"Be ready."

The two words whispered their way through the mages' tightly closed ranks, muttered beneath breaths and dared only when their guards' attention was totally occupied elsewhere. They passed the order around until it had reached the ears of all nine of the mages and left them each on alert. For what, they still weren't sure, but they'd be prepared all the same.

They were led to medical where the atmosphere was cheerful; the staff wore smiles while they patched them up, and the five men assigned to keep watch chattered a little freer than they might normally risk under Strucker's supervision. All nine of the mages had sustained a variety of injuries (the secret service had not gone down without a fight at least), splints and stitches were needed around the room. But even as they did their work, none of the medical staff seemed to notice their distraction; not how the sweet smile Eva offered those in charge of healing didn't fully reach her eyes, or how firmly Fen declined the generously offered good drugs (the kind that left you feeling like you were floating for hours afterward) to numb him up while a long, but not very deep gash running the length of his back was stitched. Or even the way Crane, who normally radiated a perpetually nervous energy, was sitting on the edge of one of the tables, one finger tapping a tuneless beat into the plastic, but appeared otherwise restrained and alert.

When it happened though, when Harry finally made his move, none but the six mages specifically made from his power felt the shift, the way their universe gave way to allow the presence of something other. The only way to describe it was in terms of an old photograph, the corners of their world blurred in a vignette, and from around those dark edges crept the dead. None had yet to fully manifest within the room, they existed as vague shadows in the dark corners not even the harsh fluorescents could flush out. And when they whispered, they were the same voices that had stalked them beneath the cathedral, the same mangled souls that spoke reverently of the awful things they'd wanted to do to Harry, to them. Their bloodthirst hadn't abated one bit, but now all that anger was aimed at the still unsuspecting HYDRA members carrying on their work all around the room.

It didn't, however, take any special kind of power to hear the sharp crack of a gunshot echoing from somewhere in the same direction Harry had been led away to. All activity in the room froze at the sound, the laidback atmosphere vanished and for just a single, silent moment they were all suspended in wariness and confusion, just waiting to see what came next.

And then then there was a roar of automatic gunfire, and an open radio on the belt of one of their guards shrieked to life. At first all they could hear was the wailing, the screaming, and dying that spilled from the tinny speaker, until eventually the frantic words being barked into the mic began to take form.

Potter had gone berserker, he'd summoned an army of the dead to back him.

Nothing else needed to be said, the soldiers fumbled for their weapons, aiming for the mages, but their guard had been down, not even thirty seconds ago they were chatting away, convinced the worst of the day's work was already over, and now they wasted precious seconds fumbling to get back into form. Meanwhile, the mages had been keeping to their orders.

"Be ready."

Before the first sight could land on them, they were already diving for cover and reaching for the nearest hooked needle, IV stand, or sharp-edged tray as they went. But it turned out, not even that was necessary. Those angry voices coalesced into angry shapes, angry shades, a host that descended on their enemies with unearthly howls.

A red mist rose up to fill the air as the dead made contact, entirely too solid hands rent limbs from torsos, split skin, and spilled innards across the previously spotless linoleum. The mages kept crouched where they were, well out of the way. They were hopeful that Harry had enough control over these vicious spirits to keep them from tearing apart his own team, but they weren't about to bring any attention to themselves either. Crane had his head buried between his legs, hands clutched tightly over his ears in a futile attempt to block out the awful ripping, tear of these people being torn apart by bare hands. Eva and Iola were sitting side by side, their hands gripped between each other and eyes screwed shut. But some of the mages like Angel, like Fen refused to look away from the awful sight.

The shades made bloody work of the room's HYDRA occupants in just under three minutes. Or most of them at least. When the dead fell still in their massacre the only ones left were the mages and one Doctor List, bone white and shaking hard enough for his teeth to audibly rattle. He was dragged through pools of blood to sit in the center of the room, guarded between two attentive spirits, while a third broke away from their ranks to approach the mages.

"You'll wait here, where it's safe," she told them plainly. "He'll come for you." Then she stalked off to take up a post by the door, while the ten other spirits settled in similar positions around the room.

The room didn't have a clock, none of the mages had been outfitted with watches and neither were they interested in picking through the mangled corpses draped across basically any flat surface to try and find one, so there was no telling how long they waited for the ghost's words to be proved true. Fifteen minutes? An hour? Two? And the whole time they waited was in a tense silence, even from here they could hear strains of whatever horror HYDRA was battling.

And then it just stopped. The commotion didn't gradually peter out as the fighters were cut down one by one, it halted all at once, as if they'd thrown down their weapons simultaneously. Or as if one, great spell had stopped them all. It might have been foreboding, but the mages took their cues from the shades, who seemed undisturbed throughout it all. If these spirits obviously controlled by Harry weren't worried, then why should they be?

And sure enough, not long after the fighting went silent, the handle of the door leading out into the corridor twisted and the shades parted to make room for Harry. He looked a sight.And it wasn't because of the blood splattered artistically across his cheeks and swirled along the lengths of his arms. Or the gleam of mania in his killing curse eyes. It was the magic that spilled from his pores so thick they were sure they could reach out and touch it. It felt immeasurably old, strong enough to suffocate, and when it reached for them, they could feel the rattle of their souls in their fleshy confines.

But when he spoke, it was all Harry. They'd heard the shadow in the sewers, the one whose voice made their ears ache, and there was none of that in the soft words Harry directed at them.


Walden inhaled a trembling breath, of all the mages present, he was most familiar with this power. He'd felt it wrapped around his soul once, crushing it in its vice, it wasn't a feeling he'd ever forget. "Yes," he said.

"Good. It's time we left." Harry turned to the only HYDRA member left alive. List didn't flinch under his flat stare, but it was a near thing. "Strucker is dead. The other heads too, as well as STRIKE, and the rest of your team. It's just you and that's only because- for now- you're useful."

Harry held up a tablet, a fissure ran down the left side of the screen, but it still responded readily to his touch and the display didn't flicker once. "Remove the collars."

List looked frantic as he stuttered around a mouthful of indecipherable syllables. Harry allowed him to work through the minor fit and slowly find the presence of mind to form actual words. "I can't."

Harry's expression didn't shift, but the shades flanking either of his sides muttered restlessly amongst themselves, betraying the irritation he was so careful not to show. "Why not?"
"Because once I do, you'll kill me."

Harry laughed and casually crossed the few steps it took to stand toe to toe with List, but he didn't touch him, not yet. "I'm killing you either way. Your choice is whether it will be quick and only a little painful, or long and very painful."

List didn't seem enticed by either option. His pale eyes swept across Harry's face as he scrambled to think of a way out. "Let me live, I'll-"

"No," Harry's tone was steel. "I'm sorry if I ever gave you the impression, but this is not a negotiation."

He held the tablet out. List hesitated for too long of a second and the shades snarled impatiently, he jumped and his trembling hand rocketed forward. But just as his fingers made contact, Harry's other hand snatched out and gripped his bare wrist; List yelled in agony as his skin burned upon contact, necrotizing up to the middle of his forearm, and even as he watched, black crept up his veins, slowly inching higher.

"You already know what that is, what it'll do," Harry told him. "If you hit anything other than the disarm button on this tablet, I'll let it take hours and you'll feel. Every. Second." Then he released the tablet, let List fall back to begin shakily typing onto the cracked screen.

He had it done in seconds, the collars released with a hiss of disarmed electricity and a sudden release of tension.

Most of them hesitated to touch the collars, too caught up in the magnitude of the moment to make the move. But not Fen. He wasted no time reaching up to feel at the band around his throat and found the ring remained unbroken, but he was able to worm a finger between the metal and his rabbiting pulse point, where before there had never been enough room. From there all he needed was to apply just enough leverage and there was the click of an unseen hinge unclasping.

The collar fell into his waiting hands, split into two, perfect halves, and for the first time since its placement, he took in a deep, breath, filling his lungs until they felt close to bursting. But before he could even push out the exhale, a warmth right at the base of his ribcage unfurled. It wasn't enough to hurt, any other time it might have even been nice, but when coupled with his heart suddenly kicking up to an impossible pace and the start of a cool sweat beading across his upper lip, the sensation became altogether unsettling.

But Instead of succumbing to the panic his body was clearly signaling that it was time for, he embraced the total loss of control; his hands, still loosely curled around a piece of the collar each, trembled enough to make the edge of the metal blur and he didn't even attempt to hide or steady them. When another breath demanded to be sucked in, this time just as deep, just as greedy, only to be followed by another, and one more after that, he let it happen. He allowed the warmth to radiate to every extremity, to flood his nervous system and rewire his very workings, because even if he'd never felt it like this before, in its full magnitude, Fen knew exactly what the foreign energy making his fingertips tingle was.


