Sorry this one took a bit longer, I was having a bit more trouble with it. I hope it makes up for lost time.
Also, again, thanks for your amazing support. This fic might not have got as far as it has in the year that it's been posted. So, thanks. To all of you.
Yeah, a bit of an infodump last chapter. I hid a few tasty Easter Eggs in there.
Harry's return to Hogwarts passed, by and large, without incident. As soon as he arrived at the platform, he was the centre of attention, though, to be fair, that was little different to usual.
But, to his everlasting relief, attention was quickly distracted by the Warriors Three, who were gazing around in wonderment. Or at least, in Hogun's case, gazing around with a single raised eyebrow.
"Daddy," one small child asked. "Are they muggles?"
Fandral turned and smiled charmingly. "Nay, small and fluffy one, unless muggle is another word for Asgardian," he said, and dipped a neat bow to the warmly clad puffball. "I am Fandral, and these two are Volstagg and Hogun. We are the Warriors Three."
The small child of indeterminate gender gave him a long, puzzled look, then his/her expression lit up and he/she pointed at Fandral let out a loud, carrying cry, "its Mister Silly!"
Fandral's expression swiftly shifted from charming indulgence to shock and dawning horror as laughter swiftly spread through the crowd, Thor's booming chuckle loudest of all. "Revenge, Fandral," Thor called. "Is a dish best served cold."
Fandral opened his mouth, shut it again, then simply shook his head and resolved for dignified silence. Though he did spare a poisonous glare for a sniggering Volstagg.
"So," Ron said. "Those are the legendary Warriors Three." He wrinkled his nose. "They don't look like much."
Harry shrugged. "Maybe. But they've been adventuring with Dad, uncle Loki and Lady Sif for last millennium and a bit, and they're still here," he pointed out.
"Speaking of Lady Sif, where is she?" Hermione said, looking around.
"At a guess?" Harry said casually, watching Fandral sulk. "Right behind you."
Hermione whirled and looked up at Sif, who gave her a friendly smile. Hermione squeaked.
"It wasn't hard," Harry said, shrugging and turning. "Uncle Loki's getting me to practice extending my magical senses. I suggested that I use it like Diana can with her empathy, extending them as a sort of radar, so I can detect people. I can't do much with them, like detect an individual or extend them more than ten feet away, but Asgardians tend to stick out a bit and you're the only Asgardian I couldn't see."
"A fine deduction still," Sif said, smiling at him. Harry smiled back. "Your friends seem struck dumb."
"They do, don't they," Harry said, glancing at Ron and Hermione.
"I take it that these are the Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger I have heard so much about," Sif said. "Fine friends indeed, from what I hear."
"Thank you, my lady," Hermione managed.
Ron was blushing and merely nodded furiously.
"Please, just call me Sif," Sif said seriously. "I have to deal with enough courtesy and etiquette at court." She smiled slightly. "And after all, you are close companions of my liege."
Harry wrinkled his nose, but didn't bother trying to dispute this, well aware that, in part, she was teasing him. He was also well aware that she was right. He noticed Hermione give him an odd look, but she said nothing.
Just then, the whistle blew, and Harry heard his father say, "Harry! Time to go," and saw him heft Harry's trunk onto his shoulder as if it weighed as little as an empty plastic bag.
"We'd better get going," Ron said, finding his voice.
"Indeed you had," Sif said. "Are your belongings on the train?"
Hermione and Ron nodded.
"Very well," Sif said. "Harry, your father will doubtless wish to say goodbye to you."
Harry nodded, then he did something that left Ron and Hermione extremely surprised. He hugged Sif. It was a brief hug, but a hug nonetheless. Even more surprising from their point of was the fact that she smiled, if somewhat awkwardly, and patted his back. Then, he broke away, said "Bye," and ran over to his father and the rest of the Avengers.
"Harry," Hermione began, making to go forward, but Ron snagged the back of her coat.
"Let him go, 'mione. We'll see him on the train," he said. When Hermione frowned slightly, he added, "It's family."
Hermione nodded reluctantly – she clearly wanted to grill him about Asgard – while Sif gave him an interested look and nodded slowly. "Remus was right about you. There is far more to you than meets the eye, Ronald Weasley," she murmured thoughtfully. As Ron blinked in surprise, she turned away and roared in her battle voice, effortlessly cutting through the crowd. "Make way!"
People turned, looked, and in some cases, looked again. Some recognised her, either from pictures, or by process of deduction. Some had no idea who she was. And all of them, on seeing her expression, decided that it was best to give way.
"Cool," Ron whispered, as they climbed onto the train. "Thanks!" he added, something echoed vaguely by Hermione.
"Yes, thank you."
Sif smiled slightly dipped her head a little in acknowledgement, before gazing over at Harry and Thor, who were sharing a final hug and a few words.
"I'm going to miss you, Harry," Thor said fiercely into his son's ear. Harry had said a brief but heartfelt goodbye to all the others, and had saved his father for last.
"I'm going to miss you too, dad," Harry replied, hugging his father tightly.
Thor stepped back slightly, holding Harry's shoulders and looked into his son's eyes. They were slightly damp, and Harry seemed to notice, as he hurriedly wiped them.
Thor chuckled gently. "Don't feel ashamed, Harry. Not all tears are an evil."
"Tears are for babies," Harry mumbled, embarrassed. "I don't normally cry."
Thor shook his head sharply. "Never, ever think that," he said seriously. He quirked a slight smile. "I am over fifteen hundred years old, and I am definitely no baby. Yet I cry." He reached up to cheek and gently collected a single tear. "See? There is no shame in tears. And this is not normally, now is it?"
Harry didn't say anything. He just wrapped his arms around his father's neck and hugged him tightly for several long moments, then broke away.
"Now," Thor said. "Attend to your lessons, have fun and whatever you do… don't get caught."
Harry grinned. "I'll try," he said, then with a last hug, he turned and ran onto the train.
Not a moment later, the whistle blew, and Harry's arm emerged from the door window to wave, continuing to do so.
