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Ghosts of the Past: Forever Red

Chapter Text

The Academy

"General Lukin."

The man addressed was a man of average height. He was wrinkled, with greying hair and distinguished white wings at the temples, and a little late middle aged spread at the waist, though a look at his face, unfazed in the face of the icy cold, would quickly establish that this was a man not to be trifled with. A casual estimate of his age would put him anywhere between 50 and 65. He was, in fact, in his mid fifties. Roughly the same age as the current President of Russia, with whom he had a fair amount in common. Both of them had risen through the ranks of the old Soviet Union. Both of them had been intimately involved in the shadowy battlefields of the Cold War with the West. Of course, unlike the President, Lukin's battles had moved into territory that was a little more… otherworldly.

And unlike the President, he was not content to sit back and let selected members of the oil mafia grow fat on the lifeblood of Mother Russia whilst taking his share, eliminating potential threats and playing games with parts of the world that few really cared about.

Of course, they shared a goal, of returning Russia to its rightful place as a superpower, one respected and feared, something only rendered necessary thanks to traitors who had turned the country into an international joke. Though, Lukin would admit, in the privacy of his head, the old Soviet Union had lacked a certain agility and flexibility. However, where they differed was in how they intended to do it.

In Lukin's opinion, Volodya was playing an old game in a new world. Yes, increasing Russia's conventional military and steadily pushing back against a war-shy NATO, while spreading the tendrils of Russian influence back into the heartlands it had arguably never really left was a decent enough strategy. But it was also an old fashioned one. It didn't reckon with what some in the West were, ridiculously, calling 'the Heroic Age'. It didn't reckon with the exponential increases in technological advancement, public knowledge of the superhuman, the supernatural and the alien (even if that knowledge was deeply limited, and the proliferation of all three, along with increasingly powerful non-state actors.

For goodness sake, there were gods, actual gods, walking the Earth, beings whose very existence challenged the fundamentals of belief! And that was before you took into account the events of this last year; the rise and fall of HYDRA, the Battle of London and the gutting of SHIELD. What use were ordinary weapons and ordinary soldiers in this extraordinary age? Volodya might have ordered the reactivation of the Red Room, but only as an afterthought, a garnish for the army, a weapon with which to play his old games. He was a fool – the balance of global power was undergoing its biggest shift in a century, perhaps even in a millennium. This was a new world, with new players to contend with and new horizons to reach for. There was no place for old games.

Of course, this was not to say that the old world had nothing of use. All that was required was to… update it.

And that was why he was working with the man who had just called his name. Well, man, he thought as he turned to look at the creature that addressed him. That might be a little generous.

While he was more than capable of disguising himself and looking however he wished – and more to the point, looking human – Essex's true form made it very easy to see how he had got his bevy of other names. He was tall and slender, with long, spidery fingers that it was hard to imagine not holding a scalpel or a syringe and were much, much stronger than they looked. His skin was deathly pale at a contrast with his neatly combed black hair and neatly clipped goatee beard, and his eyes gleamed red, in concert with the red gem-like object on his brow. He tended to dress in dark old fashioned formal clothing, or in a well kept lab-coat, the latter of which he was wearing at the moment. He never showed any sign of feeling either heat or cold, of pleasure or discomfort of any kind.

Lukin didn't know what Essex really was, even though he'd known him for thirty years, when he'd first joined the Red Room. And even then, the older heads had said that Essex had been around for decades, since the very beginning of the Red Room program, in all that time not ageing a single day. Lukin's original theory had been that he was a vampire. Now, that theory having long since been disproved, he'd decided that he didn't really care. He also suspected that Essex had been involved in many similar projects to the Red Room, and decided that he didn't really care very much about that either, so long as the Red Room reaped the benefits.

"Doctor Essex," he said. "Is everything in place?"

"My preparations are complete," Essex replied, his voice almost jarringly normal in comparison to his appearance. His tone, as ever, was calm and clinical. Lukin didn't think that he'd ever heard Essex raise his voice. "Are yours?"

The muscles in Lukin's jaw twitched. No one spoke to him with such implied disrespect. Belova knew not to push him. Essex's other pets, among them that clawed monster, that impudent and frequently incomprehensible thief, and that… thing in the lower levels that he tested subjects against, all put on at least a show of respect. Even Volodya would show him at least the modicum of respect of according him his rightfully earned rank. No one spoke to him like that!

No one, that was, but Essex.

"They are," he said. "Rodchenko has been… persuaded."

"Excellent," Essex said.

There was a silence, then Lukin turned to him.

"You wish to know why I have returned to the Red Room now, and why I was so willing to involve myself in this latest operation," Essex said. It was not a question. Lukin had discovered long ago that Essex numbered telepathy among his many disturbing talents, and even more disturbingly, could navigate his way through Lukin's psychic defences with nonchalant ease. Lukin would have been more worried about this if he actually thought that Essex cared about what he thought. The implied dismissal rankled a little, but Essex didn't seem to care about that either.

"I do," Lukin said. "I have known you for many years, Doctor Essex. You are not normally one to act in the field. Especially when there is such risk attached. Most especially when you do not need to."

Essex smiled a cold smile. "Are you saying that I am a coward, Lukin?" he asked.

"You know very well that I am not," Lukin said coolly. "Even if today was not evidence enough, you work with monsters every day. Half the people on this base would kill you if they thought that they could get away with it. The other half would help them hide the body if they thought it were possible. You know this and have no fear. You are no coward." He gave Essex a flinty look. "But you do not waste your time with work that you feel can be delegated."

Essex tipped his head in acknowledgement. "I have a special interest in this case," he said.

"Your hound could have done it alone," Lukin grunted. "You are lucky that I am the only one who knows how powerful your pet really is, Essex. If anyone else did..." He trailed off meaningfully.

"An attempt at capture would be made," Essex agreed. "It would be inadvisable." His gleaming red eyes settled on Lukin. "As you well know."

Lukin shivered. He knew. He remembered the screams.

"In any case," Essex said. "This case required… delicacy. And it will require yet more."

"That much is true," Lukin said. "We will only have one chance at this. Time is on our side, but only for now. It must be done soon, or…"

"The clay will dry beyond the possibility of moulding," Essex said calmly. "Yes, I am aware." He waved a hand. "Tell your servants to be ready."

Lukin gritted his teeth. "They will be."

OoOoO

6 hours earlier

Diagon Alley

With less than two weeks to go until Harry was due to return to Hogwarts, it was felt that it was time for him to do his school shop, and Carol and Jean-Paul had been invited along – Uhtred was in Asgard with his family and Diana was also in Asgard, enjoying some time with her father. However, there was a distinct lack of available adult supervision.

Thor, Loki and Steve were being quizzed at the UN about Asgard and the Avengers' respective roles on Earth going forward, Clint had been dragged kicking and screaming (or at least, sulking) to the Triskelion to fill out reams of overdue paperwork, Pepper was at work, Tony, Jane and Bruce had been called in to a symposium of the world's most brilliant minds to help piece together the long term effects of Red Sky Day, Darcy was applying for a part time job to work around her Masters degree and Remus was in Wakanda having been invited by King T'Challa.

Wanda had wanted to be present but had been distracted by the emergence of something vile and tentacular from a crack in reality in Tokyo which she and her apprentice – the latter cracking unspeakable jokes about sushi and Japanese pornography – went to deal with it (though not before she firmly chided Harry for thinking that it was his fault for not sewing up Chthon's cracks in reality neatly enough). Natasha, meanwhile, had disappeared a couple of days earlier, saying that she had one or two things to check up on. Jean was more responsible than a good half of the above, but wasn't quite a legal adult. And Sirius, though available, was also unable to come to magical Britain due to that inconvient Kiss On Sight order.

This left only one person to keep an eye on three trouble magnet superpowered teenagers, even if he was a little reluctant to do so for reasons that had nothing to do with the people in question.

On a lighter note, it opened an opportunity for two worlds to meet.

"Hermione," Harry said. "These are Carol and Jean-Paul, two of my friends from New York."

The slender and somewhat fey dark haired young man let out a pointed cough.

"From France via New York in the case of Jean-Paul," Harry amended.

"Hey," Carol said, sticking out a hand, which Hermione shook. "Harry says good things about you – thinks you're one of the smartest people he's ever met, smartest in his school by far."

"Well," Hermione said, flushing slightly and looking at Harry, who shrugged as if to say that he'd merely been stating the obvious. "I do my best."

"Harry doesn't compliment people without reason," Jean-Paul observed, with a faint smile. "And Loki did not choose you for one of his apprentices without reason, either."

"Of course I don't," Harry said. "And of course he didn't." He then turned to the silent, fourth member of the party. "And this, well. I think you can guess."

Hermione focused on the man for the first time, who had previously seemed to fade into the background. Now that she was looking at him, however, there was no way that she wasn't going to recognise him.

The recently resurrected Sergeant James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes, looking like he'd stepped straight out of a 40's newsreel, gave her a slight smile and inclined his head. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Granger," he said.

"A-and you," Hermione stammered.

Harry looked surprised at her reaction. "Hermione?"

"You know," Carol said, amused. "Not everyone's totally accustomed to hanging out with living legends. Give the girl a moment."

"Huh? Oh," Harry said, and coughed, embarrassed.

Hermione herself blushed. "Sorry," she said.

"No need to be," Sergeant Barnes said easily. "I've had far worse reactions." There was a brief, strange silence, before he continued, with an easy, charming smile, "you should have seen how the girls swarmed over Steve back in the war. And the guys, come to that."

Hermione blushed again. Barnes was, after all, quite handsome. "I," she began, then faltered, unsure of what to say.

"Bucky's here as… adult supervision," Harry said helpfully, before eyeing Bucky. "Even -though we can look after ourselves."

"It's a way to help get me back in the world again," Barnes explained, then eyed Harry right back, then Carol, and smiled slightly. "And keep an eye on a couple of dumb kids who couldn't keep out of trouble if you paid them. It's something I have a little experience with."

Harry rolled his eyes and Carol folded her arms and said, "A couple?"

"Sure," Barnes said, smile turning into a smirk. "Jean-Paul's got common sense. You two don't." He raised a finger. "And before you protest, Carol, I have a list of reasons."

Carol, who had indeed been about to protest, subsided grumpily, though not before sticking her tongue out at Barnes.

"What about me?" Harry asked.

Barnes simply arched an eyebrow at him.

"He's right, Harry," Hermione said, amused. "You don't exactly have the best track record in that department."

Harry pouted, actually pouted.

"Don't bother," Barnes said, entirely deadpan. "Tony's better at it than you are."

"He is right, I am afraid, mon cher," Jean-Paul said, patting Harry on the shoulder. "You have many other charms to fall back on, however." He smirked. "I too have a list."

"Thanks," Harry said flatly. "And does Uhtred mind?"

"He helped compose it," Jean-Paul said cheerfully. "As did a certain other someone."

Hermione noticed that Harry darted a glance at Carol, who looked uncomfortable.

"It was Diana," Jean-Paul said.

"Diana?" Harry asked, surprised.

"She thinks you have a rather lovely smile," Jean-Paul said matter-of-factly. His eyes slid over to Carol. "And unlike some, is perfectly happy to say it."

Carol rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at him.

Hermione watched this with a mixture of astonishment, happiness and just a hint of jealousy. Astonishment at what looked very much like how she imagined that her, Ron, and Harry looked to the outside world, happiness that Harry seemed so comfortable with the friends that he'd made outside of Hogwarts, and jealous because, well… the kind of trio dynamic she was seeing here was one she thought of as being just theirs. As in, unique to herself, Harry and Ron. Of course, theirs came without snarky adult supervision. And fewer implied dirty jokes. And no hints of UST whatsoever, of course.

Indeed, Hermione found herself briefly entertaining fears that both her and Ron would be edged out of Harry's life entirely, replaced. However, those fears soon faded as she found that she rather liked Harry's friends.

Sergeant Barnes was quiet, but friendly and polite, with a variant on the dry sense of humour that seemed to be endemic among the Avengers and everyone who spent even a little time around them. Hermione thought that it might be contagious.

In any case, he answered her questions about the War fairly freely, and seemed silently grateful that she steered well clear of what had happened after he fell from the train. Otherwise, he let the conversation flow around him.

Carol, the tall, blonde American girl was cynical, sardonic, but friendly too, and the two of them quickly bonded over mutual amusement at Harry's foibles, much to the latter's exaggerated disgust.

