Chapter 1: Freefall
This is part one of the series 'From the Head Down', which will eventually be made up of four parts. Part one is (obviously) completed. The first chapter of part two will be up in the next three weeks.
Chapter One: Freefall
It was not a well-known fact that Nick Fury hated the heat.
Those that did know were few and far between; isolated by geography, or time, or in many cases, death. It was an interesting revelation for one to learn when presented with the image of the man, clad as he were in his well-worn leather coat and trademark skivvy. One could imagine that he wrapped himself up so, as a sign of rebellion against his (admittedly minor) weakness. He was a spy- hell he was the spy. A pathological hatred for high temperatures was not about to stop him from looking like a badass.
Of course, that was not to say that he wasn’t above turning the thermostat on the Helicarrier as low as possible at any given opportunity. Being the super spy had its advantages; complete monopoly over the air-conditioning being one of the more important ones.
Which was why, when he woke up this morning, he was left wondering why in all seven hells was it so damn hot. Either he was going through menopause (which would have been interesting, given Nick was quite sure he was not a woman) or someone had touched the temperature gauge. Unsurprisingly, Nick was more inclined to side with the latter possibility.
He strides down the halls of the helicarrier at a brisk pace, but not fast enough to make it look like he’s running. Never let it be said that Nick Fury runs for the thermostat.
He reaches the bridge just in time for the to-the-point words of Agent Hill to blurt from his earpiece, “Sir, there’s an unidentified aircraft in our flight path.”
He doesn’t bother replying via com, instead content to walk the five meters onwards to the sliding doors, key in his command code and bark out a suitably intimidating “Status?” as he marches through the doors. Hill, as ever, looks unfazed, though numerous other agents jump in their seats.
He’ll get her someday.
“Unknown,” She states when he reaches her, “But it’s losing altitude quickly. It might be one of Stark’s, but there’s no identification signature. It just popped up out of nowhere; could be a stealth craft.” He fights the urge to grimace. He can remember the last time they had to deal with one of Stark’s inventions; it was a bloody nightmare. Granted, the plans had been stolen and reproduced by someone else, but that didn’t excuse the fact that it had been one of the self-proclaimed genius’ creations.
“Bring up visuals.”
A screen flickers to life in the middle of the bridge and the room draws a collective breath of surprise and horror (well, Fury does neither, but that’s hardly shocking news). He hears a muted ‘Good God’ from someone to his left; he can’t help but agree.
It’s just a smudge on the huge screen but there is very obviously a man, uncovered and unprotected, falling from the sky some several hundred meters above them. What looks like a cape flutters behind him violently, like broken wings.
“Get a pilot out there, now.” He snarls, unable to tear his eyes away. He can hear Agent Hill snapping out hurried orders over the com. The man draws closer with each passing second, almost directly above the helicarrier now. He twirls uncontrolled in the wind, beautiful and horrifying in his freefall, and Fury can’t help but pray to the God he doesn’t believe in that the man is either dead or unconscious. Preferably dead because if not, then he is in for a world of pain when (or more terrifyingly, if) they catch him.
The agents in the Bridge look on in silence as the jet speeds out, fast as lightning but not fast enough. The body drops past before the pilot even has a chance to reach him. Determined, the jet streaks down in an effort to overtake the free-faller but it’s to no avail. The body and the plane fall closer and closer to the ocean below, neither making headway of the other.
Finally, tragically, the jet is forced to swerve away.
The room watches in a collective state of shock and helplessness when the body hits the water with what they can all imagine is a sickening smack. Some of his agents look like they’re about to cry… or vomit.
He wants to shoot something. Bite and tear and scream. Instead he allows himself a moment of quiet, closing his eyes to the horror before them. There was nothing that could be done. The man was dead the moment he appeared. The excuses do nothing to alleviate the rage at the failure, but they at least sooth the pain. If there is one thing Fury hates above all else (above even heat), it is failure.
“Pick up the body.” He murmurs into his earpiece when he opens his eyes.
And they all sit and observe, silent and transfixed, as a helicopter comes down to retrieve the body of the freefalling man.
Chapter 2: Rude Awakenings (Or according to Tony Stark, Nude Awakenings)
1. There is implied sort-of-kind-of MalexMale sexy times in this chapter. If that is not your thing, then I suggest you don't read this chapter. Even if it is, I will reiterate that this only implied, and if you read on, you will see that it's kind of... not, as well.
Would also like to cover timelines here. As of this chapter, the events of Thor 2 has just ended, as have Agents of SHIELD: The Well (rest assured that it's not essential to have seen this series though). I live in denial about the events of Ironman 3, so whilst I might reference some events from it, for the most part my characters will act as though it had never existed. Furthermore Tony/Pepper are not a couple. Because I don't like it.
Tony Stark liked to think of himself as a smart man.
Okay… so really he liked to think of himself as a genius; the brightest of his age, in fact. He'd built on his father's company with top of the range inventions- first with weapons, and later, after his adventure in Afghanistan, cutting edge developments in clean energy. A great number of which were his own inventions.
Hell, he was the fucking Ironman.
Given his distinguished (and admittedly obnoxious) intellect, it was therefore quite obvious that he would pride himself on his memory; infallible, he often claimed, even when blind drunk. Which, to be fair, was quite often now. And really, who could blame him? He'd seen some messed up shit in his years- God he'd almost fucking died in the battle of New York- not to mention that time before that with the arc-reactor. It was all enough to send anyone 'round the bend, and, well, Tony had always had an inclination to be a lush.
But I digress.
Tony Stark prided himself on his impeccable memory. He could rely upon it come rain, hail or shine. Hangover or no hangover.
Which was why he was quite surprised to find a distinctly male arm lying across his chest at four a.m. on a Sunday morning.
Because he could have sworn he'd taken a woman to bed last night ( legs that ran forever, hair black as night and green eyes as bright as his arc reactor… sounded about right).
"Jarvis." He croaks, feeling distinctly not good- Jesus how much did I drink last night?
"Yes sir?' comes the mercifully quiet reply. Godbless Jarvis, ever the considerate one. The man sprawled across his bed doesn't even stir.
"What happened last night?"
An uncharacteristic pause, then; "You took a Miss Eventide to bed sir." This does not help him, not one bit. Tony retracts the blessing of his glorious creation. He thinks back to the night previously. He'd picked up Laila from one of his usual haunts… taken her home… had multiple bouts of mind-numbingly good sex and passed out at some time around 2:30.
Not that this helps, because that is very obviously a man lying in his bed, lying on his stomach, head turned away from him. There is something missing from this story.
"So why is the she now a he?"
Another pause. This is becoming quite disconcerting.
"I don't know sir." Nope, definitely not liking where this is going, "There are some strange energy readings coming off your companion however sir."
A slight hesitation as Jarvis accesses his databanks, "They are quite similar to the energy readings recorded from Loki."
"… Jarvis get the suit ready."
Slowly, carefully, Tony begins to extricate himself from the bed, trying his hardest not to wake the woman-come-man who may or may not be Loki. His sensor bracelets are blessedly still on his bedside table and a pair of boxers lie in the corner of the room. He slips them on as he moves silently (or at least, as silently as he can) to the door and freedom.
His chances of a quick and bloodless escape are dashed when the man on his bed stirs awake.
"Stark?" comes the muffled voice, and oh God but he'd recognise that voice anywhere, "Fuck. What's the time?" Loki groans into the pillow, rolling over. His lower half is mercifully entangled in Tony's sheets. His movement alerts him to the light of Tony's arc reactor, which glows like a fucking beacon in the darkened room.
Tony is suddenly struck by the hilarity of this situation; they are both quite naked… well, Loki more than Tony now, but that was entirely beside the point. He suddenly feels very vulnerable. Generally Tony Stark has no issue with walking around in his birthday suit. Unfortunately, generally does not include being starkers in the presence of the man who tried to take over the world… who is also naked… whom he may or may not have sex with.
"Loki." He manages to croak out, fighting the urge to burst into hysterics- he is so, so dead.
"Stark." The God-slash-villain sits up, resting on his elbows. The sheets pool in his terrifyingly close to his lap. Tony does his very best at not looking down.
"You were a woman." Tony points out, unable to really say anything more; there are too many circuits shorting out in his brain.
Loki smirks, unashamedly. Tony has the strongest urge to hit him with a chair.
"I had sex with you." Loki looks like he wants to start laughing. He wants to hit him even more, right in his pretty face.
"You did." A silence stretches out as Tony inwardly panics. Loki sits up properly and the sheet sinks even lower.
"For a self-proclaimed genius, I'm feeling rather unimpressed by your conversational skills." He sighs in an almost disappointed fashion, "And I had such great expectations of you."
"Why?" Tony finally manages to gasp, still stuck on Loki's previous statement. Fortunately the fallen god takes the hint. He leans back against the headboard, acting for all the world as if it were his bed he was sitting naked in.
"I was curious. And bored… mostly bored."
Tony can do nothing but let out an unmanly squeak, absolutely bewildered by this turn of events.
"So you chose to have sex with me? As a woman?!"
Loki just shrugs, pinning him down with a look that screams Please, I am a god, I do what I want.
It is at this point that Tony decides he has had enough of this situation. He turns as if to leave the room.
And promptly faints.
Chapter 3: Misunderstandings
Chapter Three: Misunderstandings
Fury glowers at the bed that refuses to be quiet. It is surrounded by various instruments that let out an assortment of beeps and blips in a seemingly random order.
"I don't understand." Nick Fury is not one to proclaim these words often; they are for the realms of lesser men, but in some cases their utterance is a necessary evil.
Unfortunately for him, his companion seems to comprehend this phenomena even less than he does.
"I-In all my years I've never seen anything like this," stutters Doctor Lapinsas. Fury is hardly surprised by that, "By all rights he should be dead. The blunt force trauma to the head alone…" the man trails off, apparently too lost for words to carry on.
"But he's not."
The doctor looks at him as if he were the idiot, "Clearly not, no. But he has numerous broken bones- many of which are shattered beyond repair. Internal bleeding, ruptured organs… if his brain continues to swell we'll be forced to take him into more surgery, perform a craniotomy-" Fury doesn't know what that is, but he can guess, "-to try and relieve some of the pressure or we risk permanent brain damage." More brain damage, he means. If Fury could be bothered, he would raise his eyebrow at him. Dr Lapinsas carries on oblivious, "We've already done all that we can do to save him…"
"What's his likelihood of survival?"
The man sighs, resigned, "He'll be lucky to make it til morning."
Fury takes a moment to eye the man- more of a boy really- that lies as if he were already dead. Every inch of him is wrapped in gauze or bandages or casts. So much work for a stranger that won't even last the night. He turns back to the doctor.
"Theories." This boy is an impossibility; a human never could have survived. He doesn't have to be a doctor to know that much.
'We're still waiting for his blood results. He could be Asgardian; we know their physiology is more resilient than ours, but it's still unlikely- even with their advanced healing- that they would have survived a fall like that."
"Thor did." Lapinsas gives him that look again. He's half tempted to take him down for insubordination.
"Yes, with Mjolnir. And even he didn't escape the fall from the Helicarrier unscathed."
"Then what else?"
"It's possible the boy fell with some kind of protection- a force field perhaps… something that dispersed the shock of the initial impact. It's the only way he could have escaped being liquefied." The doctor looks away, wringing his hands anxiously in his coat.
"There's something else…"
The man sighs, eyeing the motionless body sadly, "The boy had injuries that… that weren't likely to have been acquired by his landing." Fury perks up at this. He watches him expectantly, "He had multiple burn wounds and… and…" Lapinsas looks faintly sick at the remembrance- Fury is rather disconcerted by the man's unease. He would have hoped his medical staff would have had stronger dispositions than this. They were working for SHIELD for Christ's sake. Unpleasant and disturbing were practically in the job description.
"And what?" he asks, unsympathetic, when Lapinsas doesn't carry on. He turns back to Fury, something close to remorse in his eyes.
"Numerous fingernails had been removed- with force. He also had this-" he brings out a tablet from the pocket of his coat and shows him a photograph that makes Fury want to rage and snarl. A forearm, clearly broken, the skin bruised and bloodied. Even so, Fury can make out the disturbing image of a crudely drawn skull, something long and sinuous- a vine, or a snake, perhaps- carved roughly and deeply into his flesh. There was no mistaking it for a fall injury.
"It was not recent either," Lapinsas carries on, sad eyes straying to the boy, "It was seriously infected; we've had to pump him full of antibiotics in the hope it won't turn gangrenous. He possibly had other torture wounds, but it's likely they've been masked by his newer injuries."
No emotion show's on the Director's face. Things just got a whole lot more interesting. A torture victim being disposed of over the Atlantic, hundreds of meters above anything was certainly a new one. That he turned up out of nowhere is a new too- their sensors should have at least picked up something, but his technicians had been over the recordings of the event countless times already. They'd found nothing but a short flare of energy. One moment, the sky above the Helicarrier had been clear of anything but the occasional cloud, the next there was a boy hurtling down right before their very eyes. The best his agents had come up with was some new and unheard of stealth technology or the use of another portal or wormhole.
Either scenario was undesirable. He needed to get to the bottom of this, and quickly.
He nods slowly at the conclusion in his mind, taking one last look at the boy-who-should-be-dead and turns around, making his way to the door.
"Where are you going?" Lapinsas sounds almost indignant at the abrupt dismissal. Fury sends him one of his looks that isn't quite a glare but isn't exactly friendly either.
"To the storeroom. I want to see what possessions he had on him when he fell. Keep me posted on his condition." He calls to the disgruntled doctor from over his shoulder.
The door glides shut behind him, leaving Lapinsas to deal with their newly acquired John Doe, the Falling Man, alone.
Outside and safe from prying eyes, Fury lets out a long and heartfelt sigh. A trickle of sweat runs down his back.
He still hadn't found out what had happened to the thermostat.
Chapter 4: Wakey-Wakey
There are some things no man ever wants to wake up to. A house on fire. An ex-lover keen to test the sharpness of the knife on your manhood. An alarm clock.
A sworn enemy- who is quite naked- peering down at you at close quarters would very easily be in Tony's top ten.
So really, no one could fault Tony for yelping and punching said enemy under such circumstances. It's just unfortunate that he's probably done more harm to his knuckles than he did Loki' stupid cheekbones.
"What the fuck man?" Tony Stark does not shriek. No he does not. And he is so deleting this scene from Jarvis' memory banks when this is over.
"And we were getting on so well, Tony," Loki smirks, unaffected by his poor attempt at self-defence. Tony sits up, pushing the man away with a hand. He scrambles away, feels his back hit the cool plastered wall.
Oh God he is so, so dead.
They sit there, Tony on the verge of a panic attack, Loki as calm and collected as he ever is. He watches in growing horror as the fallen God extends a hand and caresses the scarred skin around his arc reactor. His face is impassive, gaze focussed intently on the machine embedded in his chest. He looks alien in the blue light, the sharp panes of his face cast into shadow.
"I'd always wondered what this was for. It seemed pointless and gaudy at the time." His hand splays out over the machine and piercing eyes turned blue in its light lift to contemplate him, "But it's keeping you alive, isn't it?" the fingers tighten around the reactor, as if readying themselves to rip it out of him but pull away at the last moment. Tony wishes he had suit.
"What do you want?" he says hoarsely. Loki sighs and sits back. It's at this point that he realises that Loki is not in fact completely naked, though his chest is bare. He frowns at the Asgardian's trousers.
"Are those mine?" he asks, feeling slightly indignant. Loki shrugs.
"In case you didn't notice Stark, I hardly came in here prepared. Although I can put on the dress again, if you'd like."
Tony needs some brain bleach. Very much so. Because that image is unlikely to leave him for the rest of his miserable existence. He suddenly feels like crying.
"I don't think that will be necessary," he gasps, half tempted to start scratching out his eyes, "You can keep them. In fact, take a shirt too while you're at it." He gestures to the walk-in wardrobe, filled with all the clothes he'll ever need and then some.
Loki nods and stands up, elegant and fluid and dammit Tony wants to punch him again. He at least feels comforted by the fact that the man who was supposed to be Earth's undesirable number one was now on the other side of the room. He hears a light flick on in the other room.
"What are you doing here?" he asks when he finally manages to calm himself down, "I thought you were supposed to be on Asgard… in prison." The God turns halfway through slipping one of Tony's old band t-shirts on. A wicked smile creeps across his face.
"I was bored."
"Isn't that kind of the idea of prison?"
He shrugs again, "Probably."
"Then why me? Why not some other poor bastard?"
The God's face turns serious, "There is another reason."
Tony perks up at this, now burning with curiosity, "What?" Loki walks out and sits on the edge of the bed, elbows leaning on his knees. It's a surprisingly human gesture and for a moment Tony is caught off guard.
"I've come with a warning."
"A warning?" he parrots. His guest nods slowly.
"Something has come to Midgard. I know not where it came from, but it reeks of death."
"You don't know… are you saying it's come from another world, like you?"
"I believe so. But it does not come from a world under Heimdall's watch." Tony frowns at that.
"What do you mean, it's not under Heimdall's watch?" Loki shrugs.
"Make of it what you will. Be wary, Stark. No good will come from this."
"So what do you want us to do? Destroy it?" Loki's lips thin.
"I don't know if you can. But find it, learn its purpose. Under no circumstances should you trust it. Death saturates it; mark my words- it is dangerous and cannot be controlled."
If Tony didn't know better, he'd say that Loki was feeling concerned for Earth. It feels weird beyond all meaning of the word to receive a warning like this from the Asgardian who tried to subjugate the planet to his reign. He is understandably suspicious- the trickster god of lies has not only broken himself out of prison and found his way back to Earth, he's also pretended to be a woman and slept with him, which- fuck he shouldn't have thought of that, now he's creeped out all over again.
Yep, he's definitely taking Loki's warning with a grain of salt. For all Tony knows, he's planted a red herring for Tony to find whilst the bastard runs off to oppress Australia with flying kangaroos and dropbears. Or he's using reverse psychology in the hopes that someone will actually use the thing and blow a hole in space and time… or something.
"So how am I supposed to find it?" he asks carefully. Loki rolls his eyes in exasperation.
"You're a genius Stark- or at least a human one- use your brain." Tony scowls at the back-handed compliment, "Don't let it fall into the wrong hands. There are beings in this universe that no power on Earth could ever hope to conquer. Should they learn about this..." Loki scrutinises his fingers for a moment before looking back up, "Well, I don't think I need to inform you of the consequences. I'm sure you can work it out for yourself."
"I'll keep that in mind."
The Asgardian nods regally and stands up. Tony's trousers are several inches too short for the tall man, but he manages to pull it off, "You make sure that you do." He says loftily and Tony has the strongest urge to poke his tongue out at him. He manages to quell the urge, but only just.
Suddenly, out of the blue, the grin is back, "Later Stark."
And now Tony is alone in his room, wondering what it was exactly that just happened.
Chapter 5: Recovery
Fury is unimpressed by the objects his agents had recovered from the Falling Man.
They lie spread out in front of him, looking impressively unassuming on the stainless-steel bench. Agent Kevendar (known for her slight lean towards the obsessive compulsive) has lined them out carefully for the Director, each one evenly spaced from the other. The clothes he had been wearing- or at least, what had been salvaged of them- sit folded on another bench. The thing that many had confused with a cape is in fact a cloak (and really, Fury doesn't think there's any difference between the two, though Kevendar insists there is). It's thick, woollen and black as ink, littered with what may or may not be burn marks and rips and tears.
"This was all they found?" Agent Hill asks beside him, sounding just as uninspired. He'd met her on the way here. Kevendar nods. Her hand strays to a long, thin piece of wood as if half tempted to caress it. It's stained a dark, almost ruby red and the bottom third of the tapered stick is wrapped in thin strips of well-worn leather, obviously meant to be held.
"We scanned everything. There were some residual energy readings from the stick, but not enough to be concerned about. Nothing else showed anything."
"What was in this?" Fury asks, pointing to an ugly looking pouch tied to a leather cord long enough to slip over the head.
The agent suddenly looks uncomfortable.
"We don't know." She accedes.
"Don't know? How could you not know? Did you open it?"
"We tried to. It wouldn't open, at all. We tried scanning it but it showed nothing. Clairvos-" she sends a dark look over her shoulder to her partner, "-had the bright idea of trying to cut it open but that didn't work either."
Fury eyes the pouch with renewed interest, "Are you saying that this was impenetrable?" the agents nod reluctantly.
"How is that possible?" asks a sceptical Agent Hill. Kevendar purses her lips unhappily.
"We don't know. On all accounts it's just looks a regular pouch; the fabric feels similar to moleskin, and you can tell that there's something inside. The scans show much the same- for all intents and purposes that is just some regular moleskin fabric that weighs about what you'd expect it to with a small object in it. But we can't open it, or cut it or see what's inside."
Fury hates mysteries, hates them with an unbridled passion. Today just isn't his lucky day. First the thermostat, then the Falling Man, his apparently mystical survival and finally the objects in his possession. Nothing today is making terribly much sense and Fury is half tempted to just shoot the man, send his belongings to the Sandbox and be done with it.
He somehow thinks his superiors would disagree.
He sighs in resignation and looks back at the spread. Most of it really isn't anything special- a knife, no bigger than his hand, an old-looking gold ring they'd managed to pry off a broken finger before the swelling would have made it impossible and a silver necklace with a small triangle-shaped pendant being the most noteworthy of his possessions. Not that there was much else to compare it to, but he supposed possible torture victims weren't exactly in a position to keep personal items.
"Was there anything to identify him with?" he asks, already knowing the answer.
"No." confirms Kevendar, "Nothing at all. The ring's likely to be a signet ring, but there was no match for its coat of arms with any of our databases."
"Very well. Any more progress on his appearance?" The agents share a discomforting glance and Fury gets the impression that he is not going to like what is about to come next.
"We found some residual energy readings that were reminiscent of tesseract portal activation." Agent Clairvos' voice is soft and gravelly, courtesy of a research mission in Russia gone wrong.
Well fuck. Today just gets better and better.
"I was under the impression that the Asgardian's were in possession of the Tesseract."
"I think they still might be… there were also some readings similar to Jane Foster's data on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge." Fury draws the conclusion quickly enough.
"You think the Asgardian's sent him here on a tesseract-powered Bifrost?"
Clairvos gives him something that seems halfway between a nervous tic and a nod, "It's possible, but we don't know enough about either to draw any conclusions."
Fury sighs heavily. It's looking more and more likely that the Falling Man is possibly Asgardian. He just thanks the Gods above that Thor was currently on Earth after that mess with the Dark Elves. Hopefully the Asgardian prince can shed some more light on this situation than his Agents can.
"Keep working on that pouch. And try and get something more concrete from his appearance." He orders the two agents. They nod in unison. Fury turns about face and strides out of the room, Agent Hill following behind him.
"Orders sir?" she asks, almost reading his mind. It's gotten to the point where he's not even weirded out by it anymore.
"Get Thor and Stark up here... and Banner and Foster… in fact just be done with it and summon the whole team." Hill looks unsurprised.
"What about John Doe, sir?"
"Set two guards on his room and make sure someone's always watching his footage. I don't want him going anywhere."
"Yes sir." Hill stops and raises her hand to address her earpiece. Fury continues on, intent now on seeing to his most pressing matter; the mystery of the broken air-conditioning. A thought occurs to him and he turns back around.
"Hill." He calls down the hall. She turns, face expectant, "Get him scanned too. I want to know what he is and why he's here." And, more to the point, why the fuck he's still alive.
He fervently hopes that nothing else will turn up to ruin what remains of the rest of his day.
Pain. Agony. Torment.
Above all, pure, unadulterated pain.
It eats through his insides, carves out his brain, shatters his limbs and sets the world on fire. It seizes at his vocal chords and he screams and screams and screams. Something gives and tears at his throat, but he carries on because there is nothing else but this, there will never be anything but this and he screams and sobs and curses because there is nothing else he can do, nothing else that he can think to do.
He is pain and pain is him and this agony will never end as long as he exists.
A curse. Frantic words and cluttering sounds and then then something is pulling him down. He doesn't want to go because it's dark down there in the abyss, but to stay is to exist in torment and he finds little choice.
He chases frantically after the escape and lets the darkness envelop him even as the screams still echo in his throat and stumble through his bones.
Chapter 6: Itches
When Harry wakes up for the second time, the pain is still there. It burns through his veins and claws at his throat and eyes with fiery talons. But there is a noticeable difference; the pain is muted, as though hiding from him behind locked doors. He knows the agony is there, but it's not as overwhelming as before. He can ignore it… or at least, think of other things.
Other things like the growing discomfort along the bridge of his nose, which feels like the only thing not broken. Or the disconsonant beeping that seems to echo through the room. The room that is filled to the brim with what can only be muggle technology. Or the padded restraints that tie his arms and chest down to the bed (he feels like he should be more concerned about that than he really is, but he can't really bring himself to care). Or the itchy skin on his nose…
… The itchy skin on his nose…
Oh God his nose is itchy.
Harry Potter cannot move and buggering bitch-tits but his nose is itchy as hell.
He casts his eyes around the room, turning his head as much as he dares in the neck-brace. The room is empty.
Harry feels like crying. This is literally his own personal hell.
"Hello?" he tries to call out. His voice breaks half-way through. He rolls his eyes, clears his throat and tries again.
Steve Rogers hates being on the Helicarrier.
It's all stainless-steel floors and white walls that feel alive thanks to the constant him of machinery and electronics that run through everything. It reminds him too much of all the things he'd gone and lost in his seventy year sleep. Technology that he should have seen the development of. People who he should have been able to watch develop it all.
Of course, the absence of should-have-been memories is not his only problem with the Helicarrier. There is also the dilemma that everything here looks exactly the same. He'd swear that not a visit went by when he didn't find himself lost. Sometimes he manages to retrace his steps and find out where he'd gone wrong. Most times he ends up having to ask someone where he is and how he could get where he needed to be, whilst simultaneously trying not to flush with embarrassment (he was Captain America after all, and Captain America does not flush).
Unfortunately today was one of such days.
He doesn't know where he is; there are never any signs and the corridor in which he finally admits to himself he is lost in is filled with doors, but he'd bet his shield that none of them are the door he actually wants. He's rather hoping they're offices, but none of them sport windows so it's hard to tell (and does the Helicarrier even have offices? It feels weird that it possibly could).
Feeling quite foolish, he knocks on the first door he comes across. There is no reply, though he does wait half a minute before he tries opening it. It's locked; naturally.
Ever the tenacious one (and the slightly desperate- he was supposed to be at the meeting 10 minutes ago) he moves onto the next one.
And the next.
And the next.
He's about to give up- it's more than likely (and just his luck) that this is just an empty corridor- when he hears something. He walks quietly down the corridor, curious.
There it is again- muffled, soft, but it definitely sounds like someone talking. When it comes again, he's close enough to hear them.
"Hello?" comes a voice. Male; young. He sounds almost desperate, perhaps distraught. Steve speeds up, concerned now.
"Hello?" he answers, making sure he's loud enough for the man to hear him.
A pause, then, "Oh Thank Merlin! I thought I was alone in here!" The voice is coming from the last door in the corridor. A laminated piece of paper has been blue-tacked to the door:
John Doe 33678
He tries the handle, half expecting it to be locked. It isn't. He lets the door slide open… and stares dumbfounded for a moment at the image he's presented with.
The room is filled with machines- which would have been a nightmare to him on a good day. From wall to wall- there are machines everywhere, with what looks like just enough space cleared away to walk around the bed sitting in the middle of it all.
The bed that holds what is probably the most injured person he's ever met.
There are bandages everywhere; bandages and wires and tubes. The poor guy looks like half a machine himself for all the things he's been hooked up to.
"Thank Merlin you're here." The very injured man gasps with relief. Steve wonders how he's even managing to talk.
"Hello." He says, awkwardly. The man tries to get a look at him from his supine position and fails.
"Yeah, hi." He sounds British, Steve decides, and impatient, "I need your help."
"What can I do for you?" ever the eager helper is Steve. He's kind of hoping this John Doe hasn't mistaken him for a doctor though, because that's definitely not something he can help him with.
"I need you to scratch my nose."
Steve stares at the man, perplexed.
"That's it? Scratch your nose? Why can't you just do it yourself?"
He huffs in frustration, "Because I can't fucking move." He snarls, giving a soft tug at his arms and ultimately bringing attention to his restraints.
Steve suddenly wonders if he has the clearance to be in here.
"Come on man!" John Doe pleads at Steve's sudden hesitation, "Just scratch my fucking nose already! I've been waiting half an hour for someone to come along and help." Steve moves closer to the bed and the stranger locks eyes on him. His eyes are a startling- albeit bloodshot- green, and they are filled with a desperate pleading. It doesn't take long for Steve to relent.
He reaches out, despite his shortcomings, and tentatively scratches at John Doe's uncovered nose. The man practically melts, every line of tension slipping away under the pressure of Steve's blunt nails.
"Oh God that feels good." The man practically purrs. Steve laughs. After a time the stranger sighs, content, "You can stop now. Thanks. That itch was driving me mad."
"I can imagine." They fall into an awkward silence, the Green-eyed man sizing Steve up, almost calculatingly, as the super-soldier takes in his injuries.
"You don't look like a doctor, Steve." He smiles at Harry.
"I'm not… I'm a soldier."
"Oh." He looks sad at that statement for a moment, before the calculating look comes back into his eyes, "What's a soldier like you doing in here then?" he asks, almost shrewdly. Steve laughs in embarrassment; he can feel a flush coming on.
"I got lost. Again. You wouldn't happen to know how to get to the Bridge, would you?" Harry looks like he's trying to raise an eyebrow, but they've both got stiches in them and he gives up quickly.
"Mate, I don't even know where I am."
"So… where am I?"
"I'm not sure if I'm allowed to tell you that. But you're with SHIELD."
"Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."
"… Someone just wanted that to spell out shield, didn't they."
"Probably, yeah." Another silence. Steve contemplates the machines around them. Some of them he could probably guess the use of. Some are familiar from his own time. Others seem to have no purpose to him, other than being there. Harry yawns, his eyes drooping, "So how did you get here?" It's probably rude to ask a question to someone about to fall asleep (especially an injured person) but he wants to get the information.
"Buggered if I know," yawns Harry. Steve thins his lips.
"You're impressively calm for having no clue where and why you're here."
"…mm… Where I come from you just kind of let things lie where they fall… They'll probably come find me soon…"
Steve frowns at the man as he slips off. British Special Forces perhaps. Although it didn't explain why they hadn't identified him, nor why he was so young; he wouldn't place him past twenty. Granted, it was hard to tell with all of his injuries, but he certainly came off as young.
He's moving to look at the med chart sitting at the end of the bed when his phone rings. He fumbles for a moment, but manages to answer it before it rings out.
"Hello?" he exits the room, not willing to re-awaken Harry. He looked like he needed all the sleep he could get.
"Captain Rogers, where are you? The briefing was supposed to start twenty minutes ago." Agent Hill says, only the slightest hint of agitation in her voice. He looks down at his watch and winces.
"I got lost..."
A sigh, "I'll send someone down to collect you. Where are you?"
Another sigh, "Right. Well, stay where you are. Agent Davisson will pick you up shortly."
"Roger that." The phone goes dead. Steve lets out a heartfelt sigh; he feels like an idiot. Captain America, the man out of time, with a habit of always getting lost. He should be grateful at least; he never had a problem when he was on a mission.
He pauses, just outside the door and looks back at the laminated sign. It seemed silly to call him that when they now knew his name- or at least, half of it. He fishes a pen from his trouser pocket and scratches in the name Harry into the hard plastic.
Satisfied with his handiwork, he smiles and walks down to the other end of the corridor to wait for Agent Davisson to find him.
Chapter 7: Interesting Conclusions...
SPOILER FOR THOR 2. LIKE, UBER SPOILERS.
SPOILER FOR THOR 2. LIKE, UBER SPOILERS.
The Helicarrier is as laughably easy to hack into as always.
It takes Tony all of 8 minutes, from arrival to receiving SHIELD's secrets, spread out on his tablet like some sort of super-spy buffet and he can't help but think that after his first security breach SHIELD would have learnt their lesson and hired a more capable department. Apparently not. Really, he would have like to have seen more than a 43 second improvement after his last break-in. For the good of the world of course.
Fury could go on and on and on all he liked about how it was a breach of protocol and security, yada-yada-yada, but Tony liked to think that he was really doing the closet pirate a good deed. To him, it was a demonstration of exactly how phenomenally, ridiculously incompetent his IT department really were. And, well… Fury hadn't exactly given them homework when he called them in, so what else was Tony going to do? Walk in blind and ignorant? He thought not.
And really, expecting Tony to not search for more information when summoned to the Helicarrier (especially after his tryst with Loki less than four hours ago… which he hadn't said anything about… was likely to take it to his grave in fact) was like expecting an alcoholic to say no to free alcohol.
Needless to say, Fury was less than surprised when the first words out of Tony's mouth when he and Bruce entered the conference room were: "Is this about John Doe 33678?"
Fury just sighs and motions for the pair to sit down. Tony's not sure if he should feel disappointed or victorious.
"How long?" Agent Hill asks politely, pulling out her command tablet.
"Eight minutes twenty-three seconds." He says smugly. Her lips purse.
Bruce sits down; Tony follows. Wordlessly he hands the doctor his tablet, the file on the Falling Man still open. They'd fallen into a silent agreement months ago; Bruce wouldn't complain about the questionable morality of Tony's methods, so long as he made sure to share the results with him. It worked well.
"Well?" Tony demands as Bruce scans through the document. A look of horror grows on his face. Fury sits down.
"I'd rather not have to repeat myself." He rumbles, which is as good as confirmation in Tony's books.
A minute later Natasha saunters in (and really, that's the only way to describe the roll of her hips), Clint only fifteen seconds behind, though he enters via a much less conventional way; the airvent. Tony thinks it says a lot about the group that no one so much as bats an eye at his entrance, though Fury does glare at the covering that will now have to be replaced. The archer must cost him a fortune in repairs.
Thor arrives not long after, though it would be more accurate to say his voice does. They can hear his voice rumbling through the walls well before he even walks through the door. A pretty woman in plain clothes tows along behind him, looking slightly unsure of herself.
"Friends!" he cries happily, "It has been a while! Are you well?"
Natasha sends the pair a nod, Clint waves, Bruce smiles and Tony jumps back up to grasp the Asgardian's forearm, "Thor, buddy! It's great to see you! How've you been?" Tony is not nervous, no he is not, even if he did sort-of unintentionally have sex with the god's little brother and oh Jesus he could crush me with his pinkie-
- No. Not nervous at all.
In a bid to alleviate his sudden onset of terror, Tony turns to Thor's companion, "Doctor Foster. Your work on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge has been enlightening." She smiles graciously as Tony shakes her hand.
"Thank-you Mister Stark. I look forward to seeing a refinement of your arc reactor technologies." Tony sends her a rakish smile.
"So do I."
They sit down Thor and Doctor Foster on the opposite side of the conference table to Tony and Bruce. An empty seat lies between the Asgardian and Fury. Someone is missing and Tony has a fairly clear idea of who it is.
"Say Nick," he drawls, sitting back in the ridiculously uncomfortable chair, "Seems like we've got someone missing. Where's the Capsicle?" Fury glares at him for the unsolicited use of his first name. Tony takes it as a victory. Agent Hill calls someone to pick up their wayward soldier.
The Captain arrives some nine minutes later, blushing furiously (or at least, as much as a super-soldier can blush furiously) but looking determined to not bring attention to his tardiness.
"Get lost again?" Tony asks lightly when he sits down; Steve scowls at him. Tony is tempted to do something juvenile like poke his tongue out.
"Everything looks the same." He defends quietly. Bruce offers him a sympathetic smile.
Fury clears his throat and the room's attention shifts to the Director.
"At 0726 hours yesterday the Helicarrier encountered what we first thought to be a stealth craft; possibly stolen Stark tech" Tony scowls at the implications that would have had, "It turned out to be this-" a picture appears on the screen behind him and the room draws a collective breath of shock. It is clearly a snapshot of a man, falling from the sky. He looks unconscious.
Even Tony and Bruce, who have already seen the footage, feel uneasy at the image.
"We were at an altitude of 28 000 feet when he appeared. Attempts to save the man failed."
"Where did he come from?" breathes Doctor Foster. Fury's eye darkens.
"We don't know." And oh but Tony would bet his left leg that Fury hated having to say those words, "Analysis of our sensors found trace energy readings a fraction of a second before he appeared on our radars." Graphs replace the Falling Man that fill Tony simultaneously with excitement and dread, "The tech's thought it may have been some combination of Asgardian interstellar transport and Tesseract powered wormholes. They found readings similar to both."
Tony suddenly feels ill.
"That was as much as my agents could get from it. Doctor Foster I'd like you to analyse the readings, see if you can glean anything else- Doctor Banner will assist you when needed. I want to know exactly what it was that brought him here, and if it happens again I need the ability to pinpoint its location- we cannot be caught unawares again." They nod, apparently happy to be ordered around.
Out of nowhere, Clint barks a laugh; it sounds mildly hysterical. Natasha's eyes narrow.
"Something funny Agent Barton?" Fury asks; deadly quiet. Birdbrain looks like he's struggling to hold a straight face and Fury looks about ready to hit him.
"I-" he laughs again, a faint snicker, 'Sorry- shit, haha- it's just-" he gives in trying to be serious and hides his face behind his hands.
"It's raining men!" he suddenly blurts out, laughing all the way, "Hallelujah it's raining men!" he dissolves into a fit of giggles and bangs his head onto the table. Tony smirks at the archer's display. Fury looks like he's about to have a coronary and Natasha appears sorely tempted to end her partner. The Capsicle and Thor are confused to bits, bless them. Bruce, Agent Hill and Dr Foster hide their grins behind their hands.
"That, Agent Barton, is a very astute observation," Fury finally grinds out. Clint's next giggle is borderline terrified, but he's slowly getting his face back under control, "But I fail to see its relevance to the case at hand." Of course you don't.
Clint calms down, sending Fury an apologetic look. Natasha firmly ignores him.
"Ahh, right," Bruce looks awkward after Clint's little outburst. He turns to face Doctor Foster, "Is it possible the guy's a throwback from the convergence?" Tony's not surprised that Bruce knows about it- he had after all been the one to hack into SHIELD and share with him the information about the disaster in Greenwich.
Thor shakes his head, but Doctor Foster looks thoughtful at the suggestion, "It's possible," she says slowly, "We'd noticed anomalies quite some time before the convergence, so I don't see why it wouldn't occur after the event. But it's been over a month. We haven't seen any evidence of portal activity further than about three weeks. It could be that our sensors just weren't strong enough to pick them up though."
Bruce smiles, "We'll look into it." She smiles and nods back.
Fury clears his throat and looks down at the control tablet in front of him. If Tony thought the Director had feelings, he'd say the look on his face was uneasy.
"There's another thing. We went to retrieve the body, expecting the man to have died on impact. He was not." Footage of men retrieving the body and the flurry of activity that follows show's up.
"That's impossible." Natasha states bluntly- the first words she's said all morning- as they watch in horror as a gurney rolls away from the helicopter. From between the swarms of people, they can see an arm hanging limply from the side, blood dripping steadily onto the tarmac. It may just be a trick of the light or a bump of the stretcher, but it almost looks like the man's fingers are twitching.
"It should have been, but Subject 33678 seems to be sturdier than he looks." He sends Thor a pointed look, "Despite injuries which should have been deadly, he refuses to die. I've had numerous doctors predicting that he would never wake up, if he even managed to last the night.
"He managed to do both, though he's only woken once, and was insens-"
"Twice." Steve interjects solemnly, eyes glued to the screen. Fury's eye fixes on the super-soldier like a lopsided hawk on a fat pigeon.
"Care to explain Captain?" he asks, deadly quiet. Steve swallows nervously.
"I got lost… managed to somehow end up outside his room. He was calling out for help."
"And how exactly did you get past his security?"
He looks confused, "Security? The corridor was empty; poor guy said he'd been calling out for ages."
Tony almost, almost hopes the news about more incompetent agents will send Fury into a berserker rage, were it not for the (legitimate) fear that he might be the first one the Director shoots. He turns to Hill, "Who's on guard?" he snarls in a remarkable display of restraint, though Tony's quite sure he saw Fury's hand twitch down towards his gun for a terrifying moment.
A pause as she checks her tablet, "Cage and Moore, sir."
Fury focuses back on Steve, who suddenly looks like he wishes he'd never said anything, "He ah… he said his name was Harry- didn't give me a last name. For all his injuries he seemed pretty cheery- didn't seem to mind that he didn't know where he was. He's British; or at least he had a British accent. Said something about his people coming to pick him up soon. I'd thought he might have been part of the British Special Forces or something." Fury and Agent Hill share a loaded look.
"We've had no contact from any agencies. We'll send a query out- see if it brings up anything." Hill makes a note on her screen. The room falls silent, every member apparently chewing on the information. The disturbing footage of Harry on a gurney plays on repeat behind the Director.
"Is it possible he's Asgardian?" Bruce asks intelligently.
"Blood test came back negative." Comes Fury's flat reply, "33789 is most certainly human."
"Mutant then? Could he be like…ahh" Tony clicks his fingers as he tries to remember the guy's name, "Logan? Xavier's man?" Fury shakes his head.
"The doctor's found no presence of the X-gene, nor any other anomalies known to provide humans with super-human traits."
"Technology then?" Tony asks, "Did he have something on him that could have slowed his fall and dispersed the damage?"
Agent Hills retrieves a shoe-sized box from under the table and he eyes it with interest.
"The belongings found on 33678," she offers, pushing the crate over to him. The dry rasp it makes across the glass gives him the impression that there's not terribly much in there, "We found nothing that that was likely to have been used for such a purpose."
He raises an unimpressed eyebrow, "He fell into the ocean. Kind of doubt he'd have managed to keep hold of the thing. Chances are whatever it was- if it was an it- absorbed most of his energy and was destroyed on impact. It would have just been lost to the great big blue." Hill sends him a look that says like I didn't fucking think of that; I know where you sleep Stark so shut the hell up.
He smiles at her sweetly and opens the box.
And laughs at what he finds inside. He almost feels insulted.
"What is this? Lost and found? What do you want me to do- track the owners or something? I'm sure someone's missing their stick very much." A vein pulses violently in Fury's neck.
"These, Stark," he says with an impressive level of serenity (and honestly it's just too easy and fun to stop pushing at Fury's buttons), "are the objects found on 33678's person. My agents have been unable to open the small pouch he had been carrying and had not found an explanation for its apparent indestructability. I was hoping you would be more successful in shedding some light on the matter."
Tony looks at the contents with renewed interest. An indestructible and inaccessible pouch sounded kind of cool. Presumably, it only opened for its owner (keyed to their genetics maybe?), which would be pretty damn convenient. He closes the crate and slides it to the side of him.
"I'll see what I can do." The Director nods in grudging appreciation; he stands.
"One other thing." Fury says before their inevitable dismissal, "The boy showed signs of torture," Tony shifts uncomfortably, memories of Afghanistan creeping back to him, "No one's come forward if he is an agent, but I don't want to rule out the possibility. If someone is after him, they must be stopped- if he's got information valuable to the peace of the planet, I want to know it. His room is to be under constant guard; Rogers, Romanoff, Barton and Thor, you are now effectively on babysitter duty-" Clint scowls furiously, the others seem unaffected, "- no one is to enter his room unless they are from medical, and under no circumstances are you to allow them to do anything to him if they appear in any way suspect.
"And," the menace in his voice cranks up 3000 percent, "If I find out that any of you have left him unattended, then so help me but you will wish you'd never been born." The babysitters look suitably intimidated (well, except for Natasha, but Tony would swear her face is just a concrete mask most of the time) "He is to be kept alive, if for no other reason than to explain why he is alive in the first place.
"Any further questions don't hesitate to ask Agent Hill." He strides out of the room, tails of his coat fluttering behind him. Hill hands Steve a file- presumably about 33678- or Harry.
"I'll go on first watch," he offers (surprise surprise), "five hour shifts sound alright?" Clint shrugs, Thor and Natasha nod their acquiescence.
"We in the same place as last time?" Tony asks, pushing his chair away from the table.
"Yes, I'm sure you know where the labs are, Stark." Her tone is only just this side of snarky. He tucks the box of goodies under his arm, ready to leave, before thinking better of it.
He sidles over to Thor, who's also left the table, ready to follow Doctor Foster like an overly loud puppy. He smiles at Tony's approach.
"Hey Thor, what's the news on Loki?"
The Asgardian's face falls, "My brother was slain in the battle on Svartalfheim. He fought valiantly and bravely to save the universe." I'm sure he did. Tony hasn't heard anything of Svartalfheim, but he knows enough about Thor's shenanigans in Greenwich. He didn't know about his apparent death however. He wonders how the bastard managed to fool his brother into thinking him dead.
He fakes a sad face, "I'm sorry to hear that pal… say, what did you do with the body?"
"He was given a full funeral procession and was sent over the falls in a blaze of glory. Why do you ask, Man of Iron?" Tony wonders who's body it really was they sent over the falls. And, why he had yet to say anything about his late night visitations by a dead man, because really it's not something you don't tell anyone about- he'd tried to take over the world for Christ's sake.
"Oh, no reason. Sorry, again, big guy." He pats Thor comfortingly on the shoulder and hurries down the corridor before the man can ask him any more questions.
Or he can ask himself his own.
Chapter 8: Hit and Miss
They've been working on the readings for days.
Day one had brought little ground, Doctor Banner and Doctor Foster (and the small team of scientists Director Fury had provided them with) more concerned with setting up the right equipment- and where necessary, creating it- and the custom fitting of computer programs. Stark had been more than a great help, happy to pitch in his two cents (or more, even when unnecessary, as is Stark's wont) in their brainstorming and build the equipment and computer algorithms needed for their work.