Thor waved back, until the train was out of view.
"Well," Fandral began, then yelped, grabbing at his feet. Both Sif and Loki had, in perfect unison, stamped on the nearest of his feet.
Tony glanced at Thor, then said, "Is it tasteless to sing 'Sunrise, Sunset' now, or do I wait until he gets a girlfriend?"
Pepper sighed, shook her head, then reached into her pocket and handed Thor a packet of tissues. "Thank you," Thor said, blowing his nose "I do not know why –"
"He's your kid," Jane said gently. "Who you've just had to really let go for the first time since you got him back. And there's some pretty bad stuff on the horizon, with… the people who murdered Lily getting involved." She took a tissue and gently wiped his cheeks. "Honestly, honey, I'd be worried if you weren't upset."
Thor didn't say anything, and for a moment, closed his eyes and leaned into her gentle touch, resembling nothing so much as a shaggy maned lion. Then he opened his eyes and smiled at her. "You are truly a wonder, Jane, do you know that?"
Jane flushed. "Well, you never stop telling me, so I figure it's going to sink in eventually," she mumbled.
"I really do hate to interrupt this rather adorable moment," Loki said. "But we need to get back to the Tower."
"Aww, can't we hang out in London for a bit?" Darcy whined.
"Not until Reindeer Games has exterminated the zombies," Tony said. "It would be… annoying if you got eaten."
"Oh come on, it's broad daylight –"
"And the sun will be down in less than six hours, if that. The forecast is for an overcast afternoon," Natasha said briskly. "London is too dangerous, for you especially."
"What? Oh, come on, who's going to connect me to you guys?"
"Lucius Malfoy," Thor said grimly. "Voldemort's spymaster and right hand man. He is the power behind this current crisis's a very rich, very clever and very powerful man. If he decides to capture you as bait or leverage, the veidrdraugar will be the least of your problems."
"If he sends the Soldier after you, your highest chances of survival are if you stay with us," Natasha said, idly scanning the crowds.
"Wait, why would someone go after me?"
"Process of deduction," Clint said casually, scanning the rafters of Paddington station. "Of the people affiliated with the Avengers, you've got Jane, who is pretty close to Thor, Tony or Bruce at all times, Sirius, who's essentially a teleporting magical commando, decade or so of prison aside, and Harry, who's going to be either close to one of us, in Asgard, or in Hogwarts which has some pretty powerful defences, plus he's got a few tricks of his own. They won't stop the Soldier, but they raise the risk level for him, enough maybe to tip the balance. Especially after Harry's escape from the Disir. The bad guys made a play for him, and they failed. They'll think twice about trying again."
"Then there's Selvig, but he's not often in town and when he isn't, he's usually working in the Triskelion," Natasha added.
"And if the Soldier cracks that, we're all dead anyway," Clint finished.
"Can more than look after herself, as well as being the CEO of Stark Industries, with the security to match," Pepper said calmly.
"They won't stop him," Natasha warned. "Nothing stops him."
Pepper glanced at Tony, slipping an arm around his waist, and said quietly, "They can slow him down. And everyone gets stopped eventually."
"Plus, last time someone kidnapped Pepper, a domestic terrorist organisation and three blocks of flats got wiped off the map," Steve said, glancing at the uncharacteristically silent Tony. "From what I hear about this Malfoy guy, which tallies pretty well with what I know of HYDRA, they'll go for the easiest target. They'll want to make us angry, but not so angry that…"
"That everything gets smashed," Bruce supplied helpfully.
"Which means you," Natasha said.
Darcy frowned, then sighed explosively. "Fine."
"Glad you see it that way," Loki said, and with a swift gesture, he teleported all of them into the Tower living room mid step.
"That," Jane said. "Was pretty cool."
"But totally showing off," Tony said, apparently having relaxed a little.
"Like you don't," Loki retorted, and went to make a coffee for himself. Sif followed him.
"Loki, this Soldier you speak of… who is he?"
"The Winter Soldier," Loki said. "He is quite possibly the deadliest assassin in the Nine Realms."
"I find that hard to believe," Sif said. "Not because of the frailties of mortal kind, but simply because he is mortal and will have had less time to practice his dark trade."
"He isn't exactly mortal," Loki said, and gave her a rundown of the Soldier's capabilities, history and well-earned reputation.
Sif was stunned. "How does such a man exist?"
"Humanity has always had a remarkable genius for warfare," Loki said, sipping his coffee. "Not in terms of personal combat, as such, not compared to the rest of the Nine Realms… but what they lack in power, they strive to make up for in their technology, what some might call Ferromancy."
"Iron magic," Sif said, and smiled grimly. "Having seen the Iron Man in action, I find that an appropriate name."
"Believe me, Sif, you have not seen the beginning of mortal weapons of destruction," Loki said grimly. "They have weapons that can devastate worlds."
"Nuclear bombs," Sif said, nodding. Loki looked surprised. "I am the Goddess of War, Loki, I consider it my duty to keep up with at least the basics of advances in weaponry across the Nine Realms."
Loki nodded his acknowledgement. "So you do," he said. "But nuclear weaponry was just the beginning. Steve is the very first example of a new kind of warfare. Genetic. Mortals have long wished to enhance their bodies, but have mostly had to do so through spells and technology like Tony's armour." He looked out the window for a long time. "A new breed of mortal is being born," he said quietly. "Like the magicals, but more… varied. They are few, for now. Some are near powerless, say, always knowing which way is North. And there is one, who, admittedly through artificial enhancement and thanks to me showing the way, could communicate mind to mind from Midgard with the Allfather as he sat on his throne in the heart of Asgard."
Sif's eyes widened.
