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Operation Witch Hunt

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“I think you're seriously repressed. You need to get laid.”

 

Hermione Granger looked up from the stack of research papers she was buried deep under and winced as Darcy dragged a seat from a table nearby closer. She cast apologetic glances at the people around them, seeing as Darcy seemed unaffected by the reproachful stares she garnered from the other patrons of the cafe; nor by the interested looks some men were now shooting their way. 

 

Honestly, the woman knew no shame and it showed.

 

Hermione sighed, reluctantly setting her reading material down to face the interloper helping herself to a plate of toast and raspberry jam. In the short time she'd known Darcy Lewis, Hermione had been quick to realise that nothing short of casting a silencing charm stopped her colleague from commenting on everything she came across. 

 

“Hullo to you, too, Darcy. Fancy getting any louder? I don't believe the blokes up in Scotland could quite hear you.”

 

The dry comment, however, slid off Darcy like ducks did on water. 

 

“I mean, I know you're one of our new assistants and everything, and I know that Jane absolutely loves you, but don't you ever do anything besides read?” Darcy complained as she bit into the toast. “I've literally never seen you do anything else outside of lab work.”

 

Hermione shrugged and took a sip of her tea, wincing when she found that it had cooled. “I'm just reading up on Dr. Foster's latest findings on the activities after the Convergence,” she said. “I have to stay on top of things if I'm to be of any help, after all.”

 

Darcy tutted with a roll of her eyes. “You don't need to know everything that's going on to be good at your job; I mean look at me!” She picked up the teapot and waved exaggeratedly at the server across the room, nodding and mouthing for another pot before she turned back to Hermione. “Look, I'm just saying you need to live a little, have some fun, find a man, go have a quick, what do you Brits call it – a shag !”

 

An old couple at the table next to them shot them aghast looks. Hermione rubbed at her temples while also trying to cover her face with that same hand, feeling the stirrings of embarrassment start to crawl up her cheeks. Was it just because Darcy was American that she was so loud and so unaware? No, probably not. It was just because she was Darcy.

 

“Not everyone of us has their own intern who can flick their bean off anytime in the back room, Darcy,” she muttered.

 

“And that's why you should find one, too!” Darcy made a show of surveying the room and called to a cute blond-haired bloke sitting with a large mug of coffee two tables down. “Hey, you! You're cute, hi! Would you mind showing my friend here a good time?”

 

The young man looked slightly surprised at being spoken to, but whatever response he might have given was interrupted by a fuming Hermione.

 

Darcy! ” she hissed, grabbing at the American woman's forearm and leaning forward. “What are you doing here? I'm not supposed to be at the lab until tomorrow morning. It's my day off.” 

 

Exactly! It's your day off but you're here...reading about work!” Darcy gestured at the mountainous pile of papers beside her. “Ever heard of work-life balance, Hermione?”

 

Hermione took a deep breath and exhaled slowly as she leaned back into her seat. “Apparently, I haven't.”

 

The server came to their table to set another pot of tea for them and Hermione took the time to regard her colleague at the University of London with more graciousness than she cared for at the moment. She knew what Darcy was trying to say in her own obnoxious way. If anything, considering they'd only known each other for less than a year now, the fact that Darcy cared enough to go out of her way to point out Hermione's not-quite-uncommon research spirals to her was a testament to how observant and thoughtful Darcy could be. 

 

International cooperation was not something Hermione had done often while working for the Ministry of Magic, but she had to admit that working with Dr. Jane Foster, Darcy and several international intellectuals in astrophysics was an eye-opening experience. Darcy, in particular, had welcomed her with open arms, and ever since she had arrived into this strange world without magic roughly two years ago, lost, confused and scared out of her mind, Darcy's friendly face had always been a welcome sight, even when she was at her most trying. 

 

Most days, Hermione appreciated her friend's efforts, even if it was to embarrass her rather thoroughly at her favourite café. After all, there was no one else in this world who would do so for her otherwise. Not when there were no Harry and Ron here.

 

Swallowing down the bout of emotions that always came with her thoughts of home, Hermione pushed the plate of toast to Darcy's side of the table. Darcy helped herself to some tea, dumping copious amounts of sugar and milk into it.

 

Hermione grimaced at the unsystematic ruination of good tea. 

 

“What?” Darcy asked defensively. “Your British tea is the blandest thing I've ever tasted, and you all just chug it down like water!”

 

“And that, Darcy, is the reason why the British don't like you Americans,” Hermione commented lightly before catching a passing server's eye and gesturing for the bill. She was obviously not going to get anything done today, not if Darcy had anything to say about it.

 

“Oh, you mean it's not because our forefathers kicked your redcoat butts centuries ago?”

 


 

The ensuing day spent with Darcy went about as well as could be expected when one was dealing with an outspoken yet fairly oblivious individual. Hermione found her to be equal parts amusing and exasperating at the same time, but as they walked at a sedate pace through Hyde Park together, discussing the shocking incident in Sokovia and the legion of evil robots that had overrun the country mere months ago, Hermione decided that Darcy was, in fact, not at all bad company, despite her earlier misgivings.

 

When Hermione had been sent out to the Forbidden Forest for field work with the new intern Reuben Smith to investigate the unexplained disappearances of a pair of centaurs, the last thing she had expected was to be transported into another universe entirely, much less into one where not only did her type of magic did not exist, but one that instead had Norse gods, alien invasions and high-tech evil super-intelligent robots. 

 

If she hadn't seen the devastation in Sokovia in the telly, Hermione wouldn't have believed it. For all that she was an actual witch, the things she'd seen and read in this universe seemed far more fantastical than anything she'd experienced.

 

“Lucky we have the Avengers around, right?” Darcy was saying, “or else we'd have all gone ka-blewy!”

 

Ah, yes, the Avengers. This Earth's mightiest superheroes. Actual enhanced individuals who used their unique abilities to protect the world from the threat of external destruction. 

 

Hermione wondered how Harry would have reacted to hearing such people existed. Ron for sure would have thought it all bonkers. She stifled a giggle at the thought of the redhead's flabbergasted face as Darcy continued.

 

“It's too bad Jane broke up with Thor, or we could have asked what really happened down there.”

 

“Dr. Foster and the god of thunder broke up?” Hermione asked, actually curious, despite herself. As one of the newer assistants to join Dr. Foster's team, she and Dr. Foster had a relatively professional relationship and so wasn't privy to all the happenings of her private life.

 

“Oh, wait.” Darcy paused mid-stride, looking sheepish. “Was I allowed to tell you that? I... probably shouldn't have told you that.”

 

“It's all right, Darcy,” Hermione said placatingly with a sideways smile. “I'll hardly go and tell anyone. With how famous Dr. Foster is, I'm sure it's bound to be public soon enough.”

 

Besides, she abhorred celebrity gossip, especially as someone who had taken the brunt of all that vitriol before.

 

“You're probably right.” Darcy responded with a sigh. “You'd have liked Thor, though. He's all muscully and kind of a beef-head.”

 

Hermione wrinkled her nose at that. With that kind of description, she highly doubted it.

 

Their discussion soon veered towards the other Avengers, from Captain America – all star spangled and blue – to the Hulk – pretty big, angry and green – and Tony Stark – multimillionaire, engineering genius. Hermione was of the opinion that having superheroes to protect the world was incredible, but she sympathised with how burdened they must have felt whenever the fate of the world rested only on their shoulders. It had certainly felt that way for her during the Second Wizarding War.

 

As they reached the end of Hyde Park, Darcy and Hermione went their separate ways home. Darcy loped off to find the bus stop with a wave and a reminder to relax and find someone to shag. 

 

“Remember, your lady parts need attention, too!” Darcy reminded as a parting shot.

 

Hermione shook her head before turning back into the park, looking for a quiet place among a grove of trees to Apparate home, away from any CCTV cameras; those bloody things were everywhere! As she headed for her usual spot for Apparation hidden between the trees, a sudden cold wash of dread she hadn't felt in a long, long time trickled down her spine. She was being watched, stalked.

 

Hermione paused for a beat, momentarily confused. It had been years since she'd fought in the war, and Moody would be disappointed to learn that she was not as constantly vigilant, but a human's primal instincts of self-preservation were rarely wrong. The question was...who were they?

 

Death Eaters? No, there were no magical people in this world besides herself, of that she was sure. Muggers, then? 

 

Hermione kept her right hand loose at her side, the other hitching the tote bag containing Dr. Foster's research up her shoulder, as she contemplated on what to do. Her wand was strapped in a disillusioned holster at her right arm; it would be easy enough to whip it out and stun them. 

 

The question was their number. How many would they be? She knew that thieves often worked in groups of mostly two. Would it be safe to assume she was only dealing with a pair of unsavoury youngsters?

 

When she reached the cover of the trees, Hermione found one of them waiting for her dressed all in black. And a rather sinister looking gun clutched in his hand.

 

Hermione stepped back, unable to stop herself from gawking. She'd never seen a gun up close before, and they looked far more intimidating than they did on the telly.

 

A crunch of footsteps behind her told her of the arrival of a second...a third.

 

...and a fourth.

 

Shite .

 

Hermione looked over her shoulder, finding herself surrounded by four armed men in full-body dark tactical gear. Hermione’s mind raced, icy tendrils of trepidation shooting down her spine.

 

These men were not normal street thugs. They looked far too professional. It was in the way they stalked out of the shadows with barely a sound, in the way they held their stance. They moved in on her with an organised efficiency that spoke of years of training.

 

They looked like killers .

 

Would a spell beat a speeding bullet? 

 

Not at this distance.

 

Making a quick decision, Hermione made to bolt in the other direction and push past one of the men behind her, hand poised to retrieve her wand. 

 

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Miss Granger,” the big burly man in front of her warned gruffly, as he side-stepped to block her path, his gun raised ominously. “Come quietly and we won’t hurt you.”

 

“Who are you?” There was a slight tremor in her voice, belying the fear and confusion she felt, and Hermione inwardly cursed at allowing herself to look affected. She’d faced Death Eaters before, dammit! “What do you want?”

 

“No one you should know about. At least not yet.” Her would-be kidnapper nodded at his companions, two of which moved forward to grab her arms. 

 

“I don’t make it a habit of running off with strangers,” Hermione responded tartly as she ripped her right arm from one of the brutes. The other grabbed her by her left shoulder, forcing her to stay in place. 

 

With adrenaline pumping through her veins, Hermione bent low and grabbed the leg of the kidnapper behind her, pulled the appendage up between her bent knees and threw her entire weight back against his chest, sending both of them crashing hard on the ground, her assailant taking the brunt of it. Quickly rolling off the ground, Hermione found another one already on her before she could even feel the satisfaction of bringing a man twice her size to the ground, roughly seizing her by her left forearms and tried hauling her from the ground. 

 

“Let go!”

 

With barely any time to gasp in pain at his manhandling, she flicked her right wrist, freeing her wand from her holster, but before she could cast a silent Stunner on him, her assailant let out a wet gurgle. Hermione's eyes widened when she saw blood drip from his mouth and he fell to his knees, releasing her from his death grip, his eyes just as surprised as hers. 

 

Her attacker toppled to the ground with a dull thud. 

 

There was another loud and wet squelch and the man Hermione had toppled over dropped back to the ground with a dull thud. 

 

Openly gawking at the morbid scene before her now, Hermione was momentarily struck speechless at the sight of another man in a black leather jacket and a dark blue baseball cap, emerging from the shadows, smoothly maneuvering an enormous gun as he walked methodically towards them, his aim clearly directed at her attackers.