Day two went better, Jane and Bruce now able to actually work and analyse and theorise. Tony wasn't around to help by then; too absorbed in his own Fury-assigned job, but every few hours- when it occurred to him that he should eat- he came to see how it was all going. By eleven o'clock that night (when they finally decided they could work no further fuelled only by coffee and sugar) they had managed to isolate the components of the transmission that marked Harry's appearance (as they team preferred to call him; 33678 sounded too impersonal, and the Falling Man made him sound like a legend) and smooth out the connections between the elements that the SHIELD agents had begun exploring.
Though it had been difficult; the Helicarrier's sensors were only designed to monitor certain radiations, and it was hard for the pair to tell if the data in front of them was really all that was there, or if the sensors had missed some crucial piece to the puzzle. In the end, Jane theorised that the burst of energy was definitely a combination between a tesseract-activated wormhole and the Asgardian Bifrost, but not quite. For one, it lacked the sheer amount of energy that characterised both forms of transport (almost like an echo, slightly empty and distorted, an imperfect simulacra). Secondly, there was some undefinable element in the data that still had them stumped (which they suspected was incomplete and therefore infinitely harder to identify), but had the possibility- they were quite sure- to turn the combination into something entirely and incomprehensibly different.
Jane had joked offhandedly that Harry was probably not just a visitor from another galaxy, but from another universe entirely, like a superman comic she'd once read. Bruce thought it unlikely- the boy had no technological possessions on his person, and it should have been impossible for him to make the jump alive without more protection than his woollen cape thing, which had certainly seen better days.
She'd left a post-it note with the words alternate universe on a computer screen anyway. Bruce had frowned, but chose not to say anything about it.
Day three was spent partly arguing over what exactly this extra element was (Tony came in at some point and after an overview of their notes and the data, joined into the heated debate) and partly (after they decided to give up on the golden egg for the time being and focus on the second part of Fury's orders) working furiously on tracking any future transmissions. It was more difficult this time than it had been to track the tesseract. The tesseract was a permanent energy source; it constantly bled radiation, just like the sun (not to mention the amount of radiation it emitted), making it easy to track via satellite. A burst of energy that lasted no longer than a second was considerably harder. It required constant monitoring of the feeds; an almost blanket surveillance of all operable satellites in the sky that had the right equipment (which surprisingly wasn't that many). Some of which should technically not have existed and had to be hacked (they had Tony to thank for that service). By the time they'd finished, it was 12 o'clock. Now it was just a waiting game.
Day four had them back at arguing and analysing the extra element- that golden egg- that had accompanied Harry's sudden materialisation. To no avail.
Day five Steve told them that Harry had still not re-awoken, though he was healing at an incredible rate, leaving the doctors stunned and uneasy. In his down time, Bruce double checked the boy's blood sample and found no differing results. He was neither Asgardian nor mutant. He passes on his findings to the Director feeling somewhat useless and silly. Bruce and Jane bickered some more.
Day six Tony threw his hands up in disgust at his lack of progress on the mole-skin bag and complained at the (by now) harried and equally frustrated scientists. It seemed to emit readings similar to that of Loki's magic, almost, but not quite (and wasn't that a familiar story). He'd tried cancelling out the radiation, but had consistently failed, more often than not scrambling his electronic equipment. Tony suspected the energy was actually fighting his counteracting measures with some of its own, but in the end pinned it down to just a natural fluctuation fuelled by his paranoia. No scans he tried would show him anything that was inside it. Bruce and Jane continue arguing.
Day seven found the pair unwilling to explore it more, until Tony had the brilliant idea, halfway through the day, to run a comparison between the undefinable element that had been driving Bruce and Jane mad, and almost-but-not-quite-Loki magic readings that Tony had been monitoring on Harry's belongings. They all felt stupid for not thinking of it sooner.
Bruce's fingers are literally, literally millimetres away from the keyboard, only seconds from beginning the analysis, when a sharp klaxon bursts from a computer in the corner of the room. The one monitoring the satellite feeds. Tony all but flies over to the console.
"Holy shit." He breathes, checking the screens. He looks up at Bruce and Jane's expectant faces.
"We've got a hit."
Chapter 9: Oh Hi There
So a WARNING: pretty much from now on in, SWEAR WORDS GALORE. I personally have the mouth of a truck-driver, and it can certainly be seen to transfer to my writing. I don't shy away from using profanities wherever necessary... and well, for much of this chapter, I feel it's pretty necessary. If it were me in this chapter, I'd be swearing too. But sorry to those who find it offensive (though you were warned in the story blurb thing)
Aubrey Davis was a content man.
He lived well, with everything he needed- though not everything he wanted- in a safe suburb, with a safe and satisfying job. He had many friends- though only a few were close- and had access to all the comics he could ever dream of at work. Upon intense reflection of himself, he thought that he had only a few faults; a lack of ambition to do anything with himself (besides create his own comics to stock the shelves at work with), and a perfectionist streak that more often than not prevented him from doing so. He knew of course that these were not his only faults- he was lazy, sometimes selfish and on more than one occasion painfully shy.
But all in all, he was happy. He loved his job, he loved the people; he loved his little flat and his cat Nixie. He rarely broke his norm (crawl out of bed to the shower, trudge to work, grab coffee on the way, stock the shelves, serve the customers, re-stock the shelves then go home to feed the cat and watch TV) and was okay with that. He liked being normal, and he liked having a steady routine. It didn't bother him that he lived what some would call 'a boring life.'
But sometimes, in the corners of his mind, on a particularly dissatisfying day, Aubrey Davis thinks that his life is a little too ordinary. A little too lacklustre. Because God, but his only ambition is to write a comic book, and he hasn't even managed to come up with a decent storyline (it's the only thing in his life that he is unhappy with).
But enough of that.
Aubrey Davis is also an observant man. He's quiet, more likely to sit there listening to a conversation than adding to it. His eyes caught more on the little things than the big, and he loved watching the quirks and actions people made when they think no one is watching. Casey, his co-worker, ate paper. A regular at his favourite coffee shop would dig her fingernails into the varnished wood of her table- he didn't think she even realised it. A customer at the comic-book store would suck absentmindedly at the thumbnail on her left hand and run her tongue over its lacquered surface (always a different colour) when thinking. It had gotten to the point, years ago, that he no longer thought differently of others for not noticing the things that he did. People, as a whole, saw less than he did- by lack of ability or choice, he didn't know.
It was why he wasn't particularly surprised to be the only one to notice the sudden appearance of a woman in the alleyway directly across the road from work. He watches the girl in astonishment- because he is very, very sure that she had just appeared out of nowhere. She's dirty and dishevelled, wearing some strange sort of bag like clothing that gives little of her form away. She clutches something in her right hand, but he can't see from here what it is.
The woman takes a stumbling step forward; trips and falls flat on her face.
Aubrey winces. He doesn't bother asking Casey if he'd seen her.
He rushes out, concerned, when he sees that the girl does not move. Casey cries out in confusion behind him. The street is almost completely empty- a miracle for midday on a Saturday- and he crosses the road easily.
"Miss?" he calls out, "Miss, are you okay?" She doesn't respond. Her hair is a mess of brown curls, frizzy and dirty and matted in places. An arm lies outstretched and a small hand peeks out from under her long, baggy sleeves, clutching tightly at a long, thin stick. It's almost as long as his forearm. Her clothes are black. They look tattered.
"The hell, Aubrey?" Casey calls out, already crossing the road.
"She just appeared. Fell forward," he says in reply when the younger man reaches him.
That's when he sees the blood.
It's slowly pooling around the girl, black and viscous in the dim light of the alley. He moves to gently turn her over- her shoulder feels wet, and when he takes his hand away the skin is stained red.
"Holy shit." Casey breathes behind him. Aubrey can't help but agree. Her face is a multitude of cuts and bruises, blood dripping down the left side from a slash on her forehead. The skin at the base of her neck looks angry red and scaly… almost blistered (he doesn't want to think of them as burns. No sir not at all). Most disturbing of all is her right shoulder. It's a mess; all broken skin and parted flesh. Blood flows steadily from the stab wound, hidden by her black clothes.
For a moment, he assesses her. The Broken Woman. She looks small enough for him to carry (he'd never been the strongest of people). The bones in her wrists seem small and fragile and for a second he imagines they're hollow, like a birds. He moves to cradle her in his arms, but as if sensing his intentions, the woman's eyes snap open.
"Harry?" she croaks at Aubrey. Panic spreads across her face when she sees no recognizable face, "Where's Harry?" she asks him urgently, hand shooting out to grasp at his shirt. He tries not to think of the blood she's leaving behind on his nice blue shirt.
"There's no Harry here." He murmurs soothingly, gently holding the hand clutching his shirt. Her eyes turn from confused to sharp as diamonds in seconds.
"Where am I?" she demands, breath hitching with pain.
"Ottawa, Miss." Her eyes flicker around the alley, as if trying to find something to confirm his claim.
"Ottawa," she says faintly, almost as if to herself, "I know Ottawa." Aubrey nods.
"Miss, we need to get you to a hospital."
"You look like shit." Casey interjects (un)helpfully.
"No!" she snarls. Aubrey is taken aback by the ferocity in her voice, "No hospitals- I can't go to the hospital." She moves as if to sit up and Aubrey pushes her back down in alarm when she bites back a cry.
"Miss, you're… well you're pretty fucked up. You need a hospital- or at least a doctor."
"No" her hand returns to his shirt, "I can take care of it myself."
They eye her dubiously.
"Just trust me." Aubrey sighs. He can always call a doctor over when she's not looking.
"I can take you into the shop. We've got a backroom." Casey makes a sound as if to protest, but a sharp look has him thinking better of it.
The woman stares at him, hard. There's something shrewd in her expression that unnerves him. Beneath the blood and the bruises he suspects she must be in her late twenties, but her eyes look aeons older and they're tearing through him with the weight of her stare. It terrifies and exhilarates him all at the same time.
"Alright," she says finally, the intensity in her gaze suddenly leaving, "Help me up then."
Aubrey ignores her and picks her up. She cries out in a mix of pain and indignation.
I was right, he thinks grimly, sending covert glances out of the mouth of the alleyway, She's light. Too light, I bet she could fly away on the slightest breeze.
"Hollow bones." He murmurs, not realised he's said it out loud.
"What?" comes her sharp reply.
The road is no longer empty, but the people don't seem to notice him carrying the bloodied girl across the street. And if they do, they act as though they hadn't. He thanks the Gods above that no one's thought to visit their store in the whole three minutes they've been outside. He doesn't want to have to explain to surprised and traumatised customers why he's carrying a girl who looks as though she's come from a warzone into their staffroom.
"What your name?" he asks a he crosses the road. A taxi driver or two eye him strangely. Her eyes fly back to him.
"Hermione." She says warily.
"That's a weird name."
She huffs a pained laugh, "It is a bit, yeah. My parents always like Grecian mythology."
"Oh." He doesn't know what she's talking about.
Casey opens the door for them and leads them out the back. An old sofa they'd picked up from a roadside pickup sits next their rickety table the boss had bought from Ikea. An ancient urn sits precariously on top, next to their endless tins of shitty coffee. He sets her down carefully on the sofa, ignoring the fact that she's leaving blood everywhere (indeed, they'd already left a trail of red on the carpet from the door to the staffroom).
"Mmph," Hermione gasps, pushing herself up and moving to sit on the edge. Aubrey tries to stop her, concerned, but she shoots him a deadly look and he stands back meekly, "ffuck!" she cries, hand flying to the ugly mess of her shoulder, "God- fuck! My bag, get my bag!"
"I dropped it at the door… small… beaded bag- shit!" she's trying to undo a clasp at her neck with her good arm. Her hand is shaking and her face is sickly pale. Aubrey sends Casey to find her bag and sets about undoing the rest of her coat/cloak thing. Hermione sends him a grateful smile, but her eyes are shiny, almost glazed.
Casey returns by the time he's got her weird outer clothes off, clutching a beaded bag, its delicate embroidery badly damaged and worn. She wears a pair of equally tattered jeans, the knees torn, showing scraped and dirty skin underneath. Her shirt is an old blue tee, the neck over-stretched and gaping.
Casey hands her the bag. His hands seem to be shaking just as much as hers are.
"Thanks." Casey jerks to her a nod and retreats to the furthermost corner of the room (Aubrey suspects he doesn't like blood). She opens her bag, clumsy fingers slipping at the clasp, but she manages. She picks up the stick that she'd placed carefully on the pillow beside her.
"Accio Dittany," she gasps, pointing the polished stick at the opening of her bag. A small glass vial flies into her waiting hand. Casey swears. Aubrey blanches. Hermione's hands shake some more, "G- get this off me. I- I can't…" she trails off, sounding strained and motions to her shirt and the stab wound (which is still bleeding, though noticeably slower, which is somewhat comforting).
Aubrey's mind draws a blank.
"Uhh… what?" Casey says stupidly.
"My shirt-" Hermoine sobs, throwing her bag across the sofa, a bitter tinge to her voice now, "I need… I need it off-" she falls back, all loose-limbed and pasty skin, "I can't h-heal myself with it on. Not without complications."
Aubrey and Casey stare at her dumbly.
"Fucking now!" she sobs angrily, "Merlin, go find some scissors or something! I'm not getting any better over here!"
Her pained snarls spurn him into action. He moves with robotic limbs to the sink. There's a serrated knife in the drawer, cleaned only to a bachelor's standard, but it will do the trick better than their scissors would.
He kneels in front of her; his hands tremble when he brings the knife to her shirt. He starts at the bottom hem, unwilling to begin his dubious honour of undressing Hermione at the skin of her throat, which looks damaged enough as it is without having to suffer under his unsteady hands. The old material parts easily enough, snagging only occasionally as he works his way up. He cuts straight up, trying his best not to stare at her covered breasts, then across the shoulder, making sure the knife never touches her skin.
Hermione lies back against the lounge, hazy eyes fluttering closed.
"Now," she says quietly, searching blindly for his hand when he finishes and the destroyed sleeve falls away. She presses the vial into his hand, "You need to apply two drops to the wound."
At this point, Aubrey finds no opposition to her orders. The situation is weird enough already, what with the apparent summoning of objects and her unexplained appearance in the first place. The application of some weird brown liquid that kind of looks like iodine is kind normal in the scheme of things. And hey, maybe it is iodine, or something similar.
He drips the liquid onto her shoulder. His hands no longer tremble. Hermione whimpers and cries out, pale hands grab at his shirt. Her stick clatters to the floor. Tears stream down her face, agony running rampant across her features.
And fucking hell, but the skin around the wound is growing. Holy mother of Mary, it's literally healing over the wound and its advanced pace belies all known medical discoveries; of this Aubrey is certain.
"Holy fucking shit," He breathes, staring fascinated at the new skin growing over the stab wound. It's an angry purple under the blood. Hermione rests her head against his chest, her breathing heavy and laboured. Her hair smells like fire and blood.
"You need to do the other side now," she says lowly, dread saturating her voice. And she's right. Whatever had wounded her had gone straight through. The remains of her shirt sticks to her skin with blood, but he can still see the exit wound. Carefully, he peels the fabric away and applies more of the brown stuff. Hermione cries out an angry, "Shit!" into his shirt.
"Casey, I think we'll need some cloths and some water. And can you find her a shirt? I think Doug keeps a few of his under the counter." Aubrey doesn't know why his boss stashes shirts in the store, but right now it's a blessing. Casey nods mutely and exits the staffroom. Hermione leans bonelessly against him, her skin now fully healed over. Carefully he sets her back against the sofa and takes the proffered items from Casey. He's put the water in an old Tupperware container. The cloths are just unused dish cloths.
"Make sure the door's locked would you? It's probably not good for customers to find bloodstains on the floor." Casey disappears again. Aubrey sets about cleaning Hermione up, feeling less subconscious now that their audience is gone.
"What was that stuff?" he asks later, sponging away the encrusted blood on her face. She barely looks awake, but he feels like it's probably a good idea to keep her lucid.
"Essence of Dittany. It heals the skin." Comes her slurred reply. Aubrey stores the information away for later when he has access to a computer.
"Just the skin?"
"Mm. It's all still a stab wound under there... I'll find someone to heal it later."
"Oh." He falls silent again, moving down to her neck. He tries to avoid the worst of her burns; red and blistered and scabbing over in places.
"Where did you come from?" Hermione sighs, sad brown eyes falling on him.
"You sound British."
She huffs a laugh, "I am… of a sort." Her face takes on a bitter cast. He moves to her arm.
"How did you get here? You just popped up out of nowhere in that alleyway." Hermione frowns, thoughtful.
"I'm not entirely sure… but I have my suspicions."
"I see." He says, not really seeing at all, but he doesn't think she's going to tell him much more than that. Another thought occurs to him, "Are you a mutant?"
"Mutant?" her face turns curious.
"A human with special abilities. Some mutants can fly, read minds and even control the elements." And Aubrey would like to think that no one could blame him for the envious lilt to his voice. Some mutant abilities are just plain awesome.
"What makes you think I'm a mutant?" she asks carefully as he gets up to rinse the cloth and change the water- there was a lot of blood and dirt to clean off.
"Well, you teleported into that alley, used that stick thing to summon something into your hand and then proceeded to heal yourself. What else could you be?" She eyes him. There's a calculating glint to her eye. Suddenly her face brightens and she sends him a smile.
"You're right, what else could I be? You've got me- I'm a mutant. Are you going to turn me in?"
He looks at her as if she were an idiot, "Uh- no. Have you seen this place? Superheroes and mutants are kind of our MO. Casey out there practically hero worships Professor X."
"Who's Professor X?"
"Only the most famous mutant there is- well, besides Magneto, but he's a bit of a dick."
"He owns a school specifically for mutants; has his own kind of mutant task force. He's kind of a big thing- though a lot of people don't like him or what he represents," he sends her a weird look, "How do you not know who Professor Xavier is?"
She smiles enigmatically, "I've been kept out of the know."
"Right." He finishes on her arm- she has a few more cuts, but they don't look so bad.
"I don't have anything to help with the rest of you, sorry. I really think you should go see a doctor," it's times like these though that he wished Doug hadn't skimped out on their first-aid kit. He knows for a fact (thanks to his general incompetency's with a Stanley knife) that they don't have anything more than some tweezers and a few bandaids in that stupid box, "I guess you'll need a sling for that arm, but you should be okay to put the shirt on for now." He points to the button-up draped over the head of the sofa, "Do you need any help putting it on?"
She shakes her head.
"I'll be just outside then. Give me a shout when you're ready and we'll see what we can do about a sling."
"What's your name?" Hermione asks before he closes the door on her.
He smiles, "I'm Aubrey."
"Aubrey. That's a weird name." she jokes, in retaliation to his earlier remark. He smirks.
"It is a bit, yeah."
She laughs softly, brown eyes crinkling at the corners, before sobering, "Thank-you Aubrey," she says; her face looks sad again, "Your help has been much appreciated."
He shrugs, "No worries."
He closes the door behind him. And he doesn't think about the bitterness and rage that hides behind her sad looking eyes. He doesn't, honestly.
Casey is sitting on the counter, chewing on a piece of gum.
"How the fuck are we gonna to explain the bloodstains to Doug?" the younger man asks. Aubrey eyes the browning marks on the floor shrewdly. They're not that obvious, but he has a feeling their boss would notice (especially the ones on the couch).
He shrugs, fishing behind the counter for another shirt. He thinks he could make a halfway decent sling out of one. He can just imagine Doug's reaction now, which honestly makes it all the more worth it.
"Dunno. We could just tell him the truth I guess. The girl's a mutant, so he'll probably get excited enough about that that he'll forgive us for leaving her blood everywhere."
Casey laughs and pops his gum. His face turns pensieve, "Is she gonna be okay? She didn't look too good in there before."
Aubrey nods, staring at the closed door, "Yeah. The worst of her injuries was her shoulder, I think; and you saw what she did to that."
"Mm… what are we gonna do with her?" Aubrey is stumped by that question. Because what are they going to do with her? The girl that refuses a hospital or a doctor, but clearly should not be left on her own. He gets the feeling she'd be unable to stay with friends of her own too.
"We could try and contact Professor Xavier; he might be able to take her in. She's a mutant, after all." He tears Doug's shirt apart with the knife as he talks. Casey watches him with a small smile on his face.
"He might not." He says, fishing out his phone to look up the Xavier Institute, "There's probably plenty of mutants out there that are trying to get in." Aubrey shrugs in defiance.
"Even so, it's worth a shot. I don't think she's got anywhere to go."
"I do- for the moment at least," a soft voice interrupts them. Hermione stands in the doorway, clutching her damaged arm to her chest. She looks healthier already, cheeks pink and eyes sharp. Doug's shirt is probably ten sizes too big for her and her jeans are still a mess, but she doesn't seem to care overly much. Aubrey moves over to set her arm in the makeshift sling.
"Where will you go?" he asks, tying the ragged edges of the shirt up at the back of her neck.
She shrugs her good shoulder, "I have some things to check out," she says evasively, "But first I need to find Harry."
"Then the good news is, we've already done that part for you." Drawls a voice from the front door. They all look up in surprise.
"No fucking way." Casey murmurs in awe. Aubrey feels very much like saying the same thing. He'd recognise that face anywhere. Most people would- be it through admiration or dislike.
"I'll have you know though, we expect some recompense for it- we came across him purely by accident, but he wasn't in the best of shape when we found him." Tony Stark strolls into the store as if he owns the place (though Aubrey isn't quite sure how he's managed that, given he'd asked Casey to lock the door) and picks up a comic at random. Nightwing emblazons its cover. He wears a suit jacket casually tossed over his jeans and a worn black Led Zeppelin tee. A metal briefcase rests at his feet; Aubrey has pretty strong hunch as to what's inside it.
"What kind of shape was he in?" Hermione asks, and her voice sounds sickly sweet and calm and oh so dangerous. There's a glint in her eyes that has Aubrey wanting to edge away from her and he can see that she's grasping her stick to hard her knuckles have gone white.
Mr Stark eyes Casey, who's staring at him as if he were the Son of God, born again, "I'd rather not say anything in front of the civilians." Which is an unfair assessment because Aubrey knows for a fact that he is still only an associate of SHIELD; despite his involvement with the Avengers.
"Military?" and if possible Hermione's voice sounds even more dangerous now.
Mr Stark's face looks as though he'd just stepped in dog shit.
"Fuck no." He turns to Casey, who's still staring dumbfounded, "She doesn't know who I am. How can she not know who I am?"
Casey just shrugs, looking almost terrified to be put on the spot by one of his biggest idols.
"And who are you?" Hermione snaps, sounding unhappy at being talked about as though she weren't there (although it could also be a reaction to Tony Stark's natural obnoxiousness).
Stark smirks and sends her a little bow, "Only Tony Stark; genius, billionaire, philanthropist-" and Aubrey could swear there should be another title in that spiel, "-owner of Stark Industries, the creator and operator of Ironman and member of the Avengers Initiative. I'm kind of a big thing." He points to Casey as if to demonstrate his point.
Hermione doesn't look impressed. In fact, Aubrey would go as far as to say she looks decidedly unimpressed. Her next line merely proves the point further.
"What's the Avengers Initiative?" Stark stares at her as if she's grown another head.
"Fuck, maybe you are from an alternate universe," he remarks jokingly, but Aubrey doesn't miss the way Hermione suddenly stiffens and the smug gleam in Mr Stark's eyes that follows, "We're the saviours of the Earth, Queenie. The vanguard against all things nasty," he carries on, acting as if his little information fishing hadn't occurred.
She seems to chew on this for a minute, eyeing Stark with undisguised suspicion.
"You said you have Harry," she finally grinds out, "What's your proof?"
Stark nods approvingly and pulls out his phone, handing it to her carefully, "He was wearing this." He says seriously. There's an image on the screen of some kind of triangular pendant, bisected by a vertical line, a circle touches all three sides of the triangle.
Hermione's hand trembles when she passes it back.
"Where did you find him?" Stark looks at Aubrey and Casey warily.
'Why don't we discuss this in the car?" Hermione nods slowly, pocketing her stick finally.
"Alright. But wherever you're taking me better have a shower," she glances at her shoulder, "And a medical facility."
Tony sends her a rakish smile and opens the door for her, "For you, Queenie, anything." She only raises an eyebrow at his uninvited flirting, completely unaffected.
Hermione pauses at the doorway and turns around to face Aubrey and Casey.
"Thank-you." She says solemnly, eyes lingering on Aubrey. She gives them a bow, slow and graceful. Then she's swirling around, following Stark (texting on his phone) out of the store and onto the busy street.
They watch the pair slide into a waiting car, the SHIELD logo emblazoned on its side. It disappears into the traffic moments later.
"Well that was fuckin' weird." Casey remarks into the heavy silence left behind.
"The fuck did she even come from?"
"I don't know." Aubrey lies. His hands stray for a pen and paper.
He suddenly has an excellent idea for a comic.
"What's SHIELD?" are the first words out of the woman's mouth when he shuts the door behind him. Tony's half tempted to ignore her and ask his own questions, but there's a no-nonsense gleam in her eyes that reminds him disturbingly of Pepper, so he desists.
"Stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. They deal with weird stuff that shouldn't really get out to the public… and some that should."
He shrugs, nonchalant, "Aliens, illegal tech, conspiracies… mutants. They've got their fingers in a lot of pies. Good guys; in case you were wondering- which I can tell you were- but their council are a bunch of dicks, so I'd say it's best to avoid them where possible." She nods slowly, mulling over the information.
"What's your name?"
"Got a last name, Queenie?" her eyes are guarded, wary, but crazy intense too and it feels almost as if she were tearing into his soul. He swallows nervously and then the weight is gone and she's looking out the window. The lines around her mouth are sad.
"Granger. Hermione Granger." He writes the name down for future investigation (stalking).
"Where did you find Harry?"
"Thirty-thousand feet above sea level… and then sea level."
Hermione stares at him with heartbreak tearing apart her face.
"He's alive," he hurriedly amends, uncomfortable with the grief and horror his callous delivery brought, "And healing at a remarkable rate."
The relief that floods her face makes him feel worse. She fingers the collar of her oversized plaid shirt unconsciously, staring resolutely out at the passing cityscape as she collects herself.
"What happened to your clothes?" he blurts out when the silence gets too much. It's a valid question though; he'd like to think that no woman in their right mind would ever wear something that painfully awful.
"Wh-Oh… they were covered in blood." Her eyes are red rimmed and tired-looking.
"Whose blood?" Her lips thin unhappily.
"Oh." He suddenly feels awkward- not quite concerned, but feeling like he should be.
Hermione grimaces and glances down at her makeshift sling momentarily; "Speaking of which, do you have any painkillers? I've run out."
It's about now that Tony realises that the shortness of her temper and the tightness around her lips and eyes are the (now) obvious tells of pain. He gives her another once over- before, he'd been distracted mostly by her ghastly clothes and her curiously hostile but cooperative attitude. But now he looks- properly looks. Her left arm doesn't look broken, but there's obviously something wrong with it- he suspects a dislocated shoulder or perhaps a broken collarbone. Nothing serious.
Her face, beneath the bruises and the cuts and her terrifying hair, is pretty enough- though it borders on the plain side. There's a sharpness to her features that suggest a recent lack of food. Burns; blistering and scabby, creep up her neck from underneath her collar. They look untreated and he wonders- from the awkward way in which she sits- just how far down they go. She has a small beaded bag that has certainly seen better days slung over her shoulder (which must surely hurt, but she doesn't seem interested in removing it) and her knees are scraped and bloodied underneath her torn jeans.
All in all, she looks like shit, but not as bad as Harry had been (not that that would be hard to beat; apparently, falling from 30 000 feet sure does a number on you). And at least she wasn't missing any fingernails.
He taps their nameless driver on the shoulder, "You got any painkillers in here?" he points to the glovebox and Tony leans precariously over the passenger seat to retrieve them. They come in a small first-aid kit, packed to the brim with all the emergency drugs and bandages you'd never find in your average household kits. He hands her some paracetamol and codeine tablets (which he's pretty sure you need a prescription for).
A thought suddenly occurs to him, "You mind stopping at the closest shopping mall?" the driver looks as though he does mind, but a hundred dollar bill keeps him nice and quiet. Hermione raises a scarred eyebrow, Tony ignores her.
They pull up outside the front of some chain mall he's never heard of; their driver apparently happy to pretend to be a taxi (Tony approves), "Stay here Queenie; I'll be back soon," he taps what's-his-face on the shoulder in thanks on the way out and strides off with purpose to the closest dress shop.
Clothes shopping is not a pastime Tony regularly participates in. Like most men he knows, time is of the essence and it almost becomes a challenge to see just how quickly he can get in, find what he wants and get out again.
It's one of the reason's he normally sends Pepper to buy his good clothes. And also the reason why he would rather spend his time trying to cuddle a rabid mountain lion (that's on fire) than go shopping with a woman. They treat shopping as though it were a life-changing adventure.
It terrifies him.
Fortunately, shopping for women's clothing by himself is not so tedious. He picks the first items he sets his eyes on that look airy enough to not irritate her burns or constrict her movement, picking the larger sizes just to be on the safe side. The cashier takes his credit card with an awestruck expression on her face.
All in all, the venture takes about five minutes. Tony is immensely proud of himself.
On the way out, he can't resist the shiny sign of the Krispy Krème donuts. He buys a dozen glazed donuts and leaves the surly-looking employee (who doesn't seem to recognise him, which is nice) a twenty in change.
The car is still patiently waiting outside, the driver stoically ignoring the irate taxi drivers honking occasionally at him. Hermione looks on edge when he slips back in and sends him an unimpressed look.
"We stopped because you were hungry?" she says, eyeing the donuts with disdain.
"No, here-" he shoves the fancy bag of clothes into her lap. Curious, she looks inside, pulling out a dress. She looks confused as she rubs the soft fabric between her fingers.
"You're a cross dresser?" the driver coughs to hide his laugh. Tony restrains himself from kicking the back of his seat.
"No. They're for you."
"Oh…" she looks at the brand name on the tags and her eyes widen, "Mr Stark- these are Alice & Olivia."
He sends her an uncomprehending look, "And?"
He's quite sure he's never heard of that brand before.
"Well, they cost a small fortune."
He shrugs, "Lucky I have a lot of those then."
She folds the dress and puts it back in the bag, trying to hand it back to him; "I can't take these." Tony pushes back.
"Don't be stupid, of course you can." She looks as though she's about to protest again, "Don't make me have to return them. I hate returning things." He cuts her off, grimacing as if to prove his point. She purses her lips unhappily, but takes the bag back.
"Thank-you." She turns to look out the window again, shifting uncomfortably.
At the risk of sounding thoughtful, Tony feels that he has to add a "Besides, your shirt is hurting my eyes." She laughs and turns back to him.
"It is rather, isn't it?"
He wiggles his eyebrows at her lecherously, "So, are you going to put them on?"
Hermione smirks, untouched by his flirting "Not if all you've got to offer me are those donut's Mister Stark." Oh God, a woman with a sense of humour. This is going to be a blast. He offers her a donut anyway- she looks like she hasn't eaten for a week.
"Where are we going?"
"Hospital," her gaze turns sharp, "Your man's not there. We need a helipad though, where we're going." She nods, chewing thoughtfully on her sugary treat.
"And where is that?" he sends her a sharky grin, all teeth.
"Oh, you'll see." The car goes silent, their driver skilfully navigating the confusing streets.
"You know," she remarks lightly, watching him with intelligent eyes, "For an apparent genius, you don't seem to have many questions for me Mister Stark. I'd have thought you'd have dissected my very thought patterns by now," and Good God but her voice isn't even grudging of his intellect. In fact, it almost sounds expectant. He's liking this woman more and more.
He smiles again, "Oh, I have many, many questions. But unfortunately, so do my colleagues, and I'm not one for retell." Her lips curls up at the corners, "But since you asked, I do have one pressing question."
"Why Ottowa? Of all places to travel by portal, Ottowa has to of been one of the least exciting. What was wrong with New York? I have a tower there. Or Malibu- I've got a place there too. Ottowa has to of been one of the least convenient places to end up in… well, besides 30 000 feet up in the air, that is. Speaking of which, how did he even survive? Is he a mutant? Are you a mutant? Why are you even here? You seem friendly enough, but you look like you've walked through a warzone.
"And how do you not know who I am? Or the Avengers? We were on every news station in the world this time last year- are you actually from a different universe? But then, you know what Alice & Olivia is- I don't, by the way- and you wear normal clothes, so I can't really be sure about that. Have you just lived under a rock your entire life?"
"That's not really one question." She looks very amused and her eyes are twinkling at the corners with mirth, as though she was about to burst into laughter.
"Then answer the first one; why Ottowa?"
She shrugs her shoulder, "We didn't exactly have the ability to control where we landed."
"So you're not denying the fact that you've travelled via wormholes?"
She huffs a laugh, "You look like you've seen stranger things, Tony Stark." Her eyes flick down to his chest and back up to his face, almost imperceptible. As if she knew what was hiding underneath his suit jacket and shirt.
He smirks to hide his sudden uneasiness, "Tony, please," he purrs. Hermione just stares, face unreadable, "So who is Harry to you, Miss Granger? Your boyfriend? I'll admit; I wouldn't have taken you for a cougar."
She frown's playfully at him, "Are you saying I look old, Mister Stark?" he rolls his eyes at the continued use of his last name.
"Oh yes, positively ancient," he drawls in retaliation. She sends him a haughty look.
"I'll have you know, Harry is much older than he looks. He's… been blessed with remarkably good genetics." The curl of her lips suggests there's probably more to it than good genes and he stores the information away for later. Her face softens, a sad smile spreading across her face, "Harry is a dear friend- a childhood friend. We met at school when we were very young. We've… we've been through a lot together," her eyes go shiny-bright, as though she's about to start crying. She sniffs and turns away, "But he is not my lover," she adds wetly.
Tony keeps quiet after that.
The car pulls up outside the hospital entrance and they climb out, Tony opening the door for his partner. He gives their driver another fifty.
"So what's with the stick?" they're waiting outside the lifts. Some of the hospital staff and patients are staring at him curiously. One or two seem to have noticed Hermione and look concerned.
"Stick?" he can tell she's suddenly playing dumb; her voice all faked sweetness and innocence. He gives her an exasperated look.
"Yeah, stick. Your buddy had one on him too… you were clutching it like a weapon when I met you in the comic store. What were you going to do with it? Poke me in the eye?"
She smiles sweetly, "Why Tony, I'm surprised you haven't worked it out; it's my magic wand. I was planning on turning you into a newt."
He laughs in surprise, "Right Queenie, sure you were."
Her eyes go all sparkly with amusement as the lift travels upwards, "Sure I was," she echoes, sounding very much as if she were enjoying some private joke.
"You know," he says slowly, thinking on her remark, "If you squint your eyes hard enough, that could well have been a Monty Python reference."
Her grin gets wider; she looks delighted, "Oh, thank Merlin, you have that here… But who knows, maybe I do weigh the same as a duck." The elevator pings open and she strolls out onto the roof. Tony stares after her, astonished and thrilled, because this is just marvellous, before remembering to get out of the lift himself.
The SHIELD helicopter is already waiting for them, the rotors at a temporary standstill. Clint, Thor and Natasha are already there; they'd been his covert back-up in case their traveller had been hostile and had gone straight to the hospital once he'd notified them that she was friendly.
Hermione's sure step falters when she notices them, suddenly put back on edge. He rests a placating hand on her back, careful to avoid her dodgy shoulder and burns.
"Guys, this is Hermione. She's our portal traveller and friend of our Harry." Natasha smiles at the girl disarmingly (disarming because Tony only see's it directed at people she doesn't trust, and it's all sugar and spice and thinly veiled deadliness, and it scares the shit out of him every time he sees it). Thor bows and rumbles an Asgardian greeting to her; Clint nods, eyeing his partner warily.
Hermione rewards Natasha with a grin of her own, and it's all perfect white teeth. Tony's suddenly not sure who he should be more terrified of.
"Ah… right…" he fumbles, suddenly convinced that there might well be two women in his close vicinity who could snap his neck with their thighs, "Well…" Holy Shit I'm going to die, "Hermione; this is Natasha, Thor and Clint. They're members of the Avenger initiative too- the Black Widow… er… Thor… and ah- Hawkeye, respectively." Clint sends her a little salute, but he looks about as terrified of the two of them as Tony feels. Thor appears oblivious, but maybe it's just his poker face.
"A pleasure," Hermione purrs, shaking each of their hands carefully. The girls share another terrifying set of smiles. Tony decides that Thor can be the one to sit between the two of them when they enter the helicopter.
"Where are we going?" Hermione asks again as Clint helps her into the seating straps. Natasha smiles in amusement and hands her a pair of earphones.
"You'll see," she says into the microphone, imitating Tony's own reply. The rotors churn into life above them and Hermione glares at the two of them, seated opposite herself and Thor. Clint sits at the front, happy- it seems- to be as far away from Hermione and Natasha as possible. Thor observes her with about as much subtlety as a horde of rhinos in a library. Hermione just smiles at him sweetly, not intimidated by his size in the least.
The ride to the helicarrier is done in relative silence- relative in that none of them speak, because the chopper makes about as much noise as a stampeding herd of elephants (or alternately, that horde of librarian rhinos from before). Normally, Tony wouldn't even bother; helicopters are so terribly plebeian (and noisy) when compared to his Ironman suit or a private jet. But they'd been pressed for time, and the coordinates for the portal had been too far from the nearest airstrip- not to mention, they weren't keen on scaring their target away with something as threatening as the Mark XLVII. It had been quicker (and more efficious) to just get there by chopper (though it had been a miracle in and of itself how close to the carrier it had been).
The look on her face when she realises that that patch of sky right there is something else entirely makes it all worth it.
"Oh my," he hears her breathe through the headphones as they rise above the optical camouflage panels and the full scale of the carrier comes into view, "That's… wow." The three of them smirk at her- she doesn't seem to notice, bloodshot eyes riveted on the massive turbines that keep Fury's monstrosity aloft.
'You muggles come up with some fantastic things!" she remarks with delight.
Muggles? The fuck are muggles?
Clint says as much into his microphone, twisting in his seat to look at her. Hermione blushes in embarrassment.
"Er… it's a-ah-a term my friends and I use for people who… aren't like us… you know, mutants," she seems to add the last part in as an afterthought, her cheeks flushing a furious pink. Natasha raises an imperious eyebrow but says nothing. Hermione pretends to spend her undivided attention on their landing.
Thor is out of the aircraft as soon as the rotors slow down enough to not blow him off the edge of the carrier; he'd always been uneasy in them. Natasha climbs down gracefully not long after as Tony helps Hermione out of her harness. He can see Steve marching towards them, his face grim and expecting trouble. Bruce waits at a safe distance.
Tony jumps out, raising his hands in placation as he draws closer, "Easy Capsicle; she's harmless." Well, probably. Steve looks as though about to ask him who 'she'is, but Hermione is coming out the door before he can clarify.
She still has that slightly dazed, awed expression on her face when she hits her left shoulder on the doorway.
The change is instantaneous; she cries out loudly, face turning ashen, eyes going all shiny with unshed tears. Tony wonders, as he rushes forward to catch her, what exactly it was she'd done to that arm.
"You okay Queenie?" he asks, arms coming up automatically to support her as she staggers forward. He accidentally jars her arm and brushes against her burns and a volley of expletives explode from her mouth in retaliation.
He's kind of impressed; those Brits sure knew how to swear, he'd give them that.
"Not really," she gasps when she gets a hold of herself. Her skin already feels cold and clammy, "Right now would be the perfect time for you to introduce me to that infirmary of yours though."
He nods, feeling guilty for not thinking of having them ready to pick them up, "Right." He turns to Steve, "Can you get someone from med-bay up here? Queenie's injured." As if on cue, Hermione's knees buckle.
"Guess those pain med's weren't as strong as they could have been," she offers weakly, eyes gaining a disconcerting glazed sheen to them. He stares at her- she really isn't looking very good at all.
"Fuck it," he murmurs, not keen on waiting for the paramedics, and scoops her up into his arms. She doesn't make a sound and he's taken aback by how little she seems to weigh.
"Shit girl! You really do weigh as much as a duck! You sure you're not a witch?" he jokes in an attempt to lighten the mood, already setting off for the med-bay.
Hermione laughs quietly, but the corners of her mouth are drawn down in pain, "Well I didn't want to say anything Mister Stark; I thought it might be awkward, what with you being a newt and all. Though, this position feels quite familiar so perhaps it's a good thing," the last of her words slur and Tony forces the panic down; he likes this girl, she's bright and funny. He doesn't like seeing her slurring her words, eyes dragging across things as though she were drugged.
He hears Clint mutter a confused "What do ducks have to do with anything?" to Natasha as he reaches the doors that lead into the bowels of the Helicarrier. The rest of the team trail along behind them like lost ducklings.
Natasha's exasperated "It's from Monty Python you idiot," puts a smile on his face though.
Bruce catches up to him, easily ignoring the confused stares of the SHIELD agents they pass, "What's wrong with her?" he asks quietly, taking in Hermione's pale face and dazed eyes, "She looks like she's going into shock," he notes. Tony sends him a harried look.
"I don't know… there's something wrong with her arm though, and she's been burnt." Bruce's eyes land on her exposed neck.
"The same as Harry?" he queries softly.
Not softly enough; Hermione stirs at Harry's name.
"Harry?" she cries out, head swinging over to stare at Bruce, "Where's Harry?"
Bruce smiles at her reassuringly, "He's safe. You can see him once you've been to the med-bay." Hermione isn't comforted.
"NO- Harry! I need to see Harry!" she calls out frantically, suddenly struggling in Tony's arms. He swears, sending a dark look at Bruce as he tries to restrain the woman.
An arm lashes out, hitting him in the neck and then she's slipping from his grasp as he wheezes. The loud thunk when she hits the ground sounds bad.
Her hitched screams sound worse.
"Harry-Ron-Harry where are you?" she sobs loudly, body curling up into the foetal position and shit but she looks awful; a mess of tears and screams and twitching limbs and fuck but there's blood blossoming through her shirt; her fall must have made her shoulder worse.
The useless paramedics are running up the corridor- he can see them out of the corner of his eye as he and Bruce try and restrain her, trying to soothe her- but they're slow- too fucking slow because they should have been here sooner, should have been her ages ago before he'd dropped her, and he knows that an unfair assessment because it's only been like a minute but shit he'd fucking dropped her, how could he have dropped her and God but this is a fucking disaster, he should have just waited for them he's such a FUCKING IDIOT.
And then they are there, and someone's injecting a sedative into her neck, quick and ruthless, and her agonized wails peter off into sobs for Harry, for Ron (whoever that is), her words growing slurred, her hands slipping from his shirt (and when had she grabbed his shirt?) and then the corridor falls quiet and they're placing her motionless form carefully on a gurney and wheeling her away.
Their hushed, frantic words echo incoherently on the metal walls.
"Well fuck," he says to Bruce, in a daze. Hermione's already disappeared around the corner. There's a smear of blood on the ground that he can't stop staring at. He feels like crying, because that was absolutely awful. Worse than waking up with a naked Loki in his bed. Which to be honest, he hadn't thought he'd be able to top.
Bruce nods shakily and helps him up. Steve and Thor are staring down the corridor; they look like they've seen a ghost. The others are staring at him. Natasha's eyes are mildly accusatory.
"You could have said she was badly hurt," she says calmly, but there's an edge to her voice that tells him to watch his back for the next week because she knows where he sleeps.
"I didn't- she'd seemed fine before!" he wipes at his face, "Fuck- she'd been walking and talking a though she didn't care!" he kicks a wall angrily, "God-shit – I'd just thought she'd been burnt and sprained her shoulder or something!" he's angry, so angry; at the med-team, for taking so long; at Hermione, for not telling him how bad her shoulder was; at Bruce, for setting her off by mentioning Harry; and mostly at himself, for being such an A-class fucking idiot.
Steve seems to have shaken himself out of his stupor, "Who is she?" he asks quietly, eyes flicking every so often down to the smear of blood on the floor- much like Tony.
"Her name's Hermione Granger; she's a friend of Harry's apparently… in case you didn't get that from her little episode right there." He remarks dryly, quickly recovering from his own shock, though the anger still simmers there, ready to be unleashed as soon he's on his own. Bruce sends him a knowing look.
"She says she's a mutant- and I think she'd more or less hinted at Harry being one too. Not that I could tell you what kind of mutant she is, but I'd wager it has something to do with her stick; if, that is, she's a mutant at all. Which I kind of doubt."
"Stick?" Clint's looking at him as if he were an idiot, which honestly doesn't feel too far off the mark right now.
"Thin, polished, about the length of my forearm. Textured grip- pretty similar to what they'd found on Harry."
"You think Harry has a similar ability?" Bruce asks, a slight frown growing between his eyebrows. Tony shrugs.
"I wouldn't rule it out, but he doesn't have the X-gene. She said they were school friends, so we'd better check up with Professor Xavier. Two people with similar abilities; it's possible they met as students at a similar school at some point. Xavier might have some clue as to what kind of school it was," a thought suddenly occurs to him and he turns on Steve, "Aren't you on babysitting duty? Fury is going to slaughter you if he finds out you've abandoned your post."
Steve smiles sheepishly, "Agent Hill offered to take over when she told me you were approaching the helicarrier with a guest."
"That was… very nice of her." He'd bet his left testicle she'd never offer the same service to him.
They stand in silence for a minute, each of them apparently waiting to the next to say something. Tony rolls his eyes in exasperation and leaves them, following the path of the paramedics to the med bay. The team trail along at his heels.
Fury meets them just outside.
"Who is she?" he asks, as brusque and to-the-point as ever.
"No idea," Tony say's airily, strolling past him but relishing the frustrated look on the Director's face, "Ask Steve."
He can't help but laugh at Capsicle's indignant cry as Fury rounds on him.
