Chapter 1: Is that coffee?
"Is that coffee?" Tony asked as he ambled into the kitchen. Bleary eyed and with his hair defying gravity - a fashion which was kind of cute. Harry hid a smile by taking a sip from her own cup.
"Yes. Black as your soul and twice as sweet," she answered just as he poured himself a cup.
"My type, then." He grinned, and downed half of it.
It was still early morning, the sun barely up in the skies, and for once the Tower was quiet. Tony wanted to enjoy the moment, but his mind was never one to sit still. And speaking about that…
"Your cat was in my room last night. Again," he said matter-of-factly.
Harry cocked an eyebrow mockingly. "And what do you expect me to do about that? She goes wherever she pleases. Cats do that, you know."
"Hmm." He let the matter drop, the subject not important enough to detract him from the sacred task of worshiping the drink of the goods, a.k.a. coffee.
"Morning," called Steve, stepping bright-eyed into the kitchen and heading to the fridge. Tony eyed him distrustfully, with the glare late-night partiers reserve for those bright morning people that live only to mock them. Tony scowl deepened even further when he saw Captain America poor himself a glass of milk and down the whole thing in three large gulps.
"Heathen," he stage whispered and the pretended to ignore the puzzled looks Steve send his way or the way Harry was smiling fondly.
Just then there was a shuffle and a bang, and the automatic doors opened to let a half-asleep doctor Banner into the kitchen as well. Glasses askew, and clothes wrinkled as if he'd slept on them, Bruce paid the other people in the room no mind as he made a beeline for the freshly brewed coffee. Rather than taking a cup he looked ready to drink the whole pot, just barely restraining himself as a semblance of civility let itself known. He never resembled his alter-ego more than in that moment as he stood indecisive with the half-full pot in one hand, and an empty cup in another, as if he wasn't sure as what to do with them, and Tony was glad he was awake enough to appreciate the show.
And judging by the amused glances and the quiet snickering he could detect from his companions, they were equally entertained.
Finally coming to a difficult decision, Bruce had the first taste of his coffee and only then he realized he had an audience.
"Hello," he called, a bit sheepish while watching their amused faces – he just knew he was the cause of – when his mind registered there was someone new sitting at the kitchen counter.
"Hello, Doctor Banner," Harry called with a smile, "I'm pleased to finally meet you. Tony talks about you all the time. I'm Harry Potter."
"He does?" grasping the extended hand gingerly, Bruce observed the woman greeting him so normally. Rather petite, with a slender frame, messy black hair and luminous green eyes, she was striking while not being beautiful in the classical way. Still, she had this quality about her that made everyone want to take a second, closer look and Bruce almost felt under her spell, when he finally woke enough to realize something. "Funny, he never mentioned you before."
"Ah, that's because I'm Tony's little secret." She smiled even wider, Cheshire-like.
"And now you make me sound like I'm a pervert." Quipped Tony, from where he stood next to the cabinets.
"You mean to tell me, you're not?" Harry bantered back.
"Now wait just a minute. Who was the one who was ogling my chest before we even met?"
"Oh, so it's my fault you hanged me up directly facing your workbench? Or that you like prancing around half-naked?"
"Well in my defense I was in my private lab. How was I supposed to know you could talk?"
Ignoring the bickering pair, Steve moved closer to Bruce and asked in sotto-voce. "Do you…understand what they are saying?" he was afraid that all this talk was another future related reference that was flying him by.
"Not a clue," Bruce whispered back. "And I'm kind of afraid to ask," he continued and then wisely decided to focus on his drink.
"Oh," responded Steve and when it seemed the two of them was almost ready to fight for real, he cleared his voice.
Confronted with two pair of glaring eyes he put on his best fake smile and asked. "So, how did you two meet?"
Tony glanced at Harry, who shrugged. "Don't look at me to tell the story. I was still asleep for half of it."
"Alright," he conceded. "But let's move in the living room. It's kind of a long one and I want to sit down. And I'm only telling this once, so don't interrupt or ask questions until told to do so."
"Whatever you say, boss!" Harry was the first to jump off the chair and head to the living room, while Bruce and Steve followed more sedately.
For just one moment Tony debated the wisdom of his action - after all how Harry and him met was nobody's business. But with Harry sticking around for a longer time than usual, something he'd been clued into the moment he entered the kitchen and saw her there, serenely sipping coffee as if there was nowhere in the world she would rather be, he'd know the story would have to be told to his teammates someday.
At least, with him telling it, he could choose which private details could be left unspoken.
Setting himself comfortably on a sofa he'd long ago claimed as his own, not that it really deterred Thor from sitting on it when the Norse God was hanging around, he began his story to his attentive audience.
"It all began with Pepper hounding me to sign some papers…"
Chapter 2: What's hanging up?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"Here…and here! See Pepper, all done. Aren't I good? Now if you'll excuse me, there's something that I need to be doing, not here." Tony put on his sunglasses and sauntered towards the door, while Pepper shuffled the papers behind him.
"Hold on," she called waving one he'd skipped. "There's still the matter of Obadiah Stane's will."
Tony stopped, almost outside the office. "I told you I didn't care…"
"…what happens to his stuff. Sell it… "
"…on a dime, or better yet…"
"…give it all away. What?" He had the gall to look affronted at her interruptions, while she took a deep calming breath and stated, "If you've really read the papers I gave you, then you'd know it's not about his material possessions. I'm talking about all the things that used to belong to your mother."