As the realization settled over him, Fen felt the tremors begin to slow, and when he sucked in one breath, the next wasn't immediately, desperately following. As his heart rate began to settle, and control reasserted itself in his possession, Fen felt himself looking around the room for his team's reaction. But while the experience had felt all consuming to him, an elevated heart rate and temporary loss of breath hadn't appeared too interesting to any of the others, and while he'd struggled, they'd gone on to remove their own collars. They all looked as great as he felt, all but Harry, who was already holding his collar with a deeply contemplative expression across his face. The spirits huddled around him flickered, burning too bright to look at one moment before settling back to a shade less eye watering the next. The air around him stank of ozone; the hairs on Fen's arms stood at attention, bowing toward Harry the same way he felt his newly freed power reaching for the younger man, seeking out the familiar, black magic that curled off him like tendrils of viscous smoke.

Then Harry twisted the collar and it bent like putty between his fingers. Eyes in neon green locked onto List, this time he did flinch.

"Please," the old scientist whispered.

Harry cocked his head, he looked genuinely interested. "I pleaded too. I cried, I begged, but you wouldn't hear it. Why should you be any different?"

"We never reveled in it," List's breath shuddered with every exhalation, but he forced each word out with a tenacity that might have been a little impressive. "None of what we did was for our enjoyment. We only wanted to change the world, and we needed you to do it."

"Hmm," Harry hummed softly, thoughtfully. "Well, I do actually believe that. There was always a purpose to my pain. Without what you and he did, I'd still be so afraid of this." Black shadow twined between his fingers, wrapped around his wrist, and crept up his forearms like a particularly affectionate snake. "And of what I have no choice in being. I would have spent decades in denial, wasting so much potential, all of this power." He looked up, offered List a smile that really did look sincere. "So, while this might not have been quite the method I'd have chosen to shake myself of that mindset, I'll at least admit that it was at least…effective."

A gleam of hope lit List's wide eyes. "Perhaps in your gratitude…you could find mercy?"

Harry's sincere smile turned a little mocking around the edges. "No," he answered without pause. "But maybe a bit of comfort instead? Find it in knowing that the work you and Strucker did wasn't all wasted, the world is going to change. It's already starting."

The shadow viper Harry was indulgently toying with lunged, insubstantial jaws unhinged as if to try and swallow List whole. Mid-air it turned a bright, familiar green and, immediately on contact, List crumpled.

Harry was left standing over him, still as marble, and the picture he made was effectively terrifying; ankle deep in blood and viscera, stripes of red also painted across his cheeks and any other patch of bare skin, looking down at the last of their enemies to be defeated with an expression of stone.

"Harry?" Eva whispered, the first one brave enough to try and shake him from his thoughts- he got like that sometimes, lost in the deep recesses of his mind, but they knew it didn't usually take much to shake him out of it. "Are you hurt?"

She was gesturing toward his chest, and the gaping holes in the fabric cut into it from the knives of now dead enemies. He shook his head though and said, "Not for much longer." Then he tossed aside his mangled collar like the useless trinket it'd been reduced to and stepped over List's corpse without another look. "It's time to go."

Harry didn't actually know where to go from here, so he went down, back to the ground floor and the parking garage they'd entered through. The place was completely deserted, but they still didn't risk wasting any time making a beeline for the fleet of vehicles available to pick from. They settled on one of the non-descript grey vans with the silver logo that reminded Harry almost of a modern interpretation of the Hallows symbol. It was a little nicer than the vans they'd taken to and from the cathedral, with actual cushioned rows of seats and windows that wrapped around the whole vehicle but were too tinted to see into. Harry had seen a dozen vans just like this one when they'd been out both times earlier, and was pretty confident they wouldn't have any trouble blending.

There was only one problem he could think of:

"Do any of you know how to drive?" The Dursley's certainly hadn't made it a priority to teach him during the summers he'd spent with them, but the mages were all half-bloods and muggleborns, surely at least one of them had picked up the skill?

It was Crane, surprisingly, who stepped up. "My dad taught me when I was home for the summers. Course we drove on the other side, but theory should all be the same."

"Good," Harry slid into the driver's seat just long enough to check the ignition (empty), but when he flipped down the visor, a set of keys dropped into his lap. He snatched them up and tossed them to Crane who fumbled only for a moment. "Get us out of here."

No one wasted any time; doors on all sides were thrown open as they piled into the front and back, settled themselves into the nicely cushioned seats, and waited for Crane to drive them to freedom.

And they waited…

…And waited…

"Um…" Crane cut the idling van off and turned in his seat to look at Harry who had moved all the way to the back row. "Where are we going?"

And wasn't that the million-galleon question?

The sun was starting to set, but even from the safety of the enclosed parking structure, they could hear the roar of a city in crisis. The van was unmarked and they'd long since lost any distinguishing article of clothing, but it still wouldn't be smart to just cruise through the city without some sort of destination in mind. But they couldn't stay here, not all of HYDRA's forces had been present in that building, and none of them were all that interested in hanging around long enough for a second wave to arrive.

"The better question is, where even are we?" Angel chimed in. And he had a point. It had taken over an hour to reach base after fleeing the cathedral, but they'd taken purposely long and convoluted routes to shake anyone who might try and track them. Harry was mostly sure they hadn't left the island; every bridge, tunnel, and subway off the borough had to be on full lock-down. So, they were still in Manhattan, but that might as well be the deepest parts of the Forbidden Forest not even he dared venture for how well Harry could navigate the place.

Lucky for them, not all of his teammates were as ignorant. "I think we're in Alphabet City." Walden said from the passenger's seat. "Maybe fifteen minutes south of the Cathedral if we were driving straight. We're close to the edge of the island, so it shouldn't be as concentrated as Park Ave was. Less people, less heat on us."

Harry considered the obvious logic of finding safety in the quieter parts of the neighborhood they were already in, but the thought of staying even a night anywhere near this base didn't sit right with him. "We need to head back north," he decided. "Get a little closer to where we just left."

"Why?" There wasn't just one mage to ask that question, it seemed most of them were at least thinking it, and plenty who were willing to voice it.

"Not all the way, just closer." Harry assured them. "And just for the night, while we figure out our next move. We can't stay anywhere near this base. If any of what's left of HYDRA come looking, they're going to sweep the surrounding area too, they might even leave a few men around to patrol the streets and keep an eye out for us. But they won't think to look anywhere in proximity to the cathedral."

"Yeah, for good reason," Iola interjected. "The military is probably out there by now."

"Probably." Harry agreed. "But they'll be there for the rioters, not for us. They know now what we are, they know we're capable of instant travel in and out of wherever we want. They won't think we'd have stuck around after the act. The military men are there to keep the crowds under control, not to search for us."

He pitched his voice to come off a little more soothing. "We'll keep away a few blocks, take up in an area too damaged by the invasion to be easily accessible by muggle means. We'll be safe, at least for the night, from the police and any of HYDRA that might be looking for us."

No one had anything to argue, but neither were they ready to offer their support. Not, at least, until Walden spoke up.

"Hell's Kitchen could work," he said carefully, picturing a map of the city and the spots they were discussing as he spoke. "It's clear on the other side of the island, we'd have to pass the Cathedral to get to it, I don't think HYDRA would wander that far. And I know for sure more than a few blocks were leveled by the invasion."

"Do you know how to get us there?" Harry asked.

Walden waggled his flattened palm in a 'so-so" kind of gesture. "It won't be the most efficient, but I know the way."

Mihaela looked a little dubious. "Did you used to live here or something?"

"Or something. My ma owned a place upstate, but I had an uncle in Chelsea who I would visit a few weeks out of the summer. I haven't been here in years, even before HYDRA, but I remember enough."

Harry leaned back in his seat, convinced enough for all of them. "Well then, lead the way."

Crane threw the truck in reverse and, following Walden's first set of murmured directions, began their slightly jerky exodus from the HYDRA base. Someone had already broken through the gate and left burning tire marks in their wake, providing the ten of them an open door through which they just rolled free.

It was supposed to be a triumphant moment. Their jailors were dead, the rest of the organization on the road to ruin without its heads, and the last base they'd ever be confined to growing dimmer in their taillights. But it wasn't easy holding on to that sense of triumph when the moment they left the tentative quiet of the cramped car park and turned out of the short alley the entrance was tucked into, the first image they were presented with as "free" men and women was that of a city prepped for a night of unrest.

The businesses that lined the street, usually still brightly lit and going strong so early in the evening had shuttered their windows. Literally. Steel shutters had been pulled over the easily broken glass of the windows of those who could afford it, and those without such a luxury had already boarded themselves up with panels of plywood spray painted with messages ranging from a simple "FAMILY OWNED" marker, to a bold and red condemnation of wizard-kind.

But even with most everything already shut down for the night, there were still hundreds out on the sidewalk. A huge cluster of people all marching in the same direction. Their energy didn't feel the same as the frenetic violence the police had been trying to tamp down on the streets just outside of the cathedral, but there was a charge in the air, the same as that hair-raising tingle that came just before a lightning storm. These people were gathering for something. And to make things worse, all four lanes of the one-way street they'd turned onto were blocked with a bumper-to-bumper snarl of barely moving vehicles. The gridlock turned what should have been a slightly tense, but quick trip across the city, into an hour and half, white-knuckled, start and stop slog through hell.

