If she had the time, or the inclination, Hermione would have realized that she lived her life in phrases. When she'd been young, her most often thought phrase had been a more innocent rendition of, "well fuck them anyway." In Hogwarts there had been two: "oh my god, seriously?" and "am I really the smartest person in the room right now?" That had been before Harry disappeared, before the Voldemort had come back. After, it had been, "This can't possibly get any worse," at which point it inevitably would. Now, her most often thought was, "I really don't have time for this."
She was certainly thinking it now.
"How much longer?" she asked.
Conway somehow managed to look even more apologetic, but Hermione wasn't interested in that. She thought of the pile of paperwork waiting for her back on her desk at Hogwarts, and pointedly checked her watch.
"I'm sorry Madame Granger," Conway said. "If I'd known that the meeting would run late, I would've waited to contact you."
Hermione had already asked what Minster Gloryflower wanted of her, but Conway didn't know. There was nothing to do but wait. Unfortunately, Hermione's patience had eroded grossly over time. She paced in front of Conway's desk for a few more minutes, her heeled boots tapping on the stone floor.
The Gloryflower estate was expansive, and structurally sound due to the fact that magic hadn't had any part in its construction. Its proximity to Hogwarts meant that it wasn't quite so taxing to be there. When it had become clear that the Ministry was too polluted to even make an attempt at continuing to work there, the Minster had offered up her empty home to house the struggling offices. Many department heads had even made their homes here. It was a quick apparation away, so close to Hogwarts that most wizards could manage it without straining themselves.
Hermione had been offered an office and rooms here; as far as she knew they were still empty.
The double doors to Gloryflower's office opened, and two unfamiliar men stepped out. Their uniforms were familiar, and Hermione's eyes narrowed in thought. They stared at her sternly as they passed, no doubt wondering what a teenager was doing standing outside the Minster's office. Such looks had largely stopped by Hermione's third month as undersecretary, but Hermione hadn't forgotten how to deal with them. She tilted her head up, very aware of the way the light glanced off her damaged eye. Only one of the men managed to hold her gaze as they passed; the other blanched and looked away. Hermione watched as they disappeared through the archway into the main hall, wondering what business the Americans had that brought them here with increasing frequency.
When she turned the Minister was standing in the doorway to her office.
Hermione had not known of her before she'd been elected. Her family was not a particularly old one, but her father had gained notoriety during the war against Grindelwald. At first glance, she did not seem like a person who might make a good wartime Minister, but after Fudge had been outed, and Scrimgeour and Bones had been killed in the attack on the Ministry, she, as deputy Director of the Auror Department, had taken over. She was a slender woman, only slightly over five feet tall. Her hair was a mess of bright orange curls, today barely tamed by a braid. It was only noon, but she looked as frazzled as Hermione felt.
"Bunch of fecking eejits, each one," she said, her irish brogue strong.
Hermione had heard her say far worse, but the dangerous expression was a bit novel. She turned and stomped back into her office. Conway looked even more nervous, and offered Hermione a bemused shrug as she followed.
"Close the bloody door!" Minister Gloryflower said, but Hermione was already doing so.
She sat down in one of the armchairs by the window, watching the Minister where she was slumped in the chair across. Hermione's foot began to tap in impatience, loud against the stone floor. The sound made Gloryflower look up and she huffed, smoothing her hair away from her face.
"Those were Americans," she said.
"I know," Hermione said. "I recognized their uniforms. What did they want?"
"Nothing good." Then like a snake striking, she said, "They've arrested Harry Potter."
Hermione's spine stiffened, her breath leaving her in a short astonished huff. The anger followed, cool, creeping, and she tipped her chin down toward her chest.
"For what?" she asked, but she already knew the answer.
If anything Gloryflower looked vindicated, her anger buoyed by Hermione's. "War crimes, among other things."
"Dumbledore's murder," Gloryflower said.
Hermione was quiet for a long moment, frowning down at her shoes. No one had managed to pin down the cause of Headmaster Dumbledore's death, and two years later it was still often talked about. Not even the tabloids had bothered to connect Harry with it. She began to gnaw on her thumbnail, thoughts deepening. It was possible that the Americans had pulled this right out of their collective arses, but the very idea was so ludicrous that Hermione had a hard time believing that anyone would go for it.
"When did this happen?" Hermione asked.
"Two days ago."
Hermione's spine straightened, her brow furrowing in further outrage. Gloryflower waved a hand, her expression much the same.
"I know," she said. "I know."
"Why are they doing this?" Hermione asked. "Why did they send two of their agents here to conduct interviews?Why do they even care?"
"Politics, girl. It's all politics." The Minister leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "Picture this. Europe at war off and on for eighty years. WWI, Grindelwald, WWII, 1st Rise, 2nd Rise…" Gloryflower shook her head. "You were only around for the last, so you can't imagine what it was like. Grindelwald was going around gathering people up in the dead of night trying to create his own nation. The muggles were blowing each other up. Hitler was doing his thing." Gloryflower sighed and shook her head, the very thought of all these things were enough to drag her shoulders down. "It was a mess," she said. "And the American Bureau was careful not to step in it."
None of this was news to Hermione. After Harry had disappeared, she had devoured all the information she could on Voldemort's 1st Rise. That summer had been the calm before the storm. Things had still been an adventure then, Harry's unexplained silence only troubling instead of terrifying. That had been before September 1st, before the simultaneous attacks on Puddlemere, Falmouth and Tinworth. Mass murder certainly had a way of enforcing the gravity of a situation. She knew that the Americans had been conspicuously silent during the 2nd Rise, just as they'd been during the 1st. What she hadn't known was their lack of involvement in WWI and WWII. The Ministry's preoccupation could be explained away, Grindelwald creating enough trouble that its attention could not be easily split. The Bureau had no such excuse.
"The International Conference couldn't have taken that well," Hermione said and Gloryflower smiled.
"Understatement," she said. "The Bureau has always maintained that they were dealing with secrecy issues. Mutants and Augments were popping up all over the place. They do seem to congregate there, but it was nothing more than what the rest of the world was dealing with."
"So what are they playing at?"
"Any number of things. They might be trying to save face."
