Bruce sat down on the concrete floor with his back to the wall, a tablet on his lap and the screen reflecting off his glasses. Other than the light from his tablet, the room was washed in the characteristic blue glow of Cherenkov radiation: a signature of the Cosmic Cube, the Tesseract, Tony's arc reactor … and strangely, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which was residing next to the Cube as a failsafe against any doors opening from the other side. Next to him, a steaming mug of tea and a small plate with a half-eaten green chile enchilada was left exposed to the air. When he had come inside the room, Bruce had pointedly looked away from all the plastered signs that said, "No Food or Drinks." It wasn't like anyone could stop him.
After being practically spirited away from New York, he was using the down time to go over the records for the Cube, accumulated since he had last been here. He could have accessed the monitoring system from his room, but he preferred working in here – especially to keep himself from worrying about what was happening in Manhattan. The last he heard about it was from JARVIS, who had relayed to him that Tony was still at the park and Harry had disappeared.
Bruce took another bite of the enchilada and surveyed the room. If he pushed away the unsettling memories from months back, the room was actually quite tranquil. At least, no one would bother him in here.
He took that back; most people would not bother him in here. Without looking up, he asked with a small smile, "You want another late night sparring match? I think Tony's getting jealous." Bruce was too dignified to gloat about how he wins every time.
"Yester evening was enough," was the unamused response.
It was Monica's voice.
As recognition flushed against him, Bruce flinched and suddenly the air in his lungs was suffocating. "Do you mind not being her around me?" he snapped testily at the woman before him.
"I was in a hurry," Loki admitted, his face now cleanly stripped of the woman's image. This was the closest he would come to apologizing.
Bruce sighed and took off his glasses so he could rub his eyes. "It's fine. I'm fine – I should be okay with it by now," Bruce dismissed the error, said more to himself than for anyone else.
"Perhaps you've spent too much time in close proximity to the Cube? You've felt the effects from the Tesseract, the scepter before – and this is no different."
"I know my limits. Besides, I just got here. It wasn't five minutes before you showed up," Bruce said, still a little irate. He sipped his cooling tea before asking, "So what do you want?"
Loki walked up with a binder he had pulled from the very air. He placed it at Bruce's feet and before standing again, he curled his fingers like he was tracing an invisible ball. Bruce blinked at the resulting sparks and Loki was back up on his feet, padding across to the center of the room where the Cube rested.
Bruce looked down and there was an oddly colored apple on top of the binder. He picked up the apple, its weight similar to a normal piece of fruit, laid it to the side next to his mug and opened the binder. He skimmed through the first page and with furrowed brow, asked, "Isn't this information something you should take to Fury?"
With his back to Bruce, Loki placed his hand on an exposed section of the Cube, on a section not connected to some sort of equipment. "He has a copy. How can he not? He has as much access to AIM's records as I do."
"So what do you want me to do about this? Pharmaceutical chemistry's not my thing."
Irritation was the most prominent feature on Loki's face. "Did that stop you when you roamed through several favelas in Brazil, until you settled on Rocinha? Searching for a cure from your condition?"
Bruce kept his eyes closed as an effort to stay calm. The words had certainly stung. It wasn't until he felt that familiar smoldering heat inside that he opened his now green eyes. "You had to dig a little too deep, didn't you?"
Loki turned his head sharply to look at Bruce. "I haven't, but I will if you try to hide behind ignorance."
Bruce stared back, almost daring him to dig for more information, but the initial anger wouldn't hold. How could he remain angry when AIM had worked so closely with Betty's father, General Thaddeus Ross? If there was such a thing as an expert on the Hulk, that man would count as one. It wasn't a leap of logic that there would be something about Bruce in AIM's records.
The thought of Betty further calmed him. "Fine - sorry, all of that was in poor taste. You wouldn't have come to me if I was incapable. So … what do you want me to do again? This Extremis is laughably unstable. Is that it?" Bruce tapped the folder he had placed on his lap. "The thing's more volatile than what I have to endure."
"Not stabilize it, neutralize it," Loki corrected, turning away from Bruce again.
Skipping several pages, Bruce said, "This is work from Hansen and Killian. I've heard of them, but I didn't know they were part of AIM. What can I do that they can't?"
"Could not. They are dead."
"Shortly after SHIELD discovered their plans to use the virus, for a coup against your government. A specialized branch of AIM had been testing it on discharged soldiers and releasing them in civilian areas. That had been their Stage 1 and were about to execute their second one. SHIELD intervened. Unfortunately, it may have led to the theft of the virus from AIM. I suspect for usage in a larger scale."
"How would you even know the scale?"
"The amount stolen … and from tracking the rare materials needed to create more. It all leads to SHIELD, or someone affiliated with them."
"The Council? Well I guess I shouldn't be shocked. And the apple? Your way of giving me a headstart?"
Loki nodded once. "Search inside it, isolate the agent capable of wiping clean a diseased body. Make use of AIM's labs if you require them."
Bruce scoffed. "Now Tony will get jealous. I feel like the belle of the ball; everyone wants to dance with me," he commented with a shake of his head. "I don't have to say that this is dangerously close to a breach in the treaty. Why can't this wait until after free trade – or at least, freer trade – has been established? Isn't it supposed to be very soon? I doubt even the Council would use something so volatile … " Only the low hum of machinery was heard for a couple of seconds. "Right, why am I using my logic on that motley crew?"
"This cannot tarry. As long as you remove small amounts of it to study, but not consume it entirely, I can still claim it as whole."
"You're oversimplifying this," Bruce accused. "But alright, this is going to be tough. And I have to check if it's safe for human consumption too? This is a rush job that's meant to take months, if not years."
"Would you rather I do it posthaste? Snatch a few hundred off the streets to test?"
"I'm going to treat that as a joke," Bruce replied sternly. "Why not just give me the structure or structures? We can possibly synthesize it."
"Too complex. You can barely manipulate self-replicating systems … but very well, you may have this," Loki conceded with a downward stroke of his free hand. An illusion appeared before Bruce, rotating and showcasing the complexity of the structure Bruce had asked for.
"Alright, so synthesis is out," Bruce concluded with a shake of his head, eyes focused on memorizing every detail. "Too many ring structures – the folding is tricky – these tertiary interactions, how are they stable? – and these functional groups … "
"That is only one of the components of a complex."
"One?" Bruce weakly repeated.
"Word of caution: keep the apple at a distance from injured parties."
Gathering himself this time, Bruce figured out what wasn't being said. "Which is why you gave it to me. I don't get injured."
Loki hummed in agreement. "That is not the skin of the apple. It is the delivery mechanism – and when triggered, can be truly startling."
"So this is really the mythical golden apple? Immortality, youth, power – and you're letting me study it?"
"What you listed, you practically have them already. As well as Rogers, if you like another notable example. I would not be introducing a new profound concept. Iðunn's formula can do a bit more; it can bring strength to some … but be a death sentence for others."
Bruce laughed weakly, his head thudding against the wall as he heaved a big sigh. "Great. Now I know this is the biggest reason why you're not the one handling this little puppy."
There was no response from Loki, staying still except to withdraw his hand from the Cube.
Bruce watched the readings from the Cube, sent to his tablet in real time. "That was fast. You usually take more than that. Stay a little longer, unless you want to go around tired and getting sloppy."
