PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Reading this A/N, even if you usually ignore them, would be a good idea.
Well. This one took rather longer than usual.
However, that is in part by design. While part, as usual, was an uncooperative muse, I spent a very long time painstakingly assembling this chapter. I wanted to balance horror, darkness, and the ghosts of horrors past influencing the nightmares of the present, with hope and the power of love, because all darkness gives way to light, and all storms must pass – and they do so all the faster with some encouragement, whether that encouragement takes the form of a torch, or, possibly, a very large flamethrower.
Or, perhaps, the rising sun. As I write, it is the Summer Solstice, the very peak of summer. And, here in the UK, it is also Father's Day. Both of these things are appropriate, the former thematically, the latter more specifically, as fatherhood (and more than one Good Dad) is a reasonably important part of this chapter, so perhaps it's good it took a while. It's also apt for such an event to take place in the 60th chapter. Nice, round number.
Anyhow, Harry is going to go through some absolutely nightmarish experiences – which, incidentally, involved me getting so deep into Belova's head that I wanted a bath of industrial strength bleach afterwards. It is possibly the darkest section in the fic so far.
Accordingly, TRIGGER WARNING FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT.
I mean, seriously. Skip that bit if it is remotely likely to trigger you. It's in italics, it's quite hard to miss.
Anyway, Harry's recovery isn't going to be confined to this chapter, either. It wouldn't be delved into in such detail thereafter, and this is definitely where he turns the corner, really putting the events of Forever Red behind him. However, it's not a one and done, because trauma recovery doesn't work like that (trust me. I checked). It also puts those around him through a lot, because handling that sort of thing, supporting someone you love who is so plainly hurting in ways that you can only partially ameliorate, is deeply stressful. Not that they wouldn't do it if it was a thousand times worse and damn the cost, but it takes a toll. That feeds into the Carol section at the bottom, because carers (or people who want to be involved in caring and for whatever reason can't) face a heavy burden too.
While I debated the inclusion of this chapter after the ultimately optimistic Clark arc, when Harry had seemed to make so much progress, on the grounds that it seemed like a regression, I went for it for a couple of reasons.
First, PTSD hits hard and often without much warning – the fact that Harry got any is somewhat unusual. And while this may seem like a jump back, it's not. Recovery from it is not a linear process, and Harry got set off badly.
Second, I did so because, like that one, it is a passage through darkness into the light. To quote Psalm 23, Verse 4: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me."
The title of this chapter was chosen carefully. It isn't 'Victims'. It's 'Survivors'. And it doesn't just refer to Harry - as Steve later notes, all the Avengers have their issues, as do many around them, and many of those include PTSD. So, Harry is well placed to be helped by those who are well placed to understand what he's going through, at least in part. Isn't that helpful?
With that in mind, dear reader, read on…
It was the night before Sunday, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring – certainly not a mouse. Even the baby was quiet, dreaming peaceful dreams.
She, however, was the only one doing so – those who did manage to get to sleep found their sleep an uneasy one, haunted by what they knew was to come.
When it did come, it came like a thief in the night, heralded by relatively little. Someone listening would have heard little more than tossing and turning.
Someone listening more closely might have caught a creak and a swallowed sound, as of someone sitting bolt upright in bed and muffling a scream.
There was a moment of silence, followed by ragged, heaving, hitching breaths.
Disjointed movement came next, scrambling and stumbling, jerking open a door, the desperate patter of feet and tearing of fabric. Another door, thinner, slamming open.
Then, nothing more than the sound of rushing water, pouring down like the first storms of winter. And a repeated refrain, little more than a cracked, plaintive whisper, hidden beneath breath and water.
"Didn't want it, didn't want it, I didn't!"
When the Avengers (and a newly arrived Bucky), were assembled, they noticed two very unusual things:
First, Tony had called this meeting. Not on someone else's behalf, but on his own. For all his ego – which was somewhat for show these days – and claims that he wasn't a team player, in Avengers matters he tended to defer to Steve. Indeed, he usually took the lead only when it was a matter that was either related to his fields of expertise, or when he felt strongly about it. Very strongly.
Second, his expression was strongly indicating it was the latter – and not something good, going by the bitter and frustrated look on his face, one so unlike the casual one he'd worn when walking into the Mansion just now… with Harry. Harry, who he'd not sent straight back to school, but instead brought back with him and oh so casually suggested he go and play with his goddaughter and maybe ring up Carol and Jean-Paul to see if they were around. Things that would get him out of the way.
"What's wrong, Tony?"
"He's going to have a bad night," Tony said shortly. There was no doubt or ambiguity in his voice about who 'he' was. Not only was there only one real candidate, the Avengers as a whole had a rather greater experience of PTSD than most. Even the smoothest recoveries – and Harry's had most certainly not been smooth – could be derailed, or at the very least, punctuated with issues.
Thor leaned forward, expression grim. "Who told you this?" he asked.
"This is related to the Kansas incident, isn't it?" Natasha said. It wasn't really a question, but Tony nodded anyway.
"Was he hurt?" Thor asked, a strain of anxiety twirling in amongst the anger and worry.
"No," Tony said. "Well, not really. He got a few bruises and some burns that I wouldn't like to see again, but Strange fixed them up. Mostly, he's just exhausted." He looked away. "There was time to nap on the way back, and before, but he wouldn't. He's scared of going to sleep."
"He knows what's coming," Clint concluded, and at Tony's tight nod, sighed. "Shit. Something he saw set him off, didn't it?"
"Yeah," Tony said. "It was worse because of who it happened to." His gaze swept the room, uncharacteristically serious. "What I'm about to say doesn't leave this room. Not without direct authorisation from the same people who gave me authorisation to say this to you guys – and that only happened because it's us and because of what's happening to Harry. Got it?"
"We've got it, Tony," Steve said.
"Right," Tony said, before pausing for a moment. "Okay. Who here's heard of a place called Smallville, and a ghost story called 'the Lost Omega'?"
After the reactions – cautious interest from Clint, that blank look from Natasha that meant she knew something and was hiding it, bemused vague familiarity from Bruce, and more general puzzlement from Thor and Steve – Tony laid it out as concisely as he could. More than one person looked surprised. Thor, for his part, looked completely stunned.
"It was pretty obvious that Harry sees Clark as a lot like him," he concluded. "And I mean a lot. They could pass for brothers, easily, and they act like it – Harry being the older, obviously. This time last year, they could probably have passed for twins, give or take the malnutrition and the eyes. But it's more than that." He shook his head. "Clark… I didn't really get to know the kid, but from what I could tell, he's just like Harry was when we first met him - or first saw him again, in Thor's case. Sweet and kind without thinking, innocent… hell, I'd go so far as to say pure. Even more so, considering the fact that he was raised by decent people, rather than a pair of fucked-up bigots who turned out a monster of their own and are rotting in some well-deserved bottomless pit of Fury's."
"Wisdom's, actually," Natasha put in.
Tony waved a hand dismissively. "What I'm saying is that if you took Harry from when we first met him, removed the physical and mental issues he had with growing up the way he did, and made him American, you'd have Clark," he said. "Give or take a pair of glasses." He closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. "An innocent," he said. "Someone who Harry could have used for a mirror."
"Tony?" Steve asked, concerned.
"Late last night, Harry found Clark in the basement of a fucked up enchanted asylum, naked and strapped to an operating table," Tony said, ignoring him. "He'd been kidnapped by a psychopath who mixed mad science and dark magic like it was going out of fashion. Strange said it brought back a lot of bad memories, that it really set him off."
"No shit," Bucky muttered.
Tony barked out a bitter laugh. "Yeah, that's what I thought," he said. "Thinking about it now, I'm more surprised he didn't go Dark Phoenix on the spot. And if he had, I wouldn't have blamed him in the slightest."
"I wouldn't," Bruce concurred quietly. "What's happened to this Doctor Reynolds?"
"Wanda and some muckety-mucks from the White Council had a chat with Aunt Ali," Tony said. "They're going to run their eyes over him and pull together what evidence they can, see if they can get that demon out of him and if he qualifies for diminished responsibility. Because, you know, sane people don't summon demons into them. Personally, I'm thinking they'll just end up cutting his head off anyway, and good riddance."
"Tony," Steve said reprovingly.
"I'm not apologising, Steve," Tony said flatly. "You didn't see what he did. His office may have blown up, but he backed up his data at home and it confirmed the bits of his journal that we got – namely, that he was an absolute piece of shit and downright fucking insane. He was using the kid as a battery, which, by the way, he thought he had a god-given right to do, but that was just the culmination of what he'd been doing. Some of the other stuff he did made what Zola did during the war look almost humane. It wasn't Gravemoss level, but some of it was Sinister level. When the Council cut his head off, they should make sure the sword is blunt."
Steve frowned, but didn't press the point.
He looked over at Thor. "Speaking of Wanda, she's coming over later, once she's got Reynolds squared away with the Council. Strange told her, too, which makes me think he might actually be suicidal…" He trailed off, attempt at humour falling flat through dour tone. He sighed. "One last thing. I asked what it would be about, so, you know, we'd know how to help. He said 'Sinister and Belova'." He looked over at Steve and Natasha. "He said that you two would understand what that meant. Looks like he was right. As usual."
This last part was tacked on as Steve's expression turned as hard and grim as a stone statue, while Natasha went purposefully blank. Bucky was looking at both of them hard.
"Steve? Natasha?" Thor asked tightly. "What is this?"
"From what we know, as the Red Son, Harry fell under the direct command of three people in the Red Room," Steve said. "Essex, Lukin, and Belova. Anyone else who wanted to give him orders needed authorisation from Lukin. Essex saw him as a test subject, a lab rat. Lukin saw him as a military asset and a symbol of the Red Room's, of his, power. Belova… Belova had different ideas."
