What's this? Another chapter? Over 17k long? In… *checks* a little under 4 days? Making it my third in, oh, 12 days? What can I say, miracles sometimes happen.

Part of it was that I was on a hot streak, being in a particularly good mood as I'd caught up with my very oldest friend (it goes back to birth, literally. He's 3 weeks older than me), who I hadn't seen for five years. The writing gods put some wind in my sails.

However, part of it was the fact that I had c. 60% of this chapter pre-written. This chapter and the last couple have been burning a lot of the stuff I racked up while stalled on finishing Unfinished Business. Consequently, when I move onto The Phoenix and the Serpent, I'm probably going to post a teaser chapter to engage interest/people to latch follows onto, then take a freaking break. I'd say I'm only about one chapter away from that, but we all know how my estimates get away from me. Point being: I will not be making a habit of this.

Speaking of landmarks and lots of writing: as I mentioned last chapter, frankly not expecting that I would put out another chapter before the landmark, it's been nearly 10 years since I started writing this series. This chapter, the 165th in the series, also takes it past the landmark of 2 million words. I feel proud of that… even if a not inconsiderable chunk of it is Author Notes.

Anyhow, this chapter is where all the fluff goes out the window. This is where the engines of plot really start up again, and it is chock full of lots of complicated and often emotionally painful character interactions. This is one of the chapters where I take your collective heart and squeeze, and I love it. There's lighter, more hopeful, and funnier stuff sprinkled in, but damn, some of it is brutal.

So… enjoy.

Sir Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross, Fist of God, and affordable building contractor, was troubled. He had faith, of course. He always did. This was not to say that his faith was never tested – quite the contrary. He had wielded Amoracchius (the Sword of Love, suspected by some to have borne the name Excalibur for a while. Those suspicions were wishful thinking, entirely ridiculous, and absolutely correct) against the forces of darkness for a little over twenty years, and he had seen more or less everything there was to see.

He knew the face of evil, whether it wore a human mask or one that was fanged/tentacled/otherwise unpleasant. He had encountered what he believed to be every kind of depravity he could have imagined, and quite a few that he previously could not. One of the very first evils he had encountered, the one most frequently faced, could be summarised as this: bad things happen to innocent people. He had seen such innocents on his very first mission. He had seen many more since. Sometimes, they reappeared in his nightmares.

That would be the very least of what he had encountered that could test his faith. Temptation was hardly a danger, at least not in the terms that the likes of the Fallen and the Fae offered. He had a loving family, a fulfilling life, and consequently he considered himself rich beyond measure; all such creatures offered was hollow and empty, naught but ash by , the appearances of other Gods was not much of a problem – his faith had always accepted the presence of other Powers, and did not deny their existence or their strength. If they were benevolent, then all the better.

But suffering, not his, but others who had not chosen to put themselves to the hazard… now that would test even the most understanding disciple who believed in a just and loving God.

If Michael had one weakness, one vulnerability in his faith, it was his own children.

And one of them was missing.

As a result, he only barely obeyed the speed limit as he crossed Chicago, weaving past a drastically warped stoplight that was now bearing fruit, before bringing his van to a stop and getting out without even bothering to stop the engine as he hurried down the stairs to Harry Dresden's basement apartment, hammering on the reinforced steel door.

There were a few moments of silence, then the door was jerked open. Unfortunately, to Michael's disappointment and worry, it was not Harry. Immediately, he chided himself – if Harry was not present, then that was the Lord's will, and he would have to make do. Indeed, it could well be providence that led to this particular individual being present rather than Harry. They had worked together before, after all.

On the other hand, if he was going to work with a past ally again, he wouldn't have necessarily chosen this one.

"Sir Knight," said Thomas Raith, exiled Vampire of the White Court. Like all of his kind, he was inhumanly beautiful, an idealised statue brought to life, pale as marble with eyes like late summer rainclouds and hair as dark as the blackest night. Like all of his kind, he was a natural-born predator, whose very appearance was both weapon and camouflage. Michael carefully didn't tense. Raith carefully didn't notice.

"Master Raith," he said. "I was hoping that Harry would be in."

That got a shake of the head from the vampire. "He's in Edinburgh," he said. "The White Council called everyone in, to try and figure out how to deal with all… this." He waved a vague hand at their surroundings. Given the enchanted bridges of wood, woven glass, and gleaming vine that criss-crossed the rooftops above, just some of the lingering echoes of the worldwide warp that had centred on New Orleans in the city's architecture, it more than sufficed to make the point. "Also," the vampire added, as if an afterthought. "They're having a chat with Merlin. Turns out he's alive."

Michael blinked, then dismissed this. He could enquire later. Before he could ask when Harry would be back, he heard a vaguely feminine groan. He levelled a hard look at the vampire, who raised his eyebrows, then actually had the gall to look amused.

"Wanda," he said, without turning. "There's someone at the door."

There was a thump of footsteps, and the decidedly bedraggled – and fully, thoroughly dressed – form of Wanda Maximoff stalked over to the door, apparently ready to deliver a tirade before she saw Michael and her mouth snapped shut.

"Sir Michael," she said, embarrassed.

"Lady Maximoff," he said, embarrassed.

The vampire smirked.

"You wanted to speak to Harry," Wanda said, after several long, awkward moments.

"Yes, I need his help," Michael said. "Though perhaps it is yours that I need."

At this point in the conversation, Harry would usually have said something grumpy and cynical about Michael's philosophical attitudes, that there was no deeper meaning at work, and how the Lord was not in charge of his scheduling. This was probably true, but, in Michael's experience, the Lord was not above giving things a nudge.

As it was, Wanda just nodded. "Of course," she said, stepping aside and letting him in. "Just give me a moment to splash some water on my face and I'll be right with you."

Perhaps he was not the only one in need, Michael thought as she disappeared into the bathroom. He had met Wanda in passing a few times, both before and after she had taken on Harry as her apprentice. Even in the most dire circumstances, the sorceress had seemed composed and in control, with every confidence in her abilities and every reason for that. She was never anything less than formidable.

Now, though, that had changed. Instead, she looked decidedly woebegone; her face was pale, contrasting with the dark bags under her eyes that spoke of exhaustion, and her hair was limp and straggly. Her posture was defeated, her expression haunted and sad, seeming almost paralysed by misery. There was a faint whiff of alcohol around the apartment and Michael could see several open, empty beer bottles.

His expression morphed instantly into concern, and as it did, he caught the vampire's eye. Raith glanced down at the beers, then at the door to the bathroom, and grimaced. To his mild surprise, Michael realised that he wasn't the only one worried. Most vampires would have pounced on such an open display of vulnerability – and even as low as Wanda was obviously feeling, someone with her experience would never let one near her in such a state.

Except this one.

Michael had to concede that Thomas Raith was unusual. He had displayed altruism, courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and concern for others. Those, and a habit of doing what was right rather than what was easy, were not normal vampire traits. It would explain his exile – and his current position of trust. That being said, Michael had his own theories about the latter.

"What is wrong?" he asked quietly.

"That's for her to say," Raith said quietly. Then, after a moment, he added, "It's not about Harry. He doesn't know – it happened after he left. It's personal."

Michael frowned, but nodded. "She has been drinking," he said neutrally.

"She's sober, now," Raith said, and yes, a vampire would be able to tell, wouldn't he. He folded his arms and glared at Michael. "And yes, I have been drinking with her. It's that or she drinks alone; this way, I can make sure she paces herself."

Michael relaxed slowly and nodded again, slower and with more than a little respect. Yes, Thomas was different.

"What's the problem?" Wanda asked, opening the door. She looked somewhat fresher, her hair tied back, and there was an air of focus about her, of almost aching relief that there was something she could do to bury whatever she was feeling. However, it was only a thin mask over the aching sadness underneath.

"My oldest daughter, Molly, has gone missing," he said, as steadily as he could manage through the lump in his throat. Thomas straightened up, sharp and alert. "It has been two days. We've searched the local area, called all our neighbours, her school, her friends, their parents, and the police. There isn't a sign of her, anywhere."

Wanda stared at him without blinking, then snapped her fingers. A red jacket with a golden buckle leapt off the hook and into her hand.

"We'll see about that," she said.

OoOoO

This was not the only somewhat awkward conversation to be had, though there were a few differences. For one, the stakes were less dire. For another, no one was depressed. On the other hand, it did involve someone who was part vampire. So there was that.

"Is that really comfortable?" Harry asked curiously.

"More than you'd think," Peter said. He was crouched on the ceiling, eschewing the concealing glasses and contact lenses, and consequently looked like the world's smallest and least threatening vampire. In fact, Harry thought, he mostly just looked kind of… odd.

Not that he really had any stones to throw in that regard.

"I'm glad to see you're okay," Harry said, before shooting Peter a worried look. "You are okay, right?"

"Fighting fit and ready to go," Peter said. "Though I could probably pass on the fighting for a little while. Making monsters go splat isn't that fun. Making people go splat…" He shuddered. It was a full-body experience, one made all the odder by his inverted positioning. "Anyway, I passed all the physicals, easily. I think I'm actually stronger than I was as a, you know. Part-vampire. Except I'm still part vampire. I think." He shrunk a little under Harry's sceptical gaze, apparently trying to vanish into the ceiling. "Please don't fry me."

Harry snorted. "If Carol's right – and she usually is – then if you're part-vampire, you're the worst vampire I've ever met," he said.

"… thank you?"

"You're welcome," Harry said dryly. "You wanted a word?"

"Yeah," Peter said, relaxing.

There was a short, complicated moment.

"I see that your powers are a work in progress," Harry said eventually.

"A little bit, yeah," Peter said.

"Would you like a hand up?"

"No, no. Don't mind me. I'm just gonna lie here and die of embarrassment."

"Okay. I met your aunt and uncle, by the way."

Peter lifted his head from the floor. "You what."

"They dropped by to ask some questions about the long-term effects of what happened to you," Harry said. "Also about the short-term location of Doctor Strange so they could murder him."

"That doesn't sound like them," Peter said, sitting up and frowning. "The second one, I mean."

"Really?" Harry asked, shrugging. "Sounds like every parent I've ever met." He waved a hand. "Anyway, they also wanted to say thank you for saving you back on Halloween. They dropped by back then, too, but I was in a coma and not really in a state to appreciate life."

"Yeah, you looked…"

"Three-quarters dead?" Harry suggested.

"Living dead," Peter said, and grinned, before flipping to his feet. "Believe me, I'd know."

