Now, to ring in the big four zero, my longest chapter to date, over 13k, only about two and a half days after the last one.

Yeah, I'm crazy. But you guys benefit from it, so...

As the chapter title makes clear, after the fluffy beginning, this chapter's much more serious and plot heavy – and, naturally, I take a few more liberties with canon, making ti my own.

On the Lady Knight guesses… *drum roll*…. all dead wrong.

Thank you all so much for your reviews. I'm very surprised almost no one picked up on the reference to Scott Summers last chapter. I made it pretty clear…

Howsoever. I'm moving a bit of Harry's stuff back to put in some more plot oriented stuff.

Thunder Stag: No, no magic animagus for Harry.

I hoped someone would pick up my self-referencing. :)

I'm glad you like the pairing.

He'll have a role all right.

She's going to be a lot of fun, believe you me…

He's got more depth to him, as he's hinted in the past. It's just that Harry's not practiced in seeing past the mask he wears.

It was New Year's Eve. While there was a party that the Avengers had been invited to, since Carol and Jean-Paul weren't going – the former had returned to spend New Year with her parents, but not before Harry had, with Tony's help, set up an email address and a Facebook account under 'Harry Potter' (Thorson would have been a tad noticeable) and 'friended' her. He'd also friended Jean-Paul, who was also spending New Year with his family, and while he'd looked for Hermione, he hadn't found her. He hadn't found Lex, either, though Tony had explained that if Lex had been on Facebook, he'd be swamped with Friend Requests and hate mail from people who didn't like his father, Lionel Luthor.

It then struck him how few friends he had outside Hogwarts. Carol, Jean-Paul, Uhtred and Diana were the only friends he had of the same age. Sure, he could count the Avengers and Sif and the Warriors Three as friends, but neither Tony nor Pepper had Facebook for various reasons, Clint and Natasha preferred to keep a low profile, Bruce claimed that it raised his blood pressure, and Steve and Loki had blogs. His father didn't really use technology, if only because he tended to break it.

Harry didn't mind so much in regard to the Avengers – he could just write them letters or use his Stark Phone (Tony had insisted on giving him one and he'd found it, in all fairness, very cool).

But how would he keep in contact with the other two?

He put this question to his father.

"Worry not, Harry. You shall see Diana and Uhtred in Asgard," Thor said reassuringly.

"But… what if I want to send a letter?" Harry asked, frowning.

Thor looked thoughtful. "Well, you may not need to. After all, you are a Prince of the House of Odin: it is well within your rights to call on Heimdall to open the Bifrost, or if one is nearby, to use one of the New Bifrost portals."

Harry flushed and mumbled something.

Thor gave him a puzzled look. "Harry?"

"I… don't want to bother Heimdall," Harry muttered.

"Harry, you are a Prince, it is your right," Thor said gently. "You wouldn't be bothering him. In truth, he would probably be relieved from the monotony. He spends most of his time as a watchman and doubtless gets very bored." He paused. "Though I suspect it wouldn't be easy to tell if he did."

Harry looked unconvinced, and Thor forcibly reminded himself that unlike Harry, he had grown up taking such privilege for granted, whereas Harry… Harry had hardly had anything, when Thor would have showered him and his mother all the glory of the Nine Realms. Suddenly, he pulled Harry into a tight hug, drawing a surprised squeak from his son. "Dad?"

"Sorry," Thor muttered, going to release his hold. But Harry caught his arms.

"No, wait… I was just surprised," Harry said quietly, leaning against his father.

Thor smiled and retightened his grip. "I know that all this change… it's a little unsettling for you," he said quietly. "And now that I think on it, I'm not in the least surprised. You went from being foully treated by the Dursleys, reckoned as scum or less, to a Prince of Asgard and one of the Avengers family in next to no time." He paused. "Aside from my exile in New Mexico, which your uncle perhaps rightly sees as a glorified sightseeing trip - he may have a point. It was only three days, after all – I have… I have never known a time when I was not privileged. I have never wanted for anything, save perhaps my father's attention, something restricted by his duties as king. And even when I was New Mexico, I practically fell into Jane's lap."

"I don't think there'd be much left of Jane if you'd actually fallen into it," Harry said, a slight smile on his face.

Thor chuckled. "No, there probably would not." He paused. "Was that a jab at my weight?"

"Me? Would I ever do such a thing?"

"Harry. You're my son. Of course you would."

Harry merely continued to look innocent and Thor shook his head in amusement, before sobering. "What I am saying is that this transition you are going through… I know little of it. The best suited to understand would probably be Steve," he said. "And I have been seeking his counsel on this subject. The advice he has given has been kind and wise, and…" Thor sighed. "Well, if you feel that you need to talk, I am here. I may not understand as well as I might like, but that does change the fact that I am always here for you, and I will always listen, because I am your father. And I love you."

Harry nodded quietly. "Thanks. Dad."

Thor smiled. "Good," he said. "Now," he continued, aware that he might be touching on a sore subject. "Have you thought on your godmother's letter?"

Harry was silent for a long time. "I have," he said eventually. "And I talked to... you remember that Professor Xavier person. The bald man in the wheelchair? Tony's godfather?"

Thor nodded slowly. "He is a teacher, a scholar and a deeply wise man," he said. "One who Tony holds a very real respect for." He paused thoughtfully. "And in his presence, I always got a sense of… power. Controlled, leashed, but truly immense power."

"He's a telepath," Harry said bluntly. "And he's a powerful one. Powerful enough to contact Odin."

Thor's eyes nearly popped out.

Harry smiled slightly. "Yeah. That was my thought too," he said dryly.

Thor nodded slowly. "What happened?" he asked.

Harry shrugged. "He talked to me. After I got the letter from… my godmother," he said. "He contacted me. Apparently, a lot of his students go through similar changes and similar stuff, so he was keeping an eye on me with his empathy."

"Empathy?"

"Sensing emotions. Like Diana, but much, much stronger," Harry explained, and Thor nodded slowly.

"So he sensed your emotional distress and contacted you."

Harry nodded. "We talked. He helped me work through a few unresolved issues," he said. "He said I should talk to her. And he said something to me that I've been thinking about." He paused, cleared his throat, then said, "'We cannot change the past, and the future is often murky and unclear. But the present is ours to decide. That is why it is called the present.'"

Thor smiled. "Wise counsel indeed," he said warmly, inwardly making a note to thank Charles Xavier at the nearest opportunity.

Harry nodded. "I thought so too," he said. "So… can you help me write a letter to Godmother Wanda, dad?"

Thor's smile spread into a grin. "Nothing would make me happier, Harry," he said. He chuckled and looked up at Hedwig, who was keeping a sharp eye on the both of them. "And you shall have to work for your feed for once," he said cheerfully to the owl, who gave him a disdainful look, then pointedly turned away.

"Dad!" Harry cried, somewhat embarrassed.

Thor laughed. "Sorry," he said. "Come, let us find something to write on and write with. We have a letter to compose."

OoOoO

New Year's Eve came and went, without, surprisingly, much incident. Pepper was on hand to keep Tony sober and prevent him from blowing up half the city with his latest hair brained experiment – though Bruce pointed out that he probably wouldn't have succeeded. Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow apparently doesn't work, no matter how fine a coat you do it in. And no, sonic technology doesn't make it work – and the Avengers took the opportunity to enjoy a quiet night in.

Until the fireworks.

Tony had spent much of the last couple of days in his workshop building something. And, when the final minute of 2006 began, he said, "JARVIS. Project Out With A Bang is a go."

"Yes, sir," JARVIS said, and a five minute countdown began to appear. From above, the sounds of the roof hangar door opening could be heard.

"Tony," Pepper said slowly. "What are you doing?"

"Don't worry, Pep. This is going to be an absolute doozy. Come on, you're going to want to see this."

Naturally, this only made her worry more, and she shot a look at Bruce, Jane and Darcy. The first two looked equal parts puzzled and worried, while the third had a knowing smile on her face.

Pepper sighed and joined the others in following Tony onto the balcony.

For a moment, nothing happened.

Then, an Iron Man suit, glowing silvery-white, shot upwards from the roof. And then the strangest thing happened. It opened up from head to toe and a fountain of multi-coloured light erupted from within, roaring upwards.

