Jane hadn't been there, I'd have done it."
There was an uncomfortable silence as Carol and Uhtred shared an uneasy look. One of the ethical commonalities between Earth and Asgard was that you simply did not execute those who you had defeated and had at your mercy. Interrogation in all its many and varied forms was a different matter, a more flexible one, especially where Loki was concerned, but execution in cold blood…
"I can hear you think, guys," Harry said quietly. "You're right. It was wrong to want it."
"You desired vengeance, my lord," Uhtred said uncomfortably. "And rightly so."
"I've told you a hundred times, Uhtred, stop the my lord business," Harry said. "And what you're not saying is that if I wanted that, I should have killed them in a fight. Not tried to execute them afterwards."
"Maybe it was wrong," Carol said, after another long moment. "But…"
"I didn't do it, even though I wanted to," Harry said, finishing her sentence for her, and smiling wanly.
"But you should have done. There is no good or evil, only power and those too weak to seek it," Carol said calmly. She turned to look at him, expression calm and… faintly amused? "It's simple, Harry: you had the power to act, to destroy your enemies, and you were too weak to do so."
Harry stared at her in incomprehension.
"You could have wiped those who offended you from the face of the Earth," Uhtred said, in that same calm tone, with that same expression. "But you did not. You held back. You even refused to destroy your murderer when you had the chance. You are weak, my lord."
Harry's gaze darted from one to the other, utterly baffled, spears of pain and fear lancing through him at the calm condemnations from the mouths of his friends, fear that this day would always come, when his friends would laugh at him, would treat him like everyone had before the discovery that he had magic. Then, his brain clicked back into gear and his eyes narrowed as fear turned to blazing rage. These weren't his friends' words, he thought through a torrential flood of fury, fury that ignited his clenched fists and replaced the bubble of psychic force with a heat so intense that raindrops turned to steam before they even touched him, fury that set his eyes blazing with a golden fury. No, Harry thought, he'd heard words like these before.
"Voldemort," he snarled.
A figure materialised from the shadows, almost as if he was forming his very body from their darkness, a figure that Harry had seen just over a year before in the Chamber of Secrets. "Hello, Harry," Lord Voldemort said. "I think that it's time we had a little chat."
Harry's instant response was to unleash a blast of flame and telekinetic force that would have simultaneously cooked and pulverised a moderately sized elephant, something which would faze most people. Voldemort, however, merely flicked his wand, redirecting fire and force alike off to one side, letting it soar off into the forest where it promptly obliterated several large trees.
"Now, Harry, is that any way to behave?" Voldemort asked, a kind of mock disappointment in his voice, as his cold, cruel eyes danced with vicious amusement.
Harry summoned more power and levelled his by now incandescent right fist like a cannon. "Is that a trick question?" he asked coldly.
"No," Voldemort said. "I would instead call it rhetorical. And really, Harry, you should remember your manners. Because if you don't…"
Harry felt a surge of cold, ugly power, Voldemort's power, and despite himself turned his head to see Pepper, Jane, the Twins and Diana walking out of the tent in perfect unison, their expressions blank, their eyes empty.
"… I might have to start making a few changes," Voldemort said. As he spoke, Uhtred drew his axe and, expression as blank as the rest, laid its razor sharp blade against his own that. "Like giving this young servant of yours an irrepressible desire to remove his own head." He looked thoughtful. "Or perhaps everyone else's. After that, considering his fairly simply mind set, I wouldn't even have to persuade him to remove his own."
Harry felt bile rise, burning his throat, and rage with it. But as they did, a small voice in the back of his head said, you're a telepath, you idiot!
With that thought in mind, he attacked Voldemort with everything he had, looking to overwhelm the Dark Lord before he could get his wits about him. From the outside, it merely looked as if Harry's eyes had flashed gold and Voldemort's a cold, deathly green while the latter staggered, blood running from his nose. To those with even the most rudimentary psychic senses, it was a vast clash of forces that sent waves of disruption through the Astral Plane. To those who could access that plane and view the battle in full, it was like a raging sea storm that tore at the very fabric of the psychic realm, while also being like a raging conflagration of golden flame that attacked choking sickly green mists and a vast golden white bird of prey that struck at an emerald serpent that swayed, evaded and struck in turn.
It was all of these things and more, a battle that took place on multiple levels in the blink of an eye.
But while Harry had the immediate advantage, owing to the speed of his strike, the raw overwhelming power and the fact that Phoenix infused as his mind was, as well as now lacking the accidental horcrux that Voldemort had unwittingly placed there all those years ago during his failed murder attempt, Voldemort swiftly gained the upper hand. For while he was less powerful, he was far more skilled in the arts of mental combat, and while the accidental horcrux was a long gone, it and Chthon's possession had left psychic scars vulnerable to attack. Moreover, he had other sources of energy.
Perhaps I underestimated you. Perhaps there is strength in you after all, Harry, Voldemort whispered.
Strength enough to see you burn! Harry replied viciously.
Perhaps, Voldemort said. But that is not what I was referring to. It seems that you are now ready to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve victory.
Harry was confused for a moment, then cast about with his psychic senses, before breaking off in horror as he beheld the connections between Voldemort and Harry's friends, even family, whose minds he had dominated. Normally gossamer thin, yet strong as steel cables, they now bulged obscenely as power, as life, flowed from them into Voldemort. As he broke off, they thinned once more and Voldemort let out a pleased sigh, as if he'd just eaten a rather good meal.
"It seems that my initial assessment was correct," he murmured. "You are too weak to do what must be done."
Harry ignored him, frantically rattling through his options. Voldemort had forced connections with Carol, Uhtred, Diana, Jane, Pepper and the Twins, connections like the one he'd had with Harry, the one he'd used to drain power not six months before. Betsy had cut that connection with her psi-blade. He'd never tried to summon one, but while he was pretty sure he could do it, he had no idea what kind of effects breaking that kind of connection in that way could have – he'd been fine, but Betsy had planned her actions, had carefully prepared, presumably taking some precautions in the process. And Voldemort wasn't stupid, he wouldn't fall for the same trick twice. He'd have some thing planned.
