Told you there was going to be a sequel.
Anyhow, before I say anything else, welcome, one and all, to the sequel of Child of the Storm. Which means that if you haven't read that yet, get your rear in gear and get over there before you even look at this chapter.
You know, I was never sure if I was going to get to this point. But here I am, and I owe it to each and every one of you.
Now, onto the chapter. It's a bit shorter than my usual, partly because it was stitched together from a couple of other scenes I'd written, partly because it was written in conjunction with the epic epilogue and in between all sorts of real life stuff, and partly because it's a teaser to whet your appetite. So, settle down and enjoy the ride.
Carol sat bolt upright, gasping and drenched in sweat. After a few moments, she settled down somewhat and looked around. She was still in her room in what had quickly been dubbed Avengers Mansion. Her shield was propped up by the bed, within easy reach. It was the middle of the night. She was safe.
So why weren't the nightmares going away?
She took a deep breath and took stock, remembering what had led up to this. A year ago, her life had been normal, if fairly dull, a routine of school, football practise, home, interspersed with handling creeps. Then she had met and swiftly been befriended by Harry Thorson, demigod son of Thor, suicidally noble trouble magnet and adorable dork extraordinaire, and been sucked into his crazy world.
She'd met gods and monsters, heroes and villains, been caught up in all sorts of terrifying and exhilarating life or death fights on a literally epic scale, discovered that she was the great-granddaughter of Captain America and Peggy Carter and had the super soldier genes to match (once they'd been given a magical kick in the ass – also, magic was real, really real), been loaned the world's most terrifying mood ring and narrowly avoided dying in a battle for all reality in London.
The latter was the source of her nightmares – though that time when she was half frozen and nearly eaten by a giant demon werewolf in the Rockies at Easter (and would have been, were it not for the timely and extremely violent intervention of the Winter Soldier) almost made guest appearances.
After the various medals and awards presentations, the gift of her shield – which was now emitting a comforting glow. Go magic – and the haranguing from her uncle about putting herself in danger, which was followed by furtive enquiries about what it was like to fly outside of a plane and a grudging acceptance that he wouldn't mention it to her parents, ever, she'd felt knackered.
Not quite as much as Harry, who was quite obviously suffering a bit from post-briefly-dying (which she knew from personal experience, or near enough, sucked), post-almost-losing-his-dad, post-being-possessed-by-an-elder-god, post-getting-his-long-dead-mom-back-and-losing-her-again trauma. Also, putting the world back together, while it hadn't looked like much, had probably been ridiculously exhausting.
Even so, she was tired and had felt justified in following his lead and enjoying a good summer's rest, while the adults dealt with shenanigans like clearing up HYDRA and purging them from SHIELD and various government agencies worldwide, because apparently HYDRA was like locker room smell and got everywhere if you weren't careful.
Now if only her brain would get with the program and not make her nights into reruns of 'Carol Danvers Almost Dies Horribly: the Greatest Hits'.
She jumped as the door creaked open, every nerve twanging like a bow string.
She relaxed again. It was Harry.
"Hey Harry," she said quietly. "You startled me."
"Sorry," he said, walking over and sitting down on the bed. It still surprised her how much he'd changed. When they'd first met, he'd been short, skinny and bespectacled. Cute in an adorable, hobbity sort of way. Now, he was almost as tall as she was – and she herself was nearly six feet tall – and growing still. Skinny had become lean, with muscle developing on bone. The glasses had disappeared thanks, apparently, to the Asgardian answer to laser eye surgery. He was still cute, but less Frodo, more Aragorn.
Of course, these changes were all physical, but they went beyond that. He was more confident now, more knowing and perceptive, traits that reminded her of Diana. Of course, this probably had something to do with the fact that he was a telepath.
As if to cement this resemblance, he abruptly reached out and hugged her. Carol stiffened and, noticing this, Harry leaned back. "Sorry," he repeated, self consciously running his hands through his eternally messy hair. "I... I wasn't trying to... I just wanted... blargh." He shook his head.
"I get your point," Carol said, smiling slightly and inwardly reflecting that one thing hadn't changed. He was still a complete dork. "It was just... a shock."