"Belova wanted to usurp my mantle," Natasha said flatly. "She wanted to prove that anything that I could or did do, she could do better. If she could also take away something she saw as mine, beyond just a record, then that was a bonus. In this case, that 'something' was Harry. As the Red Son, he was the revived Red Room's answer to the Winter Soldier, and bound to obey any command she gave him without question. Additionally, my and James', Bucky's, relationship, was not unknown to her."
"She didn't," Bruce began, horrified, green entering his eyes, as Clint swore viciously under his breath, and Bucky's jaw tightened.
"We don't know how far it went, exactly," Steve said. "The only reason I know is that Harry told Carol a couple of months back, and she came to the Mansion to work out her anger and tears on the heavy bag. She ended up beating it so hard that she burst one, and was well on the way to doing the same to a second before she misjudged a punch and sprained her wrist." He looked up at Tony. "That was the day when you found us eating ice cream, remember?"
"I remember," Tony said, nodding and frowning. "I figured she'd just lost her temper over her dad or something, and you two had made a breakthrough. She told you?"
"You were partly right," Steve said. "We did make a breakthrough. That said, she didn't tell me, not in so many words. See, once I understood that Harry was involved, I thought he had upset her. She then clarified that she was upset for him, on his behalf, not at him, and that it involved the Red Room – that was about the time he started accessing those memories again. After that, it didn't take that much in the way of deduction to figure out what would put her in that kind of a state. She didn't say anything, but… she didn't need to."
"From Belova's statement just before we sprung the trap on the Winter Guard, she was waiting until he reached a certain age before raping him in the strictest sense of the word," Natasha said bluntly. "He was, apparently, 'still cooking'. However, she chose to grope and forcibly kiss him in front of me. Other statements from interrogation suggest that she did more or less everything else. In theory you could quibble over the definition, but the fact is that she sexually assaulted him for – in relative terms – months on end."
There was a horrified silence. Thor, looking down at his hands, both of which were clenched into fists, was the one to break it. Had anyone been looking outside, they'd have seen a thunderstorm, big and black and raging with lightning, covering the entire Tri-State Area. When he spoke, however, his words were careful and precise, as if walking through a field of champagne glasses.
"You did not see fit to mention this before?"
"No," Natasha said bluntly. "He didn't want to talk about it for a reason, Thor, even after he got the memories back. He is very independent, he prizes his autonomy, and he hates feeling helpless. Those memories are six months of that autonomy and independence being completely stripped away from him, leaving him unable to do anything about it. He couldn't fight back, and given how his mind wasn't even in his body, he couldn't even maintain a small mental area of defiance, or develop a coping mechanism to insulate him from the experiences. Instead, he got them raw, without even the illusion of autonomy that's provided by other control methods. While on some level, that lack of control is a comfort, on another it is an existential nightmare. Right now, Harry is going through the latter."
"I know," Thor began, voice hard and frustrated.
"No, Thor, you don't," Natasha said, voice just as hard, cutting across him sharply. "This isn't the sort of thing you can just confront, then hug it out. Trauma derived from physical violence and trauma derived from sexual violence sometimes overlap, but they are fundamentally two different things. He has been violated on some of the most fundamental levels imaginable – of course he doesn't want to talk about it. Especially not with his father. Teenagers find it hard enough discussing sex with their parents as it is, usually out of embarrassment. This is something both humiliating and degrading, and as a result, infinitely harder to discuss, all the more so because he looks up to you. I'd call it a mark of progress that he's speaking about it all, especially with his therapist."
"You're in the loop on that?" Steve asked, before Thor could erupt.
Natasha nodded. "Part of the deal to keep Harry at Hogwarts was my dispassionate assessment of his mental health," she said. "I've been speaking to Doctor Moonstar. While Doctor-Patient confidentiality prevented her from saying anything, she did implicitly confirm that Harry had revealed that to her." She looked up at Steve and Tony. "From what you've said, that would have been about the same time he revealed it to Carol." She looked back at Thor, then at Bucky. "I'm sorry I kept this from you, but it was his secret to reveal."
Thor was silent for a long moment, then he nodded curtly. "I understand," he said. "I am not happy with what you did, but I understand why you felt the need to do it. And your concern for Harry… you have my thanks for that."
Natasha returned the nod.
"Speaking of Carol, Tony," she said. "You told him to check if she was around. Given what happened to him and the likely nature of the nightmares, are you sure that's wise?"
Tony sighed. "No," he admitted. "I don't know. If she is, and she can come over, then I'd say they can't share a room." He smirked at Steve. "Shouldn't be too hard to explain that one away."
Steve went pink, then cleared his throat in the face of general amusement. "Are you sure it would help to have her over at all?" he asked. "I mean, it might make it all the worse to be so close and be unable to help."
"First of all, her being around helps him," Tony said. "Second of all, those two have a psychic connection strong enough that she, despite not having any psychic powers whatsoever, managed to get his attention from across the Atlantic, while he was fucking asleep." He let that sink in, before sighing. "Point is, Steve, if he starts freaking out – and he will – she's easily close enough to get spill-over. In fact, I'd be astonished if she didn't notice. And considering how close she is, I wouldn't be surprised if she ran all the way here in her pyjamas."
Steve grimaced, but conceded with a nod.
"There is also the matter of the twins," Thor said quietly.
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Arthur Weasley's kids? They're – oh. The other twins."
There was a collective wince as everyone else caught his drift.
"If Carol will pick up on his distress," Thor said. "Then Jean and Madelyn most certainly will too."
There was another collective wince, as all present both acknowledged this and dwelt upon the likely consequences. While Maddie would probably be fairly restrained, as was her wont, Jean would more than make up for her deficit in that regard. In other words, the shit would hit the fan in the most spectacular way possible.
"Shit, I hadn't thought of that," Tony admitted. "If they pick it up…"
"It'll make the Hulk on the rampage look like a nice day out," Bruce finished grimly. He seemed to have got his temper under control, but there was still just a hint of green in there.
"That'll just be the start of it," Bucky said quietly.
No one disputed this. While the Hulk had far greater physical power and – though it was generally kept very quiet – the theoretical ability to sink the Eastern Seaboard into the Atlantic (or worse, if he got mad enough), it generally took quite a lot to get to that point. Moreoever, he lacked immediate range.
No one was quite sure where the Grey twins' power levels topped out. However, it was taken as a given that they had a vast range: Maddie had apparently once projected herself to speak to Harry while he was asleep at Hogwarts, doing so on a whim and with minimal effort. Jean, meanwhile, had managed to reach Asgard whilst using Cerebro for the very first time, and then broken a psychic binding spell that had been causing Odin and Frigga difficulty.
Moreover, neither really needed much in the way of warm-up, meaning that they could go from nought to 'hemisphere altering disaster' in about three seconds.
And all of this was leaving aside their potential connection to the Phoenix, and the fact that they'd siphoned off Phoenix fire before. If Harry's inner Phoenix burst into life and overflowed into them, then they wouldn't have one Dark Phoenix. They'd have three.
"Tony, can you do anything about that?" Steve asked. "Jury rig the Mansion's psychic defences to keep his power in, rather than keeping other stuff out? We should probably warn them, and Professor Xavier, but even with the warning, it's best if they don't get a shock."
Tony shared a look with Bruce, then nodded.
"We can manage that," Bruce said. "But it's probably better if I leave after it's done. If his dreams, his memories, start overflowing into ours, it'll set the Hulk off and he'll smash his way through the Mansion to try and protect Harry. I know he hasn't done anything like that in a while, but…"
"These are not ordinary circumstances," Thor finished. "Perhaps you could inform my parents and my brother of this. And that the last heir of the House of El is on Earth." His expression soured somewhat. "Though I suspect that this will not come as much of a surprise to any of them, least of all my brother."
Bruce nodded, while Tony looked a little sour, as he usually did when someone – especially Bruce himself – impugned Bruce's ability to control the Hulk. Bruce noticed and, while he usually didn't respond to Tony's irritation on his behalf, save with understated gratitude, here he took a stand.
"Tony, the Hulk is protective of the kids, particularly Harry," he said. "He'll go straight through everything in his way to protect Harry, and he'll be particularly unhappy if he finds out that there's nothing he can do, no one he can smash. I know that the mess won't bother you the way it bothers me, and if Pepper and Jane want to stay and risk it, they're adults. It's their choice. They know the Hulk, and he knows them. But what does bother me is the kids, especially Ada. The Hulk wouldn't hurt them, not on purpose, but accidents do happen. I'm not risking that."
Tony sighed. "Fine," he said, then swivelled a quizzical look at Thor. "Thor, what's so significant about Clark being what he is? Other than, you know, being incredibly powerful. Aunt Ali sounded like she knew, but she wasn't exactly saying."
"Asgard and Krypton had a long history together, and close ties," Thor said shortly. "Particularly with the House of El. Ties that were sometimes shared in blood, in ancient times, and more recently by bond. One member of the House of El, Clark's ancestor, was fostered with my father and raised alongside him as a brother. He was an uncle to us, myself and Loki."
"Was?" Natasha asked quietly.
"He has not been seen in many years," Thor said heavily. "Not since before Krypton's destruction. We have searched for him, but it is believed that if he does still live, then he does not want to be found." He sighed. "But now is not the time to discuss such things. I..." He closed his eyes. "I must confess, my friends, that I feel helpless. It is like a battle, no, a great wave, some force of nature is coming and we can do nothing to prevent it, little to even reduce its impact."
"Even a little is something, Thor," Natasha said. "He's had it rough, and this is part of it. But from my experience, this is actually a sign he's getting better."
"Facing these kinds of memories is part of beating them," Clint said. "It's not going to happen overnight, but he'll do it. He's a tough kid. He'll come through this."