No one spoke the entire drive. Glued to the windows as they were, there was no space for conversation. Sights of burning store fronts and rioters standing astride flipped over cars, went unremarked, hastily erected memorials and candlelight vigils that illuminated entire parks in warm, flickering light were intently observed, but not even they were enough to break the silent contemplation. And it held all the way to Hell's Kitchen, through their more densely populated streets, and then further north to where evidence of the alien attack was evident in the crumbled buildings and lighter populace.

Harry and his mages kept their eyes peeled for a place to stop, somewhere isolated, damaged enough to ensure they didn't risk sharing the space with any other squatters, but still somewhat suitable for them to take up in for the night.

Ivy was the one to spot it, a squat tenement building sandwiched between the burnt husk of what had maybe once been the office of a law practice judging from the half a sign left, and the rubble of someplace called Barnes and Nobles. The bottom three floors had caved in, but the top half of the building seemed structurally sound enough.

They circled the block in the van, conspicuously letting out a group of two or three mages at a time to take separate routes back to their decided safe house. When it was just Harry, Crane, and Walden left, they parked in an unsupervised work lot among three other almost identical vans. Hopefully, by the time the owners noticed the addition to their fleet, the mages would already be long gone.

When all ten of them had reconvened around the back of the broken-down apartment building, Harry used an easy reparo to fix the collapsed fire escape to give them access to the higher levels of the building.

The inside smelled like mold and stale smoke, and the entire building shook ominously when a light breeze hit, but the floors didn't give way when they stepped on them, and Harry drew on his memories of seventh year on the run to erect the wards he'd watched Hermione weave on every new campsite they moved to. They all felt secure in the fact that, for tonight at least, they would go undisturbed.

When the last ward was up, Harry finally gave control of his body over to exhaustion. It was like an out of body experience when he weaved across the room on dead feet and sank into the armchair the fewest amount of steps away. It was soft, just big enough for him to fold his entire body into, and made from a cushioning that sucked him into the chair. Dimly, he noted that-ignoring the obvious damage to the structure of the building- the interior of the apartment had held up all right; the living room and kitchen were one large open area decorated with two of the heavenly chairs of which Harry had claimed one, a long sofa and a few extra cushions along the wall. Only a bit of outside peeked in from a fissure that ran up the west side wall and continued up several more stories, rainwater had spilled in and rotted the floors closest to the crack, but it was avoided easy enough. And not even the open air was a bother, in the late-June evening it was still on the right side of balmy. All in all, it wasn't a bad space to spend the night.

The mages were still slow though to follow Harry's lead in finding somewhere to settle, unsure of what to do in the sudden quiet. Ten hours ago, they'd been in the midst of a massacre Harry was leading, they'd been collared, bound to HYDRA with nothing to look forward to but a long debrief and a night of crying into the dark. And now…

"Congratulations," Harry's weary voice cracked the silence like a sledgehammer. "You've done it, you're free."

There should've been some sort of celebration at this point, smiles and laughter and relief, maybe even a little of that rowdy stomping and hollering STRIKE had been partial too. But there were only a few relieved sighs and the creaking of aching bones as the mages finally found their spots.

In the dim light allowed in by two windows set to look out into the back alley (and, of course, from the long hole in the wall) all Harry could see of their faces were the deep shadows in the hollows of their cheeks and the whites of their eyes between exhausted blinks, in the half-light they reminded him viscerally of his shades.

Harry flicked his fingers as if he were waving off a pest, and the heatless, blue flames Hermione had once been partial to casting burst across the surface of the mostly intact coffee table set in the center of the room. The warm, blue light chased the shadow from his teams' faces, but didn't entirely chase away their likeness to the dead.

"So…what now?"

Mihaela was seated closest to Harry, she'd claimed the second armchair of the set and so had the perfect position to look him right in the eye as she questioned him.

But even with her (and everyone else's) heavy stare on him, Harry still took a long moment to blink away the net of fatigue attempting to drag him deep into sleep. The absolute exhaustion radiating from his bones made him feel as if every last inhibition he possessed had been ripped away, and, without meaning too, he loosed a breathless chuckle. His sleep hooded gaze blinked lazily in Mihaela's direction as he blurted the answer to come immediately to mind.

"Whatever the fuck you want."

She met his gaze steadily, easily. That's what he liked most about her, she was a hard one to rattle, because he felt unhinged, knew he maybe looked it a little too, but she didn't even blink. "You really killed them then? Strucker, and the other heads?"

Harry nodded, felt his satisfaction manifest in the slow smirk that curled his mouth upward. "All of them."

"How?" Angel demanded. "Today was obviously part of the plan, the cathedral had to happen, but why?" Harry didn't have a breath to respond before Angel was pressing on, the weeks and months' worth of questions erupting from him now, unable to stop. "You told us to wait, to be good, patient soldiers and trust you blindly and you would explain it all. We
did. We killed those men today on your order, not HYDRA's. Will you tell us why now?"

Well Harry had made that promise, hadn't he? And honestly, he was just so tired of holding on to all of these secrets.

"I'm the Master of Death." Somewhere behind him, an apparition only Harry could see made a growling noise of warning, and he corrected himself quickly. "Master of Dead Things. I didn't do it on purpose; the cloak, the stone, and the wand…it was like they found me. I never had to look. And when they were all there, and I'd united them, I found it wasn't like the stories said it would be." Harry couldn't bring himself to raise his voice any louder than a sleepy murmur, but it didn't matter, the mages had stopped breathing to keep from missing even a word of what he said. "The Hallows weren't a gift, created by Death to reward three clever brothers. No, their source is older, fragments of a power gifted to Death and imbued with part of themself. But there was a betrayal, their gift was taken, broken, and given to three foolish, greedy necromancers for safekeeping.

"It only took one lifecycle for Death to find what had been stolen- less in the cases of the two oldest- but Death can't manipulate the realm in which living things reside. So, though they knew where the fragments had been hidden away, there was nothing they could do to retrieve them."

"Until you," Mihaela concluded.

"Yes," Harry said. "Until me. I united the fragments and they bound themselves to me. I became a vessel of this ancient power, bound to Death in a way no one ever has been before. I'm their protégé, I'm what comes after Death. I should have been beyond powerful from the moment I bonded the fragments, I should have been impossible to beat, impossible to hold…but I was afraid. Of the power that had been forced on me, of what it had done already to our world, and that fear made us weak. The Aurors got the drop on us, handed us over to HYDRA, and they bound us."

And what really burned about the whole being held against his will thing was, Harry didn't even know for how long he'd been with HYDRA. He knew today's date- the 25th of June, 2012- but the date he'd been brought back, the point in the timeline the Aurors had dragged him back to, he'd never known. It could have been years ago. It felt like years. But the truth was, being able to track the weeks in isolation, the countless days he'd been heavily sedated if not outright unconscious, and that long, blurry period of his conditioning, it was impossible. He didn't know how long it had been since he'd seen his friends, since he'd left Ron and Hermione and his home.

HYDRA could have the wasted time- Harry had embraced the Heart, he had millennia to spare- but for them to have that knowledge over him was unforgiveable.

"It wouldn't have lasted forever," he continued, "the hold they had on me. Even neglected and weak, this thing bound to me is a cosmic power, it would have overpowered HYDRA's bindings eventually…" Decades, Death had told him it would have taken, long enough for the mad scientists to squeeze every secret from his atoms, maybe even find a new way to hold him. "But Strucker got greedy, he wanted to use me for more than the magic I could provide. That greed, helped speed along the process."

"What does that mean?" Angel pressed.

"He sent me out to kill," Harry said baldly. "Death, the act of parting of a soul from this realm is what feeds the fragments bound to me. The recruitment centers were a nice appetizer, the ICW like a light soup. But today in the Cathedral, that was the main course and all its sides. We gorged and it gave us what we needed to overpower our restraints."

The statement was met with ringing silence. Harry allowed the mages their shock and the little bit of horror he could see twisting some of their features. It was a nasty truth, something horrible to realize all the killing they'd done today hadn't been to ward off some lurking evil, the people in the cathedral hadn't been part of a greater threat, they were innocents, most probably good people. They'd died- been murdered- today, to feed Harry and his Heart. To give them the power they needed to break their shackles.

"Was it worth it?" Eva sounded wounded; her wide eyes reflected like mirrors with tears she was doing a courageous job holding in. "All of those lives, those people who were there to honor their dead, for our freedom?"

Harry held her gaze with a resolve like steel; all traces of his sleep-deprived mirth had gone. "Yes."

She lost the fight, rivulets of salt-water cut down her cheeks.

"But I should be clearer in that we didn't kill those people for your freedom." He gestured widely at the mages, who flinched like they'd been shot at. "Or mine." He thumped a hand to the center of his chest, where one automatically assumed their soul resided. "But for this power, the Heart of the Universe. The one who had it before, wiped out the entire universe with a thought. Restored it entirely with another. Can you imagine what Strucker would have done with this? Look at what he was capable of even without knowing what he had." Seven terrifyingly powerful mages, a permanently crippled wizarding world, and an entire country in crises. "He could have wiped this world clean. Letting him have it for even a second longer than he did would have been our ruin.