"What?" surprised, Tony stepped back into the office and let the door close behind him. Rarely something surprised him nowadays, yet Pepper's words had come like a punch in the gut. "What things?"
"Here," she said and handed him a folder with several small printed sheets of paper. "It's all in there, what he had in storage, after he cleaned up your parents' Manhattan home as the executor of their will."
"That son-of-a-bitch! He told me he kept nothing when I asked what he'd done with them." A fresh wave of bitterness crawled inside him, as Tony scanned the new evidence showing just how much his godfather had kept from him over the years. It made him wonder, if anything about the man had been real, and the thoughts just chipped away at his mind. Clutching the papers so hard he was wrinkling them, he forced himself to appear relaxed when he noticed just how worried Pepper was becoming. Pasting on a fake smile he snapped the folder shut and opening the door, motioned to his assistant. "Well, no time like the present. Let's see what this is all about."
The storage facility was airy and roomy, with row after row of neatly wrapped stuff placed carefully on metal shelves. Each package had a label and a description, and after glancing around at some of them, Tony's stomach began to unclench, with him thinking that maybe this wouldn't be too bad.
All that lasted for half a minute until his eyes were drawn to a somewhat familiar shape. A medium-sized box, placed under lock called to him inexorably, and when he eventually got to unwrap it, he barely restrained himself from hurling something at the wall.
The description on the label was fairly accurate and impersonal, but he would always recognize his mother's jewelry box. She had kept it on display on her dresser, and once, when he had been six, he had gone through it in a search for a diamond. He had needed the stone for a light refracting experiment and he had been in the process of trying to dismantle a large piece from a necklace when the maid had caught him at it. His mother had been wryly amused and she had sat with him for two hours after that and told him the story behind each piece of jewelry – a real punishment for the hyperactive child he had always been. Needless to say he had never again tried to use her jewelry in an experiment again.
Tony sighed and closed the box. As far as he could tell, the pieces were all in there, some family heirlooms and a lot of "forgive-me" gifts from his father, for forgotten family dinners and other occasions.
Daddy dearest had a knack for that; Tonyrecalled with a touch of longing and still a fair amount of bitterness.
After the box, identifying the personal stuff from those that didn't matter became easier. There on the third row, neatly wrapped was her favorite mink coat, still in mint condition and if he leaned too closely a hint of her favorite perfume could still be smelt.
Tony left that section rather quickly, his mind going over implications a mile a minute. All this stuff, his mother's personal things, painted a picture he didn't want to think of, especially when he remembered that Maria Stark had never been supposed to go on that fateful plane trip that took her life. It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision from his father to invite her as well, in an effort to salvage something from their estranged marriage.
Tony hid his face in his hands and took a step backwards, the urge to flee and never look back kicking in. He was not a coward, he told himself as his movement gained some speed, he just needed some distance to put it all into perspective. He had had enough of axis-tilting discoveries, thank-you very much, and he would have liked it for the fates to stop laughing at him.
Fate it seemed, had other plans in store, as he tripped on open air, and in an uncharacteristic display of clumsiness, he went down, the only thing breaking his fall being some wrapping he had managed to grip onto. A ripping sound accompanied his movement, followed by the staccato of clicking heels as Pepper rushed to him.
"Tony, are you alright?"
Hastily getting up, he tried to allay her fears. "Yeah. Don't worry, never better." He grimaced and looked around searching for the exit. "Pepper, why don't we…" but the suggestion he was trying to make got caught inside as he set his eyes on the painting his clumsiness had revealed.
"I know this one." Turning completely around, he ripped the remaining wrapping until the whole picture was revealed. Pepper peered curiously at him and at the painting, and then she quickly located the item on the list she was carrying and began to read the description out loud.
"Number 310881. 'The Witch', 19th century, artist unknown, although similar in style to Frank Xaver Winterhalter. It was a wedding gift to your mother from a good friend of hers, one Susan Pevensie, who…" and while Pepper continued with the list, Tony let the sound of her voice wash over him as he assessed all the details.
The painting was primarily dark, with a central figure incredibly life-like. Her long black hair, somewhat untidy, blended in with the background and the robe she was wearing, making her pale face almost luminous in contrast. The only splashes of color were the young woman's eyes, an entrancing shade of green – bewitching eyes; hethought and rather fitting giving the name of the piece - and a silver pendant resting on her chest. The pendant was a perfect triangle, containing a circle which was cut exactly in half by a diagonal. Tony's mind was already doing the calculations, before he stopped himself from going further. It was probably only the artist's signature and not likely to be of any importance.
All in all, the painting spoke to him in a way he had never felt art doing before, and almost against his will he caressed one of the strange symbols adorning the frame. A sharp tingle traveled through his arm, all the way to his arc-reactor and even as he quickly retracted his fingers, he could still feel a faint buzz in them.
Narrowing his eyes he looked at the picture once more, and then he announced to Pepper. "Have all this wrapped and delivered to my house; I'll sort it there. And, put this piece in my lab."
Pepper pursed her lips, and Tony knew there was an objection waiting to be voiced somewhere in there. He cocked his eyebrow as if to say 'What?'