"His name is Charles Xavier. He is Tony's godfather, a sort of adopted kin, like Sirius is to Harry," Loki continued. "He is a wise sage and an extremely clever man. He believes that his kind, mutants, have been being born on a very small scale ever since mankind first walked the Earth, say, one of notable power every millennium or so. But now, their numbers are mounting. And as their numbers mount, so will the small but growing number that are the peers of Thor, myself and those gods of similar power. I only know of one for certain, but even so…"
He shook his head. "Even so, ever since mutants first came to be, mankind has sought to harness their powers, replicate them, and control their bearers, using them as weapons. Even those who did not know of them dreamed of creating a stronger man." He gestured out the door. "Steve is the expression of that dream. He is the superman, the ultimate expression of humanities evolutionary potential, taking its native strengths to the greatest limits that can be reached while still remaining a member of humankind. He is the ultimate human. In times gone by, he would have been worshipped. He could take control of this nation so easily, he has the strength, the wits and the charisma to do it. And how fortunate humankind is that it does not occur to him."
"Maybe it does occur to him," Sif said after a long moment. "And maybe that is why he is such a humble and good man. Because he knows what he could become." She shrugged. "Maybe he has even seen it. After all, I know little of science, but I know much of weaponry. And I know for certain that you always test your weapon at least once before you use it."
Loki nodded slowly. "Yes…" he said, as memories of witnessing memories of a shadowy nightmare, a monster with a face that looked as if it had been flayed, one that took a name to match its appearance. The Red Skull. The first master of HYDRA. He'd never thought that such a creature was Steve's fellow supersoldier, but… "That would make a lot of sense."
"Of course it does," Sif murmured. "I said it."
Loki gave her a long look. "You sounded just like me there," he said eventually. "This worries me."
Sif smirked, flashing her teeth. "Good." She strode out of the kitchen, leaving a puzzled and somewhat disturbed Loki behind.
What had she been getting at?
He shook his head. Give him veidrdraugar or the Darkhold any day. At least with them, he knew what he was dealing with.
"We are facing the veidrdraugar," Loki said. "And when you fight that which is dead, there are four cardinal rules: first always bring light and fire." He conjured four flaming torches that burned with otherworldly green and gold flame by way of example. "Second, never go into the dark places, not if you can avoid it. Third, when hunting, never do so alone. Fourth…" he met all their gazes, one by one. "Never, ever drop your guard."
He brought up an image on the holotable. "This is the veidrdraugr that attempted to rip my throat out. They look like mortals, with the exception of a deathly pallor, solid, empty black eyes, dark, visible veins, and a ball of pure dark magic where their hearts would have been in life."
"How fast are they?"
"Over short distances, they are extremely fast, fast enough that even with Clint's warning, I barely managed to get my arm up in time," Loki said gravely.
Grim looks were exchanged. Among other things, Loki was renowned for being very, very fast, with reflexes that made lightning look slow, even by the standards of Asgard. Only Fandral could hope to better.
"And their strength?"
"I did not have time to grapple with one, but what little I have managed to find about them, mostly children's stories that survived and commonly agree on a single fact, suggests that their strength is enhanced by a factor of between five and ten, no matter their mortal form. They also seem to have instinctive predatory skills and possibly retain any hand to hand combat skill they had in life."
Fandral shivered. "I can only say that I am deeply glad that these were made from mortals," he said.
"I can only say that I wish they weren't made at all," Sif said.
"Well, yes," Fandral said. "But if they have to exist, is what I mean. Facing one that was once an Asgardian…" He shuddered.
"You are right to be concerned," Loki said quietly. "The last time the veidrdraugar ranged free, they nearly wiped out our people."
There was a horrified silence.
"Yes," Loki said grimly. "It took the full might of the Allfather and assistance from our allies in the other realms to destroy them. And thereafter, the Allfather destroyed all knowledge of them. There was only one place in which that knowledge survived."
"Where…" Sif began, then abruptly went white. "Oh no."
"Yes. The Darkhold has been unleashed."
Fandral swore horribly, Volstagg let out an incoherent growling noise and Hogun grimaced.
"How could this happen?" Sif asked, frowning.
"Lucius Malfoy is, as Thor said, an exceedingly dangerous man. And what makes him dangerous is that he is very, very clever," Loki said grimly. "Castel Montesi was protected by just about every kind of defence under the sun, some technological, some of wanded magic and some of the more ancient breeds of spellwork. HYDRA, SHIELD's opposite and antithesis, if you will, provided the technology, the Death Eaters provided the wandwork and some unknown sorcerer provided the ancient magic. And it was all done in such a manner that the theft was not noticed for nearly two months."
"A dangerous foe indeed," Volstagg muttered. "But a truly mad one. What kind of fool would unleash the veidrdraugar on the world?"
"I dare say we shall soon find out," Loki said, inwardly suspecting that Lucius Malfoy had no idea how big a mess he'd got himself into. "While Lucius has disappeared, his wife is very much present still. Director Fury has gone to interrogate her."
"She is a sorceress, is she not?" Fandral said.
"A reasonably powerful one by mortal standards," Loki confirmed. "But the good Director is not going alone…"
"What's the mission, sir?" James Rhodes asked. He was in full War Machine gear in a SHIELD Quinjet, and was currently wondering exactly what he was doing here, especially since his only companion was the somewhat intimidating Director Fury.
"Primarily, Colonel, I just need you to be yourself and to keep that visor of yours down," Fury said. Rhodes looked puzzled, and slightly offended, which Fury saw, so he sighed. "You are, of course, aware of what happened at MI6."
"Of course, sir."
"Are you aware of what was behind it?"
"I heard rumours sir, but if every rumour I heard was true, the President and all his predecessors back to Washington would be a member of a race of lizard people that secretly controls humanity, the Chitauri were summoned by the White House as a distraction in election year from Afghanistan and Tony is actually the father of about a billion C-List starlets kids," Rhodey said.
Fury half smiled. "True enough. Have you ever heard of the Darkhold?"
Rhodey thought for a long time. "An Italian artefact, roughly as powerful as the Tesseract, one kept under lock and key at all times," he said.
"Close enough. It is the book of dark magic," Fury said grimly. "If you don't believe me, ask Loki. When I briefed the Avengers on it being stolen, he completely freaked out. And Loki just does not do that."
"No," Rhodey said slowly. "He doesn't." He shook his head slowly. "What is there about it that could scare him that badly?"