Harry nodded. "You've been having nightmares," he said. It wasn't a question.
"How did you guess?" Carol asked, forcing her tone to be light. "You use your mind mojo?"
"No," Harry said. "Though the nightmares and the psychic turmoil did wake me up."
"Oh. Sorry," she said.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Harry said firmly. "And I've been where you are."
"You have?" Carol asked, eyebrow raised. Despite Harry's positive deluge of traumatic experiences, occasional outbursts of temper and nigh homicidal rage aside, he seemed to be remarkably well adjusted.
Harry nodded. "I ran into a Dementor about a year ago, a month before I met you – they're magical creatures that feed off emotion. Just being near them means that you relive the worst experiences of your life," he said.
Carol shuddered. "That's horrible," she said.
Harry nodded. "I remembered my mother's murder," he said, and smiled bitterly. "Thing is, I didn't entirely hate it – at the time, it was the only time I'd heard mum's voice. But... yeah. Nightmares. Been there. Not as badly, but I've been there."
"How did you deal with them?" Carol asked, hating the way her voice went.
"With time, support and a bit of magic," Harry said. "Professor Xavier and my grandma helped fix it. We can talk to the Professor about it in the morning."
"Yeah," Carol said. "In the morning." Between now and then, there were hours of sleep. Hours more of nightmares. Not something she was looking forward to.
Harry picked up on her tone – and perhaps her thoughts – and hesitated. "I," he began, then shook his head.
"What is it?"
"I... I could try and help," he said. "I am a telepath, after all. I couldn't fix all of it, but maybe I could take the edge off the worst of it – the nightmares, I mean." He looked up at her. "If you want me to."
Carol paused for a long moment, thinking this over. Then she nodded. "I do," she said quietly. "And I trust you."
Harry blinked, smiled, then shuffled onto his knees, facing her. Carol mirrored his position. "I'm going to need to focus," he said. "Which means that I can't just, you know, think at you, like Professor Xavier can. So..." He slowly raised his hands to her temples, gently brushing away strands of hair which had been stuck to her skin by sweat. "Just relax," he said distantly as he splayed his fingers out, thumbs resting on her cheekbones, index and middle fingers pressed to her temple while his ring and little fingers lay just below her ears, touch feather light and delicate at first, then settling into a gentle grip. "I'll be gentle."
Carol, having grown up with a serving soldier for an uncle and the ever dirty minded Jean-Paul for a friend, mentally jumped to the worst possible conclusion and Harry blushed, visible even in the moonlight, shifting awkwardly. "That really doesn't help," he muttered.
"Then maybe you should have picked different words," Carol retorted.
"Fair point," Harry admitted, and took a deep breath, closing his eyes. Carol mimicked him on general principles. "Okay. Stay calm. If there's anything you don't want me to see, just imagine a locked door."
After a moment, Carol let out a soft gasp. "You're in me," she said. "I can feel you." Then she went bright red as she processed this, a crushing weight of embarrassment bearing down on her. "I mean, in my head."
"That is how telepathy works," Harry murmured, going red himself, but maintaining his composure.
There was a long pause. "God, this is awkward."
Harry sighed. "Less of the running commentary, please?" he asked.
"Yeah, sorry. It's just a bit of a shock," Carol said. "And... I'm a bit nervous."
"I get that," Harry said, then grimaced as Carol twitched slightly. "Sorry. Old memories might be reawakened as part of the process. It's like stirring a cup of tea."
"For an Asgardian demigod Prince, you are impossibly British."
"That's not my fault. Just move past them," Harry retorted, then let out a little sigh. "Ah. Here we are." He hissed sympathetically. "Oh, Carol... you've had some cowboys in here."
"Yeah, no kidding," she muttered, and gulped. "It hurts," she said, voice uncharacteristically small and vulnerable, so out of place coming from her mouth that it was positively jarring. One side-effect of this kind of telepathic delving was that it tended to bring all kinds of emotions bubbling to the surface, in the face of which tough-guy/tough-girl façades tended to crumble.
"I know," Harry said gently. "My grandma said that this sort of thing is like a cut gone bad, but in your mind. So I need to clean it out."