Hermione's hiss of outrage was involuntary but heartfelt. "Harry had nothing to do with —."
Gloryflower raised a hand. "You know that," she said, not altogether unkindly. "And I believe you when you say it but look at it from their point of view." She sat back and crossed her arms.
Hermione huffed. "Their point of view? I can't possibly see —."
The Minister's eyebrows shot up, her head tilting to the side. It was enough to snatch the words from Hermione before she could finish uttering them, and she sighed.
"Trying to save face," she repeated. "By punishing the wizard responsible for the restructuring of magic on the Isles…"
Gloryflower waved her on.
"It would show an interest in international affairs. A renewed global conscious. But why?" Hermione got to her feet and began to pace. "They've never cared before. Why now?" She paused, chewing thoughtfully on a thumb nail. The knowledge came so suddenly that Hermione flinched. "The Mutant Registration Act!"
The Minister had straightened in her chair, face blank as she worked to come to the same conclusion. After a moment her eyebrows rose. "Ah," she said. "Yeah, that'll do it. They're also probably worried that Harry might do the same to them. They really don't need attention from their muggles just now."
Hermione slumped back down into her seat. "They're trying to curry favor with the rest of the conference. It doesn't matter if Harry had anything to do with this mess or not. By trying him in front of the world, they're as good as saying that he's guilty. Detaining him makes sure that he can't do it anywhere else." She shook her head. "Stupid."
"I suppose your waffling didn't help when those agents came to speak to you," Gloryflower said.
Hermione knew better than to take offense. The Minister's bluntness was something that Hermione had grown very used to.
"So what are our options?" she asked.
"I'm sending you over there," Gloryflower said, like it was obvious. "They had no right to detain one of our citizens."
"And if they don't agree?"
"Make them agree," Gloryflower said. "Our situation is fecked enough without being taken advantage of by a bunch o' bloody, limp-dicked arseholes. You're the best person for this. You go and take care of it. Bring that boy home."
Hermione nodded. "If you say so, Minister."
"Talk to Conway about getting you access to our portkeys. Leave as soon as you can."
Hermione nodded, already halfway to the door.
The apparition back to Hogwarts was easier today, fueled by her anger and sense of purpose. She appeared on the grounds just outside the gate. Behind her, the now familiar bustle of New Hogsmeade continued. She took a moment to listen to the sounds of people rebuilding, of living. Sometimes it was easy to forget the big picture and what she had fought so hard for. This world might be adopted, but it was hers. These people were her people and together they would remake what Voldemort had worked so hard to destroy.
There were a few older children out on the grounds enjoying the fall weather, and they waved as Hermione passed. The entrance hall was as busy as it always was, and work slowed in her wake as she made her way to her desk. She sat down in her chair and when she looked up she was already surrounded.
Morag was at the head of the pack, as she usually was. She dropped a thick portfolio on the one clear spot on Hermione's desk, resting her four fingered hand on top of it.
"My team has finished the Rowle records. There are a few holes, but we think that if we cross reference the Blacks or the Crouchs we can fill them. The retrieval team is half done on the estates." She flipped open the portfolio, and handed Hermione the summary sheet. "There was a collapse at Dore House. No one was injured," she added quickly when Hermione frowned up at her. "But I need more people if we're going to get it done before the ceiling comes down on us."
"A pensive," Hermione said. "Does it work?"
"Haven't tested it yet. No one on my team could pull out a memory." Her face fell for a moment, nonplussed by her own thoughts. "I'm sure I can track somebody down to test it for us."
"I'll take care of it," Hermione said. "They found an intact one on the Yaxley estate as well. Just pass it off to Kirke's team."
"I'll see if I can pull anyone else off the other estates but -."
"Don't hold my breath, I know. Ta, then. I'll see you later."
What followed was more of the same. Hermione's impatience must have been showing on her face, because a few of the stragglers turned and went back to their desks without speaking to her. At some point Neville had parked himself on the edge of her desk. He raised his eyebrows at her as soon as he saw that he had her attention.
"I need a cuppa, like twenty minutes ago."
The corners of his mouth curled up into an almost-smile. "Is the news that good?"
He snorted, and nodded at the cup that he'd placed near her elbow. He knew her well enough to know how she liked it and he was smart enough to wait until she had taken a few fortifying sips before engaging her. He leaned forward when he placed the
"It's not good," she warned, and Neville shrugged.
"When is it ever good?"
Hermione knew better than to waffle with him, so with no lead in she said, "The Americans have arrested Harry for war crimes and for killing the Headmaster."
Neville blinked at her. "That might be the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"The Minster thinks that they're doing it to save face in front of the International Conference."
"No, that was the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
Hermione hummed her agreement from around the rim of her mug. They sat in silence for a while as Neville thought, his expression turning more and more grim.
"This is a problem," he said.
He shook his head. "Well what are you going to do?"
"Go get him," she said, steel threaded through her tone.
His smile was just as sharp as hers, and she took solace in that. He was a reminder, of good times and bad.
"Oh," he said theatrically. "I got a letter today."
"Yeah," Neville said, undeterred by Hermione's lack of enthusiasm. "He's doing well and he asked about you. Again," Neville added pointedly.
Hermione drained the last of her tea and got to her feet. "I've got to get going."
Neville knew better to press. "Happy hunting," he said. "Tell Harry I say hello."
"I'll do that," Hermione said. "And I'll bring him home."
Before now, Jack had had very little reason to descend into the Bureau's lower levels. The cells there were not designed for long term imprisonment, and the few prisoners who'd been held there had been moved. It was almost funny how much fuss everyone was making, funny until Jack remembered the cold look on Harry Potter's face, the barely controlled violence in every move he made. He looked younger than Jack had expected, shorter too. Discounting his face, Jack would think that he was any other teenager.
It had not taken long for Jack to decide that his age rested in his eyes — like Madame Granger, and Neville Longbottom. Jack had a full decade on all of them, but he felt diminished in their presences, stupid.
He was more than willing to put up with it, all of it, to get answers. Real answers.
The detainment level was empty save for two guards playing a card game at the station just outside the lift. They straightened as soon as they saw Jack standing there. Their eyes tracked to the badge he wore on his left shoulder and Jack was relieved that it wouldn't be necessary to talk his way passed them.