"Loki," Tony said. "Now."

Loki swept both arms out, then in again, fingers crooked, eyes narrowed in concentration. A series of branches shot off the main fountain of light, and Loki began to carefully manipulate the sparks. And they took shapes.

A nuclear hazard symbol in a powerful gamma green. Bruce.

A mighty hammer, shining with silvery-blue light. Thor.

A red and blue shield, with a pure white star in the centre. Steve.

An hourglass of fiery crimson red. Natasha.

A bow of royal purple. Clint.

A golden green Asgardian triskelion. Loki.

A gaunt dark hound. Sirius.

A gigantic silver-grey wolf. Remus.

A telescope. Jane.

A copper lioness. Pepper.

A strange square object with lightning crackling at the tips. Harry would later find out that this one was a taser, for Darcy.

And the Iron Man armour, closed up once more, still burning white hot, hung amoung them. Tony.

But that was not it, as one more shape formed, out of a ball of golden red flame. And completely on impulse, Harry reached out to it, with his hand and his magic.

For a moment, there was nothing. Then, Harry felt… a spark. Immediately after, he felt a powerful warmth rush down his arm, and in his mind could have sworn he heard two things. Soft female laughter. And a somehow triumphant cry of a bird of prey.

The form took shape, a golden-red firebird, burning like an inferno, let out a silent cry of challenge, spread its wings and took its place in the constellation of light and fire.

Harry, who was staring at his uncle and Tony in awe, thought that, for just a half-heartbeat, his uncle looked… surprised?

Then it was gone, and Harry gazed up at the shimmering, burning arrangement in awe.

"And now," Tony said, "for the coup de grace."

He slipped on a couple of gloves, then reached into his pockets and pulled out some small objects that flashed silver in his hands, then flicked them upwards, towards the glowing images.

Now it was Tony's turn to gesture, as if conducting an orchestra, one moment fast and furious, the next, slow and smooth, brow furrowed in total concentration.

And all around, a line formed, following the path of his gestures. Each symbol was linked by a thick golden band of light, forming a neat circle. Then, in the middle, a letter appeared, carefully sketched.

An A.

Thor laughed in utter delight, Jane stared open mouthed, Steve shook his head in incredulous disbelief, Clint grinned, Sirius barked out a laugh, Bruce, Natasha and Remus shared a slight smile, Fandral and Volstagg looked thoroughly impressed, Hogun was nodding slowly and Sif was smiling. And all the while Harry gazed upwards, wide-eyed.

"So," Tony said casually, turning around and smirking. "What do you think?"

"Any feedback is welcome," Loki added lightly.

"Knocked it out of the fucking park," Darcy said, to general agreement.

"Pep?" Tony asked, turning to his girlfriend, who opened her mouth, closed it, shook her head, then engulfed him in a tight hug, pulling him close and kissing him hard.

"Well," Loki said mildly. "I think that's a fairly definite expression of approval."

After a few moments, Tony and Pepper broke the kiss, still holding each other close. "Happy New Year, Tony," Pepper said softly.

"So… you liked it?"

She smiled and leaned in to give him another kiss. "I loved it, Tony," she whispered, hugging him again. "And so did everyone else."

Just then, the clocks began to strike midnight.

"Okay, everyone," Darcy called. "Find someone to kiss, it's a New Years tradition." Leading by example, she grabbed Harry, laid a smacking kiss on his cheek – Harry promptly went a shade of red that would shame a tomato - then turned to Sirius.

Harry took the chance to look around.

Both Jane and Thor and Pepper and Tony needed no encouragement.

Sirius and Darcy was just staying this side of public indecency.

Fandral smoothly took Natasha's hand and laid a brief kiss on the back of it. Harry noted that he paused briefly, to give Natasha a chance to remove her hand if the attention was unwelcome.

Volstagg chuckled cheerily and seemed content to watch.

Hogun looked like he'd been carved out of stone.

Natasha gave Clint a brief, but not hasty, kiss on the forehead, which he returned. Harry got the feeling that he was intruding on something intensely private and quickly turned away.

Remus, Professor Lupin, rather, was looking around, and seemed a little…wistful. He caught Harry's eye, smiled slightly, and winked.

Bruce also seemed a little wistful, but, like Remus, honestly happy for the people around him.

And Loki… Harry's eyes nearly popped out. Because Loki and Sif had taken a long look in one another's eyes, then Sif initiated a long, slow, luxorious kiss.

Everyone watched in hushed silence as, eventually, they broke apart. And everyone heard Sif say softly, without looking away from Loki, "Happy New Year, Loki."

Happy New Year indeed.

OoOoO

The next couple of days passed quietly. Harry settled down to write his letter to his godmother with the assistance of his father.

It ended up going as follows.

Dear Wanda, Harry wrote.

I have to admit, I didn't know that you were my godmother until I got your letter. Dad mentioned that you were mum's best friend, but little more than that, because he was talking about various members of the Order of the Phoenix, pointing them out in a photo.

I'm going to be honest: I was very angry and very upset when I found out. I wanted to know why you didn't take me in. Your explanation was logical, and backed up by Sirius, Professor Lupin and dad, who said that you would only have left me if you had no other option. Uncle Loki explained in detail (detail I could have done without, in some cases. Yuck) how dangerous it would have been for you, apprentice of the Sorcerer Supreme to take me in. By leaving me with the Dursleys, you probably saved my life. But it still hurts. I'm going to be honest about that, too.

I also wasn't sure if I wanted to write back. I wasn't sure if I was able to. Then I talked to a man called Professor Charles Xavier. He says that he knows you a bit. He suggested that I get in contact with you, and so did Dad.

Then I remembered that time you talked about. You seemed kind, like you really wanted to help me, that you actually cared for me, unlike the Dursleys. When you hugged me, I think it was the first time I'd been hugged since I was a baby. Even if it wasn't, it… it was a new experience. Having someone seemed to care for me. And when you let me go, you were crying. Because you couldn't help me and wanted to so much. That convinced me to write to you, so here we are.

You may not know, but my grandfather was in a similar position to you, for slightly different reasons. I ended up yelling at him. A lot. But in the end, I forgave him, even though it still hurts. Uncle Loki (who's been in a similar sort of position) says that it'll hurt for a long time, but it will get better, and acceptance is the first step and forgiveness is the second step. So, I accept what you did and forgive you.

I realise that, well, I've probably rambled a bit. Sorry. I'm not much of a writer: I'd probably explain it better in person.

What I want to get across is that I'm still upset, but I don't blame you for what happened. You had a very hard choice to make and you made it as best you could, and it really hurt you to do it. I accept that and I suppose I understand it logically speaking. Dad says understanding something with your head and with your heart are two different things, and I can do the first. The second is coming.

I want to get to know you, Wanda. I want to hear about my mum, about your friendship, about everything. Because you're part of my family. And I want to know my family.

Love,

Harry

P.S. What's your owl called? Mine's called Hedwig. Hagrid bought her for me in Diagon Alley before I went to Hogwarts.

Harry sat back. "Is that okay?" he asked, sounding a little uncertain.

Thor read through it. "That sounds fine to me," he said, before glancing at Sirius.

"Your honest about how and what you feel," Sirius said. "Trust me when I say that Wanda approves of that sort of thing." He paused. "Or she used to, anyway." He shrugged. "In my book, that's a good start."

Harry nodded, folded it up, put it in an envelope, and held out an arm for Hedwig, who fluttered over. "You need to take this to Wanda Maximoff," he said.

Hedwig seemed to glare slightly at the letter.

"Be nice to her," Harry said firmly. "She did her best."

Hedwig looked unconvinced.

"Please?"

Hedwig seemed to soften, and she hooted softly, then nipped him gently, before taking the letter.

Harry smiled. "Thanks," he said quietly, going over to the window and opening it. Hedwig took off, and flew gracefully away.

Harry let out a breath. Now all he had to do was wait for a response. He turned to his father, who looked puzzled.

"Dad? What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing… it's just that I always thought that Snowy Owls barked," Thor said, bemused. He shook his head, and smiled down at Harry. "I'm proud of you, my son. That can't have been easy."

Harry smiled as his father's praise made him feel warm inside. "It wasn't," he said after a moment. "But it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be."