"To give you a condensed explanation, apparently it was the inspiration for Tolkien's One Ring. But the real thing is, according to Loki, infinitely worse. And the creature who created it and can, theoretically, use it as a conduit, is even more powerful than Odin," Fury said.
Rhodey let out a long, low whistle. "Whoa. That's… that's pretty bad."
"Yeah," Fury said grimly. "Whoever's using it managed to resurrect a bunch of Asgardian nightmares called veidrdraugar. They're basically telepathic stealth zombies, silent, fast, strong and ravenously hungry. One damn near ripped Loki's throat out when it got the drop on him, and four thousand years ago, their Asgardian counterparts nearly wiped out the Asgardian species."
Rhodey gave him a dumbstruck stare, then shook his head slowly and chuckled wryly. "If someone told me five years ago that I'd be standing here in a suit of powered battle armour talking to the Director of SHIELD about Norse Gods fighting stealth zombies, I'd have had them sectioned."
Fury glanced at him. "If you'd been working for SHIELD, you'd have come across weirder," he said. "Ask Tony or Thor about Captain Mar-Vell sometime."
Rhodey blinked at him, then nodded. "Maybe I will," he said. "Can you give me a lowdown on the perp? And the person we're interrogating?"
Fury nodded, withdrawing and unfolding a holographic pad. "Knock yourself out."
Rhodey settled down and began to read.
It almost beggared belief. An English Lord, of a powerful aristocratic family that, apparently, passed on magic to its descendants as well as the usual: money, a superiority complex and a moderate tendency towards inbreeding. One who had also been the right hand of a dangerous domestic terrorist, a bona fide Dark Lord called 'Lord Voldemort', an Alpha class threat, who'd terrorised Britain from the late 70's to the early 90's, before, apparently, meeting his doom at the hands of a one year old Harry Thorson. The circumstances no one had ever really figured out.
All that was known for sure was the fact that Harry's mother, Lily, as striking a beauty as Rhodey had ever seen, had been found dead in front of her son's crib, facing the door. The not unreasonable assumption was that, though unarmed, she had refused to stand aside, protecting her son to the last. And she had paid for it with her life.
However, this was only briefly touched upon, to give context to Malfoy's role.
His personal capabilities were extensive, but they amounted to, in summary, moderate to long range teleportation, close range single target mind control, a freaking real life death ray, torture, low level transmutation, conjuration, pyrokinesis, binding, paralysis and unconscious inducement. Thankfully, all of this was channelled through a wooden stick. Remove the stick, remove the problem. Besides, Tony had had Loki put up some basic mystical defences on the armour. It wasn't going to resist a massive mystical onslaught, but Rhodey wasn't going to find himself trapped inside a giant pink rabbit in mid-air either. Or at least, that was how Tony had put it to him, and he'd been on his third tumbler of scotch at the time.
The man had been implicated in nearly eighty murders, three hundred disappearances and was suspected of planning nearly a thousand others in Western Europe alone, he'd been Voldemort's spymaster, controlling a formidable spy network that spread from the Shetland Islands off Scotland to Rabat, Moscow and Jerusalem. At the time of Voldemort's fall, it had been extending into North America and Asia.
Even more worryingly, he'd been an ally of Baron Von Strucker, the quasi immortal German terrorist best known as the leader HYDRA. The report went into a lot of detail on the subject, and mentioned that the two had apparently rekindled the old friendship.
But worst of all…
"The Winter Soldier. Sir, are you sure?"
"Certain," Fury said. "We have a positive ID from Director Peter Wisdom of MI13, who fought the Soldier and barely escaped with his life."
"That's still pretty impressive."
"He's a pretty impressive man," Fury said. "And he had a few tricks up his sleeve that the Soldier wasn't ready for."
"So, you're certain that it's him," Rhodey said, probing for confirmation.
Fury sighed. "Dead certain. Black Widow worked as his partner for thirty five years," he said. "She knows his methods and she says its him. I trust her judgement."
"Thirty five years?" Rhodey said, incredulous. "That would make her at least –"
"Eighty this year," Fury said calmly. "She was picked out as the best of the Red Room, the Russian supersoldier project, and received the Infinity Formula." He glanced at Rhodey. "You're a candidate, you know."
"The Infinity Formula," Fury said. "And for SWORD."
Rhodey stared at him, stunned.
"I'd have recruited you for SHIELD a long time ago if you weren't doing such a damn fine job in the Air Force and in making sure that Stark didn't fry his brain on a daily basis," Fury added.
"In point of fact, sir, Tony fried his brain at least three times a week," Rhodey pointed out.
"But never so badly that he couldn't function," Fury said. "Largely thanks to you, Mr Hogan and Miss Potts." He looked seriously at Rhodey. "If it weren't for you, we wouldn't have Tony Stark's genius to call upon. And if we didn't have that, among other things, the Chitauri would have overrun us, New York would have been nuked, and Loki's heel would have rested firmly on humanity's collective throat."
"Right," Rhodey said. "But I didn't do it for you. I did it for Tony."
"I know," Fury said. "And you did it much more effectively because of that."
"Okay, fine," Rhodey said. "I've got a few questions. First, what is SWORD? Second, why am I a candidate for Infinity? And third, why would I want to have anything to do with the product of Camp Cathcart?"
"SWORD is going to be a subdivision of SHIELD," Fury said. "One geared to protecting the Earth from extra-terrestrial and extra-dimensional threats. As for Infinity…" He grunted. "I see you've done your research," he said. "Not many know about the Black Patriot. There's only one other person I've even heard mention it."
"Yeah, three hundred black men were experimented on in a fashion that would have made the Mengele proud," Rhodey said coldly.
"You aren't wrong," Fury admitted. "And by any reasonable standard, what happened there was a war crime." He shook his head. "Rogers would never had stood for it."
"Well it was kinda because he wasn't there that it happened," Fury said. "Not many know about the Black Patriot. The only other person I've even heard mention it was Bruce Banner, and he only knew about it because he used to work on a supersoldier project himself." He glanced at Rhodey. "If I had to make an educated guess, that's why he insisted on testing it on himself."