Harry chuckled. "Yes, I suppose you would," he said. "What did you want to talk about, anyway? I've got a few questions to be answering today, and I get the feeling that yours will be the easiest."

"Well, I wanted to know if you knew how Gambit and Deadpool were," Peter said. "Or if you know who would." He shrugged self-consciously. "I'd ask Carol, but I think she's kinda busy adjusting. Same way I am, really."

"Well, I don't know much about Deadpool, but from what I have heard, he's probably fine," Harry said, then frowned. "Actually, I think I remember Strange saying something about his wife and unicorns."

"That's good," Peter said, nodding, then grimaced. "Well, probably." Harry cocked an eyebrow. "You don't want to know."

"I probably don't," Harry muttered. "As for Gambit, he's actually not far away – and probably having the most awkward family meeting the Xavier Institute has seen for… oh, at least three months. Probably less. It depends whether or not someone's told Lorna that she's an aunt yet."

Peter looked curious.

"You don't want to know."

"Well, now you put it like that, I really do."

"They're part of the other questions I have to answer," Harry said, phone pinging. "Speaking of which… that's my ride. See you around, Peter." He paused. "And maybe don't climb too high before you get the hang of sticking."

"I'll figure it out, I swear to you."

"Please don't do that."

OoOoO

As Harry predicted, the meeting was indeed awkward. While they were in many respects identical, it was hard to imagine two young men more apparently different than Scott Summers and Remy LeBeau. Sitting across the kitchen table at the Institute, while one exuded rectitude, reserve, and fierce self-discipline, the other exuded charm, confidence, and roguish mischief.

Studies in contrast who could have used each other for shaving mirrors. The irony was not lost on either of them, or on many of the observers. Some were concerned. Most, in the fine traditions of both the Xavier Institute and teenagers in general, were engaged in a muffled squabble for the best position to observe Drama.

So far, they were being disappointed.

"So," Gambit said.

"So," Scott said.

There was a long silence. Both young men fidgeted.

Eventually, Gambit cleared his throat. Badly. That, as much as anything else, was a sign of nerves.

"Uh, would you like some water?" Scott ventured.

"Ah'd be obliged," Gambit said.

Scott blinked, then visibly shook himself, as if once again having trouble hearing his voice coming from another face that was also his face, in a very different accent. As he filled the glass, he glanced over his shoulder, looking at Gambit, before hurriedly looking back when he met the other's gaze.

He returned with the water, and the silence resumed, perhaps even more awkward than ever. Then, Gambit sighed.

"What?" Scott snapped. "Sorry, I –"

"Man, y' got every reason to shout at me from dusk 'til dawn," Gambit said frankly, accent audibly softer than usual. One might suppose that it was easier to have a conversation when one party didn't have to keep repeating themselves. "Ah'm not saying that I wouldn' defend myself, but y' got reason. Y' had a lot dropped on y'."

"You mean like finding out that I'd been cloned?" Scott asked bitterly. "That one of the few people who might have answers went running first chance he got? That he avoided all attempts at contact for months? That I had a br –"

He stopped abruptly.

"A brother," Gambit finished quietly. "Yeah." He snorted.

"What? What's so funny?" Scott demanded, anger ticking in his jaw.

"Y' think you were the only one who wanted answers?" Gambit asked quietly. "Ah wasn't running from y', Scott –"

That got a derisive snort, and Gambit rolled his eyes.

"Fine. Not only from y', and believe me, it weren't anythin' personal," he said. "Nothin' y'd done, or not done. I wanted t' go home anyway, an' I wanted t' do it even more after I found out. I wanted t' be somewhere familiar, comfortable, an'… well, not entirely safe, but enough for me. I wanted to leave the superpowers an' everythin' else behind. An' yeah. I wanted answers. New Orleans was where my story started, so I started there."

Scott settled back into his chair, not comfortable, but less visibly tense. "Did you find anything?" he asked.

"Little enough," Gambit said. "Proof that I really was a clone, a science experiment – which, by de way, is more than enough reason to go runnin', huh?"

"I know," Scott said. "Trust me, the Professor made that quite clear. As did Jean. Loudly." He winced, and pressed his ears carefully, as if trying to dispel a distant ringing of 'Scott Summers, you inconsiderate twit!' "And Maddie." He winced again. "She was… precise."

Gambit chuckled. "I'll bet," he said, amused, before sobering. "I found the lab, what was left of it. It was pretty picked over, though. I went an' tried to look for anythin' that might have survived, but when that happened, ah got caught up in the whole thing with the Patches that led me to Pegasus. Then the Boudreaux found out I was back, an' after that, I hardly knew a moment's peace." He shrugged. "Helped take my mind off things, if ah'm honest."

"The Boudreaux," Scott said tensely. "One of the pre-eminent crime families in Louisiana, particularly New Orleans. Chief rivals of the LeBeau clan."

"My family," Gambit said ironically. "Y' be done your reading." His red and black gaze settled on Scott's glasses, as if seeing straight through them and through Scott himself. "If y' know the kind of folks that I dealt with, and the kind that adopted me, then maybe y' know why I wasn' eager to come back."

Scott looked puzzled, before light dawned. "You… you were ashamed," he said, in both realisation and disbelief.

"Y' ain't the only one who's been doing reading, Scott," Gambit said heavily. "I'd wager that between the Red Room, Essex, and other things ah've picked up, just by watching y' before I found out, I know more about y' than y' do about yourself. A lot more than y' know about me, that's for sure."

"Look, with the Red Room, I know what happened, you were caught in a bad situation," Scott said. "You're not the only one."

"No," Gambit allowed. "But did no one tell you why I was there in the first place? Y' got one of the most destructive powers ah've ever seen, so powerful that y' got to wear those glasses night and day. There ain't no break, no relief, not even for one moment. An' so far as I can tell, y' ain't never hurt a fly." He raised a finger, as Scott went to rebut that. "Demons on Red Sky Day don't count, an' I ain't done. Kindly let me finish."

Scott grudgingly closed his mouth.

"I ended up with Essex, an' with the Red Room, 'cos I killed a man," Gambit said bluntly. "Heir to the Boudreaux, and brother of the girl I loved."

"He attacked you, you panicked," Scott protested. "I heard what happened, your powers were running out of control – they were going to kill you if you hadn't got help!"

"An' look who I turned to," Gambit said. "I had options. Not many of them were good options, but I coulda tried SHIELD. Or maybe a long shot, like the Avengers. If y' know where to listen, an' I did, there are rumours of this place – or at least, the Professor, an' a few of your teachers." He glanced out the door to where he knew their audience was, and grinned suddenly. "One of 'em's a legend in my circles, an' it ain't the one with fur or the one with metal claws."

The muffled squabbling ceased for a moment and there was suddenly a flurry of whispers as that little tidbit was furiously debated.

The grin faded as Gambit turned back. "I had options, Scott. Hell, right at home, there was the Witch-Woman of New Orleans, Wizard Martha Liberty of the White Council. But I didn't turn t' any of them. I'd killed a man, an' I was crook to my bones. I didn't trust the law, or anyone even remotely close to it. I stuck to the underworld and I took a chance on Essex, the man they call 'Sinister', rather than try find someone legit. An' working for Essex… well. Thievin' weren't all he had me do. Julien's blood weren't de last on my hands. Not by a long shot."

"It wasn't your –"

"No," Gambit said firmly, cutting Scott right off. "I know what y' gonna say, and don'. Don' say that. Don' take away my fault, my choices. They might have been terrible, maybe ones I should never have had to make. But they were my choices. An' for a long damn time, those choices were all I had."

"I'm sorry," Scott said after a moment, confused and more than a little horrified.

"S'okay," Gambit said, shrugging. "Y' ain't been in a position where y' had to understand, 'til now, an' I am very glad of that." He sighed. "You're a good man, Scott. Doin' the right thing is second nature to y'. I ain't sure if a dishonest thought's ever entered y'r mind. Me? I ain't ashamed of bein' a thief. But the things I did, to survive, to escape, an' even just to make my life easier? Yeah. Those are things to be ashamed of."

"You got a lot of people out of the Red Room's hands," Scott said. "Out of Essex's hands. You were a key part of bringing them both down. Whatever you did, I think pretty much everyone here would agree you made up for it."

"Maybe," Gambit said, tilting his head in a way that said that he didn't exactly believe it. "I can't undo the past. I can't run away from it, neither. I'd hope y' wouldn't begrudge me a few months of not wanting t' face y'. Not wanting face the feeling that ah'm a bad copy of a better man."

Scott's hand shot across the table, quick and fierce as any move Gambit had ever made, snapping around his wrist like a manacle.

"You are not a bad copy," he hissed. "Your name is Remy and you are a person." His voice cracked. "You are my brother."

Gambit stared at him, eyes wide in surprise.

"I've lost one brother," Scott continued. "I'm not going to lose another. Not now, not ever."

And, for the first time in many years, Gambit was truly lost for words.

"Well said," another voice said softly.

Both boys jumped. The speaker was sitting at the head of the table, barely six feet away. He had also not been there until he'd opened his mouth.

"It is long since time, Remy, that you were reminded that you are not alone, nor are you broken," Doctor Strange said. His gaze shifted to Scott. "And neither are you, Scott."

"Doctor Strange?" Scott asked.

"What are y' up to?" Gambit asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I am to do something else that has waited long enough," Strange said. He reached out and lightly tapped Scott's glasses. "To fix something that is broken."

Perhaps wisely, the meeting broke up.

OoOoO

When it reconvened in the Infirmary, it had a few changed participants. Gambit had exited, visibly shaken, guided away by Maddie who was talking to him in a soft undertone. As she knew well, someone who had resigned themselves to buried self-loathing and accepted guilt, such sincerity as Scott's – especially Scott's, in this case – was devastating, enough to break through Gambit's outer layers of obfuscation, resignation, and confident charm.

"You had the key to my powers, all this time?" Scott demanded, enraged. "You let me spend half my life behind these glasses, afraid, terrified, that if I slipped for even a moment, people would get hurt, even killed! Do you have any idea what that is like?"

"Actually," the target of his wrath said quietly. "I do. I know exactly what it is like. Granted, my case was a little less direct than yours, but yes. I do."

Doctor Strange folded his arms and regarded the dark haired young man.

"Furthermore, I did not have the key to your powers," he said. "I knew that they could be fixed, yes, and I had a few shrewd ideas on how. But I did not know."

"You couldn't have found out?" Jean asked suspiciously.