"That is often the way of it," Thor agreed. He ruffled Harry's hair. "Like I said. I'm proud of you. It must have taken a lot to let go of your…"

"Unresolved issues?" Harry said dryly. "Professor Xavier helped."

"And I am grateful to him for that," Thor said.

OoOoO

Meanwhile, some way up state, the man in question – who would doubtless be gratified to hear what Thor had to say – was welcoming two of his returning students.

"Professor!"

Charles smiled slightly. "Hello, Jean," he said. "I take it you had a good Christmas?"

Jean nodded. "It was great fun having Scott over," she said. "For once we could actually hang out without everyone gossiping." She rolled her eyes. "None of them seem to get that we're just good friends."

"I wonder why," Charles said, voice carefully devoid of all sarcasm, while wondering how such a brilliantly intelligent girl as Jean, a developing psychic of potentially unequalled power, could miss what was right under her nose.

Jean shrugged. "It confuses me too," she said. "But that's people for you." She looked a little sad. "Be gentle with Scott – he and Johnny Storm had a bit of a falling out. A pretty major one, by the sounds of things."

"Oh no," Charles said, frowning. "Over what?"

"Johnny went ice skating and got a bump on the head because he was skating like a maniac. When Scott went to see him… well, he was maybe a bit harsh," Jean said carefully.

Charles nodded. Scott was a very serious young man, and preferred being sensible and following the rules. Johnny was his polar opposite, considering rules as things to be followed only when convenient and to be a helpful checklist for targeted disobedience, so it was inevitable that arguments would arise. Yet the two remained good friends, if separated by distance.

As far as Charles was aware, Jean and Johnny had never met, but Jean at least had heard so much about Johnny from Scott, mostly along the lines of, 'Johnny did something stupid. Again', and considering how badly Scott had fallen for Jean, he didn't doubt that Johnny knew more than most about Jean Grey and her personal life.

Not quite as much as Charles, of course. Not only had he been her teacher and confidant for nearly ten years, he knew several things about her family that even she had forgotten. Speaking of which, he might have to raise them with her family – something which could wait until after the unpacking, he felt.

"Professor?"

"Oh? Sorry, Jean, I was miles away," he said, and sighed. "Jean, I must warn you that my time will be somewhat limited for the foreseeable future."

"Why?" Jean asked, frowning, green eyes that were so like her cousin's filling with concern. They were so alike, Charles thought. And they didn't even know it.

"I suspect you have heard about the attack on MI6 by now?" he asked.

Jean nodded, and shuddered. "It sounded horrible. Aren't the Avengers investigating what happened?"

"They know what happened," Charles said grimly. "They know what did it. They and SHIELD have enlisted my aid in tracking down the culprit."

"By using Cerebro," Jean said, nodding.

"Exactly," Charles said. "Hank, Logan and Ororo will take a greater role, though I suspect SHIELD may tap up Logan as well. He has history with them."

"What kind of history?"

"The kind that he doesn't share lightly," Charles said, and Jean coloured slightly.

"Sorry," she mumbled.

"It's not a crime to want to know, Jean. It only becomes one when you don't know when to stop," he said kindly. He sobered. "Logan's past is a dark place, and frankly, we, you in particular, are probably best off not knowing about much of it."

Jean nodded seriously, then looked up as she heard a yelp. Scott had been climbing the stairs and slipped on some ice after his attention had got distracted. By Jean. Who was wearing tight jeans and bending over slightly.

The poor boy had had no chance, Charles reflected, amused, as Jean hurried over to help him up, check him over and remonstrate with him for being so clumsy and worrying her.

He watched as Jean left, waving goodbye at him briefly, telekinetically lifting the dropped bag and scolding Scott. And, naturally, remaining, as ever, utterly oblivious to how deeply her childhood friend was in love with her.

"How many more lies, Charles? How many more secrets?" Hank asked, from behind him. He'd broken off from the Greys and his old friend Alex, who, like all of them, looked far younger than he had any right to. The battle with Krakoa, what, a decade ago now, had paid unexpected dividends.

Charles knew immediately what his old friend was talking about. His little counselling session with Harry. The fact that he had been talking to Jean's lost little cousin, the one she'd spent years wondering about, and, in fact, the subject he was planning to talk to both her parents and Alex.

"Too many, Hank," Charles said quietly. "Too many."

"And from those you are closest to as well," Hank said, and shook his head. "Sometimes, Charles, I wonder what you are hiding from me. From Alex. From all of us."

Charles sighed. "'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown'," he said. "If I must take on the role of being one of the unofficial leaders of mutantkind, I must bear the responsibilities as well. You know that I have had to tread in some murky waters, my friend."

"Henry IV, Part II. Yes, Charles, known it and not liked it," Hank said grimly. "Your business with SHIELD… this is probably your most honourable endeavour with them, that therapy business with the Dresden boy aside. How is he, by the way?"

"I know, Hank," Charles said, wondering how much more reproach, justly earned, he was going to face today. Most of it would involve Harry, he predicted. "And as for Dresden, he has moved past his pyrophobia, though that is the very least of his problems." Hank nodded his acceptance, then frowned. Charles braced himself for another diatribe.

So, when it came, he was very surprised by what Hank said next.

"Did you ever tell Tony who his mother really was?" the other man asked, tone suddenly accusing.

"No. And after he didn't manifest any mutant abilities, I decided to avoid it," Charles said sharply, turning to face Hank. "I may change my mind if he has a child. Until then, Tessa's X-Gene, and the cyberpathy that came with it, will remain in the grave along with the rest of her. You know as well as I that informing Tony that his mother's name was Tessa, that she was my spy in the Hellfire Club, and, indeed, married Howard to protect him and later, Tony, from the rest of the Club, would not do him any good."

Hank acquiesced with a reluctant nod, as Charles looked into the fire, expression grim. "And you also know that if he investigated, the Hellfire Club would either seek to eliminate him or court him strongly to take his father's position in the club."

"The currently empty rank of White King," Hank sighed. "I know this, Charles."

"You know some, not all. They may even offer him the rank of Lord Imperial," Charles said. "Though I believe young Sebastian has his eye on that position."

Hank grimaced. "And I doubt, old friend, that that is all he has his eye on. The Club will scent opportunities in this new age of the superhero," he said.

"But they won't act on them," Charles said. "They respect me."

"That won't be enough, Charles."

"Of course it won't," Charles replied, with the air of laying down an ace. "Why do you think I mentioned Erik to young Sebastian?"

Hank's countenance darkened, and he smiled mirthlessly. "Yes, I thought that was on purpose. Do they fear him that much?"

"He broke, no, crushed three successive Inner Circles physically, mentally and spiritually, Hank. The only one spared in the first two was Howard, and that is because he knew why Howard chose to become the White King," Charles said. "And the third, Erik destroyed in response to the assassination of Howard and Tessa. This last was the most thorough, down to root and branch, from Lord Imperial to the Pawns. I suspect they are only truly recovering now. Yes, Hank, they fear him that much and are right to. It was a great boon to the world, perhaps, but at such cost." He looked sad. "Howard was one of the few non-mutants who could ever have claimed to be Erik's friend."

"Was Obadiah Stane a member of the Hellfire Club?" Hank asked, knowing that Charles still had resources inside the club.

"He succeeded Howard as White King, though both Emma Frost and her niece of the same name played him like a harp until his death," Charles said grimly. "But he was clever enough to delay until Erik's attention was elsewhere." He gave Hank a long look. "Why do you bring this up now?"

"It is a matter of family," Hank said pointedly.

Ah. That was it. So it did tie back to Harry.

"You know why we cannot speak of it, Hank," Charles said.

"He doesn't have to come to the Institute, Charles, we can arrange a meeting elsewhere," Hank said, clearly upset. "Wanda's getting into contact with him."

"How do you know?"

"Eurasian Tawny Owls are not native to the United States. Nor do they commonly make a point of tapping the windows of Avengers Tower and carrying letters, then flying out some time later without said letter." Hank said dryly. He half smiled. "You have your methods of keeping an eye on him, and I have mine."

Charles chuckled. "Your resourcefulness remains undiminished, old friend," he said.