"If at any point this hurts, or you feel like something is wrong, tell me, and I'll stop. It's your mind, after all."
"Just do it," Carol said, muscles tensing.
Carol let out an explosive breath, but did just that. And for a long time, there was silence. Any outward observer would have noticed a soft aura of golden-white light form around them. If they had looked closer, they might have seen an expression of worried concentration on one face and a forcing down of fear on the other. Looking even closer, they would have seen tears, sparkling like diamonds in the eldritch light surrounding them, rolling down both cheeks.
This continued for maybe an hour, before Harry let the long sigh of one whose complex and difficult labour has been completed to if not perfection, then moderate satisfaction. "Better?" he asked.
"Yeah," Carol said, a smile spreading across her face. Then the smile faded. "Such a lonely childhood."
"Ah, yeah, those are just old memories. They must not have settled yet," Harry said. "It'll pass. Stay with me."
"So very alone," Carol continued, her tone distant. Then she opened her eyes, fixing Harry with a look that seemed to go right through him. "Locked in a cupboard for years and years. You were so lonely."
Harry's eyes snapped open and he stared at her, wide eyed, shocked. "How the hell are you doing that?" he hissed sharply.
"You were lonely then and... you're still lonely now, aren't you?" Carol said slowly, speaking as if she hadn't heard him. "Afraid that no one will listen, and even if they do, that they won't understand you. That they'll be afraid of you."
Harry didn't answer. What could he say? He could hardly say no, because, somehow or other, Carol was in his head, reading his mind. He couldn't say yes, because it was redundant. And asking how she'd got into his head would just be deflecting.
"You opened the door," Carol said. "And doors can be walked through in either direction." She paused. "Sorry. I didn't mean to, but… it happened."
Oh. So that was how, Harry thought. As he did, he vaguely noticed that fresh tears were rolling down his cheeks.
Any further thoughts were driven out of his head as Carol pounced on him, pulling him into a ferociously tight hug. This had the effect of breaking the psychic connection, but at this point words, whether conveyed verbally or psychically, were unnecessary. The hug carried both heartfelt thanks and an assurance that yes, she would understand. She wasn't afraid of him. And she trusted him.
In the morning, Carol and Harry didn't wake up with the others. Accordingly, Natasha went to check on them. After finding Harry's room empty, she half expected the scene she beheld when she quietly entered Carol's room.
The bed covers had been spread all over the bed in a tangled mess, one almost as complex as Harry and Carol. The two teens, still dressed in their pyjamas, were loosely entwined, half sprawled over the bed, half wrapped around each other. Harry had curled into a strange sort of ball, knees tucked up into his chest, with an arm around Carol and one of her legs squeezed between both of his, his face buried in her hair.
Correspondingly, one of her arms had slipped under his body and her hand had snaked its way around the pillow he was using, while her other leg trailed off loosely. And their free hands had, one way or another, drifted down into the space in between them, fingers interlacing.
Natasha watched them for a long moment, then carefully closed the door and let them be.
"Natasha, are my son and Carol well?" Thor asked.
"They seem to be, since they're sleeping together," Natasha said calmly.
This comment provoked a number of reactions.
Thor's eyes nearly popped out. Jane choked on her water. Steve one-upped her by performing a spectacular spit-take right into Tony's face. Sirius let out a loud 'Ha!' Loki and Pepper's eyebrows both shot straight upwards. Bruce paused and scrutinised Natasha's expression carefully, as did Remus. Fandral, smug smile upon his face, accepted a jingling purse from Volstagg. Hogun simply raised an eyebrow. And Darcy, needless to say, let out a piercing wolf-whistle.
Clint and Bucky, meanwhile, both recognising Natasha's tone, smiled identical small smiles.
"Well, Thor, he certainly takes after you," Fandral said, counting his winnings, smug smile still in pride of place. "Bed hopping at such a young age."
"Not surprised," Darcy commented. "I'm guessing that Thor didn't spend many nights in the same bed at that age."
"It took a little time to pick up speed, but yes, you guess correctly, Lady Darcy," Fandral said.