As for Jean-Paul, the slender, charming French boy was softer spoken and clearly possessed of a wicked sense of humour that tended towards the very dirty, one that he was more than happy to show in conversation… but somehow, Hermione felt that in his own way, he was every bit as reserved as Barnes.

And that was not the only oddity she noticed. It wasn't anything definite, but she got the very definite sense that Sergeant Barnes wasn't just present as ad hoc adult supervision. There was something very aware about him. Watchful.

It was more obvious in Jean-Paul, who had that same watchful air about him. In his case, however, much of the watchfulness seemed to be focused on Hermione herself, as if he was weighing her up. He was perfectly charming, and spent much of his time cheerfully teasing his friends, even teasing her in a light, gentle fashion, but even still, Hermione wondered.

Carol, meanwhile, seemed to be the most ordinary of the lot of them, coming off for the most part as an ordinary, if particularly snarky, teenager. The latter characteristic was definitely on show, with her and Harry sharing an easy, whip-fast banter. But then, she wasn't just an ordinary teenager, that much had already been implied. And in any case, Hermione privately thought that you weren't likely to be ordinary if you were drawn to Harry, nor, depressing as the thought was, would you be particularly likely to survive the experience if you were.

No, what sealed it for Hermione, however, was the way she moved. She moved like someone who could handle herself, and either hadn't learned how to hide it, or didn't care to do so. Indeed, Hermione found the other girl vaguely reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Only taller. And more muscular. And more, ahem, filled out.

Then, of course, there was Harry himself. He'd changed. This wasn't unexpected – after all, she could hardly miss how he'd been changing, physically and mentally, over the last year, ever since he'd rediscovered his father. But in the three and a half months since they'd seen each other last, those changes had almost accelerated. While he'd previously gone from short to tall in what had seemed like the blink of an eye, glasses vanishing in the process, he'd still been on the skinny end of lean, with hands and feet that seemed puppyishly too large for him.

Now, while he'd grown a little bit taller, he also seemed to have grown into his limbs, looking more solid than he had before. The main change, the biggest difference, wasn't physical, though. Hermione couldn't pin it down, but there was an edge to him now, a hardness in his features and a shadow in his eyes, one that hadn't been there before. It vanished briefly when he smiled, but as soon as the smile faded, it came back, like the smile was only a mask.

Of course, she had to admit that that wasn't the surprise it might have been. Being murdered, after all, was likely to leave a mark.

OoOoO

Hermione's musing aside, it was true that Harry had changed. Which, as it happened, was something that he was more than a bit worried about. So while Hermione played tour guide/got to know Carol and Jean-Paul, he and Bucky took a detour.

"Ah, Sergeant Barnes, Mister Potter," Mister Ollivander said. "This is a pleasant surprise."

"Garrick," Bucky said, with a smile, reaching out to shake the other man's hand. "It's been a long time."

Harry blinked. While he intellectually he realised that Mister Ollivander had to have a first name, he'd only ever thought of the wand-maker as Mister Ollivander and suspected that almost everyone else did the same. Bucky, however, was apparently different.

"Indeed it has," Ollivander said, smiling slightly, silver eyes roaming over Bucky, settling briefly on his left arm. "Though I have not aged quite as well as you have."

Bucky smiled tightly. "Being a HYDRA guinea pig has its upsides," he said. He turned to Harry. "We – the SSR – consulted Garrick about wands: specifically, repairing damaged ones, making new ones and identifying captured ones."

"Yes," Ollivander said. "Grindelwald's forces used some truly remarkable wands, drawing on his demonic connections to provide arcane woods and cores. Demon summoning is an abhorrent art, of course, and the wands were often somewhat unstable, particularly in the hands of those lacking the will or the conviction to control them, but still… they were truly remarkable." His tone turned somewhat peevish. "And Howard Stark was forever taking them apart, trying to find 'circuits', 'batteries' or some other means of explaining how they worked."

"He did improve your wand making equipment, though," Bucky said.

"That is true," Ollivander allowed. "I still use his machines, actually."

"Don't you use magic, Mister Ollivander?" Harry asked, and those silver eyes turned to him.

"Not when making wands, oh no," he said. "Wand-making is a delicate process and using magic in creating wands can have grave effects on the wand itself. Now, Mister Potter, what is it that brings you to my shop?"

Harry took a deep breath. "I'm not sure about my wand," he said, drawing the artefact in question. "You've probably heard that my dad is Thor."

Bucky snorted slightly.

"I could hardly miss it, Mister Potter," Ollivander said. "And I must say, the fact that you are a son of the Thunderer himself… I am almost surprised that you were not chosen by an oak wand. But then again, the wand chooses the wizard, and the wand that did was made of the other King of the Forest, one that was unique for entirely different reasons."

"That's just it, Mister Ollivander," Harry said. "I'm not entirely sure I am a wizard any more. Or maybe I won't be for long."

Ollivander's eyebrows rose. "And what makes you say that, Mister Potter?"

"I can still do magic, obviously," Harry said. "But my father's…" He trailed off.

"Harry is beginning to inherit abilities from his father's side of the family," Bucky said quietly. "His Asgardian nature, specifically. And while Lily Potter was a witch, Harry may not have inherited his magic from her. He inherited non-magical psychic abilities from her, either as well or instead. He's worried that he'll lose the ability to use his wand." He glanced at Harry. "Even though I've reminded him that his father is completely Asgardian and can use his wand just fine."

Harry didn't directly answer, instead muttering something about being glad 'Tony and other Harry aren't here.'

"Curious," Ollivander said. "Very curious. I believe that I can set your mind at ease, Mister Potter. While I can hardly say that I am an expert on demigods, my family has been in Britain for a very long time and I have made a study of my ancestors' work and their journals. More than once, they sold wands to children of Asgardians and muggle men and women – more often the latter than the former by far, of course – in whom magical gifts manifested. Apparently it was rather more common than among Asgardians themselves. My ancestor, Edgar Ollivander, noted that Asgardians all possessed the talent for magic but that it usually had to be encouraged to manifest."

Harry nodded at Ollivander's enquiring look. "That's what my uncle tells me," he said.

Ollivander smiled. "Excellent," he said. "In every case, they reported that while choosing the wand sometimes took some time, each witch and wizard was chosen by a wand and never had any problems with it. So no, Mister Potter, I do not believe that you have to worry about your wand losing its allegiance to you. May I see it?"

Harry handed it over and Ollivander took it in long, precise fingers. "Ah…" he murmured. "Holly and Phoenix feather, eleven inches long, nice and supple, in good condition. You have looked after it very well, as it has looked after you." He examined the wand. "This wand is a rare combination of wood and core, very rare. Rare and all the more remarkable for it." His gaze shifted to Harry. "Much like yourself, Mister Potter. This wand is, I think, a better match for you than either of us ever realised."

His gaze shifted back to the wand. "Of course, that is often the case with wandlore. While the basic meanings and preferences of certain wand woods and cores, and combinations thereof, are well known, there is always dispute about the nuance and the detail. On top of that, some favour wands because of mere appearance!" He snorted, as if this was totally absurd. "Silver lime, for instance, went through a significant vogue at one point, not because of its properties, but simply because it made for a beautiful wand. And different woods are popular in different places: Japanese wand-makers greatly favour cherry, while my colleagues in Samarkand have long favoured beech."

He shook his head. "Aesthetics have little effect on wands, though it is true that certain wand-makers work better with certain woods, which can have an effect on the wands themselves, and a witch or wizard dissatisfied with their wand can cause it to perform poorly. In short, Mister Potter, each wand and its relation with each owner is truly unique, where qualities perceived by the wand do not become apparent until much later in life. Your mother, for instance, is a case in point."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked.

"Well, it is remarkable that you should say that your psychic powers come from her," Ollivander said. "For her wand was made of willow, a wood often associated with the mental arts by wanded and wandless practitioners alike – if not quite as much as Silver Lime – and great potential. The healing arts too, of course, due to its medicinal properties. It is also a very emotional wood, one drawn to wielders like it, wielders with a great capacity for emotion, one emotion in particular: love."

"Love?" Harry asked.

"Love," Ollivander said. "Wielders of Willow wands often love deeply and fiercely." His pale eyes focused on Harry with disquieting intensity. "It is rare for someone to love as deeply and fiercely as Lily Potter." His eyes drifted to Harry's forehead. "And much rarer indeed leave behind such a remarkable testament to that love."

Harry shifted his feet uncomfortably. "That was something else I wanted to talk to you about," he said. "Could we… talk in the back or something?"

Ollivander frowned slightly, but nodded, apparently intrigued. He drew his own wand and flicked it. The blinds dropped over the door and the window. "Come with me," he said.

"Well, Mister Ollivander, it's about my mother. And how I got this scar, I suppose," Harry said, omitting to mention that it had quite a lot to do with how he'd got another one.

He told Mister Ollivander everything. Well, not quite everything, but almost everything.

The other man listened closely and carefully, expression fascinated.

"Remarkable," Ollivander said quietly. "I was right to expect great things of you, Mister Potter." Before Harry could reply, his tone became more focused. "You think that this Phoenix entity led to your being chosen by your wand," he said.

"I think so," Harry said. "It was Fawkes' feather and considering how she, the Phoenix, knew Dumbledore, how Fawkes found him afterwards and how he saved me in the Chamber of Secrets… I really don't think that it's a coincidence."

"Curious," Ollivander said. "Curious."

Harry waited patiently.

"I said that your wand was unique for entirely different reasons," Ollivander said. "Holly wands are rare, but Holly and Phoenix Feather is one of the rarest combinations of them all. Holly is a wood much like Willow, in that it is emotional. Unlike Willow, however, it takes it to the point of volatility, its wielders are often protective and they tend to need to overcome anger and impetuosity. They also tend to be the type to engage in quests, though whether those quests are physical or spiritual is another matter entirely."

"Why am I not surprised?" Bucky murmured.

Harry shot him a dirty look. "You mentioned the 'Holly King'," he said. "What's that?"

"Oh, an old legend that the forest is ruled by the King of the Oak in the Summer and the King of the Holly in the Winter," Ollivander said absently. "Evocative and, I suspect, connected to the Summer and Winter Queens of Faerie, perhaps mistaking them for the Winter and Summer Knights of the era. Then again, I have heard rumours of Summer and Winter Kings…"

"They exist," Harry said. "Apparently they represent the opposite side of the season – the Summer King is the Erlking, the Winter King is… well, no one's very sure about him, but I think he goes by Santa these days."

"Really?" Bucky asked, eyebrow raised.

Harry shrugged, and turned back to Ollivander. "I thought most people in the Wizarding World didn't believe in the Fae," he said.

"Any wandmaker worth their salt knows that the Fae exist, Mister Potter," Ollivander said. "Indeed, thanks to their connection to the natural world, aspects of wand-lore and aspects of faerie-lore are intertwined. Hawthorn wood, for instance, makes for complex and often contradictory wands as adept at healing as at cursing. It is also known to burn brightly and poison those creatures that owe their allegiance to the Winter Court." He sighed. "And more than one foolish young wandmaker or an apprentice has attempted to bargain with the Fae for knowledge of the best wand wood trees or for arcane woods from the Faerie realms. The Fae being what they are, such requests are to be made very carefully, if at all, which they usually aren't as making them is often a sign that the person in question is too lazy to learn how to find the trees themselves. More than one has found themselves transformed into or merged with the tree they sought, for instance."

Harry winced.

"But the Phoenix Feather is, by its nature, detached, independent and notoriously picky," Ollivander continued softly. "Where a Holly wand's wielder will throw themselves mindlessly into danger to protect someone else, a phoenix chooses its allegiances and actions very carefully. But once those allegiances are made, they are unbreakable. Together they are a formidable combination, often a mark of heroes and heroines born, renowned for their daring. Often rash, often solitary, but brave and true. You, Mister Potter, are more than adequate proof of that."

Harry shivered slightly under those unnerving pale eyes.

"Indeed," Ollivander added. "From what you have said of this Phoenix Force, I would say that you were chosen by a phoenix a very long time ago." There was a long pause. "Of course, legend has it that it is not the first time such a thing has happened," he said, after a few moments. "Stories of wands and staves created by gods and other powerful entities abound, bestowed upon worthy wielders. The legendary wand, Laevateinn, wielded by Prospero Slytherin, an ancestor of Salazar, is one. It is lost, of course."

"My grandfather mentioned it," Harry said, fingering the golden phoenix feather around his throat. "He didn't say much about it, though. I think it might be related to the Phoenix."