"'With confrontation comes understanding, with understanding comes acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery'," Tony said, sounding like he was quoting someone. At the mute question, he added, "it's what Strange said to me, about this."
"He was right," Steve said, then eyed Tony. "Even if we don't like it."
Tony scowled. "I only tried to punch him once," he muttered.
"Only once?" Bruce asked mildly.
"He pulled me into a half-nelson as soon as I tried it," Tony said sourly. "And yeah, he's right. I just…" He shook his head. "Strange said he shouldn't be alone. He won't be."
Thor smiled slightly. "Thank you, my friends," he said. "I only wish he did not have to. Yet wishes and reality rarely coincide." He stood up. "Thank you, Tony, for informing us all. And thank you, all of you, for your counsel. Now… I will speak to Jane, and to Pepper. And my son, before he goes to bed. He should at least know that we have seen his troubles, and will be with him when they come about."
As it turned out, the Avengers and their associates were not the only ones preparing. This preparation could come as quite a surprise to some of them. Among those was Hermione Granger. She, understandably, did not know what was happening. Neither did Ron. Both of them, however, were very suddenly informed by someone whom Hermione recognised on sight: Maddie.
True, Hermione had never met either of Harry's psychic cousins, and the basic summary she'd got had boiled down to 'stunningly beautiful and terrifyingly powerful'. This was not because there wasn't more to them. Harry was willing to discuss Jean at length, covering everything from her talents (more or less anything she turned her hand to) to her personality (compassionate, loving, and with an explosive temper – which as Ron had observed, clearly ran in the family). He was a little vaguer on her powers, however. When Hermione had pressed him, it turned out that this was less because he wouldn't say, more because he couldn't clearly define them.
"You have to understand," he had said. "No one's totally sure how strong Jean – or Maddie – is now. The best guess was that they're somewhere between me and dad or Loki. But every now and then, they do something that suggests they're pretty much as strong as dad or Loki. Or even stronger. How do you explain that?"
"Bursts of power?" Hermione had suggested. "Like my chaos magic?"
"Maybe," had been the thoughtful reply. "Professor Xavier's theory is that their powers are consistently on dad's level, at least. More to the point, they always have been. Always. Unlike every other witch, wizard, psychic, or whatever, their powers aren't growing stronger as they grow – they're growing stronger to handle their powers. So, the occasional 'jumps' in power are more like adrenalin pushing them past the usual limits of what they can handle."
This level of power was startling enough to consider in the abstract, and uneasy to consider in a personal context, given how chaos magic worked. It was made even more so as Harry had repeatedly made it clear that they were both considerably stronger than him. However, Hermione hadn't really considered the reality of it until now.
Now, however, she was looking at the evidence: Maddie, the more mysterious twin, the one raised as a weapon from birth, was standing in front of her and Ron, in the middle of a Hogwarts corridor. Or rather, despite all appearances, she wasn't. Instead, with apparent ease, she had projected a psychic construct so real that Hermione could see the play of shadows on her face and smell the old leathery scent of her jacket right into the heart of Hogwarts. Which since Hogwarts was meant to have defences against exactly that, considering what Voldemort could do these days, was more than a little frightening.
All this ran through her mind in the blink of an eye, and she would be lying if she pretended she didn't twitch a little when the young woman turned to her, as if reading her mind.
"Please," she said. "Don't be nervous. I… I understand why you would be, of course, but I assure you, I am not here to harm you." She looked at Hermione, as if reading her thoughts – which could well be exactly what she was doing. "I was allowed in, by Professor Dumbledore." Then, she returned her gaze to both of them. "I just want to talk."
It was the tone as much as anything that made Hermione begin to relax. Hesitant, anxious, pleading; that wasn't the voice of someone planning to be a threat any time soon.
"About what?" Ron asked suspiciously. Once, he would have been not so subtly eyeing up Maddie, psychic construct or not, and a part of Hermione wouldn't have blamed him – she was beautiful.
This was not exactly a surprise. True, circumstances meant that neither she nor Ron had ever actually met either Jean or Maddie, and Harry had only admitted in passing that Jean was pretty. To be exact: "She's pretty. Very pretty. Now for whoever's sake, Ron, stop asking."
However, both of them had seen pictures of Jean; sitting next to her cousin, identical smiles to match identical eyes, hugging him, laughing, placing a sisterly kiss on his cheek… family photos. The sort of thing that until recently, Harry had not had much of. In any case, it was quite obvious that Jean was classically and effortlessly beautiful. Maddie both was and wasn't. Beautiful, yes. Classically? That would depend on your definition.
She had the same features; porcelain complexion, fiery red hair, and the distinctive emerald eyes. But the twins had led very different lives, and it showed. Maddie's features, framed by a neat bob rather than Jean's flowing locks and emphasised by four inward tapering triangular tattoos like claw marks, were sharper and thinner than Jean's. Her physique, though curved like Jean's, was bonier and full of wiry muscle. It reminded Hermione of Harry when he'd first come to Hogwarts, as did her complexion: Jean was pale, but healthy. Harry back then, and Maddie right now, were pale in a way that spoke of too little sunlight.
Her face was not as inclined to smiles, and her eyes… it would be poetic to say that there was a kind of darkness, or a sorrow, there that wasn't in her sister's. Rather, Hermione would say that she looked wary, reserved, as if half-expecting to see everything good snatched away from her. Harry had had a little bit of that too, both when he'd first arrived at Hogwarts, then again more recently. This was like that, but more so.
Hermione could see a lot of Harry in Jean, going from the pictures, but here and now, she could see a lot more of him in Maddie.
"It's about Harry, isn't it?" she said.
Maddie nodded, showing no indication that she'd sensed Hermione's thoughts – though that was probably more politely pretending than anything else.
"I have been warned that he is going to have a difficult night," she said, diction both formal and measured. "I want to help him. Can you help me?"
The reply came from both of them without thought.
The helping, of course, was simple, but only in theory. Maddie had laid out quite concisely what she knew about the situation: Harry had rescued someone whose experiences had triggered some very unpleasant memories about his imprisonment by the Red Room. To be more specific, those memories related to some form of physical abuse.
Ron wasn't quite sure what she meant. Her expression was uneasy, while Hermione's, after a period of confusion, had suddenly darkened with a truly frightening rage for a moment, her eyes flaring scarlet. When he had asked, neither had been inclined to elaborate. Another person might have dropped it there, perhaps decided to try and put things together themselves, or if they were going to enquire, do so diffidently – or perhaps, of someone else.
"Excuse me, Hermione," he interjected. "Is there some secret language that girls have? Because you seem to be understanding a lot more than I am."
"It's nothing to do with being a girl, Ronald," Hermione said icily. "It just requires not having the emotional range of teaspoon."
"Or maybe, there is some circular I don't get, that has all these signals and secret languages in it," Ron retorted. "Either way, I don't know, and I want to know."
Hermione turned to snap at him, before wincing, just as Ron did the same at what felt like a short, savage migraine.
The word snapped like a bolt of lightning, short, sharp, and crackling with anger, and both Ron and Hermione looked up through the after-effects of their shared headache. The sight they beheld was not a comforting one: Maddie's eyes were literally ablaze with bluish-white fire, sharp features cast like marble in the psi-light, expression cold, hard, and disapproving.
"I have only a matter of hours in which to prepare assistance for my cousin," she said harshly. "Whose body, Ronald Weasley, was violated – probably repeatedly – while under the control of the Red Room. I am sure you now understand how serious this matter is. I am also sure that you can now understand why I am not interested in wasting my time mediating as you snap at each other like children."
She glared at both of them, blue flames fading, leaving behind a glare that would have made Professor McGonagall proud.
"So," she said, in tones of chilly composure. "Will you pay attention and put your minds to helping me to help Harry? Or will you return to your struggles with immaturely expressed sexual tension?"
Ron gulped and shared a furtive look with Hermione, whose eyes had widened like a pair of quaffles.
"We'll help," he said.
"Good," Maddie said brusquely. "Now, there are things that I need you to do, and things that I need you to tell me. Listen closely…"
The water thundered down in an icy downpour, a constant roar that drowned out everything outside. The pale skin it hammered down upon became a tapestry of ice white and angry red, as cold warred with furious, frantic scrubbing. No soap was involved. A flannel worn through, and a body brush with its wooden back cracked and half its bristles missing, had been cast angrily aside. A metal scouring pad was next, and at the rate the scrubber was going, two things had become very apparent:
Firstly, the scouring pad didn't have long before it joined the flannel and the body brush.
Secondly, the red skin was going to be more than just raw in a minute.
An observer might quite reasonably be worried about this. A closer observer might note that neither prospect was likely to slow the scrubber down. He still had nails, didn't he?
All the while, the scrubber went on, apparently ignoring the way his body was shivering in the cold. Natural sounds and sensations were dulled to near nothingness, while unnatural ones remained, sense memories that dominated the mind.
A whisper by an ear: "Do you know your true purpose, little soldier?"
An answer in the affirmative – defend the Motherland, destroy her enemies, make others see the truth of belonging.
A soft, mocking laugh. A hand cups his face, nails grazing his skin.
He flinches harder.
"Correct. In part your true purpose, little soldier, is to serve me. Before you, and before me, there was another Soldier and another Widow. You are aware of this?"
An affirmative. Designation: Winter Soldier a.k.a. James 'Bucky' Barnes is targeted for capture and reconditioning. Designation: Black Widow I a.k.a. Natasha Romanova is designated a traitor, and targeted for execution.
"They were lesser than us. Prototypes. Ultimately, failures. We have surpassed them. We will continue to surpass them. We are superior."
Correction: Black Widow I proved superior to Black Widow II in combat.