"Don't get too close," one of them cautioned.
Jack paused, fingers tightening involuntarily on his messenger bag. "Why?"
"Because we're pretty sure that his glare can set people on fire," the auror said. "Everyone who's come to visit him were quick to leave."
Jack released his held breath and called up a smile. "Thanks for the advice."
Potter had been put in a cell all the way at the end of the hallway, no doubt to give his guards more time to react to the alarm wards should he try to escape. At first glance it looked like he was sleeping, stretched out on his back on the cot in the corner, one foot resting on an upturned knee. As Jack approached, his foot started tapping and he opened one of his eyes.
"Do you know what the worst part about all this is?" he said, apropos of nothing.
Potter suddenly sat up and got to his feet, moving closer to the bars. Jack was careful not to move, even when Potter came within an arms-span. This close, it was easy to see that Jack was a full head taller than Potter. He was also broader across the chest and shoulders.
Potter tilted his head to the side, as if he could sense Jack's thoughts. "Disappointed?"
Jack took a tiny step back, working to maintain eye contact. "About what?" Potter spread his arms, motioning to himself. "Uh, no." Jack cleared his throat. "I mean, I saw photographs of you from before you disappeared and there's the one that someone managed to take after you'd killed Voldemort."
"Hmm." Potter apparently lost interest then, and began to retreat back to his cot.
Free from his attention, Jack took a bracing breath and released it, running his sleeve across his forehead. Someone had conjured a chair, and left it behind. Jack made use of it, sitting down right as Potter arranged himself back on the cot.
"What's the worst part?" Jack asked.
"What's the worst part about all this?"
Potter sighed. "No one will bring me any coffee."
It was an innocent thing, and it was said so tragically, that Jack smiled before he thought to stop himself. "I'm sure someone would bring you coffee if you asked."
"I have asked," Potter said. "Apparently I might use it to escape, or whatever."
It was such a little thing, and the misery in Potter's voice was real. "I'll see if I can do anything about that."
Potter turned his head, his eyes narrowed. "You would, wouldn't you?"
"Uh, yeah. I would. It's not a big deal. I mean…"
Jack knew that he was rambling, and managed to cut himself off. Potter was managing not to outright laugh at him, but his amusement was palpable.
"I thought, if you were up to it, you would be willing to answer some of my questions. We were sort of interrupted before."
The attempt at levity dropped between them like a stone and Jack cleared his throat in the oppressive silence. Potter didn't react except to frown, an expression that was there and suddenly gone again. Still reclining on the cot, he turned his head, giving Jack an unobstructed view of his face. His expression was coolly unreadable, and his eyes were flat. When his head turned, his hair shifted, giving Jack a clear view of his scar for the first time.
It was such a little thing to hold so much significance. Jack had seen pictures of it, of course, and he'd read about it. He didn't know what exactly he'd expected, perhaps something like his preconceived notions of Harry's stature and personality. Yet there it sat above Potter's right eye looking just like Jack expected an old scar to look.
"If I'm up to it," Potter repeated, as if Jack were making up words and doing a poor job of it.
"Yes," Jack said. "I completely understand if you're…" Jack floundered for a moment before finally settled on, "…disinclined to that." Jack pretended not to hear Potter's derisive snort. "But I figured it couldn't hurt to ask."
Potter stared at him, his expression as unmovable and as warm as stone. There was a watchfulness as well, and a stillness that Jack was careful not to be fooled by.
"I won't tell you how I killed him," Potter said. "Or where I was trained. Call me dramatic, but answers that big deserve a better venue."
Jack frowned. "Those are sort of my biggest questions." His annoyance grew. "You could say that those answers are the only reason I'm here."
Amazingly, that stone like expression cracked, and Potter smiled. It was almost pleasant. "Good thing I'm not here to please you then."
Jack had to take a moment, fighting for control over his temper. "Okay," he finally said. "That's fine. Something smaller then?"
Potter turned his head away and closed his eyes. Jack figured that that was as much of a go-ahead he could expect.
"Why are you working with muggles?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"That's not an answer."
Jack grit his teeth. "All right," he said. "What about Dumbledore? Did you kill him?
"Your boss seems to think I did."
Potter made a soft thoughtful sound, eyes still closed. Jack couldn't read him at all, couldn't see if the question moved him. All his research said that he and the Headmaster had been close when Potter had been in school, but there was no sign of it now. When Jack had carefully brought up his ties to England there had definitely been a response, even if it had been one of frustration and annoyance.
"Yes," Potter said. He suddenly sat up and approached the bars again.
Impossibly, he stuck his hands through them, and Jack scrambled to his feet. The bars were for show but the wards certainly weren't. They should have prevented anyone from placing any part of their body outside the cell. But Potter did it, those long tapered fingers deliberately wrapping themselves around the bars where they had no business being. Jack held his wand in his hand, adrenaline making his heart pound in his chest and in his throat.
"I killed him," Potter said. "I snuck into Hogwarts that night and murdered him as he sat behind his desk. He was so happy to see me." Potter paused, the corners of his lips twitching into a cold smile. "He didn't know it was happening until it was too late."
Jack had to take a moment, his revulsion so potent that it made him take a step back. He beat it back, exhaling harshly through his nose.
"Why did you do it?"
Potter blinked at him. "Because I'm an evil son of a bitch. Hadn't you heard?"
"No," Jack said evenly. "I hadn't heard that. The people I spoke to in England seemed to hold you in high regard. Not one of them mentioned that you'd killed Dumbledore."
"Well I did."
"Really?" Jack leaned forward, his hand tightening around his wand. "Then why keep it quiet for so long? Why tell me now?"
Jack wasn't quite sure what he was expecting, but laughter wasn't it. For the first time Potter seemed genuinely
amused, his laugh emerging as a low huffing wheeze. It didn't last long; every soon he pushed away from the bars, shoulders shaking.
"What's so funny?"
Potter just shook his head, the corners of his mouth twitching. Jack deliberately unclenched his fist, slipping his wand back into his holster.
"You're disappointed." It wasn't a question this time.
Jack nodded anyway. "A bit," he said.