Maybe he could go into each of their minds and push Voldemort out by force? He could do it, but even if he did two at a time, that left the others vulnerable as Voldemort would draw strength from them to prevent Harry from driving him out. And even without that, it would be like that footage he'd seen from the Battle of New York, or indeed the Battle of London – the battle might be won, the monster driven out, but the mental collateral damage… well. His father had told him about what had happened to the Longbottoms.
No, this was one fight that power wouldn't win. Indeed, it was one fight he couldn't win alone. But he could leverage his extra power to give him an advantage…
Slowly and carefully, he sent out a mental tendril towards the pulsing purple source of psychic power that he identified as his erstwhile teacher, Betsy Braddock.
Wisdom's introduction was abrupt. "We're missing a few, aren't we?" he said grimly, looking at the forlorn and frightened looking Death Eaters, above whom hovered the still smoking quinjet like a vulture that was on the point of losing patience with the death-watch and cutting out the middleman. Their former victims had been hustled away by miscellaneous MI13 personnel for debriefing.
"Five or six," Steve confirmed. "They successfully disapparated."
Wisdom swore viciously. "They'll be long gone, then. Bastards. I was hoping to round up the lot of them tonight," he said, before shooting a sour look at his captives. "Looks like there'll be an extended spell in the interrogation rooms for this lot."
"Actually," Betsy Braddock said, at Wisdom's left hand. "I'm not sure they have." She was frowning in concentration, her index and middle fingers at her temple, almost a combination of trying to hear a very faint sound and serving as a radio antenna. Suddenly, her eyes widened and she staggered, blood running from her nose and her expression contorted in agony as her signature purple butterfly markings flared on her face.
"Braddock!" Wisdom barked, his perpetually angry tones modulated with genuine worry. He went to help her, but Loki, there in the blink of an eye, stopped him.
"She's under psychic attack; if you touch her unprepared, you could be drawn in," he snapped curtly. Kneeling down in the mud beside her, he gently but firmly grasped her head, closing his eyes. There was silence for a few moments, then he broke away, cursing foully and clutching his head as Betsy keeled over, unconscious and bleeding from the ears and eyes too.
"What the bloody hell have you done to my Agent?" Wisdom demanded, frustrated and even angrier than usual.
"It wasn't me," Loki spat, massaging his temples and grimacing. "There was another presence in her mind that had forced its way in. As soon as it detected my presence, it detonated the psychic equivalent of an electromagnetic pulse." He eyed Betsy. "I will have to check later to be sure, but she's strong, she should be fine."
"Should," Wisdom said sourly. "Who was it? The only psychic in this camp with that kind of wattage is your nephew."
"You dare accuse my son," Thor demanded furiously.
Wisdom eyeballed him and said curtly, "I don't think he did it. Or at least, if he did, I don't think he did it of his own will."
"It wasn't him," Loki said, defusing the situation. "I recognise Harry's touch – in any case, he doesn't have the finesse or the knowledge to act as this presence did."
"Which means we might have an answer for what happened to those five or six Death Eaters," Steve said grimly, as this sank in. "Someone, or something, has got control of them."
"Yeah," Tony said, turning back to where their tent was, voice sick with horror. "And three guesses where they've been sent."
"There," Voldemort said casually. "Now we won't have any interruptions." He gave Harry a condescending look. "Really, Harry, did you think I would suffer interruptions? Did you think that after how she most cunningly cut my connection to you all those months ago, causing me no little agony, that I had not prepared a suitable means of paying her back?" His expression darkened. "And do you think that if you try to interrupt me again, I won't make your friends pay for it?" He gestured at Pepper. "I could cut that woman's spawn out of her belly and make her devour it alive and wriggling, make her enjoy every bite. I could set them to killing each other. I could do anything to them that I please, because I hold their lives in my hands and if you make one move that displeases me, I will snuff. Them. Out."
Harry, for his part, was now a roiling mixture of shock, horror, fury, guilt and revulsion. He'd got Betsy involved, and now Voldemort had done who knew what to her. He should have gone straight to his uncle. As it was, Voldemort had detected his most subtle attempts to get help and made one of his friends suffer for it.
"What do you want?" he asked in a low voice.
"Well done, Harry," Voldemort murmured. "That is more like it." He flicked his wand idly, watching green sparks fall from it. "As to what I want, the answer is simple: you. Dead."
"Get in line," Harry said flatly. "It's grown a bit since we last ran into each other."
Voldemort chuckled softly, and began to prowl around Harry. "Come now, Harry," he said. "If a prophecy binding our fates together doesn't qualify as reason to jump the queue, what does?"
"Then why not have a go, here and now? Leave everyone else out of it. Let's have it out, just you and me," Harry said.
"You would like that, wouldn't you?" Voldemort said mildly. "No need to hold back, no need to use finesse of any sort, you could simply overwhelm me with your raw power, which has grown exponentially and indeed, grows by the hour. But neither of us is bound to the ordinary cycle of life and death as other men, even other gods, are. We are immortals."
"Would you like me to test that?" Harry asked coldly, restraining the urge to char-broil Voldemort. Best case scenario, he'd simply deflect it. Worst case, it would go through and he'd suck some life to heal himself and serve as punishment. How had he learned to do that, anyway? Through draining Harry's own power?
Voldemort merely laughed. "Perhaps another time," he said. "You see, tonight will not be our final encounter, oh no. The mistake I made last time when I came after you was that I did not know everything I needed to know. I rushed in like an arrogant fool and paid the price." He shook his head. "No, I need to know more. I need to know what makes you tick, Harry. I need to know where you are strong, where you are weak, and most of all…" He leaned in by Harry's ear, hissing his next words. "I need to know how that protection your mudblood mother put on you works."
Then, he drew away. "And once I know that… then our last meeting will come," he said.
"So now what?" Harry asked.
Voldemort smiled a crocodile's smile. "Now, Harry, there will be a race."