"I don't know," Jane said, shooting a look at Thor. "I think that it's a little young."
"I wasn't aware that there was an age limit on platonically sharing a bed," Bruce said quietly, still eyeing Natasha. "Which is what I'm pretty sure they were doing."
Natasha smirked. "It is," she said, and shrugged at the resultant mass change in expression. "It's not my fault that you all jumped to the wrong conclusion."
"I don't care," Tony said, wiping his dripping face clean and ignoring Steve's mortified apologies. "I'm still blaming you."
Natasha shrugged again, as if to say that he could do so if he wished, it was no concern of hers.
"Perhaps not quite so prodigious after all," Fandral said sourly, returning the purse to a grinning Volstagg, his smile having turned upside down in a fashion usually only seen in cartoons.
Thor shrugged. "I cannot say that I am bothered," he said, and smirked. "But then again, I am not the one who has just lost money."
Fandral glowered at him.
"What interests me is why they were sharing a bed in the first place," Steve said sternly, having given up on getting Tony to accept his apologies and instead neatly seguing into an almost fatherly protectiveness.
"Carol's not been sleeping well, probably because she's been having nightmares," Pepper said. "She hasn't been talking about it, but I can read between the lines. If I had to guess, Harry sensed her having the nightmare and went in to check on her. After that, he ended up staying to help her sleep."
Thor nodded. "I am of a like mind," he said.
"Then why hasn't she talked about it?" Jane asked.
"Warriors do not like to speak of such things, when they happen," Volstagg said. "Take Hogun, for example."
"Yeah, but Hogun barely speaks at all," Darcy pointed out. "Though you do have a point. Carol's the stubborn type."
"I wonder, where could she possibly have got that from?" Bucky muttered sarcastically.
"Do you mean me?" Steve asked, sounding half surprised, half offended.
"Well, Peggy was almost as bad, but face it, Steve: you don't know the meaning of the words 'give up'," Bucky said dryly.
"I take it that you decided to let them sleep?" Loki asked, and Natasha nodded.
"Damn right," Tony said and when everyone turned to him, he shrugged. "Hey, they're in the arms of someone that they love and trust. Let 'em have their moment."
Everyone started at him in stunned silence. Whether this was at the fact that he'd passed up the opportunity to make an inappropriate joke or at the 'love' comment remained to be seen.
"Love?" Steve asked.
"Well, yeah, in the 'I love you guys', sense," Tony said casually. "Also," he added. "It'll be hilarious when they wake up and try and explain it."
And just like that, normal service was restored.
"Agape," Bruce said thoughtfully. "It fits."
"Actually, I think that philia would be more accurate," Natasha said, and Bruce inclined his head.
"Uh, translation for those of us who do not speak ancient gibberish?" Darcy asked.
"Agape is Ancient Greek for unconditional love, like between parents and children," Sirius said. "Philia is platonic, friendly love." He shrugged at the surprised expressions. "My family insisted that I learn ancient languages. It might have been something about understanding spells better, which makes no sense since almost all of the European and American ones are in Latin – bad Latin at that. I didn't pay that much attention, but some things stuck."
"Actually, Storge is a more direct translation for familial love," Natasha remarked. "Agape can mean familial love, but it often means more religious love, like loving God."
"Why did you peg Harry and Carol as the first, then?" Clint asked, turning to Bruce.
Bruce shrugged. "They're not romantic, but I figured that they'd gone through too much to be just friends," he said.
"You think they'll end up in love?" Darcy said, eyebrow raised. "Even though it's a total cliché?"
"Clichés are clichés for a reason, Darcy," Loki pointed out. "There is an element of truth to them."
"Good point," Darcy conceded.
"Trust me," Sirius said authoritatively. "Harry's just like his dad. If he ends up in love, we'll all know." He leaned back. "He could be forming his own Marauders, you know."
"That would make sense," Thor said.
"Wait, do you mean that you guys snuggled?" Darcy asked, incredulous and delighted.
"I wouldn't say that," Thor said. "Instead, I would say that amongst ourselves, we were less bothered than most by personal boundaries, a product of our time as animagi and, in Remus' case, a werewolf." He eyed Sirius. "Some more than others."