Nails dig in to skin and bone, drawing blood, slamming a head into a wall. Perception is distorted. Dizziness. Muted pain. A body is dragged unresisting to a bed, pinned by Designation: Black Widow II a.k.a. Commander Yelena Belova.
Hips are aligned, Commander Belova's thighs around a waist – non-standard form of pin. A jaw is opened. A knife rests upon a tongue. Cold blue eyes above burn with rage. Features contorted with anger, humiliation.
"That is temporary! The old woman was lucky! She will not be so fortunate next time, because she is inferior! Do you understand me?!"
Affirmative. The previous combat's circumstances are unlikely to repeat.
A smile. "Better. Your ignorance is born of inexperience. That is understandable. But ignorance, no matter how understandable, is no excuse. It must still be punished." The knife twists. A sharp pain. Liquid. A taste of copper. The knife emerges, coated with blood. "But only a little. You shall keep your tongue, my little soldier… and I shall kiss it better."
A hand grips a bunch of hair, a head is pulled up. Lips pressed together, tongue forced to meet a cut tongue. Pain. Unknown physiological response. A cut tongue is bitten, hard. More copper taste. Hips press closer, thighs grip tighter. Increased unknown physiological response. Commander Belova separates from a set of lips. Blood marks Commander Belova's mouth. Injury? None discernible. Laughter.
Hips roll. Increased unknown physiological response.
"Before you were my soldier, you were a knight. Did you know that?"
"You were made one for loyal service. But do you know what all true knights have? A lady. A woman, whom they serve, with every breath in their bodies." A smile. "You serve me, do you not?"
An affirmative, full of certainty. This is his directive, to serve as he is commanded.
More laughter, breathier, full of chilly anticipation. "Good, soldier. The old Soldier, the Winter Soldier… he was a knight for the old woman. But he was already old. Already conflicted. He didn't know whose he was. You know, don't you? You know who you serve. You know whose knight you are. You are mine."
A triumphant, breathed word.
Icy blue eyes slowly examine his body. A smile. A command.
"Now, soldier. You are not in combat. And a knight who is not in combat needs to be inspected. He does not need his armour. Remove it."
Armour equals uniform – light armour and clothing. A body is pinned. Removal rendered difficult. Use ability: telekin –
Obey. Ability use aborted.
"Use your hands. You may sit up to do so… but hold me in place too. Make it slow. I want to feel it."
A pair of hands is set to the task. Upper body armour and clothing are removed. A breath of pleasure. Satisfaction.
"Young… and strong. Good. Continue."
A pair of hands reaches under to remove lower body clothing while pinned. One hip rises, then another. Lower outerwear and underwear are shuffled down a pair of legs.
Final removal requires further movement. A body sits up. One hand grips Commander Belova's back –
A hand is guided downwards to a curved rear. Grip reasserted. Mocking laughter. Unknown physiological response.
"Consider this a reward for good service so far, knight. Keeping serving, and you will receive more."
Arms reach over a pair of bare shoulders, crossing over one another. Nails dig into a bare back as grip tightens. An upper body presses against a bare upper body.
Further unknown physiological response. Further laughter.
Lips covered in dried blood brush against an ear. A whisper. Lips are felt against an ear.
"You want more, don't you? I feel it. Yes… you want." A sudden, harsh whisper. Nails dig in harder. Blood is drawn from a bare back. "I did not tell you to stop! Keep going!"
A pair of legs are tucked up against a back. A set of outerwear and underwear are lowered to the level of a pair of boots. A pair of boots and a pair of socks are removed, with a single hand. Inefficient.
Order completed. Awaiting further orders.
A shift at the hips. A body moves back onto a lap. Cold blue eyes examine a bare body. Satisfaction. Further unknown physiological response.
"Excellent. All in good order."
Blue eyes settle on a lap. Determined to be source of unknown physiological response. A smile.
"And what do we have here?"
Expression of uncertainty. Answer unknown.
"You want to know what it is? It is a weapon, little soldier, a weapon that shows the truth. It seeks what you want."
Hands are removed from a bare back. Press against a bare upper body, against the bed. Fingers stroke the source of unknown physiological response. Unknown physiological response intensifies.
"This is good. A knight should want his lady; to obey her, to please her. This weapon seeks to serve that purpose. But you are not ready for me. You have time yet to cook."
"It means, my little soldier, my loyal knight, my true Red Son… that you are still ignorant. That is not an excuse."
Grip tightens. Nails dig in.
"But it is understandable."
"So, I will teach you. First lesson: you know that you serve me."
"You know that this weapon belongs to me."
"You know it seeks to please me."
A rhythmic stroke of designation: weapon begins. Unknown physiological response increases.
"I will prepare you to serve me with it, little soldier. And you will want it."
Unknown physiological response peaks.
The scrubbing boy lets out a keening wail.
There are words in it.
Phantom fingers tighten their hold.
The boy scrubs harder.
The scouring pad breaks.
Blood begins to flow.
Thor was, to his mind, showing phenomenal restraint. True, he had not managed to get any sleep and was thus awake when JARVIS alerted him to what was happening. But at the same time, his inner turmoil was not being reflected either in a storm capable of swallowing continents, or in any movement faster than an urgent but controlled stride into his son's rooms, whose doors he opened with carefully controlled force.
Well. Mostly. They were still attached to their frames, at any rate.
This was because of a mixture of self-discipline and some very, very clear warnings that in the state Harry was in, he would not react well to someone smashing down his door. Especially not, he was reminded, if that someone had blue eyes and long blond hair. This was a problem that Thor had solved by taking his James Potter form, something he rarely did these days. As he did, various other Avengers and their associates had emerged from their rooms, falling in beside and behind him – not too close, to avoid crowding Harry, but near enough to help.
All, it seemed, was readied.
Unfortunately, however, that readiness did not account for what, exactly, they would find.
A chilly bathroom, a puddle of reddish water in the bottom of the dripping shower, slowly dribbling away. The scents of salt and copper mixing in the chill air. Broken utensils strewn all around. And Harry; a huddled figure with bowed head and closed eyes, with skin that was half icy white, half red as raw meat, wrapped in a loosely tied white bathrobe that was marked with slowly growing red stains.
By his side was another figure. Carol; damp, bent, and hovering around the other, shifting and arranging the bathrobe in anxious little movements, trying to guide the robe into proper place and its wearer out of the bathroom without aggravating either wounds or wearer -something not made easy by the fact that he seemed to flinch every time she got too close.
When they heard the doors open, they reacted completely differently. Harry flinched harder, hunching in on himself, as if trying to expose as little of himself to the world as possible, cemented by a flare of dull golden energy in a sheath around his body. Carol, by contrast, whirled, fists raised for lack of a convenient weapon, miserable rage in her eyes and a snarl contorting tear-streaked cheeks. When she realised who it was, she relaxed. In Harry, any relaxation was minute.
"I found him like this," she said, voice thick, removing any doubt that she had been crying. "He was trying… he…" Her breath hitched. "I think he was trying to scrub his skin off. He wouldn't say why."
"Oh my god," Pepper whispered, in utmost horror.
It was an apt summation for all their feelings.
And Thor closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. It was that, he was sure, or scream. And any scream he let out at this point would likely have extended and unfortunate consequences, none of which would be good for his son. His rage, helpless and justified as it was, was not important right now.
"Let me," he said, in a commendably steady voice, approaching his son as if he were a startled deer. "Harry?"
That earned him a quick flicker of emerald eyes, full of anguish. They darted to Carol, and for a moment, he shied away from her on reflex, expression an ugly mixture of emotions, most prominent of which were hatred and fear, which dimmed as he snapped his eyes shut again.
For a moment, Thor was baffled, then got it: he was not the only blue-eyed blonde that Harry was close to, and while their respect shades (and styles) of hair and eye were quite different to each other and to Belova, it was a fine enough distinction. He was not the only one, as Pepper slipped past him and took the younger girl to one side, murmuring an explanation. The shift from hurt bafflement, to comprehension, to a strange mixture of relief, horror, and rage, to pure heartbreak, was painful to watch.
Normally, Thor would have tried to help. But Harry was, and always would be, his priority. Besides, even if she was only in Pepper's care, Carol was in good hands. With that in mind, he carefully guided Harry out of the bathroom and to his bed, feeling the strange presence of Harry's currently active psychic powers as he did. As he did, Wanda emerged from the silent, appalled group. While she had been in a towering rage when she had arrived several hours earlier, she was now haunted, grief leaving her looking far older than her years.
Nevertheless, her hands moved and flickered with practised precision, a soft red light permeating the room as she examined Harry. Finally, there was a muted flare of scarlet light, melding with the remaining dull gold psi-light around Harry, before both faded into the shadows of the dimly lit room.
"Nothing serious," she said quietly. "Bloody, in the way of scrapes, especially bad ones, and widespread, but not serious. I've fixed it. But if he hadn't been found, and stopped…"
She trailed off, the point clear, and Thor unconsciously held his son tighter, before releasing him with a jerk, anticipating a negative reaction. Perhaps more disturbingly, there wasn't one. In fact, there wasn't a reaction at all. Not to that, not to the presence of others, nor even to speech and assurances that he was safe. It was as if he'd shut down completely, lost to the horrors inside his own head.
Then, all of a sudden, the golden aura around him flared up again; wary, defensive, and with the speed that, usually his trademark, had apparently deserted him this evening.
"JARVIS?" Tony asked, voice low, worried, and intent. "Is that what I think it is?"
"The psychic energy readings match the power signatures for Jean and Madelyn Grey, sir."
And indeed, Harry's golden energy dimmed again, but not completely, while semi-human shapes of lightning blue and amber red psychic energy twined around him like cats – close, but not too close, slow and deliberate, even as both radiated an air of anxiety. For a long time, this was all that happened, no one daring to interrupt, or even breathe.