"I can see that," Rhodey said. "He's a good man."
"He is," Fury agreed.
"Tony knows about it," Rhodey said. "He was the one who dug up the information for me a couple of years back."
Fury half smiled. "I thought he had a hand in the convictions," he said, remembering how a few old soldiers found themselves being arrested for all manner of offences and swiftly being tried and convicted. "But I'd have thought that he'd have gone public."
"He's biding his time," Rhodey said. Fury gave him an inquiring look. Rhodey sighed. "He hasn't said as much, but he knows that the Pentagon is pissed at him and so are a lot of other NATO states, pissed because they're not getting Stark Industries weapons any more. If I had to guess, he's building a damn big gun to point at the Pentagon's head."
Fury nodded slowly. "If he puts Camp Cathcart and the origins of the Hulk out there, it could destroy a lot of careers and completely shatter the US's moral credibility," he said. "And it wouldn't do national morale much good either."
"Yeah. If they try and take him down, they'll face a scandal that'll make Watergate look like a missed budget meeting," Rhodey said, with some relish. Fury, catching this, raised his eyebrows.
"I'm a company man, sir. I took an oath to defend my country and I'll hold to that oath until the day I die, if not after. Being a soldier gives you a lot of power, a lot of respect, and I like to think that that respect is well deserved, because it's a kind of power in and of itself. But these last few years, after seeing the opposition to Tony as Iron Man, getting to know Doctor Banner… I've come to realise that there's a good few people high up in the armed forces who've forgotten or disregarded the moral responsibilities that come with that power," Rhodey said. "And if Tony sets a cat among the pigeons, I'm not stopping him. Hell, I'd help him do it."
"Some might say that that is treason," Fury said calmly.
Rhodey snorted. "A lot of the time, sir, I find that treason is a word that's used whenever someone down below does or says something that makes the people up top uncomfortable and the people up top want to shut them up."
"Cynical," Fury commented. "But not entirely wrong." He turned to Rhodey. "And here's something else cynical, but not entirely wrong: the result of Cathcart and later refinement is a serum that, while not as effective as the original, has no recorded negative side effects. Out of those crimes came immortality, Colonel Rhodes, the same way as out of World War II came the rocket, the jet engine and nuclear technology. Immortality. And as you can imagine, it's not something I offer lightly. You're a good man, a good soldier with skills that it would be a crying shame to lose. You have no living family closer than third cousin once removed. You're the perfect candidate."
"I… I'm not sure what to say, sir," Rhodey managed.
"I'm not asking you to decide right now," Fury said calmly. "It's an offer, nothing more. You can take as long to think about it as you like. Hell, take years: Infinity has a powerful rejuvenation effect on recipients." He glanced down at the pad. "You read what you need?"
"Yeah," Rhodey said. "The person we're meeting is Malfoy's wife, right?"
"Yeah, Narcissa Malfoy. I know how to deal with her," Fury said calmly.
"Do you… have history with her and her husband, sir?"
Fury was silent for a long moment. "Direct your attention to the date of the night that Malfoy Manor nearly burnt down," he said. "Also direct your attention to the facts that Lucius Malfoy walks with a limp and is on his second wand."
"Right," Rhodey said slowly. "Is anyone else on this mission?"
"MI13 have sent an Agent, a telepath with extensive mystical experience, to make sure that Narcissa's telling the truth," Fury said. "A new recruit, admittedly, and a little wild, but very competent according to Wisdom."
"What's his name?" Rhodey said, as the Quinjet came into land.
"According to Director Wisdom, she goes by Psylocke."
Steve sighed as he read the files.
"What's up, Steve?" Tony asked, swilling his scotch.
"It's just… what with seeing Albus and Minerva again, and being reminded of HYDRA and Grindelwald, I decided to dig into SHIELD's files on Neo Nazism," Steve said, looking a little downcast.
"Were you trying to depress yourself?"
"I'd heard of the phenomenon, but I hoped it was… tiny. Hardly heard about," Steve said. "And I get this." He gestured at the very large pile of files.
"You want a heartwarming and upbeat one, try this one, from the late sixties," Tony said, drinking the scotch and bringing up a file on the holographic screams.
Steve did. Steve read it. "Tony, this is about a cult of insane murderers who wanted to incite a race war," he said, disgusted.
"Who got taken out just as they were going to murder the family and friends of a film director, by a freelance Nazi hunter who operated in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. This was near the start of his 'career'. No one knew who he was, but his trademark was getting his enemies to either turn on each other or to stab or shoot themselves," Tony commented. "And they generally didn't look like they'd done it of their own will. It was one of SHIELD's first cases."
"Did he ever bring anyone into custody?" Steve asked.
"Nope. They all died. Guy was ruthlessly efficient. And I think dad might have known him, though he never said anything about it. He'd just look at the news stories and give a weird half smile, like he knew something about it no one else did," Tony added, tone reflective.
"And that's your definition of heartwarming?"
"Well, since he saved a bunch of innocent people, including an unborn baby, from some total psychos, I figure it counts," Tony said idly. "Besides, compared to that bunch of files, it's practically It's A Wonderful Life."
Steve had to concede this point. It made grim reading for a man who had seen so many of his friends die fighting the Nazis, and who had seen the concentration camps. There is no creed, no matter how stupid, vile or discredited, that will not find followers.
But, then again, he thought, there were always people who would stand against that kind of evil. No matter what it cost them. And that made him feel a little better.
"You've perked up," Tony observed.
"I just realised that no matter how bad things get, how evil some people are… there's always someone in the way. Someone willing to tell them, 'no. No more.'"
"And mostly those people die," Tony pointed out, in a characteristically cynical manner. But what followed reminded Steve that there was more to Tony Stark than met the eye. Far more. "But… there are worse ways to go."
Steve smiled. "Yeah. There are."
He'd died once to stop HYDRA. And if push came to shove, if it would save even one life… he'd do it again.
