Well, I'm back again, and with a surprisingly long chapter, surprisingly early. Almost back to my old fortnightly update rate (15 days, to be precise). That… probably won't last. Lots of this was written already. Still, lockdown had to be good for something, eh?
This chapter is a bit classic cooldown, a bit an attempt to… well, not exactly wrap it in a bow, because this isn't a 'resolve in one' scenario (there's going to be loads of emotional fallout), but all three of the trio will get at least some time both strung out and then more emotionally at peace. Even if in Ron's case, it's in reverse order. Poor Ron, I'm horrible to him.
Oh, and there's surprising amounts of Sirius. Those who wondered what I'd done with him, wonder no longer – he may not be a main character, but he's certainly a recurring character sufficient to make impact.
There's also a bit of an experimental element in the last scene, involving a bit of playing with tenses. I hope it works out.
FOR TIMELINE CLARITY: the end of this chapter takes place AFTER 'Unfinished Business'. So, the next few chapters of that will, probably, be what's coming next. For those of you who missed that entirely, 'Unfinished Business' is this book's equivalent of 'Chaos Reigns', except that this side-story is Carol-centric, involves a lot of Peter Parker, and is set in New Orleans. Near Project Pegasus, in fact…
Lucifer666: It comes to the same, very irritating, thing.
The return to the castle was relatively uneventful, and this was not entirely surprising, since most of those present were either tired or exhausted – or, in the case of Hermione, blissfully unconscious. She had been descended upon by Madam Pomfrey (darkly muttering about students and their insatiable need to put themselves in trouble) and a selection of serious look Healers in MI13 uniforms, who had sequestered her in a curtained off bed.
Truthfully, they didn't have too much to do. Ron and Krum's injuries mostly extended to bruising, cuts, scrapes, and tiredness. Harry's were a bit more dramatic, what with his currently metallic arm, but as he pointed out, it was functioning just fine and would likely need more complex treatment, so others could be prioritised. After an extensive and mostly telepathic argument with his newly arrived and thoroughly displeased bodyguard, this point had been conceded and Bucky had backed him up.
Therefore, most of the focus was on Hermione. She had been broadly fine when she'd been 'decanted' back into her body. Yes, she had promptly conked out, but that could be put down to the exhaustion of having its every limit surpassed, its every ability over-extended, finally catching up with her. Of greater concern were the side-effects of persistent and reckless chaos magic usage on her physiology, right down to the sub-atomic level. Considering that she would likely need a lot of healing (or scanning, at least), even with the remains of the bronze being peeled off of her, this was considered a mercy.
It also postponed some very awkward questions, from her, at least.
Krum's questions were also postponed by the arrival of a for once justifiably worried and angry Professor Karkaroff, who met them in the Hospital Wing before beginning to berate Dumbledore.
"All your promises, all these preparations, and once again, my student is in danger because of one of you, Dumbledore!" he shouted.
"Professor," Krum said, trying to cut in.
This was firmly ignored. Harry's planned intervention would not have been, but Dumbledore stilled him with a mere look, and given that he was the one being berated, Harry subsided. As it was, Hogwarts' Headmaster seemed entirely willing to wait out the eloquent vituperation and soliloquies on betrayal, right up until the point where Karkaroff crossed a line.
" – and I am willing to bet that it was that girl," Karkaroff spat, loading the last word with so much acidic contempt it could have burnt through titanium. "She is nothing, nothing but trouble, you can see it in the chaos she brings, the boys she attaches herself to, like that one –" he gesticulated at Harry, who had tensed. " – and now Viktor. I tried to warn him about her, that she was chaos-spawn, how she would clearly lead him into the same trouble that your student attracts, but he would not listen –"
It was just one word. It was not loud, and it was not even remotely aggressive. But, Harry would later observe, it was very, very definite. Karkaroff's mouth snapped shut of its own volition, sparing further spittle and the sight of his yellowing teeth, and Harry's urge to beat him to a pulp was stayed, as Dumbledore, who had until then be seated, towered up to his full height.
It should not have been that intimidating, even considering how tall the man was, what with how he was still wearing a dressing gown – one that was by now rather the worse for wear. Yet there was something about the eyes. Before, they had been patient, showing an amiable willingness to let Karkaroff air his frustrations until he calmed down and they could talk like reasonable people. Now? Now, they burned, and Karkaroff quailed before him.
"You are angry with me, Igor, and you have a right to be," Dumbledore said, voice somehow being simultaneously as soft and reasonable as any diplomat's, while also conveying all the ominous threat of a creaking ice-shelf. "You are owed an explanation, and I will give it to you, if you will allow me to do so."
His gaze met Karkaroff's, and the other man looked away.
"But I will not allow you to insult my student and cast aspersions upon her character. Mr Krum was not summoned by me, or by Miss Granger. He came out of concern for her, yes, after he was alerted to the danger by Mr Weasley, who did so after he had been sent to keep him out of harm's way."
His gaze slid pointedly to Ron, who flushed, but raised his chin defiantly. Then, he glanced at Krum, who looked furious, embarrassed, and… frightened.
"He came, ill-advised though it was, of his own will and his own desire," Dumbledore continued. "While I would have preferred that he was not there, I will not deny his achievement: he was instrumental in binding and subduing an extremely powerful and dangerous spirit that had possessed Miss Granger. He fought a man's fight today, Igor – you should be proud of him."
Karkaroff blinked, thrown, and Dumbledore went on, implacable.
"Your student was in danger tonight," he said. "This I do not deny. If I could have sent him away again, I would have done. You have a right to be worried, and, yes, angry. As I said, we shall discuss this." His gaze flicked to Krum, then Ron. "Though that discussion will also include the fact that he is of an age to make his own decisions, and he involved himself of his own volition." His gaze returned to Karkaroff, and hardened once more. "We shall also discuss your language towards my student. I will expect a full apology."
Karkaroff purpled, indignant rage overriding fear. "Dumbledore, I am –"
"A guest under my roof, Igor," Dumbledore said, cold and hard as permafrost. "One who has abused one of my students, and thereby my hospitality. You should be thankful, we all should be thankful, that she was not awake. If she had been, then the consequences would have been considerably greater." He leaned forward. "As it is, Igor, an apology is owed, perhaps ten minutes of your time, and a pledge never to use such language or make such insinuations again. That is all."
Karkaroff, face mottled with fear and anger, nodded curtly, and turned to Krum. "Viktor… Viktor?"
Because Krum was staring at Harry. Or, more accurately, Harry was staring intently at Krum, and some silent but deeply meaningful communication was passing between them. Finally, Krum's gaze flicked up to Karkaroff, before flicking back to Harry, who gave him a minute but encouraging nod.
"I vill vait here, Professor," he said. There was a hint of waver in it, but only a hint. "Until Herm-own-ninny is better." He glanced at Dumbledore. "Vith Professor Dumbledore's permission, of course."
Karkaroff blinked. "Viktor," he said. "Your… girl will be fine. Come."
He half-turned, clearly expecting Krum to follow, but the young man did not.
"I believe she vill, Professor," Krum said, and the waver was gone. Instead, his shoulders were squared and he was looking his teacher in the eye. "And I vill be vanting an apology, too. For me, and for her. Your vords vere uncalled for. And they vere wrong."
Karkaroff's eyes blazed, and he took half a step towards Krum, when he felt a solid hand on his shoulder, and looked up into the cold grey eyes of Sirius Black, who had apparently materialised out of nowhere. There was an ominous half moment as Karkaroff drew himself up, and a flicker of movement sent his eyes darting back to Krum.
The Durmstrang champion was now flanked by Harry, who had most certainly not been there a mere instant before. His emerald green eyes showed no sign of the exhaustion visible on his drained face. Instead, they were both resolute and calculating. Calculating what exactly was not known, but the impression was that it was a matter of distance – namely, between his hands and the older man's thoat. It was certainly enough to give Karkaroff pause.
"You are entirely welcome at Hogwarts, Mr Krum," Dumbledore said quietly, breaking the tension. "As you always will be. Igor, I believe that you will have some thinking to do, as we all will. If you would like a nightcap, I will gladly join you for one in my office. If not, then I am sure that Sirius would be happy to show you to your ship." He eyed a speculative looking Sirius pointedly. "As quickly and as smoothly as possible."
Karkaroff inhaled sharply, then whirled, shaking off Sirius' hand as he stalked out.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," Sirius growled.
"Sirius," Dumbledore said warningly.
"You were thinking it," Sirius said, shrugging.
"I do not feel that any departure on bad terms is 'good riddance', Sirius," Dumbledore said sharply. "So, no. I was not thinking it."
Dumbledore eyed Harry, who shrugged, utterly unrepentant, and Ron, who was looking somewhat nervous, but like he'd been thinking much the same thing.
"Harry," he said reprovingly.
Harry, once again, looked unrepentant. "He got off lightly, Professor," he said.
"I doubt that he will share your opinion," Dumbledore said evenly.
"He will if Wanda hears about it," Sirius said dryly. "She is Hermione's… teacher after all."
There was a slight moment of hesitation there. Only slight, but enough of one that both Harry and Dumbledore shot him warning looks.
Everyone turned to Ron, who swallowed.
"I mean," he said. "Is that all she is? I know that Hermione's a muggleborn, but… maybe they're related?"
"What makes you say that, Mr Weasley?" Dumbledore asked.
"Well," Ron said slowly. "She's got chaos magic. Which isn't usual, is it?"
"It is not," Dumbledore conceded.
"And Harry mentioned that he thought Hermione was a mutant," Ron said, then paused. "No, he said Hermione was a mutant." He looked at Harry, eyes narrowed. "You said it like you knew."
Harry shrugged. "I could feel it wasn't magic," he said. "It was the logical assumption."
Ron frowned, but nodded. "I think I know what you mean," he said slowly. "Half the things that thing did… they didn't feel like magic. Not even chaos magic."
"You can feel magic?" Sirius asked, surprised.
Ron shrugged uncomfortably. "A little?" he ventured. "I mean, I can feel what chaos magic is like. It feels… weird."
"But you recognise it when you feel it," Dumbledore said, and Ron, despite it not being a question, nodded. "That is interesting. Are you particularly magically sensitive, Mr Weasley?"
Ron's eyes widened. "No, definitely not, Professor," he said.
Dumbledore regarded him for a moment. "Perhaps the better question might have been 'are you aware that you are particularly magically sensitive?'" he said.
Dumbledore smiled slightly. "Well, as I am sure you can tell from the surprised expressions of Sirius and Mr Krum, you are," he said. "Such senses are not common. The ability to interpret what they are telling you at such a comparatively tender age, in the midst of one of the more bizarre experiences I have undergone since I faced Grindelwald for the final time, is even less so."
As if on instinct, Ron darted a glance at Harry, who raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, I have super senses. No, I'm not in any way normal. In fact, I'm pretty bloody unique," he said. "Don't compare yourself to me." He tilted his head and looked at Ron thoughtfully. "You're pretty unique too, really. And no, I'm not just saying that."
Ron, who'd scowled, snapped his mouth shut and shifted uncomfortably under Harry's penetratingly thoughtful stare.