"Tony, not that I don't applaud your new appreciation for art, but explosions happen in your lab."
"This is a masterpiece."
"So are my cars."
"Tony, you wrecked those cars." Pepper finished her argument, and Tony had to concede her point. Those early experiments with his armor had been murder on his car collection.
"Fine," he said and almost let it at that. "I'll ask J.A.R.V.I.S. to set in a security protocol."
Knowing that was the best she could get, Pepper send out an apologetic glance at the unfortunate painting, and changed the subject.
Hours after they were gone; the darkness inside it began to shift.
- Three weeks later -
"J.A.R.V.I.S., " Tony gasped as he slowly changed one palladium core with another, arc-reactor in his hand and not in the chest where it should have been. "Set out simulations with all known elements. I have to find something to replace this with." Looking annoyed at the melted mess that had once powered the reactor, Tony chucked it in the disposal unit absentmindedly.
Using the palladium core was quickly turning out to have some rather unpleasant consequences, and as he wasn't too keen on dying, Tony figured he had to find a replacement, and fast.
Until then, the cores he had in the cigar box would do - he reasoned and then went on to work on some physical improvements on the Mark III armor. Sweating from the exertion, he took off his t-shirt and searched around for a replacement, remembering Pepper was due to come with some papers to sign any minute now.
On a second thought, maybe he should remain like this and then enjoy her flustered look. That certainly had potential, he considered, except J.A.R.V.I.S. had maxed the air conditioning because some not-insulated components were sensitive to heat.
Catching a cold was almost worth it, but with the added complications of the palladium, Tony decided to let it pass this time and to put on the Black Sabbath tee he had found lying around. It was then that he heard what he first thought it was an auditory hallucination.
"Don't do that. I was rather enjoying the view."
Tony froze, mid dressing. "J.A.R.V.I.S., did I drunk reprogram you again?"
"Because that sounded like a woman's voice and except me, there's no one here."
"No sir, I can assure you it wasn't me. However, I'm picking up some readings coming from the lab's corner, five feet to your right." Tony whirled around following the AI's instructions, when the voice sounded again. "Oh, bloody marvelous. It figured that would be the first thing you'd hear."
It was then when he saw her waving sheepishly at him from the frame. Eyebrows climbing so high they practically disappeared under his fringe, Tony approached the painting he had taken out of storage three weeks ago, which apparently had become alive sometimes in between.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.," Tony called, eyes set on the impossibility of what he was seeing. "Either there are some consequences to palladium poisoning I didn't know about or there's a talking and moving painting on my lab." He got closer, curiosity getting the better of him.
"I couldn't pronounce myself on that matter, sir, however there's a bioelectrical signature in that corner that cannot be reasonably attributed to a normal painted image."
Stranger things had happened, he told himself and blinked several times, just in case this was an illusion brought up by too much coffee and not enough sleep. Except that it apparently wasn't, so he got in touching distance with it, mind going a mile a minute over possible explanations.
The young woman portrayed in it looked back at him, with curiosity and a touch of embarrassment. "Hullo?" she called when a full minute passed with him not saying a thing.
"Remarkable," Tony mussed, touching the picture "I can still feel the texture of the canvas, which means the paint-conductor layer is extremely thin. I didn't know anyone had the technology. My own company labs haven't developed it yet." Put out by the thought of being bested by someone when it came to technology, he grasped the frame and unhooked the painting from its place.
"Wait! What are you doing?" came the almost panicked enquiry from the image he was turning up-side down, and Tony answered distractively. "Looking for the power-source."
His frown deepened even further when all he saw on its back side was wood and fabric, with no technology in sight. Righting the picture he asked it accusingly, "How do you move?" and gave it a shake for emphasis.
"Magic." Came the terse reply, and judging by the way she was glaring at him, she was none too happy. "Now would you please put me down?"
"Right." Tony smirked and then placed the painting once again face down. Ignoring the muffled expletives coming from it, he called to his AI just as he was leaving his lab. "J.A.R.V.I.S. run a full-spectrum analysis on it. I want to know everything there is about."
Tony could feel the excitement that always accompanied a new project slowly building up. At least with this distraction he could forget about the palladium for a bit.
"Wait, you mean to tell us you were a living portrait?" asked Bruce, not sure if he should believe this outlandish story or not. Then again, he regularly turned into a green giant when angry, so maybe he wasn't the most reliable of judges of what constituted as normal.
"Yeah, and I have J.A.R.V.I.S.' scans to prove it. There was nothing in them to prove she wasn't just a painting except for the bio electrical field she was giving out, which was just slightly higher than that of a regular human." Tony explained while searching his cup for any stray drops that might still be there. There were none.
"I'm getting some more coffee. Anyone want some? If you do, you're on your own." And with that he left for the kitchen area.
Steve didn't say anything for the longest time, then eventually he broke the barrage of questions Bruce was bombarding Harry with. "What I would like to know is how you got that way."
"Come to think of it, I never got a detailed answer to that question either." Tony put in his two cents just as he was returning with a fresh, steaming mug of darkness.
"I wondered about that too," piped in Natasha just as she sauntered in the living room.
"Romanoff", Harry greeted her coldly.
"Potter", Natasha responded in kind and then her eyes lit up just as she spied the cup in Tony's hands.