Eventually, there seemed to be some kind of consensus, as the two shapes melded, eveloping Harry in a sheath of energy where amber red, lightning blue, and white gold swirled, faster and faster, mixing more and more, before suddenly pulsing an incandescent white.
And everything lurched.
If someone with a psychic perspective was stood on the Moon, they would be well-placed to see what happened next: lines of bright white light pouring forth, reaching out to points around, above, and beyond the globe. And they were many.
Some were to grand homes, concealed in plain sight, full of myth and wonder: Hogwarts castle, where it all began; Avalon, far above, where new chapters were written; the Luthor Mansion, a new place made of old things; the Xavier Institute, where stories that were both old and yet to begin bided their time; and a palace in the heart of Africa, in a city of that was home to a thousand wonders.
Others were to smaller, less assuming locations, which were no less important for that: a small apartment and a semi-detached house, both in Queens; an old (and recently repaired) farm on the outskirts of Smallville and a small house within it; a newly built barracks in Hogsmeade; a basement apartment at the bottom of a boarding house in Chicago; a relatively bare flat in New Orleans, whose only decoration was a picture of a girl with red hair; a hut on the Hogwarts grounds; and another, smaller hut, with an attached shrine, in the Indian Himalayas.
Many more rose, twining upwards like the vines of Jack's mythical beanstalk, passing the point where the sky met the stars, then passing beyond, following the trunk and branches of the World Tree, climbing towards the Realm Eternal as it called them home.
And finally, one reached into an apparently unassuming, if stylish, old brownstone house on Bleecker Street, one that was far bigger on the inside, and inhabited by a man who had only ever wanted to be a doctor.
Each line, each vine of light and thought, carried a message.
The gist was simple, more emotion than words, but all the more easily understood for all that.
"Harry is hurting. Please, please help."
The reply was even simpler, instant, and unanimous.
"Yes. Yes, of course we'll help."
It is said that people show their true selves when they ask for help.
This is apparently logical. Like many apparently logical things, it is also wrong.
People do not show their true selves when asking for help. They show their true selves when they respond.
Not for the first time, Harry found himself standing in an empty white landscape. Unlike previous occasions, it seemed to be entirely bare. This, as it turned out, was not exactly true. Before, such landscapes had been shaped by his conscious or unconscious, or that of another. Now, it could be described as empty, but that didn't quite convey the truth: true emptiness meant that there wasn't just nothing there, there couldn't be anything there. Here, there could be something. It was full of potential, as it happened.
But that potential remained only potential, because it had been left to Harry to shape. However, he was expending the vast majority of his considerable willpower trying to blank out everything, for fear of very particular memories reasserting themselves and drowning him again.
Thanks to his psychic training and experiences, he was unfortunately rather good at this – the unfortunate part being that one cannot deal with the demons under the bed by installing a curtain or a skirting board and pretending they are not there. They need to be confronted. With, of course, back-up and an adequately sized torch.
The former was crucial, as in both a figurative and a very literal sense, Harry was not alone.
The voice, clear as a wind-chime and resonant as a church bell, seemed to echo. It was as if two voices were speaking at once, a sound that Harry recognised better than most.
This time, though, was a little different to his own double voice. For instance, the figure he found himself facing was very definitely female, cast in bright white light that somehow managed to both stand out from the creamy white background and avoid blinding the viewer.
As he watched, there seemed to be a moment where two things – two people – tried to occupy the same space. Then it was over, and two eminently familiar figures stood before him, Maddie and Jean. Somewhat to his surprise, both were dressed in white, a colour he hadn't previously associated with either.
"So, is the colour scheme my fault?" he asked, a transparent attempt to mask his feelings.
"No," Maddie said. "It's not."
"And neither is anything else that has happened tonight," Jean said, gentle as a caressing ray of sunlight, uncompromising as a burning star.
"I…" Harry began, before looking away. "A lot of people are upset. Worried. I don't want that. Not because of me."
Jean stared at him in an expression that mixed overwhelming affection with profound frustration.
Maddie's expression, on the other hand, was one of understanding.
"You do not want others to do for you what you would do – and have done – for them," she said. "Partly because you do not want to make a fuss, partly because you do not feel you deserve it, and partly because you feel damaged. Soiled. You don't want anyone to see your shame."
Harry clenched his hands into fists, but said nothing, and did not resist when Maddie reached up, taking his chin and turning his face to hers.
"I know it hurts. Believe me, I know," she said, anguish weaving through her gently solemn voice. A shift in Harry's expression and demeanour, however, gave it a brief whiplike crack. "Which does not mean that your pain is less, to be 'dealt with', buried and ignored."
She took of his face with both hands, identical emerald green eyes meeting.
"You have nothing to be ashamed of," she said fiercely. "You were taken and you were used by someone with power over you, power that you were incapable of resisting. You think you should be ashamed of what happened to you, to reveal how it hurt you, and I know that feeling, because I have lived with it. You helped teach me that it was not true. You helped show me that it was Essex who should be ashamed, not me." She softened a little, now gently pleading. "Please, let me – let us – do the same for you now."
Harry closed his eyes. If it were his real body, he might have controlled his emotions better. But here, in a realm of minds and on such a night, even his fabled self-control was cracking. Tears began to flow as, with one minute movement, he nodded. Both back-up, and torch, had been accepted.
Maddie, her own eyes damp, smiled tremulously and went up on tip-toes, kissing him gently on the cheek.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"We'll help you all the way," Jean said. "All of us."
"'All'?" Harry asked sharply, tensing up and extending his psychic senses. There were others present – though 'present' wasn't quite an apt description. It was more like when he had first spoken to Jesus, and been made aware of the other gods who were observing the conversation. There were presences, certainly, but they weren't exactly present. Rather, they were swirling around in the spiritual background – not quite close enough to discern detailed thoughts, but emotions? Emotions could be sensed; predominantly, worry and compassion. That was not what astonished him, however.
What astonished him was that there were so many of them, and so many different kinds – witches, wizards, non-magical people, mutants, psychic mutants, gods, demigods, and at least one pantheon head, and unless his brain was deceiving him… no. That wasn't possible. He tentatively reached out further, testing the larger of the two anomalous presences, before reeling under the sheer weight of its response – not a harmful, much less aggressive one, just truly vast.
"Harry?" Jean and Maddie asked in unison, both concerned.
Harry opened and closed his mouth several times, before staring at them. "You did this?" he asked. "The… everyone?"
"Of course," Maddie said, as if it was perfectly normal.
"You managed to reach Asgard?!"
"I've done it before," Jean said reasonably. "I didn't have Cerebro this time, yes." She took her twin's hand and smiled. "But I did have Maddie. And having been there before, I figured I could find my way back. So I did."
Harry stared. "I'm not just talking about that," he said eventually, carefully. "I mean, you didn't just get there, but you managed to reach… Asgard."
The two looked a little non-plussed for a moment, then, astonishingly, Maddie shrugged. "The realm?" she asked, and at Harry's dazed nod, shrugged again. "She was curious."
Harry might have had a very unusual life so far, and have been both intellectually and intuitively aware much stronger and more skilled than him they happened to be, but he was not immune to the occasional shock. Or, even in his current state of mind, wonder.
"We have had a little tutoring recently," Jean added. "Not strictly about Asgard, but it was related." She smiled a slight, mischievous smile. "Nathan says hello."
Harry's eyes widened, then smiled ruefully. "I should have known he'd be back," he said, then tilted his head, shifting his focus to the swirl of minds around them, skimming their edge, resisting the urge to plunge in. If he did that… if he did that, he might just fall apart. After a few moments, he smiled again as he found what he'd been looking for. "He's here too."
"I am told that self-care is important," Maddie said seriously, before her eyes gained a certain twinkle. "Of course, this is a somewhat unusual variation on the theme."
Harry couldn't stop a sudden burst of laughter, and was rewarded for it with two warm smiles; one as clear and dazzling as the midsummer sun, the other more banked and controlled, but no less warm for it, like a hearth fire in the midst of winter. Here, in a realm of thought, it was like plunging into a warm bath after a long, cold day, reaching right down to the metaphorical bone.
Here, now, the laughter and the warmth reached down to a knot in chest that had loosened, but not yet been undone, and tugged at it. He tensed.
"He's here, then," he said, a little more stiffly than before.
"They all are," Maddie said. "As we are. For you."
Harry's expression shifted as he glanced around with eyes and other senses, this time dipping a little deeper into that welcoming ocean of minds, before darting out like a child afraid to take the plunge into the sea. His breath hitched a little as he clamped down his on his feelings.
"There's a lot," he said. "I… I'm grateful. I am. But I… I didn't..." He trailed off, breath hitching again, another hiccup in his roiling emotions.
Maddie tilted her head, then took his hand. "Did you think you had to?" she asked, knowing what he couldn't quite say.
Harry couldn't find a reply, instead looking to Jean as she took the other hand.
"You've touched so many lives, been there for so many people when they needed someone," Jean said. "Did you think that when it was your turn, when you were the one who needed help, that no one would come? Did you think that you'd even have to ask?"
Harry didn't reply. Not with words. Instead, it began with a single twitch of his shoulders, a choked breath. Instants later, body wracked with sobs so painful that if this had been the living world he wouldn't even have been able to breathe, he stumbled forward into his cousins' arms, their warm and protective presences surrounding him.
Without a word exchanged, spoken or otherwise, they reached out into the sea of spirits around them, bridging the gap. For a moment, Harry's sobs were interrupted by a gasp as the connection snapped into place, and thoughts, feelings, even words crossed the gap.
"As I once told you, cousin, that I will never have anything better to do than help a young person in pain."
"Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who need it, Harry, even if they cannot bring themselves to ask for it."
"Just because you have stumbled and cannot see a way out of the nightmares around you, doesn't mean you are lost. Sometimes, we all need a little help, to find our way out of the dark."