Coulson strode into the office block. Ward had tried to insist on coming with him, but Coulson had stamped on that. He was exactly the sort of person that Dresden took a great deal of joy in aggravating, and he was here to hire the man, not provide him with target practice.
After taking the stairs to the fourth floor – the elevator was out of order, apparently. They must not have replaced the old one – he walked along until he reached a door that said 'Harry Dresden, Wizard' on it. He knocked.
He opened the door. It was not exactly an expensively outfitted office, most of it being both second hand and well used. But it was all serviceable, and somewhat idiosyncratic. Much like the man who rented it.
And it was on that man that his gaze settled.
The first impression most people got about Harry Dresden that he was an extremely tall man. As in, he was only a couple of inches off seven feet. Yet, strangely enough, he also hunched ever so slightly, keeping his long, leanly muscled limbs close to his body, he almost never met anyone's gaze for more than a second, and he spoke softly, as if apologising for his powerful baritone voice. It was almost like he was wearing a body several sizes too big for him and gave most people the impression that he was slightly autistic.
This could be accounted for by several things. One, with his sharp cut features, height and long duster coat, often accompanied by his long staff, he cut an intimidating figure and he knew it. Two, he never met anyone's gaze for fear of initiating a soulgaze. You saw the very heart of someone, laid bare for examination, but it was a two way process: they saw yours as well. Warts and all. Three, he was almost invariably the most dangerous man in the room. He could become something close to a god with his raw power. Not on Thor or Loki's scale, maybe, but men with less power than him had been worshipped before, and for good reason. If Dresden went bad, he had the potential to make Voldemort look like a lightweight. He knew it. And it frightened him.
He undoubtedly cut a strange figure, one only made stranger by the fact that he now wore a black glove on his left hand, something he did to hide something that was less a hand, more a prop from a horror film, a scorched, melted, withered claw. The incident in which he'd got it – apparently there had been a vampire's servant that had got creative with some homemade napalm and shield of pure force doesn't do much to stop heat – had also left him with a severe case of pyrophobia, which was an ironic affliction in a man some accused of being a pyromaniac. It had only shifted with a lot patient telepathic therapy from Professor Charles Xavier.
But he was also a good, kind man and a deeply useful ally. Even if Coulson hadn't been able to judge his character for himself, the word of Thomas and Martha Wayne was held in high regard.
Speaking of the Waynes, their only child, Bruce Wayne, was one of the other people in the office. He was, what, fourteen now? Only a little older than Thor's son, and there was some similarity in appearance. Both were good looking boys, with dark hair, pale skin, strong but differing bone structure and both were showing signs of prodigious future growth to come, with slightly puppyish proportions.
Oh yes. And both were into magic.
While, to the best of his knowledge, Bruce Wayne didn't have any magical talent, he had a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of magical theory, and the only reason he didn't know more was that there some aspects of the craft that Dresden outright refused to teach him. Instead, he'd settled for initiating the boy into private investigation and criminology, which, again, young Bruce was swiftly developing an expertise in.
The boy's piercing blue eyes had settled on him, doubtless trying to work out who was, what he was, who he worked for. This was one kid who wasn't going to fall for the harmless bureaucrat impression.
The third person in the room mostly resembled a cheerleader, being five foot and change tall, built with the springy muscle of a gymnast that certainly didn't detract from her good looks. She had pale, clear skin, golden blonde hair that was currently pulled back in a ponytail, crystal clear blue eyes and a cute button nose.
Many men were fooled by her cute good looks.
Coulson wasn't, and accorded her the same sort of professional respect he accorded the Black Widow, who tended to be underestimated for similar reasons. He didn't think even Natasha had taken out a fullgrown troll Faerie with a chainsaw, something that was probably more down to a lack of opportunity than anything else.
Her name was Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, and she did the job that SHIELD did – keep the bad stuff down, and she did it on what was still a pretty sparse budget, despite significant funding increases in the light of the Chitauri invasion, the existence of Thor and Loki and the dawning realisation that mankind was not alone in this universe. She was a professional, but one who knew how and when to think outside the box and bend the rules. Really, it was a pity that she had gone to the cops. She'd have made a crack SHIELD Agent.
"Agent Coulson?" Dresden said, sounding a little wary.
"Hello Harry, Mr Wayne, Lieutenant Murphy," Coulson said.
"Harry," Murphy said slowly, in a tone that said she'd quite like some answers.
"Murph, Bruce, this is Agent Coulson of SHIELD," Dresden said.
This inspired two very different reactions: Murphy's eyes narrowed, while Bruce's lit up.
"SHIELD?" both said, in two very different tones.
Coulson smiled his bland official smile to mask the fact that he was, in fact, imagining them on stage as a comedy double act. "Yes."
Murphy stood and very pointedly stepped forward, simultaneously putting herself between Coulson and Dresden and very much in Coulson's personal space. Coulson carefully looked non-threatening. Ten years ago, he'd have fancied his chances and even now, he felt he could take nine out of ten people who came at him. Unfortunately, she was nearly twenty years younger than him, her file said that she was a highly skilled martial artist and probably more in practice as far as hand to hand combat went.
"Look me in the eye," Dresden said suddenly, voice tense. Coulson did, and after a long moment, Dresden nodded, relieved. "It's him. Relax, Murph, he's on the level."
"I've Gazed him," Dresden said quietly. "And he's helped me out of a tight spot or two before."
Murphy stepped back, giving Coulson a long, careful look, then nodded. Dresden turned back to Coulson. "I heard you were dead. Killed in single combat with Loki himself, which gets you major cool points," the man commented. His words were flippant, but there was something in the tone. "And yet… you aren't."
"Loki skewered me, then I blasted him. After that, he decided to leave me for dead."
"You know the Destroyer?"
Dresden's expression closed off. "I've heard stories," he said guardedly.
"Thor destroyed it in New Mexico, and SHIELD managed to salvage it."
"So you made a gun out of it," Murphy said.
"In the interest of accuracy, it was a very big gun," Coulson said.
Murphy snorted, and muttered something about compensating.