Ollivander inclined his head. "There are others," he said. "But few, in the Western world at least, carry the resonance of one wand in particular. The Elder Wand."

Inexplicably, Harry felt like the room had suddenly got colder. And darker. "Elder Wand?"

Ollivander nodded. "A wand supposedly made by Death himself, made to be the most powerful in all the world," he said. "A wand that could turn back time and rewrite history, a wand that could transmute the elements in a fashion that only the Philosopher's Stone could match, a wand that could even, it is whispered, bring back the dead. With the Elder Wand in hand, none of the laws of magic need apply."

A chill ran down Harry's spine.

"It was said to be one of the three Deathly Hallows, created by Death to reward, to entrap, three brothers who had defied him. It is a children's tale, but as with all tales, it contains a grain of truth. That tale also says that whoever owns all three shall be the Master of Death."

Harry was silent for a moment. "You think it's true?" he asked, not bothering to mention that Death was female and that he severely doubted that three magical objects would grant one 'mastery' over an entity that powerful.

"There is a grain of truth, I think," Ollivander said. "Its power is undeniable, its verifiable feats verging on the impossible, and from the very beginning, witches and wizards have slaughtered each other to possess it, leaving a bloody trail through history. While ordinary wands can change allegiance when they are taken by force, in earnest battle, the Elder Wand is said to only be passed on to a new master when the previous one is dead. Of course, it is more likely that those who steal such a wand are more inclined to kill a rival than to let them live, but one has to wonder… Along the way, it has acquired other names: the Deathstick and the Wand of Destiny prominent among them. But while it has many names, while there are other wands of elder, rare, very rare – they are considered unlucky, in large part because of the story – but they exist, most simply call it the Elder Wand."

"Who was its last owner?" Harry asked, curious.

Ollivander paused, and, oddly, darted a glance at Bucky. "That, Mister Potter, is a piece of information that men have killed for," he said, sounding somehow hurried. "And it often drops out of history for centuries at a time. Putting a definitive location on it in the past is near impossible, let alone the present."

Harry was about to latch onto this suggestion that Ollivander did, in fact, know where it was, when Bucky's hand came to rest on his shoulder.

"I see," he said. "Okay. Thank you, Mister Ollivander."

Ollivander nodded and Harry and Bucky went to leave, heading back through the shop, towards the doors, outside which gathered the usual impatient first years and parents.

"Mister Potter."

Harry turned. "Yes, Mister Ollivander?"

"The days are getting darker, Mister Potter," Ollivander said. "Things are coming out of the shadows, things thought long gone. Things… and people. You would do well to be careful."

"I always am, Mister Ollivander," Harry said.

Ollivander fixed him with a piercing gaze. "Are you, Mister Potter?" he asked softly.

"No," Bucky said dryly. "He isn't. Come on, Harry."

Harry's gaze lingered on Ollivander, before he nodded and left.

Once they were outside and well clear of the shop, he turned to Bucky.

"Why was he looking at you like you knew where it was?" Harry asked.

"Because when we started going up against Grindelwald back in the War, Albus warned us to expect the impossible," Bucky said quietly. "That even the rules of magic might not apply. When Steve asked why, Albus explained about the Elder Wand, told us the whole story of the Three Brothers. And he said that Grindelwald had found it, taking it from a famous European wand-maker who had boasted of possessing it. It was part of why Schmidt, the Red Skull, was so eager to make an alliance with him."

"So Grindelwald had it," Harry said. "Which would mean…"

"Which would mean that it is currently owned by the person who defeated Grindelwald," Bucky said.

"Didn't Doctor Strange beat him?" Harry asked.

"I wasn't around for that part," Bucky said. "But from what I've heard, Strange wore him down and stripped away most of his extra power rather than beating him outright, probably by design. There's a reason he's not known as the one who beat Grindelwald, after all."

Harry's eyes went near impossibly wide as he put it together. "Whoa," he breathed. Then he frowned. "If he had the wand, why didn't he bring back Luna?"

"Even if it were possible, it could be that he didn't know how," Bucky said. "Do you knw everything you can do with your powers?"

Harry grimaced. "No," he said. "Not even close. But Dumbledore…"

"Dumbledore is a genius, but he isn't omniscient," Bucky said. "Besides, if I remember the story correctly, that power belonged to another Hallow, the Resurrection Stone. And it didn't end well."

"How do you mean?" Harry asked, frowning.

"According to the story, the brother who used it brought back his fiancée. She didn't belong in the world of the living, though, and it hurt her," Bucky said. "So in the end, he committed suicide to be with her."

"Do you believe the story?" Harry asked.

"I think it sounds like the fairy stories my mom used to tell me when I was little," Bucky said. "And it has moral to it. In this case, don't try and con a powerful magical entity."

"I don't think that's quite it," Harry said dryly. "And I don't think that Death would be trying to entrap them. Maybe she just gave them what they wanted and let it play out."

"You'd know better than me," Bucky said. "Now, we'd better do your shopping. And find your friends."

"Right," Harry said, eyes going distant as he focused. "I'll get on that."

OoOoO

While Harry and Bucky were in Ollivanders, the others had gone exploring, following Hermione. Wandering up the street, Carol and Jean-Paul drank in the sights of Diagon Alley, the former firing questions at Hermione at a million miles an hour, while the latter simply gazed at the surroundings, seeming to take in everything at once.

Hermione, for her part, was more than happy to expound and answer questions, so the arrangement sorted all three parties equally.

Soon enough, they wound up near the far end of Diagon Alley, which Hermione identified as leading into Knockturn Alley.

"It's a bad neighbourhood," she said. "As far as I know. Harry wound up there by accident a couple of years ago, and from what he said, it was fairly unpleasant."

"Who are they?" Carol asked, watching as a man and woman dressed in what looked like muggle combats covered by long grey cloaks, each with a scabbarded sword at their hip and a carved staff in hand, strode past. They were a grim and harsh looking pair and the denizens of Knockturn Alley seemed to subtly shrink away from them, melting into the shadows.

"Wardens," Hermione said quietly. "The combat troops and policemen of the White Council."

"White Council… Harry's mentioned that," Carol asked.

"Wandless wizards," Jean-Paul said.

"Right."

"The White Council is sort of like the UN for wandless practitioners," Hermione said. "Though membership is restricted only to the most powerful one percent of practitioners. The Wardens are their elite."

"Wait, so if you're not powerful enough, you don't get a say?" Carol asked, frowning.

"Not really," Hermione said unhappily. "Though they don't make laws as such, they just enforce the Seven Laws of Magic and act on behalf of wandless magical practitioners. For instance, if you're having trouble with vampires, you can go to your local Warden for help. They're stretched thin at the moment, though, what with the War."

"War?"

"The White Council is at war with the Red Court," Hermione said. "The Red Court, they're a kind of vampire from South America, Mayan blood demons that wear a flesh mask to conceal what they really are and have powerfully narcotic saliva."

"Ew," Carol said flatly.

"They're not quite as powerful as Grey Court vampires – Dracula, and his kind – but there's more of them, they tend to be better organised and reasonably up to date with modern technology," Hermione said. "The war started when a White Council Wizard called Harry Dresden killed a Red Court Noble. She had a grudge against him for some reason and tricked him into entrapping himself by the rules of courtesy at a supernatural costume ball, then half-turned his girlfriend, who'd snuck in."

"Half-turned?" Jean-Paul asked, eyebrow raised.

"When the Red Court turn someone, they remain human, but with most of the powers of the vampire," Hermione said. "Until they kill their first victim, they remain at least part human. But since the blood lust is very strong…"

"They don't stay human for long," Carol said.

Hermione nodded. "There's no cure," she said. "There are ways to manage it, but not a cure. Anyway, everything she'd done was technically legal under supernatural law. Dresden was officially her guest which meant that he had to abide by the Laws of Hospitality, which she technically hadn't broken. He's famous for not caring very much about rules, though – he advertises as a PI in the phonebook. He's also very powerful and he was very angry. So he incinerated the vampire and her coven. Since he technically broke supernatural law and was acting as a representative of the White Council as the time, the Red Court declared war on the Council."

"Sounds like he made the right call and put boot to ass," Carol said, sounding as if she very much approved. "And his name's Dresden, right? Harry Dresden?"

"Yes."

"Ridiculously tall, dark, kinda hot in an angular sort of way, wears a long black duster?" Carol asked.

"I… I think so," Hermione said, a little startled. "You've met him?"

Carol nodded. "He seemed pretty cool," she said.

"This war… who's winning?" Jean-Paul asked.

"The Prophet doesn't say much about it, so I'm not sure," Hermione said, eyeing Carol. "But since there's not much news, I'd say that not much is happening."

"Well, here's hoping that they wipe the vampires out," Carol said.

"What about the Laws?" Jean-Paul asked quietly.

"If you break one, you're doing dark magic," Hermione explained. "With wanded witches and wizards it's bad enough, but wands serve as a kind of buffer. If a wandless Wizard starts using dark magic, they go beyond the point of no return very quickly and become fairly nightmarish. That's why the sentence for breaking any of the Seven Laws is death."

"No exceptions?" Jean-Paul asked, tone clipped.

"The First Law – thou shalt not kill with magic, basically – has a self-defence clause and the laws only apply to mortals, humans," Hermione said. "But the others, they're set in stone. There are grey areas, and they only apply to wandless magic, but beyond that, there's no flexibility. The best a Warlock, someone who has broken the Laws, can hope for is that someone on the Council decides to take them on and try and reform them. Then the Doom of Damocles is levied; they're on probation. But it's very rare."

"That's horrible," Carol said quietly.

Jean-Paul merely nodded silently.

"I think so too," Hermione said. "But having read some accounts about what a rogue Warlock can do… I think they might be necessary."

"Why?" Carol asked, frowning.

"Because wandless wizards can live for nearly half a millennium even when they don't delve into the Dark Arts to extend that, and they only get more powerful as they get older. One Warlock, Kemmler, engineered the First World War, using it as an opportunity to raise corpses by the hundreds of thousands," Hermione said. "He was killed – and not for the first time – but he resurfaced under Grindelwald's command in World War II. Grindelwald was a wanded Dark Lord, one of the most terrible in known history. Between them, they played a major hand in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and later, the Red Skull, slaughtering millions. And, if you believe the stories, nearly bringing about Hell on Earth."

"Mon dieu," Jean-Paul said quietly. "Are there many as bad as that?"

"Only a few," Hermione said. "But they're more than enough. You've probably heard of one or two of them."

"Like who?" Carol asked.

"Morgana," Hermione said. "Also known as Morgan La Fey."

"The lady from the King Arthur legends?" Carol asked, surprised. "She was real?"

Hermione nodded. "She was," she said. "So was Merlin, Arthur, Camelot… all of it. Though I think that the histories made quite a few mistakes. The myths certainly did." She stared after the Wardens, frowning. "Back to the Wardens, though… what are they doing here? They're at war with the Red Court, the White and Black Courts too, I suppose, but Britain's almost entirely vampire free – even if no one's sure why. Even so, the only kind of vampire that's ever really turned up here is a few White Court vampires and one or two Grey Court, and they aren't even involved in the war. Maybe they're tracking a Warlock…"

She stopped, noticing that her audience wasn't paying much attention to this. Indeed, Carol and Jean-Paul both stared at her in mutual astonishment. "What?" she asked.

"The King Arthur legends. They're real," Carol said slowly.

"Well, they got a lot of things wrong…"

"Sword in the stone, Arthur and Guinevere, Knights of the Round Table?"

"Well, yes."

"So they're real," Carol said. "Oh my god, this is incredible!"

Hermione smiled. "I suppose it is," she said. "It's amazing how much witches and wizards take for granted. And how much I take for granted, really. It's just that there's so much to take in, so much to absorb, that you don't really have time to stop and think. Then once you do, it's normal."

Carol nodded. "I suppose so," she said. "Still…" She then paused outside a shop that seemed festooned with metal objects, varying from the apparently prosaic, such as a box the size of a desktop computer, to the incredibly intricate, including what looked like a tiny golden ball in a wire mesh cage.

The latter caught her eye not because it was flying; she'd seen enough strange floating things in the form of Tony Stark's robots or in just about every store in Diagon Alley and its environs that another didn't really stand out. It was the way it was flying, darting and hovering like a hummingbird, that caught her eye.

"Carol?"

"Oh dear," Jean-Paul said, looking around at the front of the shop, and at Hermione's puzzled look, elaborated. "Carol likes pointy things."