"Get your own", he growled and cradled his treasure closer to his chest.
Natasha shrugged and then headed to the kitchen, while keeping an ear glued to the storytelling going on in the living room. She hadn't heard the first part from the beginning but she could always pry the details from the Captain. Director Fury would be pleased to finally get some answers on the unknown entity that was Harriet Potter.
In the living room, Harry kept silent for a moment as if gathering her thoughts. She was stumped from where to begin seeing that no story would be complete without some background on the world she had belonged to for awhile. She looked around the room: at the scientist that was burning with questions, the soldier that was looking at her earnestly and the one she called her closest friend in this world and chose to begin her story with one of the things they all understood, even the spy that was pretending not to listen in the kitchen.
"Here's a quick question for you all." she made sure she had all their attention, then, "What do you do with a weapon who's become obsolete?" asked Harry almost conversationally.
"You disassemble it or stow it securely away." answered Tony, voice devoid of any inflection.
"Well, in that case I'm lucky my world chose the second option…"
And the origin of the "Hang up" comment has been revealed. XD Is this what you were expecting? To leave your comments/opinions, you know what to do. ;)
Chapter 3: Any burning questions?
Beta: The incredibly awesome llLethell, who threatened to come half-way cross the globe and set me straight if I didn't publish this. Thank you, dear, for your confidence in me and for helping me get over my posting-fright, which apparently I have a problem with.
Warning: mentions of violence, alcohol consumption, fem!Harry and an Author who is quite rusty. You have been warned.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It didn't take long for Harry to give her audience the bare bones of the story: the war, the prophecy and all that followed. She mentioned her family only once, not wanting to give them more details, but knowing her silence was saying just as much, and in turn she focused on Hogwarts, the magic and the friends she had made there. It took her almost fifteen minutes to talk about that and as she got to the end of her story her statements also turned more clipped and business-like.
"I won," Harry said, not looking at anyone in particular, "when logically I should have been the one to fall. And that raised some questions, some that I could not answer and some that I wouldn't answer. Needless to say that didn't sit well with some people."
"And for that…They sealed you away?" the Captain was to only one to break the minute of silence her last statement had brought on in the room, his incredulity laced with righteous indignation. Dr. Banner was silent, lost in thought, while Tony muttered, "I need a stronger drink," and went to the bar. No one mentioned that it was too early for a scotch, although Steve sent the inventor a disapproving frown. Tony just shrugged and sipped from his glass. The only one seemly unaffected was the Black Widow, leaning on the wall next to the kitchen.
"Yeah they did," Harry answered the question, then purposely got to her feet. "But how they managed it, well it's a story for another time, since I'm running quite late for an appointment." Smiling somewhat ruefully at her companions, none of whom looked pleased at her for ending the story at that point, Harry waved a brief goodbye to Tony, nodded to the others and then disappeared into the elevator before anyone else could manage to ask her more.
"Well, that has been illuminating," said Tony around his glass, "but I hear my lab calling me. Bruce, are you up for an hour of scientific fun? Because let me tell you, all this talk about magic makes me want to do something sciencey related."
"Just a minute," answered the scientist shaking away the dark thoughts that had gotten a grip on him. Already turned away and walking to the door, Tony half-waved, half-beckoned and then he too, was gone.
Tony did not leave a long silence behind him before their resident red head spoke up. "Do you believe it?" Natasha asked having left her place and standing now on the Captain's right. "Do you believe any of it?"
Steve cocked an eyebrow at that. Yes, it was a given that one of the Avenger resident spies would be suspicious of a story which sounded so farfetched that it could be turned into a novel. Then again, all their stories were as if taken out of a comic book. It was Bruce Banner that answered though, "She could have been lying, but for now I'll give her the benefit of doubt." And with that parting statement, he too left the room.
Steve on the other hand took his time to answer, "I don't know her, but both Tony and Pepper seem to and they trust her. So for now, I'll go with their judgment."
Natasha managed to radiate disapproval without actually moving a muscle, a talent Steve was almost jealous of. True, Tony Stark was a genius when it came to technology and their uttermost expert on science, but trusting him on personal and emotional issues? Not so much.
"Very well, Captain," she conceded when it looked that he was steadfast in his decision despite some fidgeting. "But remember, she has magic. And those who are like that, are never what they seem."
Harry caught a cab almost as soon as she exited the Avengers Tower, hoping the extended drive would help her to put some order in her thoughts. She hated it that even after all the time which has passed in between, she still couldn't speak about her imprisonment without getting emotional, and so she had used the excuse of having an appointment to get out of the discussion. Some wounds had never healed and beneath her often cheery disposition there was a well of darkness that she kept at bay with pure strength of will.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. spy had recognized that, and it was one of the reasons Natasha Romanoff had never quite trusted her, but Harry had her own bone to pick with the Black Widow. No, at the moment, it was important that they accepted her at least as a potential ally and she could work on their trust later, because if her information was correct, they would soon be facing someone that could bring them all to destruction.