"So yeah, what we had to do to get it back was awful, it was bloody and inhuman, but I stand by that it was worth it. Give me a time-turner and twenty-four rewound hours and I would lead us through that again."

Harry found his patience worn all the way through. His bones hurt and his body was flashing signals that it was preparing to shut down, with or without his permission. He'd done his part, answered their questions, best to give them the night to mull things over.

"I'm done talking for the night. I'm sleeping now," he said gruffly. Then he turned to bury his face in the smoky upholstery of his chair and did exactly that.

The mood in the tower was…subdued.

The Avengers, as a team, were still mostly untested. They had only one win under their belt, but what a win it had been. They'd stopped the end of their world, beat back a horde of aliens led by a god of actual legends. It had been enough to give them a little confidence.

But this new enemy had left them in the dust. Took out two of their strongest fighters like it was nothing before disappearing with a trail too clean for even Hawkeye to pick up. And what was worse, they didn't even really know who they were.

They'd all heard the words being flung around in the cathedral, "magic" and "wizard", spoken straight from the now dead president's lips. And they were all familiar with the conspiracy that had been kicking up over the past few years, the one of a secret sect of beings hidden on their very planet. But this attack had gone unclaimed, the supposed magic users hadn't left a calling card, hadn't even had the decency to clarify what their motive even was.

We have a point to make.

Most of the Avengers had made it out without injury (most of them hadn't even seen combat), Steve had collected a few splinters, the Hulk a busted pride, Tony was the worst off; the Ironman had protected him from the heat of the Molotov, but the two-story drop when his suit momentarily went offline had left the whole left side of his body one, big bruise. He was currently propped in the same spot on the couch he'd been catching sleep on only a few hours ago, several ice packs artfully arranged along the length of his body. And yet, despite his hurts, he was somehow still as vocal as ever.

"Maybe I hit my head on the sidewalk or something," he was currently telling the room at large, "because I still really don't get what just happened."

"Wizards," Clint summed up pretty simply. "With magic."

He and Natasha were bent over a StarkPad, replaying the footage of the cathedral on a loop. There had been dozens of cameras in the hall, set up to capture every angle of the memorial but instead had caught the massacre in a variety of horrifying perspectives. They were at the midpoint of the fourth play through, viewing from a camera facing the hall head on; this was the point where the attackers had sustained their one and only casualty, a perfectly timed bullet (from the gun of an officer torn apart just seconds later by the beasts draped in shadow) turned the throat of one of the identically dressed wizards(?) into a red-stained mess. Whatever enchantment casting those unnaturally deep shadows from their hoods collapsed, and the force of the bullet was enough to dislodge the hood just enough for them to see a glimpse of tanned skin, a strong, unstubbled jaw, and a burst of curly brown hair. But then there was an explosion of fire so intense Clint's own eyebrows cringed in sympathy, and then the body of the fallen wizard (?) and the half dozen officers around him were consumed.

It had come from the leader. The attackers were all dressed the same- dark pants, dark jacket, red gloves, and a hood that contained its own black hole, but there were noticeable differences in height, build, stance. And, of them all, he stood out for more reason than just his stature.

The first thing Clint wanted to do was compare him to Loki. This being who, at first glance, looked at least human adjacent, but wielded a kind of power he had yet to see be put to good use. But he fought in a way that was brutal, bloody, stomach turningly violent, but entirely neutral. With Loki, there had been equal grandstanding to actual combat, the God of Lies had loved a good monologue, he excelled at them in a way that made it obvious he was reveling in the chaos and turmoil he was stirring up. But the man in the cathedral was on a mission, every direction of his wand (?) was sharply effective, and he moved at a steady rate forward, cutting through anyone who stood in his way without giving an inch. And even when he made it to the president and finally spoke, he chose his words carefully, sparingly. Where they'd expected time in the form of some speech or ultimatum or a combination of the two, he offered a few words that were spoken kindly, almost gently to Ellis, and one cryptic phrase.

Magic is might.


"Maybe now is a good time for you to explain what you know, Steve-O."

As always, Tony was two steps ahead even while bruised, concussed, and maybe a little tipsy from the drink at his elbow.

Steve's contribution to the conversation had been uncharacteristically sparse; he was folded in the armchair cornered to look out the floor to ceiling windows, eyes aimed downward at the maelstrom of activity about a hundred stories down, but there was a sheen of unfocus that betrayed his wandering mind. However, in the few weeks he'd been living in the tower, he'd fallen into the habit of listening out for some odd rhyming variation of his name (or an ice themed reference that went over his head ninety-five percent of the time), and so automatically tuned back in at Tony's call.

"What do I know?" he challenged.

Tony, however, didn't raise to the bait, instead he made an emphatic gesture with his hand as if Steve's question had only proved his point. "That is the question of the hour. Whatever it is you and Fury know about that circus act we just saw out there, we all," he waved wildly at their teammates and the room at large, "want in on it."

"Natasha knows too."

The woman being called out leveled a betrayed glare at the Captain, because nowhere in all of the textbooks, biographies, and documentaries centered around him had anyone mentioned how Rogers was a cold-blooded snitch.

"Yeah and no one is really surprised by that." Tony batted his attempt at deflection off without missing a beat. "Widow knows all. But you, Cap? What happened to trust? To no secrets between teammates?"

Steve's eyes rolled back at the dramatics. "You weren't cleared to know…"

But Bruce was paying close enough attention to catch the trailing end of an open-ended thought. "But now?" he pressed.

"You're still not technically cleared," Steve hedged. He risked a glance to Natasha who shrugged, Fury hadn't made it to debrief yet, caught running whatever damage control SHIELD could manage, it couldn't hurt to get a head start. "But those were wizards we just saw. That was magic we fought."

"Sooo those conspiracists, the Task Force," Clint said carefully, "they've been…right all this time?"

"About some things. It's true that there is a community of sub-humans capable of wielding magic hidden in basically every major city across the world. And it's true that the government's known about them for a while, even helped in some of their coverups. But these people aren't the lurking threat the Task Force has set them up to be."

"Um…" Clint raised the StarkPad as it played another loop of three secret servicemen simultaneously turning their guns on each other, eyes cloudy under the influence of magic.

"Most of them aren't." Steve corrected. "They keep to themselves mostly; they have their own government to set laws and keep them in check, schools for their kids, hospitals, whole shopping districts. They're people. And just like any other people, they have a…few bad eggs."

"A few," Tony stressed. "Only a few of them did that."

"And for what?" Clint pressed. "All of that pomp and production- the creepy matching outfits, the shadow monsters, making Ellis finish the speech, the whole "Magic is might"- and they don't even leave a list of demands? A hint on what they want? What was all of that for?"

Steve shook his head, he looked troubled, thoughtful, the same as he had since the attack. "That's what I'm trying to understand because… Well, it just doesn't make sense." He shifted in the armchair, pulled in his legs so he sat cross legged. "The wizards are dying; they're being hit by a pandemic, their wards-the magics that keep them hidden- are failing, and we non-magical folk are starting to find out about them. The Task Force have been openly attacking them. So they came to SHIELD, they've been allied with them a couple of weeks, and the negotiations have been peaceful, they've been bending over backwards to keep on Fury's good side. So, for them to launch an attack like this out of nowhere doesn't add."

"So, this might not have been a sanctioned act from their government?" Bruce hedged as he slowly fit the pieces of information Steve had offered into some kind of logic. "But a militant attack?"

Natasha looked right at Steve when she said. "Or HYDRA."

His entire face puckered, because just the thought of the organization was like bile in the back of his throat, but also because he'd been thinking the same thing.

"Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait." Tony interjected. "Since when was HYDRA a part of anything?"

Steve's jaw worked like he was chewing on something particularly unpalatable. "It should be noted that SHIELD wasn't the first organization the wizards approached. Well no, I should say they were the ones who were approached."


Steve nodded once. "By HYDRA. We still don't really know how, but they managed to go on even without Schmidt, they've survived this long, grew even worse from the sound of it. When the conspiracies started a few years back, when the wizards magic first started failing, an ambassador of HYDRA worked his way into a government building and managed a face to face with the heads of their government and he offered them a salvation. The disease that had been cutting into their population, he could cure it and, from it, create a new breed of stronger, more powerful wizards."

Bruce cut right to the chase. "But they're not with HYDRA anymore."

"HYDRA made the new wizards, just like they promised." Natasha stated drily. "Then they killed their allies and ran with their creations."

"So today could have been them?" Bruce looked back and forth between a grim-faced Steve and Natasha. "The new wizards?"

It was Steve who answered. "That attack was too well organized for a few militants trying to make a point. And they were powerful, I've never seen the kind of magic most of them were wielding."

Tony looked curious at that. "You've fought this kind before?"