And he waved his wand. Pepper, Jane, Uhtred, Diana, Carol and the Twins all vanished.
"Where did you send them?" Harry demanded.
"I sent them all across the camp," Voldemort said. "And I sent a few of my loyal Death Eaters with them, close enough to hunt them down and… well, I left that part up to them." The remark about loyalty decidedly ironic and Harry was in no doubt that that loyalty had not been secured by fine speeches and personal charm. The latter part, though, chilled his blood. "Now, Harry, all you have to do is find them first. Good luck." And with that, he disapparated with a crack.
Harry glared at the spot where he'd been then, desperately attempting to tamp down the rising panic, took off as fast as he could.
Meanwhile, far across the camp, Carol blinked awake and looked around. "Where… what… how?"
Then, she shut her mouth as the hairs rose on the back of her neck and her instincts screamed.
She wasn't alone. And if she had to put money on it, she'd say that her companion very definitely not friendly. Resisting the urge to scrabble around for a weapon, or indeed to get up and run, she instead looked about carefully, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. Spotting a rock about the size of her fist, she reach out and picked it up.
She moved carefully, trying to find a position that combined stealthiness with clear lines of sight, and noticed that her body felt strange and decidedly ungainly.
She looked down, worried. There wasn't much in the way of light in the forest, especially not in the ditch she was now lying in, so she carefully reached out with strange feeling hands to confirm the evidence of her eyes, eyes which widened like saucers.
And while she didn't say anything, three words paraded across her mind.
'What. The. Fuck.'
Only moments after Harry left, Thor landed by the tents with an earth shaking thump, followed almost immediately by Tony and Loki, who was flying because someone had to bus over the non flight capable members of the Avengers, save Bruce, who had sensibly pointed out that if he went near a psychic powerful enough to fry Betsy's brain, they could have an out of control Hulk on their hands. Instead, he had elected to remain with Betsy and offer MI13 the benefit of his experience with psychic abilities and psychic attacks, accrued primarily through work with Harry and sharing research with Charles Xavier, Hank McCoy and, of course, Tony.
A quick search revealed that no one was present, but they had been not moments ago.
"Where are they?" Tony demanded without preamble.
"They are still in the camp," Loki said. "Spread all across it. Harry himself is on the move, and fast."
"Where?" Tony reiterated
"I don't know," Loki said tensely. "This area is so saturated with magic and, at the moment, panicking mages, that it's like trying to pick out individual flares during a simultaneous wildfire, fireworks display and meteor shower. All I know is that they are alive and, for the moment, unharmed."
"Whatever," Tony snapped, turning to speak into his armour. "JARVIS, retask every satellite we have and every single one we can hack into finding Pepper, Jane and the kids."
"I already have, sir."
"For the moment?" Steve asked.
"I recognise the magical signatures around here," Loki said grimly. "Harry's – he attacked someone." He nodded at the still burning trees. "Someone strong enough to deflect one of his better shots and encourage him not to throw any – well, many, where we are standing is practically glowing with the residue of psychic power. Clearly whoever it was, they were not only enough of a telepath to disable Agent Braddock, but to face down Harry, something very worrying indeed. And they are someone whose signature is very familiar…" He trailed off and went white, eyes flashing with fear and rage.
"Brother," Thor said. "Who is it?"
"Voldemort," Loki said grimly. "Voldemort is alive and he was here and I believe, he is playing some kind of twisted game with our loved ones."
"What kind of game?" Thor asked. "And can you follow him?"
"It's not him we need to worry about," Clint said. "Voldemort was here, strong enough to shrug off Harry's shots, magical and mental. That means he's got psychic power, and lots of it. And I don't know if you noticed, but when we jumped the Death Eaters, about six of them got away."
"Good," Loki said.
"Good?" Tony demanded, enraged. "Pepper, Jane, the kids – among them your nephew – are out there being hunted by a bona fide Dark Lord and his pet magical psychopaths, while all we're doing is explaining to each other while we can't even find them and you think that's good?!"
Loki, however, did not rise to it. "It is good, Tony," he said. "Because the Death Eaters are all connected by the Dark Mark. And with one Death Eater…"
"You can track the rest," Steve said, nodding. "Thor, Tony, rendezvous with Bruce and MI13, explain what's happening and what we need. In the meantime, Loki, Clint, Natasha and I will stay here and search for more clues. Go."
This was a good plan. Unfortunately, in the oft-misquoted words of German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, "No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy." Or, in the pithier words of Mike Tyson, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
Harry tore through the sky, the wind whipping through his hair like it was trying to tear it out. He was going far faster than he ever had on a broom and on another occasion, he might have savoured it. But now, the only reason he wasn't in a blind panic or a blind fury was because the two emotions seemed to have set to fighting it out amongst themselves. His last bit of rationality had suggested he go after Pepper first, on the grounds that she was the most vulnerable, followed by Jane, Carol, the Twins, Uhtred and Diana.
It was, as with the Avengers plan, a good one. Unfortunately, he was flying right into the punch.
Homing in on Pepper's mind, which was growing steadily more panicked and – strangely – profoundly confused by the moment, he zeroed in on the clearing she was in, spotting flashes of light and a figure scrambling away from them, before dropped like a stooping falcon. He landed between the figure and the flashes of light, the impact shaking the earth and as a flash of red light soared towards him, he instinctively swatted it away with his telekinesis, at the same time as he hammered a piledriver of force where it had come from. The Death Eater tried to disapparate, but was just a microsecond too slow. The blast slammed into him with a series of crunching sounds like footsteps on dry Autumn leaves and hurled him at least thirty feet through the air like a ragdoll. He landed, bounced, and rolled, before coming to a stop at the base of a tree, where he lay still.
Under other circumstances, Harry might have felt worried, horrified at what he might have done on pure reflex, but right now, he felt a mixture of relief and vicious satisfaction. Then, he turned to Pepper. And so came the sucker punch.
Because it wasn't Pepper.