Poor Steve just can't seem to catch a break (no regrets).
I should explain the number of Tony's Iron Man suit. In IM3, he predominantly uses the MK XLII (42), and whilst I live in a world that likes to pretend that most of the events in IM3 did not occur (as does this story), there are still some things that I'll swing with; Tony pumping out suits like Octomum does babies is one of them. Hence why I'm saying we're up to MK XLVII (47) in Great Expectations.
For those who didn't get the Monty Python references:
1. I pity you.
2. Watch them. In particular, the Holy Grail, and the Life of Brian. When you watch the Holy Grail, you shall understand, my children.
Chapter 11: Mornin' Sleeping Beauty
The only sign of Hermione's awakening is a sharp intake of breath that is not let out for an unusually long time. Her eyelids do not flutter, her fingers do not twitch and her throat makes no sound to indicate her sudden arrival into wakefulness. Her breathing settles back down into an almost convincing rhythm not long after.
Tony continues to peel his apple with the pocketknife he'd borrowed off Steve (and God but could the man be any more of a Boy Scout?), content to wait until she stops pretending to be asleep. Bruce- who sits next to him (Tony's feet rest on his lap; he's trained his Bruce well- he doesn't even complain anymore)- resumes reading his book (The Picture of Dorian Gray). He enjoys his apple in peace for a good nine and a half minutes before she apparently becomes sick of the ruse and 'stirs' into wakefulness. Her eyes crack open slowly, but they're already focussed, landing on him almost instantaneously.
"Tony?" she murmurs hoarsely; that, he guesses, is not faked. He waves at her.
"Good mornin' sleeping beauty. Nice to see you join the land of the living." Her gaze lingers on the small pile of apple peelings on his lap and the knife he's wiping absentmindedly on his jeans. Her eyes travel to Bruce, who is peering over the top of his book to see her, and watches him with an inscrutable expression.
"How long have I been out?" he looks at his watch, pretending to do the addition (he already knows; he's counted every hour).
"Going on ten hours now. You were in surgery for about two of those- they had to check out your shoulder-" he gives her a dark, angry look, "-to make sure there was no life-threatening or permanent damage and you've been asleep for the rest." He picks up another apple from her bedside table and starts to peel it.
"I'm sure you do." He grimaces when he accidentally breaks a beautifully long curl of skin. "You know, it's quite strange…" he keeps his voice as light as possible, but inwardly he seethes.
"What's strange?" Hermione's smart; she catches onto the edge of his voice and her voice is equally guarded in retaliation.
"Oh, it's just that, you know, the surgeons were telling me not three hours ago that your shoulder was just the strangest thing."
"Yes. Doctor Lapinsas- he's the doctor that's been working on Harry, did you know- told me that they'd found under a layer of brand-new skin- which had torn when you fell, by the way- a mess of freshly damaged and disconnected tissue that extended all the way through your shoulder.
"It was almost-" he carves out a slice of apple with the utmost care, "-as if you'd just been stabbed. But of course, that would be impossible, because there was not a single mark on your shoulder- just some very new skin that had grown over what must have been an old injury." He chews on the slice of fruit slowly, not continuing his very interesting story until he had finished the entire piece, "It was quite curious, Lapinsas was saying, because the healed skin lay quite literally over the top of where they would have expected to find the entry and exit wounds of your stab wound," he cuts another slice, trying very hard to control his temper; it would not do for him to start snarling at her. He takes comfort in the hand that rests on his shin and reigns it in.
"And did you know what Lapinsas' assistant was telling me? Gavin- that's his name- was saying how lucky it was that they had discovered the wound so early, before the tissues had begun to heal without guidance. He was telling me that the chances- had they not found it until then- of you regaining full mobility of the limb again would have been as low as ten percent." He eats the slice. Bruce is watching him now, his face mostly shielded from Hermione by his book.
Hermione makes no reply.
"Why didn't you say anything? You'd been fucking stabbed." She stares at him, her mouth downturned.
"To be fair," she rasps a minute later, "you never asked."
At that, Tony's quite ready to stand up and leave and find a workshop to trash; preferably his own.
Because she's right, of course. He hadn't asked; hadn't even bothered to have a med team ready to meet her when they got off the helicopter. All he'd done was give her some painkillers and buy her some new clothes. And God, but her eyes aren't even accusing; like she doesn't even blame him for it.
Vanguard against evil my arse.
Bruce squeezes his shin comfortingly, but effectively preventing him from running away.
He nods but says nothing to her. Not that he could say anything to her right now, even if he tried.
"How did you heal the skin of your shoulder?" Bruce asks quietly; it's a question that's been sitting in his mind all day, "We contacted the men you first came in contact with; one of them told us he used a brown liquid that you'd gotten from you bag that had healed the skin at an accelerated rate. He said you'd called it Essence of Dittany.
"We tried to find the vial in your bag, but we couldn't even open it." Her eyes look smug at that, "I know Dittany. It's a medicinal herb from Crete. But it's never been proven to be anything more than an anti-bacterial agent. Were you lying? I find it hard to believe some new brewing technique could ever hope to have such an effect."
"I didn't lie." She speaks slowly, as if searching for the words, "It is made from dittany… but there's an extra element to it."
"What? What is it? Something like that could revolutionise the medical world. Just imagine the application on burn victims alone." There is an almost dreamy tone to his voice, as he imagines a world with ready access to the miracle drug.
Her face looks sad, almost pitying, for a moment, "I-it's not something that could be replicated- certainly not on a large scale." Bruce's face falls, but he still looks hopeful.
"Is it your invention?" She shakes her head.
"No. I distilled it, but it was not my creation. I'm sorry."
Bruce sighs sadly, dog-earing the page of his book and setting it down on his lap, "I suppose they call them miracle cures for a reason."
Tony's calmed down enough by now to return to the conversation.
"I went looking for you, you know." He says casually, "The man who found you- Aubrey wasn't it? Well, he said that you had told him you were British- though I'd kind of gathered that from your accent- so I went looking through their public records for any mention of a Hermione Granger."
"Oh?" she sounds genuinely curious, which is not what he'd suspect from someone trying to hide their identity.
"Nothing past the age of eight… where you died. In a house-fire… your parents died in the hospital from pneumonia three days later. Their lungs had been burnt by the heat of the blaze and neither had been able to stave off infection. It was labelled a tragic accident but there were no suspicious circumstances. An electric blanket had caught fire in your bedroom."
"Oh." There is definitely disappointment in her tone now, "I remember that fire… but it ended… better."
He sits up, removing his feet from Bruce's person, "What do you mean, 'you remember that fire?' Hermione Granger died; they identified her body from her dental records. And there was no reason for her death to have been faked- believe me; I went looking.
"You cannot be Hermione Granger." Her eyes flash dangerously, and he suddenly remembers her stare-off that morning with Natasha.
"I am Hermione Granger," she snarls angrily, "Do not accuse me of lying Tony Stark. My name is Hermione Jean Granger and I was born on the 19th of September, 1979. But I am not this world's Hermione."
Tony stares at her long and hard. She gives him as good as she gets.
"Fine." he grinds out when she doesn't elaborate.
"Fine." She echoes.
"Then where do you come from?" Bruce asks in an effort to placate the situation. Her eyes flick to him and she relaxes slightly.
"I want to see Harry first." She says calmly, "Then I will tell you everything. But only when Harry is present."
"I don't think you're in any position to make demands," Tony points out. She raises an eyebrow and smirks.
"I do believe I am, actually. You know nothing of me- and I'll bet you haven't found anything about Harry either. How could you? I bet you don't even know his last name. You don't know where we are from or how we got here, you don't know what either of us are capable of, and most of all, you have nothing to coerce us with- only each other. And I will have know; such a move would not end well.
"So I will say again; I will answer your questions, but only in the presence of Harry- and he must be awake." Her eyes seem to sparkle for a moment, then she adds, almost as an afterthought, "And I want my stick."
Tony pouts and stabs at the remains of his forgotten apple sulkily. Bruce snickers.
"She's got you there."
"But Harry might not wake up for ages Bruce!" he whines, carving a sad face into the browning flesh. Hermione huffs a laugh.
"I wouldn't be so sure of that. If you get me to him, I'll be able to revive him."
Tony raises an unbelieving eyebrow, "How are you going to do that? Kiss him and dislodge the poison apple?" She rolls her eyes.
"My stick." She demands again.
Tony sighs. He has a feeling he's still pouting, but Hermione seems to just take it in her stride, "Fine. We'll stop off at my lab first."
She smirks again, "Trying to unravel my secrets, Stark?" he just sends her a look that says well duh.
Without further ado, she sits up and swings her legs over the side of the bed. She frowns at the exposed skin. Someone has stuck wound-patches to her grazed knees with medical tape.
"Oh… hmm." She picks at the fabric of the hospital gown with her good arm and looks back up; "Say, you don't still have those clothes you got me do you? I'd rather not be wandering around the place looking like an escaped patient."
He pulls the bag out from under his chair and puts it down beside her. She smiles in thanks. Bruce directs her to the bathroom; a nurse joins them on the way.
She returns five minutes later in a loose shift dress; black with an electric blue stripe down the front. Her neck and left shoulder are heavily bandaged and he can see more white cloth peeping out from the armholes. The sling holds her arm firmly up against her chest.
She tugs nervously at the hem of her dress as she draws closer, "It's a bit short," she says disapprovingly with a small frown. Her feet scrape across the floor in the hospital supplied slippers. Her hair- washed and untangled now- is tied back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, and it gives her face a severe, almost gaunt cast. She looks painfully thin; all skinny limbs and bird-like wrists.
"It looked long enough on the hanger." He says offhandedly. Hermione rolls her eyes; he takes the bag of remaining clothes off her, "Now come on; we have a stick to retrieve."
Bruce offers her his arm and she takes it with a soft smile. Tony leads them on, leaving Fury and Steve a message as he goes; Granger awake. Will wake Harry and tell us everything. Meet in his room in 10. He leaves out the part about returning her stick; he knows Fury wouldn't have approved. He trusts Steve to organise the team and meet them there.
Tony will be the first to admit that his lab isn't in the best of conditions right now. The benches (reserved for only the most vital of equipment) are mostly clean, for sure. The only problem is that they're clean at the expense of the floor, which is most definitely a disaster zone. Machinery, bits and bobs, the remains of computers and one or two uneaten trays of food litter the floor. There are more than a few dents and scratches in the metal walls.
He might have lost it a bit when they were operating on Hermione.
Bruce sighs heavily. Hermione's eyebrows rise.
"I like what you've done with the place." She says dryly, "Very Avant-garde."
Tony ignores her and grabs her stick and her stupid beaded bag. She takes them gratefully, sighing with what seems like relief when the stick rests in her hand. She tucks it beneath the straps of the sling and slings the little bag over her shoulder and they leave.
Tony leads the way again and his friend deems it appropriate to finally introduce himself.
"I'm Bruce," he tells Hermione, whose hand is once again tucked into the crook of his elbow (ever the gentleman, our Bruce).
"It's a pleasure to meet you Bruce," she smiles charmingly at him, "I'm Hermione; in case it wasn't glaringly obvious." He nods at her seriously.
"You know, there was a time there where I wasn't sure what your name was, so I'm glad we've worked that out." She laughs.
"So who are you Bruce? If you don't mind me asking."
"A scientist and a friend of Tony's," he states succinctly; always one to undersell himself.
"Doctor Banner is a valuable member of the Avengers," Tony interjects. Hermione's eyes light up with curiosity.
"Oh really? In what capacity?" Bruce's lips thin, still finding himself unwilling to speak casually about the Other Guy. Tony, fortunately, has no such qualms.
"As a giant green rage monster."
If anything, her eyes get even brighter, fascination clear on her face now.
"Really?" she breathes, and yes, that's definitely excitement he hears in her voice, "And how is that state brought on? Is it cyclical, like the moon? Or can it be brought out on will? Does it hurt? Or are you unaware of your actions during the episode- though I'd imagine not if you're a member of the Avengers. And how did this come about? Was it an infection? Were you born with it? Are you a mutant?" The questions pour out of her like a dam breaking its walls.
Bruce just stares, completely and utterly stunned. Tony laughs heartily.
"Oh Queenie," he snickers (and the woman is still yet to say anything about her nickname), "You are an absolute gem."
Hermione looks between the two, mildly confused, "What, are you- is it not-" understanding dawns on her face, "Oh," she sounds almost broken-hearted, "People are normally scared of you, aren't they?" and she looks so sad at that statement that Bruce lays his hand over hers, squeezing it in comfort.
"It's okay," he reassures her, "I'm used to it." Wrapped around her little finger already.
She shakes her head vehemently, looking angry now, "But you shouldn't have to be! You can obviously control yourself, or they wouldn't let you on this… this thing!" Bruce looks shiftily to the right.
"I can control it most of the time," he admits, fiddling with the edge of his shirt. Hermione shrugs her good shoulder.
"Well, most of the time is good enough for me." Bruce stares at her again and she raises an eyebrow, "What? I'm a big girl! I can take care of myself." And it's funny, because even though he knows about her shoulder and she's as skinny as a rake, Tony is still inclined to believe her.
Bruce looks like he's about to cry, he's so happy, when they arrive at Harry's room (which is not an exaggeration, Tony swears. Sure, he only looks shocked, but deep down he's deliriously happy; Tony knows these things). The door to his room is closed, and her hand stretches out to trace over the word 'Harry' that's been carved into the laminated paper.
Tony lets her open the door. It swings open slowly; Clint is inside already, on guard duty. One of the nameless grunts sits on the other side of the Falling Man's bed.
"Oh Harry," she murmur sadly, taking in the motionless form on the hospital bed.
There aren't as many machines in there as there a week ago; many of them were removed as his body healed, making them redundant, but he's still covered with bandages and bone casts.
"We had to place him in an induced coma." Bruce says quietly as she walks over to stroke the man's face, "We thought it would be safer; we didn't know if there were any adverse effects to be brought on by his accelerated healing."
"How bad was he?" Her hand runs down his neck, trailing down his arm. Fingers curl around his bandaged hand. Clint watches them silently, seemingly intimidated by Hermione after her episode of hysteria.
"Pretty bad," Tony says, grabbing his medical records from the foot of his bed- in some ways, SHIELD was still very old school. She takes the clipboard with shaky fingers. Her face becomes more and more drawn as she reads the list of injuries.
"Some of these he won't be able to heal himself," she mutters, "He can't cope with shattered bones," she looks up, "I'll have to heal him."
Tony raises an unimpressed eyebrow, "Riiight. Like you did yourself?" she scowls.
"No, not like myself. Dittany only heals the skin; what I'll have to do for goes much… deeper. I'll do it after, when you're not liable to freak out."
Steve and the rest of the gang (plus Doctor Foster) arrive then, Fury only moments behind. Tony sends the Director a jaunty little wave; he scowls back. Steve steps forward as the others squeeze into the room. Thor and Jane hover in the doorway, unwilling to crowd the room even more (though he suspects Thor's main motivation is keeping his lover out of harms way).
"We hadn't had the chance to be introduced before," he extends his hand and Hermione shakes it firmly, "I'm Steve. This," he nods to the pretty woman standing beside Thor, "Is Doctor Foster; she's one of the team that tracked your appearance, and this is the Director of SHIELD, Nick Fury," Hermione eye's his eye patch curiously, but bows at him dutifully without comment. Fury almost appears startled at her subservience.
"I understand that you would be the one I should thank for ensuring Harry's recovery?" her voice is formal and clipped now, dripping with gratitude, but she makes no move to shake his hand.
"Yes. Though I'd like to know why we're meeting here," he turns on Tony, "What was wrong with the conference room?" Hermione doesn't look offended in the least by her dismissal. Tony doesn't lie; he feels a little disappointed by that.
"That would be my fault, Director," she says calmly, drawing back his attention, "I insisted that I would provide SHIELD with no explanation unless it was with Harry in audience." She looks sheepishly back at Harry, "Though I admit, I hadn't been aware that his room had been so small… nor had I known the extent of his injuries. I think it would be best if we were to move to your conference room before I began my story; I feel it would be in Harry's best interests to be fully healed before he is revived, but that will take time and your approval of my involvement with his recovery."
Fury gives her what Tony can only call a look of approval. He's even more terrified of the woman now. Getting on Fury's good side is difficult; gaining his approval is harder, and those that do get it rarely receive it so quickly. He's starting to get the feeling she might well belong in the echelons of Agent Hill, Natasha and the late Agent Coulson, and he hasn't even seen her do anything yet. It's kind of weirding him out.
A glance at the rest of the team show's various levels of disconcertment at Hermione's behaviour. Or maybe he's just imagining it, because if he squints his eyes hard enough that might well be an approving smile tugging up the corners of Natasha's lips.
"I'd find that more agreeable, Miss Granger." She smiles politely.
'Thank-you Director," she pauses, glancing at the door, "I'm afraid I don't know where the conference room is however." Tony smirks, butting in before Fury can say anything else.
"No matter Queenie! The rest of us do- well, Steve doesn't, but I'd suggest you don't ask him where anything is on the Helicarrier; he struggles to find the mess hall half the time." He hears Steve sigh as he leads her out of Harry's room.
"I can hardly blame him- everything looks the same here." Steve laughs in delight, and maybe a bit of relief.
"Finally, someone who sees eye to eye." She shoots him a smile over her shoulder.
The rest of their journey is done in relative silence; Clint catching up with them after he'd found someone else to cover his babysitting duty. They file in one-by-one, Fury taking his customary seat at the head of the table; Hermione sits down next to him and Tony steals the one beside her before Bruce can.
Seven and a half pair of eyes round on her and she smiles, only slightly nervous.
"Well," she says, laying her beaded bag down on the table carefully, "I suppose I'd better start from the beginning."
Chapter 12: Uhhhh
Nick Fury doesn't know who this girl is, or who she thinks she is, but she is most certainly not a witch.
Although on second thoughts, given she's claiming to be a witch, maybe he does actually know who she thinks she is. Oh the beauties of the English language; confusing even the greatest of men.
The others at the table seem to share this sentiment (of the girl, that is, not on the English language). He sees various levels of disbelief on their faces, ranging from Stark's poignantly raised eyebrow that twitches his whole face out of whack to Agent Romanov's closed off expression that essentially says exactly the same. Captain Rogers looks confused, but believing, and Fury pins this mostly down to his relatively recent return to the world of the living- he was still, after all, coming to terms with the open existence of mutants and the gays. Thor looks sceptic, but also inclined to believe the woman, but that's likely due to his exposure to his psychopath/sociopath of a brother Loki, who'd certainly been no stranger to enchantments and the like.
Granger doesn't even look exasperated in the face of their (semi)-unanimous disbelief.
"Uhhh," Stark says elegantly, "by 'a witch' do you mean a mutant with witch-like powers, or something like a hedge-witch?"
Granger seems amused, "No, by witch, I mean a witch with witch-like powers. Harry has identical abilities, but his power is greater than mine."
"Harry's not a mutant." Tony points out, essentially ignoring her last statement. Granger still looks amused; Fury's slightly unnerved by how well she's taking the scepticism.
"No, he's not. And nor am I."
"You said you were." She smiles sardonically.
"And do I look incapable of lying, Mister Stark? I claimed to be a mutant because I learnt quite quickly that they existed openly in the public domain; magic-folk, I was not so sure of."
"Magic Folk?" Fury interrupts sharply, now concerned, "Are you saying there are more of you?" Granger grins impishly.
"Oh yes, great swathes of us! In some places entire villages. Living in secret right under your nose… but perhaps not in this universe." Fury just wants to go back to bed now; Granger sounds much too gleeful for this time of night, nor this kind of news.
"'Not in this universe'? What do you mean by that; are you actually from an alternate universe?" Doctor Foster asks; there's a smug gleam to her eyes.
Granger's face goes solemn and she looks down at her lap, "Yes. Harry and I come from an alternate universe. I presume so anyway. We were trying to escape some… bad people, and were thrown into the veil- a magical artefact of my world. I'd been conducting research on it not long before, and was fairly sure I knew what it did."
"So that's why you didn't know who I was!" Exclaims Stark, ever the egocentric, "I mustn't exist in your universe." Granger nods.
"As I don't in yours. I had never heard of mutants in my universe either."
"Say we believed you," Banner sounds cautious, "What exactly do your powers entail?"
Suddenly she's grinning again, all wicked wit and intelligence, "Many things," she smirks, "and much more than what your mutants can do, I'd gather."
"Such as?" that's Romanov, who still appears doubtful of her claims.
Granger tilts her head, almost birdlike, "It's hard to really describe the full scope of our powers; would you rather a demonstration?" Stark is nodding already, but Fury is more cautious.
"What kind of scope are we talking about?" She suddenly looks uncomfortable, as if suddenly unwilling to describe it. It's a strange reaction, given she'd been more than happy to provide them with a demonstration only moments before.
"An almost exhaustive one. We can cast spells for protection that work like impermeable shields, turn ourselves into animals, create potions that heal skin, flesh and bones, spells and cloaks of invisibility and camouflage. We can turn turtles into teapots, teleport from one location to another, conjure birds from thin air, create objects of wondrous beauty and infinite power…" she pauses, the expression on her face growing darker, "I could immobilise you with a flick of my wand, read your minds and wipe your memories, strip you of your skin or turn you inside out. I could inflict upon you the greatest pain imaginable, without ever leaving a mark upon your skin," her voice turns pained, it lowers and her eyes look far away, "I could turn you into a personal puppet, unable to fight against a single command but aware of every action.
"I could kill with only a pair of words, and from that there would be no escape." Her voice is but a whisper by the end of her spiel. She looks very sad.
"Our power is a blessing, our magic a gift. It lengthens our lifespans and grants us abilities most could never even dream of. But it is gifted to the good and the bad, and for every good spell there is an evil one to match."
The room is deathly quiet. Granger's eyes focus on something on the wall; they do not stray.
"Well," breathes Bruce, "do I dare ask for a demonstration after that."
Granger gives him a shaky smile, "Sure," her eyes look red, as though she were about to cry. Fury hopes to God she doesn't. Her hand rises to a stick tucked into her sling and he sends Stark a dark look; it looks disturbingly similar to the one they'd found on Harry.
"I hadn't been aware Stark had given that back." Granger sets hard eyes on him; they offer no compromise.
"The return of my wand and bag was one of my terms." She pulls the stick/wand out and her gaze travels over the table before settling on the water pitcher. Her arm outstretches, her hand twirls and she murmurs a word.
They stare dumbfounded at the bewildered white cat that sits there instead.
"Oh man. That is so cool!" exclaims Agent Barton. Stark laughs in delight.
The cat lets out a confused "Mrrow?"
"Amazing," Bruce murmurs, beckoning the cat towards him; it complies, butting its head against his outstretched hand. He scratches beneath its chin, "It feels so real… is it an actual animal? Have you actually changed the form of the jug, or is it a replacement?" Granger shakes her head.
"The form has been changed. There are spells to switch between objects however."
"And is it alive? Have you actually created life from an inanimate object?" she shakes her again.
"No," the cat strolls over to her, tail twitching as it moves, "It is only a simulacra; it's not alive in the truest sense- no life can be made from nothing; it is one of the rules of magic. It acts out as a cat would, and if feels like a cat would, but in the end it was a jug of water, and in the end it shall return to that form." She waves her wand sadly and a pitcher sits on the table once more. It's now empty.
The table falls silent again.
"Another?" Rogers tentatively asks. She smirks and suddenly Stark's clothes are neon pink.
"That was not cool Queenie!" The others snicker.
"I don't know," laughs Barton, "I thought it was a pretty good demonstration myself." She flicks her wand again and his hair is now bright blue. Thor laughs heartily.
"Surely your magic is a great gift," he booms, eyes sparkling with mirth.
Granger smiles back at him, but there is a melancholic tint to her eyes, "It was the greatest moment of my life, when I discovered I was a witch. No other moment can compare."
"This power, is it shared by all of your kind?" Fury asks. Whilst conjured cats and neon Starks are all well and good, the other abilities are more than enough cause for concern; the way she'd put it made her sound almost invincible. How the hell is he going to manage to keep two of them to heel? Let alone an entire population. Jesus, just the fucking paperwork alone is going to be a nightmare.
"Yes. But much of our abilities are based on knowledge, and most magic folk need a foci; our words and our wands. Without either, delicate control of magic is rarely achieved; wild magic is potent, but it often lacks direction.
"Harry and I are light wizards; we only resort to dark spells; evil spells, when there is no alternative. But there are those who revel in the pain of others and dark wizards who find no qualms in manipulation and destruction. Many- but not all- of them are fanatics; they share a mindset that sets themselves above others- especially Muggles and Muggle-borns."
"Non-magic folks?" Tony guesses, remembering her half-baked explanation from that morning.
"Yes. It's the term we use to classify everyone who is not magical."
"And Muggle-borns?" Rogers' eyes are fixated on Stark's hair, which has still not returned to its original colour.
Granger suddenly looks self-conscious and Fury doesn't miss the way she shifts her left forearm in her sling, as if intent to hide something, "Our world, despite its brilliance, is far from perfect." She begins and her voice is all darkness and poorly concealed bitterness, "The magical community has been run for centuries by purebloods- witches and wizards who can trace their unbroken magical genealogy back numerous generations. The great majority of these share what many of you would call a conservative or protectionist political view of the world; they are highly prejudiced against anyone- magical or non-magical- who does not share their supposed 'blood purity' and go to great measures to separate themselves from them.
"Included in this list are half-bloods- those born to a Muggle and magical parent, or second generation witches and wizards- and Muggle-borns- witches and wizards born solely to Muggle parents. Many purebloods view either classifications with a certain level of contempt, but in the end tolerate us because we are still magical. But there are some who see Muggle-borns as dirt beneath their feet- scum to be eradicated. Funnily enough, they seem to share similar views to those held by the Nazis in the Muggle world; the only difference being their definitions of the Übermensch."She looks back down at her arm, apparently steeling herself for something.
"When Harry and I were teenagers, the magical world was thrown into a war- one of many that had occurred throughout the generations. Had it carried on longer than it had, it would have ended much the same as the Holocaust did in World War Two, only with Muggle-borns and magical creatures instead of the Jews and the others of Hitler's undesirables."
Captain Rogers looks pained at the mention of the Second World War, the scars still fresh in his mind. For him, the war had only ended a year ago. Fury makes a note to check up with his psychologist.
"The war was spearheaded by a man who called himself Lord Voldemort," Stark snorts in derision at the name; Granger ignores him, "He had been responsible for the previous wizarding war, which had only ended in our infancy; but not before it had stolen the lives of Harry's parents, and many, many more. Voldemort hated Muggles, and considered Muggle-borns to be little better. His radical views drew others to him like moths to a flame. He grew in power; both politically and magically- investing himself in magic and curses that extended his life and granted him near immortality. His followers called themselves Death Eaters, and they followed him with a fanaticism and hatred that brooked no mercy.
"Harry lay in the centre of this mess. In the first war, a prophesy was made that tied Harry and Lord Voldemort together. In retaliation, Voldemort murdered his parents, but when he turned on Harry his killing curse rebounded, destroying his physical form. With his apparent death, the rebellion fell to pieces. Voldemort was thought to be gone forever.
"But Voldemort had found a way to prevent his soul from passing into the afterlife by tying a shard of it to an object or living creature. When we were fourteen, he was resurrected, and the war began anew. Harry found himself at the heart of the war. The prophesy that had killed his parents also labelled him as the Chosen One; our saviour. People believed that only Harry could destroy the Dark Lord; though myself and our best friend Ron did all we could to aid him."
"Wait- are you saying a fourteen year old was expected to destroy this man?" Interrupts Doctor Banner, appalled. Granger's face goes hard and brittle round the edges and Fury didn't miss the derision she'd inserted in parts of her story.
"No, a seventeen year old did. But yes, he was expected- by those who knew of the prophesy- to end Voldemort. I liked the idea as little as you seemingly do- we were teenagers for Merlin's sake. We should have been in school, scared but safe, whilst the adults sorted out their mess. But I was only a dirty Mudblood, Ron was an impoverished blood-traitor and Harry may have been the Chosen One, but the greater part of magical Britain had labelled him a liar and a madman and by the time they had realised Harry had been telling the truth about Voldemort's resurrection, it was too late." She waves her wand and the empty pitcher fills with water. She pours herself a glass with a shaky hand. Her eyes look even redder.
"In the end," she carries one, once she's collected herself, "the light succeeded- Harry destroyed Voldemort once and for all and the war ended with his fall. But it came at a terrible price. Hundreds dead. Almost an entire generation lost to the war. Decade's worth of political progress lost and a brand new set of prejudices born from the ashes of the old. And Harry… well, Harry had changed.
"In order to defeat Voldemort, Harry had been forced to collect a number of artefacts; items claimed to be gifted to an ancient family by death itself. What we hadn't known however, was that their combined possession had unknown effects on its owner. Harry stopped aging, and his healing was accelerated twenty-fold. It took us seven years to realise, and it didn't take long for others to notice his apparent youthfulness too." She pauses then, hand rising unconsciously to her left arm.
"I've always been a target- the Mudblood queen; the brightest witch of my generation and best friend to the saviour of the wizarding world. People respected me, but I was a Muggle-born all the same; I'd made plenty of enemies in the war for it. But Harry was our saviour, and sometimes surviving the war brought to him more trouble than seemed worth it.
"The Ministry, in its usual display of inadequacy and corruption, had failed to round up all the Death Eaters. Most likely because of their infiltration during the war. Some remained- hidden- fervently believing their master would rise again. He couldn't of course- we'd seen to that well enough- but that never stopped them from believing. They bred themselves a new fanaticism and turned their supposed devotion to the Dark Lord into something of a religion. They clung to the steadfast belief that Voldemort would be born again. He had done it once before, after all.
"When the wizarding world realised Harry was no longer aging, he hid. We all knew what the revelation would mean; we'd heard the rumours of their rising power. And we were right; the Death Eaters came out- slowly but surely- in search of Harry. They thought he had found something, something which would grant him immortality. Something that Voldemort had been searching for himself when he was still alive.
"If they could catch him, they figured, they could bring the Dark Lord back. Their attempts failed- by then we'd made Harry's home unplottable; no one could find it unless they were told of it by its secret keeper.
"Only-" she chokes, voice catching and oh God but now there are tears trickling down her face. Fury is unnerved and uncomfortable as he watches her soldier on, "Only… then they found his secret keeper. Ron w-was an au-auror- like Harry had been, before he was forced into hiding. It was s-such a public job… They were on a mission only it-it was a trap. They captured him, tore the address from his mind and before we could do anything they were storming the home and stealing us away." Granger stops, face breaking for a moment. Banner extends an arm around Stark (who just looks awkward) and squeezes her arm comfortingly. She gives him a watery smile and wipes away the tears. When she resumes her story, her eyes are dry and her voice is cold. He's rather glad that it was over so quickly.
"They hid us in the Ministry. I worked as an Unspeakable- a researcher- and I was so-so stupid!" She's bitter again, and angry, "My job was so anonymous… I hadn't realised just how deep the corruption ran- too fucking blind- I'd thought they wouldn't let it happen again, but I should have known better. Sometimes wizards never change.
"They hid us in the depths of the Ministry, where they figured no one would ever find us. Where no one would ever think to find us. And they didn't… but one of their own did." Her smile is wicked, vicious and disgustingly smug, "Malfoy had been infiltrating them for years. He'd always been a wild card- not that anyone would have known to look. He'd been a prat in school, and a prat he'd remained. But after the war, I think he made it his personal vendetta to destroy the Death Eaters once and for all. He blamed them for how his life had turned out- penniless, the noble Malfoy name in tatters; his father worse than dead and his mother not far off. Kind of surprising he didn't turn on us, actually." She smiles sardonically at the thought.
"His connections made it easy to join them- and he'd spent the last decade slowly worming out the dregs. But he was still a bastard; he didn't just want them gone, he wanted them destroyed, falling from as high as he could get them. So he buttered them up, did favours for them, got the smart ones into positions of power.
"And then they captured us. Malfoy must have figured they'd gotten as high up as he could want, I'd guess, because we were only held captive for a week before he rescued us." She goes angry again, eye's darkening.
"Of course, given Malfoy's general dickery, instead of sending us home, he decided to lead us further into the Ministry, until we ended up in Unspeakable territory. It was stupid of him- you can't apparate out of the Ministry, but there are no floos in the research division to escape from either. But Harry was only half-lucid, and I wasn't much better myself. When Harry hadn't cracked the traditional ways, they'd tried using me as leverage- so we just blindly followed him.
"Before I knew it, we were in the Death Chamber, the Death Eaters hot on our tail. And then- and then-" Granger suddenly looks so furious he fears she might burst into flames.
"-He threw us into the Veil!" She hisses, outraged; disgusted, "He could have saved us, but he threw us into the Veil! We didn't even know where the veil ended up! Fuck! He shouldn't have even known what it did!" she looks tempted to throw her glass at something; Fury hopes it ends up directed at Stark.
"And that- Director Fury-" her voice is clipped, dripping with anger "Is how Harry and I ended up here."
They stare at her, a mix of curiosity and mild disbelief. It was a fantastical story; a world of witches and wizards and resurrected madmen. Any normal person would not be thought less of for calling her mad, really. But Fury had seen some weird shit in his past, and had met his fair share of fantastical people, and he didn't get this far in life- this far in SHIELD- without knowing when to count a story as bullshit, and when to count it as far-fetched but true.
And his gut instinct was telling him Miss Granger's story could well be true; though he's sure there's been plenty she's left out.
There are however, some aspects of the tale that make him nervous (but only deep, deep down).
"You said, before you were thrown into this… veil, you were being pursued? Is it likely the Death Eaters will follow you?" He'd really rather not have to deal with a sudden influx of magic-wielding racists.
"No," she replies, shaking her head, "It's very unlikely. The Veil was traditionally used as a method of execution. It's full effects were unknown, but that didn't stop the Ministry from using it as their dumping ground for criminals and murderers- it got rid of the body and that was a good enough an explanation for them. The research that my colleagues and I had been conducting was all very hush-hush. Nobody was supposed to know about it, and it's likely that the Death Eaters still considered it as just an element of the Death Chamber."
She smiles ironically, "The funny thing about wizards is that they are quite content to live as though it were the dark ages- once they'd reached a certain level of knowledge, they found no reason to progress any further."
Doctor Foster is frowning thoughtfully, "Miss Granger… from the way you've put forward your story, it sounds as though you entered the Veil at roughly the same time as Harry. But there was just over a week between his appearance and your own." Granger is frowning too now.
"That's… quite true," she turns to Stark, "What's the date?"
"August sixth, 2013." She stares at Stark, lost in thought for a moment
"That was almost two weeks before Malfoy 'saved' us. Perhaps there's a deliberate time delay on the portal…" She seems confused at the mere suggestion of it.
"2013?" blurts Stark, "But that would make you-"
"Almost thirty-four, yes."
"But you don't look older than 28!"
She smirks, "Magic, Mister Stark, gives one more than just the ability to wave our wand and do impossible things. It preserves our bodies- to a certain degree- thus decelerating our aging. The average witch's lifespan is 100 years."
"But that's not fair!" he sounds so outraged at the suggestion that if Fury were a lesser man, he would have been tempted to burst into laughter.
"You cannot fault my good blood Tony." He sticks his tongue out and sulks. Barton snickers.
"Why did Harry pop up thirty thousand feet above sea level when you landed safely on the ground?" Granger shrugs helplessly at Romanov.
"I honestly don't know. I may have studied it, but our research was far from complete when the project was canned. I would have thought it would deposit a traveller in the same place that you entered… It could be that the veil had never been finished, or was damaged at some point in history, making one's arrival in this universe a bit of pot luck. Or maybe, that just never occurred to its creators; sending something to an alternate universe was good enough."
It's a far from satisfactory answer, and Granger looks far from satisfied for providing it.
"How the hell did Harry manage to survive in the first place? Even with advanced healing, his body should have been destroyed on impact with the water." Stark demands.
"Wild magic, I'd imagine. I couldn't really be sure, but I'd guess that even in his state, Harry would've been aware of his predicament. It's possible that his magic reacted to his panic and created some kind of shield that dispersed the energy of the shockwave from his impact. Or maybe it slowed his velocity down. I don't know; I'd have to research it."
"But Harry didn't appear awake in the footage we have of him falling! How could his magic react to his panic?" Granger looks irritated now.
"And I'm just guessing here! I don't have answers for everything!" Stark looks like he wants to continue arguing, but a hand on his arm from Bruce stops him.
"So what now?" asks Rogers. He still can't seem to get over Stark's hair. Granger's face twitches.
"Now, if you'll let me, I heal Harry and search this world for a magical community. Hopefully, there is one; your world doesn't seem that different to my own… well, besides the lack of mutants and the Avengers, on our side. Perhaps, if we are lucky, the British Ministry of Magic in this universe has its own version of the Veil. It would take some research, but it's possible I could determine whether or not it would return us to our home."
"And if there is none?" rumbles Thor, his voice cautious and slightly sad. Granger's face becomes drawn.
"If there is none, then I don't know what we'll do." She fiddles with the edge of her dress, and for a moment she looks very young; childlike in her vulnerability.
"Well you're not welcome in my tower." Stark quips lightly, pretending to scowl at his hair, "Not if this is what you're going to do to me all the time. I have a business to run, you know." Granger laughs, and with of flick of the wrist his hair and clothes return to their normal colouring. Agent Barton pouts.
"I kind of liked that look." Stark raises his eyebrows at the archer.
"I'm sure you did Birdbrain." Granger coughs to hide her smile but goes serious not long after. She turns to Fury.
"But what about you, Director Fury? What are you going to do with us?" there's a challenge in her eyes. It dares him to say 'hold you captive for research' but Nick Fury is smarter than that. He knows that if he were to utter those words, the chances of him waking the next day remembering their discussion- or anything about the Falling Man- would be next to nothing. The others may seem blasé about it, but he has not forgotten about her supposed ability to tamper with the mind.
Besides, if they are the only witch and wizard on the planet (and he has a suspicion that they might be, because it's very unlikely an entire fucking population of magic folk would have gone under his radar), it would be a very, very smart idea to keep them on SHIELD's side. And who knows? Maybe, if they got really lucky (and are not complete psychopaths), they'd agree to join the Avenger's initiative. It would be nice to add more people to the team- if only to make up for any possible future losses.
"I think we can come to some sort of agreement as to your stay in this universe."
The smile on Granger's lips is nothing short of victorious.
Chapter 13: Broken and Bent
He doesn't hurt much anymore.
That's the first thing he notices.
The second is the apparent cessation of that irritating beeping noise from last time.
The third is the cacophony of breathing that's replaced it; soft and loud and out of synch. Which is debatably all the more annoying. He wonders, briefly, how many people are here with him; the Weasley's maybe? But no- they could never have gone on this long without talking.
Nor, on that account, could many people he knew.
Maybe he's in a zoo? Though that seems a little far-fetched actually- why would he even be in a zoo? What would be the point of that?
"I know you're awake, Harry. For Merlin's sake open your eyes." That voice is familiar; he couldn't miss that imperious voice anywhere- it'd been a part of his existence for over half his life. His body complies before he even realises it (the reaction's been burnt into his system for years now).
Hermione's face is only a foot away; brown eyes glimmering with a mix of exasperation and fondness.
"Hey 'Mione," he rasps- voice thankfully not cracking halfway through. She smiles, drawing back slightly. A pair of glasses slide onto his nose and the world draws into focus.
"Hey Harry. Feeling better now?" he wriggles his fingers experimentally; there's no responding pain- only a dull ache, like over stretched muscles.
"Much, yeah." He can see the clutter of potion bottles on the table next to his bed- there are more than a few of the dreaded skel-e-grow, "Your handiwork?"
Her smile grows smug, "Muggle medicine can only go so far; there are just some things that need to be done with magic. And you were pretty banged up."
"I felt like shit." He points out.
"Well you looked like shit too." He raises an eyebrow at her sardonic tone, feeling pleased that the action doesn't hurt anymore.
"You always knew how to charm 'em Hermione."
"And you always knew how to find yourself in trouble." At that he frowns.
"Yeah- speaking of trouble… what did I get into this time? And where are we?" There are some vague memories there of something bad happening (blood and pain and anger), but they're disfigured and corrupted, like blurry pictures. Hermione draws back even further and now there's some indescribable expression on her face that sets him immediately on edge.
"You don't remember?" she whispers, and in those words he hears terror and grief and bitterness, well hidden but discernable; he's known her for long enough.
"Not too much," he says slowly, trying to calm his friend, "There's something there, but the specifics are gone. We got caught, right?" She frowns thoughtfully as he tries to sit up, but there's a hand on his shoulder, light but strong, and he suddenly remembers the chorus of breathing that he'd heard before.
"I still wouldn't do that," a male voice- unfamiliar- murmurs, and he turns to its source. A man- middle aged, brown-hair greying at the temples- looks back. His eyes remind him of Remus. He ignores him and sits up anyway.
"I feel fine," he says slowly to the stranger, who's mostly just staring at him. He moves to cover his scar self-consciously (it's a habit he'd never quite managed to shake free of) and is pleased to find his arms no longer restrained. Nor are they covered in casts. His eyes travel onwards.
Steve is there (he remembers Steve), looking curious and a little unnerved, beside a shortish man with dark hair and a goatee. There's an arrogant, self-assured look attached to the way he leans against the wall that makes him think of Malfoy (unmitigated prat). A tall man with dark skin stands at the door, his left eye covered with a patch. His face and clothes are deathly serious.
"Er-hello." He says, ever the eloquent one. Hermione snorts behind him.
"You always had such elegant people skills, Harry dear." She snickers; the man with the goatee smirks in amusement. Steve gives him a little wave.
"Are you the ones who saved me?" he asks, tentative and unsure. The men (bar Leatherman) all shake their heads.
"Saving would be a loose use of the term," remarks Mister Arrogant, "more like retrieved."
"Tony," chastises Sad Eyes; though Harry's not entirely clear why- it's not like he'd been offensive anyway. Mister Arroga-Tony- seems to share the same mentality, only giving Sad Eyes an unfathomable look.
"Queenie." It takes a moment for him to realise Tony's address is directed at Hermione, "Aren't you going to introduce us?" His voice is falsely sweet and Hermione sighs in exasperation. She comes around the bed to stand with the men.
"Well, I had rather hoped you would have managed it yourselves."
Tony rolls his eyes and straightens up; stepping forward to shake his hand and Harry returns it. His grasp is firm (confident) but not crushing. Harry likes the man a bit more now: whenever he'd shaken hands with Malfoy, the git had always seemed to want to turn his fingers to pulp.
"Tony Stark," he says, and Harry kind of likes it. It suits him, "It's nice to see you awake at last." Now that he's closer, Harry can see the curious glint in his face, bright eyes constantly searching for answers.
"Harry Potter." He replies, "How long have I been asleep?" Sad Eyes behind Tony moves forward.
"About ten days," Harry feels like he should be surprised, but he's not. Sad Eyes shakes his hand too, 'I'm Bruce." Harry smiles at him; he'd always preferred people to introduce themselves by first names only; all that last name crap had always been so impersonal (well, for people he liked at least).
"And Steve doesn't need to be introduced, I gather," Hermione says, nodding to the blonde man with the easy face. Harry just smiles and Hermione shifts sightly, moving to the side to allow the dark-skinned man to step forward, "Harry, this is Director Fury. He's head of command of SHIELD; the organisation that found you and has been taking care of you."
Director Fury nods at him, saying nothing. He doesn't offer him his hand; Harry pays it no mind. His expression is curious though- it's not angry, per se, and neither is it hostile, but there's a strange mix of both; a cautiousness to the trust in his gaze combined with something very close to protectiveness. It makes Harry think a bit of Mad Eye.
"Mister… Potter," he rumbles, apparently trying out his name, "Miss Granger has informed me that you are a light wizard?"
Harry stiffens, sending an incredulous look to Hermione, who shrugs.
"Director Fury is aware of our abilities…and our predicament." He looks at her in confusion.
"Predicament? What predicament? What's wrong- why isn't anybody else here?" Hermione looks uncomfortable and shares a nervous look with Bruce.
"I…" she trails off, shifting nervously, and he suddenly realises her left arm is in a sling (and why the hell didn't he notice that earlier? It's so obvious). Her face looks thin- thinner than he'd last remembered seeing- and there are the yellowing remains of bruising spread across her cheeks. Bandages peek out from under the collar of her dress… which is unusually short and very Muggle looking.
"'Mione. What happened to you? What happened to me?" he searches his memories for an explanation, but nothing but some blurry, jumbled images and sounds are forthcoming. He can't make heads or tails of it.
He quells the panic ruthlessly.
"Why can't I remember it properly Hermione?" he rasps, fingers clenching and unclenching sporadically at the cheap cotton sheets. The other men (bar Director Fury, who just seems unimpressed by the whole thing) look concerned and awkward. Hermione looks like she wants to cry.
"Perhaps we should leave you two alone," Bruce says quietly, tugging gently on Tony's sleeve- they remove themselves with little fuss. Steve sends Hermione a comforting smile before exiting too. Director Fury glares at the two of them, but says nothing. Hermione bows shallowly as he closes the door behind him.
Harry breathes shakily into the heavy silence they're left in and Hermione moves closer to the bed.
"Scooch over fattie," she teases, but he doesn't miss the forced quality to it. He complies; Hermione always explains what needs to be known. She climbs up awkwardly, tucking her legs up over his lap. His arm extends automatically to hold her and she rests her head against the crook of his shoulder with a heavy sigh. Her hair smells like lavender- not her usual scent. Her good arm comes up to rest on his chest, fingers splayed out wide over his heart.
"We're in another universe, Harry." Her voice is small, quiet and so, so far away. His breathing hitches; that wasn't what he had expected. Out of a million possible explanations, that was probably one million and one.