"You can do this, Harry, I know it – all day, if needs be. We'll be with you."
"I know it might be tempting to lock yourself in a cool suit of armour right now: shut out the world and everything that's hurting. I did that. Don't be me. Be better. I'll help. Especially if you do end up in a cool suit of armour – I'm not great with emotions, but I am great with socket wrenches and crowbars."
"I know what it's like. To be taken, unmade, and broken to bridle. But they can't do that again; because you survived them, just like I did. We're here, and they're gone – for good, this time. The only power they have is memories, and you're stronger than them."
"I know what it's like. To have the Red Room open you up and put someone new in your head. To be someone who does exactly what they say. To be an observer in your own memories. Unlike me, though, you didn't become someone else – you became yourself again. You burned them out, and the memories they left are the only trace left. They have no power over you any more."
"Never abandoned yer before, 'arry. I'm not going ter start now."
"You got hit hard. But I've known you since you were born: every time you fall, you get up and stand taller. So stand. We've got your back."
"I know what it is to be used; to be taken and bent to the will of another, used for their purpose. Many helped me break his chains, to become stronger than I ever knew I could. You were, and one day will be, one of them. And no chains will hold you down."
"The ghosts of our past haunt us; they dig their claws into our flesh, and try to tear us apart with fear. But we are stronger, our claws sharper – they are no match for us."
"Healing is often slow, and even more often painful. Let the pain go, grandson. Let yourself heal. We will help you."
"Pain and suffering are a part of us, cousin, as much as happiness or joy. But that does not mean you have to suffer alone. I feel your pain, and if you will permit me, I will share it."
"We cannot outrun our problems, mon cher. Sometimes, we must turn, and we must fight, and when you do, you will not be alone."
"I swore loyalty unto death, Harry. My axe may not cut the ghosts that haunt you, but my loyalty remains. Command me, my Prince… my friend. Any help I can give will be yours."
"Are you Harry, god of nightmares and memories? No. You are Harry; slayer of dragons, banisher of demon gods, and wielder of the Flame Eternal. Your power is Life, and where there is Life, there is Hope. Reclaim your power, grandson, and stand tall."
"Rise, nephew. These illusions would trap you, but they are chains made of a past of pain and madness, and such chains cannot hold. They. Will. Not."
"I might be the last, but I'm not alone. You showed me that. I don't know what's happened, what's wrong, but it doesn't matter. Because as long as I'm around, you aren't alone either."
"You're in a right knot, aren't you, luv? But don't worry – every Psi-Lock has a Psi-Key, and I won't rest until I find this one."
"My son, you should not feel either weak or unworthy: you are the strongest, and the most worthy, person that I have ever known. I am proud of you, Harry, and I will always be here for you."
"Blimey, mate, you look a complete mess. But that hasn't stopped you before, has it? Don't see why it would start now."
"There's some way to make this better, Harry, I know it. A spell, a potion, maybe some technology. I'll start looking, right away, I promise."
"Oh Harry… I can't melt this problem away for you, but I promise – I promise – that I'll be here for you through it, no matter what comes. I have missed too much of your happiness, and your pain, and I won't miss this."
"I love you. I love you, and I'd tear the world apart for you, starting with the bitch that did this to you. But if I can't do that, then dump this pain on me, too, because you've already got too much to deal. Let me help you carry it. And don't you dare be a stubborn dumbass and refuse."
"This, I am afraid, is largely my fault. I have no potions, no spells, to make this better, nor can I foresee any perfect solution. I can only hope that this network, of those who care for you and have known you, can make up the burden. I, Stephen Strange of Camelot, will bear my part gladly."
After what kind of been either moments or millennia, Harry opened his misty eyes, tears rolling down his cheeks, the sobs quieted by the soothing, strengthening presences of others. Almost instantly, however, he let out a startled cry. Unlike the rest of the landscape, his astral form was wearing a very particular shade of red, as part of a very particular set of gear. Panicking, he cast around, then within himself, trying to isolate himself, for Jean's safety, Maddie's safety, everyone's safety –
"Stop that right now, Harry James Thorson," Jean said, in tones that brooked no disobedience.
Panic cut off, Harry froze. "Look at me," he said bitterly. "You want to know why I didn't want to let it out? To lock those memories away? This is why! If I do, I'll burn you, I'll break the seal, I'll, I'll, I don't know what, but I don't want to do it!"
"You're not going to become the Dark Phoenix," Maddie said, calm and clinical. "This is merely a transitory stage."
"How do – wait, what?"
"You're hurting," Jean said, gentler. "Defensive, wary as your walls come down." She smiled. "And you like the colour red."
Maddie nodded acknowledgement. "Your subconscious perceptions shape the landscape," she said. "Including, especially, your form. That is all."
"That's all?" Harry echoed.
"That's all," Maddie said, nodding.
Harry took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. As he did, he remembered a recent lesson. He had thought about it before, and he had understood the logic of it. Now, though, he began to see deeper.
"Sorrow and joy… pain and pleasure," he murmured, unknowingly mimicking a hint of this particular teacher's Indian accent. "They are all a matter of perspective. I can stand apart."
"Yes," Jean said, latching onto this, even if she didn't quite understand what he meant. "She can't hurt you any more, Harry. Not even the memory can."
Maddie, who did, nodded. "Detach yourself from the memory," she said. "See it, then let it flow."
Harry snorted. "You say that like it's easy," he said.
"It won't be," Maddie said bluntly.
"But we'll be here," Jean said. "All of us."
There was a long moment of silence.
"Will anyone see?"
"Not if you don't want us to."
Harry looked at them, then took a deep breath, and stuck out his hands.
"Well then," he said. "Here goes nothing."
Then, he closed his eyes, embraced the light, and stepped back into the darkness.
The memory flickered and shimmered into life, but different to before – translucent, like a roll of film held up to the light. It flickered from moment to moment, like skimmed snapshots of a scene, or someone ruffling through pages of a book.
"Do you know your true purpose, little soldier?"
"Your true purpose, little soldier, is to serve me."
"Before you, and before me, there was another Soldier and another Widow… they were lesser than us… We are superior."
For a moment, the light dims, translucence shading into solidity, before the light reasserts itself with a fearsome pulse.
Nails dig in to skin and bone, drawing blood, slamming a head into a wall. Perception is distorted. Dizziness. Muted pain. Pinned to the bed.
Fear. Pain. Dread. Reassurance. "This is the past, Harry. Whatever you're seeing has happened. It's gone. It can't hurt you any more."
A sharp jab of pain. Not fear – anger.
A spitting motion. Defiance. More anger.
Two savage sweeping motions. Anger grows. Salt is joined by smoke.
"A lady and her knight…"
Stillness. Silence. Defiance. Pain. Exhaustion. A pulse of light, support, strength. Pride.
Enough? For now.
Harry opened his eyes. He was not, by any means, alone. Surrounded by his father on one side and his godmother on the other, while his girlfriend was seated on a chair that she'd dragged to the bedside, body tense, expression harrowed and anguished, fingers twitching as she restrained the impulse to hug him, or even take his hand, mindful of his earlier flinch away from her, and his godfather, in the form of an enormous hound, lay curled up at his feet.
Clint, Bucky, Steve, and Natasha watchful and unreadable presences in the room's corners, while Jane, Tony, and Bruce quietly and intently conferring with JARVIS about Harry's vitals, Jane raising the possibility of involving Asgard. He was well-protected from any demon that didn't originate inside his own head – and probably a few that did, come to that.
For these ones, however, they had been largely helpless, only able to be there. Then, there had been that strange psychic communion, starting with a question, and ending with a sense of… peace. A fragile peace, perhaps, a temporary bandage for a wound that was still healing (and one that did not account for any other, similar, wounds that might flare up), but peace nonetheless, and all the more precious for that.
Now, Harry had emerged from his fugue state. It had been painful to watch: an uneasy semi-sleep in which he had twitched and twisted, wept and moaned, in his father's helpless arms, remaining apparently untouched by any of Wanda's attempts to ease his discomfort, before eventually quieting. Now, he was awake.
This, needless to say, was immediately noticed – and a very fine judge of split second reactions would have been required to tell whether it was Thor or Carol who had done so first. The first sign of things improving was that after surveying the room in some surprise, his cheeks had immediately burned with embarrassment. The tension in the room relaxed, if only a little, and Harry shared a small smile with his father and godmother, before embracing both, who enfolded him, as if to protect him from the world and all the horrors it held in it.
There was now a sense of peace.
However, if any doubt was present that it was anything more than a fragile peace, it was ended when he looked at Carol, who had leaned forward. Carol, who had blonde hair, and blue eyes. Once again, he flinched, hard, reflexively curling up in a ball – one, it was later noticed, that covered his crotch. In this very particular case, young love was a sword that cut both ways.
Carol, looking stricken, jerked backwards so hard that she nearly fell off her chair, and the sense of peace in the room wobbled, hard, like a gust of wind on a cobweb. Everyone sensed it. Carol, perhaps sensing more than she was meant to, or inferring it, went bone-white with horror. Then, slowly, she stood up, and began to move away. Before she could, though, Harry let out a small noise. It was an unclear one, impossible to describe, yet its meaning was very apparent as he reached out a hand.
Carol, eyes misty, stared at the hand for a long moment, then carefully reached out, her fingers brushing his. For a moment, his clenched over hers and he smiled a wobbly smile, one which she returned. Then, they parted again, the hand retracted into the bundle of cope. Carol, for her part, closed her eyes, then muttered an excuse and headed for the door.
It was peace, yes. But still a fragile one.