 

Both of her remaining assailants dodged the bullets flying towards them, rolling to the ground and then rushing at him in a double assault. The newcomer expertly blocked and parried their punches, returning every punch dealt his way, and then some.

 

Coming back to her senses, Hermione turned and made to run, leaving the squabbling men behind, but she hesitated, indecision warring inside her. Should she help him? Could she trust him?

 

Meanwhile, the struggle between the three combatants continued, and even outnumbered, the newcomer held his own until the big guy from before managed to get him in a chokehold. Then he nodded in her direction to his partner.

 

“Get her,” he grunted.

 

The other attacker nodded and rushed towards her.

 

Out of options, Hermione instinctively ran the other way at full speed. She needed distance, away from onlookers, away from any eyes that might see her do magic. Gripping her wand firmly in her hand, she ran further into the trees instead of out into the open park. Once she was at a good distance, she’d stun the oaf so hard he would not wake for a week!

 

Close behind her, her pursuer dogged her heels like a bloodhound. He was gaining in on her fast, and Hermione cursed at her abominable stamina, her lungs already winded and hurting. Unable to run anymore, she darted behind a tree, feeling the wind rush against her arm, his hand just mere inches away as he tried to grab at her. 

 

Hermione immediately circled back around the trunk and caught the man with the most powerful Stunner she could muster squarely at his back. “ Stupefy Duo!

 

The brute dropped like a ton of bricks, knocked out cold.

 

Winded and suddenly weak from all the adrenaline, Hermione slid to the ground in relief, sweaty and panting. She hadn’t felt this winded since the Second Wizarding War. Peace, age and comfort had definitely not done her athleticism (what little she had of it already) any favours.

 

Before she could gather herself enough to ask the necessary questions and piece anything together, however, the sound of approaching footsteps had her scrambling to her feet and clutching at her wand in a death grip. The man in a baseball hat walked purposely towards her, his enormous gun slung across his back, his eyes shadowed beneath the brim of his hat. 

 

Hermione stepped back, wary and unsure of what to make of him, but he was undeterred by her uncertainty of him and he pressed on, until he grabbed her by her arm and pulled her along without so much as a by your leave. 

 

“Hey! Let—” Hermione resisted, digging her heels into the ground, her wand at the ready.

 

“Run.” The man hissed abruptly as he turned back to her, his voice low and hoarse like he hadn’t spoken in a long time. His eyes bore into hers with an intensity that took her breath away. “More of them are coming.”

 

True to his words, the sounds of thundering footsteps rumbled behind them. Hermione turned and gaped at the half a dozen armed men barrelling towards them like a herd of angry hippogriffs.

 

“Come on!” The man pulled her along, urging her forward with a firm grip on her arm.

 

Hermione didn’t need to be told twice. Her lungs protested further exertion, but she pushed through her fatigue and ran with the stranger helping her as he practically dragged her along behind him so she could keep up with his longer strides. 

 

“Who are those men?!” she practically shrieked as they stumbled out of the trees and out into the open. They raced through the park, dodging the people milling about and enjoying their evening stroll as they tried to lose their pursuers, who had no qualms about pushing people out of their way and leaving a trail of wreckage and bruised passersby behind. 

 

“People you don’t want getting their hands on you,” was the stranger’s curt response.

 

And then the shooting started. And the revving motorbikes.

 

Hermione’s heart dropped. 

 

Shrieks of panic broke out as the crowd in the park spread and dispersed. It was absolute chaos. 

 

Bloody hell! she thought, aghast, flinching every time a bullet flew too close and hit its mark at her feet, making debris of sand, grass or pavement fly at the force of its impact. She could hear the motorbike engines gaining on them, faster and faster, until she practically saw them flying past her from the corner of her eyes. 

 

A split second later, two motorbikes veered around and came into view in front of them, effectively cutting their escape route off. And then they were rushing towards them. At full speed.

 

Hermione nearly ground to a halt, if it weren’t for the strange man’s relentless grip on her arm. At the sight of their pursuers in front of them, he had brought them to a slower pace, but even when they were clearly out-maneuvered and outgunned, the stranger never broke his stride and pulled her along forward...right toward the oncoming motorbikes! There was nothing she could do but stumble along behind him, his hold on her too firm, her panic rising as the bikes drew closer and closer.

 

They were insane!



He was insane!

 

“Stay back!” he warned her as he finally let her go.

 

Before Hermione could find her words — to protest or otherwise, she wasn’t sure — he swung the gun he’d slung over his shoulder smoothly in front of him and with methodical precision, shot once, twice at the driver of the bike coming at their left. 

 

Both shots hit their mark and the driver was sent flying off his bike and crashing into the ground, most likely unconscious...or dead.

 

Not even a second later, the remaining motorbike drew close enough for the stranger to actually reach over the driver and grabbed him by his shirt, where he physically hauled the man off his seat and sent him literally vaulting him through the air like an unwanted piece of rubbish...which in Hermione’s opinion, he was. 

 

Free of its rider, the stranger caught the motorbike mid-run and swung himself onto it in one swift motion that was almost graceful.

 

Hermione gaped.  

 

The stranger, seemingly still as cool as a cucumber — he still even had his stupid hat on! —  drove over and stopped right in front of her. “Get on!” he ordered.

 

Hermione gave him a look like he was insane. “That thing is a death trap.”

 

The man gave her a faint wry smile and nodded towards the rest of their pursuers running on foot just mere metres away from them. He revved up his engine. “You’ve got death waiting for you right here, doll.” 

 

Chapter Text

After racing through the streets of London on the stolen motorbike and leaving the chaos at Hyde Park behind, Hermione and her mysterious saviour found themselves in an old, unoccupied warehouse on the outskirts of the city. As far as places of refuge went, it wasn't very original, but it was better than being hunted down out in the open. 

 

Despite being seemingly abandoned, the warehouse itself was enormous, if a bit...rundown, with an equally spacious parking space in front. Surrounding the area were wired security gates that hung on its hinges. Whatever the property had been used for, Hermione surmised that large trucks were the vehicles that frequently saw the place. 

 

Hermione stood by the window, peeking out into the entrance of the premises, anxious of having been followed. She didn't know who those men were and what they wanted, but she knew it was in her best interest to stay as far away from them as possible. 

 

And speaking of dangerous…

 

Hermione turned back to her mysterious saviour, watching as he fiddled with the motorbike he'd quite literally snatched from right under their attacker's arse with undisguised curiosity. He had come out of nowhere, and for whatever reason, he’d saved her from those…thugs? Mercenaries? Assassins?

 

Hermione had absolutely no idea what was going on and why, but she had a feeling her mysterious man knew; she’d just have to ask him. 

 

Or read his mind, she added as an afterthought, but she hated using Legilimens unless absolutely necessary. She retained a strict rule on the use of Legilimens , and it was only usually reserved for rampaging or uncommunicative beasts out on the field. Hermione had no idea if she could trust him, but if he’d brought her this far without hurting her, she was at least assured enough in the knowledge that he wouldn’t attack her unprovoked. 

 

Taking a deep breath, she ran her thumb along the familiar carvings of her wand handle, drawing comfort from its presence. If worse came to worst, she could always Apparate immediately out of there and into the safety of her little house in Grays, leaving all this madness behind. She’d been reluctant to use her magic out in the open, particularly when this world’s government seemed to be hyper vigilant about such anomalies, but here, in the privacy of a secluded building, she could make her escape without much trouble. 

 

But first she needed answers.

 

Coming to a decision, Hermione took two steps towards the man cautiously, her wand held loosely at her side, at the ready.

 

“What are you doing?” she ended up asking first.

 

The stranger glanced up at her, his eyes shadowed under the hat he was still wearing, his gloved hands preoccupied with the pair of pliers he held. The outer layers of the motorbike’s engine had been stripped away, revealing a mess of electrical wiring that Hermione couldn’t even begin to make sense of. “Disabling the tracker,” he responded, his voice calm and gravelly, “They know we're here; we won't be able to stay here long.”

 

“For how long?”

 

He shrugged, not even looking up from his work. “An hour, two. Probably less.”

 

Hermione licked her dry lips and pressed for more, taking another step closer. “And who exactly are…‘they’?”

 

At this question, the man paused and looked at her with eyes that seemed to pierce her soul, even from under the shadows cast by the brim of his hat. “They're called HYDRA.”

 

“HYDRA?”

 

“They’re —”

 

But Hermione already knew who they were. Or at least, she’d read about them from the history books she’d studied when she’d arrived in this world.

 

HYDRA was… Her brows furrowed in thought. “An authoritarian paramilitary terrorist organisation whose primary goal was world conquest and domination. The group was founded shortly after the rise of Nazism in Germany and was originally the scientific branch of the Nazi Schutzstaffel.” She started to pace, her mind latching on and whirring to compile this new piece of information, completely missing the bewildered look the stranger was giving her as her monologue continued. “During World War II, they separated from the Nazis with the goal of conquering the world on their own, but were ultimately defeated by Captain America and the Howling Commandos in 1945. They were assumed to have disbanded after the war, but...” She shook her head. “What could an organisation like HYDRA want with me?”

 

Hermione turned expectantly to her silent companion, who had by now completely stopped what he was doing to stare at her like a wary wild animal, as if her rapid-fire regurgitation of information was something that would somehow eat him, and waited, silently prompting him for an answer. 

 

Soundlessly, the man picked up a screw driver from the floor beside him and returned his gaze to the motorbike in a slow deliberate way that made Hermione think that he was stalling. Finally, he spoke, voice low and modulated. “It’s because you're a Gifted.”

 

Hermione goggled at him. “I'm a what?

 

“Gifted.” He turned to her, rested his right wrist on his bent knee, screwdriver dangling from his fingers, and waved vaguely at her general form. “That's why you can disappear and reappear in the alley close to the British Museum, right?”

 

The silence that followed his nonchalant question was deafening.

 

“You've been following me?! ” The last words to her question ended in an incredulous shriek, anger colouring her words. Whether it was directed at herself or at her apparent stalker, she didn't know.

 

The man suddenly stood, her aggression seeming to trigger his own defenses. He stalked towards her with an intimidating grace of a predator, stopping only inches away and towered over her. “HYDRA has had you under surveillance for weeks; I’m trying to protect you.”

 

By stalking me? ” Hermione retorted acerbically, unable to believe what she was hearing. She knew it was unfair to lash out at the bloke – he did, after all, save her, but she could not believe she'd been so careless! 

 

Had two years in the relative normalcy of her life in this universe made her so complacent? How did HYDRA even find out? She'd always made sure to only use magic in the privacy of her home or Apparate in secluded areas, away from cameras and those bloody mobile phones.

 

“Listen,” the man responded in a low, grave tone, eyes so dark and blue, narrowed and fierce. “HYDRA, for whatever reason, wants you and your abilities. They've been searching for you for over a year now and they will stop at nothing to get you.” 

 

Blindsided by this revelation, Hermione's fury evaporated as his words registered, only to be replaced by a gnawing dread that ate away at her insides. 

 

Over a year? They'd known about her for that long? 

 

What did they know? 

 

How? 

 

Why now?

 

As question after question crashed around her thoughts, she could only voice out one immediate thing. 

 

“How do you know all of this?” Hermione asked softly, meeting his fierce gaze and tried to search for answers. “Who are you? Why are you helping me?”

 

She saw his jaw clench minutely and she knew she'd asked the right questions. 