"How?" he breathes, mind reeling, "A-are you sure?" she nods into his neck.
"I haven't fully checked to see what the differences are between theirs and ours- I only arrived a few days ago- but I'm very sure."
"How?" Hermione sighs and pulls back slightly to look him in the eye.
"We came through the Veil." His breathing stutters again as he remember Sirius. Tortured, wonderful, glorious Sirius; gone without even a body for them to bury or a name for them to grieve over. He pushes away the old grief and anger before he takes it out on Hermione, "You remember-" she carries on, "-I worked on it when I was still an Unspeakable. We'd had suspicions for a while that it was a gateway to an alternate dimension. We'd only just scratched the surface on the runic carvings when the ministry canned the project. Not enough resources, they said."
He nods. He does remember; he remembers Hermione storming into his home, furious and ready to burn his place down, screeching about the incompetence of the Ministry and their overwhelming blindness. It had been a fun night- there had been lots of alcohol involved. The morning after… not so fun.
"What happened? Why are you so hurt?" he brushes his hand over her shoulder; he can feel the bumpy texture of gauze bandages under her dress. Her head drops back down.
"We-" her voice cracks and she swallows, starting again, "-we were captured. The Death Eaters- they- they got through the fidelius."
Harry goes very, very still. Bone white masks fill his mind unbidden.
No one can break through a fidelius charm; no one. For someone to find it could only mean one thing.
"Ron?" he whispers. He feels Hermione break beneath his hands. Her fingers tremble- threatening to tear his shirt in their pain. She curls into him even more and a sob tears through her body. He knows what she'll say before the words are even uttered.
"Dead." She sobs. His neck feels hot and sticky with her tears and he allows himself the grief that follows. Together they cry, broken and bent, shattered and torn apart and pieced together all wrong. A brother lost, another loved one dead in his defence- in their belief of him.
Minutes, hours, days pass, time spread out innumerable and unaccountable. Their cries cease, their eyes dry.
"An ambush. They planted the information for a raid; they stole him a-and they broke him. When they got what they wanted, they came for you." Her voice sounds so shockingly empty, factual and dead and so very broken. He holds her tighter, presses his lips to her hair; they'd been lovers once, before Ron had left her. Her career had been too much, too consuming and Ron had needed her after the horrors of the War. He'd left before they could start hating each other.
"They took me as l-leverage and hid us in the bowels of the Ministry."
He hisses in outrage; leverage indeed. He hopes they burn in the depths of hell for bringing her into his mess. He can suddenly hear her screams; high, unending, almost inhuman. There's laughter in there too and the remembered sounds fill him anger, hot and bitter on his tongue.
"What did they do to you?" his voice is tight, the rage simmering in the background like a poorly contained inferno. He wishes for something heavy and made of glass to smash against the wall. His hand unconsciously presses flat against her shoulder.
"Not much. They tried torture on you first; in the hopes you would break before they brought out the big guns I suppose." Her index finger stabs into his collarbone, "They knew you too well," she says disapprovingly.
"What did they do to you."
Hermione falls quiet and in the silence he entwines his fingers with those of her free hand. Their hands rest against his chest as she finds her words.
'Their- their crucio seemed to last an age," she murmurs, eyes staring vacantly off into space, "I don't think they'd expected me to break that easily, though. When they got bored they brought out this… neckpiece. It felt-" her voice cracks through the middle again and he waits patiently, inordinately proud of himself for not showing his fury and guilt.
"It- oh God Harry- it burnt like fire," she chokes out, "I thought I was going to die. A-and every time I tried to hold back a cry, it only seemed to get worse." He can't erase the image that's summoned from his brain; strong, fierce Hermione screaming in agony on their dirty cell floor. He feels helpless, half tempted to cry with her again, but refrains. She needed his strength.
"Your shoulder?" he prompts when she calms down enough. She lets out a hollow laugh.
"A knife. When neither of us gave in with the neckpiece they took out this knife- long and thin with a jagged blade, an ornate hilt.
"Evaristus Rosier carved the Dark Mark into your arm with it a few days before," his fingers squeeze tighter involuntarily as the monstrosity pops up in his brain and Hermione wriggles her trapped fingers in protest. He lets go of them apologetically. He notices that his right forearm is still wrapped in bandages.
"They were going to the same to me, but then-" she halts, swallows and draws back again, eyes locking on his, "But then Malfoy came in-" her hand flies up to cover his snarl of outrage. "Shush," she chastises, "I'm trying to tell a story here."
He glares at her mutinously and she frowns back disapprovingly.
"Malfoy came in. Well, you know how we'd been unsure on his alignment for years- but he stunned Rosier. Which was nice, and kind of confirmed his new alliance, only, the bastard fell forward," her eyes roll with derision, "The knife landed in my shoulder. Malfoy didn't know enough about healing charms he said, and you were pretty out of it by then with fever, so I had to make do with nothing in the rescue." He sits silently, listening to the exasperation and anger in her story, the anger growing with every word.
"The prat took us the wrong way though. We ended up in the Department of Mysteries, and he led us into the Death Chamber. The door was locked, but the Death Eaters weren't far from getting it open."
Suddenly she laughs, short, sharp and bitter, "So I ask him what the hell we were doing there, which he didn't answer, by the way." Harry can just imagine what Hermione's idea of asking would be in that situation- he suspects there would have been a great deal of yelling involved, "And then- oh Harry you'll just love this- he picked you up, tucked your bag over your neck- and don't even ask me where he managed to find them- he had mine too- shoved a wand down your shirt and then he- then he-" she lets out a noise of frustration. She looks crazy mad and ready to kill.
"Then the fucking git threw you into the Veil!"
Harry lets out an astonished bark of laughter. Hermione ignores him.
"Well, I would have launched myself at him, torn him limb from limb, but the shithead cast the body bind on me! And then he was picking me up- said 'have fun Granger,' as calm as you please– and threw me in after you!"
He can't help it; he gaffaws, loudly, almost not believing his ears. It's almost too good a story to be true.
Hermione hits him, "It's not funny Harry! No one knew what the Veil really did! He could have killed us! Not that I think he would have minded. In fact, I think he probably would have killed us, if you'd been anybody else."
He tries to be serious- he really does- but he can't help the occasional snicker the escapes, "I'm sorry- shit – but- oh God – it's just too beautiful! It's so ridiculous!" he laughs again, and this time, Hermione joins in.
"It-it is pretty stupid."
"God Malfoy. What a prat." She giggles and suddenly they're laughing full bellied laughs, their shoulders shaking with borderline hysterical mirth; the strangeness of their situation temporarily outweighing the tragedy for a moment.
It subsides soon enough, the remembrance of Ron returning all too quickly.
"Why can't I remember any of it?" he asks, the question all but bursting through his brain.
"I don't know," she sounds so small in that statement, terrible and vulnerable and lost. He doesn't feel much different, "You were pretty bad by the end of it though; fever might have screwed with your memories…" she trails off; Harry takes it as answer enough for now.
"So what do we do now?" the reality of the situation is slowly dawning on him. Hermione breathes out heavily, hand moving to rest on her knee.
"Now we search for a magical community." There's a high level of doubt in her voice; he says as much. Her hand clenches- a nervous gesture.
"Because I am." She pauses, shifts her legs so that she now sits next to him as opposed to on top of him, "There doesn't seem to be that much difference between ours and theirs; culturally, we seem to be on the same level- they have Monty Python at least." She whispers in a conspiratory tone- he sighs in mock relief, "And they seem to get many of my other references- of history and entertainment. Technologically, they're probably about five years more advanced." There's something in her words that promises a surprise, he thinks.
"But, I just get the feeling Wizards aren't needed to maintain the balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary in this world." He raises an eyebrow.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
A slightly awed expression creeps across her face, "Harry," she breathes, turning to him with bright eyes, "They have superheroes here."
"Er- like comic book heroes?" she nods fervently and suddenly she's the eleven year old bookworm he'd met in Hogwarts, full of awe and bursting with the need to learn.
"Superheroes, Gods who're actually aliens, mutants with a spectrum of abilities you could never even dream of! Serums that turn men permanently into supermen and machines that give you the strength of a hundred men! It's all so cool!"
"That's… er, that's very impressive," he remembers the comics Sirius had (and the ones he'd stolen from Dudley as a child), hidden away in his childhood bedroom, full of tales of supermen and broken detectives. They'd been interesting enough, but he'd always known they weren't true- could never be true in the Muggle realm without magic, "But that doesn't explain why Wizards wouldn't exist."
Her face falls, going dark and old and he regrets bringing it up.
"Because superheroes exist here. In ours, there was only ever Muggles and Wizards. We were the touch of the extraordinary, the outlet magic made for itself. Here, I get the feeling that magic has manifested itself in other ways- with mutants and superheroes."
He nods slowly, chewing on the information.
"Furthermore, if mutants openly exist here- however marginalised- why would magic-folk feel the need to continue hiding from Muggles? And okay, sure, Wizards are infinitely more powerful than your average mutant, so there'd still be the risk of a witch hunt- but this universe seems much more accepting of genetic differences. Not to mention, the Muggles seem much more cluey here. You know, they found me in under an hour by analysing the energy readings that they'd recorded during your appearance and calibrating their worldwide sensors to send out an alert and coordinates in order to pinpoint the next portal opening?"
"Uhh." He comments helpfully. Hermione just rolls her eyes.
"Shush you. What I'm saying is. I don't feel there's much point to the existence of Witches and Wizards when they've already got their fair share of the extraordinary and the unexplainable. It would upset the balance if there was, I think."
"What makes you so sure mutants never existed in our world?" Hermione looks at him, unimpressed.
"For Merlin's sake Harry! Did I install the internet in your home for nothing? The presence of mutants would not have gone unnoticed. Seven billion people in the world- they're bound to see something. God, even Wizards didn't go undetected; did you know there were literally thousands of legitimate websites dedicated solely to the theoretical existence of magic users and their world-wide conspiracy of silence?"
"Hermione." He warns, reminding her of the original topic. Her cheeks redden and she coughs behind her hand.
"Right. Well… the internet had no trace of them back home- I would have noticed, and the mutants lack the societal coherence to fall into secrecy here, so I doubt it would have been much difference in our universe- though it is fascinating- there's a school here in America that caters solely to-"
"-And Wizards?" often she needs a nudge or two, to prevent her from running off on a tangent.
"Wizards… oh, well I looked for them too. Nothing, besides the occasional conspiracy theory, but most of them I fear are just the ramblings of the mad."
"Meaning, don't keep your hopes up," she turns sad, resigned to the fact, "We may well be the only magic folk on the planet. And I-" her voice hitches. She swallows, "I fear, there will be no Veil for us to return home with."
She says nothing more, skinny fingers toying absently at the hem of her dress.
Harry thinks of the Weasley's and the broken but healing family that remained after the War. He thinks of Teddy- fifteen now and halfway through his growth spurt. Of Luna and Rolf; madly eccentric but dear friends all the same. Neville and Hannah, bursting with joy at the birth of their third child. His family and his friends; everybody that meant anything to him, were all literally a world away now. But they couldn't be gone, surely. If they were gone, then it would mean he and Hermione would be alone. Utterly and completely.
"Does anyone exist here?" Hermione sighs, crossing her legs. Her ankles look so thin, and he wonders just how little food they must have given her.
"I looked- Tony helped- he's a genius with technology, you know," he nods as if he does (he doesn't), "Some of them do. But they're different- and they're definitely not Wizards. Some have died- freak accidents, fires, illness. Some were never born. Some are mutants instead; Seamus is a pyrotechnic," Harry snorts in amusement- even as a Wizard he'd had a noticeable proclivity for fire and explosives, "Neville's a plant empath, Luna's a seer… but she was committed to an asylum a decade ago." His heart aches at the thought of Luna locked up.
"But without magic, most of them don't know each other- have never had the chance to meet each other. Neville's married to a planter in his nursery… Luna, funnily enough, did meet Rolf before she was committed- I suspect it may have been caused by her seer ability."
"The Weasley's?" Hermione scratches her head, hiding her face partially.
"Molly and Arthur… met slightly later in life," she say hesitantly, "They only had four children- Bill, Charlie and the twins. R-Ron and Ginny were never born- they hit hard times and couldn't afford any more children."
"All dead," she states flatly, "A fire from an electric blanket in my-her room when she was eight… I remember that fire- my wild magic put it out before it had a chance to spread. I couldn't sleep properly for weeks." Dread seems to edge into her voice, as if anticipating his next words.
"The Potters?" his question comes out hoarse, quiet. He almost doesn't want to know the answer.
"Alive," she whispers, "James is a policeman; Lily a psychologist. They met on a case- married two years later. They have three children." His head reels, mind going over the news because oh God but they're alive, they're actually alive and it's terrible and wonderful all at the same time. Hermione carries on, "Harry Potter is a professional football player. He married ten years ago; a model he met at a charity gala. They're expecting their second child in November."
He sighs shakily, reaching over to hold her hand. She squeezes back firmly. He wont deny the envy he feels at his doppelganger's normal life.
Five minutes later, when he's come to terms with the fact that the people who would have been his parents are still alive, another question pops into his head.
"Were all my injuries contracted from the Death Eaters?"
Hermione laughs, which Harry finds a bit strange. He'd rather thought it quite a serious question.
"Oh Harry," she giggles, and he's not sure if he should feel offended or not, "when the Veil spat you out, it did so in the worst possible location."
His eyebrows rise, "Worse, how?" she laughs again, and it's a touch on the hysterical side.
"Thirty-thousand feet up in the air, worse."
He stares, incredulous.
"Umm what?" a wicked smile tugs at her lips and he half-suspects she's lying to him.
"You came out, nine-thousand one hundred and forty-four metres up in the air," she repeats, as if the altered scale were helpful. She looks as though she were about to burst into laughter again.
"No I didn't," because surely she's lying. It's just too stupid.
"Yes, you did. You came out nine-thousand metres above sea level, three kilometres off the coast of Canada. SHIELD has video documentation of your freefall and … er- landing. They tried to catch you, actually, but you were falling too fast- they were forced to abort. They fished you from the ocean, thinking you were dead." She sends him a dark look; "You should have been dead."
"Why wasn't I dead?" he's unnerved by her sudden mood-swing.
Hermione fishes into her dress and pulls out a familiar pendant. Her eyes say everything as she pools the chain in his hand.
He feels all torn up again. The Deathly Hallows have plagued his life for far too long.
"They've changed you so much Harry," she says lowly, sounding as fearful as he feels, "And I'm scared that it won't be for the better. What will they ask in return?" he stares dumbly at the pendant. He can feel its power; heavy and oppressive. His fingers curl around it, hiding the cursed thing from view.
"It's already taken what it wanted," he hisses, the edges of the pendant digging into his palm, "My life."
He'd never be rid of the things- he'd owned the Hallows for long enough to know that their loss or destruction meant little in the scheme of things. New items were just returned to his person, unbidden and unwelcomed. The pendant refused to be consumed by fiendfire, refused to be separate from him even when discarded.
"What does this mean?" he whispers. Hermione takes hold of his clenched hand and presses it to her lips in comfort.
"I don't know if you can die, Harry." Her whisper sounds so despairing, voicing his inner fears like that. He lets out a shaky breath; he'd suspected as much from the moment they'd linked his inability to age with the Hallows.
"I think you really are the Master now," she carries on, "And I don't know how that can be taken from you. I don't know how it can end."
He stares at the ceiling, unable to find the energy to say anything more on the subject. It feels like a death sentence, and the irony doesn't escape him.
His eyes catch on a small protrusion in the corner. It looks like a smaller version of a security camera. He frowns.
"Are they watching us?" he asks slowly, eyes glued to the small piece of technology. Hermione looks up to watch the camera too. She hums, nonchalant.
"Probably." His frown gets deeper; it's not like Hermione to be so trusting of new people; not anymore. It brings him to another problem he'd had.
"Why did you tell them what we are?"
"Legilimency," she replies quietly, confirming his suspicions. Harry suspecter her subjects (victims) were unaware of the intrusion. He smiles wryly.
"How sneaky of you." She shrugs.
"It's a new universe; we needed allies and people we could trust. I had to be sure."
He snorts; she'd made sure of that alright.
"And besides," she remarks pragmatically, "They already had you, and I needed you. It was easier to just leave you here than wiping their memories and stealing you away. Obliviate is always open to mistakes anyway- you miss someone here or there and you're buggered.
"And just think of it," her voice turns wistful, "If we're the only magic users on the planet, then there's no statute of secrecy. We have no reason to hide who we are; not when superheroes and mutants are active members of society."
He can imagine it; his grin goes wicked- it could be glorious.
"You're taking this all remarkably well." Hermione smiles at him, but there's a strained element to it if he looks hard enough.
"Yes, well apart from the obvious, I suppose it's not that terrible. And… and it's a fresh start… for both of us." She says haltingly. Her hand strays to her neck, where Ron's ring had once hung. Even after ten years she couldn't forget. He hides the pity before she can see it.
"Yeah, apart from the obvious," he echoes. They fall quiet.
A knock at the door some minutes later interrupts their musing.
"Come in," Hermione calls, legs swinging off the bed. Tony's head peeks in; he smirks at them.
"If you love birds are done," Harry scowls at that. Hermione raises an unimpressed eyebrow, "Steve was wondering if you wanted the grand tour- free of charge today. But of course, since the Captain Boy Scout gets lost every time he goes anywhere-" they hear an indignant hey! from outside, "-he commandeered Bruce and I to take you with us."
Hermione stands and turns to him, "You think you're up to it?" she asks, and if that doesn't sound like a challenge to Harry, he doesn't know what does (and sure, she probably didn't mean to make it a challenge, but now his manly pride is on the line. He can't back down).
He swings his legs over the bed and stands up with shaky legs.
Chapter 14: The Dud
Bruce doesn't trust the newcomers.
Tony doesn't blame him.
Their powers seem positively limitless if one is to believe Hermione's story, but many of them possess the frightening possibility of being heavily abused. He hasn't forgotten about her claimed ability to read minds; it's not something anyone's forgotten, if his team members wary behaviour around her the last two days is anything to go by (except Thor, but who knew with Thor; the guy was built like a brick shithouse and didn't seem concerned about much else than Jane and possessing the last pop-tarts in the box… though maybe that was a bit of an unfair judgement. He liked beer too).
He kind of suspects she's done it already, to be honest. There were times when her gaze seemed so much more intense than it should have been; where he's felt trapped and torn by her eyes and maybe it's just his imagination but he kind of doubts it. Not when she seemed to be aware of his arc reactor, but claimed to have no knowledge of him or his history.
So yes; he doesn't trust them that much either- even if she seemed to be telling her friend the same story she'd told SHIELD (and yeah, he'd been listening- they had all been fucking listening, and he felt not a shred of guilt when Hermione said it was likely they were being eavesdropped on).
And why hasn't he told Fury or anybody else about the whole mind-reading thing? He doesn't fucking know; just like it was with Loki (who thank the Lord and all that is holy, hasn't returned, or wrought havoc on any place, as far as he's aware). He suspects it's a manly pride thing. Or laziness. Or a mix of both. He's not really into the whole introspection thing.
They watch Harry stand gingerly. His teeth clench at the strain on his new bones- actual new bones, and boy hadn't that been creepy as fuck, watching Hermione disappear his bones (rubbery, limp flesh that he never ever wants to see again) and grow them back inside his body.
He'd told her as much too, turning his back on the procedure (if you can call a wave of a stick and the act of shoving some vile sludge down a helpless man's throat a procedure) whilst Bruce poked and prodded and jiggled at Harry's flesh in fascination. Hermione had just snorted and said it was better than living with irreparable, shattered limbs the rest of his life (Tony thought that was a debatable argument).
Practical girl though, that Hermione. And loyal.
Both very good reasons not to trust her- not until they knew if her loyalty would one day extend to SHIELD.
Or the Avengers.
So yeah, don't trust the witch-er, magic folk. Bad idea when they're invested in nobody but themselves.
Watching Harry walk forwards- aided by Queenie, but confident- is strange on all accounts. Magic blows his mind; people like those two shouldn't exist.
The expression on Steve's face reflects his sentiment, but he appears determined to overcome it. Bruce looks unnerved but fascinated as he pushes forward a wheelchair for Harry to sit in. Hermione had warned them that his bones wouldn't be able to handle the strain for long periods of time- it was better to allow them to harden over about a week.
Harry eyes the contraption with something very close to disgust (although actually, that probably is disgust, now that he thinks about it).
"I'm not going around in that." There's a note of finality in his voice that brooks no argument.
Hermione finds one anyway, "Don't be such a prat Harry. You are sitting in that chair, and the men are going to push it for you and you are going to be thankful or so help me I will vanish the bones from your legs again."
Harry stares her down, but he looks nervous, "Er…" he caves, "You'd use skel-e-grow afterwards right?"
"Skel-e-grow?" she asks, voice all sweet innocence and naivety, "No, I'm fresh out."
He sits down quickly.
He looks unhappy about it, but there's a mild look of terror on his face that suggests Hermione has a tendency to follow through with her threats.
Tony makes a note to never disobey her unless she's been incapacitated first. Or she's 'lost' her wand.
"So where are we exactly?" Harry asks grumpily. Steve has been pushing his chair for the last ten minutes, apparently content to deal with a cantankerous wizard. They've been trying to avoid answering him that question with the expectation of seeing his face when they physically answer it. Hermione shivers with suspense beside him and Tony suspects that her friend is getting cluey.
"This is the training room," Tony drawls, deliberately avoiding the actual question. He's found that over the years he's quite good at it, "It's gonna be your new home away from home while they get you two up to scratch." Lies, probably. Tony somehow doubts Fury is going to take them on as agents any time soon; though he hadn't missed the speculative gleam in his eye when regarding the pair. The man thinks they'll be useful for something at least.
Harry sighs, eyeing the gym equipment doubtfully, "It doesn't look very homey to me."
"Oh, that's only 'cause you haven't met Mom yet."
"Mum?" he shifts in his chair uncomfortably, watching Tony with a slight frown on his face. Tony nods. Bruce and Steve share a look.
"Oh yeah, Greenbean. Mom loves the newbies; and I have a feeling you and Queenie are gonna be Mom's new favourites. You can share tea and biscuits after your training." Hermione is staring at him as though she knows exactly what he's talking about but is letting him play along anyway. Bruce hides his laugh behind a cough. Harry is definitely suspicious.
They wheel him out before he can ask any more questions.
"This is the cafeteria!" he swings the door open theatrically. Some of the agents eye them curiously, most ignore his theatrics, "I suggest you don't eat the bubble and squeak… or the scrambled eggs… or actually, any of their food. In fact, just make your own- you have magic, I'm sure you can manage that."
"Actually," Hermione says quietly as they leave, Steve wheeling an increasingly cranky Harry down the corridor, "We can't create food. It's one of the laws of magic."
Tony eyes the wand peeking out from under her sling critically, "So no end to world hunger?"
Hermione shakes her head, "No end to world hunger."
He shrugs, "Nice to see you can't do everything then." She gives him a wry smile.
They're coming up to the pièce de résistance,and Hermione's amusement seems to be growing with every step; she stands behind Harry and Steve so the man doesn't get cluey. Bruce slows down to walk in step with them.
"You think he'll be impressed?" he asks lowly, eyeing the patchy mess of Harry's hair- the surgeons had shaved various sections for the craniotomy (since fixed and healed), but hadn't deemed it necessary to get rid of all his hair. They'd made a group decision (spearheaded by Hermione, who definitely has a wicked streak in her) to not say anything about it to Harry. Payback, as it were, for the long days and nights of baby-sitting duty.
Hermione smirks, nodding slowly, "I can assure you, he will. Harry has developed a rather… perverse love of heights," Tony raises an eyebrow. It's an interesting choice of words for the brunette to choose and makes the guy sound a bit like a pervert or something. But then again, he had a love of all things fast, so he couldn't really say anything. Maybe it's just a woman's perspective.
"I'm just hoping he doesn't ask for his broom." Hermione adds as he muses on the possible perversities of speed and height. He does a double take.
"Broom? What's Greenbean gonna want a broom for?" Harry perks up his question, which admittedly, wasn't all that quiet.
"Broom? What am I going to need my broom for? Do you even have it?" he echoes and bless him but the guy sounds hopeful. For a broom. Hermione glares at Tony.
"Oh, I was just telling Tony and Bruce about the intricacies of quidditch. I may have been bragging about how you were the youngest seeker in a century at school." She sounds as innocent as can be, but there's a threat hidden somewhere in her voice, if one looks hard enough. Harry looks mollified. Bruce nods as though her words mean something. Tony wrestles with his poker face.
"Do we have a broom, Hermione?" Harry asks, craning his neck to speak to his friend. She smiles at him.
"Well I've got an old Firebolt in my bag; 2001 vintage." His eyes look melancholic at the statement, and he wonders what the significance of this statement is, "And I'd imagine you've stashed some kind of death-trap away in your own years ago." Harry nods like this all makes perfect sense and turns back around, apparently satisfied.
"When will you let me use it?" he calls behind him.
"When you can walk for longer than ten minutes." She replies coolly, not a moment's hesitation. Tony suspects this is a regular occurrence, because Harry sounds resigned.
That kid is so whipped.
The doors of their destination draw close up ahead. Tony manoeuvres himself in front of Greenbean and the Boy Scout, eager to be the one to open them. They're at a low enough altitude that the oxygen masks aren't necessary; the Helicarrier halfway through a descent to pick up supplies. Tony expects to leave that night- there are business matters that Pepper says he has to attend to, or she'll raid his alcohol supply again. It's a serious threat. Harry and Hermione are likely to remain on the Helicarrier until Fury decides they're trust-worthy enough to let loose on the public.
"Now," he quips to the wizard, hand resting over the open doors button (it's big and red and oh so shiny), "I think it's time you checked out the balcony."
He presses the button. The doors slide open silently. Steve pushes Harry outside.
"Holy shit." Says Harry.
Tony thinks it's an appropriate reaction.
Where they've brought him is technically, a balcony. It's a small patch of deck, high above the runway and part of the building that extends above the bridge (where Fury had specifically banned them). A caged ladder climbs up the wall to the side; maintenance for the weather instruments, radars and sensors crammed right on the top of the carrier. It's a tiny patch of brushed metal, salt-caked railings and blustering winds, but possesses an excellent view of the Helicarrier in all its manufactured glory. Two of the four massive rotors are visible from this vantage point, their deafening roar a constant thrum in the background at this height.
The Captain pushes him right up to the edge of the balcony, so he can haul himself up with the railings. He leans over the sturdy metal, green eyes roving eagerly over the impressive feat of engineering.
"I know what you mean about the touch of the extraordinary, 'Mione," Queenie hides a grin behind her hand.
Far below, a plane starts up; a high-pitched whine mixed with the whirring of the rotor blades. Men move away, not quite small enough to be ants from their height, but small enough. Any of their words are drowned out by the sheer noise.
The jet streaks away a moment later. Harry watches it disappear on the horizon, an expression of what can only be longing spread across his face.
"Hermione, give me my broom," he says in a strangled voice. Queenie shakes her head grimly.
"There is no way on God's Good Earth I am giving you your broom, Harry Potter. You've only just healed and are most certainly not up to the strain."
Harry head turns back to her; his strange shaped eyes flutter, eyebrows lifting, all pleading and childish. Hermione is impressively immoveable, but Steve looks like he wants to give in and he doesn't even know what they're talking about (seriously, what's the kid want to do? Extreme cleaning?).
"No." she reinstate firmly, obviously used to this ploy. Tony's reminded of a stressed mother steam-rolling their bratty child at the supermarket check-out.
His lower lip juts out, trembling.
Steve backs away slightly- he's gonna cave and he knows it.
"Please Hermione," he whispers and Jesus it's like a work of art, shiny green eyes, pouting lips, that ridiculous head of hair and a face only just scraping out of childhood. Steve breaks, but at least realises that he doesn't actually have any say in the matter. He sets his big baby blues on Hermione. The witch remains resolute; it's an impressive feat of will.
The two man-children continue their visual assault. Bruce looks like he's about to start crying with suppressed laughter, and Tony doesn't think he's too far off.
Hermione draws her wand.
"Harry James Potter, do not tempt me to use my wand on you," her sharp eyes pounce on Idiot II, "The same goes for you Captain Rogers."
Harry meekly sits back down; Steve tries to look as innocent as possible. Bruce hides his laughter with a coughing fit and Tony decides it's better to act as if nothing had ever happened; he hasn't forgotten the blue hair.
Hermione turns cheery, almost as though a switch has been flipped. She conjures some coats, handing one to each of them (the wind makes it pretty bloody cold up here). Steve refuses his and Tony nicks the thing before the witch can banish it. Bruce rolls his eyes in exasperation, tugging the chunky zipper up on his own.
"I thought we could stay here until we hit the water," she says casually, shrugging on her own windbreaker awkwardly; the left sleeve hangs down uselessly. It's a lurid purple and the hood pushes the front of her frizzy hair out in front of her face.
"If we're doing that, can I get some food?" most of Harry's attention is given to their descent, but he's aware enough to ask for things, "I don't think I've had anything to eat for about two weeks."
Hermione grimaces in remembrance and waves her wand again. A bowl of soup appears in Harry's lap. The wizard sends her a thankful glance and tucks into his first meal in a long time. He eats slowly and carefully, like he's done this before.
Tony raises an unimpressed eyebrow, "I thought you said you couldn't create food," he says accusingly. Hermione's returning smile is only just this side of wicked.
"We can't. But there's no law stopping me from summoning food." A woman after his own heart.
"Oh yes. The leftover surprise I think they like to call it, right?" Harry chokes on his soup. Tony laughs at the unashamed look of mischief in her eyes.
"The infamous leftover soup. I always marvel at the kitchen staff's ingenuity." Harry eyes his meal suspiciously, but hunger wins out because he doesn't consider it for long. Hermione summons more food for them (chicken and rice for the big kids)- which is definitely not of SHIELD cafeteria make and they sit on the metal floor to watch the Helicarrier approach the water through the galvanised steel and glass railings.
The entire structure shudders as it hits the water, the huge turbines slowing to a stop in seconds. Seawater surges up onto the bow of the carrier, washing over the runway in a gentle, lazy wave. The rotors disappear into the turgid ocean and the Helicarrier looks once again like a normal aircraft carrier.
A delayed hush falls over the carrier, the displaced ocean-water draining away rapidly, leaving behind a runway that glitters in the noon-day sun. Hermione removes her coat, basking in the light. A slight smile lifts her lips (chapped and dry from prolonged exposure to the cold, artificial air of the Helicarrier), eyes shut to the warmth. The shadows on her face retreat, like an oversaturated photograph. They hide in the extreme edges and planes.
She actually looks very pretty in that moment.
(But her hair is still a fright)
"I miss times like these," Steve remarks into the peace. Below comes the sound of men's shouting and orders. He leans against the brushed steel wall casually.
"Mmm," Bruce comments, finishing his meal, "It's nice."
They don't often get this sort of downtime. Too busy being billionaires, or scientists, or poster-boy super-soldiers or agents. Not that the serenity lasts long- klaxons sound, filling the air with their ear-grating dissonance. Hermione grimaces, sighs again and the tranquillity is lost. They stand reluctantly; Hermione vanishes their coats and plates and heads back inside. They follow.
"Can I have my wand?" Harry asks when indoors. The witch pauses, turns halfway to study him over her shoulder. The pair seem to be holding a silent conversation, filled with minute gestures; the flick of a brow, a twitch of fingers, quirks of the mouth.
"It's in Tony's workshop," she answers finally, turning back around. They follow; Tony's rather impressed by how quickly she's learnt the schematics of the place- and maybe, just a little concerned.
No one stops them in their trek to his playground. There are however, more than a few curious eyes placed on Harry and Hermione. Their status and abilities have been kept to a strictly confidential basis on Fury's orders. Their mere existence has the Director spooked, Tony suspects. No one could miss the threat they must pose; even just as 'people of interest'. If the wrong people were to find out about their powers… well Tony can just imagine the sheer-bloody mass of paperwork Fury would have to fill out were the pair to be kidnapped. To the SHIELD operatives who don't know who they are, the gag-orders make their physical appearances (bandages, faces that look a fright, casual clothes… wheelchair) and presence (because they're clearly not agents) on the Helicarrier a bit of a mystery. And SHIELD agents love nothing more than a good mystery to sink their teeth into.
Tony doesn't miss the way one of the agent's eyes widen at seeing Harry- evidently recognising him from his debut as the Falling Man. He urges them on a bit faster after that, but not before taking note of his name.
"Now," he states grandly when they reach his lab, "This is my home away from home." He keys in his access code and the door slides open. Inside is less of a disaster zone than the day before yesterday, though he is still finding odd bits of screws and metal around the place.
"That's... er… there's a lot of electronics in here," Harry offers intelligently, eyeing the equipment with something akin to nervousness. He stands on wobbly legs and staggers over to the main desk (Hermione looks on disapprovingly). The wizard surveys the mess of parts- electronic and mechanic- and tablets and computer screens (many of which have flickered on automatically) that cover most of its surface. He touches a napkin that lies under some junk; lines of code have been scrawled into the soft paper.
Tony ignores the wizard in favour of rifling through his smaller desk for Harry's things. The strip of wood feels beautiful but inconsequential in his hand. Harry eyes the thing doubtfully.
"That's not my wand," he says slowly, turning to send Queenie a confused glance.
The witch rolls her eyes, "Of course it's not. Doubtless, yours is still sitting in some Godforsaken pit of a Deatheaters den- as mine will be. They must have been stolen."
"Oh." He swallows, profoundly sad by the news and takes the wand from Tony's proffered hand.
And is promptly blown back as if by some invisible and soundless explosion.
The wizard hits the corner of the desk with a sickening thud as the lights above explode in a tinkle of glass in plastic casings.
For a (literally) heart-stopping moment, the arc-reactor in his chest flickers, like a dying light and oh God no please no he doesn't have a spare one with him, please, please, please he can't die here like this it's so stupidly mundane PLEASE –
And then the reactor- his heart- is stabilising, and his terrified gasps return to normal.
He surveys the damage in the aftermath.
The computer screens are dead and blank. Smoke rises from one of them; acrid and unpleasant. Steve and Bruce are braced against the desks, looking shocked and breathless. Hermione is groaning on the floor, breathing heavily.
"Holy Crap!" Bruce exclaims, looking around the suddenly darkened room- it's the closest Tony's heard to him swearing, "What the hell was that?"
"B-bad reaction to the wand," Queenie groans, sitting up slowly. Steve helps her up and she rubs at her back, grimacing, "Should have realised the Git would steal a dud wand." She pulls out her own wand, eyeing it speculatively, "I wonder why mine didn't react badly," she ponders quietly, slightly suspicious.
Harry moans and Hermione starts, worry crossing her features, "Harry?" she cries, stumbling slightly to reach him. He's lying sprawled on the floor.
"Holy fuck," he swears in pain, "What the shit was that?" Tony is reminded of a minute prior.
"The wand," Hermione gasps, flopping down next to her friend. She kicks said item away from him with her foot, "The wand doesn't like you."
"Well that's just smashing." Harry stares up at the ceiling; he makes no move to get up.
"The wand doesn't like him?" Tony scowls, "What are you saying- your sticks are sentient?" he taps at his chest experimentally. The arc-reactor makes a dull tong sound, but it doesn't look like it's going to act up again… maybe. He'll replace it when he gets back just in case.
The witch shrugs, "Not quite; wands are a conduit- a focus for our magic. They have to be attuned to our magical signature for them to work properly."
"What, like a calibration?" she shrugs again.
"I guess so, yeah- except they can't be altered once made."
Captain Boy Scout rolls his eyes, "Never mind that- what just happened?" Tony considers the ruins of his workshop (many of his electronics are fried) and the exhausted wizard lying on his floor.
"I'm guessing, Harry's magic reacted badly to the wand and blew up- in a form pretty similar to an EM field."
Steve stares at him blankly, and Harry looks about the same, "Electro-magnetic fields don't go well with technology- they tend to short things out and fry the circuits in electronics," Bruce adds helpfully. Harry turns guilty and pushes himself into a sitting position.
"Er- sorry about that."
"No worries," Tony tries to sound as flippant as possible after his scare with the reactor, "Happens all the time…" he frowns thoughtfully at the little stick- it looks so innocuous, "well, explosions at least." He looks around the room, a thought suddenly occurring to him, "Hopefully it's only affected this room."
Footsteps sound audibly down the hallway- heavy treads on metal floors and shit he spoke too soon.
'Stark!" Fury barks- Tony's mildly surprised he can even hear the closet pirate outside the lab; he'd sort of figured the thing was soundproofed (no one had ever complained about his music at 3am at least), "Stark what the fuck was that?" and that question is getting kind of old now. Fury bangs irately at his door (the electrical mechanism on it must have blown too). Tony slides it open as languorously as possible- he doesn't miss the vein ticking gloriously at Fury's temple.
"Director," he purrs, "We were just testing the lights."
Fury doesn't even merit his genius with an answer- Tony takes it as progress. He barges in without so much as a by-your-leave (though technically, Tony supposes, the lab isn't actually his); Thor, Clint and Natasha follow. His lab suddenly feels very crowded.
The newcomers stare with varying levels of surprise at Greenbean, who's now leaning heavily against a desk. Hermione stands, confident and defiant beside him.
"Er… hello," Harry says to Tony's surprised team mates. It seems to be his default greeting. Thor beams at him and he smiles nervously back.
"Should he be walking?" Natasha asks Queenie, essentially ignoring the wizard (after their initial clash, the two had gone off like a house on fire, only with less burning and dead people).
Hermione smiles warmly, "Technically he hasn't been," she nods to the empty wheelchair, forgotten in the drama, "He's been wheeling." Natasha nods, apparently satisfied.
"What was that?" Fury demands again, mildly infuriated with not being answered, "We just lost a quarter of the carrier's power, and more than a few of our computers are blown," he glares pointedly at Tony, "Funny thing is, your lab was at the epicentre of the blackout." Fury doesn't sound like this is funny at all. More like the opposite of 'funny' actually.
Hermione steps forward, shamefaced, "That was my fault; we gave Harry back his wand, but he had an adverse reaction to it." The Director stares at the witch, looking half-intent on tearing into her mind.
"An adverse reaction that took out a quarter of the Helicarrier's electronics?" she shifts uncomfortably, tugging at the skirt of her dress again.
"Yes?" her voice is very quiet, self-chastising.
"If we were in the air, the starboard-aft turbine could have gone out."
"Sorry?" she cringes.
"I want them off," he scowls, prima-donna-esque, "If this is what magic does, I don't want the two of you on the Helicarrier."
Harry looks like he's been punched in the gut. Hermione stares, brown eyes borderline hostile, "Then what are you going to do with us?" she asks, cold and removed. The transformation is shocking. Her hand is only moments away from reaching for her wand, and Tony's got half an idea of what she's thinking of doing. Fury's scowl grows darker. A lesser man would have burst into tears by now.
"I would not do that Miss Granger. SHIELD is not an enemy you want to have." Her partner stiffens, a snarl moments away from slipping from his lips.
"Hey!" he chastises, angry and defensive, "Leave off her- it's not her fault- that was my uncontrolled magic that broke your ship. It wasn't planned."
Fury turns to him coolly (well as coolly as the Director can be cool… so really not at all), dark eye studying the wizard, "Be that as it may, Mister Potter," Harry gets a funny look on his face at the address, "We cannot afford to have either of you on the Helicarrier if your magic reacts adversely to our technology."
"Only when uncontrolled!" the guy is definitely defensive, but Hermione just looks wary. Fury just shakes his head.
"Uncontrolled or not, you and Granger are wild cards that I can ill-afford to have- not on the Helicarrier. One slip up like today and we could fall from the sky."
Tony's half tempted to point out that today's little mishap had only reached one turbine- leaving more than enough power to keep them up in the air. Shit, even Loki hadn't managed to bring the Helicarrier down.
"What are you going to do with us then?" Queenie demands again. There's a cold ruthlessness creeping into her eyes and pulling down the corners of her mouth, "Drug us like you did Harry?" said wizard jumps, an expression of outrage fleeting across his face before he reigns it in, "Hide us away in a compound of yours where no one can ever find us?" she smiles then, and it's all savagery and calculation and something very close to grief, "Because I'd like to see you try."
Her voice quavers slightly at the end of it, shaky and unstable. Harry places a calming hand on the arm creeping back up to her sling. Fury says nothing more, but his hand is only moments away from pulling out his own weapon. The rest of them watch the exchange warily, on edge.
"We don't want to be enemies," the wizard says slowly, giving his friend a weighted look, "We're just trying to look after our own." Tony can see that; everyone can fucking see that, even Birdbrain.
"We understand," he carries on; voice only slightly unsure, "That it's too risky to keep us on the Helicarrier. And I'm sorry for the explosion- I really am… but the alternative is putting us away in another of your facilities or letting us go.
"So we ask again. What are you going to do with us?"
Tony can just see the thought process in Fury's mind. Keeping them on board is fraught with danger, but at least he has finer control over their movements here. Sending them to another facility means they can't explode anything on the carrier and thus endanger the lives of hundreds of people. But it bears the risk of exposure to parties Fury would rather not have knowing off the pair's presence, and it stinks of false imprisonment, which is likely to only breed malcontent with the travellers. Letting them go then was a viable option- it would keep their relationship a positive one, but led to an even higher threat of their exposure; not to mention the difficulties for SHIELD to keep tabs on them. And there was no guarantee that they were the last ones to come through that veil thing.
It was a dilemma, but it was also one Tony thinks could very easily be fixed.
"Well," his stupid mouth says into the tense silence before he manages to think it through any further, "Why don't they come stay with us?"
Chapter 15: Overcompensating Much
"You have a tower." Harry remarks, stone-faced. He stares up, neck craning, at the several something floor monstrosity that is the Avengers-nee-Stark Tower.
Steve hums in acquiescence, mimicking Harry's pose. His eyes squint in the bright midday light that reflects off the endless stretch of glass, "Technically, Stark has a tower."
Harry shifts canny eyes back to him, shifting on his crutches (he'd lasted two days in the wheelchair until it met a most unfortunate end the night before. Hermione was still fuming), "It seems a bit unnecessary, don't you think? Like, overly ostentatious and all that?"
"Yeah," he replies slowly, scratching at the back of his head absentmindedly, "Tony has this thing about being as conspicuous as possible."
Harry and Hermione snort in amusement, "I can see that," he remarks dryly, "Overcompensating much?" Steve can hear Stark pouting at the wizard's assessment.
"You should see his suit," Bruce snickers, moving past them to walk into their ridiculous HQ. Tony sends a tragic look at the scientist's back.
"I mean, you may as well paint a target on your residential quarters." Harry muses; taking Bruce's lead and hobbling inside.
"Oh yeah that's right, forsake your landlord guys," Tony cries, sounding scandalised, "I could start charging you board, you know. Then where would you be?"
Steve rolls his eyes, offering Hermione his arm- she takes it with a mischievous grin, "You keep telling yourself that Tony," he quips, leaving the genius alone on the sidewalk with the idling car.
"He makes a good point you know," Hermione says quietly when the flashy automatic doors slide shut behind them.
"What?" he hears the vwish of the doors as Tony trails in. Harry and Bruce are waiting at their private elevator, stoically ignoring the curious looks of those waiting in the lobby.
"Well, why make it so obvious to the world where you live? Surely you're pretty active targets. Why make the job easier for your enemies?"
"Eh," Tony says intelligently, pushing past them to press his hand into the hand and finger scanner. The red light flashes green and the lift door opens, "Why bother? Those who would want to find us will find us anyway. It's easier to lure them out into the open, I figure."
The magic-users share an unimpressed look, "That seems like rather faulty reasoning," Hermione says slowly, frowning at the billionaire.
"What are you, my mom?" he frowns, thinking about that statement, "Actually, that would be more like my father."
Steve forcibly removes the image of Howard Stark from his mind. He still wasn't comfortably remembering the temporal distance between his then and his now. Hermione's glare at Stark says are you kidding me. Steve suspects she and her friend may suddenly be sharing doubts about agreeing to move in with them. He doesn't blame them- Tony is hardly selling the most convincing of arguments… or reassurances.
Tony pouts back, entirely untouched by their misgivings, "Jarvis," he says, turning to the console on the lift.
"A pleasure to have you back sir," comes the dry reply, slightly electronic and tinny, as Jarvis always is. Harry and Hermione look startled at the voice reverberating through the small compartment.
"Don't try and hold back your enthusiasm for me Honey, you know how I hate that so." Steve still finds it mildly disturbing- Tony's insistence on casually flirting with his AI.
"I'll try and remember that for next time sir," especially an AI that has the ability to sound exasperated. And slightly sassy. The elevator pings, the door opens, revealing the spacious open-plan living room that covers almost the entire floor. They step through, Hermione and Harry staring out at the glass-covered vista presented through the ceiling to floor windows with awe and delight. Harry rushes to the glass, all but pressing his face into the smooth surface to look out onto the mass of buildings. Steve suddenly recalls his acclaimed love of heights.
"Right," says Tony, untouched by the by-now commonplace view, "Well Daddy's brought home some visitors. They might be here for a while, so do you mind starting a tab for them?" he glances back at the pair, smirking slightly, "Don't want them eating and drinking me out of house and home."
A pause as the AI takes note of the coded message; keep an eye on them. The witch and wizard suspect nothing, apparently thoroughly unimpressed (and convinced) by Tony's arrogant orders, "Of course sir," Jarvis replies, likely already analysing the readings taken from them, "And where will Miss Granger and Mister Potter be staying?" the witch and wizard appear mildly startled to learn the man in the walls knows their names. Hermione starts looking for the source of the noise in the large room with her shrewd eyes.