The expression that took over Steve's face was a unique blend of nostalgia, grief, and something like guilt. He looked off into the city stretched out beneath them and this time he actually looked, at the wash of red and blue visible a few blocks away, the smoke of riot fires all across Manhattan. They were home, but the upheaval hadn't passed. "Wizards infiltrated HYDRA back during the war, trying to get to the Tesseract- same as everyone else. The Howlies and I fought them a few times, got real familiar with their magic. It's why I was called in to work with SHIELD and the wizards, prior experience."

"But the guys from today weren't using the same kind of magic?"

Steve shook his head, hesitated, then shrugged. "I'm not sure. Magic is mostly wielded through spells, with wands, they were all holding wands but it didn't look like they were actually casting spells. I mean most of what I saw was on the tv as we were running out the door, and it's been seventy years, who's to say it hasn't changed. But the way they fought…something about them wasn't right."

There were two less of them in the morning.

Sometime around three, when most of them had fallen into a fitful doze, Ivy shimmied down the fire escape and just walked away. Weasley wasn't long after her, simply waiting for someone to be the first to show her the way out.

No one commented on it in the morning, even though inside Harry was kicking himself. Two loose threads off in the wind, they knew too much, and he had no way of tracking either woman.

The others, at least, had the decency to wait until daylight.

"I have family," Angel looked Harry square in the eye when he told him his decision. "They're waiting. Just like all of this," he waved a hand in a way that would have been vague to just about anyone else, but Harry got it, "was to get you and your...Heart free. I did all of it to get back to my family."

Iola and Eva would be going with him, and Harry wasn't surprised. They were gentle, too soft for the ugliness Harry had exposed them to. Even if he thought it was a stupid idea. Sure, he had taken out the heads of HYDRA, but he wasn't so naïve as to think there weren't still a few cells still hanging in there.

And the wizarding world, none of them knew the state of things anymore but it was safe to say they probably weren't all that welcome after the stunt they pulled. If anyone found out Angel, Iola, or Eva had anything to do with the attack, they'd be strung up the same way Harry had Ellis. And that was only if they weren't turned over to the Task Force first.

But Harry was not in the business of telling people what to do with their freedom. So, he allowed them to make that choice on their own.

"I'll need an Unbreakable Vow, though."

That wasn't to say he'd allow that choice to endanger him.

"You won't mention my name, or anything we've discussed, or anything you've overheard regarding me or the Hallows. You're free to speak of HYDRA, name all the names and secret schemes you want, but anything to do with me or what I possess is off limits."

Angel, of course, was the first to protest. "We're not wizards and we don't have a wand to make a vow to."

Harry shrugged. "We'll improvise."

After a bit of contemplation, they decided a clasped hand should do the trick. Angel was right in that they weren't wizards, they didn't need a conduit for their power, so hand to hand, skin to skin, was the way to do it best.

They made the vow one by one, each word meticulously dictated before being spoken, Harry would allow for no loopholes. Only when all the departing mages had spoken the words and watched a ring of spell fire encircle their joined hands to confirm the vow had taken did Harry ask the single most important question.

"How are you going to make it home?"

He really meant, how are you going to make it home without being caught? But he still had at least a little bit of tact.

They had no money to their name, their only mode of transport had been ditched the night before, and none of them were capable of apparating. They weren't dressed in those obvious robes and bright red gloves anymore, but neither were they exactly dressed to blend in. With the city as alert as it was at the moment, they'd stick out sorely.

"We were hoping…" Iola was the one to speak up, and for good reason as out of all of them she had the most convincing puppy dog eyes, "…you might help with that?"

They wanted him to make them portkeys, individual portkeys to their own corners of their world when he'd never made one before. But Fen was a patient teacher, the theory behind it wasn't too difficult, and Harry had magic in spades.

"If I end up sending you all to Neptune, you've got no one to blame but yourselves," Harry concluded, dubiously observing the household items he'd enchanted with his untested spell.

"We'll send you a postcard." Eva took her portkey, the knobby leg of a mostly burnt up table, with gentle reverence. She looked at the hunk of wood with a sense of hope that made Harry pause, actually consider what stood on the other side of the portkey vortex for her. Home. Family. Safety.

Or it could be none of those things. Their homes could have been raided by the Task Force, the families taken by the disease, any sense of safety had been stripped away by the massive stunt they'd pulled yesterday. But…could he really fault her for hoping?

The Harry before HYDRA, before the Heart, he might have tried.

"Good luck."

Angel grinned at him, the brightest smile to ever grace his face in Harry's presence, and then he was gone. The portkeys activated and whisked them off to who really knew what. And Harry was…a little sad. He'd made those mages from his own magic, fought and killed beside them, endured captivity and conditioning with them, and just like that, in a swirl of multi-colored light, they were gone.

Fen scoffed, kicked some loose debris in the direction of where Eva had stood just a few seconds ago. "That was fucking stupid."

Harry snorted a little laugh and shook off the lingering bits of melancholy. "Yeah, but who's to blame them?" He looked over the four remaining mages- Walden, Fen, Mihaela, and Crane (and maybe Harry should at least try and make an effort to learn the guy's name?) - a mostly unsurprising pack of survivors. "I kind of wish I could go with them. I miss my friends, my family, feeling safe, and comfortable. I'd kill for just one good night's rest."

Mihaela looked interested. "What's stopping you?"

Harry shrugged. "I'm not satisfied. My Heart's content for now, she's had her feast, she has what she needs to heal her broken parts, but…But I don't feel like I'll be able to rest until I know all of Strucker's work is ruined."

"Some of them got out," Walden said, and it almost sounded like an agreement. "We passed plenty of staff still out in the halls on the way to medical."

Harry had suspected as much, there had been hundreds of bodies in the war room when Harry attacked, but he'd known even then that the entire building hadn't been cleared. And Bucky. The soldier. He'd been the first to make a hole in Harry's trap, and Harry was sure at least a few more of HYDRA had squirmed through after him in time to escape his mass Imperius. There was no telling who had made it out, he hadn't searched for Rumlow's body in the massacre, he hadn't seen the proof. There were too many loose ends, and-dead HYDRA heads or not- Harry did not feel as if his job were done.

"So, I'm going to stick around for a few more days at least," he decided to the room at large. "See if I can't tie up a few of these loose ends."

Fen's expression was flat. "Are you telling us to get lost?"

"I mean…not exactly." Harry stopped to consider his next words very carefully. "Um, I didn't think this far ahead, it never occurred to me you might have feelings on the matter one way or the other. I'm just putting it out there that I'm not the best company. I don't really have a plan, any allies, no resources, or even a place more secure than this to come back to, just a target. Just that one goal."

Mihaela and Fen exchanged a loaded glance. "We can work with that."

Harry observed the four mages interestedly, there was a clear divide in the room, he was standing on one side of the low bar in the kitchen while the others were standing (or propped against the arm of the couch in Mihaela's case) in a half circle in the open living area, curling in towards Harry. But it didn't feel like they were teaming up against him, instead it was more like they were attempting to show a united front as they pled their case. To stay. With Harry,


No one asked for clarification, they all knew what Harry was asking, why he was asking, but they still took their time answering.

"Yesterday, when I helped to kill those people…. we started something." Harry was surprised when it was Crane who spoke up first, but then felt after all that maybe he shouldn't be. The tall man, pale as Malfoy and as willowy as Luna had always come off as the softest of their bunch, but there was a bit of Longbottom steel Harry had noticed peeking through the past day or two. He noticed it now and felt himself paying extra attention to what he had to say. "After what we did, the wizarding world won't be able to keep hidden for much longer and their reveal will be bloody. I've played too big a part in that to try and go home and wait for the end of times with everyone else. So, I figure I should pick a side, pick a cause, and of all the options I've got, you and your Heart and your one goal to see HYDRA ended, it's one I can get behind."

Harry felt kind of like his voice had been robbed from him. That was the most he'd ever heard Crane speak and well…the rumbling laugh, chock full of disbelief, Walden barked into the quiet of the room just about summed it up.

"Yeah," Mihaela said, her dark eyes lit with a quieter, but equal amount of mirth. "What he said."

Harry joined Walden in his laughter, and it felt good. He felt light, like for the first time in a long time there was something to look forward to. "I suppose I can't argue then. And you were warned after all, so you'll have no one but yourselves to blame when this all goes left."

"It's gone all right so far," Fen was wearing a quiet smile that inspired a little spark of confidence in Harry.

"And maybe a little farther," Walden added, full of good cheer. "Because what you said about not having a place? It wasn't all the way true."


"I said before, my mum had a place upstate. She passed and left it to her younger brother-my uncle, but he'd already relocated to Ontario by then. It's just been sitting vacant the past ten or so years. It won't be much, but it'll be more than this."

Harry felt his heart kick up, it couldn't be that easy could it? "It's safe?" It can't be traced back to you?"

Walden shrugged. "I mean there's always a chance someone might think to look into my family's properties, but really it's a stretch. And it wouldn't be easy, even if they did, she's muggle and we don't even share the same last name."

As far as options went, this one was promising. "Upstate, you said?"

"Upstate," Walden confirmed, and Harry took a step closer to him.

"Show me."