Harry shivered, remembering the dream she had had for months, and the primary reason she was approaching the Avengers at the moment, the situation with Tony's romantic complications notwithstanding. The emptiness and the deadened feel of the place where she had been transported during the dream, had stayed with her long after she had awoken gasping in the middle of the night. It had been then when she had broken her self-made promise of giving Tony the space he needed, so she had took the form she knew he would never turn away despite his griping about 'cat hair', then she had sought the comfort of his presence. The hours that followed had been some of the best sleep she had had in awhile, but not even that had really improved her mindset.
Yes, she had faked most of the lighthearted attitude that morning, and then the questions had broken even that façade.
Harry let out a sigh, trying to get her wandering thoughts to focus on the meeting she was going to. Confronting a friend was never easy and Harry hoped she could still call Pepper that afterwards, but even as she considered several approaches to the following discussion, her traitorous mind kept going back to the days of her capture and subsequent trial…
The room was stuffy and warm, but that didn't stop the chills running up and down her clammy skin. Her stomach was so clenched with worry she had trouble swallowing even the meager spit her dry mouth produced and her breath came in short huffs of air. Harry knew she was close to panicking, but she was trapped, at the mercy of people she didn't trust and apparently going to be sentenced for life for crimes she wasn't even sure she committed.
All she could remember was going to sleep on a medical cot on the badly damaged Great Hall as the exhaustion she kept at bay during the Final Battle finally overpowered her and then nothing, until she woke up in a cell, shackled with magical bonds that greatly impeded her magic and told she was going to trial.
But when had the Wizarding World ever been fair to her?
For the whole duration of this farce Harry had never felt more alone in her entire life, as one by one the key events of her life were analyzed and discussed by strangers who had no right to do that. She had spent the first days in a haze of rage, snapping whenever it had been her turn to speak, but as the days went by and no rescue came, fear had started to creep in. An encompassing fear, even greater than the one she felt while going to face Voldemort, because then the ghosts of her most beloved ones had been her companions and comfort.
And now, she was shackled and bound, with punitive charms crackling and sizzling every time she moved, her exhausted magic barely fighting back. She couldn't even scream, her voice having been the next thing they stole, after her freedom.
Slowly, one by one the members of the Council which had conducted the interrogation entered the room and positioned themselves around her. They stood in a shape of a seven point star, with her at the center and as each of them took their place, lines glowed in the marbled floor until a dizzying array of symbols and interlocked circles shone before her eyes.
It would have been beautiful if it weren't so ominous, and Harry renewed her struggles even though pain was her immediate reward.
"Have we all reached a verdict?" asked the man positioned right in front of her. At least he sounded like a man, because the only thing visible from him were his pale, long hands which he was already beginning to raise, palms facing the ceiling.
"We have." The others responded together. "She is guilty."
Harry felt her heart skip a beat and then adrenaline rushed in. Her hair stood at its ends as something shifted in the magic of the room, and her instincts screamed at her to run away right that instant. But it was no use, the bonds were simply too strong.
The apparent leader started speaking once more. "In the light of the evidence presented and the link between the accused and the former Dark Lord Voldemort, also known as Tom Marvolo Riddle , Jr., this Council has no option but to declare Harriet Lillian Potter a danger to the Wizarding Society. The sentence will be imprisonment, effective immediately, until a time when the danger has been neutralized or this Council declares otherwise. Proceed."
As adrenalin rushed through her veins, Harry could feel her magic responding to her emotions and for one fleeting moment she thought she could make it. There was a small degree of freedom around her throat, as if her voice was struggling to come back and Harry concentrated with all her power on that chink to the bo u nds. The next instant, they started to chant in a language she had never heard before and before she knew it the bounds were back and tighter than ever before.
Harry hated it.
The brightly lit lines swirled in patterns on the floor as they all converged to where she was held, in the central point of the star.
Harry dry-swallowed and clenched her fists, willing herself ready for what was coming.
The light, now a solid wave, rose from the floor and crawled up her body, eating her away inch by inch - first the legs, then her torso and arms and lastly her face. It was as if she was being torn apart into tiny little pieces, until the pain became unbearable.
At least they never heard her scream, was the last thought Harry had before darkness engulfed her in its welcoming arms.
Harry was reading when the book suddenly vanished from her hands. Unlike her body, which was trapped within the painting, the book hand never been physically there, just an impression of it, but Harry had cherished every moment she had spent reading it, because it was a moment not spent trying not to go insane.
Nowadays, Harry had a love-hate relationship with books. While never a reader like Hermione had been, nevertheless she had understood the appeal of losing oneself into another reality, albeit temporarily, and with all the time she had in her hands, reading at least kept her sane. Too bad her jailers knew that too and treated the books they allowed her to read like treats given to a good pet, when she behaved, or taken without notice when they thought she misbehaved, or needed to be taught a lesson.
Trapped in a limbo as she was, with only a window to the world available to her which, more often than not, revealed an empty corridor, Harry needed the books more than anything else.
Footsteps sounded in the dark corridor, signaling the approach of one of her jailers. Once she could have told who it was just by that sound, but nowadays playing games and getting her captors angry was no longer funny.
No, it had ceased to be funny a long time ago.
"Good morning, Miss Potter. How are you feeling today?" this particular interrogator always asked her that, and Harry almost dismissed the question as usual, when she noticed him clenching his fist before hiding the hand away.