"No," Strange said bluntly. "Because despite their appearance, Scott's powers are fiendishly complex."

"That much is true," Hank said. "Scott, your powers interact with your nervous system - and alter it - in ways that Charles and I don't yet understand. Look at Gambit - his powers, derived from the exact same X-Gene, manifested completely differently. Even allowing for modifications, all prior experience says that the manifestation should have more than superficial similarities, and we do not yet know why." He eyed Strange. "Of course, neither of us is the greatest doctor of all time, with millennia of experience and foresight to tell him where he might be going wrong."

Strange smiled thinly. There was no humour in it.

"I was coming to that," he said. "Speaking of Scott's brother, his very existence is proof that Scott was a subject of study by someone very particular. Someone, I might remind you all, whose activities were explicitly veiled from my sight."

"Essex," Jean said, bitter and vicious.

"Indeed," Strange said. "I did not know what he had done anything to Scott, if anything at all. His involvement clouded my foresight as Scott's mutation emerged, so I did not know, therefore, how it was supposed to be. I did not know if by acting further, I would be doing more harm than good. Gambit's fate, one he narrowly escaped, is a prime example of the potential consequences." His gaze swept them all, deadly serious. "My title is not a pretension. I am a doctor, and I have been for almost all of my extraordinarily extended life, and that entails a sacred trust: I have a duty of care; a duty to do no harm; and a duty to never, ever take liberties with my patient's health."

Hank's expression thawed somewhat, and he nodded slowly. "'I will not be ashamed to say 'I know not', nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery'," he said quietly. At Jean and Scott's puzzled looks, he elaborated. "It's part of the Hippocratic Oath – one of the modern variations, anyway."

"My pride extends a very long way, into arrogance and well beyond," Strange said quietly. "On a purely technical level, I am perhaps the greatest doctor ever to live. Part of that is because I have learned to accept that even I have limits."

His gaze settled on Scott.

"Treating manifestations of the X-Gene is always complicated, because the X-Gene is an X-Factor. The same specific mutation in the same specific indivicual can manifest in countless different ways, depending on timing and environmental factors. Many are far too subtle to immediately distinguish, and are, practically, insignificant. But in such delicate medical matters, even the slightest distinction can make all the difference in the world. Your mutation, Mr Summers, runs right through your physiology. It is intimately entwined with your nervous system, your brain, your very psyche. Even under normal circumstances, without Essex's interference, I would take great care in treating a malfunction in your mutation. Do you understand? I. Did. Not. Know."

"Then what changed?" Scott asked roughly.

"Essex," Hank said. "You made him talk… or you found something in his notes?"

"You're half right, on both counts," Strange said. "You see, Essex engineered himself far more than he did anyone else. He cultivated a network of mentally linked clones – a hive-mind, of sorts, albeit composed of semi-autonomous parts. Memory back-ups were included. A very efficient system, in many respects, but critically flawed."

"Once you had one, you could get in their network, track all the others down," Scott said dully, his tactical mind still at work. "How is this relevant?"

"Each clone was a node of the network, with all the information that the others possessed," Strange said. "Which meant that once I had access to one…"

He flourished his wrist like a conjurer, and a jar appeared in it, full of a pale yellowy-green liquid. In it floated a grey, textured object the rough size of two fists. A gleaming red crystal loosely attached.

"… I had access to everything Essex had ever known."

He waved it away, ignoring the sickened looks.

"I now know exactly what he did to you, Scott. I now know exactly what he saw, and what he missed, in his study of you. I also know exactly what he did to Gambit. Add to that a quick trip back in time to scan your brain structure before you were injured in that crash. With that, following consultation with my colleague… I can fix your mutation."

Scott stared at him for a long moment, expression unreadable. "There's a catch, isn't there?" he said eventually.

Jean frowned at him, but didn't disagree. "It does seem a little sudden," she said. "Not that we're not grateful, you understand, but surely…" She trailed off.

"It can't be this easy," Hank finished. "And it isn't. Though I would imagine that the good doctor has spent a very long time making very sure of himself before even proposing this."

It was both a shrewd assessment and a thinly veiled threat. As it was, Strange nodded.

"I have," he said plainly. "Approximately four and a half years, in relative time." There were several stunned looks, and he shrugged. "Brain surgery is complicated; both metaphorically, in terms of unravelling Essex's brain, or one of them, and literally, in terms of actual brain surgery. Actual brain surgery on a very particular mutant who, again, has a very complex and finely balanced physiology that has already been further complicated by a decade of scar tissue. A very particular mutant who, it seems, is almost destined to end up the way he is…"

"What do you mean by 'destined'?" Jean asked suspiciously.

"In the simplest terms, there are many possibilities for the future," Strange said. "Near infinite, in fact. There are some that I would class as probabilities, and others still which are… recurring events, shall we say, that resonate from universe to universe. Your powers, their scale and their nature, are one, Miss Grey. Likewise, your connection to the Phoenix. Another is the uncontrollable nature of Mr Summers' powers. Across the multiverse, the pattern recurs, though I'm not entirely sure why. However, once I noticed it, it was further reason for me to tread carefully. Defying multiversal recurrence carries risks. Manageable risks, in the normal run of things, but in a medically delicate situation? You see my dilemma."

He waved a hand.

"In any case, the key lies in something that you and Scott – and, indeed, Gambit – have in common," he said. "You both have a secondary mutation. Unlike you, however, Scott's has yet to manifest."

"The psionic component to Gambit's powers," Hank said in realisation. "I must confess, I had thought that was an addition of Essex's." His expression turned grim. "He seems to have preferred precision instruments."

"Gambit's not psychic," Jean said, frowning. "He's got good mental defences, but that's mostly thanks to Maddie."

"But he does control what he charges," Scott said slowly. "He's told me; he can control the size of the charge, the form of release, the timing of the release… he can even charge something through something else."

"Indeed," Hank said. "Gambit is unsurprisingly somewhat reticent about the details of his powers, but when he realised that it might be pertinent to your situation, Scott, he was very forthcoming. His energy manipulation is partly psionic, and he is even able to 'charge' others on contact."

"Charge them?" Scott asked, puzzled.

"In essence, he sends a small charge of energy into them, just as he would anything else," Hank explained. "The human body is a very complex machine. A resilient one, yes, but with Gambit's abilities and a targeted charge… he could kill with a touch."

He did not say that he was quite sure that Gambit had. Scott's brother had an excellent poker face, but there was a haunted look in his eyes, one that made Hank's more primal instincts want to break into the Raft and tear Essex limb from limb.

"Other than that, a modulated charge through the nervous system can stimulate various parts of the brain and cause various sensory reactions," he continued. "Gambit has explained some of the effects he has previously caused. One, I am afraid, is pain. Another is jolting someone out of sleep or unconsciousness. And others are more subtle."

"Charm," Strange said softly.

Hank nodded. "Raising body temperature, stimulating the pleasure centres of the brain… it would not take much to influence someone," he said. "I got the impression that the prospect made him distinctly uncomfortable."

"He's not the only one," Scott said, troubled. He didn't know his cloned brother very well, but he knew enough to know that his life had been far from easy, forcing him into some very dark places. Times like this made him wonder just what some of those places were like. He shook his head. Now wasn't the time to think about that. "So, I have a latent secondary mutation?"

"It would seem that you do," Hank said. "Though what exact form it will take, I cannot say."

"Neither can I, though I can tell you that you inherited it from your grandmother," Strange said idly. "Who, incidentally, is probably the main reason why it is actually quite fortunate that it took until now for me to figure out exactly how to treat your problematic powers. While they were apparently broken, you were of little enough interest to her."

"Grandmother?" Scott asked, baffled. "Grandpa never really mentioned anything about her – just that they separated when dad was young."

"I am not surprised," Hank said heavily.

"Wait, you know her?" Scott said, astonished.

"I do, along with the other members of the First Class of X-Men," Hank said. "She is a mutant, as you have probably gathered, and a very powerful one. Once, she was an enemy. For a little while, it seemed like she might be a friend – and, to your grandfather, something more. Now, the status is something closer to a wary détente. In any case, for a number of reasons she is something of a sore subject, with your grandfather more than most."

"Who is she?" Scott persisted.

"Emma Frost," Strange said. "Current Lady Imperial of the Hellfire Club."

OoOoO

Hermione watched Harry and wondered. He had arrived earlier that day, back from his latest disappearance to Avengers Mansion. Sometimes, she wondered why he even bothered to spend time in Hogwarts any more. As far as she could see, it was an increasingly awkward fit. Maybe he didn't want to admit it. Or maybe, she begrudgingly admitted, this particular line of wondering could be informed by a certain biased outlook. Justifiably biased, but still biased.

Sitting in the Hospital Wing, still confined but no longer confined to a single bed, she had a lot of time to wonder about a lot of things, and a lot of contradictions. Many of them involved him.

Harry, one of her oldest friends.

Harry, who'd been a hero time and time again, always doing the right thing no matter what it cost his body or his mind.

Harry, who'd deduced the truth about her, confirmed it, then calmly lied to her for months. He had known truths she hadn't even imagined. About where her powers came from. About who she was.

Harry, who, she would grudgingly admit, had never meant to hurt her (and had managed to do so anyway).

Harry, who, despite all that, frightened her more than anyone or anything else in the world.

He had apologised, fronting up to his mistakes both in not telling her the truth (or at least in not pressuring Wanda to do so) and in snapping at her when she'd called out Wanda. He had also declared his intention to let her hash out her issues with Wanda with her, and keep his nose out of it, as was right and proper (because it wasn't any of his damn business).

It had been very comprehensive, enough that she suspected that at the very least he'd had help drafting it. It had also sounded as if it had been about as painful as pulling teeth without anaesthetic.

Yet perhaps because of that, it had also sounded sincere, as if he simultaneously knew that he had been wrong (which he mostly had been), but still didn't totally think he had, because, as he always did, he had done what he thought was right. A few days ago, that would have driven her to a fury.

Now, she felt a detached sort of pity that he had ended up with such split loyalties, enough to more or less short-circuit his brain. Pity, and, she was woman enough to admit it, resentment that the greater loyalty had not been to her. Pity, though, edged it, because he had sounded so genuinely tired. She was by no means minded to excuse him, but she could accept that this whole mess had weighed on him - and still was. So, unless he did something that tipped the scales the other way, pity held her calm so far.