To be specific, his mental senses were telling him that this was Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries, girlfriend of Tony Stark and soon-to-be mother of his child, but his eyes were telling him that this was Carol.
"Harry?" she said, and it was Carol's voice… but not. It wasn't her accent or intonation. Indeed, if he had to guess, he'd say it was Pepper's.
"Pepper?" he guessed.
Pepper nodded. "I… I don't know what happened," she said, breathing fast, still clearly frightened. "One moment, I was in the tent, the next, I'm in this clearing, in Carol's body and being chased by him." She waved over at the at-best-comatose Death Eater to illustrate her point.
Harry closed his eyes against a surge of rage, one that threatened to explode outwards in a howl of fury and vast eruption of flame. Voldemort hadn't just banished his friends across the camp, he'd forcibly swapped their minds, making them even more vulnerable – and it even harder to find those who were in the most danger before something terrible happened. Taking a couple of deep breaths, remembering that Pepper and the others needed him to sort this out, he centred himself and opened his mouth to explain, grimaced, and said, "It's a long story, there's no time. You're not the only one this has happened to."
"The others?" Pepper asked.
"Let's go then," she said.
Harry, wisely, did not argue, simply grabbing her around her waist – or more accurately, Carol's waist – and saying, "Hold on tight," before shooting upwards.
"Impressive," Voldemort murmured, releasing the half-dead Death Eater, allowing him to slip into blissful oblivion. "Still blunt as his father's hammer, but impressive. Now, though, I want to see him angry." He turned to the figure beside him. "I think it is time that the world was reminded that even in this changed world, my name is one to fear." He smiled. "Make them afraid, afraid and angry, so much so that they won't even be able to think."
Bartemius Crouch Junior bowed low. "As you will it, my Lord," he said.
Thor and Tony landed by the MI13 prisoner transport just as it was about to take-off.
"What are you two doing back here?" Wisdom asked.
"Jane, Pepper, my son and his friends, they are all gone from our encampment," Thor said curtly. "There were signs of a fight, with a sorcerer and psychic strong enough to stop Harry's best blows." He glanced over at Betsy, who was being tended to by Bruce and a bevy of MI13 medics. She did not look good. "And disable Agent Braddock."
"Not many of those around," Wisdom said. He glanced at the Death Eaters, then swore softly. "They were just a distraction, weren't they? For what? A kidnapping?"
"Yes," Thor said. "And not quite. They were banished all over the encampment, with Death Eaters sent after them. Harry gave chase. My brother has been unable to pinpoint them, but he did identify who was behind it: Voldemort."
Wisdom stared at him for a long moment, then went white and began to swear furiously.
"Yeah, we feel that way too," Tony said. "Give us one of your magical Klan wannabes, Loki thinks he can track them through their body art."
Wisdom paused, then turned to the guards and snapped some curt orders. With quick, efficient efforts, they grabbed one of the Death Eaters – a man who looked like nothing more than a middle aged bank clerk – and dragged him roughly over to Thor and Tony. He looked up at them briefly, expression terrified, before cowering before them.
"Up, wretch," Thor said coldly. "Call my brother, Tony. We have our Death Eater."
Then all thoughts were stopped in their tracks. Because there was a distant, echoing and exultant cry.
A bolt of green light shot up into the night and exploded into a vast cloud of green stars that lit up the sky, one that swiftly coalesced into a colossal skull out of which a serpent emerged, questing and displaying its fangs like some sort of perversion of a tongue. And Thor stared in horror as for the first time in nearly a dozen years, the Dark Mark hung in the skies over Britain.
"Thor," Tony asked carefully. "What the hell is that? Thor!" This last was yelled as Thor, gaze fixed on the mark, launched himself into the sky, still holding the Death Eater by the collar.
"It's the Dark Mark," Wisdom said, in a flat voice. He was pale, but it was hard to tell with he was pale with fear or fury. "Voldemort's symbol, the Death Eaters' signature. It was fired into the sky whenever and wherever they'd made a kill."
Tony's expression was one of pure horror. Then, without a word, his visor slammed down and he shot off after Thor like a bat out of hell.
Harry paused in flight, staring at the Dark Mark. It had flown up practically right in front of him.
"What the hell is that?" Pepper asked.
"I don't know," Harry said, frowning, then closed his eyes, sending out his mind, picking up a sudden spike of terror across the camp and plenty of overflowing information about the Mark. "No," he whispered.
"Harry?" Pepper asked, before swallowing a scream as he dived towards the clearing where the mark had come from.
And then things turned to chaos. Because as he landed, so did his father, his landing shaking the Earth as Mjolnir trailed lightning and a storm built in the skies above. Moments later, so did Tony, his own landing hardly less impressive, repulsors, eye lights and arc reactor flaring, red and gold armour reflecting the flashes of light. At the same time, a haphazard series of cracks indicated the arrival of witches and wizards, but friend or foe no-one knew.
There was a frozen moment, then a wizard, blinded by the flashes of light and lightning, panicked by the Dark Mark and the earlier Death Eater rampage, fired a spell, starting a cross-fire of spells, lightning and repulsors.
Harry instantly dropped to one knee and covered Pepper, throwing up a telekinetic shield that immediately came under fire from all angles. While no one spell came close to piercing it, dozens put it under strain. Then it got worse.
Because Thor, with spells bouncing off him by the dozen, already had horrors played out across his mind from the mere sight of the Dark Mark, horrors of what he might see, of Jane or Harry dead at Voldemort's hands, or tortured into insanity by the Death Eaters as part of their grotesque amusements.
So it did not require anything more than a mental nudge from Voldemort to drive away any real semblance of rational thought.
And as a result, when he saw a dome of power appear not twenty feet away from him, he did not consider who it might be. He did not listen as Tony spun, seeing the dome, seeing Thor and shouting at him not to attack, that it was a friendly. Instead, he acted, driven by wild, unreasoning fear, crossing the distance in a blur, raising Mjolnir.
Harry saw the descending hammer and somehow knew that his shield wouldn't hold up.