Interesting, she thought while subtly looking for more clues. She had been caught in an unchanging routine for so long; any variations on it were a welcomed change. And for once it seemed the wizard she had nicknamed Annoyingly Polite number 2 – they never gave her their names and she had stopped asking – was not as self contained as he was trying to portray.
"Why excellent, thank you for asking." Harry said calmly.
"Good, good." He replied, the repetition another thing out-of-character that got her attention.
Something was happening and if she played her cards right, maybe…
"Was there something that you needed? I would have invited you for a tea, but as you can see I'm a bit bound at the moment."
A flicker of something passed through his eyes, part irritation, part something else - perhaps even trepidation, but then he pursed his lips.
"The Council has reached a final decision in your case." He said, without preamble. "They want to send you somewhere where you would no longer possess any danger to the Wizarding World."
"And where would that be?" Harry asked in an even tone. The decision hadn't quite caught her by surprise, she had known the day would come when the potential answers she held wouldn't be enough to keep her alive, but somehow, Harry had hoped she had more time to figure a way out.
The decision changed all that.
"Through the Veil," he said, eyes narrowing when she didn't seem to react. "I've argued against it, you know? Told them there was so much we could still learn from you if only you would give us a straight answer."
"An answer to what?" she knew of course what he was getting at, but had no reason to tell him. They had already condemned her, what was the worst they could do?
"To how you were alive after getting hit with the Killing Curse."
"Ah, that. I've already told you all there is to know."
"No, you didn't!" At last he broke his composure, nostrils flaring and lips pulled tight, but Harry was beyond caring at that point. "Nothing that you told us helped in any way. And if you don't speak there's nothing I can do to keep you away from the Veil."
That caused her to stop and really look at her jailer. He acted so emotional, it was as if he wasn't the same person. Something about the whole drama just rang false to Harry.
"And why would you want to do that?" she prodded, eyes narrowed in a speculation. She didn't trust him, not as far as she could throw him - and given her bound state that was a non-issue. And yet he was, here playing the card of her reluctant ally.
The wizard stopped himself before answering the first thing that come to mind, then made a show of trying to seem sincere. "Because, I don't want you to die."
Harry burst laughing – she just couldn't help it in the face of his gall. This particular jailer had always been composed, almost smug about the questions he had relentlessly asked. And here he was, pretending to tell her the truth, so that maybe, she would fall for his ploy and reveal things she had kept hidden for so long.
And it seemed that her reaction hadn't been what he had expected, because for the first time since they had started talking there was genuine emotions in his countenance.
"You want to know what I think?" she asked rolling each word on her tongue, until they sounded almost playful. "I think that your Council has finally had enough with your failures and it's now taking drastic measures."
"Aren't you afraid?"
"Of the Veil? Of Death? After this," she spread her arms to encompass the limited space she had been allowed, "it would be like taking a vacation. No, I'm not afraid. Not as you seem to be."
That stung, she could tell by the way his control had slipped away for a second, revealing something dark and ugly, right under the surface of his pretended irritation with her.
"So you would rather die, than tell me the answers I want. Very well, I'll inform the Council." He almost turned away, before sending a parting shot. "Don't think you'll have a second change."
But Harry refused to comment, knowing that one way or another her fate had been sealed the moment they had managed to get their hands on her and her friends and colleagues had failed in finding her. Giving them the answers would have only prolonged the imprisonment, for they would never have let her free – she gathered as much from the beginning. No, if she was going to die, she would take the secrets of immortality to her grave.
"Miss, we have arrived. Miss?" the cab driver asked turning slightly to her, while Harry snapped out of her dark thoughts. Hastily she paid the man and told him to keep the change, then got out of the cab. In front of building where Stark Enterprises had their offices she stood for awhile, trying to recompose her mask. The conversation she was about to have was going to be tough on the emotional side, there was no need to bring in her inner demons which were currently lurking so close to the surface.
Taking a deep breath, Harry let it out slowly, forcing the tension gripping her shoulders out with the air. Shields back in place, she strode into the building intent on her target: the last floor where Victoria 'Pepper' Potts had the office.
More than a year after the last chapter, this is what I have to show you. Hopefully you're not too disappointed.
Chapter 4: What's next?
Beta: The wonderful llLethell, who came to my help even though real life tried to drag her down
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Miss Pots, your eleven appointment is here to see you," the secretary snapped Pepper out of her uncharacteristic distracted mood. Being the CEO of the most powerful company in the country, she wasn't known for her lack of concentration, but she honestly couldn't recall what she had been reading for the last ten minutes.
Maybe she dreaded the upcoming conversation more than she had previously thought.
Clenching her hands to stop them from trembling, she asked her secretary to send the guest in.
"Harry," Pepper greeted standing up, but only partially went round her desk. Until now she wouldn't have hesitated to embrace the other woman, except that the last time they had seen each other had been two months ago, and everything that happened since stood between them like an invisible wall.
Harry almost rolled her eyes but stepped forward, her arms going readily around Pepper's stiff frame. It took Harry several moments of steady hugging to feel the other woman marginally relax, and only then she separated them. "Hullo, Pepper." Harry said as she took the seat in front of the office. Pepper looked undecided at the directorial seat she had behind the desk, but gingerly sat down on a chair next to Harry.
"You're not as angry as I would have thought you'd be," said Pepper, mostly looking at her nails.