Tony makes a beeline for their expansive kitchen, rummaging around his drinks cabinet before pulling out a bottle of whiskey triumphantly, "Oh I don't know… how's the twin room sound? It has bunk beds," he winks at them. They look horrified at the offer of bunk beds. Steve wonders if there's a story there.
"Uhhh-no, thank-you," Harry says not-so-graciously (kind of desperately), "Do you have anything else?" Tony frowns, sipping at his newly acquired tumbler of alcohol.
"Well what do you want?" the friend's look slightly uncomfortable.
"Do you have a conjoined room at all?" Hermione asks timidly, stressing at the hem of her dress with her able hand. Tony's eyes flick down to her bared legs and up again, so quickly Steve could almost say it didn't happen. The witch doesn't seem to notice, "Or just two rooms next to each other I guess."
Tony takes another sip, "You get that Jarvis?"
"The rooms on level 89 would be suitable sir," he nods, satisfied. It's only the level below Steve and Bruce's rooms- and Clint, when he was around (and Thor, if he'd actually been on Earth the last year and a bit). They'd be sharing the floor with Natasha.
"Get them ready then Jarvis," he leaves his empty glass on the kitchen bench, rubbing his hands together gleefully, "I think it's time for another tour."
He walks out of the kitchen area to lean against the huge sofa, "The TV room," he says, motioning behind him (Steve still doesn't understand why Tony calls it the TV room when it's not actually a room solely dedicated to TV. Open-planning confuses him). He leans over the edge to fish out the remote from behind one of the numerous cushions- the TV (which still blows his mind, even now) slides out of the wall and flickers on, "We've got cable, free-to-air and the internet on this baby, so you can watch literally anything," he turns it off and tosses the remote back down on the sofa. Steve rolls his eyes; they're forever losing the remote, precisely for that reason.
"The communal kitchen's over there-" he points to where he'd just been, "We have about a million different appliances for… stuff. I dunno; we normally just get take-out unless Bruce cooks. There's a kitchen on every floor too, for when you want something quickly."
He jumps up, striding over to part of the floor to ceiling glass wall that opens out into the balcony. He swipes a hand over the glass and they glide open with a soft hshhh.
The balcony outside is as huge as it always is (to compete with Tony's ego, Clint always says but Steve thinks it's more so to accommodate his botched landings). Harry laughs in delight and hobbles over to the edge; leans hard against the cool glass barrier. Steve's once again reminded of his love of heights, the messy head of black hair hanging as far as is safe to over the edge.
"I take it back. You're not overcompensating at all. This is totally necessary."
Tony smirks like fat cat with cream, "That's what I thought. Why hide in some dark dank place when you'll be found all the same? Go out with style I say."
Harry nods avidly; Hermione just smiles sardonically.
"Well you're not getting out there for at least a week." Harry sighs but doesn't argue. The comment confuses Steve until he remember the explanation two nights over dinner about broomsticks. Tony had cackled like a madman at the suggestion, almost close to tears in his mirth. Steve thought it was kind of a stupid way to travel, and incredibly uncomfortable but Harry had insisted that it was exhilarating.
Tony mimes a whipping motion. Steve doesn't get the reference and Harry doesn't see it. Hermione glares at the obnoxious genius.
"Over there," Tony acts as though he'd done nothing wrong, "Is the Jacuzzi- any self-respecting superhero HQ has a Jacuzzi. We generally don't bother eating out here- the wind gets pretty vicious, but feel free to do so if you entertain the insane urge. The stairs over the lead to the training ro- Oh Shit!"
Hermione jumps; startled at the exclamation, "What?"
"Mum? What about your Mum?" Harry asks, completely confused.
"Not my Mom!" Tony insists, looking severely put out now, "SHIELD's Mom. You won't get a chance to meet him!"
Hermione and Harry stare. Their faces share identical quirked eyebrows.
"Him?" Harry prompts when Tony (currently pouting dejectedly out at the Manhattan cityscape) doesn't appear to want to extrapolate.
Tony pouts harder, if possible, "Gavin Salevini cares about as much for his rehab patients as a cuckoo cares for her freshly hatched offspring. Agents on leave after injury liked the name because of the irony."
Harry and Hermione continue to stare. Their twin looks are kind of unnerving.
"I wanted to watch your first session together." Tony defends himself, as if he was actually providing a convincing argument, "Now I have to find you one instead, and they'll probably be all cuddly and encouraging and sickeningly endearing."
Bruce hides his grin behind his hand.
"Yup," Hermione says, essentially ending the conversation. She turns to Steve, "So, he mentioned a training room?"
Steve leads the pair wordlessly up the outdoor staircase before Tony can add something stupid into the mix.
"Uh, Tony, do you have hidden cameras all through here?" Harry sounds on edge at the observation.
Tony shrugs, "Kind of, yeah. But you don't need to worry, Jarvis is very non-judgmental. And there's no camera's in the rooms or bathrooms, only microphones." Hermione blanches.
"Well Jarvis has to hear your requests somehow."
"Right, and who is Jarvis?"
Tony shrugs again, "My AI."
Hermione frowns, "I'm not familiar with that term." No one bothers to ask if Harry knows what it means.
"Artificial Intelligence. I made him; Jarvis takes care of everything here- well, everything security related anyway."
"You mean he's a computer? But he sounds so human!" Hermione is surprised and curious, but Harry looks almost horrified.
"You mean like in Terminator? Or iRobot?! But what if he turns against us and tries to eliminate the human race?" Tony rolls his eyes.
"Why is that always people's reactions?" Bruce seems happy to offer a reason why, but Tony sends him a glare before turning back to the magic users, "Jarvis wouldn't do that. He's very people friendly, aren't you Jarvis?"
"Yes Sir." Comes the mildly exasperated reply. And Steve is still wondering how Tony managed to get an artificial intelligence to come across as mildly impatient and beleaguered. As, it seems, does Hermione, who unlike her friend is not looking around the hallway warily.
"Hello Jarvis," she says, eyes directed up at the ceiling, "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"As it is to meet you Miss Granger." and suddenly the AI is warm and friendly. She beams up at the ceiling.
"Thank-you for organising our rooms for us."
"No trouble at all Miss Granger." Jarvis sounds almost smug, mollified even.
Tony pouts, slightly put out.
"You never talk to me like that, Jarvis."
The AI wisely doesn't reply.
"Harry and I need to go to London."
Steve looks up from his dinner (curry… again, and he still hadn't gotten the hang of the spice and heat packed into the Goddamn vindaloo Tony always insisted on ordering); Hermione is staring at her untouched meal, twirling her still clean fork in her hand like a baton (or a wand, on second thought). Tony finishes chewing, slowly and carefully and just this side of obnoxious.
"Why?" she looks up, cautiously hopeful.
"I want to find the magical community there- if there's one at all. And this universe's Veil needs to be located."
"If it exists," Stark offers, slightly insensitively.
"If it exists," she confirms, mouth and brow set grim and doubtful. Tony shovels in another mouthful of curry (and how the hell does he do that?).
"Will that be a problem?" Harry asks, sharp green eyes flitting across his teammeates. They land on Steve and he glances at Bruce and Tony in turn, thinking on it (avoiding his gaze).
"That depends," he says finally, sneaking in a small mouthful of vindaloo as the pair digest his reply. He grimaces at the burning heat left behind.
"On what?" Hermione, razor sharp, slightly defensive.
"On whether or not the magical community is likely to let us keep our memories." Harry looks confused at his statement, but Hermione latches onto his line of thought instantly.
"We don't need an escort," she seems to be restraining herself from snapping, setting her fork carefully down on her bowl.
"I'm sure you don't Queenie," Stark replies, sending her a rakish smile, "But we will. And Papa Bear will kill us if we let you off into the woods alone." The witch rolls her eyes.
"And it could just be an excuse for the two of you to slip off our radar," Steve tries to put it delicately- he really does- but Harry's face hardens anyway.
"We don't break promises," he growls, and his tone is laced with a bitterness and grief that Steve can empathise completely with.
"And besides, why would we want to run away from free accommodation and food? It's hardly an undesirable relationship." Hermione jokes half-heartedly in an attempt to alleviate her friend's angst. Harry huffs a soft laugh, looking down at his meal to collect himself.
"Think of it this way," Tony drawls as he tears apart the remains of his naan bread, "We'll need the escort more that you. I for one will not say no to an introduction of an entirely unknown world. You're there more for our protection than we'd likely be for yours."
Hermione smiles with sheepish relief. Steve decides to say nothing about the fact they've not actually been offered such an introduction; nor the witch's serious reservations about the existence of a magical world in this universe.
"So when do you want to go? I can book a flight for whenever."
"Tomorrow, if possible," Hermione smirks wickedly, "But we were planning on taking a different mode of transport."
"Different how?" Steve asks cautiously, thinking of the broomsticks. The grins on Harry and Hermione's faces aren't exactly comforting; if anything, they're the exact opposite.
"International portkey." Hermione replies. The term means nothing to him.
"It's much faster than flying on a plane," Harry continues.
Steve gives the pair of them a good hard stare, "And at the risk of sounding ignorant, what's a portkey?"
"It's not that teleportation thing you mentioned you could do is it?" Tony sounds extremely hopeful; he looks almost heartbroken when they shake their heads.
"It's not possible to apparate large distances like that; the risk of splinching yourself is too high to justify it. And if the splinching doesn't kill you, the amount of energy you'd use up would.
"A portkey is an object that instantaneously transports you to another, fixed place. It's not quite like teleportation though," she adds quickly, to stop Tony from interrupting, "But it's very similar. A portkey will only take you one of two destinations; your point of origin or your intended destination." Steve really wishes he knew what Hermione was talking about most of the time. It feels almost like every time she opens her mouth it's to generate more questions to answer her answers. Tony and Bruce just nod like they understands what she's talking about, even though he's fairly sure she's never explained what the term 'splinching' means.
"How many people can it take at one time?" he asks- it was something she'd failed to specify.
She shrugs, "It depends on how many people can get a hold of the object."
"I was thinking it might be wise to take Agent Barton and Romanov. And Thor will probably want to come along too, I guess."
The witch nods, stirring about her meal, though the fork never reaches her mouth, "That will be fine." He sends her a smile.
"Thanks. What time should we leave?"
"London's seven hours ahead of us," Bruce inserts helpfully, "So we should plan it for a time that's still daylight over there."
"Eight should be okay," Harry says through a mouthful of food. Hermione wrinkles her nose and pushes her bowl away slightly.
Tony blanches, "Eight? In the morning?" Bruce rolls his eyes, clapping the genius on the back.
"Suck it up princess. Eight is fine."
"But Bruce! Eight in the morning! Is anyone even open then?"
"It beggars belief doesn't it?" he sounds about a sympathetic for Tony as Steve feels. Tony wolfs down another mouthful of vindaloo and doesn't reply.
"Right then,' Hermione says brightly (almost, almost fake sounding), pushing herself away from the table, "Eight it is. Be ready for then. I won't be waiting for people."
She sends Tony a stern look as she stands up and calls out a breezy "Goodnight" to them when she reaches the elevator. The doors open with a quiet ping and close silently behind her.
Harry watches the numbers on the elevator change with a stark expression on his face. Tony and Bruce just seemed surprised, and slightly confused (much the way Steve feels actually).
"What set her off?" Tony says bluntly.
"I don't know… Did any of you see her touch her food?" Harry replies quietly. His eyes are glued to the closed doors of the lift. Bruce shakes his head; Tony says nothing, his face suddenly shuttering off.
"She didn't seem to have much of an appetite on the Helicarrier either," Steve mused, "but I just figured she was like Tony."
Harry raises an eyebrow, eyeing off the resident billionaire speculatively, "Like Tony?"
He shrugs, "Intent on finishing things. Stuff like sleep or eating just get in the way of that sometimes."
Bruce smirks, "That's certainly one way of putting it."
Tony frowns, "Is this another 'gang-up-on-the-landlord' kind of thing?"
"No, this is a 'remark-upon-the-eccentricities-of-Tony' kind of thing."
"… I don't see how that's much of an improvement."
He shrugs, "It's probably not."
Tony sends the scientist a childish pout. Harry watches the banter with a faraway look on his face. Abruptly he stands, picking up Hermione's untouched meal as he does.
"I'll give this to her. She might get hungry soon. Thanks for the meal." He walks away with a smile. He seems to have forgotten all about his crutches and leaves them resting against the table.
"See you tomorrow!" Steve calls out to the retreating wizard. Harry sends him a grin from over his shoulder. The lift pings again. His lips twitch up in response.
"See you tomorrow." Harry echoes, inside the elevator. The doors close and now it's his turn to watch the numbers.
"Well I like them," Bruce says brightly, pushing away his empty bowl, "But not enough to trust them."
He and Tony nod, though the genius looks deep in thought about something, "No. I don't think we should trust them yet," he agrees.
"They're too invested in each other." Tony muses, staring out at the skyline behind Steve, "And skittish. You can see it in their eyes; they're waiting for us to give them reason to run."
"Not kill? They look like they could; she could have easily been lying about their story." Bruce sounds like he's almost sceptic of his own scepticism. He wants to believe he's wrong.
"Nah. She's got goody two-shoes all over her- the both of them do. If there's one thing Fury's good at, it's being an excellent judge of character. He never would have let them out if he's doubted them for a minute. He wants them for something I think; he was just waiting for an excuse to offload them onto us. You could see it in his eyes. He wants us to bond, or some shit like that."
"They're keeping something from us though." They can't deny that- there were parts of the story Hermione had told Harry that had differed from the one she'd given them. At least, the bits they could hear- there'd been more than a few times before Harry had clued into the camera that they'd spoken too quietly for the camera's microphone to pick up.
"I'd bet my shield it's got something to do with Harry's survival," he wouldn't of course, but it's the thought that counts. Stark rolls his eyes.
"Well obviously," he drawls and Steve stiffens on reflex, "I mean, the guy's like what, thirty three? Thirty four? And how old does he look?"
"Seventeen? Twenty maybe." Bruce hedges; he'd agree with that assessment. Harry doesn't look a day older than seventeen. Just a child.
"Exactly. And have you seen that scar on his forehead? There's no way it could be accidental- and it doesn't look like that mess on his arm- it's an old, old mark. There's something up with him."
"Hermione ages at a decelerated rate too," Bruce points out before Tony can get too far. He nods.
"Yeah, but even she appears to be about twenty-seven, twenty-eight. That's only a five or six year difference. Theoretically, Greenbean should be the same. Shit, they went to school together, they're the same age. Something has to have happened to him at some point, because I'm guessing that Greenbean is not normal. Not by wizard standards at any rate."
"And your point is? Whatever it is that's stopped him from aging doesn't seem to be a threat."
Tony looks away. Scratches a blunt fingernail into the table, "Isn't it? What did he have to do to stop the process? What kind of artefact did they find that had the power to stop aging? And- I'm guessing- the ability to prevent him from dying. You saw him when they found him- you read up on his injuries. He should have died. Only a miracle could have stopped him from doing so, and we all know miracles don't exist."
Steve thinks that's a very bleak way of looking at the world. It depresses him to realise that he agrees with Tony- in this new world where the miraculous can be explained, it's harder to keep to the faith of miracles.
"It might have just been a once only thing." Bruce says lowly, "The next time could be permanent."
"Maybe. And maybe not."
"It feels wrong for someone to be granted such abilities at apparently no cost." Steve offers to the conversation. Tony hums in agreement.
"What?" It's a reflex reaction more than anything; Steve can more or less guess what Bruce means.
"Nothing comes without a price." The scientist says succinctly. Tony stares grimly out at the lights of Manhattan.
"Exactly. So I ask you; what was Harry's price? And what if it poses a threat? What are we to do with a man who cannot die?"
They fall silent as they think on the matter. Harry had come off as fairly innocent to Steve; certainly, so far all he'd seen in the man was a general 'goodness'- the same kind he'd seen in all the members of the Avengers team (even Tony… eventually). And granted, Harry and Hermione hadn't exactly come off as such at the moment- thrown into a brand new universe as they were- but Steve was sure that given the right motivations (more than just protecting their own) both Harry and Hermione would display the right amount of courage and selflessness that could make them valuable members of the Avengers team; it was a sentiment that he suspected Fury shared. Why else would he have allowed them to leave a secure SHIELD base?
They just needed to get the pair invested in this universe; provided their trip to London tomorrow was unfruitful.
No mean feat.
Hours later, in the dark quiet of his room, he lies awake plagued with the selfish hope that they find nothing of consequence tomorrow, and the heavy guilt that come with such desires.
He can't get to sleep for hours.
Chapter 16: Bad Manners
She's cast a silencing charm on her room. He can tell not so much from the absolute silence that envelops his footfalls in the hallway as the lack of noise that he knows should be coming from her room.
Because he can feel her magic, broken and grief-stricken and erratic; bouncing off the walls with no direction and biting at his aching ankles like an angry dog. It's been a long time since he's felt her magic go this haywire. The last time was when her mother died; hit by some careless bus driver. And Hermione was strong- Merlin, she was one of the strongest people he knew- but there were some losses that no amount of determination or strength could halt the flow of tears for.
He tests his hand on her door, balancing her meal carefully. There's no corresponding sting of wards, for which he's grateful. Without a wand, there's little he can do against her wards. He tries the handle.
"Hermione?" he calls, hoping fervently that she'd only cast it as a one way charm, "Can I come in please?"
Silence from inside; though that's hardly surprising. A lengthened pause; he's half tempted to ask Jarvis to open it for him, but thinks better of it. Something like that would likely just piss her off.
The door swings open. He lets out a small smile of victory.
"Hey Harry," she croaks from inside her darkened room. He can just see the silhouette of her body, lying face-up on the bed. The reflected lights of the city from the low cloud cover (glowing murky orange, reminiscent of those sordid apocalyptic movies Luna liked to watch) alight on her hair. He turns on the dimmer light, keeping it as low as possible.
He takes stock of the room silently.
The few impersonal ornaments in the room have been strewn across the floor. He can see on the opposite wall a large dent; the alarm clock that should be sitting on the dresser next to her bed lies not far from her attempt at renovation. Coat hangers are thrown far from the door to her expansive walk-in-wardrobe and the few clothes Tony gifted her with lie in sad heaps in corners.
He breathes a sigh of relief to see that at least the undoubtedly expensive painting hanging above her bed is untouched.
"Hi Hermione," he murmurs softly, navigating his way carefully though her mess.
"I lost control a bit Harry." He eyes the hole in the wall, setting her untouched meal down on the bedside table before he sits down on the bed carefully. His bones hurt; a deep ache that tells him he probably shouldn't have ditched the crutches in the kitchen. Not that he's going to mention this to Hermione.
"I can see that."
She rolls onto her side, facing him. Her legs curl up into the foetal position as she hugs her side with her good arm. He rests a comforting hand on her knee. Her left arm lies unmoving across her chest, still wrapped carefully in its white cotton sling. He can see the handle of her stolen wand tucked beneath her pillows.
He waits for her to say something. Harry suspects she may have learnt from him the unfortunate habit of clamming up when someone asks what's wrong. It's better to wait, he's found, and let the words come out on their own. She doesn't disappoint.
"You were talking with your mouth full." She says finally, avoiding his eyes.
He'd reminded her of him. Not good.
"I'm sorry." He chokes, roughly pushing away the rising grief and anger (and fear) that comes with his remembrance. Hermione sniffs, rubbing at her face.
"Don't be. It's not your fault."
He rubs her knee comfortingly again, as he thinks the exact opposite.
"It's a horrendous habit though," he says sheepishly, confident he's not giving anything away.
She laughs through her nose, "It is. It's a wonder he managed to keep it to be honest."
He laughs softly, remembering the countless times she'd turned her nose up at Ron's eating habits. So uncouth, she'd primly call him, half in disgust, half in fondness, wizards should be classier than that. Which of course would just antagonise him and motivate him to display even worse manners than before- just to get a smile out of her. He thinks fondly of meals at the Weasley's- their numbers diminished by the war but their hearts still warm and strong- where Ron and Ginny (and later, his wife Edaena) had goaded Hermione with their grotesque food-filled smiles into laughing and hiding her reluctant smile.
"I should have been the secret keeper." She whispers out of the blue, hand coming up to cover her haunted eyes.
He sighs heavily. He'd suspected this might be on her mind.
"The only difference that would have made would be you lying dead in the Ministry now."
Her hand slides down to cover her mouth. The look in her eyes say everything and it scares him, because it reminds him of himself.
Would that have been so bad? Those sad eyes say. Inwardly he cringes; bright eyes so defeated. And he understands her pain. Ron and her had been lovers for long enough that it mattered, and best friends for even longer. And it wasn't as if she'd pined for him when they'd broken apart, but she'd never found another man. A decade did much to quench the flame, but not enough to destroy the sense of attachment she'd once shared with him; like cold ashes in an abandoned hearth, never removed and never replaced.
Ron of course was oblivious to it all; had moved on easily enough. But Hermione was left like Harry; awkward and lonely in a generation either dead, mad or married (and sometimes, a mix of all three). There seemed to be no one for them in their world. And yeah okay, there had been that one night with Hermione; the one that neither had ever spoken about, because neither were willing to touch upon the inherent wrongness of that night and the borderline incestuous nature of their coupling. But they'd both been lonely and depressed, and above all drunk (not to mention they hadn't been laid in years) and alcohol had easily found their solace in the other.
Hermione never seemed to match the men she dated. They'd always wanted different things; had different priorities and it broke Hermione's heart every time they asked for something she wasn't prepare to give (her freedom; her independence; her ideals; her career). And of course, the last few years were too focussed on research and hiding places for her to give the idea of seriously settling down any true thought.
Their unified loneliness tied them together much like it had when Ron had abandoned them during the Horcrux hunt. They were devoted to each other in a way Ron could never be again. He had a wife, a baby and a family. A life. A good one, and it was something they'd never grudged him for. Even so, he and Ron were dear friends; the closest of brothers. The thought of Ron's death burnt like a hot poker through his heart, brittle and tragic and threatening to tear him apart if he let it.
"Yes," he whispers eventually, finding his tongue but feeling just as broken. He pulls her hand away and kisses it softly, "It would have.
"Because then I'd have been alone." Alone in this world to deal with both your death's. And that was something he never could have abided by.
A tear creeps slowly down his best friend's face. She makes no move to remove it.
"Why did he have to die Harry? Why did they have to kill him?" she croaks, squeezing at his hand. He looks at the door, unable to stare at her eyes anymore. They ask too much of him.
"Why do Death Eaters do anything?" He knows she knows the answer- she's too smart not to.
"But he had a family! Edaena and Reggie-" her voice breaks and she grimaces, "-Alone now... We should never have made him secret keeper." There's anger now; at themselves; at the Death Eaters; at their new situation.
"It made sense at the time." And heaven help him, but it had. When they'd first set up the safe house, Edaena had only been a cautious maybe on Ron's part, and Reggie an un-thought of notion. By the time Ron's son had come along it was too late to change secret keepers.
"Do you think they're still alive?"
"I don't know." It's not quite a lie. It was likely that they had used Ron's family as a bargaining tool, to get past the fidelius charm. Enough coercion and he can see their friend swaying, no matter how steadfast his loyalty to them was. Edaena was his wife, Reggie his son. A bargain would have been struck for their protection. Harry couldn't fault him for it- he would have likely done the same thing in Ron's place.
Whether the Death Eaters had followed through on the deal was another matter entirely.
"It would have happened eventually," he reasons, not just for her, but for himself; the thoughts in her mind almost identical to his own, "They would have found me, one day. Used you, or Ron as leverage, your children. The Weasleys; whatever. I couldn't hide for the rest of my life." However long that will be.
She lets go of his hand and sits up. He pulls her into his embrace, her arm curling up around his side.
"I'd just hoped they'd give up. Or die."
He snorts. If only he could be so lucky.
"It just feels wrong, you know? To be here without Ron. Like there's a piece missing. It should be the three of us facing the brave new world, just like when we were kids. I keep on turning, expecting him to be there, but he's not and it just feels so wrong." It sounds almost as if she's forcing back a sob by the end of her spiel, though her voice seems calm enough.
He forces out a chuckle, "At least I look the part." Hermione hits his chest with her open palm.
"We can't all have eternal youth, you tit."
"Yes, well…" he trails off. Try as he might, he can't find anything light-hearted to say back to that. The term 'eternal youth' positively terrifies him, knowing it can be used in connection with himself. Whatever the Deathly Hallows granted him, it's likely he'll live long past Hermione's life-span- extended by magic or not. She – just like everyone he knew- would grow older- frailer- whilst he remained trapped forever in the scrawny body of a teenage boy. And one day she would die and he would be alone again. The thought hurt almost as much as Ron's death. He pulls her closer and, as if sensing his line of thought, her arm hugs him tighter.
She sighs after a time, her voice coming out small and sad, "I wish we weren't here."
"I miss home."
"What are we going to do if there are no wizards here?"
"I don't know… have a party to celebrate your righteousness?" She snorts and hits him again, but doesn't say anything. They fall silent; they seem to be doing a lot of that now. He can just hear the soft hum of the air-conditioning- forever on in the tower- the only noise in the room. It's a comforting sound; in a way it reminds him of the constant thrum of latent magic at the Burrow or Grimmauld Place back when they were kids.
"At least-" he pauses, swallows back his pain and starts again, "-at least I'm here with you." She doesn't reply for a time and he contents himself on listening to her quiet breathing.
"I couldn't dream of a world without you, Harry. It would be a duller place."
He smiles, "And I'd be lost without you. Wouldn't even know where to begin."
She snorts in disbelief, "Nonsense. You'd end up in Britain eventually- provided you didn't manage to get yourself tied up in knots with SHIELD or some other lot first."
"Hermione; I fell from thirty-thousand feet and survived. Kind of hard not to get tied up with SHIELD."
"Hnn. Good point."
"Do you think they'll let us make our own way soon?"
She moves away, pushing herself back to lean against the headboard, "They'll probably let us out on good behaviour at some point," she says slowly, red-rimmed eyes turned thoughtful, "I've seen the way Fury looks at us though- and some of those Avengers. They don't trust us, but I think they want to."
"He looks at us like we're a commodity." He replies disapprovingly, "He reminds me of Dumbledore, but with a shittier temper. Happy to manipulate us for the greater good." He won't deny the bitterness in his voice remembering the former headmaster's scheming. Everything might have turned out alright in the end, but it hadn't come without its consequences- an unshakable sense of betrayal for his mentor who'd been willing- happily or not- to groom him for his own death was only one in a long list.
"I think he wants us to join the Avengers Initiative." The words seem to just blurt out of her, like she's been keeping them desperately under lock and key. He eyes her, thinking on it. It's a plausible theory; from what he'd gained of SHIELD and the Avengers, they were there to take care of things ordinary enforcer's couldn't. He can see Fury adding them to his list pretty easily- if he ever trusted them enough for it. Harry kind of suspects it wouldn't take that much really; after all, Thor was an alien from another planet and his brother had apparently been a megalomaniac, but Fury seemed content enough to keep him in the Avengers.
"Would you?" he asks, curious to hear her answer. She smiles at him, but her eyes are troubled.
"I'd really rather not."
"It's been a long time since I've been in combat Harry." She replies dryly (and is it just him, but does it seem forced?), scratching at the skin underneath her bandages, "Research has always been my forte and you know it."
He does know it. But he also knows that she is more than underselling herself. She'd been a formidable duellist during the war, with a ruthlessness born of practicality that sometimes terrified even him. She played dirty as much as she'd played clean; it was the only way to come out of combat with Death Eaters alive.
She hadn't been awarded an Order of Merlin for just being the great Harry Potter's companion after all.
He frowns, thinking on it. He'd kind of hoped combat and the like would have passed onto someone else by now. He couldn't see himself being tied down to SHIELD like it seemed many of the Avengers were. Certainly not as an agent like Steve or Romanov, to be put on missions and a steady payroll. He'd much rather his money come from somewhere else thank-you very much.
And gosh, wasn't that weird; a payroll. It had been a long, long time since he'd had to worry about an income, but suspects it's going to be something that will come up more and more in the future. Especially if they never manage to find the Veil.
All that said, he couldn't see either of them standing out of the firing line in the event of an emergency. For all that Hermione had accused him of nursing a hero-complex, it wasn't like she didn't have a 'saving people' thing of her own. Granted, it was tempered by her practicality, but it was there nonetheless. Come a crisis, he can see both of them fighting aside the Avengers, attachment to the team (which he suspects was what Fury was hoping for when he allowed them to live in the tower) or not.
"I'd help them out, I guess," he finally says, "If just depends on what they'd want me to help them with."
She nods slowly, "Stark says he works with SHIELD as a consultant. He's not really an agent; more or a freelancer or a mercenary, but only for SHIELD."
"That sounds alright." He hedges. Hermione hums her affirmation.
They fall silent again. Harry thinks on everything that's happened to them; the kidnapping; the torture; begging for mercy on Hermione's behalf in the depths of the Ministry. Her agonized screams and the rancid smell of burning flesh. He almost wishes that those memories were still locked away and hidden from him. His eyes fall unbidden on his right forearm, where the bandages he'd removed that morning no longer hide the squirming mess of purple scarring. In some places where the blood's grown stagnant- caught in the wreckage of scarified tissue- it's so dark it's almost black. It's a sickening sight, but he can't help but find an odd degree of fascination in it. The Dark Mark may be a sign of evil, but maybe- maybe he could take it as something else. Perhaps it were possible to take his Dark Mark- unwillingly gained – as a badge of honour, a reminder of home and everything that he and his family had fought against; a symbol for something else entirely.
Could they return home? Should they even want to? This place didn't seem so bad- there were no Death Eaters at least. Hell, none of their usual history either. They could make a life here; easily. He could get himself a job- a proper job- anonymous, boring and forgotten about by most he meets. It would be like a dream come true. No constraints of a shared past and fame and rabid Voldemort followers desperate to destroy him; he could live the life he wanted to live. Best of all, he wasn't alone. He had Hermione, and for all the guilt he hid inside himself at tearing her away from her life, he couldn't help but selfishly rejoice in her company. Merlin, maybe he could even start his own family here.
And then, in the midst of his childhood dreams that had never managed to leave him in adulthood, it emerges, like a long lost wreck arising from the depths of the ocean. The force of the revelation is enough to knock him to his knees, had he been standing.
His hands shake at the thought. The man had fallen through the Veil! Bellatrix had only sent a stunning spell after him- or at least, it had looked like a stunning spell. The Veil was a portal, so he could very easily have survived. What if he was here? Somewhere in this world? Alive and happy, with a life of his own. The godfather that had been stolen from him all those years ago, as too many of his family were.
"Hermione," he breathes, the facts and possibilities forming an ever stronger picture in his mind, "What if Sirius is alive?"
She freezes, eyes growing wide as they lock onto his, "Oh my God," she whispers, "I can't believe I forgot about Sirius!"
He grasps her hand in his, excited at the sudden revelation, "All these years, we thought he was dead. Hermione, he's somewhere out there. Alive!" The though brings tears to their eyes. The grief and the guilt, faded only by the passage of time is erased as hope springs up, cautious and tentative, but growing with every second that passes.
Hermione looks joyful, but worried, "But he could be anywhere Harry. The Veil has so far proven itself to be unpredictable- he could have landed anywhere on the globe."
"We can find him," he says resolutely, "We have magic and technology on our side. If anyone could find him, it would be us." She smiles at him, unconvinced.
"Where would we even start? He may not have even used the same name."
"We go to London tomorrow. It's as good a place to start as any."
"And if he's not in London? Or Britain for that matter?"
"Then we use technology. He's bound to be somewhere on the muggle records. Stark is a technology genius, I'm sure he'd be able to find him. I've still got that picture of the marauders in my bag."
"Hnnn." She replies, dubious. He ignores her reservations. The possibility that more of his family is here is almost too much to handle. He stands up, intending to go to his room. Plans are whirling about his head like a tornado and he needs the darkness of his room to work them out.
A hand on the hem of his shirt stops him short. He turns back; Hermione is looking at him with pleading eyes.
"Stay, please. I don't think I can deal with another night alone."
He stares down at his best friend. Her eyes are bloodshot, and in the dim light the recesses beneath her eyes seem deeper and almost bruised-looking. He sits back down, sighing heavily. It's probably his hero-complex thing again. That or he just can't really say no to Hermione.
"Fine. But eat your dinner first." Hermione pouts. He mirrors it and she laughs, high and thin, but a laugh all the same. He climbs across the bed, wincing at the pressure on his new bones, and settles himself as she works her way slowly through her meal. He's satisfied when she slides the empty bowl across the bedside table.
She excuses herself to the bathroom and he takes the opportunity to get himself under the covers. She returns a few minutes later and crawls under them, sidling up to him almost shyly.
He sighs and pulls her into him, letting her rest her head against his chest. It feels slightly awkward- almost too intimate- and he can tell that his arm is going to go numb fairly quickly, but he won't grudge her this. Not after the week(s) they've had.
"Jarvis?" Hermione asks into the slightly uncomfortable silence.
"Yes Miss Granger?"
"Could you please turn off the lights?" they dim slowly, winking off like stars in the growing dawn. The room goes dark and she sighs in relief, "Thank-you Jarvis."
"Of course, Miss Granger." The AI replies. It sounds very human and Harry is momentarily unnerved, imagining some stranger watching them sleep. He pushes the thought away before it can creep him out.
"Mmm. Shut up and go to sleep." She huffs a laugh and settles down, good hand curling into his shirt. He listens to her breathing slow, her fingers twitching sporadically in the upper realms of slumber. It does nothing to calm his thoughts, which are still running a million miles a minute. Thoughts of Sirius and a life to be made in this world plague him deep into the early hours of the morning.
Chapter 17: Escort Service
"And you're sure this isn't just a spatula? Because I'm not gonna lie; it looks exactly like a spatula."
Hermione sighs, but there's a smile tugging at her lips, "Well that's because it is a spatula. There's absolutely nothing remarkable about it… except for the fact that it will transport you across the Atlantic at a single touch."
Harry laughs; because of course, that is exactly the kind of reply that is guaranteed to get a reaction from Tony.
The genius makes a noise of frustration, foot tapping impatiently.
"But why does it have to be a spatula? It's so… ordinary." His nose wrinkles in distaste, "Shouldn't it be something like a scroll or a book or something?"
"You've just answered your own question," she shrugs, "It's a bit of a habit to make portkeys as unassuming as possible- as a deterrent for any muggles who might be tempted to touch them and be whisked off to some magical location."
"You mean you just leave devices like that out in the open? Where anyone could touch it?" Bruce sounds positively horrified at the thought.
"Well we try to make them unappealing- to deter muggles from wanting to touch them in the first place- old tires, empty drink cans, discarded shoes. But sometimes it's unavoidable. There are some portkeys that are triggered only at a specified time and will activate regardless of whether they're carrying someone. They're generally one use items."
Steve nods in understanding, "For scenarios like meetings or mission deadlines right? I can see them being useful."
Harry grins at the super soldier, glad to see him understanding the concept. Too often Steve seems lost, like a fish out of water (not unlike himself much of the time. Unlike Hermione, he'd never really made much of an effort to reacquaint himself with the muggle world).
"Exactly," he tells him, "But then," he motions to the spatula lying innocently on the granite bench top, "You have ones like this, that work the moment somebody- or several somebodies- touch them. More often than not, they can return you to its original position too."
"Can they only be used twice? One to get to B, and the other to get you back to A?"
He shrugs, "It just depends on the intent of the caster. You can put more or less as many uses into it as you want- provided you have the power for it."
Steve and Tony both suddenly look like Christmas has come early (though he kind of suspects it's for slightly different reasons). Hermione butts back in before the two of them can ask any more questions.
"I've set the coordinates for this portkey for central London, not far from where the magical community in our universe existed. I'd rather be as inconspicuous as possible, so disguises would be useful," she raises her eyebrows at Tony, who waves his beanie jauntily back, "It's a touch activated portkey, so what I say goes, or you'll be left here, and I am not coming back for anyone."
They nod and the witch checks her watch. She frowns, "Where did Clint go? I'd like to leave as soon as possible."
"Here!" the archer hurries into the room, doing his zip up as he does so. Natasha and Hermione roll their eyes, "What?" he demands, defensive, "I didn't know if there'd be a bathroom wherever we're going."
Natasha ignores him and the archer pouts.
Hermione clears her throat, "Right then, if that's everyone…" she frowns down at the portkey, and Harry can see the thought that suddenly occurs to her, "I feel I should warn you; most of our forms of transport- whilst convenient- aren't exactly comfortable-"
"-for all that they're only moments long," Harry interjects. Hermione frowns disapprovingly at him; she still hates being interrupted mid information-stream.
"Yes, well; it's the price we pay for instantaneous travel," she retorts primly. Stark raises an eyebrow, "Now, with portkeys, you'll feel as though you're being grabbed around your middle as if by some invisible force. Then there's a squeezing sensation and you'll be more or less thrown out at your destination. It can feel quite sudden, so prepare yourself before we leave for a rough landing.
"Any questions?" Most of them eye the spatula mistrustfully but say nothing. She nods in satisfaction.
"Right then; on one, touch the portkey. Only a finger will do- you won't be thrown off."
Hermione hovers her hand above the spatula and they all follow suit. She smiles at the Avengers team reassuringly. They don't look entirely convinced (except for Tony, who looks like he wants to grab the portkey now).
"One!" Their hands fall down in almost perfect unison and grasp the innocuous implement, "Ready yourse-"
And then there's the sensation of an invisible hook latching onto their abdomens and her words are whipped away in a blaze of wind and a maddening swirl of colour and they're torn from the living room of the Avengers tower.
"That was… oh my God… that was…" Tony struggles for words, breathing heavily. He lies sprawled on the dirty London concrete, thrown back by their landing. As most of them are, despite Hermione's warning- Thor (who's apparently accustomed to the Bifrost, whatever that is), Hermione and Harry excluded.
"Literally gut-wrenching? Terrifying? Something I don't ever want to have to do again?" Clint offers, gasping and staring wide-eyed at the sky.
"Amazing." Tony finishes, grinning like a madman. He hauls himself up as Hermione stuffs the spatula into her threadbare bag. Harry watches the rest of the Avengers team eye the genius with varying levels of disbelief.
"Amazing from a technological perspective," Bruce corrects, rubbing at his stomach suspiciously, "But I wouldn't actually call the experience amazing. In fact I'd call it downright unpleasant." He stands with a groan, "Glad you warned us though, 'cause the other guy didn't particularly like that either."
Harry smiles at the scientist apologetically, "It took me years to get used to portkey travel, but it sure beats flying… and if you didn't like that, wait til you try apparition… or use the floo."
"The shit is the floo?" Clint asks politely, brushing himself off.
"Travel via fire place," Hermione glances down the alley they've found themselves in, satisfied that it's empty, "It's substantially messier, and your destination has to be connected to the floo network- kind of like a phone line."
"If there even is a floo network," Harry adds darkly, not forgetting the growing likelihood of wizards being a thing of legend in this universe. Hermione sends him a slightly despairing smile- her eyes look worried and scared and he pushes away the guilt at setting her on edge. She was a big girl; old enough and tough enough to take care of herself. As she'd told him (and demonstrated to him) on more than one occasion.
"Right!" Tony exclaims, brushing the dirt off his oil-stained jeans. He tucks his beanie over his hair and checks his visage in the dim refection of a grimy misused window. A greyed lace curtain blocks the inside of the building from view, "Where are we going? In fact, where are we right now?"
Hermione bites her lip, studying their small army of followers. They stand and watch her expectantly and Harry gets the impression of a mother duck with her ducklings (albeit, her substantially overpowered, incredibly famous ducklings), "We're on Charing Cross Road- more or less. It's only a five minute walk from where the Leaky Cauldron should be."
"Did you Google the name?" Tony asks as Hermione discreetly casts a notice-me-not charm on their conspicuous-looking group. Natasha watches the almost imperceptible movements of her hand with suspicious eyes, but says nothing.
Hermione shrugs, oblivious, "I tried, but if they're anything like our world, wizards aren't the biggest fans of the internet… or any technological development that came after the nineteenth century."
Harry can't help but snigger. The Weasley's had always remained rather bemused by their patriarch's obsession with all things muggle; which had only grown as the years progressed (Harry suspected it was a coping mechanism). Even Ron had seen no point (further than colour television) to keeping up with muggle development. It was a mindset that Hermione had always condemned as close-minded and likely to get them all caught; bringing on what she feared would be another witch-hunt- except this time it would be the Muggles who would have the upper hand.
It was a prophesy that she believed in quite fervently, and one of the reasons- Harry suspects (in the dark recesses of his mind, where Hermione would never find it)- that she'd remained single for so long. It was too easy to label and discard his friend with the frightening intellect as an eccentric of the same ilk as Arthur Weasley- and occasionally even Luna Lovegood- and just let her go and leave her be.
"Okay." Steve asks, effectively ending his thought processes, "So which way?"
"Right." Hermione replies perfunctorily. They know this alley well- though to be fair, they were more accustomed to apparating here; "It's only a few blocks away- follow me." She moves forward three paces, pauses and turns back to stare at the group sternly.
"And for the love of God, try to be subtle," her eyes flit over Tony and Thor in particular, "There's only so much attention one can avert."
With that she twirls back around, the hem of her skirt (today a more modest height, just below the knees and much more to his friend's liking) twirling about her legs cheerily. They follow, Harry chasing up the rear. Visions of long-ago elementary school trips come to mind; though the image is somewhat marred by Thor's bulk (at least a head taller than himself) and Tony's slightly over-the-top shifty movements (which he suspects are more for Hermione's 'benefit' than his own).
It doesn't take long for Natasha to slow down and fall in step beside him.
"What was that she cast on us, before in the alleyway?" she asks quietly, for which he's grateful. The last thing they need right now was a bunch of irate Avengers on their backs all day.
He smiles at the woman who seems to terrify half of the Avengers team, deciding to be honest with her (probably a wise decision, really), "A notice-me-not charm. It essentially diverts attention away from our persons. It's not enough to be a true concealment- if someone were looking hard enough, they'd see you- but it will more than stand up to walking unnoticed through an extremely busy area.
"You all have quite public profiles- or so I've heard. It was going to be unlikely that we'd manage to walk through central London- especially with a group this size- without one of you being recognised."
She nods, apparently chewing on the information. He's almost surprised that she actually believes him. But then again, he's also been warned by Hermione that she's disconcertingly good at controlling her facial expressions and retrieving information, so it could well be a ruse and she's planning to kill him and hide his body in some grotty dumpster. She'd probably manage it too; without a wand he was about as harmful as pygmy puff (well, when compared to her). And yes, okay; technically he still had the elder wand at his disposal… in whatever form it was in by now- he'd stopped caring after the fourth (fifth?) time he'd snapped the thing in half. But really, that thing scared the bejeezus out of him, and if he were a gambling man, he'd say the thing was cursed. After all, how can anything good actually come from an artefact that was gifted to someone by Death?
But maybe he's reading too much into this situation.
"That would be an extremely useful spell," she says thoughtfully, scrutinising the people that walk past their large group unseeing, "it must be terribly easy to be a spy when you have magic."
He grins, "You have no idea."
Her eyes slide over to him and she smiles a wicked smile. He suddenly understands why everyone seems to be so afraid of her.
Hermione stops on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Greater Newport Street. The somewhat familiar sign of Quinto Bookshop sits above the storefront door. It's slightly brighter than he remembers it, the writing a different font; the door sporting a nicer paintjob; the windows- substantially cleaner- show off a larger selection of books than he'd seen the last time he'd walked past.
He watches his closest friend stare at the shopfront, knowing already what they're going to find only four stores down.
She marches forward, determination written firmly into the set of her shoulders and the brisk clack of her sensible heels on the pavement.
One: the art gallery with its door layered with out-of-date fliers an inch thick.
Two: the darkened inner recesses of a barbers shop. Though it seems that in this universe the owners had decided to expand to women's haircuts too.
Three: the no name bookshop advertising high quality second-hand books. A neon sign glows and hums against the glass. Its grimy green and red striped sail provides the store owner's phone number.
Four: Hermione's steps falter. He pushes through their 'escorts' (being sure to excuse himself from Agent Romanoff first) and she turns to look at him with resignation. Her eyes are so, so sad.
Four: an empty façade; rusted iron gating and shiny chains and locks blocking off another alley that leads to an empty courtyard.
"It's not here Harry." She says quietly, voice hitching in the middle. The Avengers wisely keep back.
He grasps her hand, squeezing it tightly, pushing away the guilt when she doesn't squeeze back. It's his fault she's here, his fault she's stranded in a world they shouldn't be in. He should have hidden better; should have found someone else to be his secret keeper, should have kept her out of it. Should have done so many things differently.
Should have; could have; would have.
There was no use dwelling on the hypothetical now. He'd like to think that he can be man enough in this teenagers body to push away the regret and meaningless guilt and recognise that Hermione was a smart girl; it had been her choice. And he knows- deep down where only he can see- that he's eternally grateful to be stranded in this world with a friend.
"Maybe it's still there," he says finally, "Maybe Diagon Alley is just through there."
He motions to the courtyard behind the bars with their joined hands. It could well be there still; he can see some bins and a large expanse of brick wall that could lead to magical London.
Hermione nods, refusing to look at him, "Maybe." She sounds doubtful, but lets go of his hand to draw her wand anyway. She whispers a shaky "Alohomora," at the shiny padlock. It clicks open with little resistance.
The Avengers don't protest when they untangle the padlock chain and open the iron grate door. Hermione's knuckles- still clutching at her wand- brush over the wrought-iron detailing as she walks through. Their eyes lock on a familiar wall- a familiar brick pattern (though there's no trash can for reference)- and she walks over to stand only a meter from the wall that should lead to their world; their life.
Harry stays where he is; the others mill around behind him- though Steve at least comes to stand by his side. He sends the man a grateful smile but his eyes are really only for the lonely figure of his friend.
Hermione raises her arm again. Her hand doesn't shake.