Potter nodded, appearing unsurprised. He began moving back to his cot, his interest exhausted.
"One more question, Agent Potter."
Potter retook his previous position, on his back with one leg resting on his opposite knee. He waved Jack on without looking at him.
"Are you sorry that you killed him?"
Potter didn't even pause to think. "No," he said.
Jack left after that, seeing no good reason to stay. The two aurors guarding the hallway took one look at his face and very carefully kept their silence. He stepped onto the elevator, stabbing the button for his floor so hard that his finger was still smarting when he stepped onto his floor. The other Finders were careful to avert their gazes, but Jack could sense their curiosity. He slipped into his office, glad that his rank afforded it to him. He closed the door, the click of the latch catching sounded very loud.
The office was small, horribly cluttered, but his. At that moment, Jack was so grateful for it that his eyes burned, a little too close to tears. He sunk down onto the armchair he had managed to fit in the corner and then focused wholly on his muscles. He relaxed each one in increments. Soon he was sitting easily, his breath slow and calm, deliberate.
Body taken care of, his turned his attention onto all he had learned today. The information came to him in streams. All the things that he'd read and heard waiting patiently for him to put it all in order. There were holes of course, yawning pits in the web, but perhaps now there was finally enough to work with.
Potter had asked if Jack was disappointed. 'Disappointed' barely covered it. He had thought he'd purged himself of his naiveté a long time ago; one did not become a Finder, let alone a leveled one, without knowing the evils that men seemed all too willing to inflict upon each other. Potter's admission shouldn't have surprised him.
But it did.
He'd fallen for it, for all of it. He'd been drawn in by the absurdity of a baby ending a war, into the mystery of the boy who had lived, disappeared, and returned. Perhaps Jack had been expecting a hero, but was there any such thing? The kid Jack had met was just that, a kid. Dangerous, yes, but ultimately a teenager with an attitude problem. This was the person those hardened people in England were determined to protect. Jack couldn't see what made them do it, and could only conclude that they knew something he didn't.
There were other more important holes to be filled. Potter's disappearance and the deaths of Voldemort and Dumbledore were at the top of the list. Yet all Jack could think about was how the hell had the Council known enough about Dumbledore's death to connect Potter to it.
It was the wrong question, and truly not any of his business. He pondered it anyway and it lingered, a stray puzzle piece against the larger picture. There was no data for it, none at all. Frustration chased his concentration away and he opened his eyes.
Reyes was standing in the open doorway, face as blank as it always was. Jack startled at seeing her there, coming all the way out his chair.
"Hi," he said.
He began to move toward the mess on top of his desk, thinking to straighten up a little bit. He rarely received people here. A second look reiterated the scale of undertaking, so he quickly aborted the motion. Instead he folded his hands in front of him, but then unfolded them to let them hang at his sides.
"Where do you go when you do that?" she asked.
The question made him blink, but he recovered quickly. It wasn't a question that he was unfamiliar with. As soon as anyone had a good idea of the extent of his memory, they often asked how it worked.
He responded the way he always had. "It's complicated," he said, hoping that it would be enough.
Reyes' lips twitched into a smile. "Why don't you try me?"
Jack hesitated but eventually fell back into his armchair. By the time he remembered that he should offer Reyes a seat as well, she had already perched herself on the one clear bit of desk, her legs crossed.
"I'm an Occlumens," he said.
Reyes' brow furrowed in confusion for a moment, but soon lifted with understanding.
"You're young," she said.
Jack shrugged. "I started training as soon as I could talk. My grandmother was the one who figured out that I had managed to teach myself to read. I was two. She insisted on a tutor. By the time I got into Salem I was considered a Master."
"I bet that made classes easy."
"Yeah…" Jack stared at her, taking in her sharply pressed uniform jacket and her heeled boots. "What are you doing here?"
Reyes folded her hands in her lap. She didn't do anything so overt like fidgeting, or biting her lip, but her nervousness was apparent.
"It's Potter isn't it?"
Reyes' dark eyes narrowed and she sighed. "There's nothing keeping him down there," she said.
"He could leave at any time. He can eat our magic. He doesn't show up on any magical scans. And he's just sitting down there. The only thing he complains about is the fact that we won't give him any coffee."
"Why won't you?"
Reyes blinked at him, breathing through flared nostrils. "What?"
"Why can't he have coffee?"
"Because he killed Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort, the two most powerful wizards in Britain since the Hogwarts founders. Because we can't control him."
There was nothing funny about it, but Jack smiled anyway. "Don't you think we should keep him happy then? What's so hard about a cup of coffee?"
"That kid doesn't deserve any coffee!"
Jack leaned back, blinking. "Why not?"
"Because he's a murderer," she hissed. "The whole time we were in Britain the magic felt disgusting, and he did it."
It was the most heated he'd seen her, and the sneer on her face was sharp and ugly. He pressed himself back into his chair as much as he could, crossing his arms over his chest. A strained silence fell over them, and eventually Reyes regained control over her expression. She also crossed her arms, and frowned down at her boots.
"There are some things missing from this story," Jack said, tentatively piercing the silence. "You must see that."
"You say it like it isn't real," Reyes said. "People died. They lost their homes and their magic, all because of this kid."
Jack took a moment, waiting out the flare of irritation. Reyes must have seen something in his face, because she sighed. The heat bled out of her expression, and her shoulders dropped.
"I know its real," Jack said. "I was there. I saw everything that you saw."
Reyes nodded. "I know."
Jack stared at her for a moment, hearing the apology that she would never explicitly offer. "He killed Voldemort," he said.
"I think that the price was a bit high, don't you?"
"I think that we'll never understand what those people were willing to pay. And maybe they should be the ones who get to decide if they paid too much."
The words silenced her, but more importantly they made her think. Good.
"I need your help," he said.
She paused, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. Her nod was a tiny thing, hesitant. Jack spoke quickly, wary of her changing her mind. "Think this through with me, okay?" He waited for her to motion him on. "We only reported back a few days ago," he said. "There haven't been any Council meetings before today. It takes a majority vote to indict a foreign national on our soil."
"How do you know that?"
Jack waved the question away. "Listen. Those charges didn't come out of our report. They couldn't have. The Council waited until after our visit anyway."