"I cannot linger; I'm late."
"Well you might want to stay a little for this." Bruce tapped his finger on the screen of his tablet. "I pulled out another frequency from the Fourier Transform; it's got to be Harry's. It matches his arrival from several days ago. This means that Harry's not the extra signal that's been showing up over the course of months. Now that Jane's told me what I've been seeing all this time, I can say we're looking at another dark energy user and he's getting stronger … but you knew that, didn't you? Well? Is it him?"
"No, only my successor. An exceptional, meticulous individual with the troublesome penchant to flee when I am even remotely near."
The last half hour in New York had become a lesson in patience, waiting just long enough for SHIELD to come in and insert two people standing in for Hermione and Hawkeye. Apparently Tony had generated enough attention breaking through the floors that it would have been poor publicity if he came out empty. It wasn't necessarily a lie, because Tony had really been trying to save two people who he had thought were trapped by the underground explosions, but Hermione and Hawkeye couldn't be exposed. Once the replacements had arrived, Harry had Apparated Hermione and Hawkeye back to the Observatory in New Mexico, leaving Tony's suit by itself in the middle of reporters.
Immediately upon arrival in front of the doors to Harry's rooms, Hawkeye had excused himself and a bewildered Hermione was led away by an exuberant Jane. Jane had said a quick, "Welcome back," but her attention was really on Hermione. The last Harry had heard of the two women were whispers of checking the math behind an energy model of a supermassive black hole before they had walked past earshot. He had been left awkwardly with Darcy in the middle of the hallway. Honestly he didn't really mind, she was actually nice to look at.
Even that didn't last. Darcy had promptly told him there was probably going to be a debriefing soon and that he should get himself cleaned up in the meantime, after noting his stained clothes and his hair sticking up on the side. He couldn't ask her about anything else when she had blinded him with a camera flash and walked away.
That had been forty minutes ago and now, Harry was wondering where everybody else was and if he had been left out of the loop again. He stepped out of his room, fresh from a shower and change of clothes – at last clean from the happenings in underground Manhattan – and almost ran into Bruce.
"Harry, I'm glad you're back and okay."
Harry only nodded, appreciating the concern but feeling a little awkward responding to it. "Thanks."
"I wanted to talk you," Bruce said, tucking a binder under his arm. "Earlier, I had gone inside your room to retrieve You – no not you! – Tony's other robot. I know the name's confusing. But uh, it was spending too much time inside your room and I thought maybe there had been a malfunction. It wasn't responding to my calls. I didn't want to alarm you if you had noticed that someone had been inside. Sorry for that."
Harry did notice. His bed had been made, so he had assumed the robot, but not Bruce. "It's fine, I understand, but I need to go, to find someone now. So excuse me."
"Sure, sure. I'm busy myself," Bruce said, walking past and then he turned around, remembering something. "Before I forget, You was staring at a potted plant … thing … in your room. Is – was that your wand?"
"Yes, as you saw, it err, sprouted."
"Is that normal?"
"No," Harry replied.
"Oh, I see. I didn't think so either."
Harry couldn't imagine how Bruce would know how wrong a sprouting wand was. "What do you mean?"
"Well, the wood is from a Holly tree, right? The leaves, they're not Holly leaves."
Even though Harry had avoided looking at his wand ever since he got back, he frowned, doubting what Bruce said instantly. "They were small leaflets when I left earlier today. Not big enough to identify, but I'm sure you're mistaken."
"I'm not a botanist, but I know what Holly leaves look like," Bruce countered.
Harry turned around, stepped back inside his room when the door whooshed open again. He immediately closed the distance between the door and farther inside to the dresser where he had left his wand. Or what was left of his wand.
Harry stood stumped. The thing had grown like a weed to the point it resembled more of a miniature bush, with spindly roots peaking over the rim of the pot. But Harry didn't care about that, it was the fact that Bruce was right. It was not a Holly.
"I don't know what happened," Harry confessed.
Bruce walked up beside him and pointed at the plant. "I think I've seen this before. I just can't seem to remember where or recall its name. I have a friend who can probably help. I had brief correspondences with him, but very helpful. Got a green thumb with plants, has his own greenhouse in Oxford."
"As in between London and Bristol? Oxford, England?"
"Yes, Oxford University. Sorry I should've been more specific. He's a new professor there, in Plant Sciences."
"I don't know about making a trip all the way over there … at least not right now. How about communicating with him the same way we did with Jane?"
"I can probably do that. I'll ask him and get back to you. It might be better to give him a sample though. A few leaves."
Harry was more than very curious, but he needed to find out about something else right now. He'd have to push this for later. "I'm sure, but not this moment, and please tell me when you're setting up this meeting. Perhaps for tomorrow? I'd like to be there. And what's his name?" Harry asked because of courtesy, already walking back out of the room. He didn't want to sound too impatient, Bruce was helping him after all.
Bruce followed him out. "Neville Longfellow."
Harry's legs froze on the spot and his brows shot up upon hearing that name. Someone who was good with plants named Neville Longfellow. It wasn't Longbottom, but still ...
Before Harry could ask more about it, Bruce was the one who started excusing himself. "I need to go, I'll be upstairs in one of the labs." When Harry only had a puzzled look on his face, Bruce added with a glance over Harry's shoulder, "For everyone's safety," and then left.
That didn't clear up the confusion at all. It wasn't until Harry turned around did he find the reason for Bruce's abrupt departure. It was the Director of SHIELD looking ominous and filling the entire hall, heading straight for Harry in commanding strides. Harry figured Bruce's behavior had something to do with Fury's comment about how Bruce had traded freedom for protection. It was an honest statement, but was tactlessly delivered.
"Granger tells me that you've collected two boxes," Fury informed, planting himself in front of Harry. It was really a demand for them.
The idea to hold them for ransom, for information was tempting. He decided against it. Harry pulled them out from his pocket, returned them back to normal size, and then handed both to Fury. "Was there an order to off me?" Harry asked, trying not to force the question.
Silently, Fury inspected the two boxes, inside each was a plastic shock resistant case. One of the cases had a block of foam inside, with holes cut out meant to hold something small, snug and tight. It was empty. Fury didn't answer Harry until he opened the second case and revealed, to their good fortune, that it was filled with hand-size metal objects, resembling remote controls. It wasn't anything that ordinary as demonstrated by Fury when he opened one of them along its middle, a line easily missed in the background of a brushed metal finish to reveal something that looked like an injector. "She's to obey any orders by the Council. If there's been a hit, it's from them, not me."
"You don't sound very disappointed."
"It's not surprising. If what's happened is what I think has happened, then she's now a double agent for our side. You weren't supposed to know about her mission back in New York or her name. I lost contact with her, but I expect it was the Council who called her for the job and the reason why she's maintaining radio silence. Now will you let me do my job?"
"So that's it? I'm just collateral damage?"
"If you want to think of it that way – but you're practically immortal. You're the last person I'm worried about. Stay low and you'll be fine, but I doubt it with the way you've been exposing yourself. I did you a favor by keeping anything about you from the Council. It's all useless now; they can't have missed your teleportation stunt and now your miraculous intervention at the park. Blame yourself."
"I was the one who got Hermione to safety and whatever this nanotech is."