 

“I've seen what HYDRA can do up close,” he murmured darkly. “I wouldn't wish it on anyone.”

 

And then he turned away, out of Hermione's space and taking the intensity of his presence with him. His long strides took him back to where the motorbike stood forgotten, his back to her, tense.

 

Hermione blew out the breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding, unable to wrap her head around what she'd just heard. 

 

A terrorist organisation was looking for her because they thought she was a Gifted . Lovely . Because having another group of megalomaniacs on her tail was yet another thing she needed on top of being interdimensionally stranded.

 

Frazzled, Hermione ran a hand through her hair, which must now be quite the bushy sight, and tried to calm down. She needed a plan. She didn't know much about HYDRA other than what the history books of this world had said, but judging by their persistent pursuit of her, she doubted they'd give up on trying to capture her any time soon. 

 

She'd have to run. Again.

 

Hermione stifled a groan, but before she could voice out any of her frustrations, a loud crash outside echoed throughout the warehouse premises and the ground rumbled like rolling thunder. She turned to the window where her companion had practically leapt to with amazing speed and she caught the grim set of his jaw.

 

“They're here,” he announced grimly.

 

Hermione rushed to his side to peek outside just as three black armoured vehicles crashed through the inner gates, flattening them to the gravel ground and skidded to a halt in the middle of the parking area. Scores of men in assault gear, armed to the teeth, jumped out with military precision. 

 

Hermione paled at the sight of them. “ Bloody hell! I thought you said it would take them an hour!”

 

The man didn't bother with an answer as he stalked away, and Hermione turned to see him hefting the wicked looking gun he'd been using, loading it with ammunition and, she assumed, checking its general condition. 

 

There was no way they could fight their way out of this, no matter how skilled her rescuer appeared to be and Hermione was not about to test her magical shields against high-powered bullets and bloody lasers when she had no idea they would even hold. 

 

No, they needed to get out of here.

 

Coming to a quick decision, Hermione glanced back at the swarm of black ops now swarming their building before looking back at the man who looked far too calm and ready to fight his way through a veritable army. He met her stare and nodded. 

 

“We need to —” he started, but Hermione cut him off with a pertinent question of her own.

 

“Can I trust you?” she asked as she hedged closer.

 

His jaw clamped shut with an audible click and a grim shadow cast over his face. “No. Probably not.”

 

Outside, a loud banging at the door began, shaking the foundations and raining debris of concrete around them on all sides.

 

Hermione took a sharp breath and stepped hurriedly towards him. She reached out and grabbed onto one of his thick arms with both of her hands. 

 

There was nothing for it. 

 

“I promise I won't let go.”

 

The confused look he gave her was the last thing she saw before she took a step and they disappeared in a swirl of wind and a pop.

 


 

They landed with a pop in a quaint living room, the silence that greeted them a stark contrast to the burgeoning chaos they had left behind. Hermione breathed a sigh of relief, the tension she felt bleeding out of her body at finally being in relative safety. 

 

They were safe.

 

Turning to check on her Side-Along passenger, who had somehow impressively remained upright, despite looking a tad disorientated, Hermione stepped back and dropped her hands to her sides. “Are you all right?”

 

He blinked down at her before letting his gaze roam appraisingly, clearly assessing their new environment. “Should have done this earlier,” he shook his head. “Where are we?” 

 

“My home,” she responded as she swept a hang to encompass her living space. “We should be safe here for the time being.”

 

The look he gave her told her he wasn’t impressed by this, and Hermione bristled. “HYDRA knows where you live. We can’t stay here,” he said as he stalked cautiously to the windows that looked out into the street, making sure to keep his form away from clear view, his gun still in his arms. 

 

“They won’t be able to get in or see us.” Hermione insisted. “My wards should be able to hold them off for a while. At least for the next few hours.” 

 

Ignoring the curious look her mysterious guest shot her, Hermione turned to make her way upstairs to her room before she hesitated. There was a part of her that just wanted to run, leave this man to his own devices and go underground, but it wasn’t in her nature to abandon people. Especially not ones who’d clearly gone out of their way to help her. Whether she wanted it or not, she was stuck with him now. Limiting herself because she feared discovery was moot at this point.

 

Thank Merlin there was no Ministry of Magic to arrest her! 

 

“What’s your name?” 

 

The question seemed to have caught him off-guard as his head snapped towards her from his spot by the windows. “What?”

 

“Your name?” Hermione clarified, a little uncertain. She shifted where she stood, suddenly feeling awkward under his disbelieving stare. She caught herself from fidgeting with her hands, and held them behind her instead. “I…I realised we never got to properly introduce ourselves. I’m… I’m Hermione,” though she had a feeling he already knew that.

 

There was a pregnant pause before he nodded slowly, a miniscule bob of his head. There was a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes for a brief second before he answered. “My name is…James.”

 

“Nice to meet you, James.” Hermione responded hesitantly in turn. Then she cleared her throat and gestured to her ivory coloured sofa with its velvet cream and tawny cushions. “Please make yourself at home while I pack my things; I shouldn’t take long.” 

 

She pointed to the door on her right that led to the kitchen and dining room. “There’s a toilet right by the kitchen, on the door to the left.” Another pause. “Would you like some tea? Coffee, perhaps? I'll have Winky prepare the refreshments for you. Just…erm, don't panic.” she warned before she called out, “Winky!”

 

Before James had a chance to utter a single word, a confused furrow on his brows, a loud, hollow pop echoed around the room and Winky appeared before Hermione in a thin puff of smoke, bat-like ears flopping happily in welcome. 

 

“Missy Granger! You is back!” she exclaimed.

 

James flinched in surprise, instinctively crouching defensively, eyes wide with alarm. He aimed his gun at Winky, his shoulders hunched and ready for a fight.

 

“Don’t shoot!” Hermione shouted, rushing to get between her friend and her alarmed guest. “She’s a friend!”

 

What the hell is that thing? ” James ground out, his voice rising to a level higher than a cool cucumber for the first time since this whole affair began, his gaze pinned on the equally spooked house-elf now hiding behind Hermione.

 

Winky squeaked. “We has a guest!” She peeked out from behind Hermione’s thighs with enormous brown eyes shining with wonder and undisguised curiosity. “He is a muggle” she whispered loudly.

 

James looked back at the house-elf, equally fascinated.

 

“James,” Hermione began carefully, extending a placating hand and bending down slightly to show him that Winky wasn't dangerous. “Put down the gun; she's not gonna hurt you. This is Winky; she's a house-elf and my assistant.”

 

Winky seemed to puff up at this, delighted by her new title. 

 

Hermione cast the house-elf a sideways glance, tilting her head at James. “Winky, this is James. He saved me from some very bad men.”

 

Bad wizards ?” Winky gasped, ears dropping back in fear.

 

“Wizards?” James echoed, perturbed, his gun still raised.

 

No , not wizards,” Hermione stressed, trying to gain control of the situation. 

 

Just then, something small and green, and shaped like a long piece of vegetation with multiple long branches detached itself from where it had hung on Winky's pink and white (and clean) lace frock. Chirping softly, the bowtruckle stretched, the single leaf on its head quivering. It climbed onto the house-elf's frail shoulders and extended its twig-like fingers. It grabbed onto a lock of springy brown hair dangling over Hermione's shoulder and swung itself on it like a piece of rope, before landing smoothly on Hermione's outstretched palm.

 

A bubble of laughter erupted from Hermione's lips, amused at its antics. 

 

“And this is Sprig.” Hermione held out her hand to James so he could see the small tree guardian better. Sprig did a grandiose bow, emitting a proud yet tiny cheep .

 

James stared at Sprig as if she'd just presented him with a severed head. He took a wary step back, knuckles white as they gripped his gun.

 

“What the hell are you?”

 

There was an awkward pause as Hermione shifted to her full height. Perhaps this was a bit much for a muggle?

 

Depositing Sprig onto her shoulder, who then proceeded to climb up her voluminous hair, Hermione tucked a loose lock behind her ear and gave him a sheepish smile. “Well, Sprig is a bowtruckle. Winky,” she nodded to the miniature house-elf, who took her cue and bowed deeply, ears nearly touching the floor, “is a house elf. And I,” she raised the wand she held in her right hand, twirling it between her fingers, “am a witch.”

 

There was another bout of deafening silence as James seemed to be beyond words at the moment. His bewilderment was plain as day but, as he slowly lowered his weapon,  at least he didn't seem inclined to shoot anyone anymore. 

 

All things considered, James seemed to be taking it rather well.

 

Vaguely, Hermione wondered when it would be a good time to introduce him to her firebird. She hoped it wouldn't be the last straw on the camel's back… 

 


 

When Hermione was sure James was sufficiently calm enough to put his gun away, she left him in Winky's capable hands. She made her way to her room upstairs and took out the small, beige satchel she’d used on field missions. It was charmed with an Undetectable Extension Charm, so it should be able hold everything she needed in this world, on top of the things she’d carried with her before being transported. 

 

She needed to pack her things and fast.

 

Despite her words of assurance to James, Hermione's intent wards had been picking up on some distasteful characters loitering right on her street for the last several minutes. And while she didn't think they'd make it through her wards on their own without frying their own skin off, the more desperate they became, the more things could get drastic and Hermione wasn't sure she wanted to be around to see that. 

 

With a flourishing twirl of her wand, Hermione sent the things she’d deemed necessary into her satchel – clothes, bags, shoes and the few things she'd managed to collect over the years, disappearing into the abyss inside. She did the same in her adjoining suite, which she used as her study, summoning all the books she'd collected from this world, ranging from history to physics, astronomy and chemistry. 

 

For the last two years, Hermione had been living under the radar as a muggle and learning everything she could about this world, contrasting and comparing its differences and likeness. The most obvious difference was how infinitely more technologically advanced this world was. They were surrounded by technology everywhere and people used it for everything. Assimilating their type of magic to their new environs had been quite a challenge, but she and Winky had learned to adapt. 

 

The more subtle difference lay between the pages of a book, any book. The differences were in the words. Some works from known authors known even in her universe were slightly altered, scientific discoveries were worlds away from what hers were capable of, even events in history happened quite differently here from what she remembered of her world’s history. There was certainly no Captain America in her time.

 

It had all fascinated and alarmed Hermione, but it had also given her hope. If this world was capable of understanding far more about the laws of physics than her world, then she should have the resources she’d need to figure out a way to transport herself back into her own dimension. 

 

Running with that theory, Hermione had relearned us much of muggle sciences and physics as could until she ran into Dr. Jane Foster’s work on The Convergence, an astrophysical event that only occurred every five thousand years when the Nine Realms of this universe aligned and mirror portals opened between them. It was the closest phenomenon she could find that could explain her interdimensional displacement and Hermione had dedicated her time to learning everything about the Convergence, right under the foremost expert on the subject since.

 

Then Hermione sighed, dejected at now having to leave such a valuable position behind. As one of Dr. Foster’s assistants, she had access to all the new data and information they had on the Convergence that were not yet released to the public. But with HYDRA on her tail, there was no way she would be able to return and knowingly endanger her colleagues. 

 

What was worse was that she’d forgotten the tote bag she had with her earlier that day containing Dr. Foster’s scientific studies and some of her own notes on the phenomenon from a magical stand point at the warehouse. Even with Hermione’s eidetic memory, there had still been quite a few information she’d yet to cover thoroughly. Dr. Foster was going to be quite cross with her and probably fine her exponentially for loss and damages.

