Chapter 20: Push and Pull
Tony had left Harry alone an hour ago – helped by the fact that Harry had finally given the bag containing SHIELD's archive over to Tony – but it did give Harry time to test out some more defensive charms and to begin looking around for suitable places to set up as points on the Floo network. This was how Agent Coulson had found him, cleaning out a broom closet. In fact, Harry had dust in his hair and a bottle of glass cleaner still in one hand.
Harry kept his other hand still, kept it from nervously patting his pocket where the shrunken file on Romanova was in. He drew some comfort from knowing that if necessary, he could now keep some secrets safe, thanks to a special Unspeakable-level memory charm. It was the same charm that he had described to Tony back in his workshop basement. He hadn't liked reapplying it on himself, knowing that it would do more than shut his mouth, but would also change his behavior when the charm was activated. It was a necessary sacrifice, but he found the loss of control extremely unnerving.
Finally deciding that Romanova's file wasn't worth hiding, Harry placed the bottle back on its shelf and turned around. "Yes?"
"Mr. Potter, have You and Butterfingers been neglecting their duties?"
That wasn't what he'd thought the agent would ask. He had been expecting a question about the missing archive. "Er, no, I was trying to clean the room, since you don't have a fireplace." To a muggle, it shouldn't make sense. Harry watched for a reaction, anything, but was disappointed when Coulson only silently encouraged him to explain himself. Harry gave up and instead asked, "What're you doing here? Not looking for cleaning supplies are you?"
"No, Security Office, to see the Director."
"I thought it wasn't on this floor."
"And you're correct. I wanted to ask if you'd like to come as well."
"Why?" Harry asked, already suspicious about the offer.
"To talk about certain issues concerning you. Nothing bad, it should be beneficial to you. I'm suggesting a place for you here in SHIELD."
If Harry was still a teenager, he would have jumped at the chance like he had with the Order of the Phoenix, and though he felt appreciation – and damn this childish giddiness! – for this offer, it felt muted when he forced himself to think about what SHIELD represented.
"Fury made it very clear what he thinks of me."
"You're not a trained agent and that can cause some interference, but the job in Manhattan was done with minimal fuss. We collected the two you captured and placed in Stark's tower, the large population of canaries was unusual but not that extraordinary to explain away, and the plant life settled back down. Everything's covered with no casualties on our side: that's all I care about. It was a good job."
There was that fleeting feeling again. Harry just let it pass because dammit, he wasn't a boy anymore. Damn this body! He didn't need someone telling him he did a good job. Harry shook his head and protested, "SHIELD is a paramilitary organization and I'm sorry, but I'm not a soldier."
"Not a soldier, not like an agent, but an ally. It'd be a very similar setup to what Thor has with us. I don't think it would be very different than what you do now."
"Then why is it so important to you if nothing's really changed?"
"It encourages trust. Better communication - "
Harry was sure that answer was in response to all the sneaking around he had been doing.
"- and I care about cohesiveness, because I understand how important it is for people to work together and how easy for it all to break apart."
He couldn't argue with that – actually this conversation felt like it was tailor-made for him. With some irritation, Harry said, "You know exactly what to say to people, don't you?"
Coulson gave a little tired sigh. "I coordinate and evaluate teams; I hope what I say is the right thing. Yes, I'm trying my best to convince you, but I'll never force you."
Harry did want some things from SHIELD, but he had thought to bargain for them, not work for SHIELD.
He didn't want to work with anyone. He was fine on his own -
Harry gasped as the word echoed inside his skull. He looked around, but the room was silent. He checked the strength of his Occlumency; it was still intact. For a moment he had thought it failed, something had breached his mental defenses – almost preferred it, because he'd have an excuse to be angry – but no, it had only been himself, the better part of himself.
He turned his head away in shame. That's right, he fit that Orlendr label perfectly. He had been an outsider from the beginning, but it was his own doing that he had remained that way. When had he taken their problems and made it his own? Hadn't he promised to himself that he would be careful? That he was neither young nor arrogant … and look what he was doing.
That wasn't right either. Look at what he'd done. He'd kept his distance for decades.
After a long moment, Harry admitted, "I'll think about it. I want to know more details though."
"The details can be hashed out later, but I need to know if you're interested before we go in."
Harry frowned, and then stalled for time by clearing the center of the broom closet. On the outside, he pushed around the vacuum and floor waxer until nothing was on the back wall, while on the inside, he questioned whether it was a good idea to confront Fury again, but if he wanted to set up the Floo network and Fidelius quickly, the sooner the better. He crouched down and laid a hand on the floor, silently mouthing the incantation before he was surrounded by a slow pulse of green. He inspected his handiwork and didn't stand up until he was satisfied at how the spell settled into the room.
Steeling himself for the encounter, Harry turned around and nodded. "This is a tentative yes."
Here we go again.
Harry followed Coulson through the hallway and into the elevator. Inside, Coulson pulled out a small dark blue booklet and something else rubber-banded together. "Here."
Harry accepted the bundle. "This is a U.S. passport, a California driver's license … and bank accounts?"
"I thought you might need them. We've also established a paper trail for you. Born in England but a naturalized citizen living in California. You're here in New Mexico on a year-long internship with Dr. Foster."
"I don't know anything about her work – but alright. You also kept my name and it says here, I'm 21," Harry noted, grateful that it didn't represent him as a teenager. "But I still haven't said yes."
"I know," Coulson answered.
Harry watched his face before replying, "Thanks."
He didn't think he'd need these documents, but they were still nice to have – except for the bank accounts, those felt like SHIELD was paying him. Still … the other option would be to ask for money or forge it – and Harry wasn't enough of an arsehole to use counterfeit. He didn't ask if these were given to him to make SHIELD look better.
Coulson added after a moment, "And one more thing, you could have returned my car."
Guilt flushed across Harry's face. "I'm sorry, I forgot. I can do that later. Do you want it back here or the air strip?"
"No need, it was returned to a nearby field office and I brought another here – and this one, don't touch."
Harry suppressed his grin. "Alright, I guess."
Coulson frowned, not confident in Harry's light concession, but let it pass. "While you were in L.A., you went to the late Mr. Fleegman's house."
That wasn't a question. No point in denying it when Coulson's car had been parked so close to the house.
The elevator stopped and the door opened.
"Did you notice anything strange, other than the markings on the body?"
Coulson looked a little disappointed. "The estimated time of death was shortly before we flew here. We never saw Mr. Fleegman alive. We have quite a problem if our enemies can blend in with the populace – blend in with us."
The door for the elevator had been opened for some time now. It was only held open because Harry had stuck his foot out. "If they're illusions, I think I can help you with that."
Harry had the almost overbearing urge to pull out his own hair. Why did it feel like he was trying to move a mountain every time he talked to Fury?!
They had been standing outside of the Security Office for a good ten minutes already.
"I'm not too impressed with invisibility," Fury said doubtfully, standing like a sentinel.
Harry resisted rubbing his own face in frustration. "Not just invisibility! It's like a monopoly on certain pieces of information you own … or in this case, occupy. The affected site is also … " Harry struggled to describe it with non-magical terms, and just fell back to its effects instead. " … yes, there's invisibility but it's not because others can't see it so much as it's not there for others to see, touch, or talk about. It also doesn't take that knowledge from someone, it just makes it unusable … if that makes any sense to you." At the end there, Harry wasn't sure he was even getting through.
Fury stared at him with that one eye, trying to decide if Harry was in his right mind. He turned around and stepped back inside the office. "Coulson, Potter, in here."
Harry watched Fury's retreating back, his figure eventually swallowed up by the darkness inside. Harry didn't trust the room, he couldn't see what else was in there. Sensing his hesitation, Coulson entered first.
Harry closed his eyes before casting the sense-enhancing charm. He kept his eyes closed to avoid blinding himself from the brighter lights in the hallway. He did a quick check to make sure he didn't hear or smell anyone else inside the room before he relaxed a little. So far so good.
Once inside, the door slid shut. He opened his eyes to find a far wall of probably a hundred empty monitors, and when one by one they blinked rapidly to life, he removed the charm. It robbed him of his enhanced sight, but not before seeing Fury and Coulson walking together to the other side of the room. This room, it wasn't an office so much as a surveillance station. Once his eyes adjusted back to normal, he noticed they were standing with the monitors to their backs and faces away from the lights. Basically it was a way for them to see his face but not the other way around. Harry stayed near the door.
"I'm going to keep it simple, Potter." The next words were terse, a pause after each word, but together it was something not so simple. "What - do - you - want?"