"Well, whatever I can sense, Hermione has chaos magic and she's probably a mutant too," he said. "Just like Mistress Maximoff. And if you squint, they even look a little bit alike. I know that Hermione's supposed to be a Muggleborn, but… what if she isn't? Or, what if she is muggleborn, sort of, but still related?" He looked at Harry and Dumbledore. "That's what you think, isn't it, Harry, Professor? Neither of you was surprised."
"You advance an interesting argument, Mr Weasley," Dumbledore said mildly. "And a well-reasoned one. I should commend your teachers – you have clearly learned well how to structure a thesis."
Ron frowned at Dumbledore's amiably impenetrable expression, then turned to Harry, who was wearing a variant on the mild, polite, nothing-to-see-here expression that had been perfected by Natasha. Eventually, the latter caved, if only a little.
"I've suspected that she's a mutant for a while," Harry said. "Though I didn't expect… that."
"Vot vas that?" Krum asked, before hesitating as he caught Dumbledore's eye and ducking his head. "If I may ask, Professor."
"Never be afraid to ask, Mr Krum," Dumbledore said, and there was something gentle in his voice. "If you do not ask, you will not learn. You are still a student, and though your examinations have been waived, there is no reason for you not to do so here." He smiled slightly. "I believe that you have already availed yourself of our library on a number of occasions."
"As for what it was," Dumbledore said. "I believe it was a form of spatial manipulation. In the simplest terms, it involves shaping the world around you."
"A lot of what the Fortress was doing was spatial manipulation," Harry supplied quietly. "Before it possessed Hermione, I mean. Transporting people all over the place, sending you down when you were running up, making six metres like six hundred, sending you into a maze of corridors… basic spatial manipulation."
"Basic?" Ron asked, voice a strangled squeak.
"Basic," Harry repeated flatly.
"Harry is indeed correct," Dumbledore said softly. "Hogwarts' own dimensions are somewhat mutable – doors that change location, windows that look out onto different vistas, and the staircases, of course. Then there is the small matter of being bigger on the inside. A lot of magic touches upon spatial manipulation, Mr Weasley." He glanced at Hermione. "And while we cannot be certain of their breadth, Hermione's abilities seem to do a great deal more than that."
"Vot about their power?" Krum asked quietly.
"Omega Class," Harry said, then, at Krum's raised eyebrow, shrugged one shoulder. "There's a good chance she's every bit as powerful as I am. Maybe more."
"Maybe?" Ron asked, implying quite strongly that maybe Harry was understating things.
"I was holding back, Ron," Harry said. "I didn't want to hurt her. Or kill her, come to that. Her mind and soul were safe in my head, but her body was another matter, and resurrection's a tricky business."
Ron stared in a mixture of bafflement and outright horror – not just at the content, but the disturbingly casual tone.
"She could be stronger, of course," Harry continued. "In terms of actual energy she's summoning up. She doesn't have my stamina, though, which isn't exactly surprising – first time she's done this, or had it done to her, and she's crashed, which'll happen the next few times she does it." He tilted his head critically, studying Hermione. "She's also physically human, and I'm not. I can hold more, for longer."
He shrugged again.
"Not like it matters," he said. "The level we're on, it can be a bit hard to tell, unless the power difference is massive or your abilities work pretty much the same way. It's how I know that Jean and Maddie are so much stronger than I am: we're all psychics, after all. Speaking of, we don't even know half of what she can actually do, yet."
"That, out in the Forest, that wasn't it?" Ron asked, startled.
"No, Mr Weasley, I do not believe it was," Dumbledore said. "I will consult with some experts. In the meantime…" He flicked his wand at Hermione, and a white light glimmered around her for a moment, before fading. "It is best to ensure that she gets some rest."
Harry, who'd watched the spell, raised a professional eyebrow. "No bad dreams?"
"Hopefully not," Dumbledore said. "Though neither of us has the ability to entirely prevent them…"
Harry opened his mouth.
"… without long term consequences."
Harry grudgingly closed it again.
"If her abilities should flare up, the grounding spells will manage them," Dumbledore continued. "Now, I suspect we shall be having visitors soon, given that Director Wisdom was kind enough to call Hermione's parents –" The subtext of 'in between swearing a blue streak and cursing the combination of the X-Gene, Chaos Magic, and Doctor fucking Strange' went loudly unspoken. " –and Professor McGonagall has done the same to your mother, Mr Weasley. Harry, Sergeant Barnes has informed your father, though I suspect that your godmother will beat him here."
Harry glanced at Hermione and half-smiled. Ron, who had winced at the thought of his mother's overprotectiveness, noticed and once again frowned.
"Mr Krum," Dumbledore finished. "Madam Pomfrey will accommodate should you wish to stay, though should you wish otherwise, there will be a bed waiting for you in the boys dormitory in Gryffindor Tower, with all of your things beside it. Sirius, I leave them in your capable hands."
Then he swept out, his dressing gown – which he was still wearing – flaring out behind him in a way that somehow managed to be majestic rather than ridiculous.
This left a rather awkward group in the Hospital Wing. However, the Hospital Wing was still the Hospital Wing, and Healers were still Healers, and more to the point, Harry was still Harry. Since Hermione had now been stabilised, until expert assistance (i.e. Doctor Strange and Wanda Maximoff) could be solicited, they had turned to the matter of reversing the transfiguration on Harry's arm.
"Human transfiguration is dangerous at the best of times, Mr Potter," Madam Pomfrey said sharply. "Especially when it is into something supposedly non-organic." She eyed his arm pointedly, clearly begging many questions, to which Harry just shrugged.
"I don't know how it works," he said unhelpfully. "It was done by chaos magic – that's just point and go, if you're strong enough and crazy enough."
"Then the world clearly missed a great practitioner of it in you," the nurse muttered darkly.
Harry opened his mouth to object, then soured. "Touché," he grumbled. "How long will it take to fix it?"
"As long as it takes, Mr Thorson, and not a moment less."
"Somehow, I thought you'd say that."
Ron and Krum, meanwhile, were given pointed looks and told they could leave. However, no one spared much effort to turf them out, beyond the corridor immediately outside and by mutual silent agreement, they decided to remain. They had questions, and odds were pretty good that Harry had the answers.
"How are you doing?"
Ron looked up in some surprise. He hadn't really expected anyone to come looking for him, not once it had been established he was alright. For once, it didn't bother him in the slightest: Hermione had been possessed by the spirit of the Fallen Fortress, which had then proceeded to throw around all kinds of power in a very spirited attempt to kill Harry, who had been left exhausted and thoroughly mangled by the attempt to contain and, once reinforcements arrived, exorcise her.
By contrast, the worst he'd had to endure was a very unpleasant conversation, some nasty scares, a lot of running, a few cracked ribs and an attempt to strangle him. Once Madam Pomfrey had fixed his ribs (or fixed Harry's fix of his ribs, anyway) and fed him something horrible for the bruising, he'd been fine. Or at least, that's what he told himself. He was fine. Words said in the dark did not count.
Of all those who might come and find him, Sirius Black was not one of them. He didn't know him, not really. Those occasions he'd been to Avengers Tower, then Avengers Mansion, Black hadn't been present. He knew of Black, certainly, and after Black had been revealed to have been framed for betraying the Potters and murdering over a dozen muggles by Peter Pettigrew, his parents had mentioned him a few times.
A powerful wizard, they'd said. Wild and mischievous, reckless and sometimes foolish, but brave, talented, and fearsomely loyal, and close enough, alike enough, to James Potter - now Thor - to pass for brothers. That last part was part of why Ron was so surprised: surely Sirius would want to be at his godson's side, whether he was needed or not.
The other part was, of course, the fact that Peter Pettigrew had been in hiding as Scabbers, the Weasley family's pet rat, for over a decade. Ron had never been noted for his emotional acuity, but he wasn't an idiot, either. Besides, he didn't like the association with Scabbers on the best of days, and this certainly wasn't one of those.
"Mr Black," he said, a little uncertain as the older man sat down next to him. "I'm fine, thanks."
Sirius Black looked sceptical. He also looked older than his years, enough that even Ron could see it. He certainly didn't look like the half-mad skeletal wreck with a gaunt face and burning eyes that had appeared on the cover of the Prophet after his escape from Azkaban.
Now, most would consider him a normal, if handsome, wizard. But there was an edge of that gauntness in his cheekbones, a shadow in his eyes, a depth to the lines on his face... all signs that Azkaban had taken more than its fair share of years from Sirius Black. This was a perspicacious observation for anyone, let alone a teenager. But then, Ron had an advantage: in this particular respect, godfather and godson were uncannily alike.
"Really, I am," Ron insisted. "It didn't have me for long, and it mostly just wanted to..." He trailed off.
"Play with you," Sirius said quietly, and Ron's head snapped up. "It was playing with you, Mr Weasley."
"I'm pretty sure it wanted me dead," Ron said, rubbing his throat. The bruises were fading. The memory of the monster with his best friend's face snapping his wand and choking him almost to death was not, but he was trying to ignore that. He wasn't succeeding.
"It did," Sirius agreed. "But it wanted you dead a certain way. Cats play with their prey to make it easier to kill. That thing was doing just the same, to all of us."
"You and Harry didn't seem to have a problem," Ron said, a touch sourly. He knew it wasn't fair, but while he was fine, he wasn't fine enough to be all that fair with someone he didn't even really know. "Neither did Hermione."
Sirius eyed him. "Miss M - Miss Granger," he said, stumbling over his words for a second, before shifting gear. "Had problems of her own. It wasn't trying with her the same way it was with the three of us. Unlike us, she didn't have the same kinds of open wounds to exploit, and in any case, it decided to possess her."
He sighed. "As for me and Harry, you shouldn't be comparing yourself to us. We've both had our heads fucked with enough that it's a wonder there's anything left. That means wounds, but it also means defences. Not just Harry's mental powers, though I'm sure that those helped. I mean practice in handling that kind of pain. Time enough that the wounds have turned into scars. It's what happens, if you give it long enough. Faster, with help." He half-smiled. "That, or it festers and you go mad. I wouldn't recommend that. Madness gets boring after a while."
"I'll try and avoid it, then," Ron muttered, before looking at Sirius. "Mr Black -"
"Call me Sirius, Mr Weasley."
"If you call me Ron."
Sirius smiled. "All right, Ron. What is it?"
"No offence, but why are you here? Talking to me? I thought you'd have been with Harry."
Sirius chuckled. "It's a fair question," he said. "Truth is, right now, Harry doesn't need me. He was a little shaken, but he's fine now." He rolled his eyes over to Ron, who stared defiantly back. "Anyway, he actually found the actual experience with the spirit a bit cathartic. Helped him work out a few issues. I found the same thing, actually. Wouldn't recommend it as a therapy tool, but it's better than some ideas I've heard..."
Ron couldn't stop a snort of laughter, and got another smile from Sirius.
"Mostly, he's busy worrying about Miss Granger, Hermione," he said. "And not entirely without reason. I've seen a few possessions, and while that wasn't the very worst of them, it was one of the nastier ones." He glanced down towards the Hospital Wing. "More to the point, it's brought to light a few things. Not bad, necessarily, but I can't imagine the fallout being pleasant, and rightly so..." He trailed off, and Ron frowned.
"Mr - Sirius?"
Sirius blinked, then shook his head, sighing. "Nothing," he said. "Well, not nothing. It's definitely something; more secrets coming to light, secrets and lies that've been left for far too long. You'll find out soon enough, I can't imagine how it'll stay a secret, from you least of all."