It helped that after, he had added somewhat dryly, "Carol, my father, and my uncle may have reminded me that I had a few issues about abandonment myself," he said. "It involved similar amounts of screaming, mostly at my grandfather. While my issues mostly stood at being left with the Dursleys, feeling unwanted – when you were absolutely wanted, both by the mother who gave you up and the parents who took you in – there's… a few parallels. Enough that I should have been more understanding." He closed his eyes. "And I am really, truly sorry that I wasn't."

He'd then shaken his head.

"It took me a while to accept what granddad did. It was hard. If I'm honest, it still is."

"But you didn't forgive him?" Hermione had asked, eyes damp, but still sharp.

Harry had gone silent for a while. "Yes," he'd said eventually. "I did. But I haven't forgotten, either. I'm not sure if it's the way things would always have been, even if he'd taken me in from the start, but there's always a bit of… distance, I suppose, between me and him. And if I'm honest, I'm not totally sure about the forgiveness part, either."

This, as much as anything else, had mollified her, if only a little. For the time being. She had made it quite clear that Harry was neither forgiven, yet, and what he had and hadn't done had not been forgotten. Nor would it, likely ever. For now, he was… on probation, so to speak. He had closed his eyes, then accepted it with a solemn nod.

As for the situation as a whole... they were who they were, not who they had been. She could mourn the boy she had known, the way their friendship had been, later, and much of her still raged at it and wanted to turn back the clock to when Harry had been sweet and open and honest.

Well, she thought with scrupulous accuracy, that wasn't all he had been. He hadn't been perfect, of course he hadn't. Some of the changes had been positive - he took everything much more seriously now, and he was far more mature (mostly). But the Harry she had known had been gentle, kind, and, yes, honest.

The Harry she saw now could still be gentle, and most certainly kind (anyone who was friends with Ginny Weasley could tell that), yes. In some ways, all his changes and all of what he had been through had given a depth to his old compassion and a deeper understanding of suffering.

But where before he had been all impulse and good intentions, now he was thoughtful and controlled, measured in so much of what he did (right up until he wasn't), his presence giving away little to nothing. He was ruthless, now, in ways that still made her shiver, with a staggering capacity for viciousness, and fiery as his temper could be, warm as his love obviously was, it sometimes seemed that if you cut him open you'd find ice for blood and steel for nerves.

Those warm and guileless green eyes were now cooler and more calculating, that open face now a chameleon's hide of blankness, masked by countless shifting expressions chosen to convey whatever impression he wanted to leave. Carol had warned her of how dangerous Harry could be, what seemed like a lifetime ago. Now, more than ever, she could see just how dangerous that really was.

The Harry she had known had floundered at times, stumbling verbally and physically, often shy and retiring. There had been no artifice to him. This one was smoother, far more controlled, and graceful. He still found the spotlight irritating and uncomfortable, but he was much more comfortable commanding a room, more willing to demand instant attention and respect (which, to be fair, he usually got).

As for artifice, well. There had been signs. She'd noticed his sudden aptitude for lying months before, how it had come so easily and so naturally to him, far more so than honesty. Like a fool, she hadn't questioned it or thought what it might mean, if he might turn that talent on her as casually as he had Ron.

Now, Harry was... poised. Yes, poised was the way to put it. Strange, Loki, Sergeant Barnes, Natasha Romanova, even Dumbledore - and, of course, her own grandfather, Magneto (who, peculiarly and against her better judgement, she quite liked)… all were clear models. If it had been a simple imitation, a conscious mimicry, she'd have been perversely reassured. But it wasn't. This change ran much, much deeper.

Above all, though... she could never imagine the old Harry hurting her, or Ron. Never, ever. Physically or emotionally, it simply hadn't been in him to hurt a friend, not on purpose. At worst, he could be a bit thoughtless. Now? She looked at those calculating green eyes, and felt absolutely certain that he was perfectly capable of doing so. If, of course, he thought it was... necessary.

Intellectually, she knew the change hadn't happened overnight. Some of the signs, she could see in retrospect. But she'd had the illusion that he was still the same person to blind her to their extent. Now, she most certainly did not.

The object of her study sat in the transfigured armchair by the Hospital Wing bed, currently in silence. His gaze swept over her, showing no sign that he could sense any of what she was thinking (though she rather suspected that he did and more besides) then over to a mulish looking Ron, then back again.

"You're both wondering when I changed," he said abruptly. "When I stopped trusting you." His expression turned irritable as Hermione's temper sparked and Ron's expression shifted from mulishness to sullen anger. "And no," he added. "I did not read either of your minds. You might not trust me, but at least trust my ethics."

"Then how'd you know?" Ron asked truculently. Inwardly, Hermione sighed. She was the offended party here. The dispute was between her and Harry. If she could hold her temper, and he could his - both more or less guaranteed unless they discussed Wanda anything other than obliquely - then surely he could do the same.

Then again, this was Ron. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and what he felt tended to be blindingly obvious. Where she could once have read Harry like a book, Ron was like a book that read itself for you. Besides, she mused, it wasn't like Ron hadn't had issues with Harry beforehand.

Harry waved a hand. "It was written on your faces."

Ron glowered sceptically, but didn't argue. Hermione was actually disposed to believe him. Harry had always been pretty good at deducing things, putting together small and apparently random bits of information, and that had evolved into a frightening talent for reading people. One, apparently, that had come straight from his mother. Whether his telepathy, and her latent talent for it, unconsciously enhanced that perceptiveness was actually a rather interesting question, though one she wasn't likely to get an answer to.

Then, suddenly, he sighed, and rubbed his eyes. He really did look tired. And for the first time in the last couple of weeks, maybe in much longer, he looked like the Harry she'd known.

"Also, trust, when that changed," he said. "You know what? Recently, I've been wondering it myself."

OoOoO

"First things first," Harry said. "I do trust you. With my life. With the lives of my friends, my family, my girlfriend, my goddaughter. I'd trust either of you, or both of you, with them without hesitation. Completely and without reserve."

"But not with secrets," Hermione said flatly. "Whether or not they're yours to keep."

She'd known that he was keeping secrets, and unlike Ron, she had been fairly understanding of that – he was, after all, moving in circles where knowledge was very real power. Where the things he learned weren't necessarily his to share. This latest secret was another matter entirely.

Harry met her stare for stare, then Ron, whose own look was decidedly stubborn, then tilted his head in acknowledgement. "You think of that as being about trust," he said. "For you two, it is."

"Then what is it for you?" Ron demanded.

"Intel. Information," Harry said. "The sort where the phrases 'knowledge is power' and 'if I told you, I'd have to kill you' are often pretty much literal. Have you ever heard of 'operational security'?"

Ron frowned, then glanced at Hermione. "It's a system muggle militaries – and probably intelligence organisations – use," she said. "To contain information, to prevent a plan becoming a trap."

"You can't give away what you don't know," Harry said quietly.

"You think we would tell?" Ron demanded, outraged. "That we'd reveal anything important you told us?"

Harry's expression was calm and utterly opaque. It didn't look right on him. It didn't look right at all.

"Not intentionally," he said. "Not willingly. But that doesn't matter. Perhaps I should rephrase my definition of operational security." He pinned Ron with his gaze. "If you don't know something, you can't be tortured into revealing it. You can't have it ripped from your mind. And you can't be killed for knowing it."

"And where does the truth about my parentage come into that?" Hermione asked bitterly. "Where does it fit under 'operational security'?"

Harry looked up at her. "Carol. Diana. Maddie. Jean. Me," he said. "All of us have been targeted since we were born, or even before, because of who our parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents happened to be. And that is not a complete list – there are others, people that I know, people that you don't."

He looked Hermione dead in the eye.

"Carol's grandmother was kidnapped when she was eight years old by the Red Room, because she was Steve's daughter, because they wanted the serum in her blood. A few months ago, Carol was kidnapped for the same reason, first by the Red Room, with me, and then by Dracula, who wanted to use that blood to become immune to sunlight. Diana was nearly murdered, repeatedly, in her cradle by Hera just because her father was Hercules – yes, that Hercules. If she hadn't been fostered in Asgard, she'd probably be dead by now, or worse. Maddie and Jean – the night they were born, Essex, the man who… the man who did so much to all of us. He went to the hospital and tried to steal both of them and fake their deaths. He got Maddie and he would have got Jean, too, if Strange hadn't jumped him. As it was, he turned Maddie into his weapon, into someone who believed quite sincerely that she was less than human, that her only reason for existence was as his experiment and enforcer, someone who was programmed so he could turn her off and on again whenever she showed any signs of independent thought."

The litany went on and on, a tidal wave of horror that Hermione found herself drowning in, related in clinical, concise anecdotes, until it came to a close.

"Finally, me. Well, I think we all know what's been done to me, just because of who and what I am and who and what my parents are," he said. "If you didn't know, Hermione, then –"

"No one could find out," she said quietly.

Harry nodded, tiredly. "Dracula found out about Carol from Voldemort, when he went rummaging around her head at the World Cup," he said. "The Red Room picked me because Essex tipped them off about my potential. And… someone else. A cousin of mine, of sorts. You can call him Kal. He's powerful, probably as powerful as I am, though he's still growing into it. He's sweet. Fairly innocent. And very kind. He ended up on the radar of a sick psychopath who decided to drain him dry, like squeezing the juice out of an apple. Nick Fury himself, among others, has spent the last fifteen years keeping Kal's very existence a secret for that exact reason. The same reason that my mother, and Wanda, hid you."

"Ignorance doesn't keep us safe," Hermione retorted. "Evrerything you've said has made that clear enough. In almost every case, the people involved knew who you, or your friends, or… or maybe even me. They knew it beforehand." Her tone sharpened. "And keeping the truth about me a secret didn't exactly keep me safe."

"I know," Harry sighed. "I know. I disagreed with Wanda on that, but…" He shook his head. "It's not just about identity. Well, part of it is, but… sometimes, you're born in danger. I was. Prophecy be damned, I'm an Asgardian Prince on one side, and I'm a Grey on the other. You would have been, Hermione, but Wanda and mum went to a lot of trouble to hide that, and yes, I know how you feel about that, it is literally radiating off you. Carol's great-grandmother, Peggy, went to a lot of trouble to hide her side of it, too, so her daughter, Alison, and descendants would be safe, and as far as I can tell, Alison's been keeping it up ever since."

He looked at them, pleading, voice breaking – actually breaking.