"I did nothing untoward."
"You used my face as a pillow," Thor said, sounding aggrieved.
"And that is how I know that, god powers or not, you have a very hard head," Sirius said casually.
"Please tell me that there are photos of this."
"I don't think that there are," Remus said, then smiled slightly. "But I do remember it quite well and I believe that the best pensieves were made from Asgardian design."
"Laying hands on one should not be difficult," Loki confirmed, with a smirk of his own.
Everything was, as these things went, as normal. And when Harry and Carol awoke, there was indeed much teasing and both blushed so red that they could have quite easily stood in for traffic lights, stammering, hesitating and mumbling incoherently on a prize winning scale when they tried and failed miserably to explain it.
The normality continued, as the excellent summer weather went on. A number of the Avengers, however, were off-site and not present to take advantage of it. Natasha was on a mission, Clint was off doing something vague and personal, while Bruce was off on academic business having been approached for a collaboration by a Doctor Maya Hansen. Tony had pouted for a week and would have done so for longer if his attention had not been occupied by Pepper's oncoming due date.
Pepper herself drifted around gracefully in billowy long dresses, being one of those women who positively glowed while pregnant. Indeed, at one point, Harry could have sworn that she actually was glowing. In any case, she seemed to be practising for imminent motherhood by ensuring that everyone who went outside was suitably covered in suntan lotion. And by everyone, this meant everyone, from Harry to Tony to, at one point, an absolutely baffled Volstagg.
Sirius and Remus had vanished to who knew where, a holiday trip to really catch-up and to cheer-up, because Remus had lost his job. This was not because he had been fired, but because rumours of his lycanthropy almost certainly started by a certain Professor Snape had found their way around the parents of Hogwarts students and, with that group rather on edge following the death of Luna Lovegood, meant that the governors had voted to politely ask him to resign. In other words, jump rather than be pushed.
Under the circumstances, he was holding up well, possibly because of the news that Thor's patience with Snape had evaporated thanks to this latest incident and the potions master now had a small cloud following him around wherever he went, periodically drenching him with rain, sleet, snow and hail, with the occasional miniature lightning bolt thrown in for good measure. However, Sirius had decided that Remus was in need of cheering up and equally decided that neither hell nor high water nor Remus himself was going to prevent him from doing so.
Steve and Bucky had spent some time touring New York and dealing with the inevitable media attention that came with the fact that another previously long lost war hero had popped up out of nowhere. The cover story was pretty close to the truth – HYDRA had found Bucky after his fall, experimented on him and frozen him, keeping him as a souvenir. He had been recovered by the Avengers during the Battle of London. His robotic arm, otherwise something of a giveaway, had been replaced by Tony with one that near perfectly mimicked a human arm while retaining the striking power of the old one and adding all sorts of bells and whistles. For instance, it could shift to being more obviously armoured and greatly resembling his previous arm, red star and all, for combat situations or - and this went unspoken - for occasions when it might be useful to conjure up the ghost of the Winter Soldier.
Steve had also spent much of that time avoiding Carol, whose reluctant patience and desire to earn his respect had steadily begun curdling into hurt and resentment. As a result, Harry wasn't especially pleased with Steve either, and a number of the other Avengers had taken to giving him pointed looks and attempted to draw him into conversation on the subject. Steve, however, had had years of experience with the media in both the forties and the present and was therefore surprisingly adept at slipping sideways or, incorporating his considerable skills as a commando, vanishing entirely when the subject came up.
Jane, meanwhile, had gone off with Doctor Selvig to give a talk at an astrophysics conference about the implications of what was quickly becoming known as 'Red Sky Day'.
The Warriors Three and Sif dropped in and out, with latter and Loki going on a number of cautious dates, in between he and Thor travelling to meet with various pantheons and groups of supernatural beings to tamp down remaining anxiety over Red Sky Day and explain just what happened.
This left Harry and the other kids largely at liberty to take advantage of the excellent summer weather, which ensured by Thor, meant that most of those present congregated by the convenient large swimming pool.