"Our investigation was covering up another source," Reyes said, her eyes narrowing. "So what?"
"So what?" Jack repeated. "So, they used us. They lied to us - to me."
Realization crept up from his stomach, crawling up his throat. It made his ears heat and his jaw clench.
"Nevermind," he said.
Reyes blinked at him. "What?"
"Nevermind. I want to be alone. I need to think."
"You can't think with me here?"
"No," Jack said, and it came out far sharper than he had intended. "No," he said again, more controlled this time. "I'll…uh…I'll find you later."
Reyes took a long moment to uncross her legs, her eyes sharp and dark. She moved over to the door, her heeled boots loud against the wooden floor. Jack's office was barely four steps wide; Reyes took her time with them. She was still staring at him when she eased the door shut.
Finally alone, Jack collapsed back into his chair, and cradled his head in his hands.
"So what?" he asked the tops of his shoes. "My bosses lied to me. So what?"
The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. The reaction was so acute, and so unexpected that its true source was almost lost within it.
When realization came, it felt like someone had flipped the lights on in a dark room. Impossibly, he smiled, and then he laughed.
"So what?" he said, and began rummaging around on his desk for a blank piece of paper and a pen.
Hermione arrived at Bureau headquarters with little fanfare. In fact, she had managed to make her way through the first two checkpoints before her name set off the proper alarms. A mid-level employee, likely someone's secretary, stopped her from filling out her declaration form. She seemed harried, and it was obvious that she had a better idea who Hermione was.
"Please follow me, Madame Granger. I've been told to escort you to the Council chambers."
Hermione stopped writing, but she did not put down her pen. "What business does the Council have with me?"
The young woman and the employee taking down Hermione's information shared a look.
"I don't know," the woman said. "I was only instructed to bring you to them."
Hermione tapped the end of the pen against the counter, her gaze falling to the half completed form. After a long hanging moment she sighed and moved away from the counter. Both Bureau employees looked relieved.
"This way, ma'am."
Three out of the five Closed Council members were waiting for her, and she shook each of their hands as they introduced themselves. She ignored the incredulous looks they sent each other when they thought she wasn't looking.
"I'm going to assume that you're here in response to our recent acquisition," Councilwoman Idelle ("call me Lucy, hon,") said. "We only sent word a few hours ago." She glanced at the other council members. "We weren't expecting someone in person so soon. We haven't even set a trial date."
"Minister Gloryflower thought it best to send me directly," Hermione said, unsmiling. "I'd like to see him."
The words took a moment to penetrate, and Hermione had the pleasure of watching their expressions falter. There was absolutely no reason to deny her request. It was a gamble to see if they would do it anyway. In the end Councilmen Reyes and Teague left through a side door, their frowns eloquently broadcasting their disapproval. Councilwoman Idelle was better at concealing her true feelings. In fact, she threaded her arm through Hermione's and began to lead her through the large circular hallways, chatting about some new piece of legislation that had passed her desk. Hermione listened just enough to make the proper noises, and there was no doubt that the councilwoman was unaware of her distraction. She continued to fill the air between this with chatter anyway.
They took a lift down a ways, and were deposited at the mouth of a long hallway. The two guards straightened at once but remained silent as Idelle lead Hermione passed them.
"I'll be right here, hon," she said. "He's two cells down."
Still in earshot, Hermione noted. But it wasn't as if this entire hallway wasn't under observation. Hermione took a moment to close her eyes, and then walked forward.
Harry was waiting for her, his hands stuck through the cell bars. He looked so old, but then, they had been children the last time they'd met. His hair was as windswept as ever, his eyes still that shade of bright deep green.
"Where are your glasses?" she asked.
His eyebrows shot up. "Five years and that's the first thing you say to me?"
"Well?" she asked after a moment of silence. "Where are they?"
Harry stared at her, and finally, finally, smiled. It was not a smile that she had seen him wear before. It was real, as far as she could tell. But it was a small thing, barely touching the corners of his mouth. It was in his eyes though, and that had not changed. Hermione stepped as close to the bars as she could, feeling the wards press against her skin.
"So," she said. "The Americans have arrested you for war crimes."
Harry shrugged. "What can I say?"
"And the murder of Headmaster Dumbledore."
The smile grew into something sharp and nasty, the last thing she might have expected from him. It hurt her a bit to see it, but Hermione was pragmatic. She'd known better than to expect everything to be the same as it'd been. They had both changed too much for that. As if sensing her thoughts, Harry's expression changed and he reached forward. Calloused fingertips traced the scar where it began above her eyebrow. He followed it down her cheek and the curve of her jaw.
"You would not approve of me very much anymore," he said.
"Assuming I approved of you at all."
He tipped his head to the side, conceding her that point.
"Morality in wartime is a nebulous thing," she said.
"Is there ever a time when we are not at war?" Harry asked.
The question didn't surprise her. Even at fourteen, Harry had had the singular talent for keeping himself, and everyone surrounding him, honest. He had never shied away from hard questions. But this one had implications that Hermione didn't want to consider right now. So she ducked her head to avoid his eyes. After a short beat of silence she reached out for one of his hands and held it between hers. His fingers twitched, but he did not pull away from her.
She had never had much reason to examine his hands and Harry had been shy with his touch even then. She took the moment, finding the unquie calluses that came from handling a wand. She noticed with a touch of sadness that his were beginning to soften. There were new scars too, souvenirs of experiences that she might never know of. Her fingers brushed against a long raised scar that spanned from the base of his right index finger to the tip, and she sighed.
"Peace," she said. "I wouldn't know what to do with myself."
Harry's brow furrowed for a moment, and he shook his head. "It hasn't even been a year since everything went down," he said. "It'll get better."
She shrugged. "We'll be recovering for a while. But without you we wouldn't even be in a position to do that much. You did that and that's something that these Americans don't seem to understand."
Harry stared into her eyes for a long time. Even when it became uncomfortable, Hermione did not hide from his gaze again. He was searching for something in her, and she was suddenly desperate for him not to find her wanting. He was her first friend. The best friend she'd ever had. She had trusted him once, and he had trusted her. Had the war destroyed that too?