 

Hermione winced at the thought of disappointing such a respectable woman. Perhaps she could ask Winky to look for her bag, but then discarded the idea as soon as she thought of it. She would never knowingly send a friend out into a dangerous situation.

 

After Vanishing some towels and toiletries from the bathroom to her satchel, Hermione allowed herself yet another sigh as she trudged back down the stairs. She’d figure it out later. First, they needed to go to ground and figure out how in Merlin’s saggy balls HYDRA found out about her ‘abilities’. She’d been so careful!

 

Hermione reached the bottom of the stairs, effectively irritated by the situation now, but stopped short at the sight of James sitting stiffly at one end of the sofa, looking positively disconcerted as a Winky handed him a steaming mug of coffee. To his credit, he took the mug graciously from the excited house-elf, but did not neglect to glance warily into the cup, looking like he’d just been handed poison.

 

Hermione smothered down a giggle, amused at how out of place a man of his size and rugged disposition looked in her decidedly feminine living room, with its white and blue walls, yellow chiffon curtains and cream-coloured upholstery. Finally, she decided to ease his discomfiture as she made her way towards the other occupants of the room. “It’s not, you know.”

 

James turned his attention to her as she took a seat on the one of the two armchairs that faced the sofa, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Not what?”

 

“Poisoned.” Hermione smirked.

 

James ducked his head, and if she hadn’t been looking, she wouldn’t have caught the sheepish grimace on his face. “Sorry.”

 

“No, it’s all right.” Hermione shook her head with a laugh. She tilted her head towards Winky, who was busying herself with the pastries on the tea tray, while Sprig tried to lift a cupcake off its plate. “I know it’s a lot to take in all at once.”

 

 “Uh...maybe a little,” James responded as a cup of tea levitated its way towards Hermione and James followed its ascent with the same perturbed look on his face. He shook his head in disbelief as she accepted the cup from mid-air. “I’ve seen my fair share of bizarre, but this is…”

 

“Too much?” she suggested helpfully.

 

James inclined his head in agreement as he looked down at his coffee, staring hard at the dark liquid that reflected his countenance. 

 

“You better start getting used to it,” Hermione warned with a sympathetic wince. “You’re about to see more.” Before James could respond to her ambiguous statement, Hermione turned to Winky as she stood, placing her teacup on the coffee table. “Winky, could you pack up the rest of the house? I’ve got all I need in my satchel.” Hermione indicated the satchel slung over her shoulder a solid pat. 

 

Winky nodded but there was curiosity brimming in her eyes. “We is leaving, Missy Granger?”

 

“Yes, unfortunately.” Hermione nodded as she reached out and extended her palm to Sprig, who jumped on without hesitation. She placed him on her shoulder where he proceeded to sit contentedly, clutching on to the strands of her hair for balance before she walked over to the fireplace mantel, beside which stood a gilded bird stand. 

 

From the top of the mantle, Hermione retrieved a small red lacquer box inlaid with golden runes and sigils. She slipped the box carefully into her satchel. “There are bad men after us.” She sent James a meaningful glance. “And they’re right outside now as we speak. I can feel them edging around my wards.” 

 

James cursed, bounding up to look out the window so fast before Hermione could stop him. 

 

“They can’t get in, as I mentioned. My wards are picking up on their intent and are preventing them from approaching.” 

 

“Yeah, well, can your ‘wards’ hold off a missile?” James called back, eyes fixed outside as he peered down the street.

 

Hermione took a moment to absorb that information. 

 

Bloody hell! What do you mean a missile?!” she exclaimed. Then she was rushing to his side to see that, true enough, there were, indeed, several men carrying loaded rocket launchers down the streets of suburban London. 

 

Hermione paled. No , she definitely did not think her wards would be able to hold off an assault from a missile.

 

Winky, for her part, didn’t need further urging to do what she'd been asked, and with a snap of her fingers, a brown leather suitcase appeared out of thin air on the carpeted floor before her. Another snap and a whirlwind of things flew through the air in quick succession and into the suitcase until the house was as bare as it had been when they had first moved in. The suitcase snapped shut with a sharp click just before a loud whistling ripped through the air. 

 

The house shook in its foundations as the missile crashed against Hermione's wards. It took the brunt of the missile's impact, but Hermione could already feel it fraying. It wasn't, after all, made to withstand that much shock. She definitely hadn't anticipated being bombarded by a literal flying projectile of destruction!

 

We have to get out of here! ” James shouted over as another missile collided into her wards. 

 

The house trembled, the furniture turning over and crashing to the floor. Hermione felt her wards flicker one, twice, before coming down completely. 

 

One more rocket and the house was going to cave in on them.

 

Not even a second later, another whistle echoed around them. James took her hand and drove them under the upturned sofa just as the missile crashed right through the roof, debris falling all around them. 

 

The house was quite literally crashing around their ears!

 

Winky, go! ” Hermione commanded as she gripped James' hand firmly in her own and Apparated them both to the first place she could think of.

 

Hogwarts.

 

Chapter Text

Except there was no Hogwarts and only the lush landscape of the Scottish Highlands stretched before them, wild and majestic. Hermione shivered at the blast of wind that blew past her blue summer blouse. She cast a silent warming charm on herself out of habit. 

 

Steadying himself on his feet after what must have been another disorienting Apparition ride for him, James looked around them, gaze once again assessing. “Where are we?”

 

“Scotland,” Hermione answered as she, too, took stock of their new surroundings, taking in the tall, large trees that stood all around them.

 

“Couldn't you have chosen a place more...tropical?” he asked with a sideways glance at her, a sardonic tilt to his lips.

 

Hermione rolled her eyes, though she couldn't hold his consternation against him and she accepted the harmless jibe for what it was. The general Scottish weather was barely agreeable to most, and the harsher climes of its mountains were even less so. Then, realising that she was still gripping his hand, she let him go only to wave that same hand carelessly at his form to keep him warm.

 

The way James' eyebrows flew up on his forehead as the warming charm settled on his skin like a mist of gossamer silk was almost comical coming from such a guarded man. Suppressing an amused grin, Hermione wondered if she was drawing far too much enjoyment from his surprised expressions, and if she was, whether it was ethical of her, as a witch, to gain so much amusement from muggles by doing so. 

 

Did her professors get a kick out of visiting muggleborn families and introducing them to magic for the first time?

 

“I come here quite often,” Hermione shrugged, the half-truth slipping out easily. “Come on,” she turned on her heel, ignoring the question in her companion's eyes as she walked deeper into the wilderness she'd Apparated them in, “there’s a lake close by. We can camp there for the night.”

 

When she emerged from the thick line of trees and spotted the Great Lake, Hermione let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. 

 

In the couple of years since she’d been stranded in this dimension, she had taken great comfort in the presence of the one constant thing that remained in this universe that had also existed in her world. The Great Lake, though ordinary in comparison to its counterpart, which housed merpeople and giant squids, was no less majetic in its tranquil glory. It was as close to home as she could get.

 

Feeling more at ease now, Hermione approached the large body of water with a confident step. 

 

“Winky!” she called out into the wind.

 

The house-elf appeared at her side a moment later, the suitcase she’d packed thudding to the ground with a heavy thud a few feet away, followed by the sound of things crashing around emitting from within. 

 

James, who had followed her lead, stood at her side now, raising an eyebrow but keeping his peace just the same. Hermione was impressed by his patience; she’d have never been able to contain any of the questions she had if she were in his shoes.

 

“Missy Granger,” Winky all but squawked, fat tears raining from her enormous eyes. “Winky was so worried!”

 

Leaning down slightly, Hermione patted the distraught house-elf on her small, thin shoulders comfortingly. “There, there, Winky, we’re all right. I’m glad you made it out safely, too.” Sprig, who’d been hiding in her hair, slid down Hermione’s arm, swung himself up in the air with a lock of brown hair and settled on top of Winky’s head, patting the house-elf between her flapping ears. “We’re safe here.” Then Hermione met James’ half-wary, half-bemused eyes, her suddenly grave. “Right?”

 

James hesitated for a moment before nodding. “Unless we’ve been bugged, there’s no way HYDRA would know we’re here. Do you have your phone with you?”

 

Hermione shook her head no, thankful for the fact that she didn’t even own one in the first place, much to Darcy’s annoyance. She doubted those goons had a chance to put a trace on her either, but just in case, Hermione resolved to fortify her wards as best she could for the night. “Winky, did you manage to pack my tent with you? I don’t think I have it with me.” 

 

Sniffling, the house-elf nodded. “Winky tooks everything from the house.”

 

“Good,” Hermione smiled appreciatively, thankful that Winky was as efficient as ever. “Could you set it up for us, please? I’ll take care of the fire.”

 

“Oh, yes, Missy Granger! Winky is making camp right away!” And with that, Winky rushed to the unattended suitcase with Sprig hanging onto her ears as she sprinted away. 

 

Hermione glanced at James and found him watching as Winky opened the leather suitcase and dove her entire form in as she rummaged inside for the camping gear Hermione owned, the tops of her elfish feet the only part of her left visible. 

 

James blinked in surprise and gave a slight disbelieving shake of his head. “I’m...going to look for some firewood. It’ll be dark soon.”

 

“No need. I’ve got it.” Hermione stopped him. At the curious look she received, she showed him her wand and waved it in the air with a practiced flourish. “ Accio firewood!”

 

The spell burst from her wand, dispersing in the air around them, and Hermione only had to wait for a silent moment or two before bundles of firewood started floating in, coming from different directions. Hermione directed them to land on a neat pile nearby with a satisfied swish of her wand.

 

James took off his cap and ran a hand through his shoulder length brown hair and then used that same hand to rub down his face. 

 

“I’m getting really tired of being surprised all the time,” he said gruffly. 

 


 

The capture of Hermione Granger had been James’ last mission for HYDRA before its fall the year prior. His orders had been simple: kill Fury, get the girl. He, of course, never got around to following through with the latter part of his orders — HYDRA had been exposed and he’d regained his...well, himself again before he could. Lost and confused, he’d gone to ground as soon as he realized something was wrong. With him, with everything .

 

The months following his escape from HYDRA’s control had been difficult for James, to say the least. The longer he had gone without his mind being wiped, the more of his memories resurfaced. Painful, horrific memories. Remembering who he had been, what had happened to him, what he had done without remorse or emotion... It had sickened him. 

 

James honestly did not know how to live with himself. And so he hid, wandering aimlessly from place to place, country to country in self-loathing, with no chance for redemption. 

 

It wasn’t until James had disposed of the HYDRA agents tailing him in South America, no doubt on a retrieval mission for their Winter Soldier, did he remember the details of what had been his last mission for HYDRA as well. Hermione Granger, junior assistant to a world-renowned astrophysicist at the University of London.

 

It had just been over a year since the fall of HYDRA, and if the organization’s different covert cells had managed to start operating again, then that would mean her capture mission was active again. If they didn’t already have her, then there was someone out there in serious danger.

 

James had tried to resist the initial reaction he felt at the knowledge of someone in potential danger, a civilian and a woman, at that, but his conscience had refused to give him peace. Sleep had become more elusive than it already had been and guilt had weighed down his every step. If he didn’t get to her first, then HYDRA would get her and do things to her that he could attest he wouldn’t wish on anyone; not even on his enemies. 

 

A week later, James had found himself making his way to London, on a mission very different from the one he’d been sent to do regarding the girl. 

 

When he had arrived weeks earlier and found the slight woman working at the university labs, James had not really known what to expect. His first impression of her was nothing special, to say the least. She had no notable connections of power. She looked scholarly, unassuming and quiet. 