That was an intentionally vague question. Harry also didn't like this setup either. He curled his fingers and allowed a flicker to grow in his hand. The Lumos rose up in the air, bright enough to light the entire room, bright enough to clearly see the two before him. Much better. He could now see them. Fury's frown must be a permanent feature of his face, it was the only expression Harry ever saw on him. And Coulson was as unflappable as ever.
When Harry took too long to answer, Fury added, "I already know about what you think is here. Honestly, I find all this destiny talk utter bullshit - "
"Good to hear," Harry interjected.
" - what I don't get is why you're still here. You know there's a fight coming, but instead of thinking about it like a normal person and staying away, you jump right in. Why is that? Something ended where you came from, and I'm going to guess some kind of conflict, and then it finished … but you weren't finished with it. You're trying to prove something."
Was he that transparent? No, he wasn't going to do this. He didn't come here to talk about himself! In a low voice, Harry asked, "Is this a no?"
"When did I say that? I don't think I can afford to say no. You claim you can hide SHIELD, but anything given can be taken away, so excuse me if I want to know your motivations. I'm flying blind here."
Harry had to concede to his reasoning. He might as well try to explain all this. "Where I come from, everyone takes Prophecies seriously. I was born into one and as if it was all scripted, every event thereafter seemed fated to happen. I didn't think there were Prophecies here, but there are signs of one – and we can break it!"
"There's a room we have that once contained all the Prophecies in small glass spheres. There's a characteristic heaviness that's only felt there – that was, until I felt it here. Once in Tony's house, the second time, it was right after boarding the plane, and the third one was today when I decided to implement the Fidelius and Floo network. It seems like I'm the only one who feels them."
There he said it. Now it was their turn.
"How convenient. You know how crazy this sounds?"
Harry didn't answer that. If he hadn't lived it, he'd probably agree. "If a Prophecy is really here, I want to find it before anyone gets the chance to hear it. I'm going to find it if it's here – with or without SHIELD."
Harry let the warning hang in the air.
"If I may interrupt," Coulson spoke up, "even if you're right, how do you know no one's heard it yet?"
Harry had hoped they wouldn't ask this. "I don't."
"So it may be too late?"
"It's never too late for damage control," Harry replied quietly. They wouldn't like his actual solution to Obliviate anyone who had heard it.
"From where, who or what would it be heard?"
"You don't have seers or prophets here, so I don't know where. Maybe you once had them and the prophecy's written down somewhere."
One flat stare from Fury and then an office chair was shoved towards Harry. It rolled to a stop right in front of Harry's feet. What does that mean?
Fury pulled a chair for himself and sat down in it. "We can treat this like a business agreement. What do you want from us for concealing SHIELD? You want us to seriously consider this prophecy talk?"
Confident now, Harry said, "It'd be a good start. I also want any information on mythical gates, legends on death – and sphinxes." The last one he didn't think was that important but it had been in his dream.
Fury raised a single eyebrow at the list – the eyebrow not covered by his eye patch. "Sounds like you're grasping at straws, but if those are the kinds of things you're asking us to do, fine. You going to tell me what it all means?"
"When I have the answers."
"That list might take some time. You can't be more specific?"
"I'm sure it'll be a growing list," and without much thought, blurted out, " – and I want to talk to Diana. Is that specific enough?"
"Diana? You heard that - ? Why do I even bother with security?" Fury asked rhetorically.
Harry shrugged, his guilt over eavesdropping non-existent.
In the corner of his eye, Harry noticed something on one of the screens. Good grief. It looked like a fight had just broken out in a hallway – between Tony and Barton. Tony was, of course, losing badly; clearly Barton wasn't trying to win and only attempting to restrain Tony, up until several pieces from the Iron Man suit flew around the corner to successfully capture the agent's right arm and leg. Tony finally slipped free from Barton's loose hold, got himself a piece of the suit, and raised an armored-covered foot at a door. A rather familiar door – in fact the one right behind Harry.
Harry turned around in time as the door behind him was kicked out of the doorway and straight into him. No way was he going to take it! He fired off an Impedimenta strong enough to send the door back, bowling over Tony with a satisfied smack. Barton reflexively moved around Tony to avoid the collision, impressive considering the way he staggered with the extra weight from the armor.
"Harry, you completely ruined my grand entrance."
"You were about to flatten me again. I returned the favor. You just didn't get out of the way in time."
Tony shoved the door off of him and picked himself up, a scowl directed at Fury. "Not sorry for crashing this party, but I need to talk to you, alone and right now."
"Release Agent Hawkeye first," Fury ordered.
Tony gave Barton a sideways glance and by some unseen command, the pieces of the Iron Man suit automatically detached from the agent and flew away just as quickly as it had arrived.
Barton stood at the broken doorway for a moment before he watched his superiors and then entered as well.
Harry wasn't going to get in the way. This was something urgent between Tony and Fury, but he still wanted something from the Director of SHIELD. "My list?"
"Granger will help you with that." Fury pointed outside the room and as if it had been a cue, Hermione stepped through the doorway.
This is convenient.
"Harry, I didn't say this before, but thank you," Hermione quietly said. She had her eyes forward, conveniently away from him.
Harry didn't know specifically what she was thanking him for, but he replied, "You're welcome."
The two of them had left the Security Office to find a sitting room, leaving Tony and SHIELD to their own problems. Harry had given Fury a parchment detailing the Fidelius and Floo, including the recipe for the Floo powder, a recipe that required mundane ingredients. Its non-magical components the main reason why the powder was so cheap that every wizarding household could buy it. The trick was behind the spell, not the powder which only served as a signal. Fury was supposed to return to him a list of potential sites for the network no later than two days. In the meantime, Hermione would help him and maybe he'd be able to squeeze in a visit to England. Harry grimaced at the thought of another plane ride.
"I didn't see Fury contact you, so how did you … ?"
Hermione pointed to a well concealed ear piece. "It was Coulson, while you were occupied with the door."
"So they just tell you what to do now?"
Hermione scowled. "No, I just didn't see a problem with the request – and I told Coulson that I'd work with you, but if you don't want my help - "
Harry immediately corrected her. "I didn't say that."
They didn't find a sitting room, but a library. Harry had expected it to be filled with technical books, but when he saw books written in different languages, he reminded himself that this underground section hosted extraterrestrial guests. Harry sat down on a chair while Hermione took the seat across the low table. "Anyway, information gathering is what I do. I may not be able to dig up everything you want to know about … well, folktales, but I can try."
Harry gave a brief half-smile but then suddenly asked, "Why is Fury okay with you helping me? It's a little strange to have someone of your caliber searching for legends."
Hermione froze in surprise and then slowly admitted, "Because he wants me to search you."
Harry smirked. "Yea, I thought it was a little too easy and I'm guessing you didn't tell him that your ability doesn't work on me."
"He doesn't have to know. He can be anal about security, understandably, but… you're one of us now, she said, but then muttered to herself, "even if you're not from this universe."
Was it coincidence that befriending this Hermione also required a life-saving event? He was given another reminder of how events were falling together. He shifted in discomfort.
"Something bothering you?" Hermione's words cutting through his thoughts.
Harry looked down at his hands. Should I ask? He'd already been accused of being too obsessed in his own personal crusade – and what he was having SHIELD do was definitely done only for him. But he could no longer ignore the signs: his increased magical power and how he was becoming increasingly difficult for Tony to find him.
A stab of apprehension lodged in his chest. What if he was being led into this choice? No, better to be led with eyes wide open, than ignorant and blind.
"There's also something else I need you to look for," Harry finally said. He drew a symbol with his finger on the table. It was a triangle, a circle, and a line bisecting the two other shapes. The sign of the Hallows.
He sucked in a breath when he felt the weight of destiny again. There it is. He had expected it this time, though it had been brief. He looked across the table to see Hermione studying the symbol and oblivious to what he had just felt.
"What is it?" she asked. "I've never seen it before."
"It's a symbol back home representing the Deathly Hallows, three objects of power. The triangle, or cloak, grants invisibility …" Harry felt like he was going to regret this. " - the ring allows one to see the phantoms of the deceased, and the last one is a wand, the most powerful of them."
Hermione stared at him. "What was that? That look you just did."
"I was expecting a certain reaction, you know, of disbelief."
"What are you talking about? This is only a legend that you want me to look for and Asgard uses magical terms all the time."
"The backstory is from a children's storybook, but the objects are real."