"Does Harry already know?" Ron asked, resigned.
"He does," Sirius said. "Probably has for a while. He gets that from his mum. James was, is, pretty smart, but Lily saw things. She had her blindspots, Harry too, but both of them pick up on far more than they let on. And they're both very good at keeping it to themselves, if needs be."
"He didn't always," Ron said, surprised at how sad he sounded. "I mean, he spotted things, yeah, but he didn't hide them. Not from me."
"He's changing," Sirius said quietly, and Ron nodded regretfully. "That's the other reason I wanted to talk to you."
Ron looked up sharply. "What do you mean?"
Sirius stared into the distance for a moment, then said, "from what I've been told, Harry's your best friend. The two of you have been practically inseparable since you first got on the Hogwarts Express. You've explored the Castle inside out, finding a few places that even we didn't get into at school, the Forest too, and got into a load of trouble in the process." He snorted. "Even me, James, Remus, and the rat never managed to crash a flying car into a tree."
Ron flushed, but he couldn't stop a small smile. As he did, though, he wondered where Sirius was going with this, and said so.
"I'll get to it," the older man said. "Anyway, you two are close as brothers, even closer than you are to most of your brothers unless I miss my guess. Then, one day, you turn around, time's gone by, and you're still you. But the person you loved like a brother? He seems like he's someone else half the time. While sometimes, there's moments, even days, when it's like it always was, it isn't anymore. He still cares, but, he's got other friends, other family, with connections running deeper than you can match..."
Ron swallowed. There was a lump in his throat. It wasn't going away.
"... and there's not a thing you can do about it," Sirius finished, and Ron looked up into his sympathetic expression. "You're not the only one going through this, Ron."
"You and Thor - James Potter?" Ron ventured, after a moment.
Sirius nodded. "We were all but brothers, once," he said. "I even ended up moving in with him after I ran away from home. His parents were a damn sight better to me than my own were, same way yours were to Harry over that wretched aunt and uncle of his."
This last came out in a snarl, before he shook himself.
"I was James' best man, his closest back-up in battle... and Harry's godfather. Then him and Lily died, the rat framed me, and I spent twelve years in Azkaban. I got out, and next thing I know, my best friend is back from the dead. Even Lily's not exactly dead, and certainly not gone. I got to know my godson." He chuckled wryly. "At first, it was almost like Azkaban was a nightmare, and at long last, I'd woken up. But it's not that simple. My best friend was still James, but he'd been Thor for a lot longer than he'd been James. In a lot of ways, there's not all that much difference. Sometimes, when he looks the way he used to, it's easy to forget that he's a god well past his first millennium, with a brother and a bunch of best mates who've been around almost as long, and someone else he looks like he's going to marry. Sometimes, when it's just me, him, and Remus, it's almost like old times."
He sighed again.
"And sometimes, it's like someone else just walked into his life and took his place. Not often. But sometimes." He looked very directly at Ron. "You've had a few moments like that yourself." It wasn't a question, but Ron answered it all the same.
"A few," he said. "Moments. Hours. Even a few days, he's like his old self. Most times, though... he's changed." He shook his head irritably. "I understand why," he said in the tone of someone who has had this oft explained to him. "A lot's happened to him that hasn't happened to me." He paused. "A few things have happened to me, too, that haven't happened to him." He grimaced. "He's got new family, new friends. Not witches and wizards - except for Mistress Maximoff - but gods and mutants and whatever else. His girlfriend's hardly known him five minutes, and they've got this mental connection. And..."
"And you don't want to be left behind," Sirius said quietly. "To lose your best friend."
Ron would have dismissed this from most. He didn't here, though. Not from someone who really seemed to get it
"People change over time," Sirius said. "It's annoyingly simplistic, but true. As it is, though, my godson likes watching this muggle television show. It's very complicated and I'm pretty sure that the main character is based on Doctor Strange – it's the kind of thing he'd do. But the gist of it is that this character is an alien. And every time he dies, he does something called 'regeneration': he changes into someone else. Sort of like a phoenix, really. Except that at the time, he doesn't. He looks different, he acts a bit differently – sometimes a lot differently – but fundamentally, he's still the same man. That's how I choose to see James. See Thor."
He stood up.
"Harry's a bit more simple than that," he said, and grinned when Ron snorted. "Oh, he acts all complicated, but in the end, he's just changing the way most people change - though maybe a bit faster, given the circumstances." He shrugged. "Still. Maybe it might help if you saw Harry like that: different on the surface..."
"... but the same underneath," Ron finished slowly, and looked up at the other man. "I think I get it. Thank you, Mr - Sirius."
"Glad to help."
Sometime later, Harry emerged, experimentally rotating his once more fleshy left arm, which seemed a bit pale, but otherwise none the worse for wear. As soon as he entered the corridor, he stopped, taking in the scene: Ron and Krum sitting against the wall, valiantly trying to stay awake, and Sirius half dozing on his feet.
Then, Harry sighed. "Look, you have questions, both of you," he said, startling them both into full wakefulness. Sirius' eyes just snapped open, clear and quick as if he'd just closed them in thought. "I can feel them bubbling off you. Questions that probably won't wait. So, let's get this over with. Hermione's going to be dead to the world for hours, and would be even if Dumbledore hadn't ensured it. That's what happens when you hit the wall for the first time, and Hermione didn't so much 'hit it' as get smashed through it, and then the wall after that. She'll stay down, unless we disturb her. Which I'd rather we didn't."
"You think that's likely?" Sirius asked.
"I think that there might be shouting," Harry said dryly. "Any suggestions about somewhere to talk without being overheard? I'll ask Dobby for sandwiches or something."
"I know a place," Sirius said.
Indeed he did. Despite having not been a student for fifteen years, Sirius led the students through the castle with almost unconscious ease. There was a minor hiccup when Filch stepped out and opened his mouth to condemn "students out of bed" and gleefully prepare a no doubt disgusting punishment.
However, that one that was quickly resolved when Harry let out a disgusted noise filled with the irritability of the very tired who know that their labours aren't over.
"Sod this," he said.
Then, he waved a hand in front of Filch's eyes, which unfocused. Remarkably, so did Mrs Norris'.
"These are not the droids you are looking for," he said in a level voice.
"These are not the droids I am looking for," Filch mumbled obediently.
"Miaow," said Mrs Norris.
"You can go and annoy someone else now," Harry said.
"I can go and annoy someone else now."
Filch and Mrs Norris headed off down the corridor, gazes still slightly unfocused.
There was a long silence, as everyone stared at Harry.
"What? Carol force-fed me all the Star Wars films. Twice."
Sirius snorted, while Ron and Krum looked baffled – and in Krum's case, a little wary.
Harry rolled his eyes. "It's a suggestion, not a compulsion," he said. "Influence, not command."
"Like a Confundus Charm, or a Muggle-Repelling Charm," Sirius said.
"But milder, yes," Harry agreed. "Now, that room?"
'That room' turned out to be on the seventh floor, and only appeared after Sirius paced up and down in front of what seemed to be a blank stone wall.
"The Room of Requirement," he said. "It turns itself into anything you need it to be."
"Anything?" Ron asked, impressed.
"As far as I know," Sirius said, shrugging.
"Impressive," Krum murmured, before focusing on Harry, who raised a finger, his eyes flaring gold briefly. A couple of moments later, a large buffet table appeared out of nowhere with a faint crack, full of sandwiches, snacks, and several jugs of water and pumpkin juice.
Next to it was a cheerful House Elf, dressed in a mismatched assortment of fluffy and nauseatingly colourful festive jumpers, a blue and yellow bobble hat, a pair of pink running shorts, and what looked like a pair of home-knitted socks. One was red and bore a series of snitches on it, while the other, somewhat to Harry's embarrassment, was blue and covered in images of Mjolnir. The theme was not hard to discern.
"Will that be all, Harry Potter?" he asked, bowing.
"That's more than enough, thanks, Dobby," Harry said. "I hope you didn't mind the… well, the telepathy. I just wanted to make sure you were awake before calling you. Also, you don't have to bow."
Dobby grinned in delight, increasing his resemblance to a bizarre Christmas ornament that had escaped being taken down.
"Dobby does not mind, sir," the House Elf said. "Dobby is always happy to help!"
"Thanks," Harry said. "You, uh, go and get some sleep now."
The House Elf bowed again, ignoring Harry's aggrieved sigh, and vanished with a crack.
"Strange little things, House Elves," Ron said, after a moment.
Krum snorted. "That vun is stranger than most," he said, with conviction.
"I've met stranger," Sirius said. "Not by much, mind."
"Dobby's all right," Harry said firmly. "Unless he's trying to save your life."
"He got me imprisoned, stopped me from getting the train to Hogwarts, then put me in the Hospital Wing, all to try and get me out of Hogwarts because he thought my life was in danger," Harry said. "I freed him and asked him not to try and save my life again, and, thank the gods, he listened."
"He was yours?" Sirius asked, surprised. "Lily and James –"
"He was the Malfoy House Elf," Harry corrected him. "I may have tricked Lucius into freeing him at the end of my Second Year."
Sirius let out a loud belly laugh. "I'm guessing he didn't take that well," he said.
"He may have tried to curse me," Harry said, shrugging. "Dobby blasted him down the stairs." His eyes shadowed. "Considering that he'd just tried to get Ginny killed in one of the most horrific ways possible, out of sheer spite, I think he got off lightly."
"Should have broken his neck," Ron agreed bitterly.
"It would have saved us all a lot of trouble," Harry observed, summoning a bacon and egg sandwich. Anyway, he continued psychically while industriously chewing. You had questions?
"Yeah," Ron said, as Krum decided that he would sacrifice priority of question in exchange for priority of food. "You're keeping something from me," Ron accused.
Harry shrugged, still chewing.
"You're not even going to deny it?!"
Harry rolled his eyes.
Ron, would you actually believe me if I did?
Ron frowned, and Harry spread his arms.
Exactly my point. You wouldn't believe me, so why bother wasting the time and the effort?
"For the same reason you keep things from me," Ron said sourly.
You assume I only have one reason.
Ron glared at him. "Do you always have to come out with something snappy?" he bit out. "Like it's funny?"
Harry raised a finger, swallowed, then sighed loudly. "Ron, you have seen my life," he said. "That thing in the Fortress, for instance. For you? Year defining and nightmare-inspiring, and with good reason. For me? Just another Tuesday." He leaned back against the wall. "It's not normal, Ron. It's not sane, and people aren't meant to live that way. Asgardians, yes, which is why dad and uncle Loki tend to be fine. Everyone else? They cope in their own way. Dumbledore acts, well, like Dumbledore. Sirius..."
He glanced at his godfather, who shrugged.
"Sometimes, it's jokes," he said candidly. "Though I regressed a little after I came out of Azkaban. Retreated to the past, you know?"
Ron and Krum didn't, but they didn't enquire.
"Remus tends to stick his head in books, keeps up this well-behaved 'everything's fine, honest', act," Sirius continued. "He makes jokes at his own expense too, sometimes."
"Clint and Natasha compartmentalise," Harry continued, nodding at his godfather. "Steve tends to bottle things up. Tony's... well, Tony. Doctor Strange makes jokes, though he's a bit loopy on a good day. I cope better these days, with the actual violence – being half Asgardian might help, these days. But it's not just violence."