Harry slid into Walden's mind as if theirs had always been connected. All he'd needed to do was find his gaze, and, without even bothering with the spell, he was slipping through his memories like an early spring breeze through an open window. The memories of his mother's old home were already at the forefront of his mind, and Harry planted himself in the one that shone the brightest.

He was Walden at nineteen, standing at the front steps of his home for the last time before heading off to a grander, more exciting life in the wizarding world. Their minds were entwined enough that Harry knew he would visit a few times after, but this would be the last time he'd ever really think of this secluded little place as home, and he was taking it in as such.

Harry as Walden committed the sight of a cheerful, little house with its bright red paint and crisp white trim to memory. It was set in the dead center of acres of green grass and haphazardly scattered wildflowers, and surrounded on all sides by a tree line as dense as the Forbidden Forest. The air was heavy with the smell of earth and pollen, and he breathed and breathed and breathed it in until he was sure he'd never forget the distinct scent of spring. It was early twilight, he painted the lilac and lavender of the uninterrupted sky across the backs of his eyelids, and seared the borrowed recollection of how it felt to stand in that exact place in space to his muscles until Harry was convinced he had actually, physically stood in this place.

And then he gripped Walden's wrist and apparated.

He moved too quick for the other man to have the time to flail and risk splinching either of them, one moment they were huddled up in the little apartment with their remaining few mages, the next they were standing at the edge of a long-neglected bit of property.

They'd landed at the mouth of what had once been an unpaved path through the trees, it had once led out to the main road but was now blocked off by new growth. From here they could see the full state of the land; the well-maintained grass had grown thick and reedy and as high as their waists, and the previously semi-contained flowers had reproduced en masse, coloring the landscape with bright clusters of iris', soft yellow goldenrods, and primrose in sunbursts of orange.

The house hadn't moved from where they'd left it, and though the red paint had gotten darker with age and that impeccable white was starting to chip away to reveal the dark wood underneath this still felt like the place of Walden's memories. This early in the morning, the dew only amplified that familiar smell and the drone of insects in the background made Harry feel nostalgic for a place he was really just visiting for the first time.

It took a moment for Harry to realize that he hadn't yet released Walden's wrist, but it had been easy to forget when Walden was standing so still next to him, he hadn't even made an attempt to shake him off. He was looking around with eyes wide in awe and bright with another, unspeakable emotion.

"I couldn't come back after Ma died." He told Harry without actually looking at him. "And she knew I wouldn't be able to, it's why she left this place to her brother instead. But…" he breathed in deep, moved a little further down the path, a little closer to the house, "it doesn't feel half as scary as I thought it would, considering the circumstances."

"Or maybe because of them," Harry offered. "Hard to be scared of an empty, old house after what went down yesterday."

Walden hummed, maybe in agreement as, together, they moved up and into the house. The inside of the place smelled of old dirt and neglect, but the distinct smell of mildew was noticeably missing. And, though a layer of dust thick enough to leave a handprint covered every surface, someone had gone through the trouble of covering the furniture with sheets, protecting it from the worst of it.

They toured the main level first, taking note of any damage they could find in the wide-open kitchen with its enormous half-moon shaped window set over the sink, or the large den and its multiple long, comfortable looking couches arranged around a fireplace in a way that reminded Harry of his old common room.

But the furniture didn't show any sign of rot and, other than a few abandoned birds' nest and the expected rodent droppings, there wasn't any other sign that much of nature had crept indoors at all. The electricity had long since been cut off of course, but the water was still running, and an old, wood-burning heater out back would allow for something more than just a cold shower.

And there was plenty of room too, beyond the common areas were three bedrooms (Walden's, his mother's, and a spare for a guest) and a study, and up a narrow flight of stairs on the back wall of the house was a small loft space, maybe used for storage at one point. The ceiling was a little lower than down on the main floor and it was smaller than any of the bedrooms, but the wall facing out onto the front of the property was made up of nothing but windows that looked down onto the field of wildflowers.

"This is good," Harry said, and felt relief pop like fizzing whizbees in his stomach. The whole place needed to air out, and the handful of housecleaning charms collecting cobwebs somewhere in the back of his memory would need to be dusted off and put to use, but there was potential in the little house. "I know a couple of wards we can put around the property line- a few things to keep muggles and anyone else from showing too much interest."

"I'm not sure how much has changed in the time that's passed, but they're used to be about ten other properties like this one in the area." Walden reported. "All quiet, private neighbors with at least an acre of woods between us and the closest."

"Is it just houses?" Harry asked. "No shops?"

"Nearest town is about twenty minutes out. They're set up close to the highway, so they're used to strangers passing through; if we glamour ourselves a little different every time, change up the spots we hit, we'll have options on places to stock up for a while."

He didn't say it, didn't need to, but it was clear "stock up" really meant "rob". It was a jarring reminder of their new reality, they were fugitives, enemies of the state. And yet at the same time, none of this was new to Harry. He'd done all of this before, been on the wrong side of the government, cast out from his own society, and he'd long ago reconciled himself to the ugly parts of being on the run (and there were many). And, if he was being perfectly honest, Walden's spot was world's better than the deep forests and abandoned campsites Harry had spent a year calling home.

So, yeah, the reminder was a little jarring, but not even that could do much to dampen the almost good mood Harry could feeling creeping on. "Yeah, this will work," he decided. "I'm going to bring the others."

He brought them over in just two trips, Crane and Mihaela on an arm each the first round, then the last man, Fen, on the second. It took less than five minutes, the consecutive, multiple person side along apparations not even stretching Harry's magic, and in that short stretch of time, Walden had ambled back out onto the grounds while Crane and Mihaela hadn't even crossed the threshold to start. Instead, they'd wandered further into the field until they were standing hip deep in the overgrowth and lost in some trance-like state.

Harry waded in after them immediately, the expressions on their faces were ones he didn't recognize and put him maybe a little on edge.

"It's so quiet."


Harry felt his tension settle immediately. His mages hadn't been cursed by some unseen force in the few minutes he'd been absent; their expressions, free of the creases of worry, anger, and fear, weren't the result of an influence like the Imperius, but from contentment, from peace.

It seemed he hadn't experienced something as precious as peace in so long he was starting to forget what it looked like

Harry settled into the grass beside them, let his fingers brush against the petals of a flower creeping higher than any of the others around it, and he let that same peace wash over him. Just for one minute, he allowed himself the quick break from reality and the question of what was supposed to happen next.

But just for a minute.

Their early morning meant nothing in the face of just how much needed to be done to make this safe house inhabitable.

They started with the wards, because a clean, well-stocked house meant nothing if they couldn't defend it. The range of wards Harry had learned from Hermione were a strong start, but then Mihaela offered up her knowledge on runic warding to create an even deeper protection.

"We could use stones, buried at equidistant points along the property lines to act as anchors to a more powerful warding system," she explained to an interested audience. "I don't have the magic but I still have the memory of the runes. I'll paint them then hand them off to you, Harry, to charge with the magic needed to power the wards."

Harry nodded along, before asking. "How are the stones charged?"

"A spell, Imbus. Cast it while you're holding the stone and it'll channel a bit of your magic to charge the runes.

"These wards work stronger than a spell cast, but they're temporary, the stones need to be charged every few days to weeks depending on the amount of magic cast into them."

It was lucky, then, that Harry had magic to spare.

"So we just need a few…"

Mihaela scanned the treeline, counting as she went. "Eighteen."

"…eighteen stones and pot of ink?"

"And a bit of your magic."

Finding eighteen stones the right size and shape to paint the runes across was a slow but surprisingly enjoyable task; they all pitched in to get it done, wading through the grass and around the edges of the house in search of the right selection.

Getting their hands on ink though, wasn't nearly as easy. The house had been abandoned going on ten years, even if there was a spare pot lying around, or even an ink pen, it would have all long been dried up.

But even with that, Harry figured there was an easy enough solution.

"What if we used blood? My blood?"

To her credit, Mihaela didn't balk, she paused her optimistic search and got that deep crinkle across her forehead that meant she was thinking hard.

"The wards would be stronger," she told him. "But only because by using your blood you're creating an open connection between your magic and the runes. They can feed from you directly, and if they draw too much before the connection can be closed they could drain your magic and kill you."

Somewhere under his rib cage, Harry's magic pulsed, low and warm, a mini star caged in his chest. It felt bottomless, grown infinite in the day since it'd been freed even though he knew there was still more to go, and he was sure that there was nothing to worry about.

Harry collected one of the reject rocks, deemed a little too lumpy for the precise runes that needed to be sketched on its face, and transfigured it into a delicate, white teacup. He drew a fingertip across the palm of his left hand, and let the teacup sit at the base of the straight line he had cut until it was about three quarters of the way filled with his blood.

Then he pressed the cup carefully into her hands and said, "Please don't do anything weird with this!" And though he sounded cheerful enough, there was an underlying edge they all heard, an unspoken warning. He was handing her a lot of trust in that tiny teacup, but he figured maybe it was a little bit earned.