"You think I don't trust you, because I don't want you involved in all the insanity I get caught up in, but that's not it. You have seen me at my most vulnerable. You know most of my deepest and darkest secrets. Yes, I have shut you out, yes, I have not told you things, sometimes things that you deserved to know, but it is not. About. Trust."

"Then what is it about?" Ron demanded furiously. "Why are you doing it? Is it because you think we're not good enough?"

"No!" Harry snapped, pacing, running his hands through his hair, growing more and more agitated with every step as the flames in the fireplaces rose higher and higher.

"Then why?" Hermione asked, voice soft but insistent. She needed answers, and that smooth mask was cracked now. All she needed to do was push. "Why, Harry?"

"BECAUSE I CAN'T PROTECT YOU!"

The enchanted metal and stone of the fireplaces screamed as the flames roared into an inferno, entwining with the sudden, anguished howl of despair and the crack of pulverised wood as Harry whirled on them with wild eyes that blazed golden-white, hands crushing the back of his chair to sawdust.

There was dead silence.

Ron had rocked back in his chair, milk-white, blue eyes as wide as galleons, staring at Harry like a bomb that could go off at any moment. Harry was heaving gasps of air, body sagging, eyes emerald green once more and haunted with it, hands clutching convulsively at the remains of the chair that he was staring at, that seemed to be the only thing holding him up. For her part, Hermione swallowed, and eased her own grip on the sides of her chair, carefully sitting up.

"Protect us?" she echoed.

Harry nodded choppily. "Yes," he bit out. "The less you know, the safer you were – though clearly, I screwed up on what 'less' should mean. The less involved you get, in my… my stuff? The safer you are."

"You never stopped your other friends, though," Ron said, truculence shifting into edgy worry.

Harry grimaced. "Yes, and look how that's turned out," he said bitterly. "First time Carol got into a major mess with me, it was the one you saw in the Pensive. And you didn't even see the half of it. She was nearly killed, repeatedly, before being almost dragged off into Faerie by one of its nastier breeds of monster, then almost eaten by a demonically supercharged werewolf, then nearly died of exposure. If it wasn't for the Winter Soldier –"

His mouth snapped shut, but too late.

"What?!"

The two voices spoke in unison, Hermione's in astonished confusion, Ron's in outraged disbelief. Harry's expression turned to one of intense chagrin, but he sighed.

"The Winter Soldier saved her life," he said. "He killed one of those giant werewolves when it was going after her, practically cut off its head with a knife. Then, he carried her all the way back down, in a blizzard so bad that even dad had trouble subduing it." He waved a hand. "All the Avengers, bar Tony, were gone, looking for Carol and cleaning up. It was just him, Pepper, me, Diana, and Jean-Paul. He didn't have a suit, didn't have anything but a hairbrush, and anyone with powers was completely bloody knackered and barely able to stand. Then, the Winter Soldier walked in, with Carol on his shoulder under a wind-cheater. He stayed to make sure we dealt with the exposure and potential frostbite properly, then left."

Ron just stared at him, visibly roiling with emotions, before looking away sharply. Hermione herself was reeling.

"Why?" she asked.

"The Winter Soldier would never harm a child, not if he could possibly avoid it," Harry said. "No one knows why. According to Natasha, it was a running problem for the Red Room, one of the very few things that would reliably break his programming. If a child got hurt as collateral damage, as part of something he did, then he'd have a bit of a breakdown. Eventually, they stopped trying – he wouldn't bend, and he was too valuable to break. Besides, children weren't really their targets, most of the time, and when they were… they had other tools, without such scruples."

"It's a long way from refusing to hurt a child to rescuing one, though, especially doing all that," Hermione said slowly. "I mean, he'd have been risking so much; capture or death, for starters. And he could have, well, at least kidnapped Mr Stark. After all, HYDRA kidnapped him later, and the Winter Soldier would have been in a position to demand an exchange even without a hostage." She swallowed. "And from what I know of Mr Stark… he'd have got it."

"He would," Harry said quietly. "But he didn't."

"Why?" Hermione repeated.

Harry tilted his head, then looked very hard at her, then Ron. His expression softened slightly at the latter, before firming.

"Someone like the Winter Soldier is not born," he said. "They are made. They are made by taking someone and systematically removing everything that they are; cutting away what you can, crushing and twisting what you cannot, and building something new on what is left." He took a deep breath. "When I was faced with that, I ran. I had the power, and thanks to Maddie, the ability, to find somewhere to hide. I got out intact and left an almost empty shell behind."

He chuckled bitterly.

"That didn't work out as neatly as I'd have liked," he said. "But it meant that there was a clear division between me, Harry, and the Red Son. The Winter Soldier was different. Less fortunate. He ended up a blend of what he was designed to be, and what he had been. His mind, what was left of it, buried itself as deep as it would go in his subconscious, and it clung to one thing above all to keep from drowning under the weight of mind-wipes and programming. One single, simple principle, hidden in the foundations of his mind. You don't. Hurt. Children."

Ron glared at him stubbornly, while Hermione sat back to absorb this information. Ron wasn't ready to accept this, and no wonder. She might be, but given what the Winter Soldier had done to his father, well. Thankfully, he didn't say anything. If he had, Hermione just knew it would have ended up as a fight, and she didn't want that. Not right now, anyway. And not without good reason.

Harry seemed eager to move on, too.

"She nearly died at London, too," he said. "She should have, by all logic. Only the Green Lantern Ring and her literal will to live prevented it. Then there was the Red Room, of course." He sighed. "She's got into other trouble on her own, of course, in her own right – Dracula, the Battle of New Orleans…"

"Wait, that was her?" Ron interrupted, startled.

"A lot of it, yes," Harry said. "Which takes me back to the point I was originally going to make – I can't keep her safe, because she's in danger anyway. Whether it's super soldier blood or the Green Lantern Ring, or something else entirely. As for the others, well. Diana's been targeted since birth, like I said, trained by two Goddesses of War, and she's as powerful as I am in her own right. Uhtred's a bit more difficult, but he's a teenage Asgardian warrior, on course to be one of the strongest, and Sif's protégé. He can handle himself. Most of the time. Which, by the way, has not stopped both of them from narrowly avoiding horrible deaths. Then there's Kal, who finds his own trouble, kind of like Carol. He's also as strong as Loki, at least, faster than practically anyone I know short of Jean-Paul, and he can fly. Badly. Very, very badly."

He shook his head.

"They're the only ones who really volunteer for this sort of thing," he said. "And from what I understand of Kal's problems, most of them are people that any of our classmates could comfortably handle in a fight, let alone you two. A bit less dramatic than stuff that's… me-scale. Jean-Paul gets involved from time to time, so do Maddie and Jean, sure. However, Maddie was trained to be a living weapon, and is very good at it, while Jean-Paul and Jean generally prefer the normal life. So does Kal. They don't just survive, they live. They live normal lives."

"You've told us this before, Harry," Hermione said, voice gaining a real edge now, because she remembered that speech. "When you asked us to be your 'normal' friends."

"Yeah," Ron said suddenly, catching on, before his eyes narrowed and sharpened. "Were you lying to us then, too?"

"No," Harry said, but this time, Ron was not appeased, staring at Harry like a chessboard he was trying to suss out.

"Were you manipulating us?" he asked. "Tricking us into doing what you wanted?"

Harry held his gaze for a long, long time. "I'd like to say no," he said quietly. "I wish I could say that my only reason for asking you to be my 'normal' friends was just that. But no. If I'm being really honest with myself, it was not. I was manipulating you. You pushed because you wanted to help, and I used your good intentions to persuade you to back off. To stay off to one side. To stay safe."

"You should have let us choose," Ron snapped.

This time, Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh give over, Ron," he snapped back. "I didn't control you, I didn't make you do anything, and I didn't prevent you from choosing anything, either. Yes, I manipulated you, yes, I guilt-tripped you, and yes, I made choosing anything other than what I asked that much harder. I am sorry for that. It was wrong. At the very least, you deserved directness and honesty, and what would probably have been a very difficult conversation. Probably an argument."

He leaned forward, jabbing a finger.

"But you could have said no. I am not your mother, or your teacher, much less your Prince. You don't have to do anything I tell you. You could have continued doing things like your little Hogsmeade expedition during the First Task, which, by the way, happened after that conversation. And yes, before you say anything, I meant what I said when I told you it was brave, it was good, even if it was a bit stupid, because running off like that can get you get killed and next time you should at least be a bit more sensible."

He smiled sourly.

"I would know. I have the scars. You both saw me get them."

The smile vanished as quickly as it appeared, and the tiredness returned.

"I want you to stay safe. I want you to stay off the radar of the kind of enemies I attract; the kind of enemies you'll attract in your own right, if you step into that kind of world. I told you that I wanted you to be my 'normal' friends, and it's true," he said. "But it's also that I don't want you to turn out like me. Or Carol. Or so many of the adults around us. Because if you survive that life, you end up with scars, up here."

He tapped his skull for emphasis.

"PTSD, 'Curse Shock', is just the start. It creeps up on you. You start thinking of things, and people, in terms of threats and assets. You keep secrets because it's second nature. You make jokes in the middle of utter insanity because it's that or you'll start screaming and never stop. You find it harder and harder to relate to anyone who hasn't gone through the same kind of madness, who doesn't live that abnormal life. And when there's danger, a ticking clock, a battle to fight or some unholy nightmare to face… then, you finally feel at home."

He looked at both Ron and Hermione, his expression openly pleading.

"I want you both safe. I want you sane. I want you happy," he said. "And if you open the door into that kind of life, into my life, then I can't promise that. I can't protect you. The things that might happen to you…" He let out a hopeless laugh. "Look at me. Really. Look. At. Me. I'm three-quarters sane, I'm scarred from head to toe, and I have actually died. A couple of times now, actually. I've replaced half my body at least once, some parts twice, or more. I have nightmares every other night, and about every third nightmare, I wake up screaming. Which is marked improvement, by the way. You can thank superior sound-proofing at Avengers Mansion, and silencing charms on the curtains in the dorm, for your undisturbed sleep. Is that who you want to be like? Is that what you want to risk putting yourself through? Is that what you want to do with your life? Because I can promise you that if step into my sort of battles, that is what will happen. If you survive."

"Not everyone's had it as bad as you, mate," Ron said, voice a little softer, careful, not sure of how sane Harry was. Hermione was pretty sure that Harry's mental stability hadn't changed throughout this conversation, for better or worse. All that had happened were that the cracks in the mask were widening. On the other hand, she was not sure of how generous an estimate 'three-quarters' was.