She looked a little skeptical. "So you want me to find any information about a magical wand, an invisibility cloak, and a ring that makes you hallucinate?"
"No, not hallucinate!" Harry protested and then settled back down, disappointed. Hadn't he expected disbelief? "Never mind."
"I didn't say I wasn't going to do it. I just needed a better idea of what I'm looking for. I'll focus more on the symbol, since I think it's less likely to change over time than interpretations and meanings."
"Whatever you think is easiest. Oh, I wanted to ask you another thing. You can't mind-read the Asgardians can you?"
"I tried to on Thor and Loki," Hermione admitted. "They must have a defense against telepathy. It doesn't work on them."
"They allowed you to try it on them – ?"
"Of course not. They didn't know about me, until now."
"Is that true for all of them? All the aliens I mean."
She bit her lip, but then couldn't hold in the grin any longer. "I don't know, but I'm going to find out. Remember the two that you left in Stark's tower? One of them isn't human. But why are you asking?"
"Wanted to know if there was a quick way of finding these things out. Do you have access to Asgard's library? Database or whatever they call it."
There was a familiar spark in Hermione's eyes as he mentioned library, but then she laughed as if Harry had just told a lame joke. "I wish!"
"Records on history and culture, not technology."
"Oh you mean for that Hallows symbol. That may actually work. They just might let me take a look as long as it's not technology – and even if I can't, Jane may be able to."
Satisfied that he had options, he changed the topic. "So, who is this Diana?"
Hermione was very surprised. "You know about her?"
"No, but you do."
"Why should I tell you?"
Harry matched her stubbornness with his own. "It's part of the deal with Fury. I specifically asked to talk to her." Well, Fury didn't explicitly say yes, but he didn't say no either. Hermione didn't need to know that.
She looked like she was going to fight it, but then said, "Fine, there's not much on her; she mostly keeps to herself as the town's veterinarian. She says weird things sometimes and to the locals, they say that it comes true."
"What does she say?"
"Mostly vague things that any con-artist can say, strange comments here and there – a lot of it untrue – and if we were to test her babbling, it ultimately wouldn't pass a control threshold."
"Why is she an interest to you then, if you don't believe her predictions? Does she have another power?"
"Simply put, she talks to animals. They all respond to her as if they understand what she says."
This Diana didn't sound as gifted in divination as he had thought, but Harry asked for her full name anyway.
"Harry, it doesn't seem right to release her identity to you. Why do you want to talk to her?"
Harry didn't think it'd help him to point out that she had done exactly the same thing with Romanova's name. "Would you believe me if I say I want her to do a reading for me?"
"She's not a fortune teller. I'm serious. I need a better reason than that."
Harry finally recognized the protectiveness in Hermione. It wasn't stubbornness. "It's probably nothing, but please, let me talk with her. I won't draw unwanted attention to her," he promised.
Hermione sighed and covered her tired eyes. With her hand still over her eyes, she finally said, "Alright, Diana needs a visit anyway. It's hard to keep track of her because she likes to wander and it's rural - "
Harry's voice was tight. "Keep track?"
She frowned at him, feeling defensive. "I've been watching more closely because some of us have disappeared recently. Her name's Diana Lovecraft."
Harry discreetly tried locating Lovecraft with the tree branch he still had in his pocket.
"Do you know where she is?"
Hermione replied, "I thought you said you can find someone by name."
He did say that didn't he? Apparently there were limitations to his Point Me spell. "Does she go by any other name?"
"That's her birth name and she uses it. What other name do you need?"
"Nicknames? Or a pseudonym that means more to her than her real name."
Hermione shook her head. "I don't know her personally, but I can tell you she's in Wiltshire, England."
That made him pause. Diana Lovecraft sounded eerily familiar. Could it be Luna? Both the names Luna and Diana are associated with the moon, and the last names are also similar to one another. While his Luna had grown up in Devon, Wiltshire wasn't far from there. Harry casted the charm again, but for Luna Lovecraft. The end of the stick rotated a quarter of a circle before dipping and pointing straight into the ground.
Another reason to go to England.
" – that's how you do it."
Harry finally noticed Hermione looking underneath the table and he felt embarrassed for trying to hide the spell in the first place.
"How does it work?" she asked.
"A name and face is usually enough for me to find someone."
"The mechanics of it?"
"None I can explain that you'd be familiar with."
Hermione didn't like that answer, but didn't push it. "Everyone from your universe can do this? No privacy concerns?"
"Well I'm the only one who can do this; I never shared it with anyone else – so no one's had a reason to complain." Suddenly an idea came to him – a pattern he was beginning to notice – and he couldn't resist asking, "Do you know of a Dennis Creevey?"
"Yes, I keep tabs on him too. How - ?"
"A Colin Creevey?" Harrys asked, a little hope in him.
"Yes, his older brother. They own a photography store. Why are you asking about them?"
So that was the pattern! Muggleborn witches and wizards retained the same names, but pureblooded ones didn't. And Colin – dear Merlin! – he was alive here. Of course he was, there was no wizarding war. If there was no wizarding war, what happened to …
"What about a Tom Marvolo Riddle?"
"None I know of."
There was no Tom Riddle? He had almost expected the existence of Riddle, but this was a relief. Harry wanted to ask about the other Riddles, but if they were muggles in his world and normal in this one, Hermione wouldn't know about them. Asking about the Gaunts wouldn't work because it was a pureblood name. It was also no use asking about the Weasleys for the exact same reason. Harry guessed it had something to do with how the pureblood families kept to themselves and preserved their names as opposed to the families here that had no pureblooded tendencies for strict tradition. The ones here had changed with time and probably merged with the rest of the human population.
He had one final line of questions. "And Lily Evans?"
"Yes, SHIELD knew about her – "
"And was she married?"
Hermione got a strange glint in her eyes. "Yes, to a James Porter. Who are these people to you?"
"Where are they? Lily and James Porter," Harry demanded, sitting at the edge of his seat.
"They're dead. I can tell you the cemetery."
Harry didn't believe it. He had thought this Hermione was dead and he wasn't going to be fooled again. "What if they're really alive, like what happened to you?"
"I didn't have any relatives to check on my body - or what was left of it. It was a substitute and not easily identifiable. It's not the case with the Porters. James Porter died while serving in the British S.A.S. and Lily Porter was killed in a foreign civil conflict shortly after while working for the U.N. Their bodies were claimed and confirmed by the remaining family. They're really gone."
"Children?" Harry asked.
"One. Harrison, but deceased as well. An accident during a family vacation with his relatives."
"With the Dursleys?" Harry blurted out.
Hermione thought for a moment, before answering, "Yes, we didn't keep track of that family anymore after his death, but we do have records up to that point."
"How did he die?"
She had stopped asking him why anymore. "Drowned after falling through thin ice."
Harry's mouth went dry. Hadn't he experienced something similar? His body stiffened at the memory of him slipping on ice, falling into the frigid water, and his body locking up as the water rushed in his mouth -
"Are you still going to visit Lovecraft?"
"Wha - ?" Shaken from this thoughts, he leaned back and with eyes closed, he distractedly replied, "Yes."
"Will you tell me the real reason you're going to her?"
Harry decided to stop skirting the issue. "Because of a Prophecy."
She pursed her lips. "What if there isn't one here? Never was one?"
"There has to be a reason I'm here."
Hermione spent a while choosing her words. "I don't know if there's any significance for your presence here. I'm guessing – from all the people you just asked about – that you have a version of them in your world? Was one of them, a version of you?"
"It's human nature to sometimes see connections where there aren't any. If you flipped a coin twenty times, and it landed heads up all twenty times, most people would think that something was wrong with the coin. They forget that it's improbable, but not impossible. What if what you're seeing isn't a trick coin, but a normal one that has simply landed twenty times? What if you're just here simply because it was somewhere you could be? You had to go somewhere, and it's here with the twenty heads."
Harry shook his head. The similarities, the dreams, his abilities – it didn't point to twenty coin tosses. Briefly he entertained Hermione's idea and learned that he hated it.
"Harry, what about me? Is someone there like me?" she asked softly.
"Yes, with the same name. We've been friends for almost thirty years," he said fondly, missing the tight look on her face.
"Is that why you look at me with disappointment?"
He didn't miss the look on her face now. It was his turn to be frozen by a question. He didn't answer. In his head, he had always compared this Hermione to his Hermione. He never gave a chance for this Hermione to stand as her own person.
"I'm sorry." It was all he could say.
She didn't bother to reply.