Hank looked serious all of a sudden. "Charles, Shaw Junior seemed awfully confident when we met him. Should we prepare for a fight of some kind?"

Charles shook his head. "They won't dare move if they think he will respond. They know as well as I that though Erik has mellowed, he is still exceptionally dangerous and still despises the Club. And he won't tolerate the Club interfering with either us or the Avengers. They know that. And they have also found out, to their cost, that he is the most powerful mutant on Earth." He looked at the door Jean and Scott had left through. "Except one."

Hank followed his gaze. "Oh my stars and garters, Charles," he said softly. "You think she's that strong?"

"I know she is," Charles said. "She is Omega Class. A true Omega, like Erik, and not a borderline candidate like myself."

"She hasn't displayed that level of power."

"Yet. Psionic powers are closer to magical abilities in that the potential to wield them increases with age. The only barrier is physical form," Charles explained. "For instance, if I had a supersoldier level body, while I might not necessarily develop any new abilities, I would have a far greater level of stamina, and possibly even greater power, to put behind those I have."

Hank listened with interest. While he was a genius in the field of bio chemistry and was the primary authority on mutant genetics, second possibly only to Charles himself, psionics were very definitely Charles' field of expertise. Without being a psychic yourself, there was only so much you could understand.

One thought was clamouring for attention, and he voiced it. "What if Harry manifests both Asgardian abilities and psychic abilities?"

"It depends which manifests first," Charles said slowly. "If the psychic powers manifested first, then I suspect the two would adapt and combine. If the Asgardian abilities manifest first, his brain chemistry could be so altered that anything more than a very brief or very limited manifestation of his psychic potential could kill him." He spread his hands. "I do not know."

"Yes you do," Hank said shrewdly. "We both do."

"Not quite. Nothing is certain," Charles said. He steepled his fingers. "In fact, there were certain factors that suggest to me that he may yet develop psychic abilities. Remember, he was born with magic, and Wanda in particular is proof that the X-Gene and M-Gene can work together, not in opposition. He will retain his considerable magical powers, come what may."

"Whatever our thoughts on the matter," Hank mused. "It is undeniable that he will be a force to be reckoned with."

"Yes," Charles said slowly. "Yes, that is very true." He looked up. "And that reckoning shall come soon, I fear."

"Why?"

"A storm is coming, Hank, coming for him. I can feel it. What we are seeing now, this trouble with the necromancer and HYDRA, that is just the beginning. The outward edge of the coming darkness," Charles said, voice low and worried. "And he shall need all of skill, strength and luck he can muster to survive it. We all will."

OoOoO

He was right. And the day after, the day before Harry went back to Hogwarts, the storm broke. Because Fury decided that the holidays were over, having gone on for as long as he could afford to allow them to, and briefed the Avengers on their latest threat.

"I've got bad news and worse news," Fury said. "Which would you like first?"

Tony glanced around the room and shrugged fatalistically. "Your call, Cap, but personally I prefer to hear the bad news first. That way, I know how much scotch I'm going to need to deal with the worse news."

Steve's lips thinned. He didn't exactly approve of the fact that Tony drank like a fish, but understood why he did. However, his disapproval had markedly increased after the advent of children living in/regularly visting the Tower. Tony, as ever, had ignored him. Right now, Steve thought that Tony had reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. "Bad news first," he said firmly.

"HYDRA is back," Fury said.

Steve suddenly thought that maybe Tony had been right about the scotch. The menace that he had essentially died to destroy, the group that had killed countless good soldiers, friends of his, including Bucky, his best friend in all the world, and, most painfully of all, had denied him the chance to live his life in his own time, with the woman he had only realised he truly loved far too late.

And it was back.

There was a shattering sound and sudden series of pains in his hand as if he'd been stabbed by a bunch of miniature knives. He looked down and was surprised to see glass sticking out of his hand, as water from the shattered glass mixed with blood. His blood. HYDRA had wanted the secrets in that blood too, he muzzily thought. So badly that they'd killed another friend, his mentor, Doctor Erskine.

Everything they wanted, they stole, and everything they didn't, they destroyed.

"Steve!"

He looked up to see Bruce's worried face looking back at him. Bruce looked up at Fury who raised a concerned eyebrow. "He's responding to his name, means that the shock hasn't put him into a fugue state or something like that, but we really need to get him to medical."

The pain came through then, in a searing molten hot tidal wave of agony. True, he'd had worse wounds, but they were generally blunt impact trauma, resulting in a thick, dull ache, rather than a razor sharp agony.

To distract himself, he assessed his team. Clint looked grim. Thor looked puzzled and concerned. Loki's eyes had narrowed and Steve had no doubt that he was analysing everything. But there was also concern there. Tony was looking grim and swearing a blue streak, alternating between lambasting Steve for being 'a moron with motor control issues' and Fury for being 'an insensitive asshole with no fucking tact'. Rich words indeed, Steve felt, considering who they were coming from, but they weren't wrong.

Then Thor came over and helped him up, while Loki stepped in front of him, scrutinised his eyes thoughtfully, then touched his forehead and murmured a few words. After that, the world seemed distant, as if everything, including the pains in his hand were happening a long way away.

He caught the words 'Best I can do' and 'not sure how his mind and physiology would react' among the low hubbub of voices, then felt Thor's strong but gentle hands steering him to medical. Obediently, he followed the directions, then sat as the doctor gave him a local anaestethic and slowly, carefully, with the aid of tweezers, removed the shards of glass.

After that, he drank something that made him sleep.

When he woke, he woke to the sight of Darcy. This wasn't an unpleasant sight by any stretch of the imagination on pure aesthetics, but the expression of mingled worry and fury simultaneously terrified and upset him. Terrified him because an angry Darcy was like a smart bomb – complex, compact, hard to defuse and you couldn't make one misstep or you'd be, in Tony's words, 'fucking annihilated', and upset because he didn't like making people he cared about, especially women, worry about him.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

She stared down at him in disbelief. "You get twenty five pieces of fucking glass in your fucking hand and first thing you do is ask me if I'm okay?" she asked, incredulous, then shook her head. "You are unbelievable."

He gave this some thought. "Is that a good thing?"

She half smiled. "Yeah, Steve, it is."

Steve, relieved that he has passed the first test, is struck by how Darcy reminds him of Peggy. Both were smart, gorgeous dames – women, rather – who took no bullshit, were fiercely loyal and kicked ass.

Admittedly, Peggy had been supremely disciplined, clear and concise in speech and action and never had a hair out of place, even when shooting at a HYDRA spy in a car that was coming straight for her. She had also oozed the sort of classy cool and self-assurance that Steve had, back then, associated with the more competent members of the British officer class. There was something about ruling the largest Empire the world had ever seen that endowed its ranking citizens with a certain self-possession.

Darcy, by contrast, slobbed around in t-shirt and jeans, only getting dressed up when it was a special occasion, existed in a state of perpetual sarcasm and peppered her speech with so many pop culture references that Steve and Thor weren't the only ones who looked at her askance. Sometimes, only Tony – who was a fount of knowledge for all things pop culture related, up to and including the measurements of most actresses – and Loki, who had absorbed pop culture like a sponge - understood her.

They were people of different times, but sometimes, if Steve hadn't known otherwise, he'd have thought they were related. It wasn't just the dark hair, pale skin and – Steve blushed on thinking this – their similar figures. It was something about them. An aura that said, 'fuck with me and mine and I will end you so fast that you won't know it until you find Saint Peter asking you what the fuck you're doing outside the pearly gates'.

"You okay?"

"Hand's fine. The local stops it hurting, and it'll probably be healed up by this evening," he said.

"Good, because Harry might start asking questions," Darcy said bluntly. "But that wasn't what I was talking about. The unwelcome blast from your past. Can you deal?"

Steve paused, then nodded. "I can manage," he said.

"Good. The rest are waiting for you." She paused. "You know, in case you were thinking it, you shouldn't worry about it all by yourself. We've all got issues in our pasts. Least we can do is listen to each other vent about them." She shrugged. "So if you feel the need…"

Steve nodded. "Thank you, Darcy."

"Not a problem," she said, before sauntering out, and preventing Steve with a fine view of her well shaped ass. That was, he thought somewhat guiltily, one area in which she very much resembled Peggy as well.