"No, Carol's just been practically killed, captured for experimentation, drained of blood to the brink of death, and, most recently, unwillingly experimented with life as a fucking tree!" Harry snarled. "Among many, many other things. As for the mark that left on her, need I remind you why we have our psychic connection in the first place? I wasn't in her head just for the fun of it, you know!"

"And I've followed you after a bloody troll, through all those stupid traps in First Year until I let myself get squashed by the bloody Queen!" Ron roared. "I followed you into the Forbidden Forest, after all those fucking spiders, to talk to those bloody huge spiders! I followed you into the Chamber of Secrets, with bloody Lockhart, after a sodding Basilisk and what turned out to be part of bloody Voldemort who'd taken my bloody sister! I went up against those things that that giant dragon conjured up during the First Task! I went back for you, for you both, when that loony Fortress ghost attacked, when it possessed Hermione! I had Voldemort in my head! You think I don't have nightmares about all that? About what might have happened?" He darted his eyes at Hermione, then at Harry, and jutted his chin out, eyes damp. "About… about who I might have lost?"

Harry just stared at him for a long moment, then bowed his head.

"No," he said softly. "Of course I don't. Of course I know. And that's why, Ron. It's like I said before. Brains, courage, power, you two have them all – especially power, in Hermione's case. But that. Is. Not. The point!"

"Then what is?" Hermione broken in.

Harry shook his head and let out a hopeless laugh.

"I can't protect you," he repeated. "Don't you understand? If you step all the way in, there is no way out. Next time Voldemort turns up, he's running you like a puppet or eating your soul! Next time something possesses you, it's something that won't leave anything of you to save! And when you're dealing with a gunman, it's not Bucky, here to help, it's some HYDRA thug turning you into red mist!"

He paced now, waving his hands and gesticulating, words pouring from his mouth in a torrent as tears ran down his cheeks..

"My mum and dad were pretty powerful when they were mortal, the best and bloody brightest of their age, cross-training with Dumbledore, Wanda, Fury and Stephen fucking Strange! And yeah, they fought the Death Eaters. They even fought Voldemort, three times, and survived. So, he had to take them seriously, and you know what happened? Do you know the first memory I have is of my mother's voice? Terrified, crying, begging for my life, to die instead, and screaming as she was murdered! I heard it in my nightmares, and you know the real secret? I still hear it!"

His gaze, like flames through a waterfall, pinned Hermione.

"Their best friends survived, of course; Sirius and Wanda," he said. "Sirius, named a traitor and locked in something like hell. And Wanda… Wanda, the mighty Scarlet Witch. Wanda, who could save everyone, except the ones she loved. Except them. Except us. The closest she could get was with you, and even that was a half measure – yes, I admit it! She screwed up!"

He whirled on them both, blazing eyes sweeping over them.

"That is what you're asking for," he said. "That is what you're risking. Either you're the victim, or you're the survivor." A manic, false smile spread across his face. "Or, if you're like me, you're both! Best of both fucking worlds!" He looked at them, taking in their horrified expressions, then he crumpled from the smile downwards, collapsing into his seat, dissolving into semi-coherence. "That is… you're… that… I just can't!"

Both of them stared at him, unable to think of what to say. The mask had shattered. This was Harry; changed, older, different… and, perhaps, broken. But it was Harry nonetheless, raw and bared to the world. They had wanted him to open up, to be honest with them.

They had got it.

"Harry," Hermione said eventually. "I… I think I understand what you're saying."

A hiccupping laugh burst out from the slumped figure, bitter and self-mocking. "Really? I'm not sure I do."

"Yes," Hermione said. "You made it fairly clear. It's not that you don't think we're good enough…" She slowed, then looked at him, blinking in realisation. "It's that you think we're too good. You think that if… if we survive, that it'll change us. For the worse."

This time, the laugh was pure bitterness. "'Think'? Know."

"And," she went on. "You think that if we don't survive… it'll destroy you."

This time, the reply was dead silence.

"Harry," Hermione said. "I understand your fears. Or at least, I understand that you're terrified. But that normal life isn't an option." She glanced at Ron and steeled herself. "For me, at least."

The slumped lump developed two eyes, damp, but clear.

"No," Harry admitted. "Maybe not. And you can't live your life just according to my fears, I know."

"Really?" Ron asked, sarcastic but shaken.

"Therapist," Harry said shortly. "Got it up here." He tapped his head. "Still working it down here." He tapped his heart.

Ron wrinkled his nose, but didn't argue. Hermione idly thought that he could probably use a therapist. Unfortunately, he hadn't reacted well when she had suggested it to him some months ago. Harry would probably have been better to do it, especially as he had a therapist, but that had been during his… less stable period. He'd been a touch preoccupied. Professor Cassidy, who she'd asked for support, had said that it wasn't the first time it had been suggested and said something about how with someone like Ron, it was about leading horses to water.

"Some people manage it," Harry said suddenly. "They don't step all the way in, they-they-they stick to the edges." He gesticulated as if this was going to enlighten them. It didn't. "Jean, Jean-Paul, even bloody Merlin manages it. And Kal. Sort of. Probably not. Forget Kal. Ask the others. Ask them how."

Hermione eyed him for a long moment, weighing him up. Part of her ached with compassion and pity, at how much this was clearly hurting him. The mask hadn't just been to disguise scheming, it had been to keep all this stoppered up, to try and handle matters objectively. Perhaps too objectively, which was rarely a problem with Harry. Though when it came to motives, it was perhaps too subjective. That was very frequently a problem with Harry.

Part of her was practically sobbing with relief, that the reality behind the distance and manipulations was still him. Again, that mask, that damned blank mask, and his ever increasing capacity for calculation, it wasn't just motivated by good intentions, it was driven by them, too. He hadn't hollowed out who he was.

And part of her… was considering. Hurting or not, Harry's pain had a way of spreading itself around. Recent events had proven that. He acted with the best of intentions, and he was clever, oh, he was very clever. But, sometimes, not quite as clever as he thought he was. And those best intentions increasingly tended to pave a road to hell over the hearts of whoever was in their way. Especially, as she could now appreciate with a certain irony, when the route was determined by his heart – or for the sake of someone else's.

As for the why of all this, well. She had to admit, while she did love researching and finding the answers, and getting justice, battles… were not her thing. She wasn't shy of fighting if necessary, that was true. However, she didn't embrace it with the natural ease that Harry did, the comfortable steps of a familiar dance where everything was simple and easy to solve. Nor did she seek it out with the belligerent ambivalence that Ron did – unsure whether he wanted to be involved, but sure he did not want to be left behind, and taking it as a measure of who he was.

"I'll think about it," she said.

Harry's expression twisted, anguished, and he visibly struggled with himself. He so clearly wanted, he needed, to make them understand, and Hermione stared him down, trying to make him see that she did. She really did. But in the end, it was her choice. His expression twisted again, frustration and anger colouring it, along with renewed pain. Then, however, he simply nodded tired acceptance. Finally, staring contest ended, and they both turned to Ron.

Ron looked back at them, defiant.

"What if I don't want a 'normal' life?" he demanded. "What if I don't want to just do my homework, go to Hogsmeade, and play Quidditch? What if I don't want to go on to the Ministry, or whatever? What if I want to hunt down people like HYDRA, and make them pay? My dad is dead. HYDRA, Lucius Malfoy, they used the Winter Soldier to kill him. Malfoy even tried to kill my sister, too, with that diary. One of his didn't just try to kill you, they bloody well succeeded!"

Harry took a deep breath, and stopped as Ron, on his feet now, furiously pointed a finger at him, silencing him.

"And if you're about to tell me that revenge will do awful things to me or whatever, you can stuff it, because just about everybody else got there first," he snarled.

"Then maybe you should start listening!" Harry snapped back, anger giving him energy. "In my experience, when people are telling you something over and over again, it's because you really need to know it! It's like me and my bloody go-it-alone habits – some things need to be hammered home! You said that I got killed, and yes, Ron, I did. By someone I should have crushed like a paper cup, in fact. Demigod psychic versus fast healing man with sharp claws, how should that end? Very quickly and in my favour, and it did on the rematch, as it happened. It didn't the first time, though, and you know why? Because I was blinded by revenge."

He stopped and studied Ron, who was red to the ears with anger, then snorted.

"Of course. Personal danger isn't going to bother you," he said. "Too bloody brave for your own good. So let me put it another way. I'll ask one question, then I'll drop it." He leaned on the chair and looked Ron dead in the eye, gaze boring into him. "Revenge is what you truly desire, isn't it? So tell me, Ron. What would you do to get your revenge on HYDRA?"

"Anything," Ron said, firm, thrumming anger threaded with uncertainty. He wasn't sure what Harry's game was, where the calculating gleam was leading. Hermione, on the other hand was. She knew exactly where Harry was going.

"Harry, stop," she said. "This isn't fair."

Harry's head snapped around, and oh, that fucking mask was back. Except, no, Hermione instantly corrected herself. This wasn't the smooth mask of before, this was brittle, made of crumpled paper and ash, ready to fall in a million pieces as it burned from beneath. His movements weren't smooth, they were jerky and spasmodic. His words weren't silky and skilled, they were sharp, but haphazard and unpredictable, like the edges of a broken glass.

"No," he said. "It is completely fair." He turned back to Ron, head tilted, eyes gleaming. "Anything, Ron? Really?"

Ron glared at him. "What are you up to?" he asked suspiciously. "Stop playing games with me."

Harry's hands snapped up in a barely visible blur, clamping onto Ron's shoulders. That was not so startling. The startling part was that a mere eye-blink before, he'd been sitting the best part of ten feet away.

"I am, I was, trying to get you to think, Ron! What your grand HYDRA hunt might involve, what you might sacrifice, what you might do." He shook Ron slightly, taut and contained, every muscle standing out with tension. Yet, despite the fact that even unenhanced, his hands could crush wood and bend steel, there wasn't even the slightest sign of discomfort on Ron's part.

Physical, anyway.

"I know revenge. Do you know what revenge does? It turns you into me. The worst parts of me. It's all right, it's all you can think of, and it is necessary. Once it's in you, it is the most necessary thing there is. And you know what necessity justifies? Do you?"

He leaned in.

"Anything."

They stood, toe to toe, sky blue and emerald green stares meeting and refusing to yield.

"What do you mean?" Ron demanded, with admirable composure. "About 'the worst parts of me'?"

"Lying. Manipulation. Torture. Murder. Among other things."