On the first day of this informal pool party/hanging out/whatever, which included most of his friends but for Ron and Hermione. In the former case, it seemed that Mrs Weasley unsurprisingly wanted to keep her children as close to her as possible. In the latter… well, Harry didn't know, but he imagined it was broadly the same thing.
Also present were his cousin Jean, her friend Scott (at first because he had a car, though Harry quickly found himself warming to the older boy) and Bobby, all of which Harry wanted to get to know without impending death breathing down their necks or just after impending death had spent some time breathing down their necks.
The only real downside to all this, Harry felt, as he changed into a pair of green swimming trunks, was that Jean was telepathic and almost certainly looked incredible in a swimsuit. Certainly, his future self's written remark that she was 'disconcertingly attractive', definitely fit the bill, especially since she treated much like a baby brother.
And, you know, if someone actually tried to get him to swim. That would be a definite problem.
"Hey, Harry, you ready?"
Harry turned, opening the door with a wave of his hand. And his eyes nearly popped out.
Carol was standing in the doorway, wearing a swimsuit. It was one of a kind that he would later be informed was known as a tankini. It was black, with a yellow lightning bolt criss-crossing the front. It was also tight and there was a thin gap of exposed skin between top and bottom. This was something Harry noticed, in such a way that his own swimsuit felt tight and he was profoundly grateful for his capacity to conceal this fact with his telekinesis.
Carol raised an eyebrow. "Earth to Harry," she said, tone superficially amused. But even at its most passive, Harry's telepathy could pick up the worry, defensiveness, irritation, all mixed in with something he couldn't quite identify, but it intensified as her eyes travelled over him. It felt… reluctantly pleased? This in itself was something of a surprise, since he was very conscious of the pale but very visible scars on his chest, courtesy of Daken's claws. And then there was the thick lock of white hair he'd developed following Chthon's possession, which all evidence seemed to indicate was here to stay. While Darcy had informed him that it looked 'wicked' and 'dangerous', Wanda had said that it made him look rather dashing, he wasn't quite so convinced. In any case, this wasn't most prominent among Carol's feelings.
No, most prominent among those emotions was a sinking feeling, a sense best translated 'oh god please tell me he isn't going to turn into another drooling moron'. The last was surprisingly distinctive and helped prevent Harry's brain from melting and dribbling out of his ears.
"Nice, um, lightning bolt," he ventured, subtly shaking his head to dispel a line of mental inquiry that wondered how Carol would look if a pair of long, tight boots were added to the ensemble.
Carol smirked, and underneath the smirk, Harry could feel relief. On impulse as they descended the stairs, he added telepathically, I'm your friend first. Everything else comes second.
This earned him a brilliant smile that did not help the tightness in the trunks whatsoever. Guess I was a tad obvious, huh, came the reply.
Only to me, Harry replied. Well, only to a telepath. Which around here basically means me. And Jean.
You sure about that? Carol asked as they reached the grass outside, and when Harry looked puzzled, she flicked her gaze over to the sun loungers and their occupants, Lex and Darcy, both of whom were watching closely. The former looked as if he'd been awarding marks for Harry's performance and flashed Harry a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring, but, and it might just have been his imagination, carried maybe one or two too many teeth for his comfort.
The latter merely smirked a knowing smirk that made Harry flush bright red. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Carol blushing too. He could also sense a significant build up of amusement behind him and turned to what he knew he would see – Uhtred, Diana, Jean-Paul and his cousin Jean all wearing some form of grin. To make matters worse, Jean he noticed with a gulp, was also wearing a tight grass green bikini that suited her very well indeed. Disconcertingly attractive undersold it significantly. Were it not for the fact that his basic psychic training had come from the similarly very attractive Betsy Braddock and he had therefore been able to improvise both mental discipline and fairly impressive mental shields, things would have got rather embarrassing. Bobby, for his part, merely looked puzzled and Scott Summers was wearing a fairly sympathetic expression.
Inwardly, he sighed. Teasing central, here he came.
Especially if he had to get in the pool.
As it turned out, he didn't, and after the initial teasing, most of those present were more concerned with enjoying the contrast of cool water and scorching sun, starting up an impromptu game of pool volleyball. Eventually, however, one did and swum over. In retrospect, it wasn't all that difficult to figure out who that one was.