He sighed, and stood up. He might as well face his demons.

OoOoO

When he walked into the briefing room, the rest of the Avengers turned as one to look at him.

"Captain Rogers," Fury said. "Glad you could join us once more. How's the hand?"

"It'll be fine, sir," Steve said.

"Good," Fury said. "Take a seat. I was getting to bad news."

He turned to the Avengers as Steve sat down. "HYDRA have found and reactivated the Winter Soldier."

Tony spat a foul curse, Bruce seemed to be doing some of his breathing exercises, Loki and Clint looked grim, Thor frowned, as if he was trying to remember where he'd heard the name before and Natasha looked carefully blank.

Clearly he was the only one who was drawing a complete blank. "Who or what is 'the Winter Soldier'?" Steve asked.

"He's a living weapon, Captain," Fury said flatly. "He is a soldier without a country, an assassin who kills because it is all he knows and all he cares about. He first turned up in late 1944, at the back end of World War II, operating under Soviet command."

"Soviet? They were our allies," Steve said, frowning.

"It was an alliance of convenience, Captain," Fury said. "Stalin was as bad as Hitler, if not worse. He butchered nearly thirty million of his own people in the great purges of the '30's. And he didn't want anyone, not Britain, not America, interfering in Soviet affairs ever again. Little enough of this got out to even soldiers during the war, but people knew. So he created the Soldier."

Steve looked grim, then nodded.

"The Soldier was the terror of Europe and most of the world for nearly half a century. Wherever there was trouble, wherever the Soviet Union had a finger in a pie, wherever they wanted someone dead, the Soldier was there. And he was terrifyingly good at his job. No one purely human even had a chance. The Weapons Plus project, the follow on from Captain America's creation – you were designated as Weapon I, Captain - was created specifically to stop him. The Soldier and Weapon X, possibly the most dangerous superhuman the project has created to date, crossed paths. Weapon X came off worse. Much, much worse. When the Soviet Union fell, the Soldier dropped off the map. And the world breathed a sigh of relief."

Fury looked grim. "Then, a year after the Chitauri invasion, assassinations by someone with his MO started happening again. Small, minor, blending in with the dozens of assassinations each year, they weren't noticed for a while. Last year, a SHIELD team fouled up one of his hits, aimed at General Lane. None of them survived the following fight, but we did get intel suggesting that it was him. This intel was recently confirmed by Director, then Agent, Wisdom of MI:13, who barely survived an attack by the Soldier on his base the same night as MI6 was destroyed. We have reason to be lieve that '6 was a distraction."

"I wish I was surprised," Steve said darkly.

Fury grimaced. "I don't." He shook his head. "Someone, presumably HYDRA, had found him and in the age of the superhero, wanted control of the most dangerous man on the planet. Either it was HYDRA and they succeeded or HYDRA picked up the pieces when he went rogue," Fury said. "I'm more likely to suspect the former. If it was the latter, we'd be looking at a global trail of destruction."

"You fear him," Loki said slowly.

"I don't fear him. But I am terrified of what he's capable of," Fury said bluntly. "He's a killing machine. He's what would happen if Steve went bad, and acquired the skills of Clint and Natasha. He's fast, incredibly strong, a master marksman like few I've ever seen, and by the time you know he's there, it is too late. He is the deadliest super soldier in history." He looked at the Avengers. "He's the sort of threat SHIELD was formed to face."

"He's bad," Tony confirmed. Everyone glanced at him "When I was little, the Stark family bodyguards had a protocol. If the Soldier came for my family, their job was to basically get between us and the Soldier and hope we could run fast enough to get away while they tried to die as slowly as possible."

"I remember hearing about him when I was growing up," Bruce said. He glanced at Clint. "It might have been a little before your time," he added. "But every American kid growing up during the Cold War grew up hearing about the Winter Soldier in the same way that nineties and early noughties kids knew about Bin Laden, the way kids these days are learning about the Mandarin. He was public enemy number one for three decades." He shrugged. "No one ever knew much about him, far less than Bin Laden and those guys. Just the name. But that was enough. He was a nightmare."

"He's worse than that," Natasha said, voice low. "He's taken the Infinity Formula."

Fury eyed her. "You never told us that," he said slowly.

"I thought, like you, that he was dead," Natasha said bluntly. "I didn't want to bring back old ghosts. If he was alive, you'd have wanted to find him. At best, you'd have failed. At worst, you would have succeeded."

"Agent Romanov, that was not your call to make," Fury said, sounding irate.

"You wouldn't have been able to control him, Director. And the protocols programmed into him were simple. If someone without the requisite authority and methods to control him woke him up, he would systematically destroy them and their organisation," Natasha said. She looked Fury in the eye. "I weighed the options. It wasn't worth saying."

"You worked with him, didn't you?" Loki murmured.

Natasha nodded sharply. "He was my partner for nearly thirty five years," she said flatly. "From 1956 to 1990."

"Wait, what?" Steve asked, surprised. Thor too looked puzzled. Bruce, oddly enough, didn't. "You look no more than twenty five."

Natasha half smiled. "Close. I was twenty eight when I was given the Infinity Formula."

"My god," Bruce whispered. "You worked for the Red Room, didn't you?"

"How would you know about the Red Room, Doctor Banner?" Fury asked, eye narrowed in suspicion.

"I worked for Ross, remember?" Bruce replied. "He wanted a new supersoldier formula. I started by looking through all the previous formulas and supersoldier programs and team projects. The Red Room, Project: Black Patriot, Weapon X, The Mar-Vell Files, the CIA's ill-fated Division X and the 'Angel of Cuba', Project: Pegasus and Project: Excalibur, all heavily redacted, of course." He looked grim. "They weren't pretty. And the Red Room was the worst. But, aside from the works of Doctor Essex and Doctors Mary and Richard Parker, it was the most helpful."

"Parker?" Thor asked, frowning. "I know someone by that name…" he paused, then nodded. "A boy, about Harry's age. Brown hair, brown eyes, glasses, thin and with a striking intellect. He was called Peter, I think."

"Their son," Fury said. "He lives with his aunt and uncle. We have a SHIELD team keeping an eye on him."

"Why?"

"Because HYDRA and someone else tried to bribe his parents, for their research. When that didn't work, they murdered them," Fury said grimly. "And made it look like an accident. We still don't know who the third party was, but we do know that HYDRA were involved. They've been a problem for decades, make no mistake. They've just become a bigger problem now."

"What was this… Red Room?" Thor asked, after a moment of collective sobriety. "And how does it relate to what we face now?"

"The Red Room was Russia's answer to Captain America and the Weapon X project," Fury said. "On the surface, Cold War military policy was dictated by advances in nuclear weaponry and more conventional armaments. But underneath, buried far from the public eye, a new frontier of warfare had opened up: genetic." He looked at Steve. "You were only the first in a new breed of soldier. You were only a notch or two above peak human in every field, yet you nearly won the war on the Western Front by yourself."

"I had help with that, sir," Steve said. "Dumbledore, Namor –"

"He was another example," Fury said. "A man who could breath underwater, swim faster than a speedboat, fly faster than a fighter plane and rip tanks apart like they were made of cardboard? That's the sort of man you want on your side. Especially when you're facing abominations like the stuff Arnim Zola came up with."

"Namor?" Thor asked, thoroughly puzzled.

"Classified," Natasha said firmly.

"Anyway. The Soviets saw that. They saw the Commandos. They saw what the British had – Blade, Dumbledore, Doctor Strange, Union Jack and the first Spitfire. They saw Grindelwald. And they decided that they needed an edge," Fury said.

"That doesn't sound pleasant," Clint muttered.

"It wasn't," Natasha said, voice low. "The Red Room was designed on one principle: if it couldn't break you, nothing could."

"Nothing?" Loki asked lightly.

Natasha met his gaze, two sets of green eyes locking. "Nothing," she said, with absolute conviction.

Loki inclined his head briefly.

"The first, and in some ways the finest, product of the Red Room was the Winter Soldier," Fury said. "He was a one man wave of terror. Where he went, destruction followed. People started calling him the Black Death, among many, many other things, because he always wore dark clothing and no matter how you tried, you could not get away from him once he set his sights on you. Not unless he was called off, or if you were very, very lucky."