They were delivered cold and flat as a knife to the heart, cutting through the room, freezing Ron in place. Then, he angrily shook free of Harry's grip. Or, more accurately, he tried to break loose and Harry let him.

"You really think I'd do that?" he asked, half-furious, half-betrayed. "How could you even imagine that I could do that, any of that?"

"Then why did you say that you'd do anything?" Harry demanded. "Why say it if you don't mean it, Ron?"

"Maybe because not all of us are so bloody literal or so bloody mad that their first thought is torture!" Ron roared. "Or murder! What is wrong with you?"

"A lot," Harry said quietly. "Because I've walked this path and I know where it goes." He levelled a cold, hard stare at Ron. "How would you get information for where HYDRA's leaders are? Asking nicely? And if you found them, if you got them, what would you do once you had them? What. Would. You. Do?"

Ron looked away. "Why does it matter?" he asked. "They'd deserve it, even if I did do all that!"

"Ron!" Hermione cried out, shocked.

"They would," Harry agreed. "But you wouldn't."

"THEY KILLED MY DAD! I DESERVE –"

"Better than that!" Harry interrupted, voice carrying an irresistible snap of command. "You. Deserve. Better. Than that."

"… what?"

"They deserve to die and to suffer," Harry said tiredly. "Maybe not in that order. But you don't deserve the kind of stains it leaves. If I thought you could kill them clean and walk away satisfied, maybe this would be a different conversation. But you're you, I'm me, and in some ways, we're too bloody alike. We're too angry, Ron. It's so easy just to let that anger turn to hate. It's so easy to feed it and let it drive you on, to let it justify all those little necessities. It's so easy to cross lines, to do all those things without blinking. All to get revenge. It's like black magic, but worse. No spells required."

Ron shrugged of his hands angrily. "Is that what you think of me?" he demanded. "That I'll become some kind of – "

"Monster?" Harry interrupted. "Why not? I could. I nearly did, actually."

"If you're talking about the Red Room," Ron began, with unusual perceptiveness. "They deserved it, too."

"Yes," Harry said softly. "They did. And I killed hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people to get to them. Of everything I did, that haunts me the most. Oh, they were dangerous people, definitely. All working for the Red Room, yes. And who knows what they could have been used for, given time? Something cataclysmic, probably." He sighed. "They were weapons. And they were in the way. It was necessary. That's how I justified it."

He looked up at them.

"They were clones, you see," he said. "Of me and Maddie, mainly, making them… family, of a sort. Not that I cared. They were weapons, easier to control than either of us. But… they were people, too. Innocent, new, hardly born. They hadn't done anything to me. They didn't know what had happened, or about right and wrong, all they knew was what they were told, that someone was attacking their home. I could have set them free, disabled them, at least. Given them the chance to live." He laughed bitterly. "But they were in the way. So I destroyed them."

"But, they weren't really alive," Ron persisted. "They were just copies."

"They were alive," Harry said flatly. "Their bodies were copies, but their souls not. You can't copy a soul. They were people, and I knew that. I just didn't care."

He took a deep breath.

"That was just the start. Not long after, I was stopped. But I've seen worlds, worlds where I did, where I –" He stopped, swallowing down bile. "Where I was worse. I was worse than you could ever imagine. Or I sincerely hope so, anyway. Not because I was raised to it, not because that was some kind of mirror universe where good people are bad and bad people are good. No. That me was… me. He was me, if I lost myself." He swallowed again. "I've nearly done it before. And I could do it again."

He hesitated, visibly steeled himself, then raised his eyes again, looking at a very troubled Ron.

"Don't be me, Ron," he said tiredly. "I deserved better. You do too. If you go after HYDRA – and you probably will, it's not like I can stop you. Not ethically, anyway. If you go after them, when you go after them… do it right. Avenge your dad, not revenge yourself. Don't let your anger lead you. Don't give in to necessity. Don't stain yourself like that. I don't want to lose... you."

Ron looked at him for a long time. "You really mean that, don't you?" he said. "All of it."

"Every word," Harry said quietly. Hermione believed him. This wasn't some manipulation, some dramatic act designed to pull on heartstrings and press buttons. This was real. God help her, it was real.

Ron's jaw worked for a few moments. "You're never taking us along, are you?" he said eventually. "You're never going to open that 'door'."

Hermione knew Harry's answer before he gave it, full of regret and resolve.

"No. No, I suppose I'm not."

OoOoO

The three Danvers children were not known for having much in common, besides looks, and even that was relatively limited. The one feature they obviously shared was a set of cornflower blue eyes. Their interests varied, as did their personalities – though a certain perceptiveness and stubbornness could be found in them all. However, as they all sat in a neat line on the sofa, from oldest to youngest, they all shared a certain sense of foreboding as their parents sat down before them.

With all of them, it manifested in different ways. Little Joe, the youngest, was fidgety, upset and confused by undercurrents of tension that he could sense but not define.

Stevie, or Steven as he preferred, was the middle child, old enough and more than intelligent enough to have worked out a pretty good idea of those undercurrents and their cause. As a result, he was a study in resigned sadness, stoicism, and a little guilty relief.

Carol, meanwhile, was sitting back in the sofa, steadily ticking her gaze back between her parents and her brothers. A certain grim satisfaction was reserved for the former, mixed with a dangerous spark for her father alone, while protective concern was reserved for the latter. Her pose was one of deadly relaxation, only loosely concealing anticipation, caution, and coiled energy, ready to act. The only sign of discomfort of any kind was in her folded arms – a relaxed pose subverted by the tightness of the grip on her elbows.

Regarding the Danvers parents, Marie Danvers sat straight and tall, her expression outwardly calm and composed, underscored with steely conviction, and there was a fire in her blue eyes that meant that they were not easily met. Joe Danvers was among those who did not even try, after an earlier quiet argument had been met with sharp, final words and an icy cold glare from his wife, running his gaze along his children, hesitating on his daughter's challenging glare, and around the room. His expression was set in hard, compressed lines of bitterness, anger and frustration mingling with sadness and disbelief – and, perhaps, the tiniest bit of regret. The truest extent of his tension was shown in his grip on his knees, his knuckles turning white.

"Mom? Dad?" the younger Joe asked, treble voice tremulous. "Did we… did we do something bad?"

His mother's expression softened. "No, honey, you didn't," she said. "None of you three have."

There was the faintest emphasis on the number. The younger Joe missed it. No one else did, causing Stevie to level a speculative look at his father, which was met with a glare like the snarl of an animal at bay. He flinched away, and his father looked startled, then all the more so when he was met with identically murderous glares from both wife and daughter, the latter of whom slipped a protective arm around her brother.

"Then what's wrong?" little Joe persisted, frowning, looking around. He wasn't missing the undercurrents now, not when they were all but overcurrents.

"Joe," his father said. "It's nothing, we can fix it, it's just –" He stopped and stared in mingled outrage and disbelief at his daughter, who'd just let out a short, mocking, cynical laugh that belonged to someone at least twice her age.

"It's not nothing," Marie said, interjecting smoothly. "We can manage it. We are managing it, and that's what we're going to be talking to you about, because you need to know." She took a deep breath, and the calm cracked for a moment. "Your dad and I… we're splitting up."

"What?" Joe asked, small voice rendered smaller by disbelief.

"They're not going to be married any more, Joe," Stevie said softly.

"But once you get married, you stay married," Joe persisted, still not quite believing what he was hearing. "That's what they say at church."

"That's what I thought," his father muttered under his breath, quietly enough that his younger children missed it. His wife skewered him with a chilly look, but said nothing.

"Church doesn't get everything right, Joe," Carol said, not unkindly. She then levelled a look at her father that contained no kindness whatsoever. "It doesn't matter what you think," she continued, leaving no doubt where it was directed. "All that matters is what you choose to do." Her eyes narrowed as they bored into her father. "That is what shows exactly who you are."

The elder Joe ground his teeth and looked away. There might have been shame on his face. There might not. It did not matter, in either case. Any who might have known to judge had already done so, and would not be swayed – or sympathetic.

"Sometimes, marriages don't last forever, Joe," Marie said gently, ignoring her daughter's extremely thinly veiled jibes. "People change, over time. Relationships change." She went over to his side, slipping onto the sofa and shifting him onto her hip. "You know how you made all kinds of friends in kindergarten? Well, some of those friends are still your friends now, but some of them aren't. Some of them went to different schools, or moved away… some of them, you just grew apart from."

"And some of them," Carol added softly. "Said things. Did things. Or tried to do things. Things that you could never, ever forgive them for."

It was sometimes speculated, and debated, just how much influence Harry and Carol had on each other. That being said, it was beyond doubt that there was at least some. For starters, there was absolutely no questioning where that soft, cold, and utterly lethal tone had come from.

This time, as the tension ratcheted up a notch, Marie sent a warning look at her daughter, while Joe junior's face crumpled with confused misery, and Stevie's gaze ticked between his father and sister.

The former's expression had rapidly began to mottle with anger, leaning forward, raising a hand, index finger outstretched, dark eyes flashing with outrage. He was the very image of an outraged patriarch, ready to deliver his judgement.

The latter, meanwhile, had leaned forward in her own turn, one hand on the arm of the sofa, the other ready to propel her up. Her face was cold and hard, as if carved from marble, save for high spots of colour on her cheekbones, a twitch of a merciless, mirthless smile at the corners of her lips, and her eyes… those eyes burned with a fire that no frozen image could capture, just as no one could mistake their challenge.

"Carol, that is enough, you will –"

"I will what, Joseph?" his daughter asked, venomously sweet. "Obey you?"

Her father froze, as much in shock as anything else, and got a mocking snort.

"You messed up your own laundry, old man," Carol continued, flippant and chillingly merciless. "Suck it up and deal."

Her younger brothers were staring at her in transparent shock. Her mother, meanwhile, did not intervene. Not yet. Her father, meanwhile, inflated like a bullfrog, face going so red it was almost purple, shooting to his feet, just as his daughter did, only the coffee table preventing the two from squaring off in earnest.

"HOW DARE –"

"Joseph Michael Danvers, that is enough."

"But –"

"You are an adult, Joseph, and by god, you will act like it," Marie said.

She was still seated exactly where she had been, and now, all three children were staring at her in shock and awe, the younger two having shrunk away from their father's fury, the elder having paused in drawing breath to shout back. Her husband was staring at her, helpless. Much like her mother and grandmother before her, Marie Danvers rarely raised her voice. Much like them, she rarely had to.