"This is only part of the nanotech that had gone missing – and I had my man working on retrieving her."
"He couldn't have done it alone. And why'd you send that message to Tony, if you had everything under control just by sending out Hawkeye?"
"You don't know Hawkeye's skill set, so no I wouldn't cross out the possibility that he could have done it alone. And that message through Coulson? I had a hunch. Can't be coincidence that she decides to leave now – right after Stark, who didn't know that she existed, decides to look for her. I hadn't anticipated her pulling the two of you to her. It was short notice, but my note was a warning to Stark to watch for any sign of her whereabouts, shelter her if she somehow made it to him. But hell no, you two decide to go after her. You've been a pain in the ass and one that, Hawkeye tells me, is here to stay."
"To you, I'm better off dead then. Tell me to my face that there was never a target painted on my back."
"Yeah, it would make things easier, but no, we don't kill every dumbass – hell, if that was the case, Stark would've been dead a long time ago. I am asking you to stand down, so don't tempt me, because I swear … " Fury didn't finish it, but the threat hung in the air, spread and sank deep.
Despite the height difference, Harry stepped closer. "Or you'll what?"
"Don't tempt me."
"How do you console yourself each night? How do you sleep well at all?"
"Who said I slept well?" Without another word, Fury side-stepped around Harry and went through the double doors guarding the end of the hall.
Harry didn't stop him and instead clenched his right hand, his wand hand. He was being left behind again and oh, how he hated the feeling.
Harry stood still in the silence for a moment, but then felt a phantom push from behind him and readied a Finite at his fingertips, a scowl already on his face. Here was another pain in the arse. "You can stop that now. I know you're there."
Loki stepped around the corner, invisibility sloughing off. He pointed a finger at the doors that Fury had gone through and inquired, "Trying your hand with a tit for tat strategy? The execution could have been better, but overall … good."
That was the last straw. "Good? Good?! What the hell does that mean? Is this some part of a grand plan, you wanker?!"
Harry might have imagined it, but for a moment it looked like Loki was itching to defenestrate him, if windows were available. "Believe what you will."
"No. Hell no. I need more of an answer than that. You're not telling me something. There's more going on and I need to know. About Romanova, SHIELD and the Council, everything." With a better command of his spells than the last confrontation, Harry cast an Anti-Apparition Jinx over the entire hallway. He felt encouraged when Loki shifted from smug to cautious, but Harry was still a little nervous because Loki wasn't as angry as he should be considering how he was effectively trapped inside the Jinx.
"I came to warn you of another dark practitioner, but if you insist on a topic change, very well. You sequester information and yet, you accuse me as if I am the only guilty party?"
"You don't come off as very trustworthy – at least no one doubts my intentions. I am trying, but you can't expect me not to be suspicious of you."
"Point taken, but you have others to confide in. Or have you gathered all that is around you into a personal crusade? Orlendr, there is a long game and I am not the only player." He walked around and past Harry to try to go through the same door Fury did, but before he arrived at the doorway, Harry sent out a locking charm.
"Here I was trying to avoid more property damage," Loki declared, assessing the doors and once within arm's reach, snapped off the hinges.
No, you are not walking away.
If something was going to be done about this, it had to be now. While Harry couldn't Finite the area without losing the Anti-Apparition Jinx, he could tell that this was no copy. Illusions present or not, this was still the real Loki walking out.
Harry threw out Petrificus Totalus. The complexity of the spell cost him a second, a second too much as the spell was blocked when Loki swung the door behind him.
Harry immediately threw out a sticking charm at the door before Loki had let go and when the door shook, Harry knew it had worked. He couldn't see it, but he imagined a rare look of surprise on Loki's face. A Portus trailed right after to complete the trap. The door, as well as Loki's figure, blinked in and out, disappearing and then reappearing in the same spot. Stuck in a loop, and further disorienting with every trip.
"Hard to get your bearings, isn't it? Maybe I'll never get as good as you, but I can certainly make the journey sickeningly wild." Harry had barely finished saying that, when the door winked from view and a familiar looking dagger was heading his way. He parried with a Protego, sent the shield forward like a bullet and moved out of the way in case another knife was thrown. Disappointment marked his face when Loki side-stepped and avoided the counter.
Getting out of the trap had cost Loki. His hand was held in a tight fist, but Harry could make out a dark colored liquid in between the curled fingers. As for the door … Harry suspected it was somewhere in that extra-dimensional pocket with a bloody handprint.
"Tell me what I want to know and I won't ruin your pretty little plans," Harry threatened.
Loki called his bluff, scoffing and stepping back. "An ultimatum will not succeed. You are still disgustingly honest. I can see your conscious will not allow such a move. You may have silenced your mind from Granger and others like her, but your face – it still shows too much. You want answers but I loathe to give it to you."
"What? Does this have anything to do with your precious treaty? I haven't said anything. So what excuse, what reason do you have to play politics with me?!"
"We will start with politics then. The power behind blackmail is the correct use and timing of the information's release. I was mistaken in thinking you capable of manipulating it. You are a liability to me; what prevents someone from reading that information off your face with select and well-timed questions? I was informed that your body is unchanging, a teenager. Your emotions are still too raw."
"Really?" Harry asked sarcastically. "What do you call your little violent outburst about your parentage? And you're how old?" It had been an intentional low blow and he had been expecting a reaction, any reaction except for the calm response he received.
"A lapse in judgment which I have, as you can see, remedied, but mine is only a singular case against your many. I am certain you have little care for me, but let us extrapolate for a moment, what if it were battle strategies you were trying to conceal? Sensitive information? Secret identities?" Loki asked, relentlessly. "You still conduct yourself like a pawn on the board."
"I don't follow anyone!" Harry admitted to himself that yes, he was quick to anger sometimes, quick to jump into action. He had to grudgingly concede that in the past, he had been kept from key information until the last moment for a good reason. Until he learned Occlumency, he was practically an unintentional human sieve. But he refused to have these qualities remain obstacles, become reasons to deny him truth. Not again. Never again. "I can keep secrets, if that's your concern."
"You have not properly demonstrated this ability then."
"You haven't seen me try and you're going to have to take that chance." It didn't look like Harry was getting through. The truth worked for him before, it would have to work again now. "You lied, you know? I can't be that predictable, that easy to manipulate, otherwise you wouldn't spend so much effort … too much effort, I think. You want something from me. Tell me what I want to know and I won't unintentionally ruin your pretty little plans – if not, I can personally guarantee that that is exactly what's going to happen. It'd make it easier on the both of us."
There was absolute truth in those words. Harry had been under two master manipulators and they had more than a handful controlling him – and he was their main concern too.
"By the nine realms … " Loki shook his head in disapproval and sneered. "Mark my words, you and Thor must be stricken by the same illness. Listen, Orlendr, this is no longer about preserving the treaty, this technology boundary between Midgard and Asgard. That is only temporary; irrelevant once Midgard shifts from a pending to a more permanent member of the alliance, but for that, this realm cannot be divided so. This Council serves as the de facto ruling body of Midgard and look how well it is governing. It has declined open discussion with Asgard all because its members insist on anonymity. News of this civil unrest must not reach the ears of the other realms – a civil conflict must be avoided; it will result in an automatic dismissal in the alliance. Furthermore, I cannot be seen to interfere. It is more advantageous that I appear impartial to Midgard's troubles."