"Oh, I'm mad, make no mistake about it. But," Harry raised her hand to stop the other woman from interrupting her, "I've decided not to pass any judgment before hearing what exactly happened."
Frowning a little, Pepper raised her head. "Didn't Tony tell you?"
"He did, at least his side of the story." Harry nodded and then she settled more comfortably on the chair. "You're my friend as well, the least I could do is to hear you out."
Pepper let out a sigh, and then went silent for a few moments. "Iron Man happened."
Harry straightened out, then leaned forward, "What do you mean?"
"Did you know he called me while flying to his death?" she asked, almost as if picking a different train of thought.
"The Chitauri invasion? No I didn't."
"He did, and I…didn't answer at the time because I didn't hear it." And then she had broken down crying when she had realized that she could have missed Tony's last call, but Pepper didn't say that part aloud, because there was no need to.
"How many other phone calls like that have been since?" Harry asked, with the air of figuring something out.
"Too many to count." Pepper said and then promptly got up and started pacing. "And you know what's the worst?" she asked and then rushed in before Harry could answer, "The calls when there's just an unknown number and a nameless agent telling me to come and get him out of Medical, because he hurt himself again."
"Some people would say that what he does is heroic."
"Some people don't live with him!" Pepper snapped and then she put her right hand over her mouth. "God, that sounded so selfish." She said and seemed to deflate a little.
"Have you tried to tell him that?" Harry prodded further but in a gentle tone.
"Tried. And failed. Multiple times. But he just doesn't listen, if it's not what he wants to hear. And when he told me that being Iron Man was his responsibility and his legacy, I knew he would never let it go." By then, Pepper had her arms around her middle, as if shielding herself from the world.
Harry finally got to her feet and stepped into touching distance of the other woman. "Pepper," she said while looking the redhead in the eyes, "you've known Tony for far longer than anyone else. You knew exactly what he was like when you agreed to become his girlfriend, Iron Man armor included. So what made you end things?"
"I just got so tired of being constantly afraid, and when I knew he was going to propose, I just…needed to make a decision."
"And you decided to take a step back. Was it worth it?" Harry asked as non-judgmental as possible. Sure, she wanted to shake the woman, because she thought Pepper was making a big mistake, but another part of her – the one where she buried her own selfish desires – couldn't help but feel a bit free.
"Lord help me, but it was. So, Harry," Pepper smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes, "what does that say about me?"
"I don't know, Pepper. I don't think I'm the most suitable judge. But I know this, even if you've decided to call it quits, not taking his calls personally for the last month has been a dick move."
For that Pepper had the grace to look ashamed. "I know," she said, once again looking anywhere but at Harry. "I will call him."
"Do that," Harry pressed the point. "Before you were his girlfriend, you were one of his oldest friends and supported him for years. Don't forget that."
"I know, you don't have to tell me twice." Pepper responded a bit more brusque than warranted and then she made an effort to calm down. Harry didn't comment, they both knew that it had been Pepper's guilt that had caused it.
"Alright then, my job here seems to be done," Harry said, and then leaned in to give the other woman a quick hug. "Bye," she whispered and then went for the exit.
The whole thing had gone far better that she had expected and it seemed that for once things hadn't degenerated too far, thought Harry while leaving. She was two steps away from the door, when Pepper stopped her with just one question. "Harry, what do you intend to do now?" The woman was already seated at her desk, but her entire body was taut as if bracing herself for a blow.
Harry considered pretending that she hadn't understood the question and offering some general assurances, but one look at Pepper's determined look stopped the platitudes. They both knew what this was really about. "Remember Pepper, when we had that talk in Paris two years ago? What I told you then?"
"That you would never make a move, as long as I was his, and he was mine." Pepper said the words, grimacing as if they caused her pain.
"Yes," nodded Harry, remembering the same conversation perfectly. "And now you've let him go." She added a touch of challenge in her tone.
Pepper seemed ready to say something, but stopped herself at the last moment. She didn't look exactly pleased, and then her rigid shoulders slumped and then her lips curled into a half-bitter, half-amused smile. "I see. Take care of him," she conceded.
"I will," said Harry and then stepped out of the door.
Behind her, Pepper murmured. "Good luck. You're going to need it." And then she took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and grabbing the papers neatly stacked on the desk she started to review them with a vengeance. And if sometimes her signature wasn't as steady as usual, there was no one in the office to notice it.
Alone in his office, Nick Fury stopped what he was doing and got out his gun from his belt just in time for his unwelcome guest to settle on the chair in front of him with a soft 'pop'. Amused emerald eyes met his wary one and in a tone she must have copied from Stark, Harry Potter purred, "My, aren't you glad to see me?"
Only by force of will, the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. stopped himself from sighing. "What do you want, Potter?"
"World peace, a better nail polish that doesn't chip when I brew potions and you getting your restriction off my back."
"Why would I do that? Those restrictions were put there for several reasons." Replied Fury, while lowering the gun. He had seen the woman in action, and had she wanted him dead, he would have never seen it coming.
"Really? Name one." Harry pouted while slouching in her seat, "here I thought I was such a good girl."
"The Tesseract." Fury deadpanned.
"I never got it out of the bunker, I just wanted to have a look," Harry waved dismissively, "besides, I did warn you that those who made would one day come for it."