 

As the Winter Soldier, James had not been privy to details beyond his mission objective, so he hadn’t had a clue as to what made her so coveted by HYDRA. She was obviously a brainy one to be working in a prestigious university. Maybe it was her brains they wanted.

 

At least, that was what he initially thought.

 

That was until he watched her step into a nondescript back alley near the British Museum on the first day he began tailing her, and she never came back out. She had disappeared after a distinct pop that had him rushing to the alley thinking she’d been taken and he’d been too late, but there had been no signs of a struggle there. Bemused, James had been forced to regroup until the next morning.

 

...Then she reappeared at the same place the very next day. 

 

By the second day of her disappearing act, James had been fairly certain he now knew why HYDRA wanted her so badly. Human experimentation was one of HYDRA’s specialties, and having a Gifted who could disappear and reappear at will was something they would surely want. 

 

But now, he wasn’t so sure what to think.

 

Cautiously, James watched as the woman who’d called herself a witch stepped away a few paces from where they stood by the firewood she’d...summoned before she pulled out a red square lacquered box embossed with golden symbols from her satchel. 

 

The woman — Hermione — glanced at him in what he interpreted as reassurance before she opened the lid, revealing a warm orange light from within like the glow of a fire. 

 

James, at that point, had given up trying to understand the mystifying things she did, and had just braced himself for another absurd magic trick, what with all the crazy things he’d seen in the space of less than an hour, but a large ball of flame shooting out of the box and into the air above them still shocked his socks off him. 

 

James ducked instinctively, watching as the blazing flying fireball circled above them in a single lap. It emitted a loud echoing cry that reminded him of eruptions. He watched in undisguised awe as what looked to be a bird of prey as large as an eagle on literal fire landed on Hermione’s outstretched hand. Or at least its feathers were made out of burning flames. 

 

James stared, struck speechless.

 

“Hullo, my beauty,” Hermione murmured to the...animal. It crowed softly at her, snuggling its golden beak against her cheek. The woman chuckled, seemingly unaffected by the dancing flames licking at her skin. “I’ve missed you, too.”

 

“Is that an actual phoenix ?” James couldn’t help but ask, his voice laced in awe. He’d never seen such a thing in his life, hadn’t even known they actually existed. 

 

The bird turned its head to look at him and trilled, eyes small, sharp and crimson. James had a feeling it was somewhat offended by his question. Which was ridiculous, of course, because it was still a bird .

 

Well, a mythical bird .

 

Hermione, however, shook her head in a matter-of-fact fashion. “James, this is Vulcan, and contrary to popular belief, no, he’s not a phoenix; he’s a firebird . They’re completely different creatures.”

 

There was a brief pause.

 

“Right.” Then he rubbed a hand down his face. 

 

A firebird. Of course . So she has an elf, a walking twig and now, a firebird. 

 

Christ, was this woman carrying an entire magical zoo with her?

 

James was way out of his depth here. This was turning out to be far crazier than finding out he had been preserved and frozen as a killing machine for decades and he wasn’t sure how he should feel about it. 

 

Finally, James asked the question that had nagged him since she’d teleported him into her home and introduced him to actual fantasy creatures. “You’re not just a Gifted, are you?”

 

For a split second, James could see her hesitation, one she covered up quickly by launching the flaming bird into the air. It promptly opened its massive wings...and winged its way towards him. 

 

James retreated several steps, his metal arm coming up to shield himself from its burning feathers, the other flexing instinctively to retrieve the machine gun he’d slung over his shoulder. He expected to feel a raging heat radiate from it, expected to feel a searing pain on his skin, but he was surprised to feel only a ticklish soft heat where its long fire feathers brushed against his face and torso.

 

The... firebird peered intently at him with hot yellow eyes, intense and bright as the rest of him. It let out a short caw before it snatched his cap from his head and launched itself into the air, stealing it in the process.

 

Hermione chuckled from where she stood, shaking her head at her...pet’s(?) antics. “He likes you,” she said. “They say that firebirds, like the phoenix, can sense the quality of someone’s soul and they are only drawn to those whose souls shine as brightly as they do.”

 

 James didn’t know about the quality of his soul, but as he watched the firebird perch itself on top of the large pile of firewood, playing with his stolen hat by tossing it around in the air, he wondered if there was even some left of it.

 

“How is it not burning through everything it touches?” James asked instead, gaze still transfixed on the admittedly, beautiful creature. 

 

“Firebirds have complete control over their flames,” Hermione answered as she approached the magical bird. She held out her hand and took his cap from the thief who had managed to put it over his head, beak peeking out of the backstrap. “They can burn hotter than magma should they wish it, too.”

 

Stepping closer, she held out his hat to him with a small smile. “And to answer your earlier question, no I’m not a Gifted.” Then she paused, considering her next words. “At least not in the way I think you mean. If by Gifted, you mean someone who was born with...abilities, then yes, you could say I am; I was born with my magic. But I prefer to call myself a witch, not a Gifted .”

 

James really didn’t know why a change of terminology mattered, but he inclined his head in understanding anyway. Then he nodded towards the... creatures making themselves comfortable around their camp.  “And what about them?” The elf was busying itself with the tent, the tiny stick-like insect hanging onto its hair, while the firebird had made a nest of fire over the firewood, laying quite contentedly between the burning wood. “Creatures from a magical forest?”

 

Hermione’s lip twitched, her lips pursing in amusement. “You could say that, yes.”

 

“Great.” James breathed out a heavy sigh. Magic, elves, walking plants and firebirds were real. Okay, he could work with this. “Anyone else you want to tell me about? A friendly ogre? Unicorns? Giants with golden geese?”

 

This drew out a laugh from the woman and James felt himself ease a little. “No, not in this forest.” She sent him an ironic smirk but there was something in her deep brown eyes that glinted with emotion in the setting sun, gone in the next moment. “As far as I know, we’re the only ones of our kind.” Hermione turned away to stare out into the quiet lake nearby, gaze faraway. “We're all we've got.”

 


 

When Hermione had made her way to where the tent stood, James had adamantly refused her invitation to enter with her, aghast. He knew that women in this new decade were a lot different from the ones he remembered, but despite not fully regaining all of his memories yet, a large part of him balked at the idea of sharing such close sleeping quarters with a dame. He may have been a cold-blooded killer for nearly seven decades, but he would never try to shame a lady like that.

 

Hermione, however, had brushed off his embarrassed floundering with an amused quirk of her brow, promised that it was so much bigger inside and pushed open the flap entrance to the tent with a dainty hand and told him to look inside. 

 

“It's magic ,” she said with a charming quirk of her lips.

 

Hesitantly, he did just as she requested, and peered in. What he saw astounded him.

 

It was, indeed, bigger on the inside. Big enough for it to be a small apartment, in fact. It was definitely much bigger than the one he remembered staying in back when… Well, back then.

 

Magic, as Hermione called her abilities , was nothing short of amazing.

 

James stepped in, glancing around the expanded space guardedly. The tent bent and broke everything he knew about reality and his brain was having a hard time taking in these impossible circumstances, but the soldier in him took note of every crook and cranny of the place, mentally cataloguing its layout and possible escape routes. 

 

Upon a thorough inspection, James could see a small kitchen where the elf was busy cooking dinner , a living space complete with a sofa, a coffee table and two arm chairs, and three doors that he surmised led to different rooms. It was both impressive and mind boggling at the same time.

 

To say that this was the most comfortable camping trip he'd ever been on would be an understatement. 

 

It took no time for Hermione to show James his room and to show him where the bathroom and toilet were. Dinner followed shortly thereafter, a surprising fair of roast beef, potatoes, peas and carrots. He vaguely wondered how this happened when they had carried no food with them, but decided the less he thought about things involving magic, the better he would be.

 

James thanked the elf for the meal, even though speaking to it directly felt a slightly disconcerting. Hermione was generous with her praise of Winky's foresight to pack even the food and for another well-made dinner. Even Sprig, who had his own spot at their small dining table concurred. 

 

Winky soaked in the praise and gratitude happily enough as she flushed, fluttered and fussed over them.

 

“Aren't you going to eat with us?” James asked when he noticed that Winky hadn't prepared a place of her own. 

 

“Oh, no, no! Winky would never! ” the elf squeaked, seeming horrified at the thought. “Winky is needing to tend to Vulcan outside. He is wanting to have some bluebell flames for dinner. Please, enjoy Winky's cooking, Mister James!”

 

And with that she disappeared with a pop.

 

Blinking, James had to admit, he was starting to get used to things disappearing and reappearing out of thin air.

 

“House-elves are related to brownies, so they don't eat for necessity. Instead, they draw their power from the hearth of those they willingly serve,” Hermione explained helpfully as she dug into her meal. 

 

Helping himself to the food on his own plate, James accepted this explanation with a nod, though he was unsure he understood it completely. The way she mentioned things in a group sometimes made him wonder about the cryptic words that ping-ponged around his head.

 

She was hiding something, James surmised.

 

He’s not a phoenix; he’s a firebird. They’re completely different creatures.

 

House-elves are related to brownies.

 

As far as I know, we’re the only ones of our kind.

 

But, were they? 

 

James was aware that Hermione was hiding something from him, but he was torn whether or not to pry. After all, she hadn't asked anything more about his own involvement with HYDRA.

 

Whatever had transpired the last several hours, James recognized that they had a tentative pact between them and, for the sake of his own useless search for redemption, James was loathed to rock any boats.

 

But what if Hermione and her...creatures weren't alone, what then? What would she even gain if she hid such a thing from him now? What did that mean for HYDRA? For him? This began as a self-appointed, foolhardy mission, but what if there were more people in trouble?

 

What would James do then?

 

“We can't stay here,” he said instead after swallowing a hearty bite at the surprisingly tender roast beef, turning his attention to their current predicament at hand. “HYDRA will likely have eyes all over the country right now.”

 

Hermione seemed to deflate at his words, but nodded her understanding, lips pursed in a grim line. James felt the stirrings of sympathy for the girl, suddenly dislodged as she was from the life that she knew, but now that she was a target of one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world, she would have to live in hiding from now on. 

 

“I know of someone who can smuggle us out of the continent. We'll have to make our way down to Amsterdam to get to him.”

 

“I've been to Amsterdam,” Hermione said agreeably, a thoughtful look on her face. “I can create a Portkey for us tomorrow. We'll get there in two seconds flat.” 

 

James grunted, in part because he had no idea what a Portkey even was and because he wasn't quite looking forward to what was in store for him next. Magic was convenient, yes, but teleporting like your life was being squeezed out of you twice in the space of an hour was not something he'd call comfortable.

 

He must have looked as eager as he felt because Hermione smirked at him in turn, a teasing light in her eyes. “What’s the matter? I thought you’d be made of sturdier stuff, Mr. James.”

 

James blinked, caught off guard at her friendly ribbing. The light-hearted smile tilting the corners of her lips admittedly threw him off-balanced. How long had it been since someone had a good-natured laugh at his expense?

 

How long had he

 

Far too long…

 

“Er, sorry,” Hermione's voice filtered through the haze of thought James had slipped into, her smirk faltering, “I didn't think — I mean, I didn't realise —” she stuttered awkwardly, fiddling with her fork. “Magic, I mean; it must really make you feel uncomfortable. I'm sorry.”

 

Realizing that he'd been staring, James backpedal, embarrassed to be caught lost in his own thoughts. He rubbed a hand to the back of his neck, discomfited and unused to the feeling. “No, it's not that,” he began. “I think your... magic is incredible. It's just...” James trailed off.