"How bad is he?" Steve asked.

"He is the worst, Captain. He's a hero killer."

"Hero killer?"

"One of his first missions, that we know of, was to kill the first Spitfire. You knew her, didn't you?" Fury said.

Steve nodded slowly. "Did she…?"

Fury looked tired. "I'm sorry, Captain. All they ever found was her gauntlet and her body armour, both mangled almost out of recognition. That and some scorch marks. He left nothing behind except some blood," he said. "If it's any consolation, all the evidence is that she put up one hell of a fight. No one ever came as close to beating him as she did."

"Oh," Steve said quietly. "I thought…" He shook his head.

"Who was this 'Spitfire'?"

"She was a hero," Steve said simply. "She was an American girl who joined up with the Commandos. She wielded a sword and a magically treated gauntlet from which she fired a 20mm cannon, the main gun on a Spitfire, and a flamethrower." He sat back, and half smiled, clearly lost in memory. "She designed it and built it herself. It was decades ahead of anything we had, though that made sense, since she was a time traveller." He paused, opened his mouth as if to add something, then bit his lip so hard that he nearly drew blood.

"Steve?" Thor asked, concerned. "Is there something that ails you?"

Fury cut in smoothly. "He's just found out he lost a friend, Thor. That's gonna be hard on anyone," he said, eyeing Steve with an expression that said that he knew exactly what Steve was not saying.

"Yeah," Steve said quietly. "Pretty much." He sighed. "Howard helped her build it and provided the materials. Dumbledore enchanted it to her specifications, so that it balanced, which mattered because she was almost as acrobatic as Natasha." He half smiled. "It was a four way choice between which inspired her name – her agility, her armaments, her temper or…" he trailed off.

"There were other things that inspired it," Fury said, rescuing him. "But they aren't important right now."

"Right," Steve said, somewhat relieved. "Anyway, she later had to redesign the gauntlet because she replaced the cannon and the flamethrower with one of HYDRA's cannons that we captured. And she was using it when I was frozen. Dating Monty too."

"Who is this… 'Monty'?" Thor asked, a little puzzled.

"Lieutenant Montgomery Falsworth, second son of an old British noble family," Steve said. "He was one of the Commandos. When it became apparent that Spitfire was stuck in the past, they began to get together." He glanced at Fury. "I guess he outlived her."

Fury nodded. "Damn shame," he said. "He never got over her death, and he and his sister had the mother of all arguments when she wanted to take up the mantle of Spitfire. She won, but they were estranged for a good while."

"I heard that he died," Steve said.

"Not quite," Fury said. "He's hanging on, and still compos mentis, but he's only hanging on out of habit, if you follow me." He sighed. "Losing her did bad things to him. But he moved on and married one of the MacTaggert family, an older cousin of the famous CIA agent and geneticist, Moira MacTaggert. Her name was Mary. They had a kid." He grimaced. "Brian Falsworth. He became the costumed hero known as Union Jack, operating in the early to mid-seventies. He had powers. After Thor and the Hulk, and maybe Namor, he was physically the most powerful superhuman in the modern era. They came from some Amulet, we never worked out what it was."

"What happened to him?" Steve asked, getting a strong sense of foreboding.

"He and his partner, the Destroyer, a non-powered martial artist and acrobat, crossed swords with the Soldier. They lost. They outnumbered him and they definitely overpowered him. So he killed them both from a distance with a sniper rifle. Classic Winter Soldier. One bullet, jacketed with vibranium, killed Falsworth Junior, and one ordinary bullet did for the Aubrey," Fury said heavily. "That pretty much broke Monty. His wife died of cancer, and now… now he's all but alone. Albus and Minerva visit him, and so does Stephen Strange, I think. And his sister. She's still around."

"Really?" Steve asked, interested. "How's she doing?"

"Fine. Doesn't look a day over twenty. She's half vampire these days."

There was a pause. "Wait, what?"

"John Falsworth, their older brother, was a Nazi sympathiser who became the vampire known as Baron Blood," Fury said. "First anyone knew of it was when he resurfaced one night after going to ground for a while, sometime after you disappeared and drained his parents. He turned 'em and sent them after his siblings. Spitfire got his dad, who went after Monty. And Jaqueline staked her mom. With the help of a guy called Blade."

"The Daywalker?" Sirius said sharply.

Fury nodded. "You know him?"

"Ran into him in London, June 1993," Sirius said, nodding. He glanced at Thor. "You were staying with Lily because she was eight months preggers and looked like she was going to pop at any moment, remember?"

Thor nodded. "I remember."

"Well, we hunted vampires, compared motorbikes, that sort of thing," Sirius finished.

"Interesting," Fury said, clearly filing that knowledge away. "Anyway, she was half drained. Blade has the universal blood type and gave her an emergency transfusion."

"Daywalker?" Loki asked, eyebrow raised. "I thought that was just a vampire bogeyman, a story dreamt up to keep the fledglings scared."

"Wait, vampires?" Tony asked, puzzled. "Seriously?"

"They are very real, Tony," Thor said seriously. "And very dangerous."

Steve nodded. "I destroyed a couple of nests that were working with HYDRA during the war," he said.

"So, vampires exist. Right. I have got to take a closer look at SHIELD's paranormal stuff," Tony muttered. Fury glowered at him. Tony ignored it. "What's a Daywalker?"

"Half human, half vampire, if the stories are correct," Loki said thoughtfully. "With all of their strengths and none of their weaknesses, save bloodlust, he is prophesied to be the father of a new breed of vampires."

"That sounds ominous," Clint commented. "Vampires are bad enough as it is."

"Blade wouldn't do that. Not of his own will," Natasha said suddenly. Everyone looked at her. "I know him. I've met him and we studied him in the Red Room. He hates vampires."

"He does," Steve confirmed.

"Yes," Loki said slowly. "But if you will forgive me for bringing this up, I think we are all aware that wills can be subverted."

Clint's lips thinned.

"True," Fury allowed. "But that isn't an issue right now. Jaqueline Falsworth is on the side of the angels. So's Blade, last I heard."

"So, Jackie's still alive," Steve said, clutching to the one fact he'd wanted in the first place.

"Mostly."

"Okay."

"Back to the Winter Soldier," Fury said. "You'll be getting dossiers on him, but the simple fact is, he's fast, he's strong, he's incredibly skilled, he has a bionic arm that's about as tricked out as one of Stark's suits and he never misses his shot. Evidence says that he was the gunman who killed Kennedy, among other things."

"Seriously?" Tony asked, eyebrow raised. "If you released that information, you'd sort of solve a forty year old mystery." He paused. "Though most people wouldn't believe you anyway, but you know, the truth would be out there."

Fury's comms suddenly beeped. "Yes?" he said.

There was some chatter on the other end. His expression froze. "If this is a joke, I will have you signed up to be sparring partner for the Hulk," he growled.

After a few more moments, he nodded. "I see," he said grimly. "Get me anything you can." Then he sighed and rubbed his face. "I've just got news that comes under the category of 'worst news.' The Darkhold has been stolen."

Clint frowned, puzzled. Natasha's eyes widened. Thor looked horrified and was about to speak when Loki cut him off in a bone jarring shriek.

"YOU LET THAT BOOK BE STOLEN?"

Everyone stared at him in shock. He'd stood up and was now icy white with anger and, yes, fear, breathing fast. No, not fear. That had been bad enough, when the veidrdraugr came. This was terror. Complete and utter terror. And after a couple of years of Loki being cool, composed and sarcastic, no matter the danger, two such cracks in the mask in quick succession were more than a little unsettling.

"What's got you?" Tony asked, frowning. "What the hell is this darkthingy?"

"It is a book of foulest magic, Tony," Thor said, voice low. "It is the most dangerous artefact on Midgard. And considering some of the things I know to reside here, that is saying much."

"So, book of bad magic. Not good, but not earth shaking," Clint said. "Right?"

"Clint, you have no idea how bad that thing is," Natasha said gravely. "If I remember my briefings right, it's sentient."