He needed to do something. He didn't want to leave her like this. Unable to handle the silence, he blurted, "Do you have anything in your pockets?"
She was understandably confused and still a little irritated, but she dug into her pockets anyway. "A pack of gum from the vending machine upstairs and some change."
"May I borrow one of those coins?"
Hermione still didn't understand. "You don't have to borrow it. You can have it."
"No really, just borrowing."
She placed a quarter into his waiting hand. Harry read the text on one side of the coin and couldn't help the smile on his face. It was a quarter from this state, New Mexico, and in small letters, the coin proudly claimed it as "The Land of Enchantment."
"Hermione, do you trust this place?"
"It's so far the safest place I've been in."
"And what about Tony Stark?"
"Yes, when I get the chance to talk to him."
It'll have to do. He summoned a notepad from the corner of the table and ripped a sheet out to fold it into a small envelope. The coin glowed briefly in his hand before he slipped it into the envelope and sealed the paper with a Sticking Charm. He placed the envelope directly in her hand.
"What is it?" Hermione asked.
"Open it when you need a safe place. No matter where you are, if you touch the coin, it'll instantly transport you to Tony's Malibu residence. If you're already there, this'll bring you here."
"You and anyone else touching it."
"Why?" she whispered, unsure if she even wanted to hear the answer. "Is it because I look like your friend?"
Because I know how it feels to be stuck in one place. "No, you weren't planning to stay here forever, were you?"
She reluctantly smiled. "Thanks."
Thor felt small as he waited nervously in the grand throne room of the dokkalfar. Its tall stone and metal walls shone with a glow that brightened as one walked closer to the room's centerpiece: the heavy seat meant for the crown ruler of Svartalfheimr. The metallic bold angles of the throne, Thor had learned, were not crafted, but grown and cultivated like crystals. Svartalfheimr had practically grown from the ashes of the great war between the aesir and alfar five thousand years ago. They had emerged weak at first but then mighty again and in this particular moment, he felt some of that crushing power, felt crowded, like the air and the walls, despite the spaciousness of throne, was somehow grinding slowly inwards.
The voice that spoke from the throne was heavy and slow, like the sound of stones tumbling together. "Why have you come before me, favored son of Asgard?"
Thor kept his head down to keep the grimace on his face from showing. This old elf, Brokkr, was a pretender and with only a few words, was already irritating him. Thor didn't raise his head until even his mother would find no fault in his demeanor. When he straightened from his bow, Thor boldly looked into the eyes of the Regent. Despite his age, trailing white beard, and dressed in black ceremonial armor, Brokkr was still a formidable warrior.
"The situation required more than the presence of a royal messenger. The Mot not only welcomes Midgard, but also doubles as a Council of War."
Brokkr chuckled. "War. Ah, Asgardians and your love of battle … especially yours. And where has that love taken you, firstborn Odinson?" Brokkr's gaze centered on the weapon hooked on Thor's belt.
Thor shifted uncomfortably, as he was sharply reminded of the fact that Mjollnir, while enchanted on Asgard, was first forged by Brokkr's brother. It was a weapon that was later used to quell pockets of Svartalfar resistance against Asgard.
Thor decided to add the weight of his mother's request as well, to steer the conversation on more steady ground. "The Queen of Asgard also sent me to assuage Svartalfheimr of any misunderstandings that may have occurred from the rebukes to your repeals."
"We respect Asgard's authority in these matters; we only believe Midgard's inclusion is premature. There are no ill sentiments. Your presence here is reassuring; Asgard still recognizes us as a legitimate sovereign."
Still?! The gall of this decrepit old elf to view himself as the rightful successor!
"Now for the missive."
An aide quickly broke from a shadowed corner of the room to scurry to Thor. Thor gave him the document and watched as the aide climbed the steps to the throne, kneeled and offered the missive to the Regent. The elderly Brokkr held the small flat sheet in his hand for a moment, before stylized words burst from it and hung like a curtain in front of the throne. "Ah yes, the Queen of Asgard is, of course, artfully gifted in sorcery."
Thor struggled to stay calm. He was certain it was a veiled insult. Svartalfheimr didn't have the same disdain for these magical tricks as the aesir, but to Thor, the compliment made her seem unfit for Asgard.
The words of the official missive held in the air and then just as quickly disappeared back into the parchment. "Tell her highness, Svartalfheimr accepts the invitation to the Mot, set in two fortnights … set on Midgard. One final round of suffrage and Midgard will join our ranks."
Thor clenched his jaw and gave a rigid bow. The Mot wasn't even supposed to be on Midgard, but his mother had apparently lost the bid to host it on Asgard; due to Svartalfheimr's insistence on tradition, the other realms had agreed that Midgard would be best, especially since it was the realm in question.
"You may go," Brokkr dismissed.
Thor didn't waste any time. He walked away, had a growing urge to quicken his steps, and but he then forced himself to keep his pace steady. The sound of his footfalls echoed in the room, like the sound of distant war drums in the night. As soon as he stepped through the front doors of the throne room, Sif joined him. A friendly face at last. He let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding.
"I'm sure you did well," Sif assured, walking side by side. She wrapped her cloak tighter around herself as they passed by two armored guards standing beside the grand archway. She looked at them boldly in the eyes.
"Probably not as well as Loki would have done. I stood there, empty of any meaningful words."
"He is not here, and you did well in his stead. Besides, he was latish, and you were available after just returning to Asgard."
Thor knew that, but he sometimes wished he had some skill in delivering masked insults. When they reached a quiet corner, close to their assigned guest quarters, he carefully lowered his voice, very aware of how sounds can echo. "Anything?"
Sif stepped a little closer to whisper in his ear. "It's a little too peaceful. The servants far too quiet and hesitant. This power struggle occurred quickly and quite mysteriously. In fact, where are the signs of struggle?"
"No sign of Alflyse?" He also looked around at the solid obsidian walls and pillars for any eavesdroppers. If Thor hadn't memorized the way back to his guest quarters, he would have been lost in all the identical looking hallways.
"None of the princess."
"Nothing. There are whispers of treason, but how is this possible? Who could charge a King, with treason?" Sif briefly glanced behind her. "What about the one on the throne?"
"He's no King, only a puppet. He was too passive in character to have been the one to possess the throne by force, even if he carries noble blood."
Sif followed a court page with her eyes and when he noticed her, she smiled in a casual manner. The young alfar stumbled a bit and ran a little faster, avoiding all eye contact. Sif immediately turned back to Thor. "This faction is far too elusive. Are you certain you want to do this?"
"More than ever."
"Thor, you look nothing like an alfr."
"I will not have to," Thor declared confidently.
Sif waited impatiently for his explanation.
"I may …" Feeling the weight of her stare, Thor rushed with the rest, "- have intruded into Loki's chambers in search of a cantrip - "
"You stole - !" Sif looked him up and down, as if to assure herself that he was intact and whole, even though she'd been with him this entire trip. "You survived in one piece, very good."
"The same cannot be said about the rooms. He placed many traps. It would be best if none of my involvement reaches him."
Sif wouldn't tell anyone, but she highly doubted his presence in Loki's quarters would remain undiscovered. With a nod of her head, she muttered, "May your steps be light and your journey safe, my prince."
Thor never liked the stiffness of formality and when it came from Sif, well that made him worry. He joked, "Lady Sif, my faithful companion, when have you known me to take the safer path?"
Sif didn't relax; she looked more anxious than before. "I should go with you."
"No, my friend. It would be easier if I travel alone. One of our guards in my full armor can masquerade as me, while none can be done for you." Thor tried to gesture politely to her figure.
Sif's eyes flashed in annoyance, but Thor wasn't going to be persuaded. His party would remain in the palace as innocent guests while he scouted the outskirts of the city for any sign that the elves had sided against Asgard and her allies. He would do it this very night.
Harry sighed and cursed. How did he end up in New York again, with Agent Barton no less? Oh right, it was because the agent had guilt-tripped him.
"You teleported me away before I could say no," Barton had accused. "And I thought you meant somewhere still in Manhattan, not halfway on the other side of the country! All my gear's there too."
"You didn't look like you had a problem when you arrived." Harry had eventually relented and asked, "Where do you want to be dropped off?"
"Stark's tower would be great. He promised me upgraded arrow shafts and I want to pick those up. He says he's out of the weapons business, stopped selling weapons, but it doesn't stop him from making them," Barton had said, a small amount of glee leaking into his voice.