 

Just, what? Been so long since someone had joked around him? That someone had looked at him with other than horror, morbid awe or a mix of both?

 

“It's been a long day,” he finally finished lamely.

 

A snort erupted from the woman across from him, her smile turning both sardonic and commiserating at the same time. “You can say that again.”

 

Chapter Text

Steve Rogers stood at the observation deck overlooking the training arena, arms crossed and watchful as he watched the New Avengers spar with each other. He silently noted all their moves and fighting style, mentally analyzing and cataloguing them to create useful fighting formations and combinations out on the field. 

 

Life at the New Avengers Facility in Upstate New York had become somewhat routinary for Steve. Excluding the days when they were sent out on an odd mission or other, most of his time was spent overseeing the training of the new members of the team, and though he couldn't complain — their training was coming along quite nicely — he did sometimes yearn for a break in the monotony. While it was rewarding to see the new recruits improve, he was starting to feel sorry for Sam every time Natasha handed him his ass.

 

Just then, the automatic doors behind him opened with a smooth whirr , and Steve turned to see Maria Hill step into the deck, tablet in hand.  

 

“Cap,” she called, a business clip to her greeting. 

 

“You got something for me?” he asked, turning to face her.

 

Maria nodded. “You’d better come with me.” Instead of approaching him, she took a step back and gestured for him to precede her through the door. “Fury wants to see you in the control room. There's something you need to see.”

 

Curiosity piqued, Steve walked through the open door as requested. Briskly, he made his way to the control room where the engineers worked with the satellites and computers, Maria on his heels. “Are we being sent out on-field?”

 

“Affirmative, we've detected aggressive HYDRA movement out in London” Maria confirmed. 

 

Steve frowned at that. “Are we sure it's them?” 

 

After the fall of SHIELD, the Avengers had been systematically raiding all the bases they could find and things on that front had quieted and slowed down recently. What was more concerning, however, was the fact that HYDRA usually operated in secretive cells in isolated areas to keep civilians away and from the local government from intervening with their activities. It was very rare for them to mobilize a public attack on a major world city...unless they were up to something big. Something as big as Project Insight.

 

“We're positive,” Maria responded with a nod, then after a second's pause, she added, “It has something to do with the Winter Soldier.”

 

Steve nearly skidded to a halt at those words. He cast a surprised glance at Fury's right-hand, noting the certainty in her eyes. Breath catching in his throat, it took all his self-control to resume walking and restrain himself from tearing towards the control room on an all out run. 

 

If their pace had increased significantly since hearing the news, Maria never mentioned it.

 


 

Fury was perusing something on his tablet at the centre of the room, surrounded by beeping electronics, when Steve stepped into the control room, anticipation thrumming through his veins. The former SHIELD director merely looked up at his entrance, an eyebrow raised over his eyepatch at the sight of his second-in-command trying to catch her breath behind him.

 

When the rest of the team came rushing in less than a minute later, Steve shared a nod with Natasha and Sam as they took their posts on either side of him. 

 

Satisfied at the assembly that had gathered, Fury got down to business, moving closer to the edge of the raised podium he'd been standing on. “Avengers,” he began in that grand way of his that always drew people's attention. He gestured to the wall screen at the front of the room, where an audioless video was playing. “At approximately 5pm yesterday, civilians in London witnessed a shooting at Hyde Park.” 

 

Steve turned his attention to the screen, tense and on edge. A recording of the said incident replayed on the screen – chaos and gunfire sending civilians running everywhere in fear and panic. From the shaky footage, they could spy the gunmen, dressed in nondescript tactical gear.

 

“Shortly after, a house in the suburb was brought down by 3 military grade missiles.” The footage changed to a different scene, one with firefighters, news cars and police, all checking the remains of a clearly wrecked house, debris and wreckage littered everywhere.

 

Sam let out a low whistle at the ruins that remained.

 

“We have reason to believe that HYDRA is responsible. Particularly because they were in pursuit of this man,” Fury continued and the screen shifted to a still image taken from a CCTV camera. It zoomed in and the blurry likeness of the man Steve knew from a past long gone stood out front and center. Fury cast him a sideways glance. “Friend of yours?”

 

Steve drew in a sharp breath, lips pursing in consternation. There was no mistaking that it was Sergeant James Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. He'd recognize him anywhere. 

 

Nat threw him a loaded look before she addressed Fury with a tilt of her chin towards the screen. “Who's the girl with him?”

 

As if on cue, the camera panned to focus on the person just running behind Bucky, brown hair wild and flying. Judging from the way the man pulled at her hand, there was no mistaking that they were escaping HYDRA's pursuit together. 

 

“Facial recognition identifies her as one Hermione Granger,” Maria answered for Fury. She had made her way to the front of the room to pick up a file at one of the desks and was now looking over the information listed on it. “She works as a junior lab assistant at the University of London with Dr. Jane Foster.”

 

“Foster?” Steve voiced, the name tripping something in his brain. “Isn't that –”

 

“Thor's lady love, yeah,” Sam interjected with a nod and a small grin.

 

“You mean ex-lady love,” Nat corrected with a smirk when Sam balked at her. “They broke up.” She shrugged.

 

“How do you know these things? He's not even here,” Sam complained.

 

“How does someone who works in a university get involved with HYDRA?” Wanda interjected, wanting to know, curiosity in her voice. As someone who had been experimented by the very same organization, Wanda had confessed that she suspected she and her brother hadn't been the only people HYDRA had been tampering with.

 

Steve had to wonder if she was on to something.

 

“That's the thing. That's all we have of her.” Maria handed the file to Natasha and Steve watched as the redhead's brows furrowed at what she saw. When she was done, Natasha passed the folder to him without a word. 

 

Silently, Steve accepted the very thin file with a frown, eyes quickly scanning through the information on the single sheet of paper. Nothing of note besides her basic information was listed on there: just her name, age, occupation, job details and her address. Nothing else was listed beyond that; she didn't even have a mobile number, and in this day and age, even he had one. The second and last pages contained what Steve assumed was her résumé and a photo of her in a lab coat at what looked to be a laboratory.

 

“She's got a stellar résumé but none of them checks out,” Maria continued. “According to the UK public records, she doesn't even exist.”

 

Steve handed the file to Sam, who took his turn looking through the information. 

 

“You think she's a spy?” Sam suggested, going to the most logical conclusion. “MI6?”

 

“Any organization worth their salt would have provided her with an airtight backstory. She has far too many blanks,” Nat pointed out. “Something is definitely fishy.”

 

“Then I suggest you start fishing,” Fury directed them to the door, already turning on his heel to make his exit. “We need those two in custody. You're all bound for Europe. Jet's up in 10.”

 


 

“Dr. Selvig,” Steve, now suited up, called as he spotted the man waiting for them by the Quinjet. The rest of the team had gone to do their individual responsibilities before they took off, and it seemed that Steve was the first to arrive 

 

Dr. Erik Selvig perked up at his approach. “Captain, I heard you were headed for out to look for Jane's new assistant.”

 

Steve nodded, remembering that Dr. Selvig was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Foster and not for the first time appreciating the efficiency of the flow of information in the complex. “Anything you can tell us about her?”

 

“Nothing beyond what Jane has told me. I've never met her myself.” Selvig shook his head. “Jane says she's a private person, has got an interesting outlook on astrophysics and is quite brilliant. Jane likes her. The funny thing is, she doesn't quite remember hiring her, only that it felt right that she be there.”

 

Steve pondered that with a frown. He'd never been in a position to recruit people based on their academic achievements, but even he knew you'd have to have done something memorable under your belt to earn a spot in a Nobel Prize winner's team. Not that he himself would be one to judge about faking credentials to join a cause nor the woman's motives behind it. But he did want to know what HYDRA has to do with it.

 

“Thank you, Doctor. We'll find her,” he said instead, tapping the good doctor on his shoulder. 

 

And Bucky, he added to himself with conviction, despite dreading what he might find in his friend's eyes again. It was difficult to reconcile what HYDRA had turned his best friend into, but Steve was determined to get him back.

 

Bucky was not all gone. He was sure of it.

 

With a nod and a wish of luck, Dr. Selvig left to make his way back down to the labs, and Steve turned just in time to see Natasha sidle up to him, pocketing her phone. “Tell me you've got something.”

 

Nat nodded, already walking towards the open hatch of the Quinjet. Steve matched her pace; Natasha was nothing is not efficient. “Two things actually – there's someone in Amsterdam, Stijn Jansen,” she informed him, “Smuggler by trade. He operates a ring that takes people in and out of the continent for the right price. If you want your guy, you'll most likely find him with Jansen to evade HYDRA.”

 

“And the other?”

 

“Corrine,” she answered. Steve's confusion must have been evident on his face because Natasha continued, undeterred. “You know Corrine, from the receptionist at Veterans Affairs?” Before Steve could say anything, not that he even had any to say to that, Nat went on. “She's mentioned that she'd be totally up for a drink on Friday night.”

 

As soon as those words were out of her mouth, Steve didn't even stop to wonder what his friend was on about and he swiftly proceeded to climb onto the jet, escaping yet again another one of Natasha's attempts at setting him up on a date. 

 

“Good for you, Nat. I'm sure you'll have a good time.”

 

“Not for me, for you!” she called out after him.

 


 

The following morning, the Scottish Highlands stirred to life, cool, muggy and windy, even for a regular summer day. 

 

Hermione had always been an early riser, and despite being exhausted from yesterday's adventures, she awoke bright and early, body rousing reluctantly. Blinking into the sunlight streaming through the tent's canvas windows, she took in her surroundings and when the events of the day before filtered into her slowly waking faculties, she groaned, throwing an arm over her eyes in despair. 

 

Hermione had been so exhausted last night that by the time she finished erecting her protection wards, she'd all but blackout on her bed, drained, and she hadn't had the time to reflect on the chaos that had followed her. At Hyde Park, the warehouse, her house...

 

Oh, god, her house

 

Her landlord was going to kill her.

 

Letting out another unhappy groan, Hermione rose from her bunk and threw the blanket back, already mentally running through their next plan of action. If there was anything her experience of being on the run had once taught her, it was to always be on her feet, ready for every eventuality. 

 

Outside her 'room', Hermione could already hear Winky puttering in the kitchen, no doubt preparing breakfast. She wondered if the only other human occupant of their little camp had already woken up as well.

 

James had mentioned leaving for Amsterdam the night before, where they'd be smuggled out of the continent. Hermione wasn't sure how to take having to be smuggled out of anywhere or what to think of the fact that he actually knew of someone who had the means to do that, but she didn't really have a lot of options at the moment. There were too many unknown variables involved, too many things she didn't know.

 

What were HYDRA's motives? What were James', for that matter? He'd hinted at a past involvement with HYDRA, but to what extent? Was he on the run, too? And if so, why? 

 

Obviously, if Hermione wanted answers, the wisest thing to do would have to be to stick around and follow her reticent saviour a little while longer. She had never been one to go in blind, and having someone who at least knew who or what they were dealing with was better than nothing.

 

Hermione was ruminating on these very thoughts when she stepped out of the shower, dressed in her most comfortable pair of jeans and dragonhide boots she hadn’t worn since she'd settled in London to concentrate on her research. She had a feeling they were in for another long day. 

 

Shrugging on a light blue denim jacket over the white tank top she wore and her satchel, Hermione made her way into the small kitchen space where Winky was dishing up some sausages and eggs, several plates floating all around her tiny elfin form. 