"I did a bad thing, Hermione."
He shook his head. "I've done a lot of bad things. For the greater good."
It took a moment, but understanding dawned. Hermione dropped his hand and took a single step back. She buried her sadness, tucking it away with a deftness born of long practice. Harry's eyes continued to search hers, but his were veiled from her. It hurt in a way that it shouldn't have.
"We're still friends, aren't we?" she asked. Immediately she wanted to take it back, but it was too late. The question hung between them, suspended in a thick oozing silence.
She couldn't remember him ever making her so uncomfortable before. Even that first day on the train, what felt like so long ago. She had never felt judged by him until now. Her question had disappointed him, but she wasn't sure why.
"People like me don't have friends like you."
Hermione's anger came on so quickly that she flinched with the surprise of it. She felt her spine straighten, and her head come up. She did not have to see her own face to know that it had gone blank.
"It is very clear that we do not know each other anymore," she said. "You make assumptions, but you do not know me or what I've done."
Harry leaned forward, his face a breath from the bars. "You mean the Lestange brothers. I know all about that. I know all about Eadestown too."
Hermione forced herself not to falter, swallowing down her sudden nausea. She blinked at him, and he smiled. "It was the right thing to do," he said. "The Death Eaters would have killed everyone anyway. Going in their sleep was a kindness."
"You did the right thing," Harry said, curling his hands around the bars.
"No I didn't. It wasn't right, and if you think it is, maybe you deserve what you have coming to you. If you think that mu—." She swallowed around the word. "Mur—."
"Murdering," Harry, offered quietly. "You're going to say, 'if I think that murdering those people was the right thing to do, maybe the Americas are right about me.'"
"If you think that murdering those people was the right thing to do, you aren't the person I thought you were."
She searched his face for any indication that her disappoint was affecting him at all. She ruthlessly quashed her frustration when she didn't find it. She almost decided to walk away then; he did not want to save himself, and perhaps there was nothing here worth saving anyway. She looked down at her feet, frowning. She saw it when she glanced back up, a fleeting look of sadness, of regret, perhaps guilt. A blink that was just a bit too long. She straightened, turning her shrewd gaze onto him. He leaned back, affecting disinterest, but it was too late.
"No," she said, realization dawning. It chased away the sick churning of her stomach, and set her heart pounding not in helpless anger but in excited relief. "Oh, Harry. You're still so fucking stupid."
He stared at her. "It's not worth it," he finally said, changing tracks. "Hermione, just leave off."
"No!" she said, and amazingly she felt like laughing, so she did. "I'm sure there's some reason why you want to stay in that cell, but until you decide to trust me enough to tell me, I'm getting you out of there. Because even if you really think that you don't deserve our help, we think you do. It's not about deserving anyway."
"No," she said again. "It's not anyone's place but ours to decide your penitence for what you've done. You can't argue with that, can you?"
Harry stared at her, frustration written in the tense lines of his shoulders, the tight grip of his hands and the bunched muscles of his jaw.
"You don't know what you're doing," he said.
"I know exactly what I'm doing. I'm helping a friend."
"I'm not your friend anymore!" he hissed, seemingly losing control. "I washed my hands of you years ago." His voice lowered. "I've moved beyond you."
Hermione laughed in his face. "Keep trying."
She just shook her head, smiling.
"Were you always this fucking stubborn?"
"I learned from you," she said with complete honesty.
It was his turn to shake his head, but there was a smile touching the corners of his mouth now. He looked more like she remembered, rueful and exasperated. Young.
"We are monsters," she said. "But we became what we needed to be." His gaze skittered away from hers. "Maybe one day you'll show me what you've become."
He looked up at her, fingers twitching against the bars like he wanted to reach out. "Maybe," he said.
There was someone in Phil's office, and it was only the dim light from monitor glinting off dark red curls that stilled his instinctive reach for his sidearm. Romanova was slouched in his chair, booted feet up on his desk. He stared for a long moment, examining the sharp outline of the bridge of her nose, her cheek, her lips, and her chin. Then he flipped on the light, smiling tightly as she blinked up at him.
"You're half a day late," she said. "And you're missing something."
"This is above your clearance, Agent."
Romanova straightened, placing her feet on the ground with twin unyielding taps, one after the other. Her lips were pursed, expression quickly twisting into displeasure. She didn't have to say anything, so she didn't. Phil sighed at her.
"Out of the chair."
She waited just long enough for it to be clear that she was only moving because she wanted to, not because Phil had asked. It was a familiar interaction, and under better circumstances it might've made him smile. They stepped around each other, and Phil did not bother to hide his relieved sigh as he settled into his space. Romanova was kind enough not to interrupt.
"How much do you know?" Phil asked.
"I think it would be faster if you just told me everything."
Phil laughed at her, and she shrugged.
"No harm in trying," she said.
She finally sat down in one of the chairs on the other side of the desk. She leaned forward, putting herself just outside of Phil's personal bubble. Tactics like that didn't work on him anymore, but Phil wasn't entirely sure she was aware that she was doing it. She was not attempting to be covert in her nervousness. It was a heady thing to be so trusted. Even so…
"I can't tell you," he said.
She pressed her lips together. "Is he safe?"
Phil shrugged and Romanova's eyes narrowed. She looked down at her hands, thoughts suddenly elsewhere. Phil recognized that look, and he despaired at it because it meant injuries, rule-breaking, and the paperwork inevitably generated by those two things. She glanced up at him, and saw the knowledge in his face. But if she saw that, then she definitely saw that Phil had no intention of stopping her. He pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and pushed it across the desk.
"I have a feeling that this message isn't for me."
Romanova's studied the sequence of letters carefully, her head tilted to one side. There was no indication whether she understood them or not. She tucked the piece of paper into her pocket and got to her feet.
"We need access to Rikers," she said.
"That'll raise questions."
"Hopefully we'll have answers by then."
She shrugged. "Harry's been sneaking around. We want to know why."
Admirable, Phil thought and he nodded, turning to his computer. He clearly meant it as a dismissal, and she was normally very good at picking up his cues. When he didn't hear her leave he glanced over to see her braced in the doorway, frowning down at her feet. She sensed his gaze and looked up, still frowning.