Carol absently gave him the finger.

There were quite a lot of pointy things on show, spears mounted on intricately carved staves, gleaming silver knives and swords with hilts of gold, silver and mother-of-pearl, inlaid with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds and pearls.

Hermione, however, followed Carol's gaze, to the tiny golden ball. "Oh," she said. "That's a Snitch."

"A what?" Carol asked, puzzled.

"A Golden Snitch," Hermione explained. "It's one of three kinds of ball in Quidditch."

"And it's the one that the… sneaker goes after."

"Seeker."

"Right."

"Harry told you?"

Carol nodded.

Hermione sighed.

"What's with that?" Carol asked.

"The existence of witches and wizards is supposed to be a secret," Hermione said, a little anxiously. "It's the cornerstone of the laws of Wizarding society, thanks to the Statute of Secrecy."

"So… you're not meant to go around telling people that you're magical?" Carol asked. "Because, uh, he kind of invited me to the Quidditch World Cup."

Jean-Paul chuckled darkly. "Quite," he said. "Who knows what reaction you might get?"

"No," Hermione said. "And there's some very rigorous punishments if you do. Muggles, non-magical people, who do find out have their memories wiped. The only non-magical people supposed to know at all are the parents or guardians of muggleborn students, and there are some people who are saying that even they shouldn't know."

"Are you kidding me?" Carol demanded. "That's completely ridiculous!"

Hermione sighed. "Is it?" she asked. "How do you think humanity in general would react to finding out that they've got people with magical powers, their own laws and societies, living under their noses?"

"Badly," Jean-Paul remarked.

"Okay, fair point," Carol admitted grudgingly. "So… what about us? Is someone going to try and mind wipe us?"

"Does it mean that Harry's going to get in trouble?" Jean-Paul asked, voice crisper than usual. The prospect of obliviation clearly did not worry him. It didn't seem to overly worry Carol either, something that Hermione wondered at.

"No, Harry's basically untouchable, whether he realises it or not," Hermione said. "Something that has very little to do with who his father is. And no. You're Harry's friends and I think the general attitude is that if you've managed to get into Diagon Alley, you're meant to be here."

"What about Dresden? Does he not break this Statute?" Jean-Paul asked.

"The White Council doesn't have the same rules about secrecy as the various Ministries do," Hermione said. "Part of why is that it's not a formal government and another reason why is that they don't use mental magic, they can't."

"Why not?" Carol asked.

"Because wandless mental magic at the very least borders on dark magic," Hermione said. "Wands act as a kind of buffer, as I said, but wandless magic doesn't have that. Two their Seven Laws concern mind magic, and if you break them…"

"One way trip to the afterlife."

Hermione nodded. "Wandless dark magic, as I said, it snowballs very quickly," she said. "It's almost impossible to simply dabble in dark wandless magic, because it corrupts you very quickly, making you do worse and worse things until…" She trailed off. "Well. By the time a Dark Wandless Wizard, a Warlock, is found, they're usually completely insane. And by that point, there's no turning back. Believe me, they've tried. After a certain point, even if they're captured and seem to be improving, a Warlock will inevitably revert. And if they're left to keep going down the dark paths, you get something very much like Kemmler."

"That's cold," Carol said quietly. "I mean, how old are these kids when they get their powers? 11? 12?"

"Anywhere between 10 and 16," Hermione said. "It varies, though the stronger gifts usually manifest earlier."

"Just the right age for bad decisions," Jean-Paul said.

"But if they don't know any better," Carol began.

"Ignorantia non excusat," Hermione said quietly. "And no, I don't like it. I think it's horrible."

"But you can see why they do it."

"Even aside from what I said earlier, dark magic, dark wandless magic, nearly ended the world a couple of months ago," Hermione said. "So yes, I can. Can't you?"

Carol grunted and silence fell.

"What's that?" Jean-Paul asked, nodding at the apparently ordinary man across the street, one who had shrunken out of sight more than most as the Wardens had passed by. Closer inspection revealed a heavier, thickly muscled jaw and slightly inhuman proportions.

"Ghoul," Hermione said. "There are a couple of varieties – one is a fairly minor demon that lives in attics or cellars and eats rats and insects. They're all but harmless. That one, on the other hand… it's one of the other kind. And they're much more dangerous. They're shapeshifters and can pass as human quite easily. They're carnivores, going through forty or fifty pounds of meat a day and they like the taste of human."

"And they haven't been exterminated why?"

"Because they're sentient," Hermione said. "Because they don't have to be malicious and they can be quite civilised when they want to be. And because if they choose, they look exactly like humans until, suddenly, they don't. They're also quite hard to kill, apparently."

There was a moment of silence.

"God, this is depressing," Carol said, and looked around. "So... this place and creep-tastic alley are basically you guys' only streets," she said, looking around Diagon Alley.

Hermione shook her head. "They're the main streets, but not the only ones," she said. "There's a small network of streets branching off one another: Knockturn Alley, as mentioned, which is a little more... dubious, Internation Alley, where foreign embassies, businesses and travel agencies are found, Theatric Alley, which is basically the magical West End - or Broadway, Alchemic Alley, where the Alchemists tend to congregate, Aesthetic Alley, where designers, jewellers and artists live and Gastronomic Alley, which is the bar and restaurant area." She waved around at Diagon Alley. "The most successful businesses, though, are on Diagon Alley, because..."

"Most people come through here, at the very least to get to other magical places," Carol finished.

"Pretty much, yes," Hermione said. "Other large towns and cities have... magical districts, I suppose - Edinburgh's is particularly large - but London's is the biggest."

"Uh-huh," Carol said. "Question: is every street name around here a bad pun?"

Hermione let out a heartfelt sigh. "Yes."

"Well. So much for the famous British sense of humour, then."

After that, they moved on, taking in the wonders of Diagon Alley. Here, a magic lamp with light that supposedly never went out, there a magic box that was according to its seller 'unbreakable and impossible to open for anyone who isn't the owner. Like a mokeskin pouch, but bigger. Why, miss, you can even trap spirits in this one.' Then, a fob watch that with a crystalline face that displayed not only the time, projecting it into the air when opened, but the phases of the Moon, the season and the weather, note paper that transformed into origami birds and flew around the room, dancing around floating candles, even a customisable wig that seemed to swallow up hair and fit seamlessly onto the wearer's head.

There was more, so much more. There weremagical gardens, with small fountains that floated in the air, travelling steadily over the flowers to ensure they were all watered, magical plants with strange properties – and in the case of the Venomous Tentacula, a bad attitude. There was a floating and constantly moving vase of water, tiny homunculi of people, dragons and magical creatures that Hermione compared to robots,gloves that came when called, walking on two fingers, mugs that stirred themselves, pots and pans that warned in increasingly shrill tones when their contents was being overcooked, talking mirrors that advised on appearance, and small glass balls that Hermione said were called Remembralls that filled up with red smoke when their owner had forgotten something. Glass cats stalked along shelves with the liquid grace of the real thing, hats changed colour depending upon their wearer's mood and varieties of incense, some of which sent you to sleep, some of which relaxed you, and some of which even supposedly set you onto an out of body experience.

"Non-magical people have that," Jean-Paul observed.

"Really?" the shopkeeper asked, surprised.

"Oh yes. In tablet form," Jean-Paul said, entirely innocently. "It's called LSD. Ask any person without magic, they will know what you're talking about."

Carol looked disapproving, yet amused.

And there was still more. There were even glasses and goggles that could magnify vision and see into the infrared. Carol, wondering at all of these, muttered darkly about these.

"If magic glasses that can see in the dark are a thing, you can sure as shit bet that some pervert's thought of x-ray glasses," she said.

"I'm sure they'd be illegal," Hermione said, frowning.

Carol just snorted. "Like that's ever stopped anybody."

Then, finally, they came on to the magical musical instruments.

"So… these instruments play themselves?" Jean-Paul asked, examining the row of instruments.

"Yes," Hermione said. "They're enchanted to bring in air at the right times, in the case of the wind instruments, mimic bow and finger movements on the string instruments… it's fascinating, really."

"What's this one playing?" Carol asked, examining an intricately carved wooden flute that was playing a slow, sad melody.

"I don't know," Hermione admitted. "Music, especially wizarding music, isn't really my forte."

"It's one of the oldest songs in British wizarding history," a voice said from behind them. "Said to date from the time of Arthur himself."

All three of them turned to see Draco Malfoy, who smiled politely. "It has two names," he continued. "Based on how it's played. Fast, and it's known as Arthur's Triumph. Slow, like now, and it's known as Merlin's Lament. Legend has it that he composed it after the fall of Camelot."

"Wow," Carol said. "And you are…?"

"Draco Malfoy," Draco said. "Granger and I know each other, as you can probably tell by the fact she's staring at me as if I might bite."

"Malfoy," Carol said. "As in –"

"Lucius Malfoy," Draco said flatly. "Master of HYDRA. Which makes me the son of one of the pre-eminent monsters on the face of the Earth, who was in turn the employer of the very worst, something of which I am very aware." He turned to Hermione. "I did not make the best first, second, third… I did not make a good impression on you in our first two years at Hogwarts," he said, tone very frank. "I insulted you and called you vile names which, while I can blame their use on my upbringing, should not have been used. For that I am sorry and you are well within your rights to hate me. However, please don't treat me as a junior copy of my father, an evil overlord in waiting. I am many things, but I am not my father's son. His deeds are not my deeds and his dreams are not my dreams."

Hermione said nothing, but gave him a long look that was somehow more considering than it had been before. "How are you out and about?" she asked. "I'd have thought that…" She trailed off.

Draco smiled a thin smile. "That SHIELD wouldn't let me out of their sight for fear my father would send someone to snatch me away and they would lose some of their potential leverage over him?" he asked, then jerked his head over his shoulder, indicating a group of otherwise ordinary looking witches and wizards, distinguished only by the air of watchfulness about them. "They don't. When I am out, my mother is kept in a kind of polite imprisonment and vice versa. Not in the Manor, naturally – that is still in ruins and in any case, it has been seized by the muggle government, along the vast majority of the Malfoy family assets, as compensation. And very rarely are we allowed to spend any length of time in the same place." He glanced again at his bodyguards-cum-jailers. "This is, I am informed, for our own protection, and I see the logic in that. I also see the logic of not keeping all your eggs in one basket."

There was an uneasy silence.

"Harry mentioned you," Carol said eventually, eyeing Draco. "A couple of times, actually."

"What did he say, Miss…?"

"Danvers," Carol said. "Carol Danvers. And he said that you'd been a massive jerk in the first couple of years, but recently you'd changed." She tilted her head and regarded him. "I got the impression that he actually rather liked you, following the attitude adjustment."

"Did you?" Draco asked, apparently genuinely interested and somewhat… hopeful?

Carol shrugged, noticing something familiar about the boy. Like her, Jean-Paul, and Harry when she had first met him, he gave a sense of someone not used to having many friends. "He said you'd grown up," she said. "And that you gave good advice."

Draco snorted faintly. "I try," he said, then paused and smiled. "May I make a suggestion? While Hermione knows everything there is to know about the Wizarding World that can be read in a book, I grew up living it, breathing it. For instance, I know Diagon Alley and its various off-shoots rather well. I could give you the tour."

Carol looked first at Jean-Paul, then at Hermione. The former shrugged, while the latter grimaced and gave her a look that said that it was up to her. "Sounds cool," she said.

OoOoO

"And over there is Mister Norrell's bookshop. A bit of a rarity, that one, a wandless Wizard who practically worships books," Draco said, indicating a rather staid and musty looking Georgian bookshop. Inside it was a small, elderly man in an old fashioned wig, arguing with a tall, lean middle aged looking man in fashionable clothing with grey in his messy hair. "As a result, he hardly ever actually sells anything, and never anything particularly valuable, which is why you don't see him challenging Flourish and Blott's for customers."

"And who's that man arguing with him?" Hermione asked curiously.

"That would be Mister Jonathan Strange, his former apprentice – no relation to Stephen Strange, as far as anyone knows," Draco said. "Though I believe that it is still a matter of popular speculation."

Indeed it was, something not helped by Jonathan Strange's own response when asked: "I do not know, for I have very rarely had the pleasure of his company. However, knowing the habit of the gentleman in question for travelling through the ages as an ordinary fellow would down a street, for all I know he could be my father, my son, my grandson, my brother, or even myself from another timeline."