Which couldn't be that hard for Loki in the first place, what with his attempt to take over earth bit. "But I can. This is unbelievable. You? Admitting a weakness? So I'm to do what you can't? Your – your errand boy?"
Loki showed his irritation with a sarcastic remark. "Do you depreciate yourself often?"
With monumental effort, Harry ignored that jab. "So you're busy doing things indirectly. This is where I come in … this all sounds – okay, I still don't trust you. Merlin, is this your way of fixing things you've broken? You invited an alien skull-robot army through the front door, opened a rift that's festered socially and politically - and now you want to patch it all up? As if you give a damn. Yes, I finally got a clearer picture in my head about your involvement. You can't switch sides that easily."
"My loyalties have remained where they always have been, which is not necessarily on Midgard. Do not blame the shortcomings of humanity on me. Your race's insecurities, fears and prejudices … all of these are your own. If I had not brought them to the forefront, then another would have. I daresay someone is already continuing the work I had abandoned."
"From what I've seen, it looks like they're doing a much better job than you did back in New York."
"Is this an attempt to damage my pride? I was given only two days if I wanted the Chitauri army. I had to forego finesse and subtlety."
Harry really was not interested in discussing the best way to take over the world. "So? Who is it?"
"You may be correct about Fleegman's murderer: not human. Do you know of the álfar?"
"Elves?" Did Tony lie to me again? "From reading, but I don't think I should rely on myths from a different world."
"There are two kinds, situated on opposite ends of Midgard."
"The svartálfar too? But I got the impression that they were dwarves or something."
"An álfr from Svartalfaheimr is no dwarf. Both had once been one race, and they battled here until Asgard declared this land neutral. Fleegman was executed, marks and method match the álfar, whether from Alfheimr or Svartalfaheimr, I do not know."
"But you have a guess."
"Svartálfar or the dökkálfar – they are synonymous."
"According to legend, they were supposed to be underground metalsmiths. Doesn't this just fall into a stereotype? The dark or black elves being the bad guys? I mean why call yourself dark anything, it paints you as the bad guy automatically. So why do you think it's them? Dark magic?" Harry had tossed out what he thought was a wild guess. It wasn't as wild as he had thought. "It is? You sure about them?"
Loki didn't appreciate the sudden doubt and ignored it. "This is a typical male of that race."
An image appeared to the side, armored, tall and proud. Long white hair covered the head, a bit of it in a thin braid on the side, and light ash-gray skin over the face. Harry didn't miss the sharp claws and the sinewy fingers.
"Well that's hard to go around unnoticed unless … oh, this just got more difficult. They can look like us? This seems like it's enough to bring outside help."
"Asgard cannot act solely upon what appears to be speculation."
"And I take it we would look weak asking for assistance."
"Is it not fortuitous, you arriving unexpectedly into our midst with the power to nullify all illusions? The power to find anyone by name?"
Harry didn't believe in coincidence either.
"A small faction on Svartalfaheimr had staged a successful coup d'état. I wager that they secretly support the full use of dark magic, but they have no known open practitioners since the purge. Asgard and all the realms actively persecute all who wield it – with Svartalfaheimr, now I suspect, the exception. All practitioners, if identified, are hunted. There is only one outcome, an unequivocal sentence: death."
Harry digested that slowly. He knew already that there was a mutual agreement of silence between them, but he hadn't realized how hefty the personal consequence was. No amnesty, no clemency. "You have more to lose than me. This isn't about me being a loophole anymore, it's because Asgard doesn't know about me, isn't it? You and Thor are keeping mum about this." Harry smiled confidently. "Looks like I have another thing over you."
"True, but understand that if you betray this silence, you not only betray me, but yourself and endanger the others who have kept silent for you. Because you cannot see the effects of dark magic, you must rely on feeling them. This is your only proof, and it marks and damns you as a dark practitioner," Loki warned. "You cannot shield these people like I can. Will you sacrifice others to injure me?"
What a dick. Harry's smugness died right there. Of course he wouldn't do it, but he wished it wasn't so obvious to Loki.
"Are you finished discussing about our mutual destruction? Yes? Good. Now, once a recognized member, Midgard can receive arms and a more relaxed information trade from any of the other realms, but there is one main obstacle. The controlling svartálfar faction does not recognize Midgard as a legitimate state and are most vocal against its inclusion into the alliance."
Harry wished that his Hermione was here. She was the politician. "So ... the svartálfar aren't comfortable with a strong neighbor? Sounds like undermining Tony's image was a move to destabilize public faith and to exclude earth from trade. I'm guessing they're not done with their work, but what would they gain from this? I can see earth having strategic value if it really does sit in the middle of all the realms, but they can't occupy earth right? And we can't possibly be threatening to them."
"Dark magic," Loki responded. "A worthy prize in the eyes of the svartálfar in exchange for weakening Midgard."
Harry turned over in his head that little bit of insight. "Who would be in a position to offer that? The only one you're worried about is this enemy you mentioned yesterday night. He's the one?"
"He and the current Svartálfaheimr would make natural allies. It was he, who bestowed upon me ancient knowledge, regarding the Tesseract. It can be a dark tool to open doors, far beyond Midgard. Another portal cannot be easily opened again to reach the Tesseract, and so he must utilize another avenue: Svartálfaheimr. Unfortunately I cannot tell you his name, I do not know it. A shame, really."
Of course, knowing the name would make things too easy wouldn't it? Harry griped inside his head. "He can find others who use dark magic then… he can find us too."
"If the Tesseract is kept from us, there will be no realm, no barren moon, no crevice where he cannot find you," Loki spoke from memory. "Such endearing, promising words from the one known only as the Other, his lieutenant. He constantly reeks of dark magic. Perhaps you can locate him?"
Harry jumped when the image of what looked like a dressed-up mummified corpse stood before him. "That's him?! What kind of name is the Other? He looks like he should drop dead."
"If only. Well?"
"You should learn to ask nicely," Harry responded, summoning the tree branch he had thrown away in a trash bin in his room. The door slid open and a stick swerved around and through the doorway into Harry's hand. He commanded the piece of wood to find this person named the Other.
Unsurprisingly, it didn't work as the stick spun round and round.
"Try Chthon," Loki suggested. "I had overheard his Master calling him by that name once."
Harry wasn't expecting it when the stick pointed up, 2 o'clock position.
Loki faced up and seemed to squint, and then to Harry's puzzlement, his eyes began to move away from the direction the stick was pointing.
"Where are you looking?"
"Space is not linear, it curves," was the curt reply. "He is farther than my eyes can see, but you have dowsed in the direction of, not water, but Svartálfaheimr. I need to consult with Heimdallr, our sentry, though I am uncertain how much he can contribute. That realm sits at the edge of his ... blind spot."
"So is Chthon the one you've been looking for on earth?"
"No, Chthon is too steeped in dark magic, too much hubris, to conceal himself from me. The one here is weaker and vanishes every time I am on Midgard. He is here enough to wreak havoc on the humans though."
"This all seems redundant - a bit mundane too. Why bother making people like Tony look bad, if half the public already thinks he's not safe? Was it to get him so unpopular that even the Council would kill him? I heard that he's already a target for assassination – and also someone by the name of Rogers, it'll make them martyrs … " Harry paused as he realized something, "oh… you think the Council is involved too."