"Barton cares about him," she said, and anyone who didn't know her wouldn't have picked up on the defensive note threaded thinly through her tone.
But Phil knew because it was his job to know.
He didn't say what he was thinking and what he was thinking was that Barton caring about Potter had been a done deal after their very first interaction. It had been the same with Romanova for almost the exact same reason. Barton's life before S.H.I.E.L.D was a mess. People with happy childhoods don't grow up to become secret agents or assassins. Romanova was Barton's reminder that even if he'd had it bad, she had had it worse. She was his reference point. Idly, Phil wondered where Potter fell in the spectrum. Romanova was worldly in a lot of ways, and there were still things that Phil didn't know about where she had come from. It was clear to him that Barton was as much as a point of reference for her as she was for him.
"Just Barton?" Phil asked, because he simply couldn't help himself.
Romanova clicked her tongue against her teeth and left. She didn't answer Phil's question, but then, he hadn't expected her to. He turned and finished giving Barton and Romanova temporary access to Rikers prison.
It wouldn't fool anyone for very long. He was sure to flag the request for the Director's inevitable system wide check, figuring that the consequences for not going through proper channels would be relatively mild. It wasn't as if this was the first time something like this had happened.
He could hear the Directors incriminations as clearly as if they were being spoken -growled- in his ear. He was too close to the assets, Fury would say. This is an intelligence agency, not a daycare. Fury would say it because it needed to be said and Phil would nod and say that he would try to do better. Nothing would change though, because it was understood that Barton, Romanova, and now Potter were what this agency needed. More importantly, they were Phil's.
"We're on," Natasha said, and that was all it took.
Clint slipped his sidearms into his holsters, tossed his jacket on and was ready to go. The day was dissolving into early evening, and agents were leaving their posts. Dressed down in their civvies, Natasha and Clint moved through the other agents without notice. They traveled down into the underground garage, moving with the crowd. There was a brief moment where they both moved toward the driver's side door, but all Natasha had to do was to raise her eyebrows and Clint backed down. The drive to Riker's barely took half an hour, and they spent it largely in silence, the radio filling the car with pointless chatter.
Natasha had passed over the piece of paper that Coulson had given her, and Clint had spent a few minutes examining it before putting it in his pocket.
She had only had cause to come to Riker's once before, but she had found herself unable to forget the smell. The East River smelt enough on its own, but the facilities reeked of fear and desperation.
Their IDs got them through the first two security checks, but they hit a snag on the third. The guy was new; Natasha could tell by the wear on his uniform. He called his supervisor, and they waited on the other side of the bulletproof glass, staring at opposite concrete walls. They were only waiting a few minutes before a tall man with thick shoulders loped his way toward them from the other end of the lobby.
"I'm Warden McTaggue," he said looking between the two of them as if he were evaluating who was the bigger threat.
"Agent Romanoff," Natasha said, flicking open her badge. Clint did the same. "This is Agent Barton. We represent the US government."
McTaggue glanced over their shoulders at the guard, who was doing a poor job of looking like he wasn't eavesdropping. The last bit had been said for his benefit. As warden of Riker's island, McTaggue knew about the eleventh prison. He might not know the details, but he knew enough to be helpful.
"What can we do for you?"
"We need to know if there has been any unauthorized activity from Sec-11," Natasha said.
McTaggue must had known it was coming, but he still seemed surprised to hear the secret prison named aloud. He glanced again at the nearby guard, and then motioned for them to follow him. Eventually they came to his office, and Natasha watched with some amusement as he visibly gained confidence in being in a space that was indisputably his. He sat down behind his desk and leaned back in his chair, hands folded across his sternum. Clint huffed lightly through his nose and made a show of turning away to examine the various plaques hung on the walls.
Natasha stood directly behind one of the visitor's chairs and raised her eyebrows.
"Our question, Warden."
"Nobody's been in or out without my knowing," he said, and obviously felt comfortable enough to get defensive.
Natasha nodded. "Then you'll have records of a Agent Potter gaining access last night between 9 and 12 o' clock. Which prisoner did he see?"
McTaggue dropped the defensiveness almost as quickly as he'd taken it up. His confusion was real, and Natasha did not need to hear his answer. Neither did Clint.
He stepped up to Natasha's shoulder and said, "At least tell us you keep the place properly monitored."
"Of course! What sort of -?"
"Great," Clint said. He walked around the desk, deliberately stepping into McTaggue's space. Clint was not a small man, but McTaggue had at least four inches on him. Even so, Clint herded McTaggue out of the way, holding out the chair for Natasha.
She sat down and went to work. The warden blustered something in the background, but Natasha left Clint to deal with it.
"You should upgrade your software," she said a new minutes later.
McTaggue's brow furrowed, his outrage evident, but he remained silent. Clint leaned forward over her shoulder, watching the playback with her. They both see it, and they straighten at the same time. Unbidden, Natasha played it again, just to be sure. She didn't like this. There were too many unknowns, and she knew from experience that a lack of knowledge sink a mission faster than anything else.
This was escalating quickly, perhaps too quickly. She ignored Clint's impatient fidgeting and in the moments it took to pull out of Riker's internal systems, she ruminated.
S.H.I.E.L.D was not perfect, but nothing was. Here at least she was valued. S.H.I.E.L.D was her choice, and hers alone. Was Harry worth the risk of loosing that? He was interesting, fractured in a way that made Natasha want to prod and shelter him in turn. But in the end he was a three month acquaintance, and Natasha was not in the habit of throwing herself onto the tracks for just anybody. She looked up at Clint, hoping that she wouldn't have to say all of this aloud; he had gotten very good at knowing her mind with the barest of clues.
He looked at her, and his impatient frown melted away. He sighed through his nose, and raised his eyebrows in question. He would not ask her to do something that she was truly uncomfortable with, she trusted him enough to know that. It was that trust that made her tuck her unease away and get to her feet. Clint continued to stare at her, brow furrowing in concern. Natasha offered him a tiny heartfelt smile and turned away.
The whole interaction had begun and ended so quickly that McTaggue hadn't even noticed.
"We need access to prisoner number 11-50973," Natasha said.