This honest response, designed as it was to quell questions, merely spawned thousands more. Such is the way of gossip.

"Apparently, they've always been like that," Draco continued. "Strange is a more adventurous sort, much known for his communing with the Fae and his resultant mastery of illusion and of mirror magic."

"He's written books about it," Hermione said, nodding. "I remember seeing them in Flourish and Blotts."

Draco raised an eyebrow. "You saw a book you did not immediately devour?" he asked, lightly amused.

Hermione flushed. "I was already over-budget," she said.

"Ah," Draco said understandingly. "Some even say that he taught Margaret Le Fay the basics of the Ways of the Nevernever, before she eventually surpassed him."

"Who?" Carol asked, puzzled.

"A wandless practitioner of great power and notoriety, infamous for her dealings with the Fae and the darker sorts of magical creatures," Draco said. "She died in childbirth. Her son, Harry Dresden –"

"We've met," Carol said.

"You have?"

"A couple of months ago," Carol said. "During the battle. He was with Wanda Maximoff, Harry's godmother."

"They're dating," Harry said, causing Hermione and Carol to jump as he arrived. "Hi guys. Hi Draco."

"Harry," Draco said, nodding, then paused as he eyed Bucky. "Sergeant Barnes," he said, somewhat more guardedly.

"Mister Malfoy," Bucky replied, and inclined his head politely. Draco, after a moment, returned the inclination.

Before Hermione could voice her puzzlement, Carol broke in.

"Jesus fucking Christ, do I have to put bells on you two?" she complained. "Clint and Natasha are bad enough. Would it kill you to make some noise when you move? Loki manages it."

"Probably," Bucky said dryly.

"Does this happen often?" Hermione asked in an undertone.

"Sometimes, in recent months," Jean-Paul replied in the same undertone. "Harry learns quickly. In this case, from Natasha. He has reason." He smirked as Hermione sighed. "And not merely the one you would suppose."

"Sorry," Harry said, a little embarrassed.

"Where's your shopping?" Carol asked.

"Sent home with some portkeys uncle Loki made me," Harry said. "Saves carrying it around."

"Smart," Carol said approvingly.

"I thought so too," Harry said. "Anyway, Dresden; he's her apprentice."

"Which one?" Hermione asked, puzzled. "Boyfriend or apprentice."

"Both," Harry said.

Hermione looked shocked, but Draco, after a moment of surprise, cocked his head, as if listening, then nodded. "It happens in the wandless tradition on a reasonably frequent basis, particularly in the West. The whole legend of Merlin and Nimue, inaccurate as it is, started somewhere after all." He shrugged. "They have much less of a coherent community and are thus more vulnerable to those beings that would use… intimacy to get to them."

"Well, that's enlightening," Carol said. "How was the wand shop?"

"Enlightening," Harry replied, with a smirk.

"Smartass," Carol said, rolling her eyes.

"Blame Tony," Harry said, then looked at her. Carol blinked, cocked her head as if listening, then nodded.

Hermione was puzzled.

"You're doing it again, mes chéris," Jean-Paul said, amused.

"Oh, sorry," both said, in perfect unison, before giving each other a funny look, and bursting out laughing.

"What…" Hermione began.

"They have developed a psychic connection," Jean-Paul said. "It means that sometimes, they slip into speaking telepathically without realising it." His tone turned wry. "Or when they simply do not want to be overheard." He smirked. "I am sure it is for entirely innocent reasons."

Both rolled their eyes at him, missing the fact that Draco was watching them with a surprised expression that was somehow too convincing to be real.

"Sorry," Harry said. "It's a habit we got into, because… long story."

Jean-Paul's smirk faded into something gentler, more serious, and when Hermione was about to enquire further, he laid a hand on her arm. "Some stories are told only when they are ready to be told," he said.

And that, it seemed, was the end of that.

OoOoO

However, it wasn't the end of the strangeness. Conversation swelled up around them like a bubble, comfortably containing all six of them – if one counted the mostly silent Bucky. But like all bubbles, it was ever at risk of being popped.

"And this," Draco said. "Is where the seers gather. Well, supposed seers. Almost all of them are charlatans, little better than Professor Trelawney."

"Professor who?" Carol asked.

"Professor Trelawney," Hermione said. "She's the Divination teacher at school, and a complete fraud."

"Not complete," Harry said quietly. "She's got real power."

Hermione looked confused for a moment, then sighed. "Harry, those Tarot cards of hers were just responding to you," she said. "She's also an accomplished cold reader, and –"

"A lot of what those cards said came true," Harry said quietly. "Some of it, she could just have been guessing. But she said that I would rush into a situation and pay the price. Not too long after that…" His hand rose and he rubbed his chest. "Well. That was exactly what happened. Another card, the Magician. It looked like Doctor Strange, who I hadn't met yet, and who Trelawney didn't recognise. It warned of manipulation, strings being pulled. It also said that I should embrace and tap into my full power." He glanced at Carol and Jean-Paul. "Sound familiar?"

"That is exactly what Doctor Strange said," Jean-Paul said, frowning. "And he is…"

"The String-Puller Supreme?" Carol suggested.

"Fairly much," Harry said. "And then there was another one, about a clash between good and evil, that I was going to be at the heart of."

"Also sounds familiar," Carol said.

Harry nodded. "And an unexpected happy event in my family… she could have been talking about Jean," he said.

"That seems to fit, mon cher," Jean-Paul said. "What were the others?"

Harry explained, and the other boy nodded slowly.

"A red star in a golden field," he said. "Interesting."

"Care to share with the class?" Carol asked.

Jean-Paul shook his head. "It could be nothing," he said. "After all, ma cherie, this was a prophecy aimed at Harry."

Hermione frowned.

"You don't really believe in divination, do you?" Draco said, looking at her.

"Well, no, it's so…"

"lllogical?" Bucky suggested dryly. "Magic often is. And seers are very real."

Hermione frowned. "With respect, Sergeant Barnes," she said. "How do you know?"

"I've met one or two," Bucky said. "Real seers, powerful seers, are incredibly rare. Trelawney's a real seer, with bucket loads of talent but very little control. Aside from things like that Tarot reading, she's made two real, solid prophecies that we know of." He nodded at Harry. "And they were both about him."

"One of them was why Voldemort went after my family when I was a baby," Harry said quietly.

"And the other?" Draco asked.

"She made it to me over the summer," Harry said. "Part of it has already come true." He snorted. "And naturally, it's a list of people wanting to kill me."

"I…" Hermione began, then shook her head. "Harry, I'm so sorry."

"Yeah, well, would life be like without a murder attempt here and there to liven things up?" Harry said with dark humour.

"Boring," Carol said. "Normal, but boring."

"Personally, I could happily go without," Jean-Paul remarked to Hermione. "But those two seem intent on having as many dances with Death as possible."

"I don't look for trouble," Harry said indignantly.

Jean-Paul and Draco raised identical eyebrows.

"… Much."

OoOoO

As they turned into Internation Alley, Draco began explaining the politics of the mystical world as opposed to the mundane one, with occasional interjections by Hermione.

The US and Canada, for instance, were historically a series of nations grouped together in loose and somewhat uneasy federation akin to the Iroquois Confederacy, with a mixture of primarily Native, Hispanic and North European influenced states in a constant state of flux, something driven by immigration, shifting demographics and mutual cultural influence. While the histories made a big deal about their differing origins, in reality, the cultural influences meant that they weren't so different as they liked to pretend. The black community also made its voice known, especially in the South and in the big cities.

More recently, this steady homogenisation had been somewhat forcefully accelerated by SHIELD, which had effectively forced them all together into something approaching a union.

Mexico and Central America were composed of more Hispanic states, with one or two pseudo-Aztec and pseudo-Maya ones thrown in, as well as any number of fiefdoms established by drug lords dabbling in the mystical. There, the influences mingled more freely, yet at the same time, they were all much more fractious, thanks to the Red Court of Vampires, which much preferred playing its various vassals off against one another to the possibility of facing a united front that decided it wanted to be top dog in the region. The picture was further complicated by the fact that the wandless community was taking the war between the White Council and the Red Court as an opportunity to deliver several centuries – even millennia – worth of payback, while the wanded one was trying to avoid getting involved or, sensing an upsetting of the apple cart, either scrambling to take advantage or actively impeding Council efforts.

South America was, naturally, a mixed bag, as might be expected when summarising an entire continent. On the highlands of the West coast, the Inca influence remained strong, while native peoples practising wandless shamanistic magic were common in the Amazon and other rainforests. Urbanised Latino populations, however, tended to mimic the wanded European model; albeit with a few twists.

Western Europe was an interesting situation – Britain was fairly obvious, the wanded community falling under the purview of the Ministry and the wandless under that of the Edinburgh based White Council. Ireland and France were similar due to the more centralised nature of their governments, though France had significantly greater regional differences. Spain was divided into the magical states of Aragon, Castille and Catalonia which consistently bickered over absolutely everything – much like their non-magical counterparts, while Italy was a wanded heartland, almost a miniature Roman Empire with a strangely Catholic bent. Sicily, Sardinia and Naples were under Aragonese authority – this, as Draco remarked, gave muggleborns and half-bloods something of a headache and that the Schengen Agreement was pushed for, and immediately copied by, the various magical states of Europe.

Northern Europe followed a more tribal and feudal model due to a relatively small population spread over a very large area, with the Sami peoples of the furthest north practising wandless shamanic magic. However, wanded magic held a significant sway, especially in Denmark, and the cities of the rest of Scandinavia, especially among the old noble families thanks to Durmstrang.

Central and Eastern Europe was a complex situation – as Carol remarked somewhat acerbically, "what else is new?"

Germany was semi-unified thanks to Grindelwald, Poland was – to the surprise of Carol and the others – a considerable power, despite having had to endure half a century of Communist rule. Nations like Bulgaria were independent, and Russia itself remained a pseudo Tsarist Empire (Communism, after a rocky period in relation to the legacy of Rasputin, didn't really change anything other than encouraging the witches and wizards of Russia to keep quiet, particularly with the advent of the Red Room) with regional power centres and a significant wandless tradition centred around Archangel.

Unsurprisingly, magic thrived in Latveria thanks to it being ruled by a de facto sorcerer-king in Victor Von Doom, and more militant purebloods gloated over his rule as a result, conveniently ignoring the fact that he was a half blood at most. Romani tribes were a notable magical presence in Latveria especially, thanks to its somewhat more tolerant atmosphere, as well as most points east. A number of Ottoman Emirates remained in the Balkans, albeit largely in name only. The Greeks, meanwhile, still sort of clung to the whole city state thing and apparently never shut up about it, while magically Greek communities were prevalent in the Aegean and on the coast of the Black Sea.

As for the Middle East… Sykes-Picot didn't even make a dent. The Magical Ottoman Empire was broadly intact, but far smaller than its muggle counterpart was and very heavily influenced by its predecessor, the Byzantine Empire, despite the fact that the latter fell over five centuries ago. As Hermione explained, longer lifespans and lower reproduction rates, plus general inertia, meant that wizarding societies changed rather slower than the rest of the world unless forced to. Magical Israel, meanwhile, was a bit less controversial simply because magical Jews never really left and immigrated to the Levant pretty much constantly, but perhaps inevitably, the position of Jerusalem was a touchy subject, and muggle politics were making it steadily more and more of an issue. Saudi Arabia and the related emirates were, due to their religious extremism, a bit of a magical dead zone, though some magical populations clustered around Mecca. Majlis al Jinn, meanwhile, was mentioned as a notable thin place in the Nevernever and Way Nexus.

Central Asia was an interesting story, actually thriving where its muggle counterpart was – to Westerners at least – a blank spot on the map only intermittently distinguished, and usually for all the wrong reasons. Samarkand, however, was the centre of an independent state and was thriving. Iran was the formerly thriving Kingdom of Persia, the Islamic Revolution leading to people hopping across muggle borders in the face of militant anti-magic fervour. Now, some were slowly coming back, but cautiously and in small numbers.

China has been unified for millennia, then abruptly stopped being unified after the last Emperor was deposed and the era of the warlords began. The Communist Party was apparently rectifying this by force.

Japan was unified and still rather xenophobic. North Korea's witches and wizards fled South as soon as they realised how crazy the new regime was and did their best to snatch muggleborns out from under the noses of the Kim regime. They weren't always successful and as a result, North Korea had a significant problem with Warlocks.