Tap, tap, tap, her wand goes from left to right on the bricks, guessing the right key.
There's a weighted pause. He can almost hear it now; the tell-tale grind and scrape of brick and brick and the hum of noise that extends from the growing portal.
The pause extends. A minute breaks. In desperation, she casts a diagnostic spell on the brickwork but there's no flare of light in response.
Hermione's shoulders- drawn so tight- fall. She sighs and tucks the wand back into her sling.
"You knew that this was likely." He says quietly to the defeated line of her back. She laughs bitterly and turns around, wiping at an eye as if to brush away unshed tears.
"Yes. I did. But sometimes being wrong isn't the worst thing that could happen."
Her footsteps echo in the enclosed courtyard as she walks around Harry and their escorts. She withdraws her wand again and summons a discarded flip-flop from the other side of the yard, "I'd like to be doubly sure though- portus- I want to check out Hogwarts. I think it would be definitive proof that there's no one here."
Clint moans in horror, "You mean we have to do it again?" Hermione raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him.
"Well, yes. And one to get back to America."
Tony snorts in amusement, "How else did you think we were getting back to the tower, Bird Brain?" The archer pouts, scuffing at the ground with his shoe childishly.
"Isn't there some other magical way of getting places that doesn't feel like shit?"
"Well, there is magic carpets, but they're classified as illegal vehicles in most countries…. From all the accidental deaths."
Clint just looks appalled, "Seriously? Nothing?"
Harry and Hermione shrug their shoulders in almost perfect unison.
"Not really, no. Convenience generally outweighs comfort."
Bruce rolls his eyes, "And isn't that just always the case."
Harry laughs, because really, there's not much else he can do. Hermione hovers the flip flop out in front of her.
"Now that we've got that out of the way, I'd really like to get going." Most of the team sigh like men sent forth to their execution. Clint looks particularly put out. Tony rubs his hands in excitement. Thor appears nonchalant. At least no one complains. Hermione nods, satisfied.
"Right then, once again, on the count of three.
"Uhh, just a clarification," interrupts Steve before she can get through the countdown, "Where exactly are we going this time?"
Hermione blushes, "Oh. Right… We're going to check out the coordinates of where Hogwarts should be."
"Northern Scotland, right?" Tony quips. Harry momentarily wonders how he should know that, until he remembers that he's likely to have gotten the information from Hermione. She nods, slightly mollified by his recall.
"Yes. It should be mostly inaccessible to Muggles, but it was the boarding school that most British magic users are sent to. It's not far from Hogsmeade, Britain's only purely wizarding village."
"So… lots of magic folk… unused to, and possibly hostile to Muggle interaction?" Steve surmises tentatively.
A tendon twitches in Hermione's neck as she grimaces, "If there are any, it's a possibility. To be fair though, most Muggles are unable to even reach the outer grounds of Hogwarts or Hogsmeade without being accompanied by a witch or wizard, so it's often a case of them just not being accustomed to interacting with Muggles."
"How do you manage that? I can't imagine keep out signs would be very effective." Bruce asks before Tony can.
"Muggle Repellent charms. First point of defence is memory alteration; Muggles are suddenly overcome with the thoughts that they've got something urgent to do back home. Turn off the iron, meet a friend at a café… things that can easily be explained as a trick of the mind when they get back to whatever it is they thought they needed to do."
Natasha grins devilishly "Once again, seeing the benefits of magic more and more for spy work."
"I know, right?" Hermione sends her a grin that's almost as scary, "Anyway, so second line of defence is illusory. For those Muggles determined enough to get through the implanted urges to run home, pretty much everything is just shown as ruins or nothing at all. Ninety-nine percent of Muggles are deterred by then. The others… well they just get their memories wiped- if they're even able to get through the basic wards. Which they can't."
Natasha and Clint eye Hermione's wand appreciatively. Apparently they're both impressed. Tony nods and smiles like he's impressed too, but Harry can see impatience in the shift of his feet and the tilt of his head. He wants to get going. The others just seem happy to get more information on their abilities.
"Can we go now?" Stark whines like a petulant child. Hermione raises an eyebrow and the flip flop in unison. He raises his arm as if to touch it before thinking better of it. Her other eyebrow rises.
"On the count of three, once again," she declares, eyeing the Avengers, "Unless someone else has a question?"
"Nope! No more questions!" Tony interrupts before anyone can actually say anything, sticking his arm out eagerly, "Right guys?" he sounds cheery, but there's a hint of steel in his voice (which Harry rather thinks doesn't really belong there) that is likely there to shut the others up. Most of them just roll their eyes.
"I'm sure the rest can be worked out when we get there," Natasha says quietly, casually tucking a hand into the back pocket of her jeans. He suspects she's storing a weapon there and tries not to take it personally.
Hermione doesn't seem to notice and contentedly recites the countdown again. They reach out (noticeably less enthusiastic this time), touch the portkey and are whisked off by their stomachs once again.
"Fuuuck why do we keep doing this?" Clint moans from the ground, rolling over onto his knees lethargically. Natasha and Tony are already up on their feet, taking stock of their new surroundings. Bruce is content to lie down for a while as he takes his bearings.
"It is me, or did it actually feel worse this time around?" Clint snorts.
Hermione frowns, "I doubt it. If anything, the Trans-Atlantic portkey should have felt worse because of the distance."
"Whatever." She rolls her eyes.
Steve climbs up, brushing the dirt from his trousers. They've landed on the side of the lake just outside the range of the school wards- or at least where they'd expect them to be. The castle can't been seen from where they are; it's a good half an hour's walk from here, the shoreline curving around behind them and ringed with thick forest, "So we're in…?"
"North Scotland. Hogwarts property… more or less."
"What are we looking for exactly?"
"A castle. You'd know it when you see it."
"I can't see anything but lake," Clint offers helpfully, "Also, it's kinda cold."
He's right there. North Scotland's not particularly known for its warm, balmy days. Nor its blue skies, evidently, because it's currently weighed down by grey clouds, low and ominous looking. He hopes it doesn't rain during their visit. As if to reinforce his worries, the breeze blows at them even stronger, cold and vicious and cutting straight through his jeans and t-shirt. He scowls.
"That's because it's over there." Hermione replies, pointing to the north and straight through the thick forest of trees that blocks their view. She resolutely ignores the freezing wind, eager to have the reconnaissance mission over and done with.
"How long a walk?" Steve asks, moving right to the water's edge in an attempt to see past the trees.
"Half an hour. But we're not far from the edge of the wards, so it wouldn't take long to know for sure if it's here or not."
"And how would we know?" Asks Tony, sounding slightly obnoxious. The corners of her lips turn upwards, as if she's enjoying some private joke (knowing her, she probably is).
"When you lot start worrying about the oven you've left on at home." Among other things.
The genius nods, considering the matter, "Fair enough."
"Mm," he can see the thought occurring to her already, the warning forming on her lips, "I should say, our Hogwarts had a long history of messing with many muggle technologies. Mechanical things are fine, but phones and the like won't work past a certain distance." She's warily eyeing Tony's chest as she speaks. Harry wonders why.
A muscle in the man's neck twitches and he rubs at his temples in frustration, "Couldn't- Queenie, couldn't you think to drop this bombshell on us before you dragged us here with no way of leaving?" She winces at his annoyance, but her resolve doesn't waver.
"We didn't know if you'd let us go. I thought you might feel threatened by the isolation and would stop us from checking it out. But we need to see if Hogwarts exists here, and you need a Wizard to get through the wards."
Tony stares flatly at the two of them, completely unimpressed, "We need to work out some ground rules you two."
The rest of the team are staring at them too. Harry feels properly chastised, though it had been Hermione's idea in the first place. It feels almost like they'd deliberately misled their hosts, though as Hermione had put it, they were only keeping certain elements out, to be released when necessary. Disconcertingly ruthless on their part, but necessary if they wanted to do the things that needed to be done. It still left him feeling dirty on the inside- Hermione hadn't looked any happier, but had called it unavoidable now that they were on their own. It was no different to obliviating and manipulating Muggles when they saw or heard the wrong things, he supposed.
Another gust of wind blows past them. Clint gives off a full-body shudder, "Ground rules later," he scowls, staring glumly up at the foreboding sky, "Right now, let's just get this over and done with. I want to get home to summer days that actually feel like summer."
Steve sighs, "I agree. The sooner we establish there's no Hogwarts, the better. Then we can talk about what you should or shouldn't do." Harry smiles at the super-soldier. He gives him a strained smile back and he feels all the more guilty for withholding information. "We'd best get on. Can we just follow the shore?"
Hermione nods and the superhero assemblage takes the cue from the Captain and walk on. Stark lags slightly behind to send a passing comment to his friend.
"You and I are having a little talk when we get back, Queenie. Don't go thinking that I don't know it was you who came up with that idea." He remarks quietly, the slightest hint of animosity in his voice. Hermione watches him stalk the waterline with a ponderous expression on her face.
"It's like he thinks I owe him something." She says quietly. Unfairly in Harry's opinion.
"We are staying in his tower. Under his hospitality. He probably does expect something from us. "
She gives him a troubled smile, "Whose side are you on?"
"Reason." The smile turns wry. She nudges him with her shoulder as she walks past. He strangles the wince at the jarring of his newly grown bones.
He laughs, and follows the woman, trying very hard not to think about what it is that's unlikely to be waiting for them at the end of their walk.
Chapter 18: Luminiferous Aether
Tony is pissed off.
Not that Steve can blame him, really. Harry and Hermione had willingly gone and pulled the wool over his eyes on more than a few occasions. Over everyone's eyes really; though Tony seems the most miffed. The rest of his team (including himself to be honest) seemed to share a mix of mild frustration and disgruntlement, but Tony more or less refuses to talk to the pair at all on their walk to the edge of what should be the wards of the castle.
Especially after he worked out that he probably wouldn't be able to pass through them because of his arc reactor. Steve hadn't missed the way it had flickered on the day Harry had tried to touch his wand, and he's been balancing between concern and curiosity (though not as concerned as he probably should be, mostly because Tony has the resilience of a cockroach) as to how it's going to go with the magic users now sharing the tower. Natasha had tried to comfort him by pointing out the natural beauty of the lake, but the genius-come-billionaire appeared content to remain in his sulk, firmly ignoring the wizard taking the lead or the witch who'd fallen into step with Bruce at the back of their group.
Of course, if the going trend was anything to go by, there would probably be no reason for them to leave Tony behind in order to investigate the castle. So far he'd felt no compulsive urge to run back to the tower and turn off the oven, which Harry had said should have come into effect by now. None of the others are exhibiting any effects either, which was probably indicative of its general not-being-there-ness.
Harry seems to be thinking along the same lines too, if his listless shuffle of hands in pockets and longing glances at the lake are anything to go by. It's a very nice lake, Steve thinks. Deep and dark and flat as a tack, reflecting the miserable grey clouds hanging low in the sky and turning them into something that actually looks quite pleasant- especially with the sharp lines of the hills in the distance cutting through water. The forest is something else entirely- dark, seedy and unnervingly quiet- it reminds him of the Mirkwood from his old Hobbit book- lost long ago along with the rest of his belongings. He's rather glad they're walking along the shoreline, images of wandering from elf-made paths and being hopelessly lost filling his mind.
Harry draws to a stop and he almost walks straight into him, mind filled with dark imaginings.
"What is it?"
Harry doesn't turn to acknowledge him, humming some absent reply. His eyes- vicious green, like paint straight out of the tube- scan across their path and rove over the lake. His chews on his bottom lip, as though desperately trying to hold back his anxiousness and dismay.
"It-" he pauses to lick his lips, "It should start here. The wards. But I can't feel anything; not a shred of magic." He casts his eyes to Steve, black brows drawn together. "I don't think there's anything here; or anywhere." Steve claps a hand over the man-who-looks-like-a-boy's shoulder, offering him a slight smile of sympathy. Of all the people in their groups, he's probably the best to know the feeling.
"Join the club." He murmurs, thinking back to his months of shock and grief after waking, constantly searching for things that were no longer there; friends, films, music- even his favourite diner on a secluded corner of Brooklyn. Everything that he'd known, everything he'd held dear and cherished- especially during the war- had disappeared. It had been like waking to a new universe too.
Harry's lips part, drawing in air and his brows draw closer. Steve can see the question forming on his lips, but it doesn't feel like a tale to tell the wizard now, when they were supposed to be looking for his old school. He gives the man another smile, "I'll tell you later." He says before the query can burst from his lips.
Harry sighs and turns back to look at the lake, "Yeah. Alright."
Hermione draws up to them, "Harry?"
"It's not there 'Mione."
She sighs through her nose and looks out across the lake. "I know. But still…" she smiles wryly, shaking her head, "It was a vain hope."
"Mmm." Harry hums in agreement, staring down their path with a pensive look on his face, "Do you want to still check out the grounds?"
She nods. Steve agrees; deserted castle grounds sound pretty cool to him (provided there's even a castle to check out). Maybe if he can work out how to use that camera on his phone…
Hermione, oblivious to his ponderings, turns back to the team waiting curiously behind them, "You're in luck Tony." She says, sticking on a slightly forced cheery tone, "You won't have to wait outside the wards after all!"
He glowers at her; she smiles sweetly back and he looks away, folding his arms childishly. Still content to sulk then. She turns back around and continues on, Harry stumbling forward to catch her. Steve follows at a sedate pace and Bruce falls into step quickly.
"He's got a point you know." The scientist remarks quietly, as soon as the magic users were out of earshot. Steve turns his head to look at him, "They need to stop leaving us in the dark on things. You can't build a trusting relationship on shaky building blocks."
"But they don't trust us."
"Well of course not." Bruce eyes the pair in question, obviously thinking on their discussion from the previous night, "We're intimately tied to SHIELD; a huge, faceless organisation with more secrets than you can- or should, for that matter- poke a stick at. Hell, I don't think even Natasha and Clint trust it fully. But they do need to start trusting us."
Steve has only a vague idea of what SHIELD might do with Harry and Hermione should they push too many buttons, but what he's got is not good. The Director was nothing if not ruthless, and his uppers were even worse. "So we need to show them that we're not really part of SHIELD."
Bruce shrugs, "I'm sure Tony will manage that all on his own the next time he ignores SHIELD protocol and hacks into their mainframe- for whatever reason. Half of us at least aren't at SHIELD's beck and call." He gives Steve a pointed look and he shrugs back at him, "Hermione's already aware of it, so I don't think it's a matter of convincing them of that. Maybe it's something more like showing them we have their best interests at heart."
"I'd say so. Does SHIELD?… Maybe."
They come around the curve of the lake at that point and fall silent as the other half of the valley comes into view. Harry and Hermione are waiting for them twenty feet away, staring out at the ruinous remains of a castle, sitting on a cleared hill. Thick forest rings the slope, cut off abruptly by a line of emerald grass that rises to lap at the foot of the crumbling masonry, the golden heads of the taller grass rippling in the breeze like the whitecaps of waves.
They're holding the other's hand like their life depends on it- knuckles white, fingers digging into skin. He can't stop the stab of pity at the sight. This is probably more confirmation than their visit to that funny little courtyard had been, and infinitely more tragic; he can tell. It had been the same for him after all.
Tony and Thor pull up beside him, Tony's eyes are glued to the silhouette of Hermione, face inscrutable. Thor regards the pair with a saddened expression and after a moment's hesitation, continues on to clap Harry on the shoulder softly. Clint and Natasha watch the goings on from the shade (or as close you can get to shade when the sky is that grey) of the forest.
"I am sorry, Harry, Hermione. It saddens me greatly to see that there are none of your kind on this Earth." Harry nods mutely at the condolence, glancing upwards to the Asgardian. Hermione ignores both of them.
"It was worth a try. At least now we-" he breaks off as Hermione lets go of his hand to walk onwards, back rigid and straight. The wizard sighs and gives Thor another strained smile. "At least now we know." He finishes. He huffs a laugh, turning back to watch his friend. "And anyway. It may be that we're not as alone as we'd first thought."
Tony perks up at that bombshell, "What?" he exclaims, moving forward to stand on Harry's other side.
Harry gives him a sheepish look, "Hermione and I suspect that a friend of ours- who was sent through the Veil seventeen years ago may still be alive."
"Really?" Tony murmurs, pulling out his phone almost on reflex, "And what was their name?"
Harry scrutinises the older man curiously, "Sirius Black. He was my Godfather- before he died." His face turns dark, "Or at least, before we thought he'd died." Tony's fingers are already speeding across the surface of his phone (another thing that blew his mind; touch screens and mobile phones in general).
"You got a picture?" Tony asks, eyes scanning his phone.
"No." The wizard replies tightly, a pained expression on his face, "They were all left behind."
Tony huffs a sigh and slips his phone back into his pocket, dejected. "We'll have to find him back home." Harry stares at the billionaire, a small smile touching his lips.
"I'd appreciate that," he murmurs, "Thank-you."
Tony shrugs, feigning nonchalance, "It's fun. Makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes." He gestures to Hermione, some distance away now, "Shall we?"
And so his funk is forgotten.
Natasha breaks off from her place with Clint to jog after Hermione. She links arms with her good one, offering no words of comfort. Steve's touched at the move nonetheless. For Natasha, that was about as good as it got. Their group watch the two women walk on silently, each consumed by their thoughts.
"So what exactly is the Veil?" Bruce asks Harry some five minutes later. "I mean, you've talked about it plenty of times, and it's pretty obvious that it's a portal… but you two talk as though it's got some sort of dark history behind it."
Harry grimaces, looking at the ground. "It does. For a long time it was thought to be a gateway into the afterlife; or more to the point, the realm of the dead. It's strange… certain people can hear voices passing through it- like second-hand whispers. It's like this weird, tattered sheet of fabric, held up by a stone archway, and it flutters like there's some sort of wind blowing through it; really, really eerie. Anything that's sent through it disappears, so centuries ago the Ministry decided to use it as a way of putting people to death. It was quick, it was painless and best of all, it never left a body behind to clean up.
"Of course none of this was helped by the fact that no one actually knew where the Veil came from. There are no accounts of who made it, when it was made or what its actual purpose was. It was all just a lot of guesswork." He kicks at a stone angrily, sending it flying into the lake "At some point the Ministry removed the death penalty and replaced it with a Dementor's kiss, which is infinitely worse, in my opinion. But you can't just get rid of the Death Chamber.
"They founded the Unspeakables around it, with the express intent of researching it. Over the years though it became a sort of on-and-off venture- it was too easy to get distracted." He smirks, "Wizards can make some very interesting things. Plenty of stuff to keep the department occupied with- and it didn't help that their grasp of the Veil was fundamentally flawed. According to Hermione, it wasn't until the 1950s that they started thinking that maybe it wasn't actually a portal to the realm of death, but another world- kind of like a permanent wormhole.
"Then the Unspeakables got distracted again by the various wars that came along and it was abandoned again; didn't get picked up until Hermione and her team restarted it. They'd only just proposed it as an inter-dimensional portal when the Ministry forcibly canned the project, for whatever obscure reason." Suddenly he sniggers, a small skip in his step as he eyes his friend paired up with Natasha, "You should have seen her when she found out." He whispers in a conspiratory tone. "She was fucking livid. Took two bottles of Ogden's to calm her down enough to tell me what they'd done. At first I'd thought they'd fired her."
Steve is guessing that 'Ogdens' is some form of alcohol.
"Are you telling me you were sending convicted criminals through to our universe?" Bruce asks, appalled.
Harry shrugs, sheepish, "For centuries, yeah."
The scientist rubs tiredly at his face in despair, "Jesus Christ."
The wizard giggles, stuffing his scarred hands into his pockets, "Amen, brother."
Steve rolls his eyes.
Tony looks thoughtfully out at the mirror-like surface of the lake, "We should probably look into what happened to them over here- the criminals, that is. There's probably at least one account in the history books of someone encountering a mad wizard turning up out of nowhere."
Harry grins, "I'd hope so."
Hermione and Natasha wait for them at the bottom of the hill, where forest makes way for grass. Steve's fascinated to find that from there the castle seems even more impressive. The mottled black and grey stone construction looms over them, each block at least half his height and as wide as he was tall. In parts the roof has caved in, but most of it's still intact and the walls stand tall and strong. From where they stand it feels as though even the Hulk wouldn't manage to knock it down. Harry and Hermione stare up at the wreck with a shared look of wistful longing.
"God," Hermione murmurs moments later, rubbing away at a stray tear, "I didn't think it would still be so beautiful."
"It still looks like Hogwarts." Harry breathes, awed. He suddenly pulls a face, eyes glued to the tallest tower of the building (though there'd clearly been several at one point but many had fallen; it almost seemed like the castle had been made from an eclectic collection of round and square towers, courtyards and thick walls, with no true sense of coherency. It probably should have been ugly, but instead gave off a certain air of eccentricity that Steve quite enjoyed), "We used to live in that one." He points out, "Griffindor Tower."
They walk up the hill, being careful to avoid the fallen masonry that hides in the grass; the two magic users all but running up the increasingly steep slope. Steve and his team follow at a more sedate pace, happy to let the pair reacquaint themselves with the structure.
When they reach the top, they find Hermione sitting down, leaning against the ancient wall and staring with a closed-off expression out at the Black Lake. Harry is pressed up against the dark stone, cheek pressed, arms outstretched, eyes closed. Steve is momentarily transfixed by his expression of utmost concentration, as if he were attempting to make himself part of the wall (which, when he thinks about it, the wizard could probably manage). His fingers itch for pen and paper at the sight.
A moment's stillness, the not-so young man's eyebrows drawn together, lips downturned, breath held; like a frozen image. Then it breaks, vivid green flickering back into existence and air leaving lungs in a heartfelt sigh. He draws away, fingers lingering on the weathered masonry.
"There's something there," he says, pensive, eyes landing on Steve, "But it's ancient and faded. It'll probably be gone in a hundred years' time." Once upon a time, one hundred years would have felt like an eternity to Steve, but since waking from seven decades of sleep, he's reprioritised.
Hermione looks up sharply, reluctantly curious, "What do you think?"
He frowns, pressing a hand back against the rock, "I don't know… it's not active. A ward, I'd guess… But a really, really old one. It must have been strong in its day, but there's been nothing here to maintain it for a long time. It's just a tingling of something there now." He turns back, cautiously hopeful, "Any of you happen to know anything about this place?" Steve shakes his head; medieval English castles hadn't exactly been an interest of his in the thirties and forties.
"Wouldn't we have said something by now if we did?" Tony asks peevishly. Harry pokes his tongue out at him and Hermione ignores them to imitate Harry's previous position, apparently determined to find the same thing.
"It was worth a try!"
Tony snorts and crosses his arms and Harry turns back to the wall, effectively ignoring him. His neck snaps back to stare up at the pitted expanse of stone. "It's funny. Like Hogwarts, but not. The stone feels wrong… rougher. And see those parapets?" he points at the masonry in question, directly above them, "They're not quite right. Too… square. It feels like they're not tall enough. And the windows are too small. It's like… it's like an imitation that's been lost in translation."
Steve wishes he had a point of reference for the man's observances. His words mean little to him with no image of the original to compare it to. All he can do is nod as though he really knows what he's talking about.
Hermione pushes away from the wall, frustrated and put out, "I can't feel anything!" She pouts, slightly envious, "You were always more sensitive to that kind of thing." Harry sends her a sheepish smile, rubbing at his neck.
"There must be something inside." She muses, "Wards can't survive extended periods of time without something to anchor them with. A keystone maybe… We need to find a way inside. It's strange though… I wouldn't have expected there to be anyth-" She turns as if to walk around the castle and cuts off her speech abruptly. They follow her line of sight on reflex.
A girl, only a few years younger than Harry appears, stands on the corner of their stretch of wall. A clunky camera hangs heavily from her neck, its straps hidden by long red braids split down either side of her neck. She looks mildly surprised, and curious by no small amount.
"You weren't on the bus." She remarks in an accusing tone.
Harry steps forward slightly to meet her, put on the defensive, "How did you get here?" He sounds almost… territorial to Steve in that moment; like a religious zealot catching a trespasser on sacred ground.
"Uhh… the bus." Her words have an inflection common for the southern states. "How did you get here? I didn't see any cars in the car park."
"We flew here." Tony interjects smoothly, moving forwards to draw attention away from the wizard. A moment's blankness, then the flicker or recognition sparks in her eyes- he'd taken his disguise off as soon as they'd gotten out of the public eye (they all had, which seems to be quickly turning into a bad idea).
"You're Tony Stark." She points out calmly. Tony gives her a shark-like smile and Steve can see the girl forcible stopping herself from immediately taking a photograph. He's mildly impressed by her restraint.
"That I am." He smirks, but their intruder's attention has already passed on, her mouth falling open.
"Oh my God." She breathes, "You're them, aren't you?" Out of the corner if his eye, he can see Harry and Hermione slowly back away, moving to shelter behind the towering figures of Thor and himself. The girl lets out an awed giggle, "Can I- can I take your picture?"
Steve and Tony share a look. Tony's up for it- Steve can see it in his eyes- but the implications for inevitably turning up on the internet leave him wary. Though he finds it unlikely that anyone would question their visit here (past mere bewilderment), he suspects their guests might have an objection to being placed permanently on the global network. Fury at least, would likely be displeased at the destruction of their anonymity. As it was, the director was probably unhappy at them leaving in the first place as a large group. Steve's not naïve enough to imagine that he wouldn't have rejected the request were it not for his desire to see their group 'bond' (which was still speculation, but extremely likely in Steve's mind).
"They'd rather you didn't sweet-heart. They're all a bit camera shy." Tony drawls, skilfully directing the attention back onto himself. He smirks, "But you're free to take one with me."
The girl looks slightly crestfallen, but takes in in stride. After all, Tony was still Tony Stark; the Iron Man and an active member of the Avengers. It's not as if she were being denied the privilege completely. She smiles at the billionaire, "That sounds awesome."
"What's your name?"
Tony smiles again and motions to the camera hanging from her neck, "Well Sarah, why don't you give your camera to Bruce over there and he can take the picture for you." the girl all but throws her chunky camera at Bruce.
"Thank-you so much!" she breathes, sidling up to Tony. He grins at her again and slings his arm around his shoulder. The girls looks like she's about ready to faint with awe.
"Smile for the camera," Tony murmurs, bringing up his hand, his index and middle drawn out to form a V. She complies, though her eyes are wide like a deer caught in headlights. The camera flashes and Bruce hands the camera back quickly.
"Oh God, thank-you!" she says again, cradling her camera as if it were some holy relic as Tony moves away, "Cassidy is gonna flip!"
"Great, Great!" Tony rubs his hands together eagerly, but his face is relatively serious, "Say, do you think you could tell us what you know about this place? We just randomly ended up here on a whim."
"Oh." Sarah falters, eyes flashing over to the castle walls, "Well…" she scratches the back of her head absently, "It's a weird castle, apparently. I don't know; Mom thought it was a cool concept- I just came for the pictures." She waves her camera around to prove her point.
"Is there someone who could give us some information? Your tour guide maybe?"
She nods, "She gave us some big speech about Hogwort on the bus, but-"
"Hogwort?" Hermione interjects, pushing her way through her meat shield of Avengers, "Don't you mean Hogwarts?"
Sarah frowns and shakes her head, "No… it's definitely called Hogwort- Oh!" her face brightens, "I have a some info here somewhere!" she rummages through the satchel that slings down low on her hips and pulls out a crumpled sheet of yellow paper triumphantly, "They gave it to us at the start of the tour."
She hands it to Hermione, who takes it gratefully, "Thank-you."
The girl shrugs, "No worries. Mom's got a copy of it anyway, so you can keep it."
Hermione hums appreciatively, but her attention is already on coloured sheet of paper, eyes rapidly scanning the information.
Sarah shuffles her feet, unsure of herself now that her usefulness has passed. After a moment she squares her shoulders and sends the group a smile.
"I should get going." She says graciously, "They told us not to go around here in the first place, but I couldn't resist." Tony laughs at that.
"I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference." He quotes. Steve smiles at the poetry reference. He'd always liked Frost.
The girl laughs, "That it has, Mister Stark." And with that she turns around, extracting herself before it could get awkward.
"Thank-you!" Steve calls after her; she sends them another smile from over her shoulder as she turns the corner.
"What does it say?" Harry turns on Hermione as soon as the girl had disappeared. Hermione looks up, lips pursed unhappily.
"I can safely say that it isn't this universes' version of Hogwarts," she replies slowly, absently passing it onto Tony's grabbing hands, "It is an imitation of it though; I'm quite certain… I suspect that someone sent through the Veil made it as some reminder of home, maybe. It explains why there are subtle differences to it.
"I mean, listen to this-" she steals the page back off Tony, "Hogwort Castle- note the name there. I think it might have been lost in translation at some point- is one of the best kept secrets of medieval Britain. To the architectural buff it is an interesting but not unusual combination of structures from various periods built over the last; the result of centuries worth of growth and technological development. Hogwort Castle-" she grimaces at the name, like it doesn't sit right with her, "-however, is different. There is clear archaeological and historical evidence that its entire structure was built in the late eleventh to mid-twelfth centuries.
"Whilst imitations of older architectural styles are uncommon, they are certainly not unheard of- though they are exceedingly rare prior to the thirteenth century, and most follow a single design; making Hogwort an obvious outlier. Its seventy years of construction has baffled historians; the average duration for a castle of Hogwort's magnitude should be twice that. Its speedy completion should not have been possible with the construction methods of the eleventh and twelfth century.
"Furthermore, the name 'Hogwort Castle', which is documented to have been around since its conception, did not originate from its founders, nor the area in which it resides. One could imagine that it bears resemblance to the plant, Hogwort. Hogwort however is a North American herb and was not discovered and named until the early seventeen hundreds." Hermione purses her lips again, sending a look at Harry.
"This is the most interesting part, in my eyes: Alderich Bolton commissioned the construction of Hogwort Castle in 1089. Research of historical records can find no record of him or his family prior to its construction, however there are numerous mentions of him after its completion, with several notable historical figures of the time mentioning a young man of no consequence who came into a great deal of wealth in a short amount of time. Hogwort Castle was inhabited by the Bolton's until the last of the line passed away in 1675. It has remained mysteriously uninhabited since."
She raises an eyebrow, smiling in amusement, "What do you think? A Veil traveller with an attachment to Hogwarts? Passed through and decided to make the most of his new circumstances?"
Harry snorts and sends a look back up to the castles parapets, "Explains the residual magic," he rests his hand against the stone again, "I'd like to get inside and check it out." Hermione smiles, pleased that he mentioned it.
"What about the tourists?" Natasha asks, quirking a delicate brow, "I can't imagine their guide would let anyone inside."
Harry opens his mouth to say something but stops short. He frowns slightly, "We could cast a notice-me-not charm. It averts attention away from your person. You're still visible, it's just that people's eyes are repelled from the place where you're standing."
Natasha smirks slightly, but nods, "That sounds okay," she drawls quietly, obviously amused by something. Harry shoots her a small smile.
"Sounds good enough to me!" Tony remarks, spreading his arms wide, "Bring it."
Hermione gives the man a long suffering sigh, though she's clearly amused by his antics. She looks at the rest of the group, "Do you mind? You won't feel anything different, and you'll still be able to see each-other. It's not permanent either; it will either wear off or be taken off."
Steve nods his permission, as do his companions, and she pulls her wand from her sling. A soft murmur of words and a wave of her wand and the spell is cast, apparently. It all seems unfairly simple in Steve's opinion, how easily things came to those with magic.
"Well," he murmurs, slightly unsettled, "lead on."
And lead on they do, with purposeful and unwavering strides, winding through the fallen masonry like they'd been there their whole life. Which, Steve guesses, isn't entirely untrue, just in a different capacity. They pass several camera happy tourists as they go, and he's simultaneously unnerved and fascinated by the way they seem to completely overlook the large collection of superheroes. In a way, it reminds of him of life in Brooklyn, before Doctor Erskine and the army changed him. It would almost be nostalgic, he thinks, were it not for the fact that this wasn't Brooklyn and he'd been displaced from his own time by some seventy years now.
The entrance, when they finally reach it (Hogwort Castle was huge. Way bigger than what he'd imagined it to be… though it could just feel that way because of how close they walked to the wall), is nothing short of very impressive. He yearns for his sketchpad at the sight of the pointed arch entrance; tall enough for even the Hulk to walk through and flanked on both sides by a mass of chimeras, features still sharp despite being (presumably) over 900 years old. The solemn mien of their faces seem to emanate an alertness that shouldn't be there, as if they were watching him. It secretly terrifies him.
Harry ignores the eerie statues, eyes focussed intensely on the sunlit innards of the castle that lie beyond the thin chained fence with its DANGER: NO Unauthorised Access sign strung from wall to wall. Hermione is not so unobservant however, and eyes the statues warily.
"Do you feel it too?" he asks the witch softly. She nods slowly.
"Yes… it's weak. I suppose once upon a time they would have been part of the castle's security." She smiles wryly, "I guess we should be grateful that they can't talk… anymore."
He stares after her in horror as she walks past him and casually bypasses the barrier, as though it were meant only for lesser mortals. Harry copies her seconds later.
Talking Statues. Bloody hell, what can't they do? Magic just all seemed so overpowered and intrinsically unfair in the order of things.
Tony pats him sympathetically (condescendingly) on the shoulder as he, Thor and Bruce follow the magic users, "It's okay Gramps. At least we've got the two of them to keep us safe," he jokes.
Steve scowls, but takes a moment to compose himself. It wouldn't do to lose his temper, not with the shaky grounds of trust they were trying to create. He could get over his aversion to the seemingly unlimited nature of magic, just as he had with Bruce and his anger management issues. Just as he had the acknowledged existence of immortal aliens and the ever growing population of mutants, with their extraordinary abilities and troubled evolution (though at least mutants seemed to only have a handful of fantastical talents, instead of this bottomless pit of power). It would just be another metaphorical notch to add to his growing awareness of the twenty-first century.
He follows the retreating figures of his team mates, waiting for him patiently on the other side of the chain. Natasha and Clint remain where they are, content to keep watch, as it were (more likely, Clint wants to climb the castle and Natasha wants to watch, but he won't pull them up on it; that's Fury's job, if it were anyone's).
Steve half expects to feel something as he crosses the castle's threshold; some kind of profound change in the atmosphere, as if he were walking onto sacred ground. It's dishearteningly uneventful. There's no marked change in temperature; no rumblings of static flowing crackling through the air; no sudden shift in perceptions. Nothing. Nothing to suggest that he'd just walked into a fortress of memories and magic.
He pushes down the puzzling feelings of disappointment and surveys the entrance hall. Sunlight shines down weakly through the vast opening of sky where a roof should once have been. A grand staircase grows up to the second floor on the right side of the room, its carefully carved balustrades curving around on each side to guard the mezzanine floor and its darkened doorways. Two darkened rooms hide underneath the balcony. The stairs just seem to go on forever and he feels awed and humbled at the sight.
In front of him is another doorway, almost as large as the one he'd just passed through. The doors on this one are still intact; massive oak creations carved with the splintering remains of great battles and mystical creatures. They are infinitely beautiful and heart-wrenching. To be left to such disrepair feels almost as if it were physically hurting him. He wonders why Heritage hadn't bothered to restore the place. Surely they'd make a killing from a place like this as a tourist destination.
Harry and Hermione are waiting patiently for them beside the ancient doors that hang open just enough for them to slip through. Hermione twirls her wand between her fingers absentmindedly. She turns and glides into the dark room beyond as they draw closer wordlessly; Harry rolls his eyes, but there's a small smile resting on his lips. He nods silently, indicating for them to go through.
Steve complies, curious. The doors smell like mould and freshly cut timber and something close to incense. The inside of here is dark and eerie, and the overcast nature of the sunlight today doesn't let much of it through the numerous windows that span both sides of the great hall. He can imagine there being stained glass in them once, but if there were, they'd broken a long time ago. As his eyes adjust to the dim lighting, it becomes increasingly clear just how big the hall actually is. He stares at the ribs of the vaulted ceiling, grimy and musty from centuries of abandonment. He can just imagine the spider's webs.
"What was this place?" he whispers; awed. He knows the answer of course- or at least, he knows the answer of what it was in Harry and Hermione's universe, but to see it vacant and neglected; it's hard to see it as anything more than a tragic husk. Something that should be, but is not.
"The Great Hall. Students would have their meals in here, in tables that ran from end to end. The ceiling was enchanted to show the sky; when I first arrived here, it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," Harry replies with a hint of tragic nostalgia in his voice, "The teachers would sit down that end," he points to the far end of the hall where Hermione is making her way to, her wand pointed straight ahead. The super-sized statue of a robed man, his hands resting on a bastard sword, stands before the wall, centred beneath a glassless window that almost reaches to the ceiling.
"This castle," Thor rumbles solemnly behind them, "Feels wrong. As though something were missing. I feel the magic now, and it is seeking something."
Harry hums, "I can feel it too. It can sense our magic, I think."
"Should we be worried?" Steve asks, glancing at the walls now as though half-expecting them to suddenly close on them.
Harry shakes his head, "No... I don't think so. I think it's just… missed magic, is all."
"Please tell me this castle isn't sentient."
Harry sends him a helpless look and Steve's suddenly overcome with the desire to bash his head against something hard and flat- the wall looks like a good contender, actually. Harry laughs at the look that must be showing on his face, "It's not like it's going to eat you Steve."
He glares at the ceiling that now feels too close to comfort, "I'm sure." Harry just shakes his head.
"C'mon," he grabs his arm and drags him down the hall, down to Hermione. His hand is cool and rough, "Just stick with us and you'll be fine." Steve somehow doubts that, but chooses to say nothing. And really, he shouldn't need reassurances- he was a supersoldier.
Hermione is kneeling at the foot of the statue when they reach her. Her lips are moving furiously, brow drawn in concentration as she waves her little stick about- the occasional light spurting forth and making her frown even harder. When he looks closer, he realises that the statue stands on a podium of black granite, carved into sharp relief with runes that cover almost every inch of it.
"That's the keystone, isn't it?"
Harry nods, eyes glued to the stone, "That's it," he offers in a strangled voice, "It's no ring of stones like Hogwarts, but it's done well enough for nine hundred years."
"It's beautiful." He's not lying either. He might be leery about magic, but he can't help but appreciate the uncanny beauty of the stone. At the very least, he can enjoy the craftsmanship.
"I give it fifty years. Sixty; tops," Hermione announces, abruptly standing up. Her wand arm falls to her side, "Keystones like this weren't made to last indefinitely- they decay over time with nothing to feed them. As it is, the wards it maintains are severely degraded. The runes designed to protect the castle from the old age failed first- centuries ago. The spells fuelling the chimeras outside went next. There aren't any runes to prevent muggles from entering the ground on here- which explains the tourists- but there's something almost like a notice-me-not charm written into the wards that's been slowly disintegrating ever since the castle was abandoned. I'd say that's why it's been uninhabited since the 1600s."
"Do you think you could repair them?" Hermione shakes her head, staring down at the keystone mournfully.
"Not without a massive amount of magic… which makes me wonder how the Bolton's managed to make it in the first place actually… but there'd be no point. And besides that, I think the sudden restoration of the wards might spark suspicions in a fair amount of people; especially if they've booked a visit and keep on 'forgetting' that the castle is there."
Harry nods as though her answer didn't surprise him. It probably didn't.
"I guess that's that then," he says, staring wistfully up at the ceiling. He huffs a laugh, sending Hermione a wry look, "Let's go home then."
Steve wisely says nothing about his choice of words.
It's progress at least.
Chapter 19: Totally Worth It
'Mapping out some ground rules', as Tony was quick to find out, was very much a give and take process. Harry and Hermione gave as good as they got, and weren't afraid to lay out their own set of demands, requests and rules. Included in their demands were new identities and social security numbers- ones without their last names- and the freedom to leave the tower at any time, but they were only two on a rather long list. He and his teammates had grudgingly acceded to most of them- Harry and Hermione were nothing if not reasonable, thank Christ- and Steve and Natasha in particular had made an executive decision of behalf of SHIELD for many of their terms, but they'd unanimously put their 'foot' down when it came to allowing the pair to find their own place to live.
That, as Tony had so succinctly put it, would be a very bad, and very stupid idea.
In return, the inter-dimensional travellers had agreed to never cast as spell on them without their permission, unless the situation was dire. Any of their 'off-site' activities were to be approved of at least two Avengers members and any and all of their future associates would be subject to background investigations by Tony and/or SHIELD.
Harry- in a fit of mild irritation- had pointed out that neither he nor Hermione were children, and that acting like over-protective parents was unnecessary, but Tony- feeling daring- rolled his eyes at the wizard and told him to deal with it; they were on probation after all. The amused twitch of Hermione's lips is totally worth the subsequent death stares.
By four-thirty, the afternoon after their adventures through Britain, most of them had reached the critical point in their relationship where tensions had simmered down to a casual wariness, as Harry and Hermione grew familiar with their housemates. It was about bloody time, as far as Tony was concerned. Queenie had been familiar with most of them for just over a week already, and Harry had been awake for just on five days. More than enough time in his books to grow supremely comfortable in their presence.
Bruce was making dinner (for once) with the help of Hermione. The pair were conversing quietly over some-such or other- Tony didn't really care after eavesdropping for the first five minutes when it turned out to mostly be about things to do in the city.
Besides, Harry's detailed retell of his first Hogwarts letter to an enraptured Steve was far more entertaining. Tony listens into the tale with growing amusement as he pretends to read some business documents Pepper had forced on him last night. It was a great tale, he'd admit to that, though part of him wondered if it was all true, or if Harry had seen fit to add a great deal of embellishment in there. Because really; a half-giant? How did the mechanics of that even work? The prospects terrified him.
Literally, terrified him.
It's on that note that Tony stops pretending to be reading those stupid, boring contracts and tries to distract himself with a preliminary search for that godfather of Harry's- stoically ignoring Hermione's laughter from the kitchen as he does.
And that's precisely when the alert decides to pop up on his screen.
He unconsciously sits up straighter, latching onto the alert and bypassing SHIELD's security protocols to bring up the data in seconds.
The data he'd helped Bruce and Doctor Foster analyse.
The data which they'd used to calibrate sensors from all over the world to monitor extra-dimensional activity.
The data which was now being duplicated by a reading received just under three minutes ago on the east coast of Australia.
He hadn't expected that. Sure, he'd made sure tabs were being kept on any future activities, but… well, shit; he actually expected anything else to come through. The Death Eaters were supposedly hell bent of world domination and resurrecting wizard Hitler- jumping through something that was presumed to be a one way ticket to the afterlife was hardly was an intelligent career move. Even if they were in pursuit of prisoners.
His phone rings before he has the chance to pass on the news to the others. He picks it up with considerably steady hands, not bothering to let it ring through to Jarvis as he normally would. He knows without a shadow of a doubt who it is.
"We've got another one."
He pouts at the sound of Agent Hill's voice, "What? Mama Bear's too busy to talk to us?"
A heavy sigh, "Another one's come through the Veil, Stark."
He smirks, "I know."
"We thought you might." She sounds disapproving.
"And what do want us to do about it? They're kind of far away."
"Stay in the Tower, for now. We don't know if they're hostile or not. The Director is sending a dispatch team there now to assess the situation."
Bag and tag more like, but Tony won't hold it against them. Hopefully the fucker tried his hand at sky-diving like Potter- only with less success, "Permission to pass it on?"
Hill snorts in derision, "Like you wouldn't have told them anyway, but granted."
"I'm wounded, Agent Hill. Are you questioning my integrity?"
"Among other things… Don't let them out of the Tower, Stark." The line goes dead and he rolls his eyes, taking note of the four sets of eyes now focussed intently on his person. He slips the phone back into his pocket slowly, playing out his nonchalance at the situation.
"What's wrong?" Hermione asks, watching him carefully.
"Agent Hill called-" Tony starts.
"-SHIELD called." Steve corrects. That man can read too well into a situation sometimes. Tony frowns at him for the interruption.
"Semantics. Someone else has passed through the Veil. They want you to stay on the down-low until they know if they're a threat or not."
Hermione goes very still, face unusually blank. Slowly, it morphs, shifting from realisation to disbelief to anger before finally resting on amusement. She lets out a hysterical laugh and her hand flies up to her mouth.
"What?" Harry asks, concerned. She laughs again, face quickly going red with the effort of holding back her laughter.
"It's- oh God- haha- it's Malfoy!" She bursts into laughter then, doubling over at the apparent hilarity of the situation. Tony doesn't miss the bitter and vindictive sound to it.
Harry frowns at her in confusion as she shakily sits down on the closest chair, unable to stop, "How do you know?
She slowly calms down, thought the occasional giggle prevails. "Think about it- heh- I've been here for just over a week- haha- it-it took a week for the Veil to spit me out in the first place, when there'd only been a few moments between our entry.
"And who was right behind the two of us?"
Harry's eyes widen, "Merlin's saggy balls."
"Yes! The idiot got sent in after us!"
The guffaws that escape his shocked face are unnervingly similar to Hermione's.
Chapter 20: Water, Water Everywhere
I have some extra information about the Great Expectations Universe for those who are interested at the end of this chapter, Including what happened to the previous Veil travellers and the like.
Draco Malfoy's first thoughts when he passes through the Veil are- most eloquently- holy shit, I'm fucking FALLING!
His next thoughts are: WHY THE SHIT IS THERE WATER EVERYWHERE?!
Needless to say, Draco hadn't been expecting to find himself falling from four meters into the ocean. In fact, it was probably number one hundred and fifty-three on his list of possible outcomes of stumbling through the Veil- if he'd ever bothered to make one. Which he hadn't. For a time, he is simply too shocked by this turn of events to do anything.
Then he sucks in a breath of air. He instantly regrets this decision.
Salt water, vile and cold and now clinging at the back of his throat and burning up his nose.