"No, I was not aware of this decision on those two – yours was a given, of course. I only discovered that Extremis was stolen by the Council, which is another destabilizing force. These are not coincidences. If the most public figures in the Avengers team are killed, would it not provoke more people into action? The Council, whomever they may be, are not imbeciles. They must know; we must assume this is intentional."
"This all sounds like a conspiracy theory." Harry sighed at all the things that were going on in the background, but he knew better than to underestimate it. All he had to do was remember Voldemort's campaign to control the British wizarding world and how that had forced the resistance to go underground.
"Were you expecting an army to march out from the abyss as an opening move? Rather inelegant. What would you say if I admit this is a similar course of action I would have taken to destabilize Midgard and any individuals strong enough to resist, given a set amount of material resources and ample time? A multi-pronged approach to collapse an entire realm from the inside, rendering it incapable of properly mounting a defense."
"You really thought this through, didn't you? Do you think about this stuff frequently, in your spare time?" Harry asked, sardonically.
"A former school of thought – but still a rather useful thought exercise."
"Sure, world domination. Everyone's doing it, why not? In fact, I've been at the butt end of a wide-scale campaign to take over the wizarding world, complete with accusations of incitement of public panic – all courtesy of a psychopath everyone else thought dead." Harry had settled a heavy gaze on Loki when he had uttered the word psychopath.
"Oh? And the result?"
"We won, after several isolated attacks over the course of the last seven years," Harry dryly answered. "We were fortunate it hadn't gone to a global scale yet, limited to the U.K."
"He or she tipped his hand so soon, on such a small scale? How uninspired," Loki deplored of the outcome and then amended it with a solemn, "but fortunate."
Harry didn't know how to respond to that except with, "He, not she, was paranoid and going mental." Harry didn't think the wizarding population would have survived if Voldemort had been any more inspired. Actually this entire conversation had turned weird and disturbing. Steering back to a more relevant topic, Harry cleared his throat and asked, "And Romanova? Whose side is she really on?"
"Whichever side Agent Clinton Francis Barton is on."
"Wait - did you just give me Hawkeye's name? And that's all you have to say about her? You sounded like you had a personal agenda against her."
"I can assure you that if I had one, I would not employ you."
Harry was getting better at this. Loki had said he had the ability to assure, but didn't directly deny the grudge. "Why'd you tell me to be friendly with Barton then? She's not going to stop trying to kill me. That's just childish."
Loki seemed to agree. "Yes, incomprehensible, isn't it?"
Something about that question made Harry pause. Even though he had said the idea was childish, he couldn't bring himself to agree.
"The advice still stands, but somehow the circumstances have altered slightly," Loki declared. "She is strangely unsettled."
"What are you talking about? She looked in control to me."
"You do not know her as Barton does. Come. You seek more answers? You will have it first-hand," Loki said before he took one step back, across the Jinx's threshold and disappeared.
He sensed Loki was still close by, somewhere in the facility. Harry went through the broken doorway, farther into the hallway, and searched around. He slowed his steps when he passed by an ordinary door, the door to the conference room.
Harry pressed his ear to the door and couldn't hear anything. He took a chance and opened it – and froze as he was met with the form of Hermione entering from the side.
Oddly, Tony was there too … sitting on top of the bookshelves that lined the back wall. Tony waved with a grin on his face. The ceiling was barely tall enough to give Tony a few inches from the top of his head. Loki was standing right below Tony, with an expectant look directed towards Harry.
Harry looked at first at Hermione, who was checking the electronic equipment in the room, and then to Tony and Loki. Tony was snapping his fingers and gesturing to Harry to hurry up and get over there. Harry walked to them and realized that strangely, Hermione had not turned to him or Tony; she was busy inspecting the room and firmly believing that she was alone. He wondered how Hermione could be so oblivious to the presences of others, but maybe that was because she was trying not to offend anybody else … or something Loki had done on top of his illusion.
"You're in time for the show," Tony said. He jerked his thumb to the empty spot next to him to signal Harry to sit with him.
Fury then walked in from the side door Hermione had used earlier. Harry had to plaster himself against the wall when Fury passed by him to sit at the head of the table.
"Finally, all necessary parties are present," Loki declared. "I will take my leave."
"What?" Harry was torn on whether he should follow or stay and listen in on this obviously secret meeting. Damn Loki. "The game's bigger than this," Harry whispered, conveying that this conversation wasn't over.
"With your involvement, it certainly is. Speak with me again, when that itch of curiosity from your dreams become too great."
How much did this bastard know? The itch was unbearable now. "Later tonight then."
"Guys," Tony interrupted from above, "you know people are going to talk, what with all your nightly rendezvous, right?"
Harry just couldn't understand how Tony's mind worked. "How the hell do you come up with this stuff?"
"It's a talent," was Tony's modest reply.
"Down to business, if you will," Loki instructed. To Tony, he advised, "Now, do not throw objects at these two if you disapprove with what they say. It defeats the point of stealth."
Tony snorted. "I'll have you know I can disappear like Angus MacGyver. Look here, I'm even carrying a pocket knife and duct tape." A Swiss Army knife and a small roll of duct tape were palmed in Tony's hand.
Loki had ample practice ignoring Tony's boasts. "Kindly inform me of new developments afterwards."
As a childish gesture, Tony responded by throwing something wrapped in yellow paper at Loki. Whatever it was, Loki had caught it and glared at it with mild disgust before disappearing again.
Tony looked down at Harry then, and asked, "So are you going to join me? There's going to be some juicy gossip, for sure. I promise I won't tell Pepper of our secret date – " Tony glanced at Fury and Hermione. "Double date."
"I don't know if I'm just that tired or I'm becoming accustomed to your brand of humor," Harry admitted with a sigh. He couldn't think of anything else to say and popped next to Tony, crouched so he didn't bump his head on the ceiling. Harry swung his legs over the edge of the bookshelf while Tony stuck out his hand, holding another lump packaged in yellow paper.
Harry's mouth salivated instantly when he realized it was a burger. It wasn't his normal diet, but to hell with it, he was starving. Anything would do.
"I got you one with no cheese," Tony said.
Harry ate through half of it, before saying, "I like cheese, just not the ones usually found on burgers. And thank you."
"Yeah, pay me back with some bangers and mash – that sounds provocative, doesn't it?"
Harry just kept his mouth shut. He also didn't agree with the request; he knew a place that served a decent plate of sausages and mashed potatoes in London – his London – so it was probably a safe bet that it existed here, but how was he supposed to get there without flying on another plane? He just shrugged and asked, "So what brings you here? And how does Hermione not know you're behind her?"
"Oh, you should have seen us meet. When I found out that she wasn't just a hacker, but a mind-hacker as well, heh, let's just say I challenged her to look in my mind one more time. She's not going anywhere near my head anytime soon," Tony said proudly.
Harry had to seriously ask himself, if he really wanted to know what Hermione had seen. "And why are you here? You don't have to be here to know what's going on inside. JARVIS could tell you."
"I was offered front row seats to a private show. How can I pass that up? Now shush, the movie's starting." When Harry opened his mouth, Tony cried out, "Don't you know it's rude to talk during a movie?"