But then, something deep down flickered. The instants of the hammer's descent stretched into an eternity as embers within Harry began to burn, three words searing themselves across his mind.
In the moment before impact, those watching saw the pale golden barrier suddenly ignite, blazing red, orange and gold.
And when Mjolnir collided with it, everything turned to incandescent white.
Tony was one of the first to regain his bearings, sitting up and looking around. There was a conspicuous lack of spellfire. There was also a conspicuous lack of standing trees, in a way he hadn't seen for the best part of four years.
"Jesus," he muttered. "What did Thor hit this time?"
Then, the memory came back and the horror he had felt since he had returned to the camp to find Pepper and the others gone and a Big Bad who was apparently a lot more big and bad and alive than he was supposed to be behind their disappearance returned with interest, leaving him near retching as he frantically cast about the clearing. Then, he sagged in utter relief as he saw Thor slowly getting to his feet, blinking blearily, and the intact dome, which remained the shimmering colours it had turned just before Mjolnir had hit. Even the Death Eater Thor had dragged along was still alive, if possibly not for long, judging by the way he was bleeding from the ears, nose and eyes. But he was still bleeding, and the suit's sensors said he was still alive.
Slowly, the dome faded and Harry stood up, trembling ever so slightly with what looked like exhaustion and next to him was Carol - which made sense, Tony supposed. If the kid was going to find anyone, it was going to be the person with whom he had an actual psychic rapport.
"You okay, kids?" he asked.
"Tony!" Carol said, and ran over to hug him tightly.
"Uh, hey," he said, puzzled, patting her on the back.
"Oh, right," Carol said. "It's me, Pepper."
Tony stared at her. "What," he said flatly.
"I don't know the details, but according to Harry, this happened to the others too," Carol – or rather, Pepper – said.
Tony felt a headache coming on, and a craving for a bottle of scotch. Then a horrific thought struck him. "Your body," he said. "The baby."
"I don't know," Pepper said, panic now edging her voice in earnest. Now that he listened, Tony could identify it as Pepper's voice, her phrasing, accent and intonation, albeit filtered through Carol's vocal chords. "Oh god, Tony, I have no idea what's happening! One moment everything's normal and I'm in the tent, the next I'm in a clearing in Carol's body being hunted by a madman with magic, then Harry came in and flattened him, then picked me up and flew off, then he saw that mark, found out what it was from other people's minds, freaked out and flew in, then everyone attacked us and Thor attacked us and Tony I have no idea what is happening-"
"Pepper," Tony said. "Breathe. You got whammied by Voldemort, the guy who killed Harry's mom. And Thor. Sort of. I think he got Thor too." He looked up at the sign. "As for that, according to Fury junior, it means that those Death Eater freaks have killed someone."
Pepper paled even further. "Oh god," she repeated. She looked like she was in shock, and no wonder.
"Yeah," Tony said, then looked over at Thor and Harry, the latter, though he looked like he could barely stand, reassuring the distraught former. "Come on."
As they reached the father and son, Thor seemed to have gathered himself, though he still looked haunted at what had nearly happened. Harry, for his part, was clad in dark, leathery clothing which was, if you looked closely, visible as being dark red. Emblazoned on his chest was a golden image that Tony recognised from the summer, the sign emblazoned on Harry's mother's dress. The sign of the Phoenix. It seemed to be glowing faintly. As he watched, it faded away and vanished, his clothes changed back to the t-shirt and jeans he'd been wearing before, complete with Ireland rosettes.
Well that, he guessed, explained why Harry's shield had changed colour and shrugged off a blow in earnest from Mjolnir.
"They haven't killed anyone here," Harry said, as Tony and Pepper arrived. "And everyone else is still alive." The words 'for now' hung in the air, unspoken but ominous. "I can find them, but not fast enough, the Death Eaters are already after them. I…" He stopped. "Dad," he said, voice suddenly careful and distant. "The Dark Mark. It links the Death Eaters to Voldemort? All of them?"
"Yes," Thor said. "He used it to summon them and they to summon him."
"They're all connected," Harry whispered, tiredness apparently forgotten. "That's how he's controlling them." Then, he gestured at the Death Eater Thor had dragged with him, the man flying arm first to him, sleeve yanking itself up, revealing the Dark Mark.
"All right Voldemort," he said. "If this is the way you want it… Time for Round Two."
And before anyone could say anything, his expression cold and eyes literally blazing with rage, he took the outstretched arm in a vicegrip and drove his thumb into the very heart of the Dark Mark.
And it and every single one of its brothers began to burn gold.
Peter Wisdom, across the camp supervising the prisoners, nearly collapsed, staggering against the side of a quinjet clutching his left arm and was only prevented from cursing up a storm by the fact that his teeth had snapped together hard enough to chip, all while those self-same prisoners screamed.
Severus Snape, in Hogwarts doing his inventory for the coming school year, swallowed a scream of pain and staggered to the floor.
Barty Crouch Junior, halfway across the country on his master's orders, fell to his knees and let out a mad, bubbling laugh at what he deemed to be proof of his master's success.
Lucius Malfoy, on the other side of the world, cursed horribly and wondered what the hell his former master was doing.
Even the Death Eater that Harry had left broken in a clearing let out a renewed howl of pain, the agony such that it jarred him back into consciousness.
Everyone with a Dark Mark felt their arms burn, burn like never before.
But for a select five Death Eaters, puppets on Voldemort's strings, that was not all that burned.
Voldemort looked around the mindscape that was composed of the five minds of the Death Eaters he had under his control, then across at Harry, and smiled. "Ah, Harry. So glad you could join me. Do you like the décor?"
The mindscape resembled the entrance hall of Hogwarts, but Hogwarts as seen through a broken mirror. This Hogwarts was larger, darker, not bright and welcoming, but squat and dark, a brooding, sullen place of shadows and serpertine statuary.