 

“Good morning, Winky,” Hermione greeted as she approached.

 

“Good morning, Missy Granger!” Winky turned wide, watery eyes at her, smiling warmly. As she had done every morning since Hermione had hired her as a field companion a few years ago, the house-elf snapped her fingers and a steaming teapot and its matching teacup appeared on the table, just within Hermione’s reach, already anticipating her needs. 

 

“Thank you, Winky.” Hermione smiled appreciatively, taking a seat and wondering if the house-elf even knew they were still currently being hunted. Not that camping in the wilderness was anything new to Winky; they'd spent so many days in this very tent together that this was probably just par for the course for the house-elf already.

 

Regardless, Hermione knew Winky would do whatever she could to help her and would follow her to the ends of the earth — even into another world entirely. Such was the loyalty of a house-elf, pure, unwavering and oftentimes misguided. It was what made their kind both so strong and so vulnerable to outside influences. 

 

Hermione, of course, had no intention taking advantage of the devotion. Though she had once despaired at the thought of shackling a living creature to a life of servitude, after some re-education on her part — about house-elves, their magic and their nature — she had truly grown to appreciate Winky’s presence in her life. Particularly in a world where they literally had no one else but each other.

 

And speaking of presence...  

 

Glancing at the closed door down the short hall of the tent, Hermione took a sip of her perfectly crafted Earl Grey tea. “Winky, do you know where James is? Has he woken up yet?”

 

“Yes, Missy Granger.” Winky nodded vigorously, ear flapping with her movements, before she set a plate of sausages and eggs on the table before Hermione. “Mister James goes outside really, really early this morning. Mister James is not even taking coffee!” the house-elf complained. “Winky is bringing him back for breakfast!”

 

“No need; I’ll do it,” Hermione volunteered instead, standing up from her seat after a final sip of her tea. “I have to speak with him anyway.”

 

And with that, Hermione strode out of the tent, spotting Vulcan lying comfortably between the embers of his fiery nest. Hermione smiled at the dozing firebird, still not yet fully grown. He lifted his head at her approach, blinking bright crimson eyes up at her. She murmured a morning greeting and sent him three blue bell flames to devour as she passed by. She surveyed the brush around them, wondering where Sprig had gone off to and hoping to catch sight of the mysterious Mr. James.

 

Just then, the sound of splashing caught Hermione’s attention and, acting on instinct, she followed the noise towards the Great Lake. Walking up to the large oak tree that stood tall, old and proud by the shore, Hermione laid a hand on its trunk, eyes searching. It didn’t take long for her to catch sight of James swimming laps in the middle of the lake and she marvelled at his fortitude. She would have never been able to stand the cold this early in the morning; not without warming charms.

 

Hermione called out to him, raising her free hand to wave at the swimmer in an effort to gain his attention. “James!”

 

It took Hermione a couple more tries to catch his attention, but as soon as she did, she could see him change course, swimming towards the shore with strong, powerful strokes. She watched as he drew near, frowning in confusion at the sight of his metal arm, glinting silver in the sun. Before she could contemplate on it further, she was pulled from her musings when James pulled himself out of the water. 

 

Hermione opened her mouth to greet her new companion, but was promptly, for probably the first time in her life, struck speechless, the words she’d meant to utter dying an  instantaneous death on her tongue as she all but goggled

 

Hermione had seen her fair share of shirtless men before. She’d, of course, seen Harry and Ron without their shirts on; there had been no escaping that when they’d been on the run. She’d obviously seen her short list of old boyfriends starkers, as well. She’d even seen Ron’s brothers without their robes on one summer day at the lake by the Burrow. 

 

But if she’d thought Charlie had been the fittest of the lot physically, the dragontamer definitely didn't hold a candle to what Mr. Mysterious James sported. 

 

Sweet Morgana, the man was sculpted like a Greek god .

 

Mouth dry, Hermione bit her lip hard, unable to stop her eyes from trailing over the rivulets of water dripping down James' broad shoulders and his sleek mascular form, all taut and solid as a rock. His arms were thick bands of steel – one of them quite literally, it seemed – strong and powerful; he looked like he could rip anyone in two with his bare hands.  

 

“What's wrong?” James sent her a questioning glance as he waded out of the water and towards the pile of clothes and fabric resting just a few metres away, muscles rippling as he moved. 

 

Hermione squeaked, embarrassed and sputtering at having been caught ogling. “Oh, uh,” she stammered eloquently, cheeks hot and rosy. 

 

With his hair wet and slicked back like that, Hermione found it difficult not to notice just how attractive James really was. Not that she hadn't the first time, what with his piercing dark blue eyes, high cheekbones and a jaw carved from marble, but without the immediate threat of danger, her attraction came back three-fold.

 

“I just,” she continued but had to pause and turn away, equal parts embarrassed and discomfited, when James started to wipe himself dry, though he didn't seem at all bothered by his near nakedness, and Merlin, did he look good in nothing but his boxer briefs.

 

Stop it, Hermione!  

 

Darcy was a bad, bad influence on her.

 

“I wanted to talk to you about Amsterdam, but, uh, you were – I mean,” Hermione closed her eyes painfully. Oh, my god, shut up. breakfastisready ,” she rushed out in one breath before she scurried away as fast as she could, completely missing James' bemused smile, far too wrapped up at praying for the ground to swallow her whole to notice.

 


 

Jame had to admit, magic was convenient. Strange, but certainly efficient. It had taken all of two seconds for the elf and Hermione to pack their things and round everyone – firebird, twig insect and tent and all – up again and before he knew it, Hermione was presenting him with an old piece of orange and yellow striped sock. 

 

Confused, James stared at the innocent yet ratty piece of cloth with a deep frown. 

 

“This,” Hermione began, holding the sock in her palm, raising it between them, “is a Portkey. It will activate in 2 minutes. Hold on to it and don't let go.”

 

“A sock?” James raised an eyebrow.

 

“Well, yes,” she answered plaintively, “but I've turned it into a Portkey. It'll take us to Amsterdam.”

 

James pursed his lips, eyeing the bright thing warily. “Why a sock?” At the confused tilt of her head, he expounded, “Couldn't you just teleport us like last time?”

 

Hermione shook her head in response, wisps of curly hair flying. “Holland is too far for me to Apparate; it's too dangerous. We could end up getting Splinched.” 

 

James wasn't sure what Splinching was either but it didn't sound pleasant. With a sigh, he nodded his head and hesitantly laid a hand on the sock. He would have much preferred to travel the...traditional way, but there was no denying that doing it the magical way was faster.

 

Besides, it couldn't be any worse than 'Apparating', could it?

 

Hermione checked her watch, counting down the seconds, and bent down to pick up her suitcase. When she looked back up at him, she gave him an encouraging smile. “No matter what, don't let go.”

 

It was the last thing James heard before he felt something pulling him by his navel, dragging him into a whirlwind through time and space.

 

Apparently, it could get worse. 

 

It was worse.

 

A moment later, James found himself staggering on the ground, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. He shook his head, disoriented and not a little queasy. He took a deep breath, trying to settle his roiling stomach. 

 

When he was sure he wouldn't be regurgitating his breakfast, James allowed himself to look around, taking in the copse of trees they were surrounded in. The general area looked to be relatively secluded, away from prying eyes, but he could hear the sound of activity close by.

 

“All right, James?” Hermione asked, a concerned wrinkle on her brow. 

 

James nodded, slightly disgruntled, as he straightened up from where he ended up crouching on the ground. “Let's not do that again.”

 

“You get better at it with time,” Hermione responded reassuringly, though there was an amused twitch at the corner of her mouth. 

 

James sighed.

 

“Where are we?” he asked instead, knowing full well that unless HYDRA lost their scent, they would still most likely still use it again for a quick escape. 

 

“Vondelpark.” Hermione answered as she picked up her suitcase from the ground, shrunk it to the size of a walnut in her palm and deposited the miniature thing into her satchel. 

 

James strode out into the road without blinking an eye anymore, spying quite a few people loitering about, some lazing away on the grass, others riding bikes a short distance away. It was a bright and cheery day in Amsterdam, as bustling and colorful as the last time he'd been there; a stark contrast to the chilly winds of Scotland they'd left behind only moments before. 

 

As James considered their next move, he had to admit that teleportation was a handy ability to have, despite it being unpleasant. It would certainly come in handy if in case they ran into more trouble, especially when dealing with Stijn Jansen and his kind, on top of HYDRA breathing down their necks, of course. 

 

“Let's head out,” he finally said, grim at the prospect of having to deal with the seedier folks of the world yet again. He headed in the direction he assumed led to the exit, Hermione close behind.

 

Having regained most of his memories during his 'time' with HYDRA, James knew of how Europe's criminal pipeline relatively worked, and while Stijn Jansen wasn't one of the head honchos of the continent, his reputation as a smuggler was known to many in the Underworld. James had no doubt, however, that HYDRA would probably catch on or get wind of their dealings with Jansen sooner rather than later, but getting out of the Europe and into the wilds of Africa would give them a better chance of evasion than staying close by like sitting ducks. 

 

Finding the touristic places of Amsterdam was easy enough, and after convincing Hermione to wait at a café in Dam Square so he could do his first order of business, James had no trouble picking off a young pickpocket off the side of a hidden alley; the city was crawling with them, after all. With his intimidating stature and maybe a slight show of strength, he had no trouble coercing the teen to take them to a nondescript brownstone building in the outskirts of Bijlmer, Stijn Jansen's 'office' apparently.

 

Hermione stood on the street beside him, looking at the unassuming structure hesitantly. James could tell by the tense line of her shoulders that she was apprehensive, and while he was loathed to be the one to drag her around unscrupulous places, they needed them to stay under the radar. 

 

Placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder, James nodded at her and led the way, dragging the reluctant young thief with him up the walkway to the door by the scruff of his collar. After a moment, Hermione followed behind them, cautious. 

 

Once at the porch, the teen rang the intercom, fidgeting nervously.

 

Someone answered on the third ring. “ Ja?

 

J-Jansen, Iemand wil je zien, ” the pickpocket answered in Dutch, stammering and glancing at James anxiously. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt. “ Hij zegt dat het belangrijk is .”

 

Wie is het? ” a thick, gruff accent emerged from the intercom, demanding.

 

This time, it was James who spoke up, wanting to get down to business and sparing the boy who looked about ready to wet himself. “ We hebben een doorgang naar Afrika nodig. ” From the corner of his eye, he saw Hermione's eyebrows rise in surprise, and a tiny part of him took pleasure in reversing the tables on her for once. “ Ik heb gehoord dat je ons kunt instellen.

 

There was a long moment's pause, the intercom crackling in the silence before they were buzzed in, the door creaking open with an ominous whine. James stepped back as the young punk bolted, skidding down the street and out of sight. He held the door open so Hermione could step in.

 

She glanced up at him curiously as she passed. “I didn't know you could speak Dutch.”

 

“I speak several languages,” he responded off-handedly, following her in.

 

“How many?” Hermione asked, an inquisitive sparkle in her eyes, glancing back at him over her shoulder, a hand on the balustrade as she climbed the first set of stairs.

 

James shrugged, lips pursed, not entirely sure of how he felt about this particular ability. “Thirty.”

 

Thirty? ” She gaped at him, stumbling in the middle of the landing and actually missing a step. “You're joking!”

 

“I don't know if you've noticed,” James said casually as he hedged around her and took the lead up the second flight of stairs, “but I'm not really the joking type, doll.”

 

A speculative gleam shone through Hermione's caramel brown eyes. “You're a curious man, Mr. James.”

 

James snorted. 

 

Considering this came from a woman who could teleport and shrink things – among other things – James decided he'd take it as a compliment.


 

Google Translations:

 

Ja? - Yes?

 

J-Jansen, iemand wil je zien - J-Jansen, someone wants to see you

 

Hij zegt dat het belangrijk is - He says it is important

 

Wie is het? - Who is it?

 

We hebben een doorgang naar Afrika nodig - We need a passage to Africa

 

Ik heb gehoord dat je ons kunt instellen - I heard you can set us up

Chapter Text

Hermione didn't know what she had expected of a man like Stijn Jansen, having never actually met a muggle criminal before – Death Eaters, psychotic murderers, werewolves and escaped convicts, sure – but she wasn't at all surprised by what awaited them at the second floor of the building, in a rickety old study, unkempt, shadowed and dusty. The man was tall, heavyset, with a scruffy salt and pepper beard, and a mean gleam in his eyes that glinted in the dim lighting. He looked every bit of the unsavoury criminals often depicted on the telly.

 

Wat hebben we hier? ” Stijn said by way of greeting them as they pushed through the door, watching them with predatory intensity. “ Een paar weglopers die voor de wet vluchten?

 

James, who'd led the way into the room, stood directly in front of the table Stijn was leaning on in a picture of affected decadence, his bulk nearly blocking Hermione from the other man's view. “You could say that,” he responded in English, voice flat but light. 

 

Stijn smirked at him, lighting a cigarette between his fingers. “Well, you're in luck. Got a brig setting off for Morocco tonight.” He took a long drag of smoke, blowing it out in front of them – rather obnoxiously, in Hermione's opinion, but she wisely held her tongue. “But it's gonna cost you. Last minute ticket, you know.” 

 

When James remained unmoved by the obvious dig at his assumed state of finances, stoic and silent, Hermione scowled at how Stijn dragged his eyes over James’ form dismissively. 

 

“Not sure you can afford it.” Then Stijn’s eyes alighted on Hermione, tilting his head to the side slightly so he could see her better and his disinterested gaze turned into a leer. “Unless you'd be willing to pay for your passage in other ways.” He laughed roughly and moved to stand from his nonchalant position, cocksure and confident.

 

Hermione’s lips turned down in revulsion, hand twitching for her wand and a stinging hex on her tongue, but before she could even express a word of disgust, James had moved in a flash, taking Stijn by the collar of his shirt and lifting him high in the air. In the next second, the Dutchman was slammed to the wall behind him so hard the room shook from the blow.

 

“James!” Hermione gasped in surprise, caught off guard. 

 

“You better tell us where that boat is right now,” James said, his tone low and dangerous. 

 

Hermione rushed to his side, laying a staying hand on his shoulder. “James, stop!” she said evenly, shaking her head at him when he glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “It’s okay.”

 

James’ eyes narrowed at her but didn’t move any further, the man in his grip still dangling in the air. 

 

A part of Hermione appreciated his defense of her, and having seen what he could do to a troop of armed men, she knew that dealing with lowlives like Stijn would be no issue for James. She doubted resorting to violence would get them anywhere closer to Africa. She could have easily created a Portkey to get there, of course, but this world had countries that didn’t even exist in her world and she didn’t want to risk appearing in places she’d never even been to; who knew where they could end up with this radical change in geography? 

 

Sighing inwardly, Hermione looked up at the coughing smuggler, her lips pulling into a tight line of displeasure. “How about we pay you in gold?”

 

“Gold?” Stijn let out a disbelieving laugh, which tapered into a pained cough. “You think I’d believe you actually have gold?”

 

Instead of responding, Hermione opened her satchel, stuck her hand in and silently summoned the pouch of Gold Galleons she had with her into her waiting hand. Discreetly, she took out a piece of gold coin and, with a well-placed Gemino spell, placed three gleaming coins on the table.

 

“You think you can con —” Stijn’s incredulity died on his tongue when he caught sight golden metals, glinting tantalisingly in the dim light.

 

James lowered the smuggler to the ground at Hermione’s nod before she backed away, out of the lecher’s reach. From the dissatisfied look on her companion’s face, Hermione could only assume that he would rather give the man a taste of another type of metal than the ones Hermione was offering, but it couldn’t be helped. Thankfully, James was astute enough to remain silent and let the man’s greed work in their favour.

 

Once he was back on his feet, Stijn winced unattractively and reached for the coins, inspecting it with a sharp eye. He held it up against the dim light and muttered, “Bit of a weird design on here,”

 

Hermione shrugged, affecting nonchalance. “Heirlooms,” was all she said by way of explanation.

 

After a moment of further deliberation, flipping the coins between his stubby hands and going so far as even biting at them, Stijn cleared his throat, voice far more respectful than before. “Let me make a few calls.”

 

And he did. 

 

In less than five minutes, they were booked for a trip on a smuggler’s boat bound for Morocco that very night. When Hermione and James exited the study moments later, Stijn was three fake Galleons richer. 

 

Hermione estimated the spell to last at least four days before the coins deteriorated, but she couldn't find it in her to feel bad about her duplicity, despite that, in her world, it was a criminal act. What she did find, instead, was the irresistible urge to cast the strongest stinging hex she could muster wandless at the foul man.

 

After all, no one would know…

 

Before the door could close firmly behind them, the duo heard Stijn's yelp of pain, followed by several bumps and crashes inside the room, and Hermione couldn't hide the look of pure satisfaction from her face. 

 

Much better .

 

James glanced back at the commotion then down at her, a speculative look on his face. “Do I want to know?”

 


 

Steve had seen all sorts of bad guys since he'd become Captain America. He'd been faced and fought genetically enhanced individuals, aliens and even evil robots. But Steve had never come across a criminal, bent over his ass on a sofa, pressing an ice pack over his, ehm , bare ass, groaning and hissing under his breath in pain.

 

He winced at the sight, slightly confused. “Did we come at a bad time?”

 

“I always knew we'd catch a criminal with their pants down one day,” Nat commented flippantly beside him, eyebrows raised, unaffected.

 

Stijn Jansen whipped around in surprise, groaning when he seemed to have aggravated whatever was wrong with him. He tumbled gingerly onto his sofa, cursing as he fumbled to cover himself. 

 

“Who the hell are you? How did you get in here?” He squinted at them, glaring with intensity before Steve saw the moment of recognition filter into his eyes. “You're those Americans. The heroes – The Avengers. What are you doing here? I don't have anything for you here.”

 

“Oh, I don't know about that,” Nat responded, leaning a shoulder against the wall, arms crossed over her chest. “Human and drug smuggling seem to be pretty big things to me.”

 

“But we're not here for that; we want information,” Steve interjected quickly before things could devolve into something ugly before they got their information. He wanted to resolve this soon and get to Bucky as soon as possible. He slipped his hand into the tactical pack attached to his belt and stepped forward, presenting Stijn with a printed still of Bucky and Hermione Granger from a CCTV camera. “We're looking for these people. Any chance they stopped by?”

 

Stijn peered at the photo studiously before looking up at him with a shrewd gleam in his eyes that confirmed Steve's suspicions. “I don't know how you do it in America, but information doesn't come for free around here.”

 

Steve glanced at Nat, letting her take the lead. This was usually her area of expertise, not his. 

 

Stijn followed his gaze and not so politely looked at his friend and fellow Avenger up and down, leering. “Are you going to pay me in gold, too? Or with something else?”

 

Natasha, who had been standing at the far wall near a shelf of books, surveying the various effects around the dingy office, looked over their way, attention torn from a book she’d been shuffling through, a cool eyebrow raised. Steve had always admired his friend’s ability to stay unruffled in any situation, especially one where she was obviously being disrespected. While he’d rather throw this pervert through the window and be done with it, Steve was levelheaded enough to let Nat do her job and ferret out any information they usually couldn’t with brute force.

 

“Gold? Who said anything about gold?” Natasha asked as she tantalisingly towards the man, exuding seduction, and Steve stepped back, trying not to get in the way of the Black Widow when she was about to pounce. 

 

If Steve had been expecting Nat to charm the wits out of the guy and bleed him dry of information so to speak, however, he was sorely mistaken. The next thing Steve knew, Stijn was flying through the second floor window and down to the shrubs underneath, a dull thud and breaking glass echoing along his wake.

 

Natasha clapped her hands together as if she was dusting herself from the dirt on it, pleased, and Steve blinked then shook his head with a sigh.

 

He rubbed a hand over his eyes. “You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?”

 

“Not that he didn’t deserve it,” Sam interjected over on the earpiece comms gear from where he was watching in the distance inside the Quinjet, his voice static but no less impressed, “but what about the intel on the Winter Soldier?”

 

“Don’t worry about it, boys,” Nat answered candidly as she waved a piece of paper in the air between her fingers, smirking cockily. “Saw this lying around while Cap was making nice and asking politely. Bit old school, but he really shouldn’t be leaving his journals lying around.” Then Black Widow turned towards the exit, tapping Steve reassuringly on the shoulder on the way. “Targets will be at the Port of Amsterdam tonight; we’re making good time.”

 


 

Hermione had never wondered about muggle criminal activities before, but she marvelled at how intricate their chain of organisation was. After leaving Stijn’s office, she and James were instructed to meet with a fellow in Amsterdam named Daan, who was apparently in charge of the logistics of this...operation. They met him behind Amsterdam Centraal, and after James was satisfied that their new chauffeur was no threat, allowed Daan to usher them into a nondescript black van that took them to the port with no one the wiser. 

 

It turned out that even in international seaports, the corruption ran deep.

 

Now ensconced in a discreet three-storey building close to the harbour, where they were to remain in, hidden amongst all the other contraband , until it was time to depart. As it turned out, humans were not the only thing Stijn and his cohorts were smuggling in ; they were also smuggling drugs out

 

Hermione sighed, feeling anxious as the anticipation built. She scanned the port’s activity through the window. It was quiet now but the wait was agonising. Glancing back at her travelling companion, she found him sitting silently at the small square table situated on one side of the room and polishing a knife she hadn’t known he had. He’d told her to keep his gun and his pack of weapons and ammunition within reach, especially when they were on the ship and on their way, but otherwise, they needed to seem cooperative and relatively harmless.

 

Harmless. Yeah, right. Hermione nearly snorted to herself at the thought as she watched him deftly maneuver the wicked-looking knife between his sure grip. One look at James and people instinctively knew he was anything but.

 

“Do you do this often?” she found herself asking to distract herself. She leaned on the wall behind her beside the window and tucked her hands in the pockets of her trousers. When James paused to tilt his head questioningly at her, she elaborated with a vague wave of her hand. “You know, travelling with, erm, smugglers.”

 

James looked back down at the knife in his hands. “Only when necessary.”

 

Hermione's brows furrowed in thought, ruminating on his rather cryptic words. Her new companion was just getting more and more intriguing with every passing hour, and Hermione wasn’t sure if she could hold back all her questions any longer. 

 

But before she could ask further questions, Sprig, who'd been content to hide in her hair this whole time, emerged from its voluminous depths and slipped into view on her shoulder. He cheeped , waving his green, root-like arms in the air, sounding urgent. 

 

Hermione frowned. “What's wrong, Sprig?”

 

Sprig cheeped again, but in the next instant, James was shooting up from his seat, his attention caught by something Hermione couldn’t fathom. He crept slowly towards the door that led