"Tell me Coulson, was it…" Dresden began, and there was a small grin on his face. "Semiautomagic?"
Murphy groaned, while Bruce grinned. "Dresden, that was awful."
"I thought it was pretty funny," Bruce said.
"See? The minion agrees," Dresden said, folding his arms, tone, action and expression reminiscent of Tony Stark.
Coulson decided there and then that they could never meet.
"I am not a minion!"
"Yeah, you are, kid."
"I'm an apprentice!" Bruce complained, pouting. "And you still won't turn me into animals, like Merlin!"
"Because I told your parents that I wouldn't let you get melted into a pile of goo," Dresden said patiently. He looked back at Coulson, expression hardening. "You died, man! Everyone in the supernatural community heard about it!"
"I wasn't properly dead," Coulson said. "Doctor Strange saved my life."
Dresden froze. "Doctor Strange," he said slowly. "As in, Doctor Stephen Strange, the freaking Sorcerer Supreme?"
"Who?" Murphy asked.
"He's…" Dresden began, then shook his head slowly. "The guy's a legend in the supernatural community, Murph. You know how I told you about the Senior Council? Strange could probably take them all on at once. And win. He's the first line of defence against the sort of things that Lovecraft talked about and the really, really bad Warlocks. His last freaking apprentice was Senior Council level by the time she was forty, if not before then. The one, some guy called Mordo, before hit that level when he was fifty."
Murphy's eyebrows rose. "I thought you said wizards don't hit their prime until they turned one hundred?" she said.
"I did," Dresden said seriously.
"I think Wanda, the apprentice in question, is a special case," Coulson put in. "She's stronger than anyone short of Strange or Loki himself."
Murphy smirked at Dresden. "Yeah, Dresden. You hear that? Girls can do the wizarding business better. Without the phallic symbology."
Dresden sniffed haughtily and clutched his staff close. "It makes me feel all manly."
Coulson coughed pointedly. "Now we have established that I'm not dead, I have a proposition for you."
Bruce sniggered, and Dresden rolled his eyes. "What?"
"MI6 was destroyed by necromantic constructs referred to by Loki as veidrdraugar. You're acknowledged as one of the top five trackers on the planet, and where magic is concerned, you are quite possibly the best," Coulson said. "I've got a team working on tracking down the necromancer and their servants."
"What kind of mission?"
Coulson's expression hardened. "Search and Destroy."
Murphy's expression grew harsher. "Agent Coulson, in this country, we have a little thing called due process," she began.
"Murph," Dresden said quietly. "You can't mirandize someone that powerful. You can't lock them up, they'd be worse than the Loup Garou. If you put a freaking necromancer into the general prison population, you're just giving them a whole new undead army in waiting."
"SHIELD could hold them," Murphy said defiantly.
"Lieutenant Murphy, the person who is behind this attack is using an artefact called the Darkhold," Coulson said quietly. "Believe me when I say that they're too far gone. It is essentially the ultimate book of dark magic."
Dresden went white. "What. The. Hell."
"Dresden?" Murphy asked. "Is it as bad as he's suggesting?"
"It is," Dresden said quietly, barely keeping his voice steady. He sounded shaken, and Coulson couldn't blame him. "Murph, can you take Bruce home? Tell his parents to be on their guard, and if the worst comes to worst, the wards I set up should protect them. Thomas could also lend a hand, maybe." He raised a hand to forestall the objections. "I'll tell you later. But right now, I think Bruce should get home."
Murphy's lips compressed into a thin line, but she nodded, taking Bruce by the shoulder. He shook her off.
"I'm not a little kid, boss," he said stubbornly.
"You're fourteen, kid," Dresden barked suddenly, drawing himself up. And just then, worried and angry, he looked a lot more like the man Coulson had seen take on three mountain trolls at once and win, a powerful practitioner of the art who was feared by half the vampires in the Western Hemisphere and roughly as many of his wizards too. "And believe me, what's going on right now is way out of my league, let alone yours. So go home with Murph and stay there, or I'll tell your parents that your apprenticeship is over since you clearly can't do what you're told!"
Bruce went pale, then red, then turned and ran out of the room.
Dresden sighed and rubbed at his face.
"Christ, Harry… I haven't seen you yell at him before," Murphy said quietly. "Not over something so small. Teenage boys don't like being told what to do. You know that."
"Yeah, I know. But I don't have time for rebellion right now," Dresden said tiredly. "Hell, it's probably overdue. The kid's clever, really clever. He also thinks that just knowing is enough and it makes him invincible." He shook his head. "The Darkhold is world ending material. It's sentient and it can turn anyone, literally anyone, into a near unstoppable nightmare. Even freaking opening it violates the Seventh Law of Magic, and there's only one sentence for that. God help us if whoever has the thing actually knows anything about what they're doing."
"If it helps, Lieutenant Murphy, Loki reacted far worse to the knowledge that it had been stolen," Coulson said. "He was genuinely frightened by the prospect. Which is, if my briefings are accurate, a reasonable reaction."
"They probably are. SHIELD's intel is pretty reliable," Dresden commented. He stood. "Murph, if you could…"
Murphy nodded, and turned to go. She paused. "Harry?"
Then she left without another word.
"Will you take the case?"
"I don't know, man," Dresden said, sighing. "The freaking Darkhold? That's the sort of thing you mobilise the entire White Council and the Sorcerer Supreme to deal with."
"The White Council is at war right now," Coulson said. "And they don't have the resources to spare. We can't find Strange. He's up to something, but we don't know what. The Scarlet Witch isn't getting involved."
"She'd get involved if you dropped the Darkhold into conversation," Dresden said weakly.
"Not necessarily. She's off the board for now," Coulson said. "Besides. She isn't you. She's powerful, yes, probably the second most powerful mortal practitioner alive. But she doesn't have your gift for tracking."
"You're not going to need a tracking expert to find someone using the Darkhold," Dresden said darkly.