"Tolkien based many of his stories on reality. Middle Earth was a composite of many of the Nine Realms, which I showed him. While his narrative was his own," Loki said. He had largely composed himself, but he spoke carefully, and his voice wavered slightly. "He took inspiration from real artefacts. And from the legends of the Darkhold and what I told him of it, he constructed the One Ring. In doing so, he watered it down. Considerably."

"So… it's like the One Ring but worse?" Tony said. Loki nodded. He clapped his hands. "Right, we find it, take it to New Zealand and drop it in Mount Doom. Problem solved."

"This is not a laughing matter, Stark!" Loki spat furiously. "The Darkhold is indestructible. No force, natural or unnatural, can unmake it. Time does not touch it. Entropy will not damage it, for that book is a brother to it. It is sentient, and with it in hand, even the least beggar and transient child could become a nightmare unlike any this realm has witnessed for a thousand years! It is pure evil." He glared at Fury. "How was it in a position to be stolen? Surely you did not move it."

"Until a couple of weeks ago, it was where it has been since the time of Emperor Constantine – in what is now Castel Montesi," Fury said evenly. "The most we've done is beef the security up even further." He grimaced as a report cam in on his phone. "We also have reason to believe the Winter Soldier was involved. Half a company of the best soldiers in the world, including an assassin on secondment from MI6, the best they had, were slaughtered. They were all killed with one shot or one stab wound, except for the guy from '6. As far as we can tell, the Soldier was distracted by one of the other soldiers and '6's man got the drop on him and very nearly killed him. Unfortunately, with the Soldier, very nearly is nowhere near enough."

"He was wounded?" Steve asked.

"Not even a scratch. 6's man, Bond I think he was called, had him at gunpoint. The Soldier shot him in the stomach, presumably to disable him, then executed him, judging by the post-mortem," Fury said grimly. "The theft of the Turin Shroud was a diversion. Whoever is behind this wanted that book badly. And if they had the expertise to crack through the wards and raise an illusion good enough to fool a cursory inspection for weeks, they have the expertise to use that book the way we least want it used."

Loki had, to the shock, surprise and to some extent, the horror of the rest of his team mates, put his head in his hands.

"This is really bad, isn't it?" Tony said, suddenly subdued. Loki subscribed fiercely to the notion that being a mage meant that they should never see you miss a beat. The fact that he was royalty and supremely intellectual only compounded his desire to never appear anything other than some variety of confident. The veidrdraugr had clearly frightened him. That was bad enough. That he was showing what appeared to be abject despair was extremely worrying.

Loki sighed explosively, drawing his hands down his face. "It is as bad as it can be," he said heavily. "As the One Ring is an infinitely diminished and watered down fictional version of the Darkhold, Sauron is an infinitely diminished and watered down fictional version of its author: the Elder God, Chthon. Before he was banished from this dimension, he was, arguably, more powerful than I, Thor and father put together. And that tome contains all of his knowledge, much of his power and a goodly portion of his unlimited malice."

"Pretty much," Fury said. "It's an Omega Level threat by itself. And…" He paused. "Loki, these… veirdr-things."

Loki nodded slowly. "I understand where your thinking takes you, Director. That book would definitely have the method of their creation in its foul pages."

"Wait, what?" Tony asked. "Hold up. Eider whats?"

"Veidrdraugar," Loki said.

"They're like super advanced telepathic stealth zombies," Clint said. "One got the drop on both me and Loki."

"If not for Clint, it would have ripped my throat out," Loki said, voice low. "As it was, it nearly bit through my arm."

Thor stared mutely at Loki, then said, voice carefully measured, "You did not tell me this."

"Because you would worry."

"Of course I would worry! One of these beasts nearly kills you, and now you are going off to hunt them!" Thor yelled.

"Feeling left out," Tony said, waving a hand. "Why is Loki making like Doctor Van Helsing?"

"That's vampires, Tony," Bruce said, rolling his eyes.

Tony shrugged. "My point stands."

"It is too much to explain now," Loki said. "Simply put, I, Sif and the Warriors Three are going to hunt these monsters down and flush their creator into the open. We investigated one of the scenes of their creation in London, but turned little save our stomachs. We have help in tracking them down."

Tony frowned, and opened his mouth, before pausing. "You said telepathic, right?" he said slowly, turning to Clint, who nodded.

"They communicate through a low level telepathic field," Loki said. "They are pack hunters."

Tony nodded and said one word. "Cerebro."

"I thought that was just a rumour," Bruce said, startled.

"My dad helped design the second version," Tony said casually. "And my godfather's the most powerful psychic on the planet."

"So he can track them by their telepathic field," Thor said, nodding.

"Exactly," Fury said. "The basic plan is, Loki's team flushes their creator out with the aid of of SHIELD's field teams, make him run to HYDRA and the Death Eaters, and then the Avengers and whoever else we can muster will hit them and hit them hard."

"They are involved?" Thor asked, voice low.

"Draco Malfoy was the one who tipped us off to what was happening at '6," Fury said. "His dad is up to his neck in this, if not masterminding it." Thor stood, hefting Mjolnir in a fashion that suggested that he intended to put it through Malfoy's face. "He's gone underground, Thor," Fury continued. "All the other known parties involved have either gone underground or been eliminated. You can have a crack at him when we find him, and not before."

Thor glared at him, but sat. "The boy is brave," he commented curtly.

"Very," Fury agreed. "I'll be putting some pressure on his mother, to see what she knows."

Steve gave him a dark look.

"Nothing more than law enforcement would do, Captain," Fury said calmly. "Narcissa Malfoy knows me of old, and she'll play me straight if she plays at all."

"She is not honourable and it is wrong to assume she will be," Thor warned.

"Of course she isn't. But if it gets out that her kid is the one to set us on the bad guys trail, which it will, sooner or later, they'll need protection," Fury said. "She'll take the deal."

Thor paused, then nodded. "She will," he agreed.

Fury nodded. "Tactical and strategic briefings can wait for the moment. I think this briefing is over," he said, and the Avengers stood up. "Oh, and don't tell anyone outside of Sif. I know that she can be discreet."

"The Warriors Three, not so much," Thor said, nodding.

"Exactly," Fury said. "Thor?"

Thor paused, as the rest left.

"There's a storm coming."

"I know."

Fury met his gaze.

"Then be ready."

He swept past Thor and out. War was edging closer and closer.

OoOoO

On his way out, Fury was intercepted by Steve, who said bluntly, "Jackie's alive."

Fury nodded. "Yes."

"Why didn't she come to see me, write me, or at least call?"

"At first, she didn't know you were back. After that, she didn't dare believe it was really you," Fury said. "And after that… maybe she wanted a clean break. Maybe she was guilty about taking up the Spitfire name. It caused plenty of trouble between her and her brother, after all." He shrugged. "I didn't ask. Maybe she wanted you to remember her fondly, or couldn't bear resurrecting old ghosts by seeing you. It's all conjecture. I know someone might know more."

"Who?"

"A protégé of mine, Wisdom. I mentioned him. He's currently the interim Director of MI13," Fury said. "If there's anyone that she answers to other than herself, it's him."

Steve nodded. "She's okay?"

Fury smirked. "Drinking the entire SAS under the table, last I heard. Sweetheart of the regiment. And she's dating Blade," he said.

"The part vampire is dating the vampire hunter? Sounds like a match made in hell," Steve commented.

"They make it work. And he was the one he made her that way in the first place, so…" Fury said, shrugging.

Steve nodded. "Thanks," he said quietly.

"Not a problem, Captain," Fury said, as he left. "Not a problem."

OoOoO

"Everybody suit up. We've got orders from above," Coulson said. "We need to find where the veidrdraugaar are based and to react when we do."

"The what?" Skye asked, frowning.

"Super zombies," Simmons supplied.

"Oh."

"Why so sudden?" Ward asked, frowning.

"Odin's reaction to the news of the veidrdraugar's creation was to send down a hand picked hit squad," Coulson said. "Sif, the Asgardian Goddess of War, and the Warriors Three, three of Asgard's most dangerous soldiers."

"Those guys with Thor and Loki in London?" Skye asked. "They didn't look all that dangerous."

"Neither do you," Coulson said, with a slight smile, which faded. "I saw these guys in action in New Mexico. Trust me: they more than know what they're doing."

Skye raised her eyebrows, but nodded.