"Sit down," she said. "Both of you."

"Spoil my fun," Carol grumbled, before sinking back into the sofa at her mother's hard look, followed by a shamed inward shrinking as the look shifted quite pointedly to her brothers and back again.

"Marie," Joe senior said, outraged disbelief infusing his voice. "We agreed that this was just going to be about what's coming next."

"We did," his wife said calmly, taking her gaze away from her children. "But I'm not going to hide it either, Joseph. They have the right to know, when they're ready."

"Translation: you're screwed," Carol supplied airily.

"Carol," Marie said, in an iron tone that quite clearly said that enough was enough. For now, anyway. Carol wrinkled her nose, but didn't argue. Satisfied, Marie turned to her sons. "Your father and I are working, as he says, how we're going to move forward. For the time being, we've agreed that the four of us are going to stay here, given that your dad –"

"Father," Carol said. "Our father." Her mother levelled a hard look at her for interrupting, but Carol did not yield. "He's our father," she repeated, before pausing, looking at her father and adding with a twist of contempt, "unfortunately." She looked back at her mother. "But he's not our dad. Not as far as I'm concerned, anyway."

Mother and daughter shared a long look.

"Your father," Marie said eventually. "Given that your father is going to be out of state a lot for work."

"What about when he's in town?" Stevie asked quietly.

"When he's in town, thanks to his promotion, he'll be able to make other arrangements," Marie said. "Hotels at first, but then, maybe, an apartment." She pulled little Joe closer. He was now sobbing and shaking his head, showing all the signs of a full on meltdown being imminent. "The three of you will be staying with me, here." She eyed her husband. "We agreed that it wouldn't work any other way, since he's out of town so much."

"Unless I get a job back in town," Joseph said, an edge of growl to his voice.

"Unless that," Marie said calmly, frost edging hers. Her grip tightened around her youngest. "At that point, we'll have another discussion."

"Which you can leave me out of, by the way," Carol said, looking at her father, now with naked hostility. "Because there is no way in hell that I'm living with you."

At that point, the younger Joe burst into tears.

OoOoO

"Carol."

Carol turned and gave her father a cool look. "What?"

"I know that you think that your mother is pretty set on –"

"You're getting divorced," Carol said bluntly, cutting across him. "Accept it and move on. The more you fight it, the more it'll hurt. Now that's out of the way, what do you want?"

Her father's jaw clenched. Carol raised an unimpressed eyebrow.

"I don't know what you've been told," he said. "But I want you to know that… I want the best for you. For all of you."

"Then stay the hell away from me," Carol said, with mock sweetness. "It's not that hard. Oh, and you should probably stay the hell away from my little brothers, too, but that's up to them."

"I'm not giving up on you, Carol," her father said fiercely. "I can see what's happened, how you've been poisoned against me, but I am your father, the only one you'll ever have, and you are my daughter. What you've heard is… is wrong. Mistaken, at best, lies, at worst. Even if your mom and I separate, I'm not letting you go that easily, and why are you laughing?!"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Darth Vader," Carol snarked. "I didn't realise you were being serious." She made to stroll past him, knowing that she wasn't being even remotely mature and enjoying every second of it. "Let me know when you are. I might actually listen."

Face rapidly purpling, her father stepped in front of her as if to loom or even body check her.

"That is enough!" he bellowed. "We are NOT DONE HERE, young lady, and I WILL NOT ALLOW THIS DISRESPECT –"

This time, the interruption was not verbal, as Carol grabbed a handful of his shirt, spun ninety degrees, and slammed him against the wall. It wasn't particularly hard; nothing was jarred off the wall, the sound was more of a thump than anything else, and his head only bumped against it. If it had been hard, he'd probably be through the wall, or stuck halfway.

"Shut up," she said, deadly quiet. "You do not get to tell me when something is 'enough'. You do not get to tell me when we are 'done'. You do not get to talk to me, to anyone, about 'disrespect'."

Joseph stared at her in blank shock, then looked down at the hand still pinning him to the wall. He reached down and tried to move her arm. He might as well have tried to shift a hydraulic press. "Carol," he said, pale with something between fear, outrage, and disbelief. "Let go of me."

"No. I have spent a lifetime listening to your stupid lectures as you poured your bullshit into our heads. Here, and now, you are going to listen to me for a change." She increased the pressure for a moment to emphasise the point. "Which means that you aren't going anywhere. Not until you get a few things through your thick, prehistoric skull. Is that understood?"

Her father did not reply, and she smiled sweetly.

"Good. Now, first things first. Even if, somehow, the court rules for anything other than mom getting full custody, I am not living with you. I am not even staying overnight with you. In fact, if I have my way – and I intend to – as soon as you are out of this house, I will never see your face again."

Joseph opened his mouth, the promptly wheezed as Carol shifted her grip, driving the heel of palm into his solar plexus.

"Uh-uh. I talk, you listen. Now, where was I? Oh yeah: if you get even the slightest custody, if I am ordered by the courts to stay with you, then fuck. That. Shit. I will walk straight out of your house or apartment or wherever, and find my way home. If you want to stop me… well. If I'm honest, a large part of me would love to see you try. Then, I will use every legal means to get away from you and stay away from you; I'm thinking of becoming an emancipated minor – though that would probably be a massive pain in the ass. Hmm. Maybe a restraining order?"

She looked thoughtful, then shrugged.

"That's for the lawyers," she said casually, before her expression turned into frozen diamond. "Secondly, and less legalistically, if you ever – and I mean ever – shout at either Stevie or Joe junior like that, I will put you in the ICU so hard that they'll think it was a car crash. I'm angry at you. In fact, I kind of hate you. But I don't actually want to hurt you, though god knows I've got every reason. However, if you hurt them, then I assure you that there is no god that will keep you safe from me."

She took a deep breath.

"Thirdly and finally," she said. "What you are getting is far more merciful than what you deserve. You didn't get it before, so let me spell it out: you tried to get someone, my future boyfriend, to exploit my trust in him and use his powers to rape my mind."

"That's not true, honey, I –"

This time, the wheeze was accompanied by a gasp of pain and a small cracking sound as Carol's palm slammed into her father's chest.

"That is completely true, father," she hissed, pressure increasing as inevitably and irresistibly as gravity. "You. Tried. To. Rape. My. Mind." She leaned in, blue eyes blazing through tears of mingled rage and pain. "I know what that does to people, I have seen it. In some jurisdictions, a true mind-control spell is called 'an Unforgivable'. It gets you life imprisonment in magical Alcatraz. And that's if you're lucky. A bunch called the White Council, they police this crap, all over the world. You know what happens if they find you first? You know what their sentence for mind control is? Execution. With a sword."

She leaned back, looking away from her father's now milk white face.

"I am not your doll to dress up, your action figure to accessorise. I am not your silly putty to shape, your robot to program. I am my own; I belong to me, and I am made of my choices. Not yours. You do not own me, you do not control me – you have no say in who and what I am. But you never understood that. You never accepted it. The more I changed from what you wanted me to be, the harder you tried to force me back. Until you tried… that."

She took a deep breath.

"You're not getting custody," she said. "Not of me, and probably not of the boys, either. I will drag it all out into the open, and I mean all of it. I will show you for what you really are, and I will ruin you. And if you even think of touching the boys, let alone doing to them anything like what you tried to do to me, or bothering mom, then I won't take it to court…"

She yanked him close, before her arm shot up like a piston, pinning him flat against the ceiling like a butterfly to a cork. His eyes bulged and he opened his mouth, making to say something as he looked down into his daughter's furious blue eyes. There was no sign of strain there. There was even less of mercy. Nevertheless, he tried to plead, to say something. Unfortunately, Carol's palm had now become a fist, one driven deep enough that breathing was enough of a problem, let alone speaking.

"… I'll handle it, and you, myself," she finished. "Got it?"

Then, she dropped him.

Given that it was the best part of eight feet off the ground, the landing wasn't especially comfortable.

"What…" he wheezed, as Carol crouched beside him.

"Was that?" she filled in. "That was punctuation. You don't seem to get anything unless it's hammered home. I figured that gravity would do a pretty good job of making my point."

He groaned.

"Oh, stop whining. You've got bruised ribs at worst," Carol said, rolling her eyes, then paused, listening. "Okay, so maybe one of them's cracked." She squinted. "Also… a bitten tongue. Helps make the point, though. You know what that point is?"

She glared at him.

"That point is that I mean what I'm saying. I don't know what grandma threatened you with to get you to keep your distance, and I don't much care. I am not grandma. I am me, and I have had one hell of a last few days, so I am in no mood to be subtle. I am going to be simple, and direct – speaking your kind of language. Hurt my family the way you tried to hurt me, hurt them in any way at all, and I will fucking end you. Got it?"

Slowly, he shook his head.

"Don't got it?" Carol asked, cocking her head.

He shook his head again, and looked up at her, and there was such a mixture of horror, disbelief, fear, and revulsion in his eyes that Carol staggered back. "What," he managed. "What are you?"

"I am me," she said flatly. "The same person I always was. The person you didn't want me to be." She prodded him between the eyes. "Now, listen to me. I can destroy you without laying a finger on you. I will ruin you in court. People will have to bend down to spit on you, if they even feel like wasting the effort. Your only chance for anything else is to go quietly, drop any claim not just to me, but to any of us. I don't trust you with the boys. Drop it and stay the hell away, and you can pray that I decide that's enough. Understood?"

Her father just stared at her, in mingled horror and disbelief, mouthing denials. Carol narrowed her eyes.

"I asked you a question, Joseph," she growled. "Do. You. Understand?"

There was a long moment of silence. Then, Joseph Danvers Senior looked away from that merciless, accusing gaze and nodded.

"I want to hear it."

"I… understand."

Carol reached down and hauled him to his feet by the scruff of his neck, like an errant kitten. As soon as he had his feet under him, he stumbled away from her.

"Carol," he began.

"Stop," she said. "For once, do the decent thing. I know you haven't in a while, but I'm pretty sure you used to know how, so… just try. Okay? Do the decent thing, and go."

He stared at her for a long moment, as if he was staring at an alien. That expression, as much as anything else, was the tipping point.

"GO!" she screamed.

Startled into motion, he fled upstairs.

As his footsteps died away, slowly, Carol slid down the wall and began to weep.

What? You thought the way I'd be closing out this book would be easy? It's almost like you don't know me at all. So, yeah. Lots of both light and painful discussions, with more to come. Fun, fun, fun!