He chokes, limbs pushing the sea water away on instinct. More replaces it- as water is wont to do- but it keeps his head above the water. He draws in another gasping breath, trying to quell the coughing fit that springs up in response to inhaling the ocean. His eyes sting uncomfortably, unused to the salt.
He forces down his growing panic, which is quickly trying to overtake his confusion, and takes stock of his situation.
His throat now hurts like a bitch, thanks to his attempt at breathing underwater. His eyes hurt like a bitch, for more or less the same reason. His cloak is soaking wet; unsurprising- all of him is soaking wet, given he's trying to stay afloat in the ocean. It's currently trying its best to drag him down to whatever godforsaken pit of despair resides at the bottom of his swimming hole. Fucking wool gets bloody heavy when wet- he'll make a note to remember this the next time he falls through an inter-dimensional portal. He's also freezing, because wherever he is, it's bloody fucking cold. By some sheer bloody miracle, he's managed to keep a hold on his wand. He struggles to tuck it back into its holster strapped to his forearm through the multiple layers of clingy, floaty fabric before he does actually lose the thing. The waves- great hulking beasts that continually threaten to dump him under again- do nothing to help his cause.
He tries to rub away the water from his eyes, desperately treading water to stop himself from sinking (he's loathe to let go of his cloak, but fears he might have to soon). It helps a little, but he's still forced to squint. He feels like that prat Potter. His vision clears itself slowly.
Nothing but endless ocean. The sun lies heavy on the horizon, but he can't tell if it's dawn or dusk.
Shit fuckin' fuckity fuck.
This is not good. Not good at all.
Draco Malfoy, saviour of the boy who wouldn't fucking die, destined to perish by drowning.
What complete bullshit.
He lets out a scream of rage, loud and anguished and slaps at the water for good effect. Malfoys do not die of drowning. It's not dignified enough.
Then again, Malfoys also don't throw torture victims into inter-dimensional portals before quickly following suit either (even if he hadn't actually planned on doing so). So there's something to think about. Which he does, actually. For all of two seconds, but really he'd rather just have his tantrum here in the middle of fucking nowhere where no one will see him drown.
It's upon this line of thought that his foot touches something decidedly solid.
Draco would like it to be on the record that he did not shriek like a little girl. No he did not. Nor did he scream and swear and imagine the great killer shark that was likely to continue toying with him until it decided to put him out of his misery and just fucking eat him already (although really, at least being eaten by a shark sounded cooler than drowning. It's a much more Malfoy way to die at any rate).
No. Draco does not do these things. And he will wipe the memory of anyone who claims that he did.
Instead, like the normal, rational person that he is, he realises that the solid thing that both his feet are now touching is in fact land.
He turns- feeling quite stupid now- to survey the scene before him. Never has he been so relieved to see a beach. This one is quite nice too; as beaches go at any rate. Golden sand, lit up by the sun (still not sure if it's daybreak or dusk though), great cliffs in the far off distance, red and gold and lined with black-brown rock at its feet. He can just see the waves, crashing against them mercilessly in a mess of spraying water and foam. The beach ahead is cut off by what he'd have to call scrubland, dominated by long grass and some kind of strange tree with greeny-grey foliage. Its leaves hang down, long and sinuous; melancholic like a weeping willow. He can't see past the tree-line. The beach appears empty, save for a few curious seagulls that watch him in a way reminiscent of the numerous matriarchs of pureblood households he'd met when he was a teenager (borderline predatory, eager to take something from him- generally his hand in marriage to their niece or granddaughter).
He ignores them in favour of getting out of the ocean.
It seems more than happy to get rid of him, sending several choice waves to push him forward, far enough along that he can properly stand. He staggers out, cursing. His woollen cloak hangs from his shoulders like a dead weight, restricting his airways and clapping against the back of his legs in a half-hearted attempt to trip him up. It weighs a bloody tonne. His shoes squelch and sink in the soft sand with every footstep. Disgusted, he tugs them off, discarding the destroying things on the empty shore.
It feels like it takes an age to reach dry land (though really it's just the point where dry sand meets wet). He undoes the clasps of his cloak as he stumbles forward, feet still catching in the sand and lays it down flat on the ground before collapsing wholeheartedly onto it (because there is no way he is getting any closer to that shit than he needs to be). The soft surface offers at least some modicum of comfort, marred only by the assorted flotsam that's been deposited there on the last high tide.
The sun glares down at him weakly when he turns himself over. He contents himself to lie there, regaining his strength and collecting his muddled thoughts.
The air is irritatingly cold.
Actually, scratch that. Now that he's stopped moving, the air is fucking freezing. And undoubtedly spiteful, if that gust of wind pummelling sand grains and cutting straight to the bone is anything to go by. His brain tells him to cast a warming and drying charm (and possibly a cleaning charm too, because all that salt is making his skin feel grainy and unclean) before he goes and dies of hypothermia, but decides not to be any more helpful than that, because he can't for the life of him remember the way to actually perform the charms. Nor does he have the energy to do anything more than just lie there for a little bit longer; at least until he regains a bit of his strength.
"Man that must have been one hell of a party."
He's up with his wand drawn before he can even register what's happening.
The man (who had by some miracle of fate managed to sneak up on him- and no, he had not fallen asleep, not even for the briefest of moments) raises a hand in placation. Only one, because his other one is occupied with some strange oblong board thing, which is easily a head taller than either of them. A dog of some indiscernible mongrel breed with mottled blue-grey fur sits at his feet. Its stumpy tail wags uncertainly but it has to sense to stay where it is.
"Righto," the stranger says slowly, flicking straight blonde hair out of his eyes with a practised move. He doesn't seem offended in the least by Draco's threatening stance, "Well. For a moment there I thought you were gonna draw a knife on me. Or a gun." Blue eyes flick down curiously to his wand, faintly amused.
Draco lets his wand arm drop, but doesn't stow it away yet. The man looks friendly enough, even though he doesn't know what he plans to do with that board thing.
"Where am I?" he demands, completely ignoring rule number one of being incognito and unmemorable. Because fuck it, he's a Wizard, and he can always wipe the Muggle's memory afterwards.
"Tallow Beach." The man, who has a strange accent that he can't quite pin down, doesn't seem phased at all by Draco's question.
"Ah huh," he replies, as if that makes any sense to him, "And where exactly is Tallow Beach?"
"Byron Bay." He's starting to get annoyed now. This man is not being helpful at all and Draco's not sure if it's because the man is being deliberately obtuse or if he's just plain stupid. And okay, sure, maybe the man doesn't quite understand the true meaning in Draco's questions, but really that should be no excuse.
He tries again, "And what country am I in?"
Now the stranger looks confused. And maybe a little concerned, "You alright mate? You bang your head or something?"
Remembering his previous statement about a party, Draco decides to use it as an excuse. He grimaces and rubs his head, faking the remnants of a hangover, "I think it was a pretty wild night. I can't remember anything I did."
The guy looks sceptical and a bit wary, "When exactly did you land in Australia?"
"Australia?" he echoes, appalled, The fuck?
The man raises an eyebrow, more amused than anything at his swearing, "Where did you think you were? The fucken Holyland?"
Well at least now the guy's accent makes sense. Not much else does, unfortunately.
"I thought Australia was meant to be hot." He replies accusingly. As if to prove his point, a gust of icy wind blasts through them. Draco's regretting not drying his clothes now. The Australian doesn't seem to notice it, protected by some strange kind of skin-tight rubber suit that's been rolled down to his waist, leaving his chest bare. The arms of the suit flap about lazily in the wind.
He snorts, "Right. And we all ride kangaroos to fucken work and keep emus in our gardens for eggs too."
Draco nods slowly. He's pretty sure the stranger is taking the piss out of him, but it's not like it's the most farfetched of stories. Hogwarts escorted its students to the castle with thestral-drawn carriages after all.
The wind blows again and he scowls. The Australian turns sympathetic, "You got any spare clothes mate?"
His scowl grows deeper. No, he doesn't have any more clothes; he'd only thought to nick the golden duo's bags from their house before coming to find them (and okay, so there might have been a five day interval between the finding of the bags and the finding of their owners. So sue him, he'd had other things to do). He certainly hadn't thought to take anything for himself- if it had all gone to plan, Granger and Potter would have been locked away in Russia by now, never to see wizarding Britain again, whilst he lorded it over the general populace. It had never bloody occurred to him that fucking Nott would set his cloak on fire and make him fall through the bloody Veil (which had been a stroke of genius on his part; what better way to get rid of the pair than to send them to another fucking universe? And if it didn't do that… well, they'd be gone either way).
"No," he finally grinds out, calming his fraying nerves to send the man a sheepish smile, "I hadn't really expected to be going for a swim."
The Australian nods sagely, blonde hair flopping around like a dog. "Must have been one party. You must have gotten fucken shit-faced."
Draco doesn't know what 'shit-faced' means, but he's quite sure he could guess. He gives the man another sheepish smile for good measure, and shrugs.
"C'mon, I've got some spare clothes in the car." As much as Draco appreciates the hospitality, he hopes they're nothing like what the man's wearing now, because there is no fucking way he is wearing whatever that thing is. Muggles are bloody crazy.
"Thank-you." He says instead. The man smiles and turns around, following the set of footprints etched in the sand. He follows, grimacing at the sand that's flicking up his trouser legs. He's already starting to hate Australia.
"So what's your name?" the Australian asks as they walk down the sandy path his old footsteps had led to. It's lined on either side by long grass and those weird looking trees. They leave nasty looking spiked nuts on the ground that he tries his best to avoid.
"Draco." He grumbles, before he realises that he should have probably used an alias.
His guide snorts in disbelief, "What kind of name is that?"
He sends a scowl at his heavily tanned shoulder, wiry muscles rippling as he moves. "A good one."
"Sounds bloody weird to me. Your parent's hippies?"
The hell are hippies?
"Sure." He'd rather not come off as ignorant, "What's your name then?"
He lets out a startled laugh, "And you say mine's weird."
"It's David, really. But only the 'rents call me that."
"Hnn." A nickname. Right.
A pause. David watches him struggle in the soft sand thoughtfully. "Those must be some pretty shitty friends to leave you passed out on the beach in winter."
He can feel his face visibly darken as he remembers the scum of the Earth he'd been infiltrating for the last eight years, "Trust me," he eventually grinds out, kicking at the sand angrily, "They're not my friends anymore."
David nods sagely, "If it was me, I'd bloody deck 'em."
Draco sends him a grin, all teeth, "Oh, don't worry about that. They'll get exactly what's coming to them." He'd made sure of that at least. With or without his presence.
The dog barks suddenly and races ahead of them. David doesn't bother calling the idiot creature back and Draco muses quietly for whatever creature the mongrel's set its sights for. He wishes this path would bloody end.
"So where're you from?" He scowls some more at the godforsaken sand.
David rolls his eyes and sighs heavily, "Yeah, I'd figured as much from your accent. Whereabouts are you from though?"
"What's it to you?" Draco's suddenly nursing suspicions that his companion might not be an ordinary muggle. Or was this how normal people were supposed to act when encountering a stranger? He didn't know- life after the wizarding war had hardly been what one could call normal.
David glances at him, perplexed, "I'm just curious, mate." Maybe just normal then.
"Hnn… I don't know where that is."
Why do I even bother?
"It's in the south-west."
David nods, watching his dog run about the undergrowth on either side of their path gleefully, "Is it nice there?"
"I guess." No wonder Muggles were bloody pests. Was this how all of them were?
"What brings you to Byron?"
Sweet mother of Merlin make this end.
"My brother's wedding," he lies, "He met some Australian girl years ago."
"Buck's night?" he asks sympathetically. Draco nods.
"I must have passed out and they dumped me out here as a joke."
David sends him a sidelong glance, "Shit joke."
"Yeah, well I never said they were good people." No, the men and women he'd been associating with for the last eight years were hardly what anyone would call 'nice' people. Wastes of space; banes of his existence; psychopaths and down-and-out Shitheads more like.
"Do you want a lift?"
Draco swallows his pride to answers the affirmative; as much as it pains him to admit. He had no idea really where he was, and no idea where the closest town was to even apparate to. Then again, he was also accepting charity from the muggle in the form of clothes, so how much lower could he honestly get? If Granger and Potter were here, they'd be laughing their asses off at how far he'd stooped in so little time; Draco Malfoy, sodden, bedraggled and asking a muggle for a lift in some Godforsaken corner of the Earth, with no immediate ability to fix the situation.
Speaking of the Golden Duo; where the fuck were they? The pair had only been seconds ahead of him- he should have landed virtually on top of them.
Had the idiots drowned?
His steps falter at the thought and he casts a disconcerted glance back down the path. The beach isn't visible here; the path was on a steady decline, leaving the ocean hidden behind the sandy forest.
But no. Surely not. They'd been in rubbish shape, sure (okay, so Potter had been more or less unconscious and Granger was barely lucid, but hell, it was Potter and Granger; they had the survival instincts of a cockroach), but he'd landed close to the shore. If the pair had drowned, their bodies would have washed up pretty damn quickly. And even if Draco hadn't seen them, something tells him his Muggle companion and his mongrel dog would have.
"You okay mate?" David finally notices he'd stopped, some distance ahead.
Draco nods, ruthlessly pushing down the rising concern and gives him a sheepish smile, "It's nothing," he lies. He moves to catch up with him.
And immediately regrets it as he lands on another one of those bloody miniature pine cones. He growls in frustration and hops up and down in aggravation, nursing his throbbing foot. David gives him a sympathetic grimace.
"She-oaks are a pain in the ass, right? Do you want my thongs?" Draco stiffens, staring at the man incredulously. He's not quite sure whether to feel insulted or confused.
"The hel- what?!"
A look of realisation spreads across the Muggle's face and he laughs, "Thongs," he reiterates, shaking one of his feet in the air, "Flip-flops. Jandals. Those things you put on your feet when you can't be bothered with real shoes."
"Why on Earth would you call them thongs?"
David shrugs, glancing down at his feet contemplatively, "Dunno. We just do. Guess they kind of look like a g-string for your feet, if you think about it."
Draco is infinitely proud that the only sign of his amusement at that statement is a quirk of his brow, "I have no answer for that." He finally replies, ruthlessly pulling back the smile that threatens to appear.
The Australian shrugs again, "Do you want them or not?"
Draco considers the offer for a long moment. On the plus side, there'd be no more of those godforsaken seed pods to stand on. On the downside, they were still flip-flops. And as unseemly as his sodden trousers and bare feet were, he couldn't quite abide by the indignity of wearing something as utterly plebeian as them on his feet.
"Ah- no. Thank-you." He finally replies, inwardly shuddering at the thought of wearing flip-flops in the first place, let alone one's he'd borrowed from a Muggle.
"Your loss Mate." My loss indeed.
Fortunately, the car park isn't much further; Draco can see black bitumen and white lines through the gaps in the trees. His gait takes on a stumbling shuffle as they carry on in an effort to avoid any more of those bloody nuts; it has the unfortunate side effect of allowing the sand to pass over and between his toes and catch in the hems of his trousers. He stoically ignores it, intent on pushing this episode of his life as far away behind him as he can.
The dog waits faithfully for the pair of them on the line that marks sand and bitumen, panting lightly as its tail wags slowly. Behind it sits an old pickup, white and muddy around the wheel-rims. David passes by him to place his board in the tray and pulls out a duffel bag- rummaging through its contents to unceremoniously dump certain clothes on the tray. He keep a tatty-looking hoody to himself, shucking it on and pulling up the zip. The bag is tossed back and he picks up the clothes he'd left out. They're crushed as hell, but Draco can't even bring himself to care.
"Here," David says, handing them over into his frozen hands, "There's a toilet block over there, if you want." He motions to a cement-block in the corner of the carpark that looks about as inviting as a 'room with the view' in Azkaban.
Draco can feel his top lip curling in disgust, "I'll pass, thanks." Merlin knows what kind of venereal disease he could contract just by walking inside. Muggles clearly needed to invest in self-cleaning charms- or the equivalent.
"Suit yourself," he shrugs and walks around to the driver's side of the cabin, leaning against the door to give him some modicum of privacy.
The dog stays where it was. Draco pulls a face at it in retaliation.
Its tail wags harder.
He sighs in resignation and turns his back on it, stripping his ruined clothes off quickly to replace them with the old, but mercifully dry t-shirt and jeans. The shirt is no struggle, but getting the jeans on (and his old trousers off) proves to be a struggle as the material sticks and drags on his dampened skin. The battle is only worsened by the sand that's managed to work its wall all through his clothes and scratches uncomfortably in his 'delicate' regions. He manages it though (but not without a small amount of cursing) and dumps his old clothes in the trash can. He's not interested in salvaging them, and it's not exactly difficult to acquisition himself some new ones as a wizard.
"Not keeping them?" David turns around at the sound of clothes hitting the metal bin.
"I've got more in my room," he lies easily, turning back around to face the man, "Thank-you for the clothes, though." It's a genuine expression; even though it's only jeans and a shirt, they're dry and it's making all the difference right now with that bloody wind blowing through the place.
David nods and gives him a smile, "No worries mate." He opens his door and slides into his vehicle. The engine roars into life after ticking over two-three times.
Draco assesses the car sceptically. He'd been in one- once- eight or nine years ago now, back when he was going through his 'muggle-curiosity' phase. It had been an overall mediocre and underwhelming experience- unlike the times when he'd tried the public bus and the Muggle's take on flying. Those had been downright horrific, and there was no denying that that one flight from London to Paris he'd taken in 2006 in an unfortunate bout of optimism was quite possibly one of the darkest times of his life- his stint as an unwilling Death Eater notwithstanding.
Whilst he hadn't exactly been impressed by his one experience in a car, he'll be the first to admit that it had been significantly shinier and trustworthy looking than David's car. In fact, his beaten-up truck looks as though it might break down or spontaneously combust the moment it went around the first corner.
David sends him a raised eyebrow from the driver's seat, "You getting in?" the man asks loudly enough to be heard outside the cabin, "It aint gonna bite."
Biting is the least of my worries.
Draco nods stiffly. He tries the door-handle gingerly; it's stiff and he has to press a button and pull the lever at the same time for it to open. The smell of wet dog and pine sap permeates the two-door cabin and he fights valiantly to keep a straight face. David slams his door shut, and plays with his radio as he waits for Draco to get in.
Against his better judgement, he does. The dog jumps past him to sit contentedly in the middle seat before he can slam the door shut. It gives him a dopey grin, tongue lolling unpleasantly as it pants disconcertingly close to his face.
"Don't mind Tess," David says lightly, noticing his obvious discomfort and misconstruing it for something else entirely, "She wouldn't hurt a fly."
As if to confirm his statement, Tess barks in his face and tries to clamber clumsily into his lap, paws straying dangerously close to places they should never stray. She breathes her unpleasant breath right into his mouth. It takes a great deal of restraint to prevent him from cursing the animal from here to high heaven.
Draco is very quickly getting the impression that he should have just stayed at home.
Potter and Granger be damned.
FUN FACTS FOR THOSE WHO CARED:
The former criminals that were sent through the Veil all those centuries ago- well, most of them didn't die. Most of them ended up in the Marvel-verse, alive, kicking and screaming (but no wands. I doubt the ministry would give them their wands when they were about to kill them), and most of them went on to wreak a whole lot of havoc, because of course, they WERE criminals- generally the worst of the worst. INCLUDING Mister Bolton- the man who commissioned the construction of Hogwort Castle. I made sure it was subtle, but if you read enough into it, you can figure out that he amassed a lot of money in a short amount of time because he manipulated people. With magic. And one of the reasons the castle was erected so quickly was because he more or less enslaved a whole lot of people for his cause. Plus I wouldn't discount the likelihood that he'd have slept with his daughters when they came along to ensure his magical gene was passed on. He may have been a sentimentalist, but he was thrown through the Veil for a good reason.
Furthermore, even though it's unlikely most of the people who went through the Veil survived long enough to reproduce (because lets face it, madmen and serial killers generally don't survive long enough to manage to make the babies, because people generally want to get rid of them… because they're psychopaths), there still would have been plenty who managed. Thus, it's very likely there are remnant magic-users out there in the Marvel-verse. Many of these people- due to their blood being diluted for so long- would find their magic manifesting themselves as singular mutations- say, many of the mutants- but there would still be a few throw-backs turning up here and there with full-blown magical abilities.
Why has no-one in Great Expectations come across them yet? Well, they just haven't been looking in the right places. Because I can assure you, there are plenty of historical accounts out there… I might even imply Jack the Ripper was a cast off from wizarding society. And SHIELD isn't aware of them because the Ministry stopped sending people through hundreds of years ago; long enough for the magic gene to be diluted, or completely bred out in some cases. And long enough to make many of their historical accounts come across as superstitious clap-trap.
I want to also say here, I've had a few people ask about Stephen Strange- who as some of you know was name dropped in Captain America 2. Doctor Strange is going to have his own movie, making him a part of the MCU. This means that currently, he is not actually the superhero Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme. Because I'm- as a general rule- trying to follow the MCU, I'm going to put my foot down here and state, for the record, that because- as of 2013 in the MCU- Doctor Strange has not become SS (even though he was name dropped in CA2), he will not be featuring in Great Expectations... Or at least, not any time soon. This is partly so I can follow the MCU timeline (except for the whole ignoring Ironman 3), and partly because I'm not all that familiar with him, and partly because he'd just be one more headache to add to the slowly growing entourage of Great Expectations.
For those who were wondering, David's dog is a breed known as a blue-heeler. And the trees that Draco are referring to are colloquially known as she-oaks (genus Casuarina). The little seed pods they litter everywhere can probably measure up there on the pain scale as standing on a lego brick.
It's surprisingly difficult as an Australian to try to consistently use terms that are used in cultures anywhere but Australia. For example thongs (the underwear) are generally referred to as G-strings (thought the term 'thong' is seeing an appearance with the growing American influence) as the term 'thong' is kept for flip-flops. Furthermore, the world's pickup truck we call a ute- short for utility, apparently. I've never heard an Australia ever refer to a Ute as a 'truck'. Trucks are larger- I'd say the general rule of thumb between a truck and a Ute is that you can park a Ute easily in a car park. If it doesn't fit in that space, then it ain't a Ute, it's a truck.
Chapter 21: Pick Up or Delivery?
In which there are spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen the first episode of Marvel, Agents of SHIELD
It was a well-established fact of Phil Coulson's life that he really didn't get paid enough for this.
Or rather, he got paid well (extremely well), but never managed to get the time off to enjoy it. Surely, even after his recuperation in Tahiti, he deserved a break. But no, it was all wham-bam-thank-you-ma'm-now-off-on-an-aircraft-full-of-SHIELD-agents-you-go with SHIELD- never mind the fact that he probably would have gone mad if he hadn't jumped back into the game. So here he was; playing mama duck with two troublesome agents, a hacktivist who still had her training wheels on and two scientists who were debatably just as bad. And sure, he loved it- really did- but he'd died. And sometimes, in the dark of the night, alone, Coulson feels like he should have had more time off; maybe actually spend some of that money currently languishing in his bank account.
Even if Fury had more or less given him a plane as compensation.
Case in point, times like now, at three fifty-four in the morning when Fury was calling non-stop in an effort to rouse him and get his attention.
Sometimes, Coulson really hates his boss.
He'd not bothered to answer it the first two rings in the hope the caller would realise it was a god-awful time of the morning (they'd only wrapped up Bangkok four hours ago). He lets it ring a third time just to spite them, and eventually picks it up just as it's about to end on the fourth.
"Coulson speaking." Years of working for SHIELD have eliminated his sleep-addled voice, Phil's found. He's thankful for it; it made the other agents suspect he was a robot, which was just too much fun to play on.
"Nice to see you'd pick up eventually." Fury grumbles, borderline irate. Phil takes no small amusement and satisfaction from it. It is three in the morning, after all.
"We only got back to the Bus at twelve sir."
"I'm aware of that Coulson, but something's come up."
Phil sits up, "Sir?"
Fury sighs heavily, "Tell me, what do you know about Byron Bay?"
He frowns, "Never heard of it," he answers truthfully, hands already moving to grab his tablet to search the name, "Where is it?"
"Australia." That stops him up short. Nothing ever happens in Australia. It was the proverbial backwater of interesting occurrences (besides the occasional shark attack).
"Australia?" Byron Bay; seaside town on the east coast of Australia. Popular tourist destination. A generally unexciting place for anything but the beach… and a music festival.
"Are you familiar with the Falling Man case?"
"Subjects 33678 and 33679?" So sue him; he'd done his readings. His clearance allowed him to read the files, and it was certainly interesting; two alleged wizards, both reportedly benign and now inter-dimensional refugees in Stark's tower. And one was apparently the doppelgänger of some well-known British football player- if he were fifteen years younger.
"Well we've got another one." Fury sighs again, "Landed five minutes ago at Byron- not far from the shoreline. Unlikely to be the same scenario as Potter's. I've got Brisbane agents heading down there now, ETA nine-thirty, but I want you and your team responsible for pickup."
He's already heading for the cockpit, knocking loudly on May's door as he passes, 'Orders?"
"Retrieval and debriefing. Find out if they're a hostile- if not, collect them. If so, collect them all the same, but make damn sure they're out of it. You don't want one of those guys screwing around with your electronics." He frowns; it's not exactly a comforting thought when they were flying through the air in a glorified box of wires with wings.
"Any special measures?"
He can imagine Fury shaking his head, "A shot of FitzSimmons' tranq pistol should do it. Be warned; their biology seems to run hotter, so be prepared to shoot them every few hours."
"There's an airbase about half an hour from Byron; Agents Corvey and Stone will meet you there. You've already been cleared for take-off- I want you on site as soon as possible. Fuck knows what kind of havoc they could reap."
"Yes sir. Anything else I should know?"
A pause, "Yeah, Potter and Granger can have an attitude to rival Stark's when they want it to. Look forward to it. Wizards apparently aren't taught manners… And the files are being sent through now. Read up, Coulson."
Coulson chooses to say nothing about the irony of Fury's statement as the Director hangs up on him. He turns to face to expectant gaze of May, eyes slightly puffy from sleep but otherwise wide awake.
"We've got a new assignment. We've been cleared for take-off already."
She nods and passes him silently, slipping into the cockpit gracefully. The doors to their hangar are already opening, and Phil can see the refuelling truck heading towards them already, "Where are we going?"
If May is surprised, she does a good job of not showing it.
The full information in regards to subject 33680 comes in forty minutes later. It's more detailed than Phil had originally anticipated.
Subject 33680: most likely identity- one Draco Malfoy. Allegedly known for his participation in the Second Wizarding War in the late nineties, and his pureblood supremacy sentiments. In the last decade he'd been labelled a recluse- though there had apparently been rumourings of his support of the Death Eater resurgence. Ms Granger had called him a wild card and was unsure if he could be an ally or an enemy; though according to Agent Hill's documentation of her debriefing, there was a fair amount of bad blood between them.
In the report, Potter called him 'blonde and pointy'; Granger said he 'was an utter twat with his head stuck so far up his arse it was no wonder he was so pale', which on paper was particularly imaginative and pugnacious. Phil suspects that particular description was probably saturated with indignation and contempt.
Stark probably loved it.
Nonetheless, Granger's account- later to be (somewhat) verified by Potter (though, how one could call his vague guesses at who had picked him up from the floor in their own universe a verification was anyone's guess)- named Malfoy the man who'd retrieved them from the Death Eater's custody. He'd also been the one to forcefully throw them through the Veil, which Granger claimed had never been confirmed as an actual inter-dimensional portal. Not that this had apparently stopped Malfoy, who'd been more than happy to throw them in when cornered.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as his father would have said.
33680's identity had been surmised by Granger, who had put two and two together easily enough when notified of the portal activation. His proximity to the Veil made it likely that he'd be the next one to pass through- especially given the time delay between portal activations on this side. Ms Granger claimed that she'd been under the impression that Malfoy had not intended to use the Veil himself, and was surprised that anyone had used it after she'd been thrown in.
Phil briefly wonders if going through the Veil had been Malfoy's plan all along.
If it hadn't; well, wasn't that karma for you.
Their landing on Australian soil eight and a half hours later was largely uneventful- well, except for that one part where Phil had to remind Skye that it was in fact winter in the southern hemisphere, so shorts and a singlet weren't actually the best idea. The look of devastation on her face was enough to put a light skip in his step as he strolled out the cargo bay (not forgetting to give Lola a loving pat for luck) to greet their associates.
Agents Corvey and Stone are lounging against their battered van, sunning themselves like lizards in the still considerably bright sunlight. In fact, with the sky so wide and clear, it would be easy to imagine that it was summer- were it not for the bitter wind blowing through his jacket. Steve's Tilers are emblazoned across the white van in garish red block lettering. They stand up, languid and relaxed, as he draws closer.
"Agent Coulson?" The woman (thirty-three, no children; originally from Perth according to her file) asks, extending her hand first. Her skin is smooth and browned and her grasp is firm. He smiles and nods, and a slow smirk spreads across her face in reply.
Odd. Her accent is nowhere near as strong as he'd expect, though it still has that slightly nasal undertones characteristic of the country. He turns to her companion.
"Agent Stone." The man rumbles before Phil can say anything. In complete contrast to his skinny partner, Agent Stone is tall and broad, with a grim face and the hints of gang tattoos creeping past the collar of his t-shirt. The black leather jacket and long hair tied back into a ponytail completes the thug look- not his own, apparently. Stone had been placed undercover in one of the bikie gangs growing in the Brisbane region. SHIELD had heard rumours of a possible mutant orchestrating the growing tensions between the Bandidos and other outlawed clubs along the east coast and wanted someone to monitor it.
Phil's own agents gather behind him. Skye sends them a jaunty wave, not fazed at all by Stone's size. Ward is watching the pair of them with poorly disguised suspicion (at least to him it seems like poorly-disguised suspicion, anyway). FitzSimmons look awed and May's unaffected, eyes scanning the airfield carefully.
"So what's the status on 33680?" he'd like to get to work as soon as possible. The idea of leaving a wizard of unknown leanings alone with civilians sets him on edge.
Corvey nods and looks over the information on her phone, "Male, white- probably in his mid-twenties. Blonde hair. Cctv footage of one of the carparks on Tallow Beach picked him up not far from his original coordinates. He was with another man when they drove away from the beach- the car's rego is for David Pribbernow; he's a small-time accountant in Lismore. No criminal convictions. He took 33680 into town and dropped him off at the Motor Lodge Motel on Butler Street."
Well, Granger was right, apparently.
"Do you think it was planned?" Ward asks. Couslon feels guilty at the valid question. He'd like to tell them that Malfoy was from a different universe entirely, but that was past their clearance. As were his specific abilities... somewhat. All they knew was that their target was a mutant that SHIELD needed back in America; a fugitive of unknown origins that had come under their radar for some suspicious activities.
Stone snorts, "Unlikely. We'll speak with Pribbernow after you've picked up blondie, but chances are low. We suspect it was a coincidence they met at all."
Corvey moves back to their van and slides the door open. The inside is empty. "You'd be better off coming with us. The standard cars are too conspicuous around here- and I don't think the general populace would be too pleased to know that an American based organisation is spying on them." Her eyes flick over to the Bus, "Superheroes or not."
Phil shrugs at the pointed comment- it wasn't like they were doing it for no reason- as situations like today were keen to point out. And either way, SHIELD offered countries the option of dealing with things they either couldn't handle- or didn't want to… or weren't allowed to. May gives him a weighted look that tells him they'll be talking about this later. She knows something's going on; something more than just a rogue mutant.
Phil's not really worried by that. Chances were, Malfoy would blow any mutant theories out the window the moment they had the chance to speak with them. He had just been thrown into a completely new universe and it was more than likely that the moment he was labelled a mutant he'd probably flip out and give the game away anyway.
And in the end, if the Director had wanted to keep any of the travellers a secret, he wouldn't have sent a group of agents determined to ignore the vast majority of SHIELD protocols to pick one of them up.
He glances back to the Bus. Lola wasn't the only vehicle in there after all, "Thanks, but we've got our own incognito too." He motions to Skye's van.
His agents send him varying levels of disbelief and bewilderment, "Phil-" Skye starts, sending glances up to her home away from home, "-we're not all going to fit in that."
"I know," he replies cheerfully, "That's why FitzSimmons are going with Agents Corvey and Stone. Agent Ward and I will follow."
She frowns, "But what about me and May?"
"You'll be staying with the Bus." May sends him a levelled look, delicate eyebrow quirked in an unimpressed expression and he shrugs, "I want the Bus to be ready to go as soon as possible."
He turns back to the Australian agents; Simmons has already sidled over to them, the small smile on her face giving off her usual benign innocence and naivety, but Fitz seems intimidated by Stone's brawn (and possibly his tattoos), "Fitz, I need you to link our ear-comms."
Fitz nods, pulling his tablet from his satchel. Phil turns to Corvey and Stone, "How far to Byron?"
Corvey shrugs as she hands her comm over to Fitz, "The satnav says it's about half an hour."
"Then you've got half an hour Fitz." Like he wouldn't get it finished in thirty seconds, "We'll follow you; Ward and I will deal with him. I'd prefer it if the both of you were just back-up- we don't want your cover's blown. If you are brought into it, shoot to incapacitate only."
Stone stares at him grimly, "This Blondie," he rumbles, "he's valuable, isn't he? They would have just left it to us or the Sydney team if he was just a rebel mutant."
Phil grimaces, because yeah, he can just imagine the starting bid from organisations more than eager to get their hands on Malfoy and his ilk, "More than you'd like to know," he accedes. He ends the conversation there and moves over to their van, which Ward has already reversed down the ramp.
"We'll trail behind you," he calls out to the Australian agents. Stone nods and Corvey smirks at him.
"Don't forget, Agent Coulson. You lot drive on the wrong side of the road."
He can hear Ward roll his eyes at the comment.
It takes fifteen minutes into their drive for an irate Skye to finally call him. Phil's more surprised that it's taken her this long, than by the fact that she'd hacked into secure SHIELD files several steps above her clearance. Because really; fifteen minutes. She was getting slack.
"Phil." Comes the terse address the moment he answers his phone.
"A wizard. Seriously? Like, pull a rabbit out of a hat, wizard?"
"I think you'll find that's magicians, but I wouldn't put it past them."
"… And from another universe?" she sounds like she almost hopes they're not.
"So they claim." He acknowledges, "The data surrounding their appearances seems to support it though." Another pause as Skye presumably reviews the data and retrieves absolutely nothing from it.
"Right." She drawls a moment later, "Is it… is it natural?"
"As far as we can tell, it's an innate talent based on their genetic structure. They're born with it."
He can hear muffled speech in the background, "May wants to know about the other two. They're listed as benign."
He sighs, glancing at Ward who is staring intently at the road- a sure fire guarantee that he's listening in, "As far as we know, they are. They've not given us any true reason to suspect malign origins."
"…Are these guys for real?"
"Wizards… and a witch…"
"As we have no classification for their kind, that's what we're calling them."
"Why are they popping up all over the place?" A pause as something occurs to her, "And why now?"
Phil wishes he could actually answer that question properly. Not knowing things makes him uneasy, "We don't know. Theories are still in development."
Skye sighs over the phone line, "This guy- Malfoy. He saved the first two?"
"So they claim, but apparently there's bad blood between them."
"And he still helped them?" she sounds doubtful. Phil doesn't blame her- it's a confusing scenario.
"To the extent that he threw them through an inter-dimensional portal, yes." Because he does think that's a valid point. It's a bit of a spiteful move- if you asked him- saving someone by erasing their presence from their world without their permission.
He sighs, glancing at Ward again. His not-listening face has grown even more intense, "I have to go. We're getting close." He hangs up before the hacktivist can answer.
Ward's head turns slowly to face him, his path on the road unwavering. There's a slightly crazed look in his eye that tells him he's absolutely confused by the current events.
"What. The hell." Is all he offers.
Phil smiles at him, "Our target's name is Draco Malfoy. He's a wizard." Grant turns back to the road, the muscles beneath his jaw twitching as he dwells on the information.
"Okaay." He draws out eventually. He frowns, "Gandalf kind of wizard?"
He huffs a laugh- trust Grant, "His skills are more dynamic. Though they like the robes, apparently."
Ward nods slowly, "And the other two…?"
"Arrived a few weeks ago. There's some kind of time lapse though on their portal entry. There's been a week between each of their arrivals though they swear they'd gone through within seconds of each other."
He sends him a sidelong glance, "That's weird."
"Mm. He'll probably have a stick- known as a wand. Be wary of it; it's his magical focus. If he turns hostile, getting rid of the wand is the best way to make him harmless." Or at least, that was according to the information Granger and Potter had disclosed to them.
"Is that likely?"
Phil purses his lips. The information on Malfoy was sketchy at best, and wild cards were always so damn difficult to pin down, 'Possibly."
"The night-night pistol. Or break his wand- though that's probably not the best idea, really. Best to stick to the gun."
Ward's fingers grip at the wheel tighter.
"Great." He drawls.
The little motel their target ended up in is disappointingly unmemorable. It's neither very impressive nor dingy. In fact, it's decidedly average, with its only notable feature being its proximity to the water. Malfoy was in room twelve, which Skye had kindly found out for them after a call with the owner. Apparently he'd turned up in quite a state- covered in sand, barefoot and wearing ill-fitting clothes and a scowl that could melt flesh off bone if it tried.
They pull up in the park adjacent to twelve. The plan was to get inside- preferably without force- and attempt to reason with Malfoy and ultimately take him back to New York City. If Malfoy didn't stick to their plan… well, he'd be coming with them all the same.
He peers through the gap in the blinds. There's not much to see and the room is dark. Possibly asleep.
There's no reply for a good thirty seconds. He shares a look with Ward, who'd looked ready to break in there after the first ten seconds. He knocks again.
This time, he hears what might be a pained groan from inside and a muffled "What?"
He sounds irritated and Phil's lip twitches at the thought.
"Room service," he answers smoothly.
"Room service?" comes the confused reply, growing louder as the room's occupant draws closer to the door, "I didn't order any room service." The door opens and an attractive young man with mussed blonde hair glares out at the outside world blearily.
Phil grin and Ward shuffles his feet uncomfortably.
"We know. Hello Draco Malfoy."
The wizard stiffens immediately at the address, hand rising in a disarming gesture to flatten his hair. His eyes flicker over him, cautious and assessing before passing onto Agent Ward behind him, whom Phil knows for a fact has a fairly obvious imprint of a weapon on his right shin.
In the next instant, his hand is moving to his back pocket, as if to pull out his own weapon.
"I'd rather you didn't do that Mister Malfoy." He says in warning. The hand pauses, but doesn't withdraw, "We're not here to hurt you. I am Agent Coulson- this is Agent Ward. We're operatives for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. We're responsible for any supernatural threats that make themselves known." There's no reaction from Malfoy. Phil takes it as encouragement, "Your companions; Hermione Granger and Harry Potter are safe in one of our secure facilities."
"They're not my companions."
Phil gives the man a weighted stare, "Really." He replies flatly, "Because we were under the impression that it was you who liberated them from their imprisonment."
A muscle in the wizard's neck twitches and his eyebrows draw together minutely, "You are a muggle, aren't you?"
Muggle; Mundane. A term for those without magic and more than likely ludicrously politically incorrect. He shrugs.
"According to your definition, yes." Malfoy stares at him some more. Phil supposes it's meant as an intimidation tactic. Cute.
"How did you find me?"
"The signature of your… arrival is quite distinct. It wasn't difficult to track you down afterwards."
The wizard gives him a proper frown this time, "Signature?" his eyes widen in realisation, "You know of the Veil?" Phil's borderline amused by his incredulous tone.
"We do." He accedes and glances to his side, where the other van waits patiently for them at the other end of the motel, "May we come in?"
Malfoy's smart enough to realise that it isn't really a question. He moves away to lean against the empty desk. Grant closes the door behind them as the blonde man watches them with suspicious eyes.
"Potter and Granger are in America?"
"Yes." His eyes narrow.
"We've only been here for a few hours. How'd you manage to get them to America already?'
"They landed there," he replies with a shrug, "Well, Miss Granger ended up in Canada, but the case still stands."
Malfoy's mouth moves silently for a moment, perplexed, "We landed in separate continents?"
Phil watches him for a second before he drops the second bombshell, "And dates. Mister Potter and Miss Granger arrived in this universe a fortnight and a week ago, respectively."
Malfoy remains silent for a long time; his eyes have taken on the look of a wild animal and his jaw clenches imperceptibly.
"What's the date?" comes his strangled voice eventually.
"August 15, 2013." Some tension leaves his shoulders. He stands up and begins to pace the room.
"How long have you known about the Veil?" Phil's aware that he's fishing for more information than his words appear to be asking. He so badly wants to be an ass and tell him 'it's classified', but he knew that for the benefit of their future relations it would be advantageous to be as forthcoming as necessary.
"A fortnight." Malfoy pauses, eyes turning intense and Phil averts his eyes in retaliation. The blonde huffs.
"So what do you want from me?"
Phil tilts his head, as though considering his words, "You have a choice. Allow us to reunite you with your companions." The man grimaces at the suggestion, "Or, we take you to another of our facilities where you can be assessed."
An elegant finger taps against his thigh, "They're not one and the same?"
"No. Miss Granger and Mister Potter were relocated to a residence where their… talents might be more appreciated four days ago."
The wizard smirks, "They've got you lot wrapped around their little finger already I see."
He frowns slightly at the comment and Grant shifts uncomfortably, "I think you've misunderstood."
The smirk grows, taking in Ward's unsettled movements, "Did I?"
Phil chooses to ignore the comment.
"So what's your choice?"
Malfoy turns back to study him down his aristocratic nose. Phil gets the 'thin and pointy' reference now, "Were I to choose the latter, would there even be the chance of release?" He sounds doubtful.
"Of course," he replies with a guileless blink of his eyes, knowing full well that it will do nothing to assuage his scepticism.
His face turns aloof, "Then neither, I think." His hand strays to his back pocket again.
"I would advise against that Mister Malfoy. SHIELD is an ally I'd suggest on keeping."
The hand stops, sensing the threat behind the words but the cocky look spreading across his face tells him he's not taking it seriously.
"I'm sure you'd like to think that."
"I don't you're aware of the status quo of this world Mister Malfoy." Of course he wasn't aware; the man had been here for less than twelve hours.
"Don't I? For an agency that only discovered the Veil two weeks ago, something tells me it's you who doesn't understand the status quo."
Phil smirks but doesn't answer. He knows that it's enough to put the man on edge and second guess his certainty. It's a technique that worked on far greater men than Malfoy. The slight shift of the wizard's feet belies his growing unsurety. Inwardly he smirks in satisfaction.
"The chances of finding your colleagues is low without our aid." He's pushing it, he knows. He'd like to get out of here sooner rather than later; out of the corner he can see Grant slowly growing ever more twitchy; a sure-fire sign that he was ready to leave.
Malfoy snorts, haughty and disdainful, "Who says I want to find them?"
Phil just stares at him, head slightly tilted. The man was lying though his teeth. He needed to find the other two- if only to work out where they were and how it was possible to get back. Or to possibly dispose of them. His true motivations for throwing them through the Veil were largely unknown, something which Phil knew very well made Director Fury unhappy.
The smirk on Malfoy's face grows wider, "Now, if you don't mind, I think you've overstayed your welcome." His hand moves backwards, the look in his eyes clearly telling them that he was no longer choosing to humour them.
The tell-tale crack of Ward's suppressed gun resonates through the room in the same moment.
Malfoy's arm flies up to clutch at his right shoulder, staggering back at the force of the point-blank shot. The shock is written across his face as plain as day.
"You just fucking shot me!" he gasps as a small amount of blood seeps through his business shirt. The wizard stumbles backwards, eyes wide and accusing, as his limbs rapidly shut down before collapsing in an undignified heap on the thin commercial carpet.
"You ff…" he slurs, voice cutting off halfway through his delivery. Unfocussed grey eyes stare at Ward balefully. Another second and the man's gone.
Phil huffs a sigh into the silence and sends Grant a look from over his shoulder.
In a typical display of brevity, the agent shrugs. "He was annoying me."
"Shooting him was supposed to be a last resort. This will do nothing for our future diplomatic relations."
"If it makes you feel better, I'm pretty sure he was actually going for his weapon that time."
Funnily enough, it doesn't.
Confirmation that Earth's newest arrival is Draco Malfoy does not go down well.
Or at least, Tony presumes it doesn't go down well, because really, once he'd made Queeny and Greenbean aware of the situation, the latter had laughed heartily and promptly stolen an entire bottle of whiskey from Tony's kitchen alcohol stash and the former had shut down and locked herself away in her bedroom. Jarvis had reported concerns over a large amount of shouting and the sound of breaking glass on floor 89 not long after that. Harry- who was halfway through his second glass already- gleefully told him not to worry, because of course they had magic, and magic made everything better; and it was unlikely that Hermione would break the glass wall of her bedroom, and even less likely that she would fall to her death. Tony chooses to take comfort in the giggled words instead of growing alarm.
The wizard had then taken a swig straight out of the bottle; ignoring the half-full glass now sitting on the kitchen bench, and the fact that it was only ten in the morning. Tony couldn't help but be impressed that the kid-who-wasn't-actually-a-kid didn't so much as flinch as the alcohol went down.
In all honesty, it could have been worse; either could have shot someone, or tried to pick a fist fight with Thor. And you know, at least Hermione hadn't started breaking things in the living area, where he'd be obliged to put a stop to it- probably by sticking himself between her wand and the closest breakable thing (which is not really something he'd like to do). And apparently there was a spell to fix things, so damage to her room would probably only be minimal.
Even so, something tells him it's not the best of reactions for the pair. Not that he blames them, really. Universe transplants are likely to do a number on you psychologically.