Harry had Apparated the both of them back onto the balcony of Stark's private floor. They hadn't expected the company of one Pepper Potts. Two, if they counted Tony's face floating in the air as Pepper argued with it and a third, for JARVIS. Harry had only caught the end of JARVIS's message.
" – guests have arrived."
Pepper and Tony stopped immediately and turned to look outside. Harry briefly wondered how the conversation between Tony and Fury had gone. There was no trace of the anger that had marked Tony's face, instead it was only irritation reserved for Harry and Barton.
"Guys, you couldn't have said something before coming to my private floor?"
"I didn't know any other floors – " Harry defended.
"Let up, Stark. Thor uses the balcony to land too," Barton reminded.
"And he tears up the floor every time he lands!"
"You do that all the time with your suit!"
"Not all the time! And it's my floor. See the difference?"
"Don't mind Tony, he's just being difficult," Pepper said to Harry. She made it look so easy to dismiss someone like Stark. She stood up from the couch and with a few clicks from her heels, walked to the bar. "Nice to meet you. I'm Virginia Potts, but call me Pepper."
"Harry. Sorry for interrupting," Harry said.
"Oh no, we were just finished," she assured. The look on Tony's face indicated that they were not just finishing up.
"Your martini, Ms. Potts," JARVIS declared from the ceiling.
"Thank you JARVIS," Pepper sighed happily, reaching for something behind the counter. She returned to her seat with a cocktail glass and an olive in her other hand. She raised it to ask if Barton wanted anything. She received a negative and then looked to Harry.
"Water please," Harry asked. Barton smirked, figuring out that Harry wasn't there to get a drink, but letting it slide anyway. Harry felt a little camaraderie but then stamped it down. Was he being stubborn if he didn't befriend Barton because he was told to do it? Yes, he was.
JARVIS had already prepared a glass of water by the time Harry went up the steps to the bar. He discretely tapped each glass container with a finger, particularly the many scotch decanters placed in a neat row on the counter. He didn't think Pepper was one for the heavier alcohols but Tony … well. Harry suppressed the smile when he felt the charm take effect. He sincerely hoped Tony would enjoy the Every Flavor charm, normally placed on jelly bean batches, that was now in the scotch.
"Hey Stark, where are those new arrows you promised?"
"Two floors down, you know where."
Harry stopped Barton from leaving just yet. "Wait, do you want the same protections from underground?"
"Oh yeah, if you can."
Harry beckoned for the agent to come closer and promptly started casting a series of charms.
"She's not a traitor," Barton whispered loud enough only for Harry.
Harry momentarily lost his focus on his defensive charms. The white glow that normally accompanied a successful charm instead blinked out entirely.
"You know how I know that? She knows what you look like, your name, what you can do, and where you've been, but none of that's out in the open. She's kept it all secret. Granger's got her all wrong."
One Disillusionment, one Impervius, and one Bubble Head Charm later, Harry offered the agent something more valuable. He convinced himself it was because Barton had kept quiet about the scotch. "She's still in the city, north of here."
Barton's whispered response was professional. "Thanks for the tip, but I'm not here to look for her." And then to Harry's surprise, Barton ran and jumped off the balcony.
Harry resisted the urge to walk over and find out how the agent survived.
"This seems like a good time as any, Tony, I've got to go," Pepper announced tiredly, finishing her martini and getting up again. "You dropped a lot of things on my lap – to do alone. The merger, Fleegman's case – and now SHIELD? Fury still hasn't given his OK."
"I love you?" Tony weakly offered. "And he'll come around – even if I have to force him."
Pepper was not amused and started towards the elevator.
"Pep," Tony called out. "I wasn't kidding about before. You know how I've tried to keep you separate from … stuff. I don't want to drag you into anything, but … I'm not the only face of Stark Industries. So please." Tony added a little joke, "See how I'm begging?"
"This is your begging?" Pepper said rhetorically, but in the next moment asked, "No weapons on it?"
"None, I swear."
Pepper sighed and pulled out a flat velvet box from her left trouser pocket. She slipped out two bracelets, a sleeker design but still reminiscent of the ones Harry had seen on Tony when they had been free-falling. Harry could make out the first four letters, R.E.S.C., before she clicked the two slim rings around each of her wrists.
"Should I read more into this?" Pepper asked.
"Maybe," Tony admitted cheekily. "You know I don't do normal, babe."
"This isn't easy to hide. What about your latest design?"
Tony winced. That was not a normal wince of failure; that was a wince of remembered pain. "Still in beta. I swear, JARVIS is trying to pummel me with the newest suit."
"I can make these … less conspicuous," Harry offered.
"Ooh yeah, do that," Tony said.
Taking a look at the slender and thin curve of the bracelets, Harry realized that the entire thing was electronic. "I can make this more durable and waterproof too."
"No excuse to take them off for showers, Pep. And I can check too, not that I need an excuse."
Should Tony be talking like this when others are around? Pepper was a beautiful woman and Harry fought to keep his thoughts away from Pepper and showers. He touched each of the bracelets briefly, and discreetly turned them in a way so he could read the rest of the letters. R.E.S.C.U.E. Ah, so that explained it. Giving her these was like Tony admitting that he couldn't protect Potts on his own, that she needed the means to protect herself. It also meant that she could stand side by side with him, if she wanted.
"All done." Harry let go when the bracelets stopped glowing from the charms he cast. Unless one searched for them, it was difficult to notice the blurred edges of the bracelets.
Pepper smiled in thanks before entering the elevator.
When Pepper was gone, Tony excitedly leaned closer. His face completely filled the screen as he stretched forward to pick up a metal mask. "Hey, Harry come back over here. I got some new ideas about your bottomless bag trick."
"What? No, jokes about rabbits?"
"I'm being serious here, Mary Poppins – " Tony replied, but then distractedly asked, "but can you really pull bunnies out? Do you take requests?"
"I'm not a child's birthday party magician." Harry waved his hand as if he could banish the thought. "You want a convenient place for your suit, I'm guessing? I can work on that when I get back."
"Wait, wait, wait! Get something for me."
"I'm not going on a fast-food run for you."
"No! Get that wrist band on the table there!"
"This?" Harry picked up something that looked like a solid band of plastic.
"Yeah, I've been working on it. Try it on."
"It's not going to work – and what is it?"
"Try it!" Tony urged and when he noticed Harry's doubt said, "It's not anything bad!"
Harry's suspicion rose. Not anything bad didn't necessarily mean good. "What is it?"
"A communication device."
Harry hesitated but then relented. The band magnetically snapped on his wrist and comfortably tightened so that it wouldn't slip off.
Tony was looking to the side, his eyes busy reading something – and then he appeared to wither in his seat. "Still can't get anything through."
"I did say it wouldn't work," Harry reminded. "Have you forgotten what you said?"
"I'm a genius! Of course, I haven't. It's just JARVIS won't always be around you – and dammit, you're gonna turn invisible, aren't you? As in people-can't-see-you invisible."
"You know about that?" Harry asked quietly, forcibly reminded of the Invisibility Cloak.
"Of course I know! Genius here." Tony pointed to himself. "It went from radio to microwave. What do you think is next? Infrared and visible light."
Harry recognized the jealousy and teased, "We have invisibility cloaks where I'm from. Actual full-body invisibility."
"Now, you're just making me feel bad. I was trying to help you –"
"I got an idea. If you want to contact me, I can …" Harry picked up another wrist band. He linked his and the one in his fingers with a Protean Charm. He placed it back on the table and started to step back. "Tell me when you see something."
When Harry was a few feet away from the table, Tony cried out, "Hold it! Yeah, right there."
"Now send something to the one on the table."
Tony started swiping at something off-screen. A moment later, Harry felt a warmth on his wrist, a mark that the charm had received something. There was a line of white text flashing across the band. "What are these numbers?"
"It worked, whoo! It's Hef's number by the way, you know for the bunnies."
No, he didn't know about the bunnies or anyone by the name of Hef. "This would be useful in areas where – "
"Signal's bad. Yeah, thanks buddy!"
"Anything else you want me to – "
And then he felt it: a recognizable pressure, a slight push. Why is that arsehole here?
" - how are you going to send messages back to me? Hello? HQ to Harry."
"Huh? Oh, I can change the serial number into letters and the other wristband will warm up when you get messages," Harry said distractedly. "I'm going to go, I'll be back."
Tony checked something and understanding lightened his face. "Oh yeah, your date. Two hours ahead over there, but - "
"It's not a date!" Harry heatedly protested. He walked over to the balcony, his eyes sweeping over the twinkling cityscape. Despite his frustration at Tony's joke, a thought occurred. "Tony, do you now know about dark magic?"