Fury narrowed his one good eye, trying to step on his annoyance. She was acting like a Goddamned brat just to rile him up, a tactic he was sure she had picked up from Stark as well.
"The hospital," he continued, slowly grinding his teeth.
"Now, Commander, you wake up after being imprisoned for Merlin knows how long, and the first thing you hear is containment." Harry had straightened up, leaving out some of the attitude. "And in the one no one was seriously hurt."
"Budapest." He pulled out the big guns.
"I wasn't even there when the mess started." she said, raising her voice a little, then realizing she was playing right into his hands. Sure the Budapest fiasco had been a sore point between the witch and S.H.I.E.L.D. for a long time, but, "Did your pet spies tell you that I also saved their lives?" she challenged, leaving the nonchalance behind.
Fury managed not to seem too smug, but just barely. "I can assure you I read all the relevant reports. And you still haven't convinced me to let you run free and then go and join the Avengers. That's what you're really here about, aren't you?"
"Yes, you read me completely." Harry smiled, but it lacked humor, with just a hint of a tooth showing. "But what you should be asking yourself Director is, why now?"
Why then, indeed, thought Fury while considering the woman watching him with eyes far older and wiser than he was used of seeing. Bringing Stark's newly bachelor status into the discussion might have been a good diversion tactic, but he was keen enough to know that the playtime and banter was over.
"What do you know?" he asked, completely serious.
"There's someone coming. Someone so terrible that his forces would make Loki's attack of New York seem like the tantrum thrown by a toddler with a big brother complex and father issues that it was. And when he comes, you'll need all your allies with you." Harry responded, equally serious. There was nothing left in her from the previous playfulness.
"How certain are you of this?"
"Very certain. It's the same source that had given you all those previous warnings." Fury felt himself go tense; everything that Harry Potter had warned them about over the time, had come to pass, with deadly results when they had refused to act accordingly.
"When?" he asked, already making calculations and dividing resources. Harry hesitated for a bit, then she grudgingly admitted, "Not this year, at least. But in the next three years, definitely."
Fury stopped clenching his fists so hard, the somewhat good news releasing some of the tension. They still had time to prepare. "This source of yours," he asked finally, fishing for information as usual, "are we ever going to meet it?" because he very much wanted to put it under his control, totally or at least partially.
Harry grinned, more than a little amused at his audacity. "Oh, you will, have no worry about it. Sooner or later everyone does." And with that she got up from the chair. "Now, Director Fury, do we have a deal?"
"Fine. But move just a little out of the line and I'll make sure you'll never see the light of day." He promised, matter-of-factly.
"Oh, I know that, Director," she said, waving her hand lazily and then disappearing from his office as if she's never been there.
For a moment, Fury kept staring to where she had been, and then he pushed an invisible button on his desk. "Stand down, Hill. I'm unharmed."
"Yes, Sir." Came the prompt reply and the comm was filled with the sound of several rifles powering down. The door opened soundlessly and his second-in-command came into the room and stopped at parade rest. "Should I also change Harry Potter's status from potential threat, to ally?"
"Yes, but put her in the dangerous category next to Dr. Banner. We still don't know what her motivations are. And send me someone from R&D here, because their so-called impenetrable shielding is worth shit. How the hell did she get into my office?" Fury asked, anger lacing his every word.
Agent Hill had a fleeting smidgen of sympathy for the hapless scientist who was going to receive the Director's wrath. It was times like these when they missed Tony Stark working for them, and not just giving them scraps.
On the other side of the Town, Harry apparated on the platform put at the top of the Avenger's Tower, formerly known as Stark Tower, and sitting casually on the side she watched the city below. The day had gone better than she had anticipated, so she let herself relax for a bit. Just then, there was a 'whoosh' from her right and Tony Stark landed on the special runway he had installed for his suit. While robotic arms moved around him in a deceptively easy ballet, he strode casually inside the Tower, and then, several moments later he reappeared outside, carrying two glasses of something suitably alcoholic.
Harry took the glass he handed her and sipped slowly, while watching the billionaire frown at where she was sitting, and then with a shrug, taking a similar position on the roof.
"So, did you have a good day?" he asked, casually as you please, as if they weren't two lunatics sharing a drink on the edge of a building fifty stories high.
"I was productive," Harry acknowledged and then took another sip.
"Want to tell me about it?" The inventor said, then he drank the entire content of his glass. "But tell you what. Let's go inside, where I have a perfectly good sofa where we can sit."
"And abandon this beautiful view? Tsk," Harry pretended to scold him, even as she was getting up.
"I resent that," Tony said, striking a dramatic pose with his hand on his reactor and all. "I have an excellent view from inside. Now get." He shooed her inside, hand pushing her lightly on the small of her back.
"Alright, already." She said, even though she made no move to dislodge his arm. "Hey, Tony." Harry smiled and turned her head until they were face to face. "Do you remember, when we first physically met?"
The inventor snorted, "As if I could forget. The damage to the Malibu house had Pepper ranting for days."
"Good times," Harry smiled, remembering as well.
AN: Now, I think it's fair to warn you that the next chapter might take a little longer than this one. For one thing I'm doing NaNoWriMo this year as well, and this was all written while I was trying to shake the blocks for my other projects. But I'd still love to hear your opinions on it.- Paralelsky