"Actually, we will. The Darkhold has been gone for two months, but the current owner has, with the exception of the attack on MI6, gone underground," Coulson said. "They're part of a wider conspiracy, one involving the remnants of the Death Eaters, HYDRA, and a few others."
Dresden grimaced. "The wanded people are involved?" he asked. "Great. This case just gets better and better. Why are they keeping quiet?"
"We don't know, but the fact that they are means that we've got a chance to nip this in the bud," Coulson said. "An Asgardian strike team is planetside and the Avengers are ready to strike but at the very least, we need to know where to land the punch. At best, we're hoping to flush them out into the open and sweep the board."
Dresden nodded. "That sounds sensible."
"So you're taking it?"
"No. Coulson, I'm out of my depth with the Darkhold," Dresden said, going to the door. "I'm sorry, but this is just too much for me."
"They killed children," Coulson said quietly.
Dresden paused, hand on the door knob, staff under his left arm. "What?"
"The necromancer," Coulson said, tone completely devoid of emotion. "Investigation revealed that he or she gave their monsters a test run first. They were made from small groups of transients, some of which had small children with them. Babies, really. Too small to be of use as servants. So they were fed to the veidrdraugar. Alive."
Dresden's hands clenched into fists, the burnt one with a creak of leather and crackle of dead skin.
"And then there was a young family, in a car," Coulson said, tone still unchanging. "The Collins family. William Collins, the father and driver, was twenty eight. Elizabeth Collins, the mother, was twenty nine. She was four months pregnant. They were hoping for a girl. Their twin sons, Jack and David Collins, were four. They were looking forward to their Christmas presents and meeting their little sister. It was Christmas Eve. They were driving to Cambridge, to spend Christmas with Mr Collins' parents. They stopped at a red light, even though the streets were open. They might have lived if they hadn't, though it's quite possible that the veirdrdraugar could run done a speeding car. It doesn't matter in the end. They were caught. Mrs Collins managed to escape through the front windscreen. She barely made it off the bonnet."
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a folding tablet. Normally, technology exploded in Dresden's presence. His kind of magic was more wild than the wanded kind, and so it often had more effect on its surroundings, including messing with technology. Apparently Tony Stark had solved that little problem in fifteen minutes. It wouldn't surprise him. Stark, for all his abrasiveness, was undoubtedly a genius.
He turned it on, folded it out and laid it on the desk, bringing up a series of holographic images. "This is the crime scene."
Dresden turned and flicked his gaze to the pictures, taking in the ruin of the car, the magnified pieces of painfully small bones. His face was expressionless, but the careful kind of expressionless that suggests that underneath the mask lay a bubbling volcano of emotion.
He turned his gaze on Coulson, and even though the SHIELD Agent had stared down Loki himself in the past, even though he knew that Dresden wasn't his enemy and even though the anger wasn't directed at him… he felt a cold shiver run down his spine.
"I'll take the case," Dresden said curtly. "Give me two hours to make a few arrangements, collect some gear, then I'm yours."
Coulson nodded. "Good. Welcome to SHIELD, Wizard Dresden."
To quote Gandalf, "The board is set, the pieces are moving." Next chapter features the action. And it shall be epic. So epic that it may even take up two chapters.
For the confused:
Harry Dresden: Professional Wizard, PI and black sheep of the White Council (in this verse, the governing body of naturally wandless wizards. Run by Arthur Langtry, the Merlin, who's basically Dumbledore if he'd gone into politics. He terrifies Fudge). Is incredibly badass (more sledgehammer than scalpel, as compared to wanded wizards, but effective nonetheless), deeply snarky and also a very complex man – despite what he would have others believe.
To give a taste of his awesome he has ridden (or at this point in his timeline, will ride) an undead T-Rex into battle. An. Undead. T-Rex.
Like the other Harry, he has a 'saving people thing'. A truly epic one. We'll see a sizeable section from his point of view next chapter, and, to be frank, that'll be easier for me to write.
For now, all you need to know is that he's a badass and very good for tracking things down, and while Cerebro will be able to give a rough area, they'll need a precise tracker on the ground, and Dresden is very good at that. He's also exceptionally good with fire magic, which is why a vampire with a sense of irony had it turned against him.
Lieutenant Karrin Murphy: Imagine Buffy about ten years older, minus all the superpowers and none of the badassery. She is small, cute, and if you bring it up, she can end your life in a large number of extremely painful ways.
This is the woman who stood her ground against a charging werewolf on steroids with nothing but a .22 loaded with silver bullets, and, with a severe leg injury, took on a troll (admittedly, one vulnerable to iron) with a chainsaw and won.
She's a crack shot, a master martial artist and runs the Special Investigations department, which deals with the weird and usually, the supernatural, in a world that (in this verse) is still coming to terms with magic and monsters being real.
Bruce Wayne: Yes, he is exactly who you think he is. I wasn't entirely sure how to write his character, and I suspect that shows. He's extremely clever, a bit of know it all, a little arrogant and supremely self-confident, but good hearted and kind, and he wants to help people. He also, as you can see, highly values the good opinion of those he respects.
In this verse, he's Harry Dresden's apprentice as a PI, and, to an extent, in magic. While he has no power of his own (or at least, not yet. Dresden's kind of magic manifests anywhere between ten and sixteen), he has exceptional grasp of magical theory – enough to get him into trouble, but not out of it again. As for how his parents are still alive… that little mystery will be explained next chapter, though I think you can guess at it.
The Seventh Law of Magic is basically, 'don't try to find out about and/or contact eldritch abominations'. The Seven Laws of Magic are basically hard and fast rules. Don't kill with magic, don't transform others, don't invade the mind of another, don't mind control another, don't raise the (human) dead (there is a loophole to be exploited here), don't time travel via magic and the seventh law. The only sentence is Death. A suspended sentence is possible, if there's a wizard willing to take a chance on the law breaker – which is rare, because using dark magic tends to drive this sort of wizard completely crazy and by the time they're found, it's usually too late.
To complicate things, these laws only apply to the wandless wizards that fall under the jurisdiction of the White Council (so the Wizarding World doesn't count).