"Aren't you going to come in?" Carol asked, resting her folded arms on the side of the pool and her chin on them, looking up at Harry.
"I'm fine out here," Harry said, dangling legs floating around willy-nilly, eyes determinedly not looking at how the wet swimsuit clung to certain bits of her, something that Carol very much appreciated.
Carol raised a sceptical eyebrow as he cast a longing expression towards the volleyball game. "Uh-huh," she said.
"I am," Harry insisted.
"Because it doesn't look like it," Carol said. "Come on, don't tell me that you're afraid of the water."
Harry glared at her. "No," he snapped. "I'm not." Then, he jerked his feet out of the pool and stalked off.
Carol stared after him, then sighed. "Nice going, Danvers," she muttered, before hoisting herself out of the pool and following Harry as he stalked across the garden. "Hey, Harry, wait up!"
Harry stopped. He hadn't got very far from the pool, since his strides had been shortened in favour of what in a younger child would have been stamping. He'd also hunched in on himself ever so slightly, lean muscles taught with tension and his expression, when she saw it, was defensive, sullen and angrily embarrassed.
"What?" he growled, glaring and folding his arms. It would have been a more effective intimidation tactic if he was talking to someone who didn't remember when he was a bespectacled and bony little kid and thus over half a foot shorter than her. Even now, after most of a year and a truly epic growth spurt, he was still a couple of inches shy of her almost six feet.
Plus, they'd been through a lot together to put it mildly, and to say that they knew each other inside out wasn't much of an exaggeration. So instead of glaring, Carol gently grabbed his dry shoulders, leaving wet handprints, and looked him in the eye.
"Harry," she said, gently but firmly. "I'm your friend. You can tell me. What's got you?"
"I didn't want to swim," he said.
"I have heard more convincing lies from my baby brothers," Carol said. "You wanted to join the volleyball game. But something was stopping you. What was it?"
Harry mumbled something.
"I can't swim, okay!"
There was a stunned silence. Harry had been rather louder than he'd expected and everyone had heard. Consequently, he seemed to shrivel in embarrassment.
"Why not?" Carol asked, puzzled. "I mean, didn't you learn at school?"
"There were lessons," Harry said bitterly. "But Dudley and his friends would hold me under, get water in my eyes, make me swallow water or try to pull down my trunks, that sort of thing. And afterwards they hid my glasses. All I really learned was how to hold my breath and that in the pool, I couldn't run away."
There was a long moment of silence. "Say the word, my lord," Uhtred said eventually, tone grim, slipping into formality in his anger. "And –"
"Uhtred," Darcy said. "Much as I like the idea right now, do we need to have another talk about how violence is not the best way of solving problems on Midgard?"
Lex opened his mouth. "Well," he began.
"Lex," Carol said warningly, having slipped a supportive arm around Harry's shoulders. "Don't start with your one-way-to-Guantanamo crap. Now is so not the time."
"Actually," Lex said, somewhat aggrieved. "I was going to offer the services of my lawyers."
That broke the tension and everyone, even Harry, started laughing. Soon, they were all sitting by the pool.
"So… you can't swim," Darcy said.
"Not really," Harry said.
"Then we can teach you," Jean said gently.
"We would be honoured," Uhtred concurred.
Harry blinked in total surprise, and it did not take a psychic to see what he was thinking.
"Oh Harry," Jean said, hugging him.
"You complete dork," Carol said, tone softening the words. "Did you seriously think we'd make fun of you?"
Harry bit his lip, then gave the sort of awkward half-shrug that made it hard to remember that he wasn't just your average awkward teenager. "I'm used to it," he said quietly. "Where most sports are involved, anyway."
"Well, get unused to it," Carol said firmly, cracking her knuckles. "You've got learning to do."
Harry was feeling a little bit at sea – and not just because he was surrounded by water. While he knew on an intellectual level that everyone present cared for him (or at least in the case of Scott Summers who he didn't know so well, was a nice person and inclined to be sympathetic to people who couldn't do things thanks to his own eye related issues), certain preconceptions were hard to shift. So the instant offer by pretty much all present to make teaching him to swim a group project rather took him off-guard.