Even before Harry flinched away, Steve knew that something was wrong. Of course, given the circumstances, it was hard to say what wasn't wrong. The floodgates had opened with Harry, bringing night-terrors of the worst kinds with them – and going by Harry's reaction, specifically to people with blonde hair and blue eyes, he had some nasty suspicions as to their nature.
Yet everything was starting to settle there, fragile as it was. This was a different kind of problem; every line of Carol's body radiated a sense of helpless rage and misery, buttoned down and controlled in a way that Steve was intimately familiar with, for fear of lashing out, breaking something or someone.
In this case, he rather thought that the lashing out was more figurative than literal – the urge to just throw back your head and scream in frustration. But she couldn't. She wouldn't. It would disturb Harry, and that was the last thing she'd want to do right now.
He empathised. It was, after all, the same feeling, the same kind of reaction, that all of them were having right now. And unlike Carol, they didn't have the amplifying effects of young love, teenage hormones, and a telepathic connection to Harry to contend with.
So instead, she padded out of the room in a fashion that was both discreet and ordinary, avoiding the appearance of running, her face a mask of calm. The only giveaway was the tightness of her expression, and the look in her eyes, and even then, you had to look closely. Controlling her emotions, in other words, buttoning them down and setting them aside until the mission was done. Just like a good soldier, Steve thought, with some regret.
He quickly considered the situation, noting that Thor and Wanda had dipped their heads to Harry's and were talking to him softly. As his gaze swept the room, he noticed that Pepper – who, tired and drawn looking, had been watching from the doorway – was gone. Since he couldn't hear any sign of distress from Ada, he presumed that she'd followed Carol. She was good like that. Either way, Harry was far from alone, even before one considered the lingering telepathic presence of his cousins. More to the point, Harry seemed to be getting better, and given Steve's own colouring, he probably wasn't best suited to help.
He caught Bucky's eye. His friend flickered a look at Harry, then out the doorway, then back at Steve. Steve hesitated, glancing at Harry, something which earned him a roll of the eyes and small jerk of the chin that said clearer than words, 'go. I've got this.'
Steve nodded and went.
He found them in Carol's room. Carol was sitting with her shoulder pressed to the head of the bed, staring down at her bare legs, folded and clutched up against her like the pages of a book. Her eyes were wet, gleaming in the dim buttery glow of the bedside light, but she was resolutely not crying. Pepper, meanwhile, was sitting down on the edge of the bed and offering Carol a glass of newly poured water and some soft comments, meant more for tone than content. Steve knew the gist even if he hadn't caught the words: "He'll get through this. You'll get through this. It'll hurt, but you'll both get through it."
Trite as they might seem, he knew better than most that they weren't just meaningless words coming from Pepper. She had had to deal with Tony, who under his swagger and bravado had had one of the worst cases of what they now called PTSD that Steve had ever seen. While there were methods of treating it now that hadn't been available back during the War, and people were increasingly willing to talk about it, Tony had not been one of them.
Eventually, his issues had been addressed, but no one pretended they weren't there, the same way that no one pretended that any of the others didn't have their own share of dark memories: Clint's mind control, Loki falling through space into the hands of Thanos, Thor's memories of dying as James Potter and losing his wife, Bruce becoming the Hulk, Natasha's entire childhood, Bucky's time in HYDRA's hands, both of them, and in the Red Room's… his going on ice.
In any case, Pepper had been the one who'd had to bear the brunt of Tony's issues, to help put him back together when he was falling apart, and to try and pull apart the horrible mess that had been left of his mind. She definitely knew this road.
But Pepper was a grown woman. And while she was far more mature than most, in mind and body, enough to make it easy for most to forget, Carol was not.
Carol, for her part, nodded mechanically and sat up sufficiently to take the glass, sipping from it like a small child, but didn't otherwise respond. Pepper let out a slight, sad sigh, as if she had expected this, then looked up to Steve, standing there in the doorway.
"You mind?" he asked softly.
Pepper smiled a weary, sad smile, then nodded. She rested a hand on Carol's shoulder, said something that Steve didn't quite catch, then stood up. As she reached the doorway, she asked, "can I have a word first?"
Steve shot a look at Carol, hesitated, then nodded and let Pepper guide him into the hall, shutting the door behind her. Once she did, she looked him in the eye and said softly, "be careful, Steve. She's pretty fragile at the moment."
Steve nodded. "I figured. Thanks for talking to her," he said. "Given your experience, I mean…" He trailed off. Tony's issues, while mostly managed and well-known among the Avengers and their associates, were still something of an uncomfortable subject – and only partly because Loki was directly responsible for a number of them.
Pepper let out a sigh. "Yeah," she said. "My experience, being shared by a girl who's less than half my age. God, how did it come to this?"
"The same way it always does," Steve said quietly. "People doing evil things, and the survivors living with the scars."
Pepper shot him a look that said that wasn't what she meant. "She may be able to pass for a grown woman, but in a lot of ways she's still a child, Steve," she said. When Steve looked puzzled, she added, "What I'm saying is that she could do with a dad right now."
Any thoughts Steve might have had about who Pepper meant were erased almost immediately by the meaningful look in her eyes. His own eyes widened.
"Pepper, I'm no older than her than you are," he said. "Less, actually. We're family, yes, I love her, but a father? I never thought I'd have a family. Not for a long time. With Peggy, it began, and, well. We started a family even if we didn't mean it, or know it. I'm used to that now. But…"
"But being a father and being a dad are different," Pepper finished. "I know. Carol's a case in point, and so are you. She has a father, but he hasn't been a dad to her for a very long time. As for you, you're a father who never got the chance to be a dad. Until now. You've been being a dad to Carol for a while now, Steve, even if you didn't realise it; loving her, supporting her, being there for her… enabling her ice-cream habit."
This last was said with a slight smile, which faded, replaced by a sombre look.
"You need to know this, Steve, because when you go in there, you're not just going to be dealing with 'just' your great-granddaughter. You're going to be dealing with your daughter. And she needs her dad. Not just someone acting the part. Understand?"
Steve looked her in the eye, gaze steady and resolved. "I do," he said.
Pepper's smile returned, tired, but with warmth. "I thought you might," she said. "Now go on. Be a hero."
Steve nodded, then did just that.
Of course, as he would later reflect, this brand of heroism was rather different to others. On the one hand, no one was trying to kill him. On the other hand, dealing with HYDRA troopers, demons, and supervillains was far simpler than dealing with an utterly miserable teenage girl, who also happened to be touchy (especially where he was concerned), proud, and very sensitive to showing weakness where anyone was concerned, let alone him. It was that stubborn pride that was holding her together at the moment, a brittle cast iron framework that made her sit up ramrod straight, chin jutted out, lips thin and clamped shut in a way that made her look heartbreakingly like Peggy.
Pepper had told him that in many ways, Carol was his daughter, that he'd been acting as her dad – and needed to be that dad right now – a revelation that on any other night would have been earth-shattering and a source of soul-searching, but looking at his great-granddaughter right now, he could see it. Her features were his, for the most part. But now, directed to really look, his artist's eye picked out more in the mixture of light and shadow: the line of her jaw (currently clenched), the shape of the nose (sharpened by the shadows and taut expression), and her lips (pursed and clamped shut) were Peggy, as pure as pure could be.
As for the personality… well, that was very much her own. Especially the language. Sometimes, he shuddered to imagine of what his mother would think of his allowing any granddaughter of hers, no matter how many greats were attached, use the kind of language that Carol did, regularly, gleefully, and with extraordinary fluency. But again, he could see Peggy there too; the fire, the impatience with foolishness (especially foolish men), the razor sharp tongue, and the warmth beneath a closed off façade. All familiar.
Truthfully, as he had noticed (and had been meaningfully pointed out to him), she was a lot like him: far too stubborn for her own good, commanding in battle and somewhat awkward outside of it, caring too much for her own good (even if she didn't like admitting it), and she had a taste for pale, violent, and sometimes frosty British brunettes. Tony had gleefully pointed out this last one, and had earned himself a particularly gruelling unarmed combat session as a result. However, as Bucky had said afterwards, it wasn't like he was wrong, and annoyed as Steve had been, he couldn't exactly deny it.
This trait, though, was all Peggy. It was pure 'stiff upper lip', as Monty had once referred to it – acting like everything was fine, even when the world was falling apart. Expressing excessive emotion, especially in the face of adversity, was not considered good form. He'd seen it in a number of British soldiers of his acquaintance, particularly officers. While it was a very British phenomenon, here it was being expressed by a very American girl, albeit with a peculiarly American twist: rarely had he seen a variant buttoning down such a combination of rage and tears.
Meanwhile, another example of that 'rarely' was very British and sitting in the other room, recovering from one of the more hideous cases of PTSD that Steve had encountered. It was, he reflected sadly, another example in which Carol had chosen a boyfriend who was very much a bird of the same feather.
"Hey," he said quietly, as he sat down beside her, bed creaking beneath their combined weight. Normally, this would have earned him a crack about the weight of a super-soldier, but this time, it earned him little more than a small noise acknowledging his presence.
Knowing that an attempt to put his arm around her at this point would get it angrily shrugged off, a glare that could burn a hole in the wall, and cause her to shut down even tighter, he instead settled for lightly bumping her shoulder. That earned him a damp and suspicious look, one that softened slightly at his expression, and a slight increase in the pressure against his shoulder.
"You know," he said eventually. "It's okay not to be okay."
That got a derisive noise.
"Of course," he continued, as if he hadn't heard. "You probably don't think that right now. After all, Harry's the one with the nightmares. He's the one with the problems right now, so you think that means you can't have any. You think it would be selfish for you to make a fuss, that it would be taking attention away from him – and in your case, not supporting him when he most needs it."
There was a long moment of silence. Then, it was broken by a rough, bitter voice. "I should be able to help him."