"We'll probably be linking up with them some time in the near future," Coulson said. "And we've got an eye in the sky that's scanning for the veidrdraugar, but it can't work twenty four seven, or even close. If we really want to track these things, we're going to need assistance on the ground. Mystical assistance," he said. "Whether we like it or not," he added, raising his voice to override the burgeoning protests from Fitzsimmons.

"But sir, magic is –"

"A science we don't understand yet, an unquantified one at that, I know, I do read the briefings," Coulson said. "There's more to it than that. But that doesn't matter. The simple fact is that we need, to put it in terms you're more comfortable with, a scientist who specialises in that field." He paused. "Commonly known as a witch, wizard, warlock, mage, sorcerer or sorceress, age, gender and particular skills depending."

"What sort are we getting then?"

"The Detective."

"Sir," May said, paling slightly. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"No, but my first choices were Doctor Strange, who's currently who knows where and up to who knows what, the Flamels, who haven't done fieldwork since World War II and are busy with research, and Wanda Maximoff," Coulson said. "You know as well as I do that she doesn't want to come and it really isn't worth it trying to push her."

"Why not?" Skye asked. Everyone looked at her, and she shrugged. "I mean, I'm seriously all for people not being forced into doing things they don't want to, but doesn't the safety of the world come first?"

Coulson smiled slightly. "You're thinking like a SHIELD Agent," he said.

"Uh… that's a good thing, right?"

"Most of the time," Coulson said.

"Okay, thanks, but why aren't we pushing her?"

"Because it isn't wise to annoy the nice lady who can pull meteors out of space and drop them on your head," Simmons said with a slightly manic cheerfulness.

"Wait, hold up, I thought you two didn't believe in magic," Skye said, frowning.

"We don't. We believe in things with evidence," Fitz said, nodding authoritatively.

"And we've seen her do it," Simmons finished. "And a lot of other things."

"Scary things."

"Very scary things."

Skye blinked. "Whoa."

"She's gone by the codename 'Scarlet Witch' in the past, and is arguably one of the five most powerful people on the planet," May said. "She's definitely one of the five most powerful humans."

"That we know of," Ward added.

"Right. So who's this 'Detective'?"

"He's a consultant," Coulson said.

"And he's completely unreliable. He doesn't follow any kind of command structure and does what he likes," May said quietly. "And you know how dangerous that can be on a mission."

"She's right sir. His file compares him to Tony Stark for a reason."

"That's true. He's also the best person in the world at magical tracking, bar none," Coulson said. "And even Stark can follow orders under the right circumstances and when they're given by someone he respects. So can Dresden. He respects Lieutant Murphy of CPD and he respects me."

"Wait, Dresden. You're talking about Harry Dresden. The only Wizard PI in the world," Skye said.

"You've heard of him?"

"Rumours, mostly," Skye said. "But everyone who investigates the weird stuff on the net usually finds their way to him sooner rather than later. Most people used to think he was a fraud, but now, they're starting to think he's the real thing, and either Chicago's resident superhero or a hitter for the mob."

"He's not a hitter," Coulson said.

"He has been known to associate and work with Marcone, sir," Ward pointed out. "He's also had more than a few run ins with the law and wherever he goes, a trail of dead bodies and burning buildings is left behind."

"He isn't," Coulson said seriously.

"With respect, sir, how do you know? Last time the Federal Government got involved with him, four Agents of the Bureau turned up dead."

"I've Gazed him," Coulson said. "And those Agents were dabbling in dark magic in an attempt to nail Marcone. They lost control of it, and it turned them into monsters. Dresden had to shut them down."

Ward nodded slowly and May flashed Coulson a brief look that said that they would be discussing that later, before settling into her usual composed state.

"Gazed?" Simmons asked, puzzled, sharing a confused look with Fitz, who shrugged.

"Oh, I know this one," Skye said eagerly. "I've heard about it. It's shorthand for something called a Soulgaze, right?"

"You've come across the term before."

"Yeah. Aren't you meant to get a permanent knowledge of what the person's really like and it only happens with magical people?" Skye asked. "It was kinda vague."

Coulson took a deep breath. "It's very hard to describe," he said eventually. "But that's the gist of it. And it's only a certain kind of magical person. It's initiated by eye contact, so Dresden will probably only look me in the eyes, not anyone else."

"So, he's a major tracker, then? That makes sense," Skye said. "Being a PI." She looked thoughtful. "Him being the genuine article explains a lot, actually – police cases he's on have over a 90% solve rate."

"You know a lot about him," Ward commented.

Skye shrugged. "I scoped him out. I figured that if he was the genuine article, he could help me… crack SHIELD."

She paused only briefly, but it was a noticeable pause.

"Dresden's more of a blunt instrument," May said. "He's powerful, but he has the subtlety of a battering ram."

"He's capable of being subtle," Coulson said. "I Saw that much about him."

"So, if he's the genuine article, is he on your list of supers? And how strong is he?"

"He is. SHIELD classes him as a moderate to high Alpha Class energy manipulator," Coulson said. "It would be easier to say what he can't do, but a reasonable summary is fire, wind, lightning, some magnetism, shields sufficient to stop machine gun bullets and superhuman strength blunt impacts and powerful blasts of kinetic energy. He's also got considerable strength of will, which for someone in his line of business translates to a lot of power, both in a straight up firefight and a psychic brawl, something confirmed by another ally of SHIELD. In time, he'll be one of the top twenty or thirty superhumans on the planet and at the very top of Alpha class, potentially even a borderline Omega. Currently, he's known for routinely punching above his weight and taking down people far out of his weight class. The sort of people that would require the attention of the Avengers Initiative."

"Alpha class?"

"SHIELD classes superhumans based on power level," Simmons explained. "Alpha generally means powerful, with no inherent drawbacks, though there's a lot of variation within that. Beta's a step below. That generally means an average or weak power, but again, no inherent drawbacks, or at least, none that go beyond cosmetic. Delta generally means a power so weak that you're unlikely even to know that it's there – being able to see in the dark slightly more efficiently, for instance. Gamma and Epsilon… both have powers that are genuinely harmful. Gammas are moderately powerful, while Epsilon tend to have next to no actual powers."

"Okay. And Omega?"

"Omega's the word we use when the subjects power simply blows the scale," Coulson said. "It's more a general ballpark and a lot of variation within it. There are quite a few borderline cases, and a few that we know are definite cases. Thor and Loki, for example, and Odin, since he's stronger than both of them. The Hulk is also classed as an Omega."

"Whoa… hey, could I see this list?" Skye asked eagerly.

She was met with a stony silence.

"I'm guessing that's a no," she said slowly.

"Access to the list is graded by clearance – only those with level 4 clearance and above can even access it," May said coolly. "Aspects of the list are only accessible to those of certain clearance levels and above. Some parts of the list are only accessible by the Director of SHIELD." She paused. "It's also further complicated by a similar scale being used for threat grading."

"What's the difference?"

"The Index refers to inherent threat. The scale can be more general, based on what someone is capable of," May said. "For instance, if you managed to get into the full Index, you would become an Omega level threat."

"Okay. Right," Skye said, pasting a smile on her face. "No super database for me." She paused. "Hang on, how do we know that Dresden's going to play ball? Because if these things are bad enough to hurt Loki, he just might be against it."

"That is a valid point, sir," Ward noted, looking to Coulson.

"He'll do it for four reasons. First, he has a hero complex. He helps the helpless. Second, he doesn't tolerate evil. He's made that very clear in the past. Third, he owes SHIELD a favour or two – we recently put him in contact with a telepath who helped him deal with a few unresolved issues. Or at least, lock them away," Coulson said. "And fourth, we're paying him. A lot." He looked serious. "There's a storm coming. And we'll need every ally we can get to ride it out. Or it'll destroy us."

"Well, that's comforting," Skye muttered.

Coulson gave her a Look.

"It wasn't meant to be."

And plot intrudes once more. Now we should be getting down to more plot oriented stuff. Next chapter will largely be Loki and the Asgardians (minus Thor) and Dresden (fear not, non-Dresden fans. He'll be explained, mostly through Skye because she's just meeting him) and the Agents of SHIELD as they take the fight to Gravemoss under Paris.

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