India, Kashmir, Pakistan and Bangladesh were composed of a series of powerful kingdoms, even more removed from muggle affairs than wizards in the West. Obsessive in pureblood sentiment and primarily wandless, as well as being advanced and monumentally self-centred, they seemed to view the muggle world as beneath their dignity, if not entirely beneath notice. Small but growing wanded communities originally founded via Roman/Byzantine/Arab/Persian trade contact fostered by colonial rule (the previously mentioned wandless didn't really care so long as they were left alone, which they broadly were), were therefore receiving new blood from muggleborns and half-bloods who tend to be ignored or ostracised by the purebloods.

As for the rest, South Asia consisted of prosperous kingdoms along the Indian model due to being in the same cultural orbit, while Thailand was surprisingly centralised, thanks to an enduring monarchy. North Africa had Carthage as a powerful state, while Bedouin handled their own affairs. Egypt was, unsurprisingly, centralised thanks to the lingering remnants of Nasser's iron grip.

Central Africa had a mixture of powerful states and decentralised shamanic practise, while wands were much more prevalent in coastal states, former colonies and urbanised areas. Wakanda was and remained the regional magical power in East Africa, and the influence of the former Wakandan Empire was felt in southern Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia (a powerful state itself) etc. The many small Kingdoms and Emirates of Nigeria were still independent. Southern Africa had a similar situation to the previous, while South Africa, now technically unified, had previously been in a kind of informal apartheid of the 'you leave us be, we leave you be' kind, separate states. 

Australia had Western style states on the coast, while the Aboriginal tribes used to practise wandless magic, some were now adopting wands brought by settlers. As for the rest of Oceania, the Maoris and Pacific Islanders maintain their own traditions and nations - though, again, the more Westernised and urbanised communities were increasingly inclined to try wands.

It was all rather dizzying, a blizzard of facts and figures, stories and legends, embroidered by the blinding displays of colour and variety in the national costumes and accoutrements of witches and wizards from around the world.

It was also where things ended, for time was limited and both Draco and Hermione needed to get back. In the former case, he sighed, bade them all farewell, and made his way over to the escort of well-disguised SHIELD Agents shadowing him, but not before he spoke to Harry.

It was a muted discussion, but clearly quite serious.

As for Hermione, she was a different story, before she left to join her parents in muggle London, she too found herself being drawn aside. This time, by Carol as Harry finished speaking to Draco, then turned to speak to Jean-Paul.

"Hermione," the other girl said. "I need your help. But first, you need to understand something, and I'm going to be blunt here because diplomacy? Not my strongpoint. And I think you'll appreciate honesty."

"Okay," Hermione said. "What is it?"

"Harry's a fighter, a hero. He thinks in a different way than you do."

"I know that," Hermione said, frowning.

"I don't think you do," Carol said. "I'm trying to say this in the nicest way possible, but you have absolutely no idea what he's capable of."

"Actually, I think I do," Hermione said, hackles rising. "He's one of my best friends and I think I know him better than you do."

"Yeah? Maybe you do, in most things," Carol admitted freely. "You've spent years at boarding school together, after all. I've known him for about nine months, most of which he's been at school with you. And a lot of the times when we actually met up, supervillains attacked or the world nearly ended. Which kind of leads into my next question: you may know him as he normally is, but when did you last see him in a crisis? When did you last see him fight?"

"Last year, when Hogwarts was attacked," Hermione said.

Carol eyed her thoughtfully, as if reassessing her. "Before or after he pulled a Jesus?"

"... After," Hermione admitted, not adding that it was the single most terrifying thing she had ever seen.

Carol nodded. "That wasn't him in the driving seat," she said.

"What?" Hermione asked, startled. She'd suspected, of course, what with the way Dumbledore had reacted and the sheer power on display… then again, Harry had demonstrated that he had no shortage of that. But to have it so bluntly confirmed. "Who was it? What was it?"

"That's for Harry to say," Carol said. "And he might not want to. It's a bit painful for him."

"It's about his mother, isn't it?" Hermione said. "Whatever she did that protected him from Voldemort, it protected him again."

"You're sharp," Carol said after a moment. "Scary sharp." She sighed. "Yeah, it's along those lines." She shook he head. "Anwyay. I've seen Harry fight, when it's actually him doing the fighting. And not just when he's fighting, when he's so angry that he comes out on the other side of rage. He gets cold, ruthless and, frankly, downright vicious. His normal morals go completely out the window. To give you one example, when we got into HYDRA's base last year, he switched HYDRA Agents off without blinking – not killed them, knocked them out," she added, at Hermione's suddenly horrified look. "Even so, I think you know as well as I do how he's normally really careful about not going in other people's heads without asking."

"He once told me that the very idea made him feel sick," Hermione said quietly. "It revolted him. And he's always been frightened of his telepathic powers."

Carol grimaced. "Yes and no," she said. "He's scared of them still, what they could do, but he's much more willing to use them. Use them for scary things, if he has to." She waved away Hermione's questions. "It's for him to tell, if he wants to – which he probably doesn't. Anyhow, during that fight I was talking about... it looked like I'd been killed by that necromancer, Gravemoss, and the others were in a bad way. This guy's a Loki level sorcerer, jacked up even further by the Darkhold and by our standards, got some serious physical superpowers. Plus, judging by how Diana reacted around him, there was something seriously off about his presence. Even I could feel something was wrong about him and I'm about as psychic as a turnip. All of that, Harry wouldn't stand a chance, right? He'd be crippled by the bad vibes before he could even move and if he did, he'd be destroyed."

"Right," Hermione said. It sounded like a logical conclusion.

"Well, he didn't. He got mad. He got mad and he reached in with his telekinesis and ripped Gravemoss' ribcage open and tore his heart out," Carol said.

Hermione stared at her in horror.

"It didn't stick, he freaked out a little afterwards, and there was more to it," Carol said. "But that doesn't matter. What matters is that he was capable of doing something like that. You've seen him fight to survive, maybe, or to save someone. That's all well and good. I've seen that too. But when someone he cares about is hurt, though, a switch flicks in his brain and something scary happens: the brakes come off and the darkness comes out to play. I've seen him fight to kill and let me tell that it is one of the most frightening things I have ever seen."

"I can imagine," Hermione said quietly.

Carol let out a mirthless laugh, a disturbingly old and cynical sound for a girl who couldn't be more than sixteen years old. "Trust me, Hermione, you can't," she said. "And that's a good thing, because that's not the sort of thing you want in your head." Her expression turned grave. "I may not have known him as long as you have, or for very long in the grand scheme of things, but Harry is my best friend. We've been through hell together. And... I trust him. That's not something I'm used to or very good at doing. Part of why I trust him is because that rage, it scares him even more than it does everyone else and he's working on controlling it, something he's actually pretty good at now, even though it's really fucking hard since he's a psychic and where those powers are concerned, thought pretty much equals action. But he tries. He tries so goddamn hard. He watches his own thoughts every moment of every day, second-guessing each and every single one, because he couldn't bear the thought of slipping up and hurting someone."

"Are you trying to scare me off?" Hermione asked. "Away from Harry? Because it won't work."

"Good, because I want the opposite, actually. I'm trying to say that there are things about Harry that you don't know and that there's a dark side to him," Carol said. "It's like... all the experiences that should have fucked him up horribly, everything from having his mom's murder as his first memory, his horrendous abuse by those Dursley assholes and all the insane things he's gone through, stuff that that I can't even find the words for, like all of it got distilled into something dark. Something dark that he keeps boxed up in the back of his mind, probably because it's the only way he managed to stay sane."

"Harry's a good person."

"Exactly. He is one of the sweetest, kindest and best people I've ever met, an adorable dork who would do literally anything for someone he didn't even know without even thinking twice," Carol said. "I'm telling you this because I want him to stay that way. Because he can't do it alone, even if he thinks he can. I watch his back, the same way he watches mine. We cover each other's blindspots. And I can't do that while he's at school. Because sometimes, his dark side gets out of its box and you need to be ready when it does."

Hermione was silent for a while. "I will," she said eventually. "But tell me one thing first: the way you talk about what's going on his mind… you seem very familiar with it. Did Harry tell you about it?"

Carol was silent for a long moment. "Not in so many words," she said eventually. "But he showed me a thing or two about himself. Same way I showed him a thing or two about me."

Hermione's eyes widened. Did she mean… No. She couldn't, they couldn't, have.

Then again, she thought, Harry was a very handsome young man these days, even though he wasn't entirely aware of it, tall, leanly muscular and looking at least three years older than he was, his uniquely green eyes, scar and the newly developed lock of white hair adding a layer of mystery that Hermione knew from observation was often considered attractive.

Carol, in her own way, was of much the same mould: tall, muscular but curved in ways that drew the eye of men and boys alike, with golden blonde hair and warm blue eyes that nevertheless carried a glint that warned that this was not a person to be trifled with. Like Harry, her appearance belied her age, even more than his did.

Hermione didn't doubt that most people missed the glint in her eye and saw, frankly, a sex object. She equally didn't doubt that a) Harry didn't see her that way, b) he noticed that glint and if anything, was drawn to it. As far as she could tell, Harry's magnetic attraction to danger extended to his taste in women. He'd certainly seemed particularly drawn to the very dangerous Betsy Braddock, and as she'd seen when she visited the Tower late last year, to the ridiculously dangerous Natasha Romanova.

This, combined with the sense that they were somehow older than their chronological and biological ages would suggest, that their experiences had aged them significantly, and the indefinable but definite bond that existed between them, so strong that they slipped into telepathic conversation by accident, the level of trust that had been implied, made her wonder. Previously, she'd marked them down as entirely platonic, but after the things they'd been through together…

"No."

That jolted Hermione out of her thoughts, to see Carol rolling her eyes, obviously irritated. "I'm sorry?" she asked.

"I know what you're thinking and the answer is no," Carol said. "We're just friends. When I said showed, I meant psychically." She glanced over at Harry. "I mean, yes, he is hot and the poor boy will not know what has hit him when he gets back to that school of yours because the girls will be all over him, but we're just friends."

Hermione nodded. "To be honest, they'd already noticed him last year," she said. "One moment, he was just Harry to them, the next…"

"Yeah, growth spurts will do that," Carol said, voice more than a little bitter. Hermione could only surmise that she was speaking from personal experience.

"They won't bother him, though," she said. "I'll make sure of that."

Carol eyed her, and grinned. "I bet you will," she said. "But like I said: Me and him? Just friends." She gave Hermione a quizzical look. "What about you two?"

"What? Me and Harry?" Hermione asked, startled, before entertaining the thought for a moment. A moment later, she burst into laughter. The very idea was absurd. "He's handsome enough, I suppose, but we'd drive each other mad," she said. "Besides, Harry only very rarely remembers that I'm actually a girl." She smiled. "Like you put it: just friends."

Carol nodded.

Hermione's mind, meanwhile, was one that was rarely at rest. So it latched onto her hypothesis of, for want of a better word, Harry's type and ran with it. The result was that while Harry did tend to be attracted to frightening women, if you took that logic to its inevitable conclusion, Harry would have fallen for Professor McGonagall some time ago. She smiled and shook her head. Well, if that wasn't a lesson not to jump to conclusions, she didn't know what was.

Carol cocked an eyebrow, and Hermione said, "Just a funny thought."

Carol nodded. "We all get those," she said, then stuck out a hand. "Nice meeting you, Hermione."

Hermione shook it. "And you, Carol."

OoOoO

After Harry said his goodbyes to Hermione, it transpired that he had been talking to Jean-Paul both verbally, about unimportant things, and psychically, about something else.

He'd had a thought, a sudden flash of inspiration, from out of the blue. So he'd talked to Jean-Paul about taking him somewhere, without Bucky, a place he'd been meaning to go: Little Whinging, the neighbourhood in which he'd grown up. It was, he said, to get some closure, and he intended on going alone.

However, predictably Carol insisted that he didn't go alone. Someone's got to watch your back, she said.

Carol, even if I did run into any of my childhood bullies and they tried anything, they wouldn't stand a chance, Harry said.

I know, Carol said. That's kind of my point.

Harry's expression closed off.

Look, Harry, you're going to be going back to the place where you spent the worst years of your life, Carol said. Which, if I'm honest, is most of it.

Harry snorted. True, he said. You think I might snap.

I think you'd have to be made of stone not to feel anything, and you'd have to be Natasha not to show it, Carol said. And I'm not coming along as your restaining bolt or whatever. Well, not mainly. Mainly, I'm coming along because… I don't think this is something you should put yourself through alone, no matter what masochistic instincts you have going. If you really don't want me along, fine. I'll stay behind. But… She reached out a hand. You don't have to do it alone.