He smiled a smile that did not reach his eyes.
"With me, it's never just violence. So, I make jokes. And that's because if I didn't make jokes, I would go insane. I've been insane, Ron, and trust me, it's not fun. So, I'm stuck with jokes."
Ron was silent for a long time. "How many?" he asked eventually.
"How many what?"
"How many secrets are you keeping from me?"
Harry sighed. "Ron... you want my real, true, and completely and utterly honest answer?" he asked. "You probably won't like it, but I promise, it will be the truth."
Another sigh, deeper and far more weary. "I've lost count."
Sirius winced, as Ron narrowed his eyes, and Harry took another bite to avoid his friend's gaze.
"Hermione's a mutant," Ron said accusingly.
Harry raised an eyebrow, then made a gesture that quite eloquently said, 'yes, and?'
"You've known for a while."
Harry continued chewing and looked inscrutable. This was a difficult feat to pull off, but somehow, he was managing it.
"You have," Ron persisted, temper rising. "Don't try it, Harry, I know that you knew, you and Dumbledore both."
Harry swallowed and raised an eyebrow. "Why do you think that?"
Ron shot him a very flat, very impatient look. "Because if you hadn't known, at least you'd have been bloody well surprised when she turned out to be one!" he said irritably.
"Harry," Sirius said quietly.
Harry met his godfather's gaze, then sighed.
"I knew," he said. "Well, I knew that she'd almost certainly be one. I couldn't be perfectly certain."
"But you knew," Ron said. "Because she's related to Mistress Maximoff?"
"Because she is Mistress Maximoff's daughter."
Everyone turned to stare at Krum. The Bulgarian student had, until now, been watching the tense dialogue and devouring several chicken sandwiches. Now, brushing off his hands, he fixed Harry with a very definite look, one that whispered, 'I know'.
"What?" Ron asked, baffled. "Hermione's a muggleborn! Maybe she's related, but… Harry?"
Harry had frozen. Not in the way of people, but in the way of statues or predators.
"Herm-own-ninny is the daughter of Wanda Maximoff," Krum said, carefully pronouncing Wanda's first name, and apparently ignoring Ron.
Harry's eyes flickered between Krum and Ron, before darting up to Sirius, who grimaced, then darting back again. They looked conflicted, cornered, and all of a sudden, very, very tired. Eventually, he sighed and rubbed at his eyes, and Ron, who'd been about to scoff, stared at Harry in incredulity.
"Wait, she is?" he demanded, shocked.
Harry nodded tiredly. "I told her people would start noticing," he said, sounding old beyond his years.
"You knew," Ron said accusingly.
"I figured it out," Harry corrected.
"After the First Task," Harry said.
Ron snorted sceptically.
"I suspected before, but I didn't know until just after the First Task," Harry clarified irritably.
"Why didn't you say?" Ron demanded. "Didn't Hermione deserve to know?"
"She did," Harry said sharply. "But it wasn't my call. I confronted Wanda, she admitted the truth, and asked me not to say anything. We agreed that if Hermione figured it out, I could confirm it, but nothing else. Frankly, I shouldn't be telling you this now, but it's not like there's anything I can really do, short of wiping your memories. Which… well. There'd be reason for it."
"Vhy?" Krum asked, interrupting an angry looking Ron.
"Wanda has more enemies than you can possibly imagine, many of them for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Doctor Strange or the position of Sorceress Supreme," Harry said flatly. "Her father has plenty to add to the list, and if half the stories I've heard about him are true, Hermione's father adds a whole lot more. When Hermione was born, Wanda could handle herself, but not look after someone else. It's why she gave both me and Hermione up, so we'd have a chance. She also wanted Hermione to have a normal life."
He shrugged and grabbed another sandwich, this one containing pork, mustard, apple sauce, and more calories than anyone other than a power-lifter or a teenager should be able to safely consume.
"As you might guess," he said, muffled. "That one's now gone out the window." He swallowed. "Still, credit for trying."
"Who else knows?" Ron demanded.
"Professor Dumbledore, dad, Wisdom, Fury, Bucky, and Strange definitely know," Harry said. "Sirius, obviously."
"And Remus," Sirius supplied.
Harry nodded. "Mum did, too. I'd be surprised if uncle Loki hadn't worked it out. Oh, and Carol."
"Carol?!" Ron exploded."Why would she know? She's –"
"Got a backdoor into my head, Ron," Harry snapped, cutting Ron's indignation off at the knees. "Wanda said I could tell her if she figured it out, because she was always going to pick it up from me the moment both her and Hermione were in the same room as me, and lo and behold, that's exactly what fucking happened."
"Backdoor?" Krum asked, uncertain.
Harry sighed. "Carol and I have a psychic connection," he explained. "Our minds are linked. It happened about six months or so ago – she was having some bad nightmares, and I was trying to help." He smiled wryly. "Unfortunately, while I'm one of the most powerful psychics ever to live, I'm probably also one of the clumsiest. I went too deep and… our minds mixed too much. Now, if we're close enough, we start talking mind to mind without even realising that we're not talking out loud, and if we're, um…" He went a little pink. "Feeling something strongly enough, it crosses the link."
Sirius smirked. Harry shot him a half-hearted glare, before looking back at Krum.
"If we really have to, we can make it work across the Atlantic," he said. "Though I'd rather not end up having to do that again. Anyway, at the Yule Ball, Hermione… well, Hermione was all made up in a red dress, and aside from the eyes, she looked like Wanda in miniature. I knew by then, but… well. It was a bit of a shock. And Carol was standing right next to me, so she couldn't exactly miss it."
Krum frowned pensively, but nodded.
"Which doesn't explain how you worked it out," Harry added pointedly.
Krum shrugged. "She has chaos magic. She looks like Mistress Maximoff," he said. "If she vas just another Maximoff, then there vould be no need to hide it."
Harry stared at him for a long moment. "Fair enough," he said eventually.
"Vot did you mean by her father?" Krum asked. "Mistress Maximoff's?"
"Her dad's Magneto," Harry said.
Krum went white.
"He's reformed. Mostly. Promise."
Krum did not look entirely reassured.
"And Herm-own-ninny's?" he asked faintly.
"Er," Harry said, and coughed. "John Constantine."
Krum managed to go even paler, as Ron, finally having decided to give in to his growling stomach, choked on a pork pie.
"So," Harry said, with the manic brightness of the truly strung out, clapping his hands and summoning a plate of sandwiches the rough size of his torso, with a jug of water balanced precariously on top. "That's that explained. See what I meant about enemies? Now, any indignation, irritation, or feelings of betrayal are going to have to wait, because I'm pretty much only standing up because I'm thinking really hard and I want to eat something before I collapse."
With that, he vanished.
Looking back, Harry would realise that he should probably have saved that entire conversation for the next day. Not just because it would have saved explaining everything twice, though that was a factor. Likewise, giving everyone time to settle after all that had happened would have been wise.
Being exhausted, however, and desiring to just get it over with, he had not done that. Not completely. Krum had taken up the promised bed in the Gryffindor boys' dormitory to the bleary delight of Harry and Ron's fellow fourth years the next morning, and had seemed quite content with what he'd found out. This was, it might be ventured, because he had not expected to be told earlier. Ron, on the other hand, was a very different matter. And in that matter, Harry had instead unwittingly stirred the pot still further.
Furthermore, in exiting the way he did, he did not so much cool off Ron's feelings (which were zig-zagging between hurt, inchoate anger, a sense of betrayal, and utter bewilderment) as exacerbate them. Instead of resting, if bubbling with questions, Ron had spent the night stewing over what had once been abstract and was now unarguable fact: his best friend had lied to him.
Harry had lied to him, and to Hermione – particularly to Hermione, in this case – about something that really mattered to them. Not something that could conceivably be set aside as not their business, something they didn't need to know, but something that went to the core of who Hermione was and had nearly got them all killed.
Of course he was going to stew over that.
As, in fact, had Hermione.
Hermione was not generally known for her intuition, which was perhaps a little unfair. It was true, she didn't have the same knack for it that Harry, or even Ron, did. It was also true that she defaulted to logic and reason whenever she could. But her sense of intuition was more than serviceable enough to tell her that something was wrong. And from there, logic could do its work.
All her life, she had known that she was the daughter of Jonathan and Emily Granger, mild-mannered dentists. This had been an unquestionable fact. She somewhat resembled both parents, and there were no clear signs that she was anything but. There pictures of her as a newborn, and she'd even briefly met the midwife who'd delivered her when her parents had taken her into hospital for a check-up.
Yes, she was a witch, but that was easily explained – she was a muggleborn. As she had theorised after reading the work of Hank McCoy, Charles Xavier, and Moira MacTaggert on the X-Gene and hearing explanations (such as they were) from Professor McGonagall, it was not so different from being a mutant, really: the potential built up over the generations, and eventually, with due encouragement by environment and circumstances, it manifested.
And so it had been for the following couple of years.
But then spanners had increasingly been thrown into the works: Loki, Prince of Asgard, God of Magic, had picked her out as an apprentice, apparently on a whim. She had manifested Chaos Magic, on levels unmatched since Wanda Maximoff herself, who was the most powerful chaos mage in centuries, if not millennia.
Her passing resemblance to Wanda Maximoff had grown as her appearance had changed, subtly and steadily, under the subconscious influence of her Chaos Magic. Wanda had been manoeuvred into teaching her by Doctor Strange, and had clearly been unhappy at that, yet at the same time had seemed to enjoy the time they spent together, while still remaining a little distant and nervous – almost as if it was against her better judgment and she was somehow scared of doing something wrong.
And now, she had manifested a mutant power. A very, very strong mutant power. Of the same kind of strength as, say, Wanda Maximoff's. Which had been forced into life by a thing that had possessed her body and run it like a puppet. Meanwhile, Lily Potter, Harry's mother and one of the most powerful beings in existence, had chosen to have a chat with her inside Harry's own head – an unusual choice at the best of times, but now, when Harry was particularly cagey about anything to do with his Phoenix fragment? Unusual indeed. And in that chat, she had hinted at reasons to keep an eye on Hermione in her own right, rather than just as an associate of Harry's, and that while she should open up to Wanda, after all of that she would have reasons not to open up to her specifically – or Harry, come to that.
All the pieces began to fall into horrifying place. The variables of the equation of Hermione Granger had changed. So too did the answer.
Final confirmation came when she was visited the next morning by her parents, Wanda, Professor Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, Viktor, Ron, and Harry, who was once again shadowed by Sergeant Barnes.
"You knew, didn't you?" she said in a low, bitter voice. "What I am. Who I am. You all knew."
The reactions sealed the fate of any last remaining doubts and clinging, desperate, fragmentary hopes.
McGonagall looked honestly baffled.
The rest, though… Viktor at least, had the decency to grimace. Ron looked surprised, then shot Harry a bitterly angry look, which was studiously ignored. Harry's eyebrows had shot up, and he actually had the gall to look mildly impressed, underscored by sadness, something made even worse by the fact that Dumbledore was wearing the exact same expression. Barnes was a study in non-expression. Her parents looked shocked, but not surprised – instead, they seemed almost as if they were dreading it. And Wanda… Wanda looked alarmingly fragile, like she was made of the thinnest spun glass, and even the slightest tap of the fingers might make her shatter.