"Jane finally stopped her mime routine, so yeah. Why do you ask, young padawan?"
Maybe he was being overly cautious, but … he was getting a bad feeling. "Do you know where Loki is?"
"What are you talking about? He's not there?"
"I can tell when someone who uses it is around. I just want to make sure it's him."
"JARVIS?" Tony called out.
"One step ahead of you, sir. The younger Mr. Odinson left for Asgard and is scheduled to return later tonight – "
"What? Why?" Tony demanded.
"More importantly sir, the pattern from the Cube is from an unknown."
"Cube? Unknown?" Harry asked.
"Apparently the Cube resonates when you or Loki is around. Or in this case, a third person."
Like lightning had struck, he realized with a shudder that if he could feel the other … Harry immediately turned back to the city. The other dark practitioner!
"Isn't this Cube's ability something I should know?" Harry hastily cast a Cushioning Charm and then Impervius over his clothes, carefully applying the spell so that it left his hands and most importantly, his head exposed.
"I didn't know about this until recently."
Harry layered a Disillusionment over the Impervius. "I meant something Loki should have told me?"
"Maybe? I don't know, when was there time to give you the grand tour? Besides, you don't need this to know when one of them's around. We do!"
"I can't tell from across this country!" Harry snapped. He felt it drawing closer. He made a decision; the tower was a bad place for a confrontation.
"Don't go –"
"It's coming, Tony." Harry pulled down his sleeve and raised his left fist up to show the wristband. "I'll keep this. Look for the lightshow."
He disappeared with a faint pop.
Harry Apparated onto a wide empty rooftop.
"Damn," he cursed, nervously looking at the traffic below, sparkling like it was a string of Christmas lights. He didn't know where he was going, but the buildings around him had fewer floors and hopefully they were as vacant as they looked.
It was the best he could do, everywhere was populated! He could only draw the dark practitioner away from the tower, Apparate to intercept him, and prayed that this move wouldn't look too suspicious – and he wasn't disappointed when the air several feet from him rippled and the image of a human man filled the space and solidified. The image was flawless; here was a middle-aged man with graying hairs, clad in a polo shirt and slacks, and no distinguishable features. It was an easy face to forget, an easy face to blend into the crowd. Harry refused to believe he was human.
Harry stayed calm, knowing that he was still partially hidden by the Disillusionment. He forced his hands and feet to stay in one place, adopting a more casual stance to not betray his nervousness and alarm.
An open palm with fingers pointed down was presented to him.
Harry automatically copied the move, some disbelief coursing through him. Half of it from this entire situation staying civil and the other half from the fact that the hand symbol was truly benign. He had at one point considered the possibility that Loki had actually lied about the meaning of the gesture. For all Harry knew, it could be the cosmic version of the middle finger.
"Ah, a brother of the Dark."
The voice was forgettable, but the air around the man was of someone with cultivated power. Harry stayed quiet, didn't know how else to respond.
"Why have you come here? To join us, perhaps? You chose a strange place to reveal yourself, but we welcome all who honor our Lady of the Dark – and how you must honor her, she clearly favors you."
Who was this lady? Harry nodded once to keep up the pretense.
"Staying silent and hidden?" The voice had been curious and cautious, but now irritation was mixed in.
Harry silently scoffed at the question, as if the man could rightly criticize when he was hiding behind a human face. Harry didn't think he could keep up the charade anymore without talking or revealing his face.
From the corner of his eye, a streak of light darted across the sky. It was the Iron Man suit. From the way it was flying in large circles, Tony must be looking for the promised lightshow. Harry could feel his wrist warm up, but made no move to answer.
Not now Tony!
The man looked up and growled, "A mechanical fly." With a sneer, he watched the suit pass by.
Harry released a breath he had been holding, thinking the conversation would be uninterrupted, that the suit would fly by unharmed – but he was wrong. It collided into something invisible, was whipped out of the air and with a mighty crunch, was thrown into the busy street of Park Avenue – the suit's movement traced perfectly in the air by the man's index finger.
Harry gritted his teeth as the sounds of screeching metal and tires mixed with human screams.
The man was in mid-laugh when Harry shot off an Immobulus, splashing onto the man in a burst of light, but the spell barely did anything and after a dazed blink, he snarled, "You dare break a covenant?"
Harry seethed. He didn't care about any covenants. All he could think about was taking the man down. Assuming the man a telekinetic, Harry needed a different tactic. Maybe a shield charm would block it?
Harry threw down an Anti-Apparition Jinx and bolted in the opposite direction to get out of its area of effect, a Protego already in place to protect his back. He didn't get very far when something knocked him off his feet and lugged him back through the tight space underneath his shield.
"Ugh - !" He yelped as his arms and chin scraped across the rough cement. Ignoring the sting, he looked at his feet and realized that nothing was on them – and then in another moment, he understood why they had been targeted. His Protego didn't stretch down all the way to the ground!
His pants hem wrinkled before crushing pain stretched from his foot and overwhelmed him.
"Vile scullion! You attack a King, attack a –"
And then all of a sudden the hold on his leg dropped and the pain lessened enough for Harry to focus back on the fight. An intervention had arrived in the form of the Iron Man suit, flying in pieces and hurling themselves at the man. Of course! It had only been Tony's suit. A single metal glove hovered in the air, flared bright and shot off a ruby-red laser into the enemy's face.
Merlin's beard… To Harry's shock, the man staggered back up, growling as if it had all been a nuisance. Tony's armor was still flying around, shooting lasers, but one by one they were being knocked away.
Shite, I'm a sitting duck!
Harry cancelled his first shield and cast the slower Protego Maxima and Fianto Duri to give him the time, that precious time, to mend his shattered foot and leg. He hissed in pain as he quickly sat up and pulled his injured leg closer. A bright aura enveloped his hands to cover over his foot. He urged his spell to work faster. Faster, faster, faster, he chanted in his head and grimaced through the cracking of the bones as they realigned in quick snaps. He broke out in cold sweat as the last of the spell finished.
Thunk! Harry looked up at the sound. Several more pieces of crushed red and gold metal were thrown into his shield to only disintegrate into falling embers. A few pieces bounced on the ground and rolled to a stop, including a dented mask. All of the metal limbs were strewn across the rooftop. Tony's suit had lost.
"Prongs!" Harry called out, his hand outstretched to the side. Tendrils of light spilled from his hand and pooled together into the noble stag. It wasn't even fully formed when it snorted and sprang unimpeded across the shield to engage the enemy, dancing in and out, its antlers trying to catch and tear into clothes. Prongs was only playing a trick, because Harry knew very well that a Patronus couldn't physically interact –
And then Prongs grappled and threw the enemy up into the air with his antlers.
"…the hell… ?" Harry had to close his mouth. He didn't have time to think about this! Recovering from his shock, Harry released the Protego Maxima and aimed quickly at his falling enemy.
Flicking his hand forward, Harry sent out a spray of fire arrows as he ran for cover. He conjured the hottest flames he could, short of Fiendfyre. Like buckshot, the arrows spread apart wider the farther they traveled, increasing the chances of him hitting the elf. No disarming charm, no spell that merely incapacitated – Harry didn't think about it, he just wanted to give some of that pain back!
Several of the arrows found their target, igniting the man's clothes before a loud crunch signaled his landing. Harry intently watched as the flames engulfed the entire figure and burned away the human façade to reveal a pair of gray eyes set in a burnt ashen face. Long braided white hair replaced the short haircut and the human clothes disappeared altogether to show the white and black armor underneath.
There's the real you. An alfr.
With some lingering flames on his braided hair, the alfr quickly stood up and padded the fire down. Wanting to take advantage of the distraction, Harry fired off another curse. Expulso! It was intercepted by a piece of Tony's armor that had moments ago been lying broken on the ground. The alfr apparently wasn't that distracted that it couldn't summon Tony's armor for protection.
Harry tried to vanish it before the alfr sent it in his direction. The metal instead flew through his Patronus, leaving a hole in its chest that quickly filled back up. The stag charged, missed, halted and looked back to deliver a vicious kick with its hind legs.
"Yes!" Harry crowed in a surge of triumph as Prongs knocked the alfr back onto the ground. He covered his back again with a shield, this one reaching down to his feet, ran and ducked behind a large fan unit. He could feel its hum through the back of his shirt. Inspired by Muninn, Harry conjured dozens of black ravens and directed them out to occupy his attacker. Next, he raised his hand, aiming at the air above his enemy and casted another series of Protego Maxima, Fianto Duri, and Repello Inimicum – but this time its effects was set to face inside the shield. Harry was trying to entrap the alfr in a shield, unable to cross the barrier and unable to teleport away.