Harry held back his reply and turned back to Fury and Hermione. The show was starting.
"How secure is this room?" Hermione asked, already seated, eyes still searching all around the room.
"Enough," Fury replied.
Harry heard Tony snickering on the side, because apparently the room wasn't secure enough to keep them out.
Hermione nodded, satisfied and then went straight into business. "I have reason to believe that the Council is planning an assassination. I suggest placing Steven Rogers and Anthony Stark under protective detail."
"Aww hell no," Tony disagreed, completely contradicting his "No talking" rule. Spontaneously, Tony chucked a French fry at the two below. Harry summoned it back with a glare at Tony. While Tony might have some hidden recording devices, Harry didn't and he wanted to learn as much as possible without Tony ruining the opportunity.
Tony just kept blabbing. "They can keep that walking, talking 90-year old Spangled Banner locked up for protection but not me. I say bring it! It'll be fun, like a house party –"
Harry sent the fry back at Tony with a waddiwasi. It would have gone up Tony's nose, if Tony hadn't caught it. Harry focused back on Hermione.
"Their movements lately have been more than suspicious, particularly in regards to nanotech," she said.
"Extremis," Fury replied.
"Yes, they confiscated it from AIM, but that's not the only issue. It's what they've been doing with it. Experimenting on agents, to make a team of Extremis operatives, but I don't know why they've chosen this route when AIM hadn't been able to perfect it. It certainly is much easier to control when you have a group of people who are dependent on a steady dose of the virus, but only a small fraction of the recipients survive, 2.5%. They've gotten their hands on some posthumans as well … it's zero for us. You've noticed a number of us disappearing, haven't you? There's your answer."
"Wait, what about us?" Tony asked to no one.
"What about the Avengers Initiative?" Fury asked, unknowingly repeating Tony's question.
Hermione crossed her arms. "The Council was never on board with the Avengers Initiative; Extremis is the substitute for your dream team. The Avengers was humored while it was on paper and was brought to reality only because you pushed it behind the Council's back. A dysfunctional team of people who have never worked together, never trained together, never seen each other narrowly saving earth. Who would have foreseen that? And would anyone bet that the same fluke would happen again?"
"I would," Tony whispered.
"Shut it," Harry whispered back. His head turned at the moving door handle on the side of the room.
Agent Barton entered from the door Harry had gone through. Hermione avoided looking at the agent and spoke again as if Barton had been there the entire time. "I don't have to read your mind to know that you've been considering a separation from the Council."
Fury didn't say anything in response.
Hermione pushed, "It's no secret from me. I'll help you break off from them."
It was Barton who answered. "You want to help after weakening our organization?"
Hermione uncrossed her arms and placed them under the table, eyes turned away. "If this is about Romanova's identity, the more people who know about her the better - "
Barton cut her off. "She's our top espionage specialist and you just out-ed her like that?"
And with that said, Harry started to wonder if Barton had been acting and pretending to be troubled back when they were underground. Had Barton known about Romanova's mission from the beginning?
"She shouldn't be trusted so highly in the first place!" Hermione argued. "After almost forty years as an enemy, half of it in the service of the former U.S.S.R. I might add, and within two decades, she's ranked higher than you or Coulson, and both of you have more seniority in SHIELD than her. Doesn't that tell you something?"
Fury wasn't too surprised by the news. "That she's favored by the Council. Tell me something I don't know. She's perfect to lead them along, that's where her expertise lie. You think I don't know what I'm doing?"
"You've been waiting for the Council to call on her?" Hermione shook her head in frustration. "She's not stable; she never was! You haven't been inside her head."
"And how deep have you gone?" Fury asked.
Hermione flinched, her eyes haunted, and admitted with a shaky voice, "Not so far, not without getting lost."
Fury looked relieved and said, "Well, she'd make a poor double agent if she couldn't go around a telepath."
"How do you know she won't betray you?" she demanded.
"She's been with us for twenty years, like you said. I think I'll hold on to a little faith," Fury replied easily.
"You don't understand. It's too much trauma. She's convinced you that she's fit for any mission, but she's not. You have all your past buried and set aside, but for her, it's too close to the surface. I know enough to know that she needs to be pulled out. Besides, the only one who can have that faith isn't you." Hermione then turned from Fury to Barton and claimed, "It's you."
Barton frowned at where the conversation was going. He shook his head to disagree. "She won't do that for me."
"Agent Barton, how else do you think she tricked Loki back on the Helicarrier? She did it with the truth!"
"She wouldn't have made the deal!"
"She didn't have to, but it doesn't mean she wouldn't if left with no other option."
"I'm telling you, she won't."
"Won't? Not wouldn't? Something's happened between then and now, hasn't it?"
"She won't, because I asked her not to," Barton grounded out. "On the off chance she was actually serious about it – which she's not."
"So you want us to fall back on a verbal agreement?" Hermione asked.
"I don't know what else you want me to tell you! You've clearly made up your mind."
Fury held out both his hands, as if keeping Hermione and Barton separate. "Shut your mouths, the both of you. Agent Barton, what do you think should be done?"
"Well, sir, to be frank, I'd like to have been informed of Agent Romanova's presence in Manhattan and her status as double agent beforehand. But that's not what you were asking, was it, sir?" Barton candidly responded. He breathed out audibly before admitting, "I can't deny that there's something wrong, but it's not her betraying us; she retreated too quickly. I know for certain that she has a spare sidearm. We only collected two and I know she regularly carries at least three. I don't know how, but for some reason, Harry's making her antsy."
What? I'm the one who's unsettling her?
"Harry, what did you do?" Tony asked.
"I didn't do anything to her," Harry responded.
Fury started talking again. "I can't call her back in. You know she maintains silence while out on missions. If she has the intent to turn traitor, it's too late to do anything about it now; she's already with them. But if she's still with us and I contact her now, the Council will know and that may put her in more danger."
Harry turned back to Tony. "Do you trust Romanova?"
Tony crumpled another burger wrapper to think about it. "Well, I don't know. I didn't know she had that much baggage. And while I think she's incredible whoopin' alien ass, we did meet while she was undercover spying on me. It's a little strange saying that I'd trust her to cover my back, but yeah I think I do."
Harry confessed, "Even hearing this, I still don't," and then quietly turned back to the people below.
"What if I say no … to all this?" Fury challenged.
Hermione was quick to answer, "Then I'll bring it up to Stark. He won't be able to resist. But I know I won't have to because you've already started making moves against the Council."
"I was wondering why you decided to leave now. You must have been aware of Extremis for a while. Stark was the back-up plan?"
"Everyone – even me – didn't think he could break through our system. It looked like he only accessed my cover files, but he had to have gone deeper. He had to know somehow I was alive, because why bother looking for a girl who died years ago? He has the resources, the drive to go against the Council, and the capability to provide me protection if I decide to break away from the Council. He may be part of the Avengers Initiative, but he's not a member of SHIELD."
There was a little tingling feeling going down Harry's spine upon hearing the effects of his actions. Without him, Tony would never be made aware. Despite what Fury believed, Hermione may not be here either if not for Harry.
"He's not a Samaritan." Fury conveniently left out Harry's involvement.