"Hermione," she whispered, before swallowing, and starting out again, stronger. "Miss Granger –"
"Why call me that?" Hermione spat. "After all, shouldn't it be 'Miss Maximoff'?"
McGonagall gasped, as Wanda flinched.
"I'm not stupid," she said, before letting out a sharp laugh. "Or am I? After all, it's been right under my nose for over a year now, and I never realised. Chaos magic. A face like, but not like, yours. All sorts of powerful people taking an interest in me. And now, a mutation. I figured it out. But really, I should have seen this a long time ago. But I didn't, and you know why? Because I trusted you. I trusted you all and you lied to me!"
Her voice rose to an outraged scream as tears began to flow.
"All of you! Well, maybe not all," she added, scrupulously accurate even in her grief and righteous fury. "But so many of you… you lied to me. Why?"
There was a long moment of silence. Wanda especially tried to find the words, but none seemed forthcoming, her expression helpless and beginning to be stained with its own tears.
"TELL ME!" Hermione screamed, chaos-red lightning crackling off her in huge static sparks.
"Because I made them."
Hermione's attention, and that of everyone else, focused on Wanda. If she'd been a glass statue before, then now she was one covered in cracks. Forget a brush of the fingers, a tap of the hand – even the faintest breeze would leave nothing but shards behind. And yet, though her face was drawn and wet with tears, aged beyond its years by stress and the pain of a wound a decade and a half old being ripped open and filled with salt water, her voice low and thick with pain, it was clear and she stood steady. Let it never be said that Doctor Strange did not impart in his students an adequate degree of his famed composure in the face of adversity.
"I made them," she repeated thickly. "So blame me. If you want to blame anyone, blame me. I more than deserve it."
There was another long silence, but uglier than before, ominous and jagged, as if no matter where the conversation fell, there would be blood, pain, and lasting wounds, with words lodged deep inside like shrapnel or glass.
Hermione took a deep breath.
Wanda wanted her blame? Very well. There was plenty to go around.
It was now early afternoon, already fading pale Winter sunlight streaming through the windows of the Hospital Wing. It was the weekend, so there were no classes, and there was no ban on visitors. Yet Hermione was alone. That was fine. She had, after all, said that she wanted to be alone. She'd insisted on it, in a voice hoarse from raging and screaming and softer words laced with bitter venom that had it been less metaphorical would have turned steel into latticework.
At first, it had been more or less a monologue, with most of the participants simply standing and taking it, as if her outrage was something to be endured and waited out, which had made her even more angry, chaos magic flaring again and again, always stifled by the wards around her. Part of her was thankful for those wards, while another part resented them, wanting her powers to howl and rage as much as she did, consequences be damned. After all, they'd spent so long lying to her about who and what she really was, and this, this was their consequence, so they should damn well live with all of it.
When she had stopped generalising and started really laying into Wanda especially, Harry had (predictably, she thought bitterly, because of course he'd already chosen his side) bit back in her defence, before Ron had snapped back on her behalf and against him, saying something about secrets, beginning a three-way shouting match that Wanda had desperately tried to end and mediate, one which was only properly ended when Barnes had very firmly escorted both Harry and Ron out, hands gripping their shoulders like vices, mouth moving as he issued a steady stream of low, intense and undeniable commands as he marched them out the door.
Eventually, they had all left, partly thanks to Madam Pomfrey's appalled intervention, partly thanks to her banishing them herself. Friends (liars!), boyfriend (innocently ignorant… probably), family (the worst liars of them all!), even teachers (including her mother – no, not her mother, never!). All were gone, at her command – her demand.
It was what she wanted, she told herself firmly, and anyone who said differently was wrong. Not just wrong, but entirely illogical. Why would she want to talk to anyone right now?
Because, you want someone to listen, just like you always have, a small voice suggested slyly.
She had to stop and think for several long moments before realising that this was 'just' her own thoughts, and choked out a sobbing laugh at having to do so. Was this what had become of her life? When she didn't even know which thoughts were hers, and when those thoughts that were hers risked crumpling the fabric of reality like paper?
Her parents would be here this evening. She didn't want to see them either. She was sure about that, just as she was sure that she didn't want to anyone else, not even those who genuinely hadn't known the truth. She was sure as sure could be, she thought. A dull ache of loneliness? An irrational surge of relief at hearing that her parents were coming? Nope. She hadn't felt that at all.
"I'm fine sorting things out on my own," she said to herself, quietly, firmly, and if there was a hint of wobble in her voice, then that was mere coincidence. "It's better this way. Easier."
"I am afraid that I have to disagree."
Hermione yelped, fat sparks of crimson red magic flying out onto the bed, which flexed as if the world was bending around it, before snapping back into place as if nothing had happened. Precautions had been taken.
"It often seems that way to begin with," Professor Dumbledore continued mildly, setting aside his book, as if he had not just witnessed one of his students almost accidentally bend reality. "But in my experience, it is a great deal lonelier, and more painful." He inclined his head, studying Hermione with those piercing blue eyes that seemed to see right through you. "There are times when we must be alone with our thoughts. Sometimes, it is quite restful. But this is not one of them."
Hermione glowered. Normally, she would never have dreamed of even blinking disrespectfully at Professor Dumbledore, but now was not normally. For one thing, she found it very hard to believe that he had not known – and, therefore, had hidden the truth from her.
"I would not dream of trying to force you to discuss what is bothering you," Dumbledore said, apparently unfazed by both her expression and the lack of overt response. "But I would advise it. If you do not wish to speak to me – and I would quite understand if that were the case, as you made your views quite clear earlier – then I am sure that I can find someone else."
A long silence stretched out, but Dumbledore seemed entirely content to wait, forever if need be. He didn't even seem to be expectant of a response, going by the way he'd picked up his book once more.
"Why are you still here, Professor?" Hermione asked eventually. "I wanted everyone to go."
"An understandable question," Dumbledore replied, putting down his book again. "While I have done my best to remain unobtrusive, up until now, my presence is required. I am in loco parentis while you are at Hogwarts, as are the rest of the staff, especially your Head of House. We are therefore responsible for your welfare, as I am sure you have discerned without even an oblique translation. Through no fault of your own, you have developed abilities that can put you in a great deal of danger. The ones you already had have been over-exerted and therefore destabilised, while others were dormant, and were violently forced into life, before also being over-exerted. The former are now considerably harder to control than they were before – and controlling chaos magic is never an easy proposition – while the latter are almost entirely unquantified. And, Miss Granger, even if circumstances were ideal, which they most certainly are not, you could hardly be expected to control abilities that you do not yet understand."
"So you're here to make sure I don't hurt myself," Hermione said, sounding sullen and, unusually, not being able to bring herself to care.
"Professor McGonagall and I have been taking shifts," Dumbledore agreed. "Even aside from the fact that I am your headmaster and she is your housemistress, we are best suited of the staff. As I believe you have discovered, chaos magic is very close to transfiguration in many respects, and we are familiar with it. You are also not the first young practitioner of chaos magic we have encountered, nor even the first with an X-Gene. Thankfully, experience means that we are now rather better placed to help you than we were that other young lady."
Hermione blinked. "I thought that I was the first person to develop chaos magic in –" she began, surprised, before stopping, her expression closing off.
"In a little over thirty years," Dumbledore finished. "And only the second, that I know of, with an active X-Gene. In both respects, you were preceded by that other young lady: your mother."
"She is not my mother," Hermione snapped, breath hitching, eyes swimming for a moment with tears of anger, betrayal, and loss of the sense of certainty and self that she had until so recently felt about herself.
"Then I mis-spoke," Dumbledore said calmly. "Birth mother, perhaps? Or would you prefer biological mother? Though that is a little convoluted, and implies a certain artificiality to matters."
Nothing seemed to faze the man, part of Hermione thought bitterly. Every screamed demand and imprecation earlier had just slid off him like water off a duck's back. She could probably shriek and rage at him until she passed out through exhaustion, and she doubted he would bat an eyelid.
Given that she selected no preference, nor replied in her own right, Dumbledore saw fit to continue.
"Let us go with names, then, as we both know who we speak of," he said. "Wanda preceded you in birth regards. She even preceded you to Hogwarts, though she was not exactly a student. Rather, she was brought to me by an old acquaintance of mine: her birth father, Erik Lensherr, otherwise known as Magneto. When I first met him, he was merely Erik, no older than you are now, and fresh from the liberation of Auschwitz."
Hermione's eyes widened. "Auschwitz?" she said, startled.
Dumbledore nodded solemnly. "His family were Jews, from Dusseldorf, though of Polish descent," he said. "The tale of his time in Auschwitz is a dark one, and I do not think that I am the one to tell it. What I will say is that it was where his abilities manifested, born of rage and pain. On discovery of his powers, he was sent to Hogwarts, because mutants were not yet understood, and he was assumed to be a wizard. We did what we could for him, and he spent some months here during the holidays."
His gaze turned distant, no longer looking at the present, turned over half a century into the past.
"Much like you, Erik absorbed knowledge like a sponge, always eager to learn," he said. "He was truly brilliant; you have his intellect. When he came to us, he was fluent in German, Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and he had a smattering of Russian and English. He was near fluent in the latter in months." He closed his eyes briefly. "Unlike you, however, learning was not an end in itself. He sought revenge. That quest eventually turned him into the man known as Magneto. But that is another dark tale, also one for another day. For now, let me merely say that he fell in love with your birth-grandmother, Magda Maximoff, who showed him that there was more to life than vengeance. Of that love, Wanda was born."
Hermione listened, curious despite herself. While elements of the Scarlet Witch's tale were well known, and other elements of it could be deduced from what others, including the woman herself, had said, much was still a mystery.
"Much like you, Wanda ended up adopted. Her parents were travelling in the Carpathians, intending to join your grandmother's extended family for the birth. However, they strayed close to Mount Wundagore, a well of dark power that has been very attractive to a number of dark witches and wizards in the past. At this moment, a young Voldemort was trying to raise power there. Power that had a particularly… chaotic flavour."
Hermione's eyes widened.
"Magda went into premature labour, which I rather suspect was not a coincidence," Dumbledore continued. "Erik confronted Voldemort and they fought. Eventually, Erik prevailed, and Voldemort caused a landslide to cover his escape, apparently crushing Magda and the newborn Wanda. Erik departed in grief, believing both dead. However, the midwife had managed to save Wanda, by rather suspicious chance – the power that Voldemort was drawing on had plans for Wanda, even then. With Erik gone, burying his grief with a renewed focus on revenge, the midwife turned Wanda over to her mother's family. After that, Wanda led a rather simple, but happy life, until she was a little younger than you are now. Then, her gifts manifested, and the uproar... I have rarely seen anything like it."
Seeing Hermione's surprise, he smiled slightly.
"Practitioners with a natural gift for chaos magic are few and far between," he said. "There are rarely more than a handful born each century, if that. And none in recorded history was even half as strong as Wanda. Or, as it happens, as you."
Hermione grimaced, but didn't interrupt.
"Wanda's mutant gifts of probability manipulation also tallied very closely with her chaos magic, so much so that if it wasn't for Professor Xavier's Cerebro device, we would not have known that she was a mutant at all," Dumbedore said. "Magic was not unexpected – I am given to understand that Magda was a talented witch."