Harry's expression softened as he looked at the hand. Then, he took it. "Thanks," he said quietly.

"You all ready to go?" Bucky asked, then smirked. "Or to do whatever you're planning."

All three maintained expressions of perfect innocence. Too perfect.

"Don't look so surprised," he began, then stopped. He didn't physically move, but his entire demeanour changed. One moment, there was a relaxed young man keeping an eye on his charges on a day out, the next moment, there was the Soldier.

"Bucky?" Harry asked.

"Go," Bucky said calmly. "Have your fun, then go back to the Tower. I've got something to take care of."

"We can help," Harry sad, looking him in the eye.

"Your standard weapon in combat is large energy blasts," Bucky said, without changing tone. "We're in a crowded street, full of people with magical powers. You cut loose, they'll panic, and soon a large chunk of London will be rubble. Again. Go. I'll handle this."

Harry grimaced, then exchanged looks with the others. "Fine," he said. "Jean-Paul."

And just like that, all three of them were gone. Bucky checked the bug he'd placed on Harry and nodded when he saw that they were heading out of the city.

"Okay, Victor," he said under his breath. "You want to play? I'll play."

Then, he checked his weapons and set off, while considering which one to use.

There was, after all, more than one way to skin a cat.

OoOoO

"What do you think that Bucky was going on about?" Carol asked, as soon as they stopped.

"I don't know," Harry said. "I didn't sense anything in particular. Of course, surrounded by lots of magical people and creatures and…" He made a face. "I wasn't looking."

"Creatures of great power usually have a distinctive mental presence, non?" Jean-Paul said. "Therefore, if you did not sense something out of the ordinary, it was not a being of great power."

"So Bucky can handle it," Carol said. "And he's taken on things big and bad enough to make your senses scream before, Harry. It's probably best we stayed back and let him work."

Harry nodded reluctantly. "We could have handled it," he said. "I mean, if it wasn't that powerful…"

"The Winter Soldier was not that powerful, and he nearly killed your father," Jean-Paul said bluntly. "And I believe that you did not sense him either, correct?"

Harry whirled on him, eyes blazing with anger. Jean-Paul held his gaze without blinking. After several long, tense moments, Harry subsided and nodded curtly. "You're right," he said.

"Wow," Carol said. "This place is so…" She looked around at the identical houses. "Normal."

"Yeah," Harry said quietly. "It is. Very normal. The people round here pride themselves on that. It's very normal, very quiet, and except for when Dudley's gang were playing 'Harry Hunting', very dull."

"You think anyone will recognise you?" Carol asked.

"I doubt it," Harry said. "Last time most of them saw me I was a foot shorter, thin and wearing glasses and Dudley's old clothes." His gaze swivelled up to the white locks. "And I didn't have those."

"You do look pretty different," Carol admitted. "Act different too."

"Really?"

"Yes," Jean-Paul said. "You are more confident. More willing to assert yourself. And your voice is rather deeper, too."

Harry grunted.

"What were you and Draco talking about, by the way?" Carol asked.

Harry was silent for a moment. "He knows," he said eventually.

"About what?"

Harry silently lifted the phoenix feather around his neck.

"Your mom?" Carol asked.

Harry shook his head. "Not in so many words," he said. "He knows about the Phoenix. He knows I have a bit of the Phoenix in me. I'm not sure what he knows about mum."

"Even so, how does he know?" Jean-Paul asked, frowning.

"Apparently, I'm not the only one with the Sight," Harry said. "Which isn't the most helpful thing to say, since most every wandless Wizard has it, along with every Asgardian mage and… you get the idea."

"Yeah, but isn't Draco wanded?" Carol asked.

"Yeah," Harry said. "That's what puzzled me. And his mind… it's shielded. Really, really tightly shielded. I was trying to pick up a stray thought or two, but I could barely even pick emotions."

"What did he want?" Carol asked.

"To let me know that he knew," Harry said. "And to be careful about using it, my Phoenix power."

"Wait, hang on, I thought that it was just a protection," Carol said.

"That's what I thought," Harry said. "But I tapped into it when Voldemort turned up."

"The giant firebird thing, huh? I should have guessed."

Harry shook his head. "No, that was just me," he said. "It was just before. Long story, Voldemort drew me, dad, and Tony into a clearing with the Dark Mark, a lot of Ministry witches and wizards too. It was chaos, everyone throwing everything at each other, while I was trying to protect Pepper in your body. And Voldemort nudged dad's mind, enough so that when he saw my psychic bubble go up, he lashed out. My shield wasn't going to be strong enough. But just as Mjolnir came down, I…" He shook his head. "It was like a fire in my mind. And suddenly, my shield went multi-coloured, Mjolnir hit it, and everything standing within a hundred yards suddenly wasn't, trees and all." He paused. "Also, my clothes went all red and gold and Phoenix shaped."

"Phoenix shaped?"

Harry grimaced. "It's hard to explain if you haven't seen it," he said. "They changed back afterwards."

"Mon dieu," Jean-Paul said quietly. "So, you can use the power of the Phoenix."

"I'm not sure how, maybe only when I'm in real danger, it's…" Harry said, then trailed off. "Yeah. Only a little bit. According to Draco, it's only a fragment, though how the hell he knows I have no idea. But yeah, I think so."

"That… is scary," Carol said. "I mean, no offence, but your powers are crazy strong enough to begin with."

"I know," Harry said unhappily. "Draco said that it was dangerous and that I shouldn't use it unless I really have to. Not just because it's hard to control, but because 'the power of the Phoenix isn't meant to touch the world for long in one place. Every use of it sends a ripple through the Astral Plane, opening cracks only barely closed, and opening doors that should never be opened.'"

"Well, that's creepy," Carol said.

"You say that he changed his outlook," Jean-Paul said suddenly. "Unexpectedly."

Harry nodded. "Just after dad came back," he said. "It was like he'd grown up overnight."

"So, he changed unexpectedly immediately after an event of great importance, he has an exceptionally well shielded mind, and he knows the Phoenix well," Jean-Paul said. "Far better than most, anyway." He looked grim. "I am getting a bad feeling, mes chéris, a very bad feeling."

"Aw no," Carol groaned. "Don't tell me you're thinking what I think you're thinking."

Jean-Paul nodded.

"Damn. I was getting to like the guy."

"There's no proof," Harry said, frowning unhappily. He'd come to like the new and improved Draco. The concept that someone else had simply taken his place and simply acted his way into Harry's good graces was not a pleasant one. "And why would he risk revealing himself to me, of all people?"

"I do not know about you, mon cher," Jean-Paul said. "But with all respect to your mother, if I knew what the Phoenix was capable of and I were in his shoes, I would risk breaking my cover over even the tiniest fragment of her power." He shrugged. "Assuming that it is a cover in the first place."

Harry's unhappy frown remained in place, but he nodded, conceding the logic of this. "I'll talk to dad and uncle Loki about it," he said.

Jean-Paul nodded. "Then if you will excuse me, mes chéris, I have an errand to attend to. I will be back in an hour."

And with that, he vanished in a blur of golden lightning.

"So," Carol said, after a moment. "This has been an interesting day."

Harry snorted. "Just a bit," he said. "You got on with Hermione?"

Carol nodded. "Yeah. Nice girl," she said. "Tougher than she seems. Maybe doesn't have your measure as well as she thinks she does."

Harry looked puzzled.

"She's never seen you in a fight," Carol said.

Harry opened his mouth.

"That thing with the troll doesn't count."

"She saw the fight at Easter, too," Harry said.

"Wait, what?"

Harry explained the entirety of 'the Pensieve Incident'.

"That… sounds horrendous," Carol said quietly. "God, the poor girl. And that Ron guy, too. That must have sucked beyond telling."

Harry nodded.

Carol squeezed his hand. "You know, this kind of proves what I was saying to her," she said. "About you. About your powers."

"What? That they're dangerous? That I'm dangerous?" Harry said bitterly.

Carol rolled her eyes. "No," she said. "That they're dangerous, yes, but that you know it, and that you work so hard to keep them in check, every second of every day. It's amazing, it really is."

Harry looked into her eyes and saw frank admiration, tempered with a fond irritation.

"It also shows how far you've come," she added. "I mean, from that, to performing emotional surgery on me."

"That didn't exactly turn out the way it was intended," Harry said.

Carol smiled. I don't mind, she said.

Harry couldn't stop the smile blooming on his face.

There's the smile Diana was talking about, Carol said. It really is kind of lovely, I can see what she meant. It makes you look like Jean, actually.

Really?

Uh-huh.

Your smile's pretty lovely too, Harry said. The real smile, I mean. Not the smirk.

There is nothing wrong with my smirk, Carol said defensively. Besides, you smirk too – you probably picked it up from Tony.

Or dad. Or Loki. Or Natasha. Or Clint. Or Darcy. Or Sirius. Or even Wanda. It's not like there's a shortage of candidates.

True, true.

By this point, they had reached the swings in the park, settling down on them.

"So," Carol said aloud. "Small, dull park. More of the same, I guess."

"Yeah," Harry said. "I first met Wanda around here."

"Oh?"

Harry nodded. "She kept an eye on me for a while," he said. "Tried to send me cards and presents. The cards all got torn up or burnt and the presents all went to Dudley or were chucked out."

Carol glowered. "The more I hear about these people, the more I want to make them suffer," she said.

"They're already suffering," Harry said. "Apparently. Loki was a bit sketchy on the details when I asked him. Director Fury handled it."

"Handled," Carol said slowly.

"They're alive," Harry said. "Or were when I last asked. I think Fury just locked them away somewhere nasty. Dudley went into foster care."

"I'm surprised he didn't," Carol began, then stopped.

"You're surprised Loki didn't kill them," Harry said quietly.

"Yeah. Sorry."

"I can't blame you. I was a bit surprised too," Harry said. "He said to me that he'd happily have done it. Dad was certainly considering it – Tony had to hold him back, in full armour, and talk him down. Personally, I think Loki just preferred to let them suffer for the rest of their lives."

There was silence.

"I wonder how Bucky's doing," Carol said.

"Probably fine," Harry said. "Bucky can handle himself."

Carol snorted. "There's the understatement of the century," she said, then looked up sharply.

"Carol?"

"Listen," she said.

Harry did, and he heard mocking jeers, carried on the late summer breeze. He closed his eyes briefly and extended his psychic senses, almost immediately detecting a group of minds, four oozing petty malice, one hurt and afraid.

"Come on," he said, setting off at a jog, Carol following. Barely a minute or two later, they found four boys their age surrounding a fifth, one notably smaller than the others. And with a jolt, Harry recognised them.

"Piers, Malcolm, Dennis and Gordon," he said. "Why am I not surprised?"

"You know these ass-clowns?" Carol asked, as the four turned, puzzled.

"Unfortunately," Harry said.

"Who the hell are you?" Piers asked, then leered at Carol. It only compounded his resemblance to a rat. "And who's your friend?"

"So not interested," Carol said contemptuously.

"Maybe I can change your mind," Piers said.

"I really doubt that," Carol said.

At that moment, the younger boy they'd been tormenting made a break for it, but was grabbed by Gordon.

"Let him go," Harry said.

"Or what?" Gordon asked

"I make you," Harry said.

"You've got some big balls on you," Piers said, striding over and trying to bully Harry backwards. Unfortunately, he was an inch shorter and thinner, so didn't quite manage it.

"And you've got terrible breath," Harry said.

Piers grabbed him by the front of his shirt. "Okay, I don't care who you are, but I think you should apologise, before you start having to pick up teeth."

"Interesting suggestion," Harry said, then moved in a blur. There was a crunch and Piers let out a cry of pain, clutching his nose. Harry had nutted him.

"Nice," Carol said. "Where did you learn that?"

"Sif," Harry said.

"Cool."

"Thanks," Harry said, then raised his voice as he sauntered forwards, Dudley's old gang watching him warily as their leader spat blood. It had been quite a comprehensive headbutt. "I suppose I can't blame you for not recognising me. Last time we met, I was a lot smaller. I didn't have white in my hair. I had glasses, too. And I was your old leader's favourite punching bag."

There was a long moment, then the blood began to drain from their faces – and in Piers' case, down their faces too.

Harry smiled a smile with lots of teeth and no humour. "Now, going by how much it was in the papers and the fact that you're all just about able to read, I think you know who I am. Who my dad is. Maybe you've even figured out why Dudley never laid a hand on me after I turned eleven."