Hermione gave a small laugh. "I wasn't looking for one. If I was, I'd be going to Rogers. I can personally offer Stark my skills. Plus, he'd be interested in knowing that the Council was asking me for a physical location to JARVIS."
"Did you tell them?" Fury asked.
If a needle was dropped across the room, Harry was certain he'd be able to hear it. Everyone's breathing had stopped, in particular Tony's.
"I lied and said that it was stored in Stark's main Iron Man suit. Impossible to steal without Stark's knowledge."
Tony breathed a sigh of relief.
"JARVIS is not in a secure location?" Harry asked hesitantly, Tony's earlier nervousness still lingering.
"He's safe, more or less." Tony turned and after a shrewd look directed at Harry, elaborated, "JARVIS 1.0 was a supercomputer located under my Malibu house. He's not there anymore, well, not all of him, the sixth version of him is …" Tony trailed off, shrugged and glanced up. "Pepper liked the idea of a guardian angel."
It took one second for Harry to guess what Tony meant. "JARVIS is in space?"
"Well, a network of satellites and ground-based servers. Made sense to me at the time: very low probability of catastrophic failure if he's spread out and unreachable – he doesn't exist in one particular place, so he's fine even if a part fails. He's powered by the arc reactor if solar energy is insufficient, low temperature of space is great for superconductivity, and the network covers the entire globe, yeah."
Harry didn't know everything Tony said, but he was in agreement that JARVIS was more or less safe. Why would someone want JARVIS? Harry had worked out that the A.I. was valuable, but for what specific purpose?
Fury answered Harry's question. "The Council wasn't thrilled that Stark partially controls the Cube."
"You mean JARVIS and this facility," Hermione corrected.
"Same thing," Fury replied. After a moment's pause, he asked, "You're trading one caretaker for another. You realize that, don't you?"
"Caretaker? I'd like to think of it as … mutualism. And how is this different from the arrangement between Banner and Stark? This is only temporary, I aim to bring down the Council – that's it and then I can be on my way. At least I know Stark's not going to murder my parents, if they were still alive."
Harry couldn't believe the careless way she had dropped that information bomb.
"Was it really the Council?" Fury finally asked.
"A grave suspicion from little things I've gathered over the years, nothing direct."
Fury leaned closer. "Do you know exactly what you're asking? What this will take? On top of that, I might have another alien invasion to take care of. This time fucking elves."
That reminds me… Harry glared at Tony, who only stared confusedly back. "You said there were no elves."
"Fury's serious?" Tony asked back. "I didn't know! To be fair, I didn't say they didn't exist."
Harry pressed on. "If the other realms exist, then don't you think there're elves?"
"What are you talking about? There was a huge-ass dossier that Thor had given us about the other realms. It actually took me two nights to get through that monster. No mention of elves."
"The álfar ring a bell?"
"What does that have to do with anything?"
Harry sighed. No wonder Tony didn't know and Bruce had paused to think about that question back in the kitchen. "An álfr means elf. You're telling me that dossier didn't have pictures?"
"Yeah, moving pictures – that I had JARVIS watch – but I can read stuff faster than staring at something going at a set pace! Besides, how was I supposed to know that they had pointed ears under all that hair?"
Harry gave up and turned back to what Hermione was saying.
"Yes, this is going to happen," she affirmed. "It'll be faster with SHIELD on board and … I bring the rest of us to the table." Hermione slipped out a necklace she had been wearing under her shirt. She slid it across to Fury. It was a flash drive tied to a lanyard. "They're all here. Only copy, I made sure of it."
Harry straightened and leaned closer at the mention of others like her.
Barton wasn't impressed. "We already have super enhanced humans on the payroll."
"You need more people. Half of your organization would side with the Council – at least at first – I can help you find out which ones. Besides there's more variety to us than what's represented by your agents. I helped hide the more special ones from SHIELD, at least the more conspicuous ones."
"What are we talking about here?" Barton asked.
"Teleportation, Telekinetic, Pyrokinetic, etcetera … there's one some of us call a precog, Diana, but I don't believe it."
Harry almost fell off, leaning forward so much. This is it. Maybe there are Prophecies here, a lead, a clue into this maddening circle between death and destiny. All the instances where a Prophecy was broken depended on if one can ignore the message, to ignore the almost overpowering urge to save yourself. Voldemort had failed, Oedipus's father had failed, and the fictional Macbeth as well. Harry was determined to prove will stronger than fate by finding this Diana.
Fury shook his head, disagreeing with the idea. "We're still severely crippled even with the extra manpower – untrained manpower. I should also point out that all resources, money, political networks all lie within their hands. They know who we are and we know nothing of them, only an image on the screen that I know aren't their real faces – "
And then Harry couldn't hear anymore as Tony howled with laughter. With a Silencio on his fingertips, Harry had to change course and summon the wrappers that Tony had accidentally knocked off.
"Oh, wow I haven't laughed like that since … well activating JARVIS for the first time. Ah, this is perfect! We so have SHIELD covered. I need a good camera when I break the news to Fury." Tony swept his hand in front of him like he was reading a billboard sign and said, "Tony Stark: Owner of SHIELD."
"I'm sorry?" Harry just could not imagine it.
"Be Fury's boss. You know that joint venture? It's a partial merger of Stark Industries, AIM, and HAMMER Industries. Stocks from HAMMER dropped ridiculously after Brian was sent to prison. We were once all contractors for the U.S. Department of Defense, but now we'll back SHIELD. Conventional weaponry from HAMMER, biotech from AIM, and high tech toys from me," Tony happily concluded.
Harry thought there was something missing. "And the political network?"
"Pssh, money and power equal politics. Public opinion though, hmm … can't be too hard convincing Captain Planet to run for office. Mr. President Steven Rogers, yeah, and then he can appoint me Secretary of Defense. I've been pestering Stern ever since that subpoena. I have it all worked out."
Harry dismissed all this as one of Tony's fantasies. "I just don't see you doing very much … defending."
"Why do people doubt my sincere wishes for world peace?"
"Is that what you call it?" Harry shot back before paying attention back onto Hermione.
"The posthuman population is growing restless, itching for a fight the more they're exposed. First it was the Avengers, which galvanized the ones, who didn't want to stay quiet under SHIELD anymore, to be more open. There were all these eyewitness reports but no video, and now Harry got himself caught on camera phone – you've seen the protests and rallies on the news. Superhuman is the gentlest term out there; it's usually mutant or my favorite, freak. People don't know what to do with us. If that bill passes, they'll call for registration and names to be released into the public domain."
Harry always imagined what it would be like for muggle and wizard to coexist together. It had failed in the past, mistakes made from both sides, but now? "Tony, you're known to the public aren't you? You're not getting harassed that much. Isn't that a good sign?"
"Well it's me and Steve. We're pretty much protected by our fan base. Well more him than me. I can afford the security … and Steve, well who doesn't love him? He's the old-fashioned gentleman."
Tony must be able to handle his fans very well then, because Harry knew first-hand how adoration from fame could quickly sour into blame and doubt.
"The government's not thrilled with me. It all started when I illegally flew back into Afghanistan air space … and blew up some stuff – and people." Tony acted as if he had not seen Harry's surprise and continued, "Pepper had a field day handling the PR for that. Rhodey, my inside man in the Air Force, keeps the Department of Defense off my back – sort of. I've been getting an increasing number of calls from NSA lately about JARVIS. So normal."