At first, he was somewhat wary, but as with most things he picked it up quickly and, amazingly, quickly found that he was enjoying himself. Within half an hour, he'd done his first full length of front crawl, to cheers from within and around the pool, and by the end of the afternoon he was comfortably doing lengths and joining in the pool volleyball.
You shouldn't be surprised, you know, Jean said. When Harry winced, she added apologetically, Sorry, I wasn't telling you off. What I meant was that you don't have to worry about that sort of thing, us making fun of you.
Easier said than done, Harry replied. I mean, I don't want to worry about it… but I do.
Considering what you went through with the Dursleys, I can't blame you, Jean said, and through the connection, Harry felt a stifled flare of rage. As he remembered only too well, Jean had very much inherited the same temper that he had, something that he found perversely comforting – perhaps because it was something that they had in common, or perhaps because when it came from her, he was used to it being directed at people hurting him. God, I'm so sorry that I, we, weren't there, Harry. That we forgot.
Well, you didn't exactly have a choice in that, Harry noted. You were only nine, and there was that other telepath, who wanted to keep me there. And Professor X couldn't do anything about it because of a predestination paradox, which is about as fun as it sounds.
Maybe, Jean said unhappily.
Harry swum over, cheating a little with his telekinesis, and somewhat hesitantly hugged her. It's okay, he said.
Jean smiled and hugged him back, something that was very pleasant for reasons that had very little to do with his libido. Thanks, she replied.
"Jean? Harry?" Bobby asked, puzzled.
"They're having a moment," Scott said, with the air of one who had seen many of such things. "Probably a psychic one. I'm guessing it's a bit personal – they are cousins, after all. Let's leave them to it, okay?"
Bobby frowned slightly, then shrugged. "Sure," he said.
Harry, Jean said after a moment. One thing.
You've picked your friends well, Jean said. And they, we, want to do is help. And we aren't going to think any less of you just because you can't do something. No one who cares for you will, you can count on that. You don't need to be ashamed or afraid. I know it's hard to shake off a lifetime of habit, but… think about it, okay?
I will, Harry said. "Thanks, Jean," he said aloud.
"No problem, Harry," Jean said, leaning in and giving him a sisterly kiss on the cheek, before leaving him to his thoughts.
After several hours more of swimming and pool volleyball – this time with powers allowed, an experiment that ended when Bobby's enthusiasm led to the pool freezing over. Thankfully, Jean-Paul had quite literally fished everyone out in the blink of an eye and the ice melted quickly, with a little pyrokinetic encouragement, but it was generally agreed that that little experiment was over. If nothing else, as Darcy put it, "I am not explaining to all of your parents why you guys got turned into popsicles on my watch."
One of those parents turned up not long afterwards, dropping out of the sky and landing with commendable care on the newly mown lawn.
"Hey dad," Harry said, floating out of the pool to his father's eye height and wrapping him in a damp hug.
His father chuckled and hugged him back. "Having fun?" he asked.
"Lots," Harry said. "I," he began, then paused. What would his dad think if he realised that Harry had only just learnt how to swim?
"Harry?" Thor asked, worried.
Harry grimaced and steeled himself, remembering what Jean had said earlier and praying that she was right. "I learned to swim," he said, positively gabbling.
His father didn't even bat an eyelid, grinning and hugging him even tighter. "Well done," he said proudly.
Harry smiled and enjoyed the hug for a moment, before breaking away. "What have you been up to?" he asked.
"Among other things," Thor said. "Getting these." He pulled out a sheaf of tickets. "Tickets to the Quidditch World Cup, for us and whoever else you want to bring."
Harry's eyes widened and on impulse, he hugged his dad again. "Thank you," he whispered.
This summer, he thought, was going to be great. In this moment, this shining moment, he was sure that nothing could go wrong.
Really, you'd think that he'd know better by now.
Well, that's the teaser chapter, full of sweetness and fluffy stuff. However, as the last line and the title of the story implies, there's a lot of things, a lot of dark things, that are going to crawl out of the shadows sooner rather than later.