Harry, however, did not reply. Instead, he strode forwards towards Voldemort, who narrowed his eyes and lashed out with mental blast designed to drive Harry's mental self to his knees. The blast struck, apparently flaying the skin off Harry's mental self, revealing a figure sculpted of golden-white flames, one that drew a sword of even brighter flames from the firmament around them. Voldemort, unnerved, prepared to defend himself, but Harry didn't attack him. Instead, he took one great stride, swinging the sword up high, then driving it down into the rock, which cracked into lines of white light, lines that spread like lightning bolts throughout the mindscape, fracturing it and then spreading, consuming the twisted replica of Hogwarts like fire consuming tinder.
As Voldemort snatched at the firmament of the mindscape, looking to take back control, to reform it into something that would serve his interests. But as he did, Harry advanced on him, that sword coming around in a slash that looked to bisect him, and when he threw up a defence of deathly green power, it carved straight through it, and the follow-up nearly cut his astral self in half, leaving a thick slash across his chest, only failing to do so because at that instant, Voldemort abandoned the fight.
Back in the real world, he clutched at his chest and gritted his teeth against the phantom pain.
"So," he said to himself. "There is more strength to you, Harry, than I had thought. You acted as a man, worthy to wield power. But now, I think, I may have your measure. And I have work to do."
And with that, he vanished.
Harry, meanwhile, looked around the abandoned and blank white mindscape and waved a hand. A series of holographic computer screen constructs appeared, each showing the view through each of the Death Eater's eyes. To his relief, visual evidence and a quick scan of their fragmented memories showed that Carol, the Twins, Jane, Uhtred and Diana all seemed fine, whichever bodies they were in. Indeed, the Death Eater that had faced the Twins' bodies was tied up and rather badly burnt. The others, it seemed, had sensibly kept down and remained in hiding. Clearly Voldemort's attempts to put five individuals under his direct command, quite literally micro-managing, had not yielded much success.
As for the Death Eaters themselves, minds were shattered, but enough remained to serve a purpose. Robotically, the four that were able to looked up and pointed their wands at the sky, firing off fountains of red sparks, before systematically snapping their wands – just, it seemed, in case.
Once they had done that, they were released, collapsing like puppets whose strings had been cut. Which was exactly what they were.
Then, Harry reached out. Hey, it's me, Harry, he said. It's okay. It's over.
Harry? Jane asked. I'm in Uhtred's body, I've been stalked by a dark wizard for a while now, even hit with a couple of curses that I'm pretty sure would have killed me if I was in my own body and I have no idea how it happened.
Harry gave a succinct summary of events.
How can we know it's you? One of the Twins asked.
Yeah, the other Twin added. They were even more identical in mind than they were in body, if that was even possible. I mean, if Voldemort has powers like yours, then couldn't he just pretend to be you in our heads?
It's him, Carol interjected. Trust me, I've had him in my head before, I remember how it feels. And before we start on anything else, my body is fine, right? Pepper too?
Yes, Harry said.
Right, great. I need to get back in it, pronto. Like, five minutes ago.
What's wrong? Jane asked, concerned.
The reply was manically cheerful. Because I, or rather Pepper's body, is having contractions. In fact, I'm pretty sure her waters just broke. While I know that this doesn't mean instant baby, I want out. Now.
Got it, Harry replied numbly. Fred, George, send up spark so everyone knows where you are. I'd have had your Death Eater do it, but he can't, he's tied up. Then he stepped back into his body, dropping the Death Eater whose arm he'd been holding.
"Harry?" his father said anxiously.
"They're all fine," Harry said, feeling as if his voice was coming from a long way away. "I scared Voldemort off." He looked up at Pepper and Tony. "Pepper, Pepper's body – which Carol is in, by the way – is fine. Red sparks mark where they are."
Tony gave him a long look, then without a word pulled him into a tight hug. It was, by his standards, a momentous gesture.
Harry, though, didn't react or resist. He just felt numb, numb and knackered. Voldemort was back. Voldemort was back and in one fell swoop, he'd nearly killed a number of people who were friends, friends and more. He'd nearly got Harry himself killed. And Voldemort had done all that while simply playing with them, demonstrating his power and, apparently, to test Harry.
If he had wanted to kill them, he could have done so, easily. Why hadn't he? Wariness? The last time he'd tried to kill Harry had ended badly for him, after all, and he'd practically said as much. But perhaps there was more. Perhaps… perhaps he had been testing himself, testing what he could do against Harry, against the Avengers, but not testing too hard – he had not attacked until he was sure the Avengers were elsewhere, and fled as soon as he realised that Harry overmatched him, in power at least.
"Oh," he added, as sleep began to claim him. "Pepper, Carol… Pepper's body. Carol says that it's having the baby. Now."
And as chaos erupted once more, he slipped into darkness and dreams.
This was not the end of events, however. As Harry slipped out of consciousness, the majority of the Ministry Witches and Wizards who had been surrounding the clearing and been knocked out by the side effects of the impact of Mjolnir on Harry's Phoenix enhanced shield, were slipping back in and looking to establish what had happened – or more accurately, who to blame.
This was something not helped by the fact that more than few had caught repulsor blasts and a few had been electrocuted to various degrees in the chaos, nor that neither Thor nor Tony had especially appreciated being bombarded with curses, especially since one or two of those curses had very nearly opened Tony's armour like a can opener, and even less appreciated being impeded in their retrieval of their companions, especially since they were all in the wrong bodies and one of those bodies was in labour.
Then Amos Diggory, one of the most senior officials present and otherwise a decent, kind and largely blameless man, had found a stunned house elf called Winky, with a lost wand in her hand. It was the end of a long night in which a lot of things that he would rather have stayed buried had been dredged up, including supposedly Voldemort himself, and he felt that she was a softer target than an angry Thunder God, an even angrier genius, billionaire, philanthropist and expectant father and a yet still angrier genius (of a different kind), billionaire, philanthropist and expectant mother, who, to complicate matters, was very much not in the body that was doing the expecting. The unconscious Harry Potter, Boy Who Lived, Demigod and Who Knew What Else, only made matters worse. So he felt that he could blame the whole Dark Mark mess on the House Elf (somehow) and let the rest off to sort themselves out. However, the instinctive sense of justice in all of the conscious three of the Avengers contingent complicated this, as did the fact that it was Barty Crouch's house elf and Barty Crouch was very much here. And then things got complicated further still.