"Y-y-you're not human," one of them managed.

"Half-human," Harry said. "On my mother's side. I'm still related to Dudley, more's the pity." He leaned against the wall, arms nonchalantly folded and legs crossed. "I've also got anger issues. Who knew? And hanging out with my family, their friends – you know, the Avengers – means that I've picked up a trick or three. So, unless you want me to work out those anger issues on you, you're going to let the kid go."

"Or what?" Gordon said, and sneered. "Maybe you got a bit bigger, but it's still four against one."

"Two," Carol said. "Though, honestly, I'm just inclined to sit back and watch him kick your asses. Do you know where to get popcorn round here?"

Her tone, though, was belied by her eyes, which were watching Harry carefully.

"I got a whole lot more than that," Harry said, and his eyes flashed. Gordon's hand released the boy's arm and flew up to punch himself in the face. The boy, eyes wide, scarpered.

"What the…" one of the others, Malcolm went, edging backwards.

"You're a freak," Piers managed, through bloodied lips and a broken nose. "Just like Dudley and his mum and dad always said. A freak!"

"A freak with about ten years worth of punching bottled up and superpowers," Harry said. "Whereas you're the one who always held people's arms behind their backs for Dudley to punch. Never did it yourself, never looked anyone in the eye, you were always the small one, the one with the ideas, the one they kept around because you had more imagination than they did and you made yourself useful. You're a coward, Piers, you always have been."

Piers let out a yell of anger that turned into a wheezing whimper, as Harry easily blocked his wild haymaker and delievered a hammer blow into his plexus, then kicked his ankles out from under him, dropping him like a sack of potatoes.

"Stay down," Harry advised.

Piers glared at him, then looked at the others. "Guys," he hissed. "What are you waiting for?"

The others, large, bulky boys, all Harry's height or taller, and most definitely wider, hesitated.

Harry smirked and beckoned. He was starting to enjoy this. "Come on," he said. "Tell you what, I'll make it fair. I won't even use my powers."

After another moment, they charged.

Normally, three against one is something that will end very badly for the one, especially if the three have some faint knowledge of teamwork. This one, however, was a good deal stronger than any of the three, a trained fighter, and much, much faster.

So in the end, the fight was swift, savage and very one sided. One wild punch caught Harry on the cheek, but the puncher, Malcolm, caught a knee to the stomach and a punch to the eye. Gordon took an elbow in the throat. Dennis was most unfortunate, since Harry hit him with the nearest thing that came to hand – Piers.

Less than a minute had passed, and Harry, bloody knuckled, slightly bruised and barely breathing hard, was the only one left standing. Dudley's gang, his childhood tormentors were in a groaning heap on the floor.

It wasn't a satisfying as he'd expected, as he'd hoped. Once, he'd have loved to be able to do this. Not out of any real desire to make them suffer. He just wanted, like most bullied kids, to turn the tables. Just once. Now, having fought monsters and murderers, dark lords and demon gods, it just felt… kind of pointless, really.

Admittedly, even now he'd still dearly love to go a few rounds with Dudley, because some scars didn't fade that fast. But this lot… all they'd ever been were the me-too-ists, the ones who'd followed Dudley because he was the biggest, strongest and thickest bully in the area. The only real reason they were still bullying now was because that was all they really knew how to do, the only way they could feel like big, strong men. It was kind of pathetic really.

"They're not worth it," he said aloud.

"You're right," Carol said.

"Why didn't you step in?"

"Because you weren't doing anything permanent and I figure that assholes like this could do with being given a taste of their own medicine," Carol said.

Harry nodded. "It won't change them, though," he said. "It won't make them better. I found that out with the Ravenclaws. With Luna."

Carol put a hand on his shoulder. "Yeah," she said. "There's not much you can do about that."

Harry paused. "Maybe I can," he said slowly.

"Harry?" Carol asked carefully. "Are you doing what I think you're doing?"

"I'm not rewriting brains," Harry said. "Just…" He hauled up Piers, who groaned and focused on him, then cringed, expecting another beating.

"Look at me," Harry said, voice echoing with command. Piers did. "You are an arsehole," Harry said, voice still still strange, but with different, subtler harmonics.

"I am an arsehole," Piers repeated tonelessly.

"You will stop picking on other people."

"I will stop picking on other people."

"You will go home and rethink your life and be a better person."

"I will go home and rethink my life and be a better person."

Harry then turned to the others. "You will all do the same."

"We will all do the same," the other three mumbled, in that same toneless voice.

Harry nodded. "Good," he said, voice normal again. "Now go. And take your mates with you."

Piers nodded, and started dragging the rest of Dudley's old gang upright.

"Jedi mind trick," Carol said, tone neutral. "Cute."

Harry nodded. "More a strong suggestion than a command," he said. "Maybe they will change. Maybe they won't. It's up to them." He shrugged. "But at the very least, it should make them a little less inclined to go around beating up little kids for the next couple of weeks."

"I'd have thought that having the crap kicked out of them would do that," Carol said, watching them go.

Harry turned to her. "You don't think it was the right thing to do?" he asked. "It's just… well, I tried the beating people up approach on the Ravenclaws. Their Quidditch team, to be exact. But it didn't make them stop what they were doing with Luna, hiding her stuff. It just made them hide it better." He watched Dudley's old gang stagger away. "Same thing would have happened here. So… Jedi mind trick. Non-invasive, just, you know, a suggestion."

Carol watched him for a moment, then smiled. "And you wonder why I say you're basically Luke Skywalker," she said, linking arms with him.

"I am not."

"Oh, you so are."

OoOoO

Such lightness could not last forever.

As the hour wound down, and they wandered along the streets of Little Whinging, passing Harry's old school and heading towards the doctor's surgery.

"I'm guessing you saw the inside of that a lot," Carol said.

"Not as much as you might think," Harry said. "Though the doctor, Doctor Milbury, was nice."

"Milbury," Carol said, and snorted.

Harry frowned.

"Sorry," Carol said. "It's just, seriously, can you sound any more posh English?" She saw Harry's expression. "Sorry."

Harry nodded. "He talked to me a lot," he said. "Didn't just ignore the bruises and stuff like everyone else did. He was pretty serious about his check-ups, actually. And he gave me sweets. Dudley ate them, of course, but it was the thought that counted."

"Why'd he never report it to social services?" Carol asked.

"Maybe he did," Harry said. "He disappeared before I started Hogwarts."

"You think that he asked too many questions and the big bad telepath disappeared him?"

"Maybe," Harry said grimly. "Or… maybe not."

"What makes you think that?"

"Well, the fact that he's walking towards us is a definite clue."

"Huh," Carol said, and eyed the man walking towards them. He was a well-dressed man in his early fifties, with greying dark hair, brown eyes and an astonished expression.

"Harry?" he said. "Is that you?"

"Doctor Milbury," Harry said, shaking his hand.

"I knew it was you," Milbury said in a rush. He looked nervous. "When I saw you, just now. I thought that it couldn't be, that you'd never come back here – after all, why would you? This is fortuitous, very fortuitous indeed." He turned to Carol. "And who is your friend?"

"Carol," she said, shaking his hand. "Carol Danvers."

A spark of interest seemed to appear in his eyes, before vanishing. "Lovely to meet you," he said.

"Likewise," she said. "Why did you say that it was fortuitous? Isn't that British for lucky?"

"It is," Milbury said, before flicking glances left and right. He was definitely nervous.

"Doctor Milbury," Harry said. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," Milbury said. "Just fine. I –" He stopped. "Perhaps we should talk inside."

Harry and Carol exchanged a look, then followed him into the surgery, and into one of the offices. "Are you working here again, doctor?" Harry asked.

"Oh, no, just collecting a few files," Milbury said. "A few pieces of data. One or two things that I managed to hide."

"Hide?" Carol asked.

"The telepath," Harry said quietly. "That's why you left. They came after you."

Milbury started. "You know?" he asked, then shook his head. "Of course you would, a psychic as powerful as you, it would be impossible to conceal it forever."

"You know I'm a psychic?" Harry asked, surprised.

"Of course," Milbury said. "I've known for a very long time that you had the potential, and now, well…" He let out a strained chuckle. "It's like standing next to a generator, no, a nuclear reactor!"

"You're a psychic?" Harry asked, astonished.

"Makes sense," Carol remarked. "If you're going to try dodge a psychic, it probably helps to be one in the first place."

"Quite, Miss Danvers," Milbury said, rummaging through the back of his filing cabinet. He picked at the back of the drawer for a moment, before a panel came away, revealing… nothing. "Ah, here we are," he said. Then, he pressed a hand to the panel, and suddenly, part of the wall slid away, to reveal an alcove, containing several files.

"What are these?" Harry asked, as Milbury pulled them out.

"My medical data on you, Harry," Milbury said. "Complete with analysis of your M-Gene, which allows you to perform magic, your X-Gene, which gives you your psychic abilities and, well…" He looked down at the files and lowered his voice to a whisper. "I even believe that I isolated the traits that you have inherited from your father. That make you Asgardian."

"I… I didn't show any sign of dad's side of things until last year," Harry said, frowning.

"Nothing overt, perhaps," Milbury said. "But there were little things, here and there. You healed faster than most boys would in your position, more than can simply be ascribed to magic. You were a little tougher, too, quicker. And, well." He smiled. "DNA does not lie, even when it is the DNA of a demigod."

"Harry's dad was mortal when Harry was, you know, made," Carol said. "And not just stripped of his powers, but in an actual mortal body. Doesn't that change things a little?"

"It does," Milbury said. "Which makes this research so important."

"Why?" Harry asked.

"Because, Harry, it, combined with further analysis of your current state, could contain the secret to something that makes the super soldier serum look like a play thing," Milbury said, excited and nervous at the same time. "A road-map of the process in which someone entirely mortal steadily becomes a god." He poked Harry in the chest. "The secrets to understanding divinity is in you, Harry."

There was a long moment of silence.

"I'm guessing that that's what the telepath wanted," Harry said eventually, voice quiet. "That's why they kept me here. So they could study me. That's what that lab was for, to find out what made me tick."

"Not entirely," Milbury said. "I think that the interaction of your M-Gene and your X-Gene was also of interest, let alone the complexities of how those factors interacted with your incipient divinity. Your psychic abilities alone, and their development as compared to those of your cousin, provide enough material for a lifetime of papers."

"Back off the scientific obsession, doc," Carol said. "Harry?"

Harry had frozen, staring at Milbury. "How did you know that my cousin was a psychic?" he asked quietly.

"Well, you mentioned her," Milbury said. "Mentioned what she did to your other cousin, Dudley, even if you did elide the details somewhat. As a psychic myself, I could hardly miss it."

"No," Harry said slowly. "I didn't tell you. The next day, after she left, I forgot she even existed for years afterwards."

"Maybe your aunt and uncle, then," Milbury said.

"No, they didn't take Dudley to hospital, I remember that much," Harry said slowly, advancing on Milbury. "They were scared of having to explain what happened, of looking mad. They wouldn't have told anyone. Unless…" His eyes narrowed. "You did house calls, didn't you, Doctor Milbury. If that's even your real name. You're not here by chance, are you? Somehow, you knew that I was coming."

Milbury's expression had been even more nervous and deeply confused. Then, the expression simply vanished, fading away to be replaced by one of cool detachment. He nodded. "I made sure that you did," he said. "That thought, that sudden inspiration to come here. Don't you wonder where it came from?"

Harry's blood ran cold.

"I have invested a lot of time and effort into you over the years, Harry," Milbury said. "I will not see it wasted."

Carol struck without warning, putting all her super soldier derived power behind a punch that would have smashed through concrete.

Milbury caught it without even looking away from Harry, responding with a swift and savage punch of his own, one that dropped Carol like a ton of bricks.

"Just because I disdain physical combat," he said coolly. "Does not mean that I am not good at it."

Harry snarled and lashed out with a psychic blast that should have torn Milbury's mind to shreds. Instead, it was batted away by another mind, with almost contemptuous ease.

As Harry whirled to face the new presence, the new and strangely familiar mind, Milbury remarked, "And just because I am here does not mean that I am here alone."

The new presence emerged, and Harry stared in shock.

"Jean?" he whispered.

Then, she reached past his defences with a tendril of blue-white power, as easy as breathing, and sent him to sleep.

"It's done, Doctor Essex," he heard her say, as everything faded away.

Then, all was darkness.