"In more or less any other case, I'd say that you could," Steve admitted. "But one thing I've learned recently when dealing with Bucky is that you can't do it alone. Going by your expression –" A glower that could have stripped paint. "You already know this. Point is, though, no matter how much you love them – like a brother or like something else – sometimes you have to leave it to someone else. In Bucky's case, that's Natasha. In Harry's, well." He smiled. "You got a few hours? Because that list isn't short."
That got a small, brief smile, but a smile nonetheless. It faded, though. "He needs 'em, though," Carol said. "Everyone." She looked up at him, expression serious. "If I can't be there, then you can."
"I could," Steve said. "And if I thought that was where I'd make a difference, then I would be. But it's not. He doesn't need me. That isn't to say he won't, necessarily. He did earlier, and it could be that he'll need all of us again, at some point or another. That's not right now, though. He's got enough people to hold off the world – probably several, considering Thor, Bruce, and Wanda. Probably most of the galaxy, actually, if you count Maddie and Jean."
It was a fairly lame joke, but it got what might, possibly, the person making such an observation was very sure of their own safety, have been called a giggle. It was rather damp, brief and involuntary, but it was a giggle nonetheless.
"Which means," he said. "That he can spare me. Which is good. Why? Because the way I see it is that there's one person who needs me more than anyone right now, and she's sitting right next to me."
Carol looked at him from under her lashes – long as Peggy's, but as gold as his, then wrinkled her nose.
"At the same time," Steve continued, bracing himself for the next words. "Right now, he doesn't need you."
That got a reaction, as he'd known and dreaded: a hiss like a scalded cat, body twisting away from him, knees snapping up to jaw height, and a damp glare directed at said knees, very pointedly not looking at him.
"It's not easy to face up to that," he continued steadily, undaunted. "You might know it intellectually, but facing it? That's another matter. When you recognise that for whatever reason, there are places that you can't go with someone you care for needs to go and you can't be the one to go with them? It's a shock. And it hurts. I found that with Bucky. In your case, though, I'd imagine it hurts all the worse because of why. I won't patronise you by acting like neither of us knows."
"Yeah, not sure how I'd deal with being patronised right now," Carol muttered.
"Then I'll do my best to make sure we don't find out," Steve said dryly, startling a huff of laughter out of her. He waited a moment, then said gently, "It's not your fault, you know."
That got him a beady look from the corner of an eye. "What was that about not patronising me?"
"That wasn't patronising," Steve said evenly. "It was speaking from experience. You think I haven't spent a hundred nights or more torturing myself with thoughts of what might have been if I'd managed to prevent Bucky falling from that train? Your problem's not so different."
"Really?" Carol snapped, turning and unfolding sufficient to glare at him properly, real fire entering her voice again. A small part of him cheered. Subdued was not a look that suited her. "You don't happen to look like the one who, who, who –"
"Violated him," Steve said quietly. "Quite probably raping him in the process."
Carol flinched, hard, her head snapping down in a fashion that failed to hide new tears, while her fists clenched with a sound like a volley of gunshots. A part of Steve wanted to take her in his arms and tell her everything would be all right. The rest of him, however, didn't do that. For one thing, he tried to avoid lying. For another, as he had previously discovered, Carol had a mean right elbow.
"As it is," he continued. "I don't. Besides the fact that what happened to Bucky was different, though similar, I don't look like any of those who found him and turned him into the Winter Soldier. What I do look like is the man who, when it mattered, couldn't reach far enough. We promised that we'd have each other's backs, 'til the end of the line. But when it came down to it, I didn't." He paused. "I, and Bucky, also don't share your and Harry's unique dynamic. That's important, because it's informing how he's reacting to you: a great deal more than whatever your hair and eye colours happen to be, in fact."
Carol looked at him suspiciously. "What do you mean?"
"I know a thing or two about trauma," Steve said. "I knew a lot of POWs during the war. Hell, I was the only one of the Howling Commandos who hadn't been one, not counting the very brief period Schmidt had me. Bucky had it the worst by far, but none of them were unscathed, even if they tried to hide it. The Avengers have traumas of their own – I'd say it's a straight contest between Tony and Natasha as to who has it worst, not that you'd know it with either of them. Harry? Well, you'd know more there than I would, but even before either of us met him, he had his issues. And Bucky… I did a lot of reading about trauma when he came back. Looking for ways I could help. There was this counsellor at the VA, Sam. Great guy, very helpful once I explained what I was looking for. Gave me a bunch of literature and some advice the books and pamphlets can't give you."
"And?" Carol said impatiently.
"He told me about reactions," Steve said. "How it was instinctive, fight or flight, except you're seeing threats everywhere." Carol looked away, before looking back when he laid a hand on her shoulder. "Now," Steve said, in a gentle but nevertheless irresistible version of his Captain America voice. "You tell me: how does Harry react to threats?"
"Violently," Carol said dryly, before stopping and frowning.
"Right," Steve said. "Now. How's he react when he's hurt? Or under pressure? When feeling like he's boxed in, I mean."
"He gets defensive," Carol said slowly. "Locks right up. And… and lashes out."
"And we've both seen how he can lash out," Steve said. "From what I heard, he flattened a magical official when he accidentally implied that Harry would be bound, controlled, by being made a Triwizard Champion. Just a slipped word or two, enough to trigger a Red Room memory or two, and he lashed out. That was when those memories were locked away. Now, they're out in the open, and your hair, your eyes? They're a lot more obvious than the wrong couple of words in the wrong context. As is, if you'll forgive me saying so, the fact that you're a very attractive young woman. Which, given Belova did to him, what she made him feel… well. It wouldn't help."
He took Carol's hand and looked her square in the eyes.
"What did Harry do?" he asked. "He flinched. That's all. No pyrotechnics, no telepathic explosion, and not even a hint of the Phoenix. He didn't stop you coming into the room, or boot you out once he spotted the resemblance. He even let you get him out of the shower, to put that bath-robe on. He even touched you, just before you left. Only a little, but he did. Now, maybe we can chalk part of that up to self-control, but that's not it. 'It' is up here."
He reached up with his free hand and gently tapped her forehead.
"Your connection. He knows he can trust you. He knows he loves you. He knows that you aren't her, and above all? He knows that you would never hurt him. It's not just intellectual, it is bone-deep. He trusts you. He's just having trouble convincing his body of that right now."
Carol looked away. "It sounds silly, now you put it like that," she said. "My reaction, I mean."
Steve sighed, half in amusement, half at this was probably how his mother had felt at times. As he thought that, he realised that yeah, Pepper had been right: he really did have a daughter on his hands, didn't he? A teenage daughter. A heartbroken teenage daughter with superpowers.
He was doomed.
"Carol, look at me," he said, gentle but firm. She did, eyes wet. "Someone you love dearly was violated so badly that the memory nearly made him scrub his skin off. So badly, by someone with a passing resemblance to you, that despite the fact that even though he trusts you completely, and, for that matter, quite frequently tangles himself up with you like spaghetti, it took some industrial strength psychic therapy before he could barely even stand to let you touch the tips of his fingers. Before that, he flinched away every time, even the littlest things, just trying to help him. Because of what was done to him, when he looked you in the eye he recoiled on reflex, and the expression on his face… and because of that, you couldn't do what you wanted so desperately to do: help him." He sighed. "No, Carol. It's not silly. It's not silly at all."
He took her by the shoulders,
"You'll be able to help him in time," he said. "It's something else I learned with Bucky: leave the door open. Make sure he knows it's there, that you're there. He'll come to you when he's ready."
Carol stared at him, silent for a while. Then, in a blurred moment, she flung herself against him, arms wrapping around his chest, burying her head in the hollow of his neck. Then, face muffled against his chest, finally began to properly cry, body shuddering with the force of her weeping as she let it out, tears pouring like rain from thunder-clouds as Steve held her in his arms.
Many stories do not have happy beginnings. They may have some dark chapters in between. But those dark chapters are not the end. They do not make the story what it is, or us who we are. It is the rest that we should concern ourselves with; the twists and turns the story chooses to take, and who we, ourselves, choose to become. For at the end of every storm, there is a golden sky, and there is a dawn at the end of each night.
It is not the darkness in between that truly matters, despite all who would claim that that is the case, and that light is garish and shallow in the face the night's depth. But the night, and darkness itself, are merely the absence of light. Where it is shaded, there is light, if only a little. And where it is not, then it is uniform, empty, and unutterably dull.
It is not the darkness that matters, not by itself. It is what light replaces it. Rather, we should concern ourselves with what chapters we choose to write for ourselves thereafter. And (when it is the appropriate time) what ending we choose to make.
And that, my friends, is where this chapter ends. No doubt reading it put you through as much of an emotional wringer as writing it did me. Quite possibly more, because I enjoy torturing these characters. Before anyone asks why Steve gets a big POV section with his child (and Carol basically is his), while Thor doesn't get one with Harry, that's because it didn't really fit. Harry is pretty much non-communicative in this point in his recovery, as far as the real world is concerned. Where his dad is concerned, he just wants to hold be held and reassured. Plus, that psychic thing was mentally and emotionally exhausting. Cleansing, but exhausting.
Any POV section we'd see here would just be Thor reviewing what's happened while holding a non-communicative son, who he wouldn't want to disturb, and resisting the urge to let his emotions out in a super storm unlike any seen in the modern era. All very navel-gazing, and I'm trying to cut down on that if it isn't relevant, which it isn't. No, we'll see a Thor POV next chapter, which is responding to a more mobile and partially recovered Harry – and he will be partially recovered. We're not returning to the Harry of immediately after Forever Red, who's twitchy, perpetually angry, and semi-psychotic. He's more harrowed than angry, tired rather than anything else. He might withdraw a little, but not in the same way. So, not a regression. Just a shift.
Please feel free to leave screams of outrage among your reviews.