The dark elf charged forward, ignoring the razor beaks and claws of the conjured birds and dodging around Prongs. Like a veritable dark cloud, he was gaining more ground, getting closer to Harry.
Harry forced the spells to go faster, his hands shaking with the strain. With the shield dome only half-way down, it wasn't growing fast enough! With a curse, Harry cancelled the shield so he could step out of the Anti-Apparition ward.
The alfr lunged forward.
Time seemed to slow down when Harry saw the cold flash of metal in the elf's hand. He immediately released a bone-breaking Impedimenta Jinx into his pursuer's chest, blinding the area in between them with a flash of red.
Harry watched as the elf was flung back. He Apparated away and aimed for the adjacent building, feeling his body being constricted into a narrow tube, feeling himself slipping from –
And then was torn from his destination when something collided into him, sending him into a spiral.
He grunted, saw his clean Apparition tunnel collapsing and then exploding into a flurry out of his control.
No! With no bearings, he was trapped here.
He didn't have time for a second thought, when he smashed into a body.
"Wha - ?!" It was the alfr!
Harry tried to pull up a shield, but it wasn't fully formed before he was knocked back into the raging winds, bounced around in the gusts, and crashed on something solid to finally roll onto his stomach. The wind knocked out from him, he gasped in a painful breath and lifted his head to search frantically for the alfr.
He saw nothing, no light to show him anything. He clamped a hand over his nose and mouth to force himself to quiet down, but his ears heard nothing. A quick check to make sure he couldn't feel dark magic, nothing.
There was no one.
It was pitch black, incredibly hot, but he was thankfully alone!
Harry felt like laughing and collapsed back onto the ground in relief, but he became alarmed when something warm and sticky bloomed down his chest. He immediately casted Lumos and gently rolled onto his back.
"Shite…" Harry breathed out, when it was too painful for him to bend his neck to see the damage. This was bad, he had trouble moving his left side.
Harry blinked at the familiar voice. "JARVIS?"
"Over to your right, sir."
Miraculously, the helmet had ended up with him. Harry summoned it to him.
"You need immediate medical attention, sir."
That was obvious. Harry huffed, but didn't say anything. Groaning in pain, he rolled onto his knees and feeling dizzy, slowly crawled next to a wall. His left side felt like dead weight. He carefully sat down and opted for a slow and quiet release of breath. He breathed in just as slow. Anything more than that and he'd start seeing spots again.
He had a more pressing problem than his injury. It was the heat and moisture. It was unbearably hot; his clothes were now completely soaked with sweat and it did nothing to cool him. The only cool parts he felt was the chill creeping from his hands and feet. That was never a good sign; that was a sign of blood loss. He was in no state to Apparate, overheated and unsteady like this. He covered his eyes with his hand, feeling like his head was going to be swept away in a swirl of dizziness. If he didn't hurry, he was going to pass out from the heat and die right here.
"The mask will filter the air for you to breathe – "
Harry waved it away; he didn't need it. It wasn't just the air around his head that needed filtering. There was something in the air here that was stinging his lungs and skin.
"JARVIS?" Harry called out. He said it so weakly, he wasn't sure the A.I. heard him.
JARVIS obliged and continued to drone on. " – humidity at 96%. Temperature, 58 ⁰C. I apologize sir, but the cooling unit did not arrive with us - "
Harry had something else in mind. He expanded the bubble head charm away from his face, enlarging the charm so that it covered the small area around him like a tent.
" – humidity now at 48% - "
Now for a jinx that he often used in his own office back in the DoM. Meteolojinx, the substitute for muggle air conditioning. He lost focus for a second and the spell faltered in his hand. Harry doubled his effort. For a moment he thought it hadn't worked, but then JARVIS started to monitor the temperature.
" … 57⁰C … 54⁰C … "
Using JARVIS's voice as an anchor, he started inspecting his ruined red-stained shirt and then gingerly unbuttoning the top half. His right hand kept wavering, his cooling fingers slipping on a button.
" … 51⁰C … 48⁰C … "
The way his shirt was soaking up the blood, the stain blossoming over him and not showing any sign of clotting – this was serious. It didn't matter that he was told that he had miraculously survived two deaths – he still half-believed it – a prickle of fear still wormed its way through him. He was dying. What if it was permanent this time?
" … 45⁰C … 42⁰C … "
He couldn't move his entire left side and it wasn't only because of the pain. Something edged and rough had lodged straight through his left collar bone. Ha, Harry laughed mentally with absolutely no humor, what a strike. His charms over his clothes hadn't failed, the blade just went in through the collar of his shirt.
" … 40⁰C … 38⁰C … "
Harry thickly swallowed and without thinking more about it, promptly commanded the metallic piece to come straight out into his waiting hand, the sharp movement generating a wet sound.
He failed to catch the damn thing when his body rattled and shivered with the sudden removal of the shrapnel.
He thought he heard a scream.
" … 36⁰C … 34⁰C … "
But there was no one around; it had been only him. He immediately used his hand to clamp down over the wound, sending fresh pain throughout his body. Panting, he spent a morbid moment looking at the piece of metal and realized that it wasn't metal at all. It felt too light and was darkly opaque.
" … 32⁰C … 30⁰C … "
His eyes tried to rapidly blink the tiredness away. Harry shook his head to clear it a little, trying to ignore the cold numbness that was now climbing up his legs and upper arms.
" … 29⁰C … 28⁰C … "
He was rusty with his healing spells and he regretted never receiving any medi-wizardry training. He needed something stronger than a standard healing spell. Come on, come on, what was that spell again? He had used it before when he had accidentally cut deep into his hand not one month ago in the DoM Potions lab. It was also the one Snape used on Malfoy in the flooded lavatory! What was it?!
" … 27⁰C … 26⁰C … "
His cotton-stuffed brain finally spit out the answer.
"Vulnera sanentur," Harry breathed out, a hand over his collarbone, and slipping back into the habit of calling out spell names. He repeated it. In his mind, he chanted the words, hoping for a numbing effect, a blankness from the pain. The charm was slow going and felt strange, like simultaneously feeling a negative pressure and cool water pouring over the wound. He hissed at the sensation. The bone underneath snapped together as blinding pain streaked across his body, the spell almost sputtering out when he couldn't maintain his full concentration. Harry bit back the cry, ground his teeth together, feeling like they might shatter with all the force.
" … 25⁰C … 24⁰C … "
There was tightening and stinging as the broken skin drew itself closer together and the pain dissipated. Amazed and awed, he watched as his slick fingers and stained shirt cleared of blood, all of it disappearing up into the air in barely visible wisps of red.
" … 23⁰C … 22⁰C … "
He gingerly moved his left shoulder, stretching the muscles on his upper torso to test it out. No pain. Harry closed his eyes in relief, bonelessly lying against the wall. He felt like sleeping.
He needed to tell the others about the alfr. He looked at JARVIS, the helmet now on his lap.
"JARVIS, where are we?"
"An enclosed cavern with no detectable exits – "
"Please tell me …" Harry began, a little breathless. "… we didn't go somewhere ridiculously far."
"I am unable to determine our location nor am I able to communicate outside. There are signs of a recent collapse to your left - "
Harry slowly turned his head to the left, struggling to stay awake. There was part of what looked like a large drilling machine crushed underneath a small mountain of stones. It looked muggle, but he wasn't an expert on mining equipment.
JARVIS surveyed the metal wreckage for a few seconds before continuing, "The machinery is common for underground room-and-pillar mining. It is registered to Roxxon Oil, an international oil and minerals company."
So he was still on earth, which was a relief.
He was fighting a losing battle to keep his head up. He blankly stared at his wristband. He should send something to Tony. Yawning into his hand, he decided to close his eyes, only briefly. He wasn't sleeping, wasn't napping … because the same anxiety he felt when he was a teenager suffering from nightmares and visions was creeping over him again, slowly overwhelming him. He felt like he was losing control again. He was only taking a break, not sleeping.
Harry fell asleep.
"Sir, the surrounding crystal structure is unusual for earth-based geology…"
With his cheek to the ground, Harry blinked and his eyes focused on the tiny grains of sand and pebbles inches away. His ears picked up the sound of rushing water behind him and his feet felt wet. He sat up and tried to rub the dirt and sand away from his face, turning his head to look all around him. There was a wide river next to him, its other side barely visible from his point of view.