Not that that's going to stop him from morbidly wondering what this Malfoy guy is like, if his sudden appearance could elicit such a response from the pair. Judging from the shouts Jarvis is still reporting from Hermione's bedroom, it must be bad. Though honestly, Queenie had been rearing for a fight (in as much as the level-headed witch could be, which was really not much by Avenger's standards) ever since they'd come back from Scotland- all that frustration and disappointment had been stewing in her, obvious to any with eyes that could see. She'd tried to hide it, but he hadn't missed how she'd not been her dry and witty self; not since they went out looking. He'd found it mildly concerning, and maybe just a little disappointing. Malfoy had been the metaphorical icing on the bullshit-cake. It was probably best to have her let the aggravation out now before she did shoot someone.
"I haven't seen him in almost six years." Harry remarks suddenly. Tony glances at him, startled. He hadn't expected the man to talk. Harry shrugs- any signs on his imminent inebriation absent.
"He was a prat. A sharp and pointy, pigheaded and elitist prat. But… he'd mellowed." Tony leans against the kitchen bench, stealing his commandeered bottle of liquor to take a swig of his own (speaking from his own experience/s, there was nothing sadder than a man drinking on his own but surrounded by friends… or colleagues in Harry's case. Tony isn't sure if they could call them friends yet) as Steve moves over to sit in the stool next to the wizard. Harry carries on, "The war changed him. Not really surprising- it changed all of us. But I didn't want to strangle the git as much, which was a marked improvement."
He sends Tony a knowing look that tells him nothing. He offers the wizard the bottle of whiskey. Greenbean snorts lightly, staring into the amber liquid contemplatively.
"His parents were Death Eaters; they encouraged him to join their ranks just before the real war broke out. He was a bigoted dick- but he'd been told about Mudbloods," he spits the word out bitterly, like it's got some personal meaning, "and Muggles since he was a child. He didn't know any better. But he wasn't a killer, or a-a torturer, or a rapist or any of those other things the rest of Voldemort's pets were. Just some dumb rich-boy dragged into his parent's war like the rest of us."
Steve frowns as Harry takes another deep drink of liquor. His eyes are slowly gaining the familiar listless glaze of drunkenness and his head seems to pivot slightly on his neck, like child about to fall asleep. His voice remains clear.
"We last met at some charity function, before everything went to hell. The Ministry had seized most of his family's accounts after the war but he'd been slowly creeping his way back up the rich-list as soon as his restrictions were lifted… He wasn't as confrontational. Still looked at us like we were something gross… or stupid- come to think of it- but there were no insults. Or hexes. Or threats. Just a softened superiority complex; nothing I couldn't handle- there were plenty of those kinds of idiots left after the war."
He laughs- there's a slightly manic edge to it. Steve tugs the bottle gently out of his hands in concern.
"I think that's enough." He says lowly and Harry laughs again, slapping the super-soldier on the back.
"T'ss fine!" Greenbean answers dismissively, "Did you know- he even shook Hermione's hand?! Merlin, I thought she was going to faint! Or punch him… again."
Tony lets out a startled laugh. The image of Hermione punching someone is… well it's pretty cool, actually. And kind of hot too.
"Not his biggest fan?"
"Nooo." Harry snickers, hair falling into his eyes as he laughs, "There was a lot of animosity running between them in school. Almost more than there'd been between me. She punched him in third year," he murmurs in a conspiratory tone. Steve smiles in amusement.
"He congratulated her on her position in the Unspeakable's department. She'd been bumped up to one of the project leaders the year before. Heh- I think she was torn between thanking him and interrogating him for how he knew. Had this smarmy smile on his face the whole time, like he knew something she didn't. Kind of think it's a reflex reaction more than anything though."
"Do you think he's a threat?" Steve is frowning lightly, trying to gauge the situation from the information the wizard was freely giving.
Harry shakes his head- aborts- pauses, then shrugs, "I doubt it… I mean, he saved us. Granted; his idea of saving us was throwing us into what most people would think was a one way ticket to the afterlife, but I kind of think he knew what it really was. And he could have just left us there for dead- there was no obligation for him to help us, but he did anyway. And I think that has to be worth something."
Steve smiles like he's found himself a kindred spirit. Sweet.
"Not," Harry states, eyes sliding over to the whiskey the Capsicle is still holding onto, "that that is going to stop me from beating the ever-living shit out of him first."
Tony barks in laughter and Steve sends him a disapproving stare, "I don't think that would be the most appropriate option."
He laughs again. Trust Captain Boy-Scout, "I have a feeling he'd have to wait for Queenie to finish with him first."
Steve frowns in confusion, which momentarily confuses Tony too until he realises that he hadn't told anyone about the temper tantrum currently happening downstairs. He smirks at the blonde, "Her room isn't taking the news well."
Harry hides his grin behind his ridiculous fringe (and seriously, what was it with magic users and bad hair? Maybe it was genetic) as he snickers, "Yeaahh… I don't think it's been a good week for her so far. Also- totally sounded like a pervert there."
Tony just wiggles his eyes suggestively. Harry grimaces, "God- not Hermione. That's just weird. I mean, it took us like four years to realise she was even a girl."
Tony shrugs. It wasn't weird for him to joke about- no pseudo-sibling relationship to worry about there.
"That's…" Steve screws his face up in perplexity, "kind of sad."
Harry makes a shrug with his face (because that is totally a thing, Tony decides), "She was our best friend. Gender just hadn't come into it until then." And on that note, he makes grabby hands at the whiskey bottle in a bid for more alcohol.
Steve pulls it further away, though Tony can tell he's amused by the childish gesture, "Maybe you should wait until it hits p.m. before you drain the entire bottle."
Harry bristles, affronted, "I, am a wizard. Are you saying you don't think I can hold my liquor?"
Steve snorts, half his face twitched upwards in amusement, "Harry," he says, smirking, "I know so."
Harry's mouth forms a little 'o' in surprise, before closing as he takes the challenge head on. His green eyes turn positively evil, which can only spell fun for the two of them. Tony's hand strays to the tumbler glasses sitting underneath the bench. To hell with it only being ten in the morning. It was two p.m. somewhere.
"You, Mister Rogers, have no idea what you've gotten yourself in."
Tony and Harry are prevented from getting hammered by the entrance of Hermione twenty minutes later. She appears unimpressed (but far less stressed, which is a relief) by their raucous laughter and the pervading smell of alcohol surrounding the trio. Steve is (naturally, the bastard) not even remotely inebriated, but has the gall to appear sheepish in the face of the witch's glare. Tony and Harry had taken to elaborately insulting his high metabolism in an attempt to get back at him for his sobriety; good-natured Steve just took it all in his stride, pouring them another glass (which Tony actually suspects he may have watered down at some point, because it doesn't seem to be having as much of an effect as the first few glasses had) in an unspoken challenge (which, in retrospect, probably wasn't one of Capsicle's greatest ideas).
Tony simultaneously hates and respects him for it.
Hermione, apparently, did not.
Wordlessly, she takes the half-empty bottle (still only number one, Tony might add. It was still the middle of the day, after all) and pours it down the kitchen sink. Tony watches the amber liquid- which admittedly hadn't been all that good anyway- splash unceremoniously onto the brushed aluminium surface in despair. He sends her a devastated look but she appears unsympathetic.
"It's not even midday yet."
"It is somewhere."
"But not here." She conjures three glasses of water with her wand and slides them over with a twitch of her too-thin wrist, "You can't afford to be drunk- any of you." She gives Harry a pointed glance and he shifts in his stool sheepishly, "Malfoy will be in New York by this afternoon and we're his welcoming committee. Director Fury would crucify you if any of you came in drunk."
Tony pouts childishly at her, "How would you know, Queenie? I'd have thought he'd prefer the classic hung, drawn and quartered."
She smirks, eyes sparking, "I have my sources."
Steve frowns, staring up at Hermione with his sharp eyes, "They're not bringing him to the Tower."
Hermione snorts, "No, lucky for him."
"They're taking him to SHIELD's New York centre of command." Tony interjects helpfully. Agent Hill had told him when she'd informed them of 33690's identity. Hermione nods primly.
"Yes. Which if Jarvis is correct, means we have a trip to the subway to attend."
Tony wrinkles his nose at the though. He'd had bad experiences with the New York subway system. Not to mention it meant travelling incognito; again.
"There are other ways to get into the New York branch, you know." Hermione sends a smile at the form of Natasha, materialising out of bloody no-where. Harry almost falls off his chair in shock.
"Bloody hell!" He gives Hermione a glare that would probably be more effective if he lost the glasses (and gained some sobriety, come to think of it), "Have you been practicing on her?"
Queenie raises an eyebrow, "Not recently."
"I'm just that good," Natasha smirks, leaning across the bench to grab an apple. Harry scowls as he climbs back onto his stool.
"Drink your water." Hermione says before he can make a comment. A pointed look tells Tony that her order counted for the both of them. Her striking resemblance to Pepper- despite the differences in hair colour, skin tone and choice in footwear- rears its ugly head and he complies to avoid the inevitable feelings of strangled affection that follows.
Satisfied, the witch turns back to her female companion, "There are other ways?"
Romanoff nods smugly, "There's other entrances- for more practical purposes- detainees, vehicles… you know the like. But the subway entrance is by far the coolest. Most New York agents use it."
"So I'm guessing Malfoy's not taking the Tube?"
"Well, the subway it is then."
Tony frowns at Queenie for a moment, "Don't we get any say in this?"
She glances at the now empty bottle, "I think you've already forfeited that right. Besides," she sends him a smile that's temporarily blinding, "I want to see the differences between the American and British undergrounds."
Well… he can't really fault her there. Especially not when she smiles at him like that.
"Which means-" the glasses refill with another flick of her wand- and seriously Tony is never going to get sick of that because bloody hell but isn't it just the coolest thing ever, "-get sober, and get sober fast. Or I will make you sober. And you won't like it- just ask Harry."
Steve's head swivels over to the wizard and Greenbean winces at the threat, "Sobriety spells are the worst."
"They are. So, drink up." Hermione smiles at them sweetly, but it doesn't reach her eyes. Tony wants to wipe the insincere thing off her face- it's oddly disturbing to see such a fake thing on her usually genuine face. Especially after the one she'd sent them just before.
With that she turns around, striding over to the tv area and Tony doesn't ever try to stop his eyes from straying down to the elegant sway of her hips in those expensive jeans (she'd tried to go for the cheapest brands available apparently, but Romanoff had threatened to set them on fire if she did). She has nice legs- elegant and shapely, though a bit on the short side- and she's been slowly putting on weight; though most of her clothes are still slightly ill-fitting.
When he finally tears his probably inappropriate gaze from Hermione's arse, his eyes are drawn to Natasha instead. She's staring at him with a shrewd expression that immediately puts him on edge. That look says 'I know and I'm not afraid of using it against you.' Or at least, that's what it's saying to his overly paranoid mind. What she knows, Tony can only guess at, because if he's honest with himself, he's not even sure of what he knows. Hermione's been dwelling in the corners of his mind for the past week, in a way that he's so far been unable to pin down. It's been unsettling him for days now.
As if mocking him, Nat takes another bite of her apple, her irritatingly astute eyes still glued on him, before smirking and turning to follow Hermione. She throws herself onto the couch next to the brunette with more grace than any human should really possess. Predictably, the tv flicks onto the discovery channel- Queenie's favourite.
Tony checks his watch; roughly seven hours until Malfoy would arrive in New York. More than enough time to get any alcohol out of his system- not that he would have argued that fact with Queenie- not today at any rate. He wouldn't put it past her to tear him a new one just for looking at her funny. Malfoy's appearance, coupled with the evidence (or lack thereof) they'd found in Britain had put her in a shittier mood than ever since last night. It was at the point where he didn't know if he should feel concerned or relieved that she appeared relatively calm and friendly now after her temper tantrum not even an hour ago. He hopes she at least fixed everything she'd broken.
Potentially bipolar witches aside, seven hours is more than enough time to do some experiments. He'd been itching to get some proper readings on Harry and Hermione for over a week now, but the opportunity had never really presented itself. There were too many other things to be addressed. But right now… now was the perfect time to poke and prod at Harry- and take his mind off the impending meeting with pale and pointy Malfoy to boot. Ideally, Hermione was the better subject- for one she had a working wand- but Harry at least was less liable to ask questions all the time.
He grins as he stands. Harry and Steve watch him warily, "Greenbean."
"Mmm?" Harry answers cautiously.
"Have I ever shown the R and D Candyland?" He stares at Tony like he's just sworn at him in Russian.
"I don't even know what R and D stands for."
Steve snorts in amusement and slaps the man on the back. The touch has more force than the super-soldier realises and Harry lurches forward in surprise (or maybe it's just that Harry is a wimp- because really, the man's skinny as a reed and Steve's used to companions who fight monsters for a living). Tony laughs at his startled scowl and grabs him by the arm.
"Come on magic-boy. There is much I have to show you." Harry smiles at the voice Tony puts on in mockery and stands. Tony grins in victory- Greenbean wouldn't know what was coming to him, "Jarvis, find me Bruce. There's drunk science to be made and it can't be done alone."
"Yes sir," comes the ever-faithful- if resigned- answer.
One of the most beautiful things about New Yorkers, Tony's found over the years, is that everyone tends to mind their own business. For a celebrity billionaire come superhero, the modern day aversion with eye-contact and stranger interaction is like discovering the alcohol is free at an ex's wedding. Couple that with the everyman's growing enthrallment with touch-screen phones, and travelling anonymously is made laughably easy.
Even in close-contact scenarios like the subway, you're more likely to find the person next to you five levels deep on Candy Crush or guiltily flicking through the electronic pages of Fifty Shades of Grey than come across someone who even bothers to looks up from the microcosm they call their world. Which- far from being a sad example of the times- makes it way easier to go unnoticed; a plus for the Avengers and Co, because whilst Tony (and to a lesser extent Steve) is used to the attention his face often gets, the others find that the masses of adoring fans makes them jumpy- and trigger happy. And then there was the whole 'keep the stateless magic users anonymous' thing Fury had going on, which Tony thinks is mostly a ploy to ensure that they're not discovered and snapped up by some other agency or organisation before SHIELD manages to coerce them into its jurisdiction and or clutches.
Fury, Tony suspects, takes the 'Finders-keepers' rule very seriously.
They'd made sure to be smart about it today. Even with the high concentration of candy crushers, the likelihood of being noticed was dangerously and inconveniently high. Thor and Birdbrain were remaining at the tower, but the rest of them were going in; in various capacities. Tony and the Capsicle- the most recognisable of their group- were wearing what Hermione had affectionately named hobo haute couture; complete with ratty fingerless gloves, non-descript but equally worn hooded jackets, and in Tony's case, a cotton scarf to wrap around his neck and conceal his goatee. Tony is sweltering in the get-up, and the New York's subway systems aren't exactly known for their mild climates. Steve, on the other end of the carriage (they'd made sure to separate themselves to dilute any attention) looks like he's faring only a little better, but even from here Tony can see the thin sheen on sweat forming on his brow from the oppressive heat.
Bruce- unlikely to be recognised as his alter ego- stands with Harry, Hermione and Natasha in the middle of the carriage, dressed in enviously casual and cool-looking clothes and Tony has been battling with the irrational urge to set him on fire for the last minute and a half. It didn't seem fair that he had to stand there, alone and about to undergo some heat-stroke induced hallucinations, next to some middle-aged woman who was definitely reading some modern equivalent of a mills and boon novel on her phone, when his friend got to stand there, talking amiably with the trans-dimensional travellers, looking for all the world like the air-conditioning in the carriage was actually functioning.
A lesser man would have probably snapped.
Or at least, that's what he's telling himself, because honestly he's feeling shittier by the second, and there's a rapidly growing grudge festering in the pit of his stomach at Hermione for insisting that they take the fucking subway entrance into SHIELD HQ in the first place, which is probably not a good thing. Tony vows to get her back tonight when they get home. Rigging the hot water system, maybe. Or confiscating all the watermelon from the kitchen. That would probably put her in a right snit.
The carriage lurches to the left unexpectedly and he lurches into Lady Softcore Porn Reader. She glances at him momentarily, but says nothing, avoiding eyes which must look half crazed by now. He doesn't bother to apologise. His voice may have given something away anyway. She was probably a fangirl. Fangirls knew these kinds of things.
Natasha had told them to get off at the twelfth stop- he hadn't bothered remembering the name of the station. Tony had been counting them off in his head though, desperately wishing that it would hurry the fuck up, because he didn't even want to think about what he was going to smell like by the end of this.
Eight. Hermione laughs softly at something Bruce says. Harry grins, and the scientist's eyes crinkle at the corners in self-satisfied amusement.
Nine. Steve wipes the sweat from his face, fluffing his faux dirtied shirt surreptitiously in an attempt to get some airflow.
Ten. The train lurches to a stop without warning and Harry crashes into Hermione. Bruce steadies her with a hand at her bad shoulder. She flinches backwards, biting back a cry. A man sitting down watches her reaction with concern over his newspaper but says nothing. She waves away their apologies a moment later, pale-faced but smiling.
Eleven. Natasha catches his gaze- like he wouldn't know which one to get off at. Softcore Porn Lady gets off, smoothing down the back of her skirt self-consciously. A girl with headphones playing music far too loudly takes her place.
Twelve. Tony stands to the side of the doors. Pretending to ignore Bruce and Co, who have moved to stand behind him. The train stops and the doors slide open and Tony stumbles out of the carriage desperately seeking cool air and finding no respite. In resignation he moves over to the vending machine Nat had told them to wait by. He runs a hand through sweaty hair and grimaces. He feels disgusting; summer is only ever good for sunbathing and bikinis, in his strong opinion.
Steve is next to him seconds later, and they share a mutual look of misery. Natasha and her entourage join him not long after as the last of the commuters move up the stairs.
"Don't make me do that again." Are the first words out of his mouth as they reach them, "Do have any idea how hot those things are? I was dying."
Hermione gives him and Steve a look of sympathy, "I could cool you down, if you'd like?" She offers tentatively, unsure of their reactions, "It's only a simple spell."
Tony stares at her for a moment, balancing his options. He could easily say yes and accept the help she's offering, but… his pride is reluctant. Irritatingly so. Hermione shifts uncomfortably beneath his gaze, eyes sliding off to the left at the extended stare. The sentiment is stupid, really, but part of him wants to prove that he doesn't have to say yes, even if it would probably improve his mood. Prove that things don't have to be done with magic, because something tells him Hermione and Harry are used to relying on it a whole lot. And sure, there'd not exactly been a chance for Avengers Initiative to use their magic much, but there's this niggling feeling in the back of his mind that tells him if they were to say yes to every offer either of them made to make their lives easier, he and his teammates would become frighteningly dependant on the pair. And that's not a scenario he'd like to contemplate.
"I'm fine," he says finally, hoping the pause hadn't gone on for too long to make it weird, "Thanks. I'm happy to just complain." He gives her a smirk to allay her concerns/suspicions.
"If you're sure. Steve?" She sounds doubtful, and just a bit surprised, but Harry is watching the exchange with sympathetic eyes. The blonde smiles disarmingly and shakes his head.
"It's not that bad, really."
"If you insist…" Tony doesn't miss the way Hermione seems put out that she couldn't help, and he can't stop the strange mix of uncomfortableness and pride at doing so. Natasha smiles at her reassuringly and pushes past them all to get to the vending machine.
Tony raises an eyebrow, "Feeling peckish?"
He puts two and two together and groans, "Please don't tell me that's where you get the visitor passes."
Because God, but that just seemed too stereotypical of SHIELD.
"It's how you get your visitor passes." Tony wants to cringe at the predictability of SHIELD; hiding things in plain sight stopped being surprising when you did it all of the time.
Natasha ignores his grievances and casually places her hand on the glass adjacent to the operation panel. She presses in her code languidly, like she's done it a million times an in response a bar slides out from inside the glass. The palm scanner moves from the tip of her fingers to the edge of her palm, its small laser sensor barely visible. There's a clunk of machinery from inside, which Tony can only assume is a good thing.
State number of visitors
The account indicator reads and he valiantly resists the urge to roll his eyes. Natasha may be facing away from him, but she's heard him roll them before. It didn't end well. She enters 4#. There's an extended pause, then the tell-tale sound of several hard and thing objects clattering to the floor of the take-out compartment.
She kneels to pull out four plastic MetroCards, "These are only valid for the next ten minutes," she says quietly, passing them along. Hermione and Harry study the cards curiously, "So it's best not to dawdle."
She leads them up the stairs into the station's atrium. People rush through the area, content in ignoring those around them in favour of going places with limited time. Which is useful for SHIELD's purposes. To the right of the platform is a set of turnstiles that offer entrance to another set of stairs and the metal doors of a lift. There are no signs around to indicate their purpose, and most travellers walk straight past without batting an eye.
The signs on the machines say they are out of order; Romanov ignores them, striding over to them without fanfare, and suddenly the passing out of the MetroCards makes perfect sense. She hovers her hand over the red LED X. It turns green a moment later and she passes through the barrier unheeded. Tony suspects they're using an infrared palm-reader. They analysed the veins in the hand, ignoring the traditional process of recording hand and fingerprints.
Steve copies Natasha's actions- his reading would already be in the agency's database, given he was an actual employed agent/specialist of SHIELD and all that (why is beyond Tony. They may have pulled him from the ice and defrosted him, but that didn't mean that he was obliged to work for them because of that). Tony fingers the MetroCard, eyeing the magnetised strip. They were obviously designed to be used as the equivalent of temporary security passes, allowing access to SHIELD via the subway entrance. Bruce has figured the same thing- he can see it in the small smirk that quirks at his lips, but Hermione and Harry seem slightly wary. Tony pins it down to the fact that they don't know the purpose of the MetroCards.
"Like this," Tony says to the pair, pretending that he's done this a million times before. He waves the card in front of them and steps towards the turnstiles, sliding the magnetised strip through the slot on top. The X turns green and he grins in victory. Queenie is right behind him, as sharp as ever. She eyes the lift speculatively as she copies Tony and glides through the turnstile.
"Easy as pie." He can't help but quip.
"Mmm," she replies absentmindedly, still staring at the lift. A small smile touches her lips when Harry and Bruce come through, "Don't you think it's like the Ministry?" She asks, turning to the wizard, "Hiding in plain sight for all to see?"
Greenbean grins, "Yeah, it was just like them to do this sort of thing." He nods to Steve, who'd been more than keen in hearing stories about their old life, "The visitor's entrance for the Ministry used to be this old phone booth. You had to squeeze inside with your visitors and out would come these little badges. Then whoosh-" he makes a swooshing motion with his hands and Steve smiles, "-the booth drops down like a bloody bullet! I thought it was awesome when I was fifteen… or at least-" he frowns slightly, "- I did in hindsight."
"Great story that, but can you leave it for another time?" Natasha calls from inside the elevator. She holds an arm between the doors to stop them from closing. They move inside quickly.
"It's more comfortable." Hermione remarks when they're inside. It's not particularly spacious with six people in Tony's opinion, but he puts in down to low standards.
"Even when they upgraded the entrances it was cramped as buggery in the Ministry." Steve snorts in amusement as Natasha presses the button for the third floor. The doors slide shut silently and the elevator drops down.
So SHIELD NYC was an underground base? That, Tony had to admit, was kind of cool- in a kitsch kind of way. He probably should have known that already, in reality, but he'd never been bothered to look it up. There were better things to do with his time, like digging up SHIELD's dirty little secrets or daring Thor to see how many Twinkies he could eat in three minutes- for science, of course.
They move down slowly- Tony can hear the gears clunking in the walls- but it seems that as the door closed, so did his companion's desire to talk. The cramped space falls into an excruciating level of awkward silence, with everyone valiantly trying to avoid each other's gaze. If it weren't for the fact that the silence was ridiculously oppressive, he would have started laughing. This was why he had Jarvis play his music in all the lifts of his tower.
The elevator stops and the doors open before he can say something stupid.
Soo, there's one more chapter left in part one of this story. So far, the Great Expectations Universe will be split into four parts (I love AO3 for this; it's more or less impossible to link them so easily on ffn). After chapter twenty-three goes up, I'll be going on a three week break, to rebuild my back-log. But then it's back in business- if only to the end of part two.
Deputy Director Maria Hill is waiting for them in what Tony can only call SHIELD's equivalent of a conference room, in that it looks the same as your usual boardroom- with its overly large table and an abundance of mildly uncomfortable chairs- but made up for the initial conventionality of the room by making it twice the size with half the furniture to fill it, and stuffing it with a crap load of screens; most of which have been inserted in the table itself. Tony wouldn't be surprised if there were a holographic projector or three in there somewhere too.
Which he bets will be all kinds of fun to replace with taxpayers dollars when one of their magic users inevitably blew a fuse and burnt out every piece of technology in the room. And then some. Even with Queenie and Greenbean's apparent good moods, Tony has the unmistakable feeling that today is going to go off, and not in the good way. If he were a betting man, he'd put his money down on Potter. Queenie may have a short fuse, but what he'd witnessed of her magic so far was restrained and controlled. Harry (who did have another wand, it turned out, but he's so far refused to use it, on what he claimed was principle but what Tony suspected was fear, which seemed irrational given the reaction he'd had to the last wand) on the other hand, held his magic to him like a cloak, and more than a few times, when they were all emotionally strung out like strings on a guitar, Tony could feel the fizzle in the air and the taste of ozone on his lips.
Hermione smiles fondly at the Agent when they enter- they'd been friendly during her time on the helicarrier, "Commander Hill! It's a pleasure to see you again."
Hill offers her a smirk, "It's good to see you too Ms Granger."
Tony kind of respects Hermione for not doing the stereotypical thing and insist on being called by her first name. The woman had style.
"Pity it's not under better circumstances-" you never meet with SHIELD under better circumstances, "- But I thank-you for retrieving Malfoy." He doesn't miss the slight hesitation between the 'retrieving' and 'Malfoy'.
"Malfoy was a potential threat were he to be left alone." Which was probably SHIELD's way of saying 'don't mention it'.
"What will happen to him?" Harry asks as Hermione moves around the table to sit down. The screen activates when she taps her fingers on the glass impatiently and she withdraws her hand sheepishly.
Hill's arm ever so slightly stutters in its gesturing movement for them to take their seats, "Malfoy's Welcome Wagon encountered some… resistance when asked to accompany them. He was sedated for the safety of himself and the team."
Hermione and Harry just roll their eyes, and the Agent seems to relax ever so slightly at the lack of response.
"His wand was removed from his person as soon as he went under. We've kept him in a secure cell since. I'd prefer to keep him here until we can determine if he's a threat or not. It's a…" she pauses, searching for the right words, "delicate matter; according to your accounts he saved you, but our agents on the ground felt that he displayed a certain level of hostility. SHIELD would prefer to hold a positive relationship with you and yours, but we don't think it would be advantageous to allow him to be allowed out into the public at this moment in time. And certainly not whilst armed."
Hermione leans back coolly, "I understand your reluctance, Commander Hill. But please, don't take his wariness personally; Draco Malfoy is an abrasive man at the best of times. High stress situations like ours were bound to be met with distrust. I don't believe Malfoy would have acted outside of reason, but it was likely fortunate your agents defused the situation before it could get out of hand. I trust we can negotiate some freedoms for him whilst you assess his character." Her brown eyes are hooded, but sharp as razors and Tony can see why Harry often deferred to the woman's judgement. It was more than clear that she didn't like the man, but here she was talking the talk like a seasoned defense attorney, for a man she disliked enough to go on a destruction spree on her bedroom for.
Hill seems unfazed by the business-like tone the witch's voice has gained. If anything, she is pleased, "That should be possible. We won't return his wand to him, however. For obvious reasons."
Hermione gives her a sharp nod, "I understand. But Malfoy should be given the freedom to walk about this facility; keeping him locked away like a common prisoner when he has done no wrong to you does nothing but harm for our… alliance." Hermione almost grimaces at the word; he can see it in the way her lips press together. She doesn't like the term, for some reason.
Hill stays silent for a long moment, thinking on it, "I can assign him some guards, to accompany him at all times. But there are places no one has free reign to visit. And we aren't babysitters. If they are needed elsewhere, he will be detained until they return."
Hermione shrugs, "That's acceptable. I'd like him to be assigned to Harry and I, when you're confident you can let him leave this facility. We're the best equipped at handling people with our kind of abilities. And you will not hold onto his wand indefinitely. Nor will you study it without our written permission."
"I'll have to refer to the Director on those requests."
Agent Hill smiles, "He asked to see the two of you."
"Did he?" And suddenly, Queenie's voice is all sickly sweet, layered with the kind of syrupy words that you shouldn't go near with a ten foot pole.
"As soon as he woke up. More or less demanded it." To his right, Harry snorts in amusement.
"I bet he did. And will you? Let him see us?"
I'd like to speak to him," Hermione remarks coldly, "There are answers I'd like to get from him."
Agent Hill nods, "We were willing to allow a meeting, were you to agree, yes."
"Now?" Harry asks, a little impolitely. The Deputy Director just smiles approvingly. She turns to the side out of reflex as she issues commands into her ear-com.
"He'll be brought up soon." The magic users nod in satisfaction and the woman's gaze turns curious, "So how's it going? I read the report from Scotland."
"Good," Harry replies slowly- Hermione leans back in her chair and chooses to say nothing, "We had already expected there to be nothing here. Finding the castle was definitely a surprise. It's odd to be back in the Mu- the usual world, but it would be nice to get out a bit more."
Tony just barely refrains himself from rolling his eyes petulantly. Harry's idea of 'getting out a bit more' involved buggering off to find himself a job. It was shamelessly plebeian of him.
"Speaking of which- we've assigned a few of our researchers to do a little digging. There are a few characters they've been able to find in the history books that we can possibly attribute to your universe."
Hermione sits up straight again, "Really? Have they found any pattern to their original appearances?"
"So far they've only found a few candidates. All of the accounts are hundreds of years old, but from what they've found so far, there's no clear pattern. Some are from Europe, a couple from America. There's one account from the Middle East."
"I'd like to talk to them at some point, if it's possible."
"I can give you a referral. They're based in London."
"Oh," she sinks back down in her seat, disappointed, "Well could you have someone send me their reports when you have the time? I'd love to see what they've got so far."
A short buzz from the table breaks the mind-numbingly awkward conversation. Tony breathes a sigh of relief. That had felt somewhat painful. Agent Hill glances at the table, where the image of the men standing outside is displayed. They're not quite visible from Tony's vantage point. She presses a button.
"We have Mr Malfoy for you Ma'am." The voice sounds tinny and artificial through the small speaker. Half the team straighten in their seats- for various reasons, Tony's sure. The Deputy Director sends them a thin smile.
"Send him in."
The sound of a chair scraping loudly across cheap commercial carpet masks the tsnk of the door on their side of the room sliding open as Hermione stands. He sees the movement out of the corner of his eye; he and the rest of the room have their eyes trained on the door. Four men stand just outside of the doorway; three of them are obviously SHIELD agents, with their conspicuously placed weapons and military-like stances. And their uniforms. That was probably also a giveaway. Two of them sandwich the fourth man, and the third looms behind him, at least half a foot taller.
The middle man is presumably Malfoy. He stands in a way sorely reminiscent of Loki, and Tony automatically flinches at the thought. It's true though; he can see the similarities between the men, with shoulders set rigid and straight, and countered by the fluid grace of their limbs. His hands are un-cuffed, but there are the tell-tale red marks lining his wrists that show they weren't always free. His hair is so blonde it's almost white, swept to the side casually in a style oddly similar to Steve's. He studies them in the typical way elitists consider others; staring down his nose with thinly veiled contempt. His gaze lingers on Harry and Hermione.
"Potter; Granger. Good to see you're both alive." Malfoy remarks, striding into the room as if he owned the place. The agents stand to attention on either side of the doors. Tony already wants him gone. There's way too much Loki in him for his own good.
"You." She breathes from across the room. The blonde studies her a moment, eyes raking over her form in a way that sets Tony's teeth on edge. He smirks.
"Careful there Granger. Wouldn't want you popping an artery so close to your valiant retrieval."
"Saved me?" The pair meet halfway; Queenie vibrating with emotion, hair bristling like an angry cat, and Malfoy- the picture of composure. She grabs the front of his shirt violently, "You bloody bastard. Do you have any idea- any idea- what you've done?"
"Why Hermione," Malfoy sneers, unaffected by his proximity to the seething witch, "Keeping your dignity as usual, I see."
The hard crack of her slap seems to echo through the room.
The blonde reels back, released from her grasp. He cups the side of his face in shock for a long moment, before wiping the blood away from his lip, scowling fiercely.
"Fucking hell Granger. It's only an alternate universe. If you want to go back, all you have to do is find the fucking Ministry and walk through their Veil. Problem solved."
Queenie hisses at him, eyes flashing dangerously and the way her fist is curling makes him think she might punch the man next. Harry is suddenly at her side, tugging the furious woman behind him. He looks far calmer than the witch, but his jaw is clenched and there's a muscle in his throat that tics regularly.
"You don't understand- there is no wizarding community here, Malfoy. There's no Ministry, there's noVeil, and there is no way home."
The blonde freezes and stares back at him, his composure quickly disappearing.
"How can there be no wizards? Did you look?"
"OF COURSE WE FUCKING LOOKED!" Jesus, but doesn't that girl have a set of lungs on her. He almost feels guilty to the newcomer. Almost.
Malfoy wipes at his face again, taking in the new information. He staggers over to the closest chair- which happens to be Hermione's old one- and collapses into it, staring at the duo like they've just told him his mother's died.
"Well shit's the right of it Draco Malfoy! We had a life! It was our world!"
Malfoy bristles and leaps back up; the antagonism returning to him easily, "And shit," he sneers, "But wasn't it such a great life you were living? Potter forced into hiding by yet another group of psychopaths and Granger- the golden girl who's not been laid in a fucking decade."
Harry has to forcibly restrain Hermione from cursing the blonde man. Unfortunately for Malfoy, with Potter's attention focussed on Queenie, Tony takes it upon himself to jump to the witch's defence instead. He grabs the blond by the neck and pushes him along until his back slams against the wall. The wizard's pale hands rise to scrabble at his ruthless grasp in surprise.
"You shut the fuck up," he snarls, the wiry muscles in his arms bulging satisfyingly, "I don't know who the hell you think you are, but don't you dare talk to her like that again!"
Malfoy stills and eyes the genius warily, not panicking at the choking hold Tony has on his neck. His upper lips curls in disdain even as his pale skin flushes at the pressure on his throat.
"Tony," Hermione warns beside him, placing a placating hand on his shoulder though her voice is still simmering with anger, "Let him go."
Tony complies with barely contained disgust. Who even said things like that? Queenie hadn't deserved to be spoken to like that, and the blonde shit had said everything right to rub him up the wrong way. Malfoy breathes in deeply the moment his hands withdraw, rubbing at the reddening skin of his neck with a grimace.
"Forget what I said Granger. I guess you move fast now there's no Prophet watching your every move."
Tony can't stop the animalistic snarl the escapes, moving forward again as Malfoy goads him with his eyes. Hermione's arm flies out and catches the back of his shirt.
"No Tony. He's not worth it."
"Tch- easy for you to say Granger."
"Shut-up Malfoy." Miraculously, he complies, though Tony pegs it down more to the wand pointed right between his eyes that any sense of obedience.
In the silence that follows, Harry glances at the men who'd accompanied Malfoy. His face reddens, realising exactly how they'd acted in front of a group of strangers, and people who were pretty close to. He clears his throat, turning to Agent Hill, "Can ah… can these men be trusted?"
Tony snorts as he sits back down, "Bit late for that now, don't you think?" Harry scowls at him.
"Agents Baird, Singer and Kincaid have been assigned as Mr Malfoy's guard for the immediate future. They have had full disclosure of your… backgrounds and abilities."
Malfoy raises and eyebrow and regards the men in amusement, "Well aren't you three lucky. What'd you lot do to pull that sort of job?"
"These agents are the best equipped men in this facility to deal with anything you may throw at them." Commander Hill's voice is sharp and stern in what Tony's guessing is an imitation of Fury.
"And I suppose I'd be planning on doing a lot of things that will require their intervention?"
She regards him coolly, "You tell me."
Malfoy moves to sit at the end of the table, isolating himself from everyone else in the room (bar his guards). He grins wickedly, "Well, if I get my hands on that retrieval team…"
"Agent Ward acted perfectly within his bounds."
"He shot me! In the shoulder- I could have died!"
"Agent FitzSimmon's bullets are designed to break immediately upon impact with the subcutaneous tissue. The dendrotoxin introduced to the bloodstream is harmless in such small amounts."
"The case still stands that the bastard shot me. It was unnecessary."
"You were going to pull your own weapon. Ward's pre-emptive action prevented anyone from being harmed and ensured that you would meet your companions as quickly as possible." Malfoy can't fault the woman there, and the sour lemon look on his face says he realises it.
"Then what do you plan on doing to me?" he asks, mulishly admitting defeat.
"Let you out- if you play nice. But until we decide that you're not a threat to Earth and its people, you're in our custody."
"Well that's just great, Nurse Ratched. I look forward to my indefinite captivity."
"Since when have you read muggle literature?" Hermione cuts in, disbelieving.
"Please Granger; my father may have been a bigot, but I didn't live with my head in the sand. Muggles have always been far superior at writing fiction."
"So, my wand? Can I expect to see that any time in the near future?"
"When you are released, we will return it."
"Lovely. I'm a hobo and defenceless."
"Ah," Tony interjects in complete contradiction of his last actions and entirely unable to stop his mouth, "but you're a hobo with an entourage. It could be worse." Malfoy's razor sharp gaze transfers to him, and Tony is reminded of the first time he met Queenie.
"And you are?"
He smirks at the blonde, "Tony Stark. It seems none us have been introduced yet."
Harry clears his throat, his face still slightly red in embarrassment, "Er, right. Malfoy, this is Commander Hill, Deputy Director of SHIELD. And this is Agent Natasha Romanov, Captain Steve Rogers, Doctor Bruce Banner, and- uh- Tony Stark. They're our-"
"-Housemates." Tony offers, before the wizard can come up with something unintelligent.
"Ah- right. We've been staying with them this past week." And gone on a few roadtrips.
"And what makes you so special to be let out on good behaviour?"
"Uhh… Good behaviour I guess." Malfoy's eyes close for a moment, as if composing himself, before he turns to Queenie to find answers.
"We're still not free to do as we please," she admits, shrugging away the implications of that phrase with a slight toss of her unmanageable hair, "But we do have some liberties. Think of it like witness protection, if you like," The downwards turn of Malfoy's lips says that he doesn't, "And Tony, Bruce, Steve- Natasha- they're the first muggles I've met that wouldn't struggle to meet us on equal ground."
Tony feels oddly honoured and indignant at the revelation.
The blonde stares down at his lap, the contrariety that had so far been a constant expression on his face momentarily absent. By the time he looks back up it's back in full force, "Can I expect to see the two of your more then?" The tone of his voice sounds as though he's rather he didn't and automatically makes Tony sceptical.
Harry smiles at the man like he sees right through him; he probably does, "I'd dare say so."
The line of Malfoy's shoulders relaxes infinitesimally. As though breaking through some indeterminable threshold, Hermione slouches into her seat, sighing heavily.
"Malfoy, why did you do it?" Her words are tremulous, tentative and entirely un-Hermione-like, "We had friends; family. All of us."
The sneer returns, "Friends can be replaced. And what family? The Potters have been dead for decades, and your father died a year ago."
"That doesn't mean we were alone! We had the Weasleys."
"Please, it's been common knowledge for years now that that ship sailed a long time ago. Neither of you have been attached to the remaining brood for years."
"Malfoy." Harry warns, the tone of his voice dangerous. The blonde scoffs.
"Oh face it Potter, I did the two of you a favour. In reality I've had the most to lose from falling through the Veil." His face takes on a wistful cast, "I was going to be their king. The fallen Malfoy saves the wizarding world on the verge of the third wizarding war, whilst Potter and his ilk hid away, twiddling their thumbs, content in watching the world end. I would have been the noble spy- like Severus- sacrificing my happiness for the greater good. They were going to worship me. And, unlike you, I was going to take full advantage of that adoration."
Hermione and Harry stare at the blonde, aghast, but Tony just wants to laugh. It was one of the most ridiculous things he'd heard all week, and yet part of him can't help but think that it could well have worked. From what he'd heard of their universe, magic users seemed pretty content in supporting anything the papers put forward to them. Including genocide. Why shouldn't they have taken this Malfoy asshole on as their future leader?
"That… that is so- so twisted." Hermione breathes. Malfoy sends her a wicked grin, all teeth.
"I know." He says in delight. His face suddenly falls, "And it would have been glorious, had you not fucking led me into the Death Chamber."
"Me? I didn't lead you there you prat! That was purely your doing! What were you doing leading us into the Department of Mysteries anyway!"
"I'd heard on the grapevine that one of your lackeys had been developing an artefact that could bypass the anti-apparition wards without destroying them. I needed to get out of there but didn't want the others getting away too."
Hermione stares at him for a long moment, the gears in her head clearly whirring away, "You bastard," she gasps, "You've got an informant!"
Malfoy looks unimpressed, "That this hasn't occurred to you before now makes me think that maybe you're not as smart as you've been lauded as. Of course I had an informant… fat lot of good it does me now."
"Who is it?"
Harry moves forward, resting his hand on her shoulder, "Leave it Hermione. It doesn't matter now anyway." She glares venomously at the wizard, but doesn't protest. Harry turns back to Malfoy, staunchly avoiding the death-glare and Tony applauds him for the effort, "Why did you save us, Malfoy?"
A pause as the blonde's eyes carry across the room. He looks like he's tossing up whether to tell the truth or not.
"Because if they'd killed you- either of you- you would have turned into martyrs. It was bad enough that Weasley died." Queenie visibly flinches, "You were supposed to remain in hiding, allowing the masses to grow resentful of your non-cooperation. You were never supposed to have even been caught, but it's not as if I had complete control over their actions- I was only ever their manipulator."
Tony blinks in shock. That was probably the most astute thing to come out of Malfoy's mouth so far. It was a surprisingly insightful view of human nature, coming from the man who'd only moment before been fantasizing over a public that adored him, for very vague reasons. Tony bet it hadn't even occurred to Greenbean that his people would have resented his self-induced isolation policy. He glances around the room; his teammates are all considering him in a new light- especially Steve, who'd so far taken to the antagonistic man about as well as he first had to Tony. Now there's a deeply thoughtful look on his face that has him wishing he knew what the super-soldier was thinking.
He looks at the others. Harry and Hermione look shocked, like they hadn't even expected that level of candidness from the blonde wizard. Maria Hill is sitting back in her chair, eyes narrowed warily. Two of the other agents are impassive, but the other- Agent Baird, his patch says- is smiling slightly, as though Malfoy's words were amusing. When Tony catches his eye, the man turns his head fully towards him, the smile growing slightly wider, and winks.
Tony stares; the smile turns into a leer.
What, the fuck.
Malfoy clears his throat when the stunned silence becomes too uncomfortably, "So," Tony tears his eyes away from the weirdo agent, "What's the deal here? They the same, or wildly different?"
Harry shakes off his dumbfounded expression, "The same; more or less. Muggle history is somewhat identical- in the parts that matter, anyhow. They're at least five years ahead of us technology-wise. And they've got mutants instead of wizards."
A look of disgust spreads across the blonde wizard's face. Harry laughs and stands up.
"Not that kind of mutant." He amends, "More like people born with special abilities- like super-healing, or telekinesis or controlling the weather. Others have, like, physical mutations- claws, blue skin, tongues like frogs! There's even this one mutant who can turn into metal!"
It's so odd, watching Harry move about and speak with all the enthusiasm of a teenager- for once matching the youthful façade he wears- when he knows the man is 33.
Malfoy's look of disgust morphs into a nose wrinkled in disbelief, "You're still not selling the concept to me."
"Even cooler; they have superheroes!" Tony can see Bruce and the rest of his team shifting uncomfortably in their seats. He kind of hopes the man doesn't go all fanboy on them. He had to live with them, for christssake. Harry's arm extends backwards, gesturing to everyone seated at the conference table (Goddammit), "There are people here taken straight out of a comic book-" the blank look on Malfoys face tells Tony he's probably never even read a comic before, "-and best of all, they're all mugg-"
Harry suddenly freezes mid-speech, as though in the middle of forgetting his lines.
The agent who'd winked at Tony suddenly smiles, the wicked curl of his lips manic and unhinged. For a moment Tony sees a flicker of green; the momentary impression of a face that shouldn't be there and in the next instant he knows the man is Loki, masquerading as Agent Baird.
His stomach drops.
"Get away from him!" He snarls, bursting away from his seat as though possessed, but not fast enough and Steve has already launched himself halfway across the room but he's still too slow- still too fucking slow as Loki draws the agent's handgun ( and a gun, why a gun? Guns weren't Loki's style they were too dramatic with not nearly the right kind of theatricality!)
Loki's grin just grows wider. A careless hand swats Steve against the far wall, before the super-soldier can even reach them.
"Your help's been much appreciated." He gloats, maliciously cheerful. He levels the gun at an immobilised Harry almost lazily, point blank range. His finger squeezes as if in slow motion.
The shattering CRACK that rips and tears at them echoes in his skull for hours; days. Blood, thick and red, splatters across the wall behind them.
Harry staggers and falls to the ground, clutching at his destroyed chest. Hermione cries out somewhere to Tony's left as Loki turns his head to stare straight at him.
"Later, Stark." He remarks, still grinning like a nutjob. He lowers the gun to point at Harry's chest once again- the wizard is twitching on the ground, eyes wide and terrified.
The Asgardian pulls the trigger again, and in the space between the second deafening CRACK and Tony reaching the dying wizard, both Loki and Harry are gone.
Please don't kill me.
Part two of this series (yet to be named) won't be posted for another three weeks. Until then, people are stuck with a cliffhanger. 'Cause I'm a shameless bitch.
Sorry Not Sorry