That wasn't normal, Harry thought in disbelief. "But what do you think will happen? Do you think an open society is a good idea?"
"I don't know, but I can see SHIELD supporting the bill and the rest of us … probably not. It takes a lot to hide a whole bunch of people from the world. It wasn't so bad when that was all SHIELD did, but maintaining this secrecy seems too much of a goal when there are other things to focus on. It's not like the MIB with their neuralizers."
Harry returned a blank look.
"Aw, come on! You know the movie? The things that make you forget with a flash of light and replace memories?"
Didn't that sound like the Obliviators from the Ministry, when muggles accidentally learn about magic? "Anyway, I may have some ideas to ease the transition. I'll tell you later, I might need your help on something."
Harry had just finished saying that when Hermione dished out one last secret. "You're the oldest member of SHIELD, Director – one of its first members. You have a personal stake in this too."
"What?" Tony blurted, speechless. "Damn, I should have known. He had all of my old man's stuff, and now that I think about it, talked like he knew him when he was alive too. Is everyone older than what I think they are?"
Old. Old. That kicked Harry's mind back to the SHIELD archives, where old files were kept. "I'm going to get something. So save my spot."
"Uh huh," Tony muttered noncommittally, busy dipping another fry in the ketchup.
Harry Apparated back to Tony's Malibu Point mansion, summoned Coulson's black duffel bag and then with a quick nod to DUM-E, Disapparated to SHIELD's Archives. Harry was thrust back into the darkened room, stumbling on a cardboard box in his blindness. He illuminated the file room with Lumos and then proceeded to enchant the bag, giving it space inside it didn't normally have. He was only interested in some of these files, but he convinced himself that it couldn't hurt to take them all.
"Pack," Harry ordered, remembering the common household charm. All at once, the folders on the shelves, in the boxes and on the floor hovered in the air and crowded together to toss themselves inside the opened bag. Satisfied with the complete and utterly shameless theft of SHIELD's records, Harry popped out and back onto the bookshelf next to Tony, bag neatly on his lap.
"Did I miss anything?" Harry asked.
"Not much. She's just explaining what happened underground. Wish there had been a fast-forward button. And uh, Fury agreed, so Operation Stoned Council is a go!"
Harry looked down to see that Barton had left and the remaining two were getting up from their seats to leave. He started opening the bag but then paused to listen when the conversation topic turned to him.
"How'd you manage to hide him all this time?" Hermione questioned Fury. "I'm sure the Council is scrambling to neutralize him. He's too much to control."
"He appeared about five days ago and he kept a low enough profile – " Fury started but then stopped to add, " – or did."
Hermione stopped in front of the doors and asked incredulously, "He just appeared out of the blue?"
"According to Stark. Would you believe the multi-verse theory?"
"Harry, you're famous now," Tony whispered, as an aside to Harry.
"I was already," Harry muttered under his breath.
"What was that?"
"Nothing," Harry lied and turned back to listen to Hermione's reaction.
Hermione shook her head and said, "You're kidding."
Fury stared back. "I wish I was. Stranded, I heard."
"I was wondering how he can do all those things. This still doesn't change our problems," Hermione stated before she and Fury walked out of the room.
"Five days?" Harry queried, not realizing it had been that long – or really that short.
"Morgue remember?" Tony reminded. "SHIELD probably rushed your autopsy and arranged the burial, instead of the standard cremation. Normally it takes - "
"Don't remind me - and wait, why didn't you get me sooner?"
"Sure, blame me for everything. Look John Doe 4134, I'll risk grave robbing in the middle of the night with low security than inside a morgue where there's always people. JARVIS can handle the surveillance cams and security, but not eye witnesses and the handy cell phone camera. YouTube already has videos of me drunk dancing and streaking. Pepper would kill me if there was one where it looked like I was into necrophilia."
Harry didn't comment and instead placed the black bag next to him and stuck his hand inside. Recalling a specific name and simply for curiosity's sake, he called on a particular folder: Steven Grant Rogers. As soon as he pulled it out, Tony tried to swipe the bag, amazed by the bag's capacity, but Harry deftly moved it out of the way. Noticing Tony's new interest in the folder, Harry held it out to him instead.
"I don't like being handed things."
Harry blinked, not understanding how Tony could shake his hand the other day and also wondering if Tony had an irrational aversion to germs or something like it. When Tony frowned to make his point, Harry rolled his eyes and set the folder between them. Tony hurriedly snatched it up.
"Do you know Fury's first name?" Harry asked, the bag's opening up to his shoulder.
"Huh?" Tony asked, still overwhelmed by the fact that Fury had worked with his father. "The Godfather, down there? It's Nicholas."
Harry felt that folder slide up his hand. He placed this right beside Tony as well. He called upon Romanova's file next. This one he kept. And finally – because he recognized that look on Tony's face when the man had referenced his own father, hadn't Harry worn it often enough? – he fished for the folder named Howard Anthony Walter Stark.
"When you're done with those, I'd like to discuss some renovation ideas," Harry said, pulling out the folder.
More words were supposed to follow, but Harry paused as he noticed the sudden change in Tony. Harry could see Tony's bright eyes become rigid and his mouth tightening in the corners. More importantly, was Tony's hand sliding forward, palm up. Upon placing the folder in Tony's waiting hand, Harry didn't hear any word of thanks, but he felt it from the silence and the flick, flick of paper.
Not mentioning how Tony had just accepted something that was handed to him, Harry maintained the silence; he had some reading to do.
Harry fished for another set of documents. This time, building information he had seen when these folders had passed him, before flinging themselves into the bag. One by one he stacked them on his lap.
He sighed at the workload and then stretched and cracked the joints in his arms before diving into his latest multi-day project: applying Fidelius and mapping out a Floo network for SHIELD.
Untraceable, invisible, effectively intangible even if everyone in the world knew of its location, as long as they were not told by the Secret Keepers. A safe haven to gather people, maybe include the ones Hermione had referred to, especially this Diana. Neville too.
And with this decision, he thought he felt a faint stirring around him. It reminded him of the fact that he didn't know much at all. Here he was in a different world, trying to chase down fate, and what he was discovering was unnerving him. First it was resurrection, then the small bush that was once his wand, and soon, Harry knew, invisibility would follow. What was happening? Be it his imagination or something real, he wondered – plagued by the idea – if he was unwittingly following a planned destiny while trying to fight Destiny.
AN: As a reminder, the Casket of Ancient Winters is from the first Thor movie.
In the comics, the Other is only a host to Chthon, an expert in black magic. I've made these two the same person in this story. I'm also very interested if the next Thor movie share the same dark energy idea as this story. The dark elves just fit here so nicely.
There're more familiar faces for Harry to meet. Guess who's Diana?
In transcripts of one of Rowling's interviews, she admits that the difference between a wizard and squib/muggle is genetically based; Rowling specifically uses the word "gene," a strictly biological term and definitely in the realm of science. :) This is why it's so easy to bring the counterparts of Harry's friends as posthumans or mutants.
Someone asked why Harry used Expelliarmus in the last chapter. I could be incorrect in how the spell works, but I thought if you don't have a weapon in your hands then the spell is ineffective. Harry was trying to play it safe in case he hit Barton accidentally.