And then he left her there, on the front porch to fingerpaint, while he Walden, Fen, and Crane got started on the cleaning efforts.

They went room to room, working in easy tandem as they threw open all the windows and shook out the sheets covering the furniture before Harry swept through with a few cleaning charms. The four of them made it through the common areas in less than half an hour with that efficiency, and as they moved along the bedrooms they discussed how to divvy them up.

Walden claimed his childhood bedroom, and Fen called for the study- he liked the shelves of books that lined the walls and Harry would have no problem transfiguring the large desk into something comfortable (ish) to sleep on. Harry claimed the loft space, and left Mihaela and Crane to fight over who got the larger master bedroom. Sleeping under all those windows was maybe a little impractical, but Harry liked that he could see across the whole property from the perch, and he was sure he could figure out some charm or magic to restrict who saw in.

By the time proper bedding (and actual beds in Fen and Harry's cases) had been created from the old bedsheets and extra throw pillows leftover from the living room, Mihaela had finished with the last of the runes and was already fanning them to dry.

"I haven't had need for this knowledge in many years." She had pulled her dark hair back into a braid-to keep it out of the way- but the end dangled over her shoulder and threatened to brush across the face of the rock she was scrutinizing for last minute adjustments, and all along her crown, flyaways had been tugged free from the amount of times she'd run her hand along her head in thought. It was a motion he was well familiar with after being friends with Hermione as long as he had, and the similarities between the two women was easy to see in the way Mihaela was hunched over her work, an intent furrow between her brow as the puzzle of the runes consumed her. "But it's not easy to forget. These will be very strong wards, I think."

Harry dropped into a squat beside Mihaela to get a closer look at the runes, they were precisely drawn, apparently perfect to his untrained eye. The flowing script made no sense to him, repeating in a pattern he wasn't learned enough to pick up, but the sight of the symbols still felt familiar in a way that made his chest ache a little with bitter nostalgia.

"But first we charge them."

Harry nodded at the reminder. "Imbus," he said, careful to keep his voice controlled in a way his shifting emotions couldn't seem to manage. "I remember."

He picked up the first stone, keeping careful not to smudge the delicate work Mihaela had done across its face, and cupped it in both hands, pressed in until every sharp ridge dug into his hand, and then incanted softly over the rune.


The curling symbol burned white, hot enough to send shimmering waves in the air above it. And when the light faded out, the rust brown of drying blood had been scorched away, leaving the rune burned perfectly and permanently into the rock. He moved on right away to the next one, working his way down the row slowly, methodically until every stone was etched with a rune and humming with stored magic.

"What do we think?" Harry asked as he settled back into his crouch, he felt properly warmed up after that bit of magic. Lucky for him the day was still early and they had plenty of work left to do. "Good?"

Mihaela grabbed the first stone from the line, and Harry watched as goosepimples immediately raced up her arm. He knew the way the charged runes must feel in her hand, hot to the touch and buzzing like an angry hive, but she took her time looking it over and even when she set it down, it was with deliberate care.

"Good. Now we bury."

They were too be spaced evenly around the entire property line, buried exactly a meter deep and covered completely. In theory, it was the kind of job that shouldn't take any time at all, but they were quick to find out from Mihaela that the ward stones could only be buried by hand. Attempting to dig a hole by magical means could leave residue in the soil that might compromise the effectiveness of the wards and, as it turns out, even with all the extra magic bottled up in his core, Harry was no good at conjuring shovels. They looked good at first sight, even managed to break through the first couple centimeters of dirt before inevitably cracking right at the handle.

"You have to be missing something," Walden complained good naturedly as he tossed his fourth shovel aside to be vanished. "A hinge, a screw, something…"

"I grew up gardening," Harry defended. "I know what goes on a shovel."

"Just not how to keep one together," Fen groused.

"Do you want to try?"

Eventually, they found that the best way to dig their holes was to use the detached blade of the shovel to scoop the dirt loose. The process was inefficient and made the task take twice as long as it should have but by the time noon had rolled by, all eighteen of the stones were buried in place.

"Now what?" Harry asked, attempting to wipe sweat from his forehead but really only managing to mix it up with a bit of dirt to be smeared across his face. "Are they just active now?"

"Almost." Mihaela took him by the elbow and steered him back to the house. The unpaved dirt road led right up to the front step of the porch and was guarded on one side by a young tree with leaves already in full bloom. It was only when Mihaela pointed it out that Harry noticed another rune carved into its skinny trunk. "You need to charge this last one, then they will be active."

Harry ran his hand along the cut bark marred with a bit of his own blood but didn't cast immediately. "Why another rune?"

"This is the anchor. The king pole to the tent of runes." Her answer was patient, like they had all the time in the world to educate him on rune theory. "From here you can charge the runes without having to dig up every stone."

That was explanation enough for Harry, who spread his palm flat over the rune and allowed his magic to pool one more time.

The reaction was immediate, eighteen iridescent pillars of magic geysered from the points the stones had been buried. Once they'd reached taller than the treeline they curved inward, reaching for the tree Harry and Mihaela stood just beneath. They met at the center with a hiss of releasing steam, and Harry felt the air around them practically vibrate.

"Now," Mihaela said with no small amount of satisfaction, "it's done."

The house was cleaned, their rooms claimed, the wards were set and there was only one thing left to do. None of them had eaten in over a day, what with the massacre in the church, the massacre in the base, fleeing into the city, and eventually finding and setting up their residence here, there just hadn't been time to pop out to the convenience store for a snack. Maybe once Harry could have gone a few days without a proper meal, he'd been training for it his whole childhood with the Dursleys, but he wasn't too proud to admit he might have been a little spoiled with Strucker and his three reliable, if not bland, meals a day.

"There's plenty of shops to pick from in town," Walden was telling the lot of them. "But stealing what we need will only last so long. There's five of us and we'll need a lot, the store owners will cotton on eventually that their stock is being picked from."

"Noted," Harry said. "But that will have to be a concern for another day. We can brainstorm ways to keep ourselves fed and supplied after we've had a decent meal. I'll pop over, grab us a few things to tide us over for a couple of days. I can take one person with me."

Fen raised his hand immediately. "I'll go."

"Uh, don't you think it should be me?" Walden protested. "Seeing as I'm the only one who's ever been."

"Ten years ago." Fen pointed out. "Do you think it's really kept the same in all that time?"

"Maybe some! It's a pretty small town, a lot of the shops are family owned, it's not a stretch to believe some of them are still going."

Harry frowned at the thought. "I'd rather avoid the smaller shops if we can, you don't think they'll have a Tesco's or something?"

"There was talk of building a Walmart right off the highway. Maybe they got around to it?"

Walden won the fight over Fen only because Harry needed his memory to apparate them the first time into town. He side-along apparated them to a small copse of trees right off the main road, and concealed their faces under a heavy set of glamours that made them appear as a pair of the most non-descript, middle-aged brothers Harry could come up with.

There wasn't a Walmart, but a new-(ish) GreenFresh market large enough for them to slip a few days' worth of rations into their bottomless charmed pockets without anyone noticing.

They were in and out quick, not even a full hour had passed before they were apparating back to the edge of their wards and tromping back up to the house with pockets full of beans and canned vegetables.

"I will teach you how to make deruni," Mihaela said as she watched Harry unload his spoils and immediately get to work dumping a variety of beans and vegetables into a conjured pot. He'd opted to go cowboy style instead of trying to find some way to make the kitchen work, and was preparing the meal outside over a little firepit he'd put together in a handful of minutes. "They're very easy to make, few ingredients, but good. So good."

"Oh?" Harry slapped the cubed beef Walden had risked grabbing onto a cast iron pan that had actually already been in the kitchen, still in pretty good condition. It was only enough meat for one meal as they didn't have any place to store it, and Harry hadn't ever learned the icebox charm, but it was still enough to give a little heart to the makeshift stew he was putting together. "What are they?"

"Potato pancakes cooked crispy and covered in yogurt, or sour cream, sometimes honey," she sighed, full of hungry longing. "We ate them every Sunday."

"Is that a…Siberian thing?" Harry realized, only now as he had a conversation with the woman about her past, that he didn't really know that much about Mihaela. He knew she was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, her thick accent hinted at Russian, maybe Romanian, but he was also very bad at guessing.

Mihaela just laughed at him. "I am Ukranian. But yes, they might have eaten them in Siberia, I don't know." She gave a careless shrug. "I did not travel much before all of this."

"And now look at you," Walden cheered. "You've been to at least three new countries and killed people in all of them."

"That is not funny," Fen said, but the little smile he was trying to smother revealed how much of a lie that was.

"Come to me when we hit two digits," Mihaela said. "Then I will be impressed."

Walden turned an inquisitive look onto Harry. "Do we have a plan for that, boss? Who we want? Where we'll find them?"

Harry shook his head as he stirred the pot, it was already beginning to bubble along the edges. "No plan, remember? We know a few of HYDRA's people escaped, and there were more who were never even in the building to begin with, but to track them down will be a task and a half. I'll sleep on it, and we'll come up with something real after we've all recharged."