He shook his head. "In any case, when her abilities manifested, it was felt far and wide. Half the supernatural world was looking for her, and yet it was her father, now known as Magneto, who found her first. Many hesitated to challenge him – his was already a name that was not conjured with lightly. Magneto turned to his old friend, Professor Charles Xavier for help. Charles and I already knew each other, through Howard Stark. Howard suggested that they bring Wanda to Hogwarts, and Magneto, remembering the school – and me – accepted. But while my own studies had touched upon chaos magic, Wanda's power was unprecedented, let alone its coupling with such a mutation. It was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. The strain was destroying Wanda – it was only a question of whether it would be her body, or her mind, that gave out first. I say 'gave out' because I am not sure if one could truly have described her as insane."
"How do you mean?" Hermione asked, curiosity getting the better of her. At the same time, she tried to stave off both sympathy and a shudder at the kind of fate that she had narrowly escaped.
"Insanity is often described as being detached from reality, or being convinced of delusions," Dumbledore said. "Is it irrational for someone to believe in delusions when they can make those delusions a reality? When their thoughts do not change to fit the world, but the world changes to fit their thoughts?"
This time, Hermione didn't bother trying not to shudder.
"As for the rest of the story, that is well-documented," Dumbledore said. "The White Council came, we defied them, but even we could not challenge the whole Council. Doctor Strange, on the other hand, had no such limitations. He challenged the Council for Wanda's sake, and they backed down. She became his apprentice, and then vanished for most of the following fifteen years. When she finally re-emerged into the world as the Sorceress Supreme in Waiting, she was a talented and powerful young woman, in full control of her gifts. She was also very lonely."
"Lonely?" Hermione asked, surprised.
"Yes," Dumbledore said. "Doctor Strange has always been something of a loner, and his recent almost constant presence is very much playing against his usual type. Usually, he does not maintain a very active social life. And while he is invariably kind to children, he was also not temperamentally well suited to being a foster-parent, though I know that he did try. Combine that with the fact that Wanda's gifts were far less stable than yours, meaning that it simply was not safe for her to be around anyone who could not protect themselves, and you have a recipe for a very lonely childhood."
He smiled a small, sad smile. "When she emerged, she was perfectly confident in anything related to the arcane and otherworldly, but in a normal social setting, she was very shy. However, her emergence coincided with Voldemort's rise to power. The Ministry fought him, naturally, as did a number of other parties – though in the case of the likes of the White Council and MI13, their involvement was relatively limited. One of those other parties was a group of my own creation, known as the Order of the Phoenix. I recruited many of the members shortly after they left Hogwarts, and soon, children of their own weren't an uncommon occurrence. You know quite a few of them, actually: Harry, Neville Longbottom, the Weasleys… why, even Professor Zatara is a child of the Order." His blue eyes focused on her. "As, in fact, are you."
Leaving Hermione reeling, he went on, as if she hadn't suffered enough shocks, he carried on, inexorable as the passage of night to day.
"For the first time since she was a child, Wanda was finally among her peers," Dumbledore said. "Peers who all accepted her for who and what she was without batting an eye at how supposedly 'dangerous' she was; the younger members especially defended her with the ferocity of a wolf pack when anyone dared suggest otherwise. She was closer to some than others, of course. And of all of them, she was closer to no one than Lily Potter."
Hermione's jaw dropped. "Harry's mother and my – and Wanda, were friends?" she said, astonished.
"Well, Lily did name Wanda as Harry's godmother," Dumbledore pointed out, eyes twinkling in amusement, and Hermione flushed, embarrassed.
"I – yes, of course, I, well," she mumbled, before trailing off.
"It is something to know it," Dumbledore said wisely. "But quite another to see it relate to you." He smiled nostalgically. "But yes. For all that Lily and Wanda were ten years apart, they were the best of friends, as close as sisters – and rather closer than many sisters I have known." The smile saddened. "And she met your birth father. John Constantine, a Slytherin who disproved the widely accepted dogma that all Slytherins were evil, and blood purists besides. Despite being a half-blood of no great lineage when such things were felt to matter in Slytherin house, and their lack could be genuinely dangerous, John's cunning, practicality, and resourcefulness meant that he not only survived his time in Slytherin, but thrived."
He sat back.
"John, you see, had a knack for making contacts, stockpiling favours, and getting information, one drawn from possibly his greatest trait: his curiosity. Rarely did he find a mystery that didn't intrigue him, a puzzle that he didn't want to solve. Oh, he liked to pretend otherwise, but he could rarely resist the urge to poke his nose into something, even when it led him straight into trouble," Dumbledore said. "This isn't a bad trait in itself, even if it could be leavened with caution. It is one you have too, after all. It is one that Harry shares, come to that – one of a number of reasons that the Sorting Hat thought he would do well in Slytherin before he chose otherwise."
"However, in John's case, it was more than just a nose for trouble," he said. "That kind of curiosity and wilful disregard of rules does not mix well with his other talents: an affinity for demonology and the dark arts. Yet it was a point of commonality between him and Wanda, and as two who often walked the line of what was considered acceptable in magical practice, and of orthodoxy in general… they were drawn together. But."
He sighed again.
"War changes us all, and the hopeless nature of this one changed John more than most. He was, and is, a good man. Wanda would not have fallen for him otherwise. He was brave, kind, witty, charming, and remarkably loyal to his friends. Over time, however, he also became ruthless, devious, and manipulative. A trickster's gift for getting the better of demons and the fae became a more sinister knack for playing people like chesspieces, a willingness to do anything to succeed." He smiled bitterly. "It is a shared failing of ours."
"What did he do?" Hermione asked, a sick feeling settling in her stomach.
"I don't know," Dumbledore said. "And I have often wondered. I have my theories, but Wanda has never said and neither has he. Lily might have known, though she never said anything about it either. My personal belief is that he abused her trust in him, manipulating her into doing something she otherwise wouldn't have done, something that had terrible consequences. Given who she was raised by, I think that would be a particularly sore subject. What I do know is that afterwards, she never trusted him again."
"So she didn't tell him about me," Hermione said flatly.
"No," Dumbledore said. "She told no one, except Strange, who delivered you. You see, she was terrified."
"Why?" Hermione asked, confused. "She's, well, the Scarlet Witch! She was the apprentice of Doctor Strange! And she had you, Headmaster."
"Doctor Strange delivered you, but did no more," Dumbledore said. "He apparently refused all of Wanda's pleas for help and advice and it caused a permanent rift in their relationship. As for me, well, I will get to that, but she didn't feel that she could turn to me, either. But what about standing alone? Well, it is true that Wanda was indeed the Scarlet Witch, and already formidable. She had duelled Voldemort and survived. But only barely. Now, despite his enhanced powers, he fled from a fight with her in an instant. Back then, however, she was not the woman she is now; powerful, yes, skilled, undoubtedly, but not enough. Not even close to enough, not for the threats any child of hers would face. In many ways, you were in far more danger than Harry ever was."
"Me?" Hermione asked, incredulous.
"You," Dumbledore agreed. "Lily and James – Thor – had to worry about Voldemort and the Death Eaters. So did Wanda. But for her, they were just the beginning. By your very existence, you represented power, if only in the form of influence on three of the most powerful individuals on the planet – Strange, Magneto, and Wanda herself. Four, if I may be so immodest as to include myself. That power would have tempted many, including beings far beyond her scope to fight."
"Then why didn't she ask you for help, Professor?" Hermione persisted.
"She was terrified," Dumbledore reiterated. "She no longer trusted John, and her teacher refused to help, leaving the Order as her only alternative support structure. But the Order had a spy deep within it, and she had no idea who she could trust. I do not think she suspected me, but she did not come to me because she did not know who else might be listening, or who might notice the changes in her. It was a valid fear, because as it turned out, Professor Lupin was one of those who did notice. So, she was terrified. Terrified and completely and utterly, alone."
"And Strange just let that happen?" Hermione demanded indignantly. "And Professor Lupin?!"
"Yes, Professor Lupin," Dumbledore agreed. "He did not know who you were, or when you were born, but he suspected that Wanda had had a child. As for Strange's behaviour, it is one of the bones I have had to pick with him over the last year or two. But as he rather blandly put it, the matter resolved itself. While Wanda put a great deal of effort into disguising her feelings, demonstrating a level of courage and self-control that staggers the imagination, there was one person she could not fool: Lily."
He smiled a slight, sad, but proud smile. "Lily was 19 years old, barely out of Hogwarts, but what she did was extraordinary. She arranged everything: the concealment of Wanda's pregnancy, finding the Grangers, faking your adopted mother's pregnancy, even a faked birth certificate and records, memory charming a midwife into believing that she had delivered you. She was your godmother in fact, if not in name. She did such a thorough job that no one else realised it for years afterwards – though I suspect that she got some help from Nicholas Fury, who was then our liaison to SHIELD, for the documents. It would go some way to explaining how he knew about your heritage."
"He knows?" Hermione asked, startled.
"A few people have deduced it over the years," Dumbledore said. "As mentioned, Professor Lupin deduced that Wanda had a child, and both Nicholas and Peter Wisdom deduced that you were Wanda's daughter. Wanda herself explained that she had had a daughter to Sirius Black, explaining why she didn't take Harry in. From there, Thor and I deduced your identity, though it took an embarrassingly long time to do so – you were right under our very noses."
"Harry worked it out months ago," Hermione said quietly.
"I believe so," Dumbledore said. "I am not surprised. He is intelligent, observant, and he knows both you and Wanda better than almost anybody. Truthfully, what does surprise me is that more people haven't noticed. You have John's eyes, and something of his jaw, but… well, your resemblance to Wanda is quite remarkable. Not quite as striking as Harry's was to his father, not so long ago, but remarkable all the same."
There was a long silence.
"What are you trying to tell me, Professor?" Hermione asked eventually. "That my – that Wanda was right to do what she did? That I should feel sorry for her? That I should forgive everyone who lied to me?" Her gaze met his, and though she did not say it, the words, 'that I should forgive you', rang loud and clear.
"I do believe that Wanda was right to do what she did," Dumbledore said. "It was the logical choice and it almost certainly saved your life. I understand her desire to keep it from you, to ensure a clean break and to allow you to live your own life, and though I think that she insisted on continuing the charade for longer than was wise, I understand her reasoning. As for forgiveness, I would like to ask for it. However, I am not so arrogant or self-righteous as to believe that I deserve it. My choice to keep the truth from you was a calculated one, and so you have every right to be furious with me for it. Wanda's was not, and it was her wishes that bound most of the others. I would ask that you not judge them too harshly for that, but that is your choice and yours alone."
"With respect, Professor, you didn't actually answer all of my questions," Hermione said quietly.
"Indeed I did not," Dumbledore agreed. "Did I want you to feel sorry for Wanda? Not exactly. I wanted you to sympathise with her, certainly. To accept that she kept you a secret, even from yourself, to protect you. To realise that she did not give you up because she did not want you. Rather, she let you go, which is something very different, even though it broke her heart to do so. Most of all, I wanted you to understand her. It will not bring you any immediate comfort or pleasure. But in the long run, it will help you accept what has happened, and even if you choose to cut ties with her entirely once you have learned all you need to, it will be a necessary part of moving beyond it."