"Don't be stupid, Diggory," a harsh London accented voice said in caustic tones.
"Who -" Amos Diggory began, before his expression darkened. "Wisdom."
"Speak of the devil and he shall appear," Wisdom said with dark humour, as he strode into the clearing, flanked by Sean and Warren, the former of whom gave Thor a nod and Harry a worried look. Thor contrived to indicate by expression that Harry was fine, simply exhausted – which he largely did by not obviously panicking. "The poor bloody house elf didn't do it," Wisdom continued, glancing at the trembling Winky.
"It is being true, Mister Diggory, I is not using a wand!" she cried.
"She was found -" Diggory began.
"She could have picked it up anywhere, you fucking moron," Wisdom said scathingly.
"Excuse me," Diggory said angrily.
"No, you are not bloody excused," Wisdom snapped. "You were the one who was suggesting that it was more likely that a clearly terrified House Elf cast the Dark Mark instead of simply being unlucky enough to find the damn thing after the perpetrator got scared when the whole bloody flying circus dropped in and left it behind while running for the hills! There have Death Eaters running around all over the place tonight!"
"You are right about that much, Director," Crouch said. "I will take Winky and find out what has gone on tonight. I will expect the captives that your operatives have so effectively taken to be yielded into my custody."
"No?" Crouch asked, as the atmosphere in the clearing grew tense, a thick silence falling on proceedings. "You are outnumbered, Wisdom, and outmatched."
"Outnumbered, maybe, but do you really want to try me, Crouch, with only a bunch of half-concussed Ministry functionaries at your back?" Wisdom said softly. "Go right ahead. But remember, you're not head of the DMLE any more and the Ministry doesn't have the power it once did. So when my agents roll you and whoever's stupid enough to follow you up into a big ball and put you in a cell next to the bunch of drunken Death Eaters I've already got locked up, all the bleating in the world from Cornelius Fudge won't make a damned bit of difference."
"Bloody cheek," one witch muttered.
"And fuck you too, ma'am," Wisdom snapped, without turning round. It did not go unnoticed that his eyes kept darting to the Dark Mark. "This is my fucking investigation, those are my fucking prisoners and that House Elf is coming with me, as are you Barty. You both have some explaining to do."
"You can't do this," Diggory expostulated.
Wisdom whirled on him, eyes suddenly wild and furious, red hot blades of energy igniting on his fingertips, casting harsh, dancing shadows and causing the Ministry wizards to shrink back as he advanced on Diggory.
"The Dark Mark is in the sky. The Death Eaters are up to their old tricks. The security of Britain is threatened. All because you stupid bastards didn't do your job at the end of the fucking War! You just let them all slip away, didn't you, with excuses like 'a big Death Eater made me do it and ran away'!" he snarled. "And now they're back. Maybe not organised, maybe nothing but drunks out for a bit of fun, but now all the cockroaches are scuttling out of the shadows and that's a problem because you know what? Voldemort's back too! He's back and he's using them as fucking puppets!"
He drew his wand a fired a silver burst up into the sky. Almost immediately, there was a huge roar as not one, not two, but three quinjets, bulkier and more heavily armed than the usual examples of their kind, took up station around the clearing, floodlights lighting it up like the noonday sun.
"I am the Director of MI13 and because you lot are incapable of policing yourselves, it is now my job. If the cockroaches are going to crawl out of the shadows, I'm the one who's going to turn on the lights," Wisdom growled. "I have the authority of the Crown behind me on this, so I assure you, Diggory, that right now I can do whatever the hell I like, and god help whoever gets in my way!"
This echoed around the clearing, then Wisdom turned to Crouch. "Are you coming, or do I have to cuff you?" he asked coldly.
Crouch's eyes narrowed as he met Wisdom's gaze. For a long moment, there was a battle of wills, then Crouch looked away. "Come, Winky," he said curtly, falling in with Wisdom's group.
Wisdom's gaze the fell upon the Avengers. "Cassidy, see the trouble magnets home via the on-site base, would you? We spotted the red sparks and sent out people to bring in the rest of your lost little lambs, and the Death Eaters sent after them too."
"Aye, sir," Sean said. "Sirs, ma'am, if ye'd come with me."
Thor carefully arranged the sleeping Harry, then followed his son's former teacher out of the clearing. As he left.
"You're going too far, Wisdom," Diggory said.
Wisdom gave him a dark, humourless smile. "Oh, believe me, Diggory - I'm just getting started."
This would have been an excellently dark and creepy line to exit with, if Harry hadn't then decided to act. Because as Thor looked down at him, he saw that his eyes were open and he was staring at the Dark Mark, expression hard.
"Harry?" he asked.
Everyone stopped as Harry wordlessly slipped out of his father's arms and raised a fist, watching an indistinct shape of bright light grow on his wrist. Then, he jerked it upwards, launching the shape upwards and watched as it grew in size and brightness until it was like an incandescent comet that rocketed past the Dark Mark, turning night to day as it performed a long, slow loop into the clouds, burning droplets of water to steam.
At the loop's zenith, Harry – whose gaze was tracking the ball of light even when everyone else had to look away, his expression almost hawklike in its sharpness – made a sharp, slashing gesture.
Wings erupted from the ball of light, which streamlined itself into a giant bird of prey, letting out an unearthly scream of challenge as it stooped towards the Dark Mark. Then, with a dazzling flash and a vast explosion of green and white-gold sparks that lit up the sky for miles around, it struck, shattering the skull of the Dark Mark and tearing the serpent that emerged from it to shreds, before letting out another unearthly scream, this one of triumph and defiance, performing a long victory lap before fading away.
Then, Harry turned away and was heartily sick. Thor glanced at Pepper and Tony. "You two go with Agent Cassidy," he said. "Ensure that the others are safe. I will look after Harry."