For a moment it looked like McTaggue was going to argue. Natasha sensed Clint come up to stand just behind her left shoulder. The warden huffed and reached for the phone.
It took a little less than half an hour for the Warden to install them in a small consultation room. Natasha arranged herself in the chair across from the door, leaning back with her feet up on the table. Clint installed himself in the corner opposite, arms and ankles crossed. When prisoner 11-50973 comes into the room, she will be the first thing he'll see.
A few minutes later, the prisoner's eyes fall directly onto Natasha. She can see his nervousness in the sudden clench of his cuffed hands, and the flare of his wide nostrils. He pauses in the doorway, the guard next to him stopping as well. His hesitation is what gives him away.
Natasha smiled at him, and gestured to the chair, as if he had any say in the fact that he was here to talk to her.
"Eloi Khan," she said. "We have a few questions for you."
Clint straightened, stepping over to the door and the guard who lingered there.
"We've got this buddy," he said.
"We're not supposed to…"
Clint shook his head and motioned the guard out of the room. He shut the door in the guard's face, and then pulled a small square device out of his pocket. He placed it in the center of the table, and went back to his corner. Khan eyed it warily for a moment, before looking back to Natasha. He was young, appearing only a few years older than Harry. His heavily tanned skin was tinged with gray. His eyes were dark, and heavily hooded. The bags under them might've been permanent but Natasha strongly doubted it.
"I've answered your questions," he said.
She tilted her head to the side. "Where are you from?"
"Does your agency not share information with each other?" he asked, frowning. "I was born in Brazil."
"I don't believe you," Natasha said. "Your accent says the middle east. Turkish, or maybe Grecian." Khan opened his mouth but Natasha raised her hand, silencing him. "We're not here for that. You were visited in your cell last night by Agent Harry Potter. Why?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Natasha removed her feet from the table and leaned forward.
"I don't know why you were working with Viator," she said. "And I don't really care. All I want to know is what Agent Potter would have to say to you." She placed two fingers on the little box. "I don't have time to do this the long way. So here's what we're going to do. I'm going to ask you one more time what you and Harry talked about. If you're smart, you'll answer, and you can go back to your cell. If you decide to play dumb, I'm going to turn this thing on, and all surveillance in this room will be scrambled. My partner and I will then be free to do everything and anything we need to to get our answers."
She tapped the scrambler twice, drawing Khan's attention to it.
"We don't want to do it. It would be better for everyone involved if you just told us, but we really need to know."
Khan dragged his eyes up from the scrambler. "I have nothing to say to you."
Almost before he was finished speaking, Clint was moving, dragging the chair next to Natasha against the door. He shoved it against the handle, effectively keeping anyone from entering. At the same time, Natasha activated the scrambler and placed it to one side. Khan startled at the noise, trying to spin around in his seat, but Natasha reached out and grabbed the chain connecting his handcuffs. She tugged, and Khan fell forward onto his elbows. Clint's firm grip replaced hers on the chain and Natasha reached for one of Khan's hands.
He had a long wide palm, and slightly too short fingers. His nails were bitten down, cuticles a mess. She stilled, her eyes narrowing.
"Such interesting scars," she said. She twisted Khan's hand, examining the long raised scar that ran the length of his index finger. "How'd you get this one?"
Khan pressed his lips together, allowing his hand to be manipulated.
"How long have you been a member of the League of Shadows?"
Finally a response. Khan jerked, his eyes widening in very real fear. Natasha almost felt bad for him. She pressed her thumb on the first knuckle of his littlest finger, and applied steady pressure with the rest of her hand, bending it out to the side. She released the pressure just at the peak of strain on the joint. Khan was breathing deeply through his nose, his eyes closed.
Clint reached out with his free hand and slapped him.
"Is that how you and Harry know each other? Through the League?"
"You are nothing," Khan said. "Your pathetic organization is nothing. It will burn like tinder, and make room for what comes after. With nothing behind, there is only forward."
Natasha sighed, and in one smooth motion, broke his little finger at the first knuckle. He whined low in his throat and closed his eyes. Again, Clint slapped him.
There was a muffled thud against the door, but Clint and Natasha ignored it.
She adjusted her grip, moving on the the last knuckle on the same finger.
"Why was Potter here last night?"
"You and all you covet will return to dust," Khan said, sweat beginning to bead along his hairline. "We are instruments of fate."
Natasha pushed until she felt the knuckle snap, and this time she twisted as well. Khan moaned, his eyes falling closed. Clint backhanded him this time. Khan allowed himself to go limp, and would have fallen out of his chair if Clint hadn't reached out and jerked him back by the collar of his jumpsuit.
"Potter will go to dust just like the rest of you," Khan said. "I obey the Master and I'll be properly rewarded. There is nothing you can do. Nothing."
Natasha stared into his eyes for a long moment. She recognized fanaticism when she saw it. Deep, narrow-minded belief was a heady thing. She remembered it - the absolute certainty that her actions were good, even when they were inherently evil. Result was always bigger, beyond, and so so worth it. Had her eyes looked like that before Clint delivered her to her own truth? Was Harry hiding this somewhere deep inside himself?
Had it always been there, even when he had fallen sleep with them on Clint's bed? When they had sparred?
She embraced her sudden anger, and snapped Khan's ring and middle finger for the simple pleasure of doing it. Clint released the handcuffs, and put his hand on her shoulder. He squeezed hard, hard enough to deaden her arm. She glanced up at him, and he looked back. He must have seen something in her face, something that reassured him, because he nodded and released her.
The guards had finally managed to open the door. There were raised voices, questions and accusations. It didn't matter.
Natasha had gotten what she had come for.
AN: So...yeah... Late chapter is late. To be honest, this thing went through three complete overhauls before I was satisfied with it. So that's sort of why. And life. Life happened too. Hopefully the next chapter doesn't take as long. Thank you for your patience, and thank you everyone who has reviewed so far. Knowing that I'm not just shouting into the silence is a huge motivator for me to carve time out of my ridiculous schedule to write.
I also wanted to let you guys know that the best way to get in touch with me is through my tumblr. My username is lockedowle. Maybe I'll see some of you there?
Thanks again for reading,