He looked Hermione right in the eye. "I am not acting as an advocate for Wanda, or anyone else who might want to see you reconcile. You are my student, and it is my responsibility to help you find some measure of peace. All I can hope is that I have helped you to do so."
That, Hermione felt, would remain to be seen. But for the time being, she at least had something else to occupy her thoughts: the tale of a young woman, much like her, who'd sat in one of these beds thirty years ago, walking the line between sanity and madness. And when she thought of the woman who had brought her into the world, though it was still with bitterness, it was more thoughtful too.
Peace, like Rome, was not made in a day. But all things have a beginning.
As afternoon turned into evening, which began to fade rapidly into night, the shift changed and Professor McGonagall discreetly took over the task of watching over Hermione. The girl, mercifully, seemed to have gone back to sleep.
"The poor girl," she said softly.
"She has been through much," Dumbledore agreed. "They all have – though right now, it will be weighing on her most of all." He glanced at McGonagall. "Have you seen Harry or Ronald? I haven't seen either since Sergeant Barnes marched them both out."
"Mr Weasley was last seen having a conversation with Agent Cassidy, and going by his expression, not enjoying it that much," McGonagall said. "It will be good for him, I think, though only a temporary solution. You saw what happened today. If he finds out –"
"If he finds out, then I think that with luck, his reaction will be the greatest of our worries," Dumbledore said. When McGonagall frowned at him, he elaborated. "I think it is very convenient that both of Harry's best friends at this school found themselves in the most dangerous part of the Forest, when it happened to be at its most active. I also think it was subtle – very, very subtle. It would have had to have been. And yet, it is well within his capabilities…"
"The Department of Mysteries was raided, Minerva."
McGonagall's eyes widened. "You don't mean –"
"I do," Dumbledore said. "I think that almost all of us were very neatly distracted. I say almost all, because that, in turn, partially explains the vanishing of Doctor Strange." He flicked his wand, and a silver ball of light shot out and down the corridor. "Mr Weasley is still on the grounds. Hagrid will bring him in, and I will speak to him. I think that for Mr Weasley's sake and our own, we had best have a closer look at him."
McGonagall nodded, troubled.
"Well, as for Mr Potter, I have not seen hide or hair of him," she said. "Frankly, Albus, if you want that boy found, you'll need to do it yourself – when he wants to vanish, he vanishes."
"Of that, I am very much aware," Dumbledore said, and shifted his focus. His lips thinned. "He is not present. However, someone else is. Someone whose presence explains Harry's absence, and who has a lot of explaining to do."
Ten minutes later, Dumbledore found that person sitting in a seventh floor window seat that had not been there the day before.
"Stephen," he greeted the other man.
Strange looked up from where he had been sitting pensively into the steady gaze of Albus Dumbledore. The fact that 'sitting pensively', in this context, was synonymous with 'brooding' was probably best not mentioned, and so Dumbledore did not mention it. If there was going to be a discussion, then it would be more productive if it was not derailed by debates on what exact body language constituted brooding.
"Albus," he replied, mustering a tired smile. "What can I do for you?"
"You could start by telling me where my missing student is," Dumbledore said evenly.
"Less 'missing', more 'temporarily displaced'," Strange said lightly, before sighing at Dumbledore's unamused look. "I sent him to Avengers Mansion. Right now, he needs..." He slowed, looking genuinely pensive, as if mulling over his choice of words. "He needs several things. One of them is to be around those who understand the keeping of secrets and the pain of the fallout when those secrets are revealed."
"Those are not in short supply at Hogwarts," Dumbledore observed.
"You and I are cases in point," Strange agreed dryly. "However, even here, he has to guard his tongue somewhat."
Dumbledore conceded with a nod. "Your other points?"
"He is emotionally exhausted," Strange said bluntly. "On the one hand, he made a major psychological breakthrough in confronting one of his greatest fears and no one was permanently injured or severely traumatised - at least, not by his standards. On the other... it has just been revealed that he has spent the best part of three months lying through his teeth to two of his best friends, about something extremely personal. They have not reacted well to the revelation of both the secret and the fact that he was keeping it, and since the originator of that secret is his much loved godmother, he feels caught between them. The further revelation that this quite literal chaos, which nearly killed them both, was instigated by Voldemort, his nemesis, apparently simply as a distraction and for his own amusement. His nemesis. Who did this, as with other personal attacks on the Weasley family in particular, to get to him."
"He feels that he should be able to find and stop Voldemort," Dumbedore said. The unspoken coda to that hung in the air between them: and we know for a fact that you could do so in a heartbeat if you so wished, so why don't you?
"Voldemort will die at the appointed time," Strange said, and he sounded tired now. "When his death will have most effect and cause least suffering."
Translation: I am letting him live, for now, because it's better in the long run.
Dumbledore's lips thinned. He understood Strange's brand of long term planning better than most, and over the last year, he had come to understand it better than ever, because it worked. He also knew that he had the luxury to be outraged in large part because of that brand of planning. This did not mean that he liked it.
"I understand why Harry is emotionally exhausted," he said. "Anyone, even someone so extraordinary as Harry, would be after all he has been through. Even if not for tonight, or half of the things he has been through over the last year, or even the last few years, he would have good reason to be. He has had to be strong - or rather, he has felt that he has to be strong - for far too long. Only in recent times has he allowed himself to feel that he can be vulnerable."
There was a long, pointed silence, which dropped through Dumbledore's train of thought like a molten ball-bearing through butter.
"And he does not feel that he can be vulnerable at Hogwarts," he added heavily.
"He does not feel that he should be," Strange corrected, in an kind tone. "He is not very good at dealing with feeling vulnerable anywhere, but it applies more at Hogwarts than elsewhere. Even aside from the secrets he has been juggling, and the frankly rampant Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder he has had to face, he feels that as he is the most powerful person at Hogwarts, he must protect it - especially the students, and most especially his close friends and his fellow champions. Part of this, to him, is maintaining a certain appearance of assurance and strength, even though few would look at him askance on discovering his very human vulnerabilities. Indeed, many would probably find it quite reassuring..."
"So you sent him somewhere that he feels he can relax," Dumbledore concluded. "That seems sensible."
"It is also because he is psychic," Strange said.
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. "You felt he should be away from Hermione's reaction? Or, for that matter, Mr Weasley's?"
"For a psychic, being around that much bitterness, anger, stress, and feelings of betrayal is not entirely comfortable at the best of times," Strange observed. "Especially not when they are, to varying degrees, coming from two of your oldest friends and directed at you. But no, that is not the primary reason why."
"Those with enhanced senses of any kind can find themselves lost and overwhelmed at times," he said. "For those with strong mystical or psychic senses, it is worse, since they are far harder to block out and tend to partially map themselves onto physical senses."
"I am familiar with that kind of experience," Dumbledore said steadily, having gone through something much like that earlier this evening.
Strange nodded, as if this was nothing more or less than what he had expected. "Harry is far stronger than you are, and he does not have anywhere near your level of experience and discipline," he said bluntly. "He has learned to adjust to any number of unpleasant impacts on his senses, and his control is extraordinary, especially for someone of his age. But he is also tired and with tiredness, that control fades. He also has a history of emotional volatility. Those emotions aren't outwardly directed right now, so instead they are eating him alive. And then... there is another reason. Also related to being a psychic."
"Touch," Dumbledore said softly, and was rewarded with a genuinely surprised look from Strange. "I have known a few psychics in my time, Stephen, both magical and not. Some are, physically, very detached. Indeed, more than a few do not like to be around people at all, if they can help it. Detachment makes it easier for them to manage. Others take the opposite approach: for them, others - selected others, at least - are safe ports in a storm and grounding points. Attachment and bonding makes it easier for them to find inner peace and insulate themselves against stress. It is not hard to guess which category Harry falls into."
"Broadly speaking, you are right," Strange said. "Touch is possibly the most important sense of all; adjusting to blindness, deafness, a lack of smell, even a lack of taste, can be done well enough, some quite easily. Other senses, even mundane ones, can be a bit harder to adjust to lacking. But a loss of touch... now that is a horror beyond words. A subtle one, to be sure, but a horror nonetheless." His voice went distant. "Imagine it: sealed inside your body, not feeling anything, ever. From birth to death, locked inside a cold, fleshy cage... completely alone."
"I am," Dumbledore said quietly. "And I wish that I was not."
"It's been used as a punishment before," Strange said. "An effective one, if your sole aim is suffering. It's not hard to recognise survivors. They all tend to have the same kind of voice, you see. Raw, harsh... prone to screaming. Not surprising, really. When you've been doing so for that long, it's hard to stop."
"You sound familiar with it," Dumbledore said, carefully neutral.
Strange smiled thinly, not in the slightest bit fooled. "I have experience," he agreed. "As both victim and perpetrator, to answer your unspoken question." The smile vanished. "It is effective," he repeated. "Because of the importance of touch. Touch is tied to so many things. In practitioners, one can use it to sense another's power on contact, and gain some rough idea of that power's extent. The better trained can sense far more, psychometrics and touch-telepaths most of all. Even in the most ordinary humans, it has incredible importance, affecting so much: mental and physical health, capacity for co-operation, capacity for compassion, even tendencies towards peace or violence. It promotes trust and reduces stress. It is the means by which we first experience love."
His eyes flashed ominously. "Of course, as with all things, it can be perverted, twisted against every one of those meanings," he said. "It can be used to inspire fear, cause pain, and destroy trust. It can be used to control someone, to isolate them, and lock them in a cage of psychological scars. There are greater crimes, but few are so... fundamentally personal."
Dumbledore regarded him carefully, but said nothing, recognising the subtext and not rising to it. Strange sometimes had a creatively nasty and extremely personal approach to punishments when the mood took him, one that verged on the sadistic (and, arguably, sometimes went so far beyond it that it almost approached a kind of dark compassion).
Right now, he didn't much care about that. What he wanted was for Strange to come to the end of his train of thought, because it concerned one of his students. So, he waited the ancient sorcerer out, letting him regain control of his temper. Only once he was certain of this did he speak.
"All of this is more intense for psychics," he said. It was a guess, but a good one, he thought. "Most especially for Harry, considering what was done to him."
Strange nodded. "Yes," he said. "It will help him strengthen some bonds."
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. "Some?"
"Some," Strange echoed, amused. "I did not simply send him to find somewhere to snuggle with his girlfriend."
"Which does not necessarily mean that that activity is not taking place, merely that it is not all that is taking place," Dumbledore said shrewdly, eyes now twinkling.
For a moment, Strange laughed a genuine, warm laugh. "I am becoming transparent," he said ruefully.
"Only when you are being kind, Stephen," Dumbledore said. "Only when you are being kind."
Strange laughed again, softly this time. "I suppose it could be worse," he said. "You were half right, by the way. Or perhaps, three-quarters."
"In what way?"
"It is about touch," Strange said. "And it is indeed about grounding himself in the presence of loved ones; father, girlfriend, godparents, goddaughter, and much of the immediately available extended family, blood and adopted. Hugs, of course, but a grip of the shoulder, a pat on the back, even the briefest brushes... all of them are part of it. That much, you had correctly deduced."
"Then what did I miss, Stephen?" Dumbledore asked.
Strange was silent for a long time. When he spoke it was slow, measured and sad.