"But, the mind-swap thing," Tony began.
"That will not be a problem," a mild voice said.
Everyone jumped as Doctor Strange emerged out of the shadows.
"Where have you been?" Thor growled in a voice that promised pulverisation if the wrong answer was given.
"Persuading the Dread Dormammu that contrary to his previous inclinations, he did not want to conquer the Earth and enslave all the mortal souls upon it," Strange said, and indeed, he looked rather badly scorched, with bits of his clothing still smoking. "And," he said, lifting up a suitcase. "Collecting my things. I believe that there is a baby to be delivered." He looked at Harry, who was still being sick. "And to forestall your question, Harry is not ill. What he has done is merely sinking in."
Tony flicked a glance at Thor, who nodded minutely. If there was one area in which Strange could be trusted without reserve, it was in the execution of his duties as a medical doctor. If, after all, he did not want to treat someone to the best of his abilities, he simply wouldn't be there.
"Let's go, then," he said. "And fast."
"Yeah," Pepper said, with a wan smile on her face. "I don't think Carol would appreciate having to give birth to our baby."
"Indeed not," Strange said, and snapped his fingers. And just like that, they were gone.
Harry, for his part, didn't have much to throw up past the immediate semi-digested sausage. He did, however, go on retching for some time.
Ever since he had discovered that he was a telepath and realised exactly what could be done with that kind of power, remembered what he had seen done to Ginny with that kind of power, he had kept it inside his own head wherever possible. Betsy had had to use practically every method she had of cajoling and persuading him to learn a new technique, and he'd only started learning at all because he'd found out the hard way that it was considerably more dangerous if left uncontrolled.
Since then, the most he had done was communicate with friends and family, and one or two occasions, knock out HYDRA troopers and help Carol with her nightmares. As far as he was concerned, there was a line you simply did not cross, things you did not do, not even to your worst enemies. And he had done several of them.
He had used the Dark Mark to attack the minds of Death Eaters, like Voldemort. In fighting Voldemort, he had practically destroyed the minds of five Death Eaters as mere collateral damage. They were alive, but he didn't need to be an experienced psychic to know that that was a mere technicality. And he hadn't cared. He hadn't even blinked. He had just pulled the bits together and turned them into his puppets, instruments of his will. He had smashed his way into their minds, violated them, used them, and left them as little more than ruins when he was finished.
To say he felt sick was an understatement. Repulsed, perhaps, revolted, as if he had done something that was fundamentally Wrong.
How was that any better than what Voldemort had done? How was that any better than what Riddle's diary had tried to do little more than a year before? How was he any better?
"Because you had no choice," Thor said gently, and Harry realised that he had said the last aloud. "You did not choose this fight. You did not choose to involve those Death Eaters, to make their minds a battlefield. And because you did it for the others, not for yourself."
"I found Pepper," Harry said. "I could have found the others."
"But not in time," Thor said. "And there was no guarantee that Voldemort would not have tried something else."
Harry shook his head. "You don't know that," he said.
Thor opened his mouth, and Harry could just feel the words of his father's denial lining up. But they did not come. Instead, there was a long pause.
"You are a warrior," Thor said. "None in the Nine Realms would deny that, not after the Battle of London. Your name is sung in halls across the Nine Realms, as tales of your mighty deeds echo across the stars."
"I know," Harry said somewhat grumpily. "I wish they wouldn't, it's embarrassing."
Thor burst into laughter. "Well, maybe you should perform fewer mighty deeds then," he said, tone teasing. Then, he sobered. "But you still have much to learn of war. In many ways, so do I – war is a harsh teacher and always has new lessons to hand out. And one of the earliest lessons is that when you are forced into a corner, it often comes down to a matter of choosing to protect those you love by harming those you do not. It is true, you could have chosen to take the morally unimpeachable path of finding each of those you love individually, defeating their attackers without violating their minds, but in doing so, you risked their deaths or worse, especially once Voldemort realised what you were doing. So you chose to make the harder choice, to exchange the risk of those you love being hurt for the certain suffering of those who would have hurt them."
"It wasn't the harder choice," Harry said quietly. "That's the worst part, dad. It was easy."
"No," Thor said. "It was the harder choice. Do you know why?"
"Because you took a burden onto yourself that may never grow any lighter," he said. "A burden that you will carry with you for ages to come. You sacrificed your principles for their safety. You did not have to, but you did so anyway."
"Of course I had to," Harry said, indignant at the very concept that he would put his principles above those he loved, then stopped and frowned, before meeting his father's knowing smile. It was in that moment that he was forcibly reminded that his father was much cleverer and much wiser than he generally let on.
It was also in that moment that he realised that while the thought of what he had done sickened him, he had indeed had to do it. Because he had done it, those he loved, family and friends, were safe now. And he could live with that.
"Better?" Thor asked.
"Better," Harry said, wiping his mouth. "Can we go and see the others now? I know that they're okay, but I want to…" He fumbled for the word or phrase.
"You want to be sure," Thor said, nodding. "As I want to be sure.
"Right. And, um, dad?"
"Is there anything to eat? I'm hungry."
Thor chuckled. "I'm sure we can find something," he said.
And that rounds off the first real chapter of Book II. Rather quick mood-swing, wasn't it? Now we've seen Voldemort, who's testing Harry, looking to get his measure, to see what he can and can't do and more importantly what he will and won't do when his back is against the wall. We'll see more of him, but not directly confronting Harry like this – he's learned just how outmatched he is in a contest of power he is and he won't risk another until he's sure he can match Harry, outmatch him, or walk him straight into a trap. He needs to find out more and that's what he'll spend this year doing.
I hope I got the balance right – namely, enough to show that wanded practitioners aren't completely useless, especially when they trouble to use their powers sensibly. I think I was leaning the other way a bit in Book I.
As an organisation, though, the Ministry is going to continue to be all at sea, for a number of reasons, not least that Wisdom is no longer in any mood to speak softly and has a stick of increasing size, so to speak.