None of them argued with that logic, choosing to move on to simpler topics while Harry finished browning the beef and dropped it into the bubbling stew.

"It's not crispy potato pancakes," Crane said after it had been finished and served up, he had a heaping spoonful of carrots, beans, and beef inches from his face, blowing it off in an attempt to cool it down a little. "But this is maybe a close second."

Walden booed and flicked a pea he'd been methodically picking out and passing to Fen at his head. "Kiss ass."

They kept around the remnants of the fire for a few more hours; there wasn't much to do in the house, so they lounged outside, touching briefly on what they planned to do for the future, but mostly sticking to the inconsequential things like their favorite childhood memories, antics they'd gotten up to in school, even where they'd been during the war. But eventually they broke up their little party to move into their claimed spaces and find a little time to themselves after the turbulent, past few days.

The loft area came equipped with a bathroom, barely larger than Harry's old cupboard; it came with a shower/bathtub combo, a squat toilet, and a narrow sink. Harry spent only a few minutes walking circles around the loft area, acclimating himself with the space and racking his brain for a charm or spell he could use on the large window before he gravitated to the bathroom and, specifically, that tempting bathtub. His mages had visited the medical ward after the cathedral the day before, they'd been stripped of their uniforms and given a clean pair of sweats to replace their blood-soaked uniforms. But Harry had gone straight to see Strucker, where he'd only went and soiled his dark trousers and high-necked shirt with even more blood and viscera. He'd run a few cleaning charms over himself in the time since, but he'd long ago learned those never left him feeling quite as clean as he'd like.

The deep tub and its promise of an actual thorough cleaning was too sweet to resist.

The water was still running through the house, it had its own well system that hadn't dried up in the years since it had last been used, but instead of wasting time fiddling with the old taps and waiting for the water to run clean, Harry filled the whole tub with a single Augumenti and then shot it with a few warming charms until steam curled from the surface. There wasn't any soap around, but a scourgify at least blasted a heavy film of bubbles across the surface.

Harry left his soiled clothing in a heap in the middle of the floor and sank into the tub with an almost pornographic moan. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a bath like this. Maybe in the forties, before they'd shipped out to the war zone but after his brief residence in that alley? Or even further? Back in Grimmauld Place, when he'd thought the worst times of his life were over, Voldemort was defeated and (for just a few days) he thought he had an entire lifetime of peace to look forward too.

Poor, naïve, little Harry.

He scrubbed the layer of dirt and sweat he'd accumulated through the days cleaning and warding from his skin, then vanished the stew of dirty water just to fill it back up again. He sank low enough into the fresh water that he submerged his chin, just barely grazed his bottom lip and allowed himself to float off into a peaceful oblivion.

"Well, this looks cozy."

Several gallons of soapy water sloshed over the edge of the tub from how hard Harry jerked in surprise. "Seriously," he hissed, dragging the few bubbles left on the surface closer to his lap in an attempt to preserve his modesty. "This is becoming a habit, a bad one. Are you some kind of pervert?"

Death perched primly on the closed toilet seat and leveled Harry a look of contempt. "I'm an amortal being incapable of sexual arousal," he deadpanned. "And even if I weren't, you're waifish, little form would hardly be the thing to do it for me."

"Ouch," Harry sunk even lower into his water. "Then what are you doing here?"

"It's time we parlayed, don't you think? It's been an eventful few days, I'm curious to see where you intend to go next."

Harry groaned, long and dramatic. "You and everyone else. But I'll tell you the same thing I told them: I don't know. I really only planned this far, the goal was to get free from HYDRA, never anything after. And I get it, you know, a plan has to be made. But can't I just have one night?"

Death actually stopped, he went silent as he contemplated Harry with an intensity that made goosebumps shiver down his spine, even in the still steaming water.

"You're right, quark. I could offer you at least that, you've earned it."

The world rocked on its axis just a little bit in that moment. Had Death just…agreedwith him? More than that, told him he was right? Or had this all been some long dream, the quiet house, their daring escape, the bloody cathedral and he was still at Strucker's base in some kind of coma. Because this was almost too unbelievable. Never, had those words 'You're right' been uttered anywhere near his direction by Death.

Harry clenched his teeth so hard, he felt his back molars grind from the force with which he was keeping his jaw from just gaping open. The only thing that could ruin this moment now was an immediate reprimand from Death for gawping like the brainless mortals he was supposedly meant to be ascending from.

He thought maybe he should try and formulate some response, something cool and casual to play off how affective just those first two words had been, but that was maybe a little past Harry's capabilities for the moment. His brain needed a few more seconds to reboot from the hard shut down it had been forced into, and trying to form words without it fully operational would do way more harm than good.

Luckily, it seemed, Death wasn't even done speaking.

"But before I will, there's something I offer you to think on, another option."

Harry nodded along, managing at least enough brainpower to pull that off.

And then Death said, "We go."

Bright, red error warnings flashed across Harry's retinas. Go? What did he mean, go?

"W-what like…back home?" That was about the only conclusion he could draw, and honestly he was impressed with himself for managing even that, and the Herculean feat of stringing together a comprehensible sentence.

"No, quark, further than that." Even in correcting him, there was none of Death's usual condescension, he was atypically patient as he explained. "Our Heart is freed, she's fed, and she's content with the punishment dealt to the wizards because it was your hands to ensure their demise. And now that you're free, and you're stronger, I could guide you in travelling beyond this world. There are a thousand different galaxies and solar systems rife with worlds of all races and cultures, most far more advanced than the laughable attempts at evolution Earth has managed, and not a single one knows of you and what you're choosing to leave behind.

"In these worlds you wouldn't be hunted, you wouldn't have to lurk in the quiet corners of a planet that doesn't even deserve your presence. In these worlds, you've done no wrong, have no enemies to fear. You'd be free in the fullest sense."

What a fucking offer.

Harry's operational systems were rebooted, he was firing on all levels, but still words eluded him

Because how was he supposed to respond to that?

It was the perfect solution to all his current issues. And it was deserved. After everything he'd been dragged through? He'd been reduced to something less than human, first a prop, a tool, a battery, and then-even worse- someone else's weapon to be wielded. And sure, he'd found his way back, built himself into something close to what he'd once been, but it wasn't quite right, wasn't quite all him, was it? Not all of Harry had survived his breaking. that sweet boy who'd believed wholly in the power of love, who was willing to help anyone no matter the personal cost, who thought facing down evil with a bit of pluck and a first year's charm was all he needed because good would always prevail. That boy had starved in the darkness, he had been bled out in that bright room with rope burns around his wrist, and the gaps he'd left had been filled with something Harry was beginning to worry looked a lot like Death.

Time away could be good for Harry. If he ever wanted to regain even a modicum of who he was, he should take Death's offer. He could find a planet three solar systems over whose ecosystem was made up of nothing but beaches and he could heal.

Harry felt himself nodding before he even realized he'd made the decision, he was already opening his mouth to agree, and then somewhere below him there was a clatter, the rattle of a door being thrown open a little too roughly on old hinges, and the rumble of several rushing footsteps. He was already gripping the sides of the tub, preparing to lever himself out to go and face whatever threat had broken through their wards already, when the alarming noise was followed by a burst of laughter. It was loud and unrestrained and unflinchingly happy. He could pick up the sound of voices, the words were inaudible, but it was easy to hear the tone, unworried, a little teasing.

That was all the reminder he needed, the line to reel him back to reality.

If he left, what would happen to his mages? They were powerful, dangerous in their own right, they could be figure it out. But he didn't know.

And with that reminder came a memory of kohl shadowed, grey eyes and 'What the hell is a Bucky?"

He remembered the sheet of ice with the face of a ghost of his past on the other side.

He had people still in the game, and no matter how much Strucker or Death or his Heart might change him, that once piece in him, that loyalty to the people he considered his, was unshakeable.

"No." The bubble of silence between them popped with Harry's decisive statement. "Thank you. But I don't even need to think on it. We're staying. The ICW have strong allies in SHIELD, I've got people scattered with no sense across the board and…" A fire was lighting in his gut, Harry met Death's gaze head on. "And I've been preparing for this too long. For months, years, maybe even my whole life if we're being honest, I've been being groomed for the war and bloodshed and death that's coming, I can't just run away now that I'm finally getting good at it."

"All right then, quark." The smile Death gave him, offered his face not a single bit of softness. "Your rule. We stay."

A/N: Ohmygodfinally. When Prometheus first appeared as a glimmer in my poor unsuspecting heart I planned for it to have three arcs:

1. The 40's

2. Strucker

3. Harry goes apeshit.

This chapter is the final of the second arc, which is a big reason why it and the one before it took so long to hammer out. As the last two of the arc, I needed to make sure everything was in alignment for the start of the next. And boy was it not. So on top of writing the actual chapters, I spent a lot of time remapping what I had planned, which inevitably meant what was planned for the chapters I was actively writing was changing and resulted in a massive amount of rewrites. But the that dark time is past us now, and we're onto what I've been looking forward to since Chapter 1!