He checked himself for injuries, hands going over matted hair and then his shoulder, and it was then he discovered that he was dressed in fur again.
On his feet now, he approached the cool wild river with soggy boots. Each step making squish, squish noises. He barely noticed the discomfort, too engrossed in his search for anything familiar. He spotted his fur cloak bobbing up and down in the water. It was near enough that he grabbed it as it was passing by, wetting his clothes again. He noted that the river's waters weren't as frigidly cold, slightly warmed by the spring weather, but it was now more dangerous to cross; the river was turbulent with some ice still dotting its banks and Harry could see where the water slammed and swerved around the rocks underneath. Anyone hapless enough to fall in would be battered, torn, and swept through the torrents.
He could find no trace of the Sphinx, wasn't expecting it if it had all been a trick – but his eyes caught the outline of a man in the distance. He was busy going back and forth from the river's banks to a small cluster of flowering trees.
Based on the last two times, Harry could leave right now. He didn't have to stay … but curiosity was a powerful motivator; it guided Harry's feet. He charmed his clothes to dry on the way, absently noting how there was less and less ice in the water, and how the sunlight strengthened the more he walked.
Drawing closer, Harry realized that the man was collecting large rocks and depositing them on two piles. If he looked carefully enough, he could see a dirty cloth underneath the stacked rocks.
Maybe he should help first then ask questions.
The man didn't notice the steady footsteps until Harry offered a hand. So startled was the old man, he stumbled and shakily held up a knife in one hand and a rock in the other like he was about to throw it at Harry.
"Wait, wait!" Harry jumped back, both hands out in a non-threatening way, but he was ready to subdue the man if necessary.
For some reason, seeing both of Harry's hands calmed the man and he slowly tucked in his weapon.
"Excuse – " Harry began but then stopped when the man sobbed. He noticed the stranger's red nose and eyes … and the two mounds of earth and rocks made sense.
He was in mourning.
Harry lifted the stone the man had bent down to pick up and smiled sadly. "I'll help you."
The man just shook his head, not to disagree, but because he didn't understand. Harry had suspected it, going from how the man was dressed in linen and woolen trousers, wraps around his calves, and a long sleeved shirt – all of it handmade. He spoke several syllables and it was now Harry who didn't understand. Harry shook his head and shrugged to indicate that he was just as lost.
He wasn't remotely close to a linguist, but the fact that he could not recognize any of the words was very puzzling. He had traveled a lot as an Unspeakable, and normally he would have a guess or two on a possible language upon hearing foreign words, but he drew a complete blank here.
What was he doing here? What was the point of this dream?
The man didn't say anymore but watched Harry take the stone and set it carefully on one of the mounds. After that, the man just accepted the fact that Harry was there to stay. They worked quietly and when the man was satisfied, he waved at Harry to stop taking any more rocks from the river's banks. Harry dropped the one he had been holding but a dirty orange glint near his foot caught his eye. It looked like a piece of amber embedded in some gray colored rock. He picked it up and walked to the man. Harry thought it was a nice looking color, but finding no use for it, he handed it to the man when his old watery eyes settled on it.
The cry of joy was instantaneous and the man started speaking, his words tumbling out. Harry still didn't understand but he could tell that the man was very happy. The man quickly took out a metal piece from his clothes and in a sliding motion, showed that these two things were supposed to strike each other.
Oh, fire-making tools: the flint and the steel. Harry had mistakenly thought the value would come from the orange colored rock, but it was the gray chert that was highly valued. He'd had no need for flint stones before but he knew the concept.
The excitement soon died when the man somberly returned the rock. Harry shook his head and wrapped the man's fingers around it; he didn't need it as much as the man did. Harry received a sad, thankful nod. It was at this moment Harry remembered an old tradition. What if the man meant to send his two loved ones floating on the water, funeral pyre burning brightly? The man just didn't have the tools to do it before … and now, the man didn't look like he could stand another day out here.
Standing beside the burial mounds in silence, Harry didn't know what else to do.
He looked up at the flowering trees. They were numerous and some of them even grew close to the water's edge. His breath escaped him when his eyes found the vibrant green leaves framing each floret. Those leaves …
His left hand automatically fisted at the memory of him snapping the branch off.
Harry was shaken from his shock when the man waved his hands, worry creasing his face.
Harry somehow got the message across that he was alright and then pointed up at the flowers and like a game of charades, gestured with his arms over the twin mounds of rocks and then waited for the man to accept. Harry didn't want to interrupt any burial customs but he thought if the man had buried his loved ones near these beautiful trees, then the flowers may be fine as decoration.
The man stared at him, a little uncertain, then muttered lowly.
The man gave Harry a slow nod. Harry nodded back and went around to pick the prettiest white clusters before giving them to the man. It didn't feel right to place them himself – Harry knew nothing about these two lying coldly in the ground - but only half of the floral bunch was taken from Harry. It seemed the man was fine with Harry placing some himself.
After laying the white florets gently, Harry uncomfortably turned his head away as the man wept quietly. When the weeping segued to sobbing, Harry decided to give the man some privacy and left his side, back in the direction of the river.
Maybe he should just leave entirely. This dream was telling him nothing.
The sunset was on the horizon and the evening was cooling the air. Had time passed so quickly?
Across the river, he could see a small fire being built. A number of men had camped around it and like Harry, was looking across the river. When one of them noticed the old man, he shouted at the others and together, all of them began to yell and point. Harry looked back at the old man who had scrambled away to hide behind the trees, fortunately in time to avoid the arrow that was now stuck into the ground. The man went farther into the grove.
A shield leapt from Harry's hand to intercept the volley of arrows and it was then that he got the camp's attention. The men stood silently for a moment and then in a giant ruckus, scattered away, leaving their camp and supplies as if they were running for their lives.
"Strange…" Harry looked around him to see if there was anything that might have scared them off. There was nothing and he decided that it had to be his magic. The presence of those men finally answered why the old man had crossed onto this side of the river.
Harry immediately turned back to the burial mounds, covered in stones and flowers. Two graves and one survivor … did these two die trying to cross the river?
Harry shivered – and the tingling feeling up his spine had nothing to do with the cool air; he was still overdressed in animal skins. As for the man, he was shuffling his way back out of the trees and wiped his eyes with his sleeves one more time before confronting Harry.
And with crushing certainty, Harry now knew the man. This was no unknown – not anymore. This wasn't the same Tale; this was different and older, but still almost every wizard child would know of this man.
"Stay away," Harry breathed out. He hadn't meant to say it out loud. He didn't want to finish this story, because he didn't know what all of it meant.
The man shook visibly when the last of the sun's rays disappeared behind the forest and mountains. He was cold, but that wasn't why he came to Harry. It was for a final goodbye and thank you.
Harry was lost. He knew what was going to happen next … but he didn't want to do it. He was compelled to do it anyway. It was cruel not to offer.
Harry hadn't seen any other clothing or belongings on the man. Perhaps it had been lost to the river? They probably were. The man's possessions were also not the only ones that were lost to the river it seemed; Harry didn't have to guess who the man had recently lost. His tongue feeling like lead, Harry thickly swallowed as he looked back at the burial mounds. The day had been hot, but the night was starting to chill. With the way the man's thin frame shook like a leaf and with nothing else on him but the chert and flowers he was keeping as a memento, he may not survive to his destination.
There were once three brothers… three brothers who survived the river. Three magical items were requested, three magical items were given, and three magical items were received – all to trick the brothers to die. But here, only one brother survived and no items were requested…
Throat dry, Harry slowly removed his cloak and held it out to the thinly dressed man. A leathery, wrinkled hand hesitantly reached for the cloak and the other grasped Harry's hand in gratitude. In that instance, Harry decided to gift the man one more thing, to help him escape the hunters. He watched as the man, wide-eyed, realized that his own hand was slowly disappearing.
And only then did the dream let Harry go.
AN: This story will not cross-over into the DC-verse.
The culture behind the Dark Elves in the Thor 2 movie wasn't explored in any depth – which I found both disappointing and a relief. Disappointment because they came off as flat villains and relief because, I have more freedom to make up whatever I want. :D
Roxxon Oil is in both the comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe (in an extra scene with Coulson).
No, I didn't make up the name RESCUE. That's from Marvel comics and cartoons.
I thank my betas, Junky and bookworm51485. A special thanks to Mabidiso for PM-ing me about continuing this story. Thanks to all of you who've reviewed and stayed with this story.