"Until he was apparently orphaned, Harry had all the love and affection a small child could want," he said. "Then, for ten years, he had practically none. Held at arm's length when it was an absolute necessity to hold him at all. Locked in a cupboard; a cold, dark shell, released only to be exposed with contempt to the bare world. Treated as if he was too disturbing, too soiled by something he did not even know was there, too wrong to be touched except by the fists of his bullies."
The typically slight lines of Strange's face had deepened into crevasses, his hands clenching and unclenching fitfully as he stared fixedly at the stones of the corridor, words coming faster, staccato and furious like machine gun fire.
"Clinging to fragments of affection; most erased from his memory, others brief and faded with forgetfulness, and the remainder feigned by the-the-the thing that ensured his isolation. It is wonder that he does not scream! Not half as much as he should! He... he..."
Strange closed his eyes.
"He lost so much that he should have had," he said softly. "As Maddie did, and to the same creature. One that I failed to find, that I failed to defeat, that I missed when it was right under my nose." He shook his head, and looked up at Dumbledore. "I cannot give him those years back. Believe me, I have tried!"
Dumbledore met his gaze, and Strange twitched like he'd been electrocuted. The other wizard had laid a gentle hand on his arm.
"I believe you, Stephen," he said. "Even if you were not bound to never lie, I would believe you."
Strange seemed to sag, as if the tension running through him was draining away. He looked away, but, for a moment, rested his hand on Dumbledore's.
"Thank you," he said quietly.
Dumbledore did not reply. Not in words, at least. Sometimes, they were not required.
"I cannot give him those years back," Strange said eventually. "Any more than I can give Maddie hers. But I can, at least, do this. It is the very least that I owe him."
And for all his tacit absolution moments before, Dumbledore could not find it in himself to disagree.
One thing that Carol loves about Harry is that despite their intimate mental connection, and bonds that run arguably far deeper, he never abuses it to dump all of his troubles on her. She's not had any real relationships, but she's heard enough from her girlfriends and cousin Sharon to know that, yeah, for all that women are supposed to be the emotional ones, guys can sometimes be far, far worse and expect you to put up with it as a sort of emotional support prop. Harry doesn't do that, despite arguably having every possible reason to do so.
One thing she finds intensely frustrating, however, is that he sometimes seems to be terrified of sharing any serious emotional troubles with her at all. Not unless either she pushes him or he's too far gone to care. He doesn't hesitate for one moment to swoop in and support her when her issues are flaring up, no matter how bad.
Additionally, as far as she can tell, he's the exact same way with Diana (when required), Ginny (when needed), and Maddie, whose emotional issues are worse than literally everyone else they know put together and complicated by the fact that when it came to interpersonal relationships, she has the rough self-esteem of a caterpillar.
He has no problem taking the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he cares like no one she's ever seen. Even Jean might not be a match, for all that her brand of care is less complicated and less selective, because Harry's compassion is tied up with an intimate understanding of suffering.
However, he's hesitant about letting some of that slip onto other people's shoulders. Sometimes, he won't let it happen at all. While he's pretty good about letting other people care for him (or at least, accepting that they do), that took a lot of intensive browbeating.
And even now... even now, sometimes there's a heart-breaking edge of surprise to his response, a glimpse of a sad little boy buried deep down inside. She thinks it's the main reason why he's so hesitant to take the initiative in their relationship. Not the only one, of course. Part of it is a deep respect for her bodily autonomy (which is part of why she loves him) and part of it is an absolute terror of somehow overstepping his bounds (which she both hates and completely understands, now that she knows just what Belova did to him).
The last and most elusive part, however, ties back into that surprise, that hesitancy to share burdens. It took her a while to recognise but is now so obvious - a fear of inevitable rejection, tied to a deep-seated fear that he doesn't deserve love.
Mostly, it makes her want to hug him (though she's bitterly aware that that's not a good idea right now) and tell him that he's an idiot and of course he is loved, and of course he deserves it. The rest of her just wants to cry and break things, and sometimes people, starting with the ones who made him that way.
She'd once started planning how to do so while in the gym at Avengers Mansion, scribbling ideas in a notebook, surrounded by the grainy ruins of yet another punchbag, which were digging into her crossed legs. She hadn't noticed Natasha arrive until the other woman had spoken.
Carol had whipped around. "What is?"
"Your plan," Natasha had said, nodding at the notebook, despite the fact that there was no possible way she should have been able to read it. "It's pretty bare, but the skeleton's good. Enough that you could fill in the rest with some decent intel, which JARVIS could get you. There's just a few problems with it."
"Like what?" Carol had asked sullenly.
"One, you're not getting into the Dark Levels," Natasha had said, raising a finger. "Strangeways is secure, and the Dark Levels under the prison are exponentially more so. It's where Wisdom keeps the prisoners too valuable or dangerous to keep elsewhere, and the Dursleys are valuable because of what leverage they might represent and what they might know. They're a potential trigger for Harry's temper, a big one, and you can bet they'll be under the heaviest security Wisdom's got. You're not good enough to work around those defences, and you're not strong enough just to break through them instead."
Another finger had followed.
"Two, even if you did, you've got a temper, but you're not a torturer or a cold-blooded killer. You might hurt them, but I doubt that you'd succeed in doing anything other than making yourself sick."
Yet another finger.
"Three, it wouldn't achieve anything. What happened, happened. You can't change that. And Harry certainly wouldn't be made any happier."
Carol had scoffed. "Logical arguments from someone who nearly beat that psycho-bitch Belova to death after finding out what she did to Harry," she snapped. "That didn't change anything, but it didn't stop you, did it?"
Natasha had stared at her for a long moment, utterly expressionless, and Carol had remembered that despite the fact that she had seven inches and at least forty pounds of serum enhanced muscle on the other woman, Natasha could still break her in half without breaking a sweat.
"No," she had said eventually, in a voice as smooth as glass. "It didn't. And it didn't help, either." She had beckoned, in a fashion that had Carol following her without even thinking twice. "Come on. Clearly you need to work out some frustrations."
"I already tried that," Carol said, gesturing back at the bag.
Natasha had smirked, as she stripped off the sweater covering her athletic gear, revealing a figure that several people Carol knew personally would kill for. "That was amateur hour," she had said, stepping onto the mat. "This is the real thing."
And she had then spent the next half an hour comprehensively kicking the younger woman's ass up and down the gym. While Carol had learned how to use her speed and strength effectively, and had consequently got a few decent hits in, that had been more by way of consolation as most of her exposed skin started turning some very interesting colours afterwards. What it had successfully done, though, was burn off most of the angry chemicals, and, Carol felt on reflection, made her ready to listen.
"You know most of Harry's issues inside out, better than practically anyone but his therapist or his cousins," the older woman had said without preamble, despite the fact that Carol hadn't said exactly why she was particularly angry at Harry's former guardians. She was the Black Widow and she knew things.
"I won't bother going over them again. What you might not understand is that you grew up in a home where you were loved, by your mother at least. Harry didn't. He was an orphan in an abusive environment. I know how that goes. Our situations were different, of course. I was trained to be a living weapon, a tool to be used. He was alternately held in contempt by the Dursleys as a pathetic freak and a burden upon them with some use as a domestic servant, or feared as a monster that might turn on them, a bomb that might go off, once it turned out that his powers hadn't been crushed out of him."
She had started stretching out, her tone remaining calm and detached.
"In both cases, however, we had to play a role, because any appearance of affection - or avoidance of punishment - depended on how well we did so. In my case, it was to be the perfect weapon, to become any cover without blinking, and to do anything to anyone, without hesitation and with maximum efficiency. In his, it was to be quiet, unobtrusive, and avoid showing up or somehow 'upsetting' their son, while also following any commands given. Any disruptions to this or their routine, usually by displays of uncontrolled magic, were punished."
"Children should be seen and not heard," Carol had said bitterly.
"Exactly," Natasha had said. "He was trained from infancy not to share his troubles or to confess to any discomfort. If he hadn't been, and had managed to share what his life with the Dursleys was really like, I think it's very likely he'd have been removed immediately. Moral considerations aside, that kind of atmosphere is practically designed to create a monster."
"But it didn't," Carol had said defiantly.
"It didn't," Natasha had agreed. "What it did was give him a particular empathy for those in need of compassion and a desire to help them, and an absolute inability to ask for that same help, for fear of being seen as a freak or too much trouble to be worth spending time on. Intellectually, he understands that love - yours, his family's, all of ours - is unconditional. Emotionally, he's still getting there."
"Which is why he doesn't want to put anything onto us," Carol had said with a sinking feeling. "He's afraid we'll give up on him as a bad job. That we'll decide he's too much work."
Natasha had nodded. Neither of them commented on the fact that caring for Harry could, in fact, be emotionally exhausting. They knew that, and more to the point, he knew that – which made things all the worse, as he ended up feeling horribly guilty and more inclined to retreat into his shell and refuse to share his burdens. In any case, that wasn't the important part. The important part was that, yes, it could be painful and exhausting and downright miserable at times, but it was worth it. He was worth it.
"There's no instant cure," she had said.
"I figured. Any advice? I mean, anything that helped you?"
"Mostly, you can just keep leaning on him to share," Natasha had said. "General troubles, emotions, even if it's not the specifics. Guilt trip him, if you have to. Maybe make him face up to the fact that he seems to think that you can't, or won't, do for him what he'll unhesitatingly do for you. He might not enjoy it, but confronting that contradiction should help."
"That seems... very you," Carol had said uncertainly, then winced. Natasha, however, had smiled a slow, feline smile.
"Good," she had said, before looking very serious. "Then, tell him something that my therapist told me to tell myself over and over again until I accepted it. His might not have got to it yet, or maybe she puts it differently, but it won't do any harm."
Carol drifts out of her memories and looks Harry in the eyes, seeing all the compassion about him that she loves and all the pain that she hates, wishing she could reach out and hug him and will him better. But she can't do that (she's sitting at a careful distance, in fact, based on her estimation of his current comfort zone) it doesn't work like that. So, instead, she does the best she can.
"Harry," she says. "I want you to repeat something that I say."
Normally, he would make a wisecrack at this point, but he picks up on her tone and nods seriously.
"Okay. Repeat after me: 'I am allowed to need help.'"
He stares at her for a long, adorably and frustratingly perplexed moment. Then, slowly, he responds.
"I am allowed to need help."
And as he does, he reaches out and twines his fingers through hers.
Carol smiles. It's not much. But it's a start.
Well, that's that chapter done. The last bit was a little experimental – I haven't written in the present tense in a long, long time, much less shifted tenses within a scene, but I felt it suited what I was trying to depict. Plus, what is lockdown (again) not for if not for flexing a few creative muscles. Also, it's a long chapter, and good to disrupt some of the rhythm of it, to make things impact more.
Why don't we see Ron's chat with Cassidy? Well, part of it is that the chapter was getting incredibly long, and part of it is that it's the same old refrain of 'sometimes people keep secrets that aren't theirs to share', and that will be of plot importance, Ron's frustration and understandable anger cranking up slowly towards boiling point…
Anyhow, I hope it worked.
PS: Yes, 'I am allowed to need help' is a nod to the Desert Storm series. It is the best Star Wars series you shall ever read, and I know that, because it singlehandedly converted me where 11 films and multiple spinoffs/series failed. It's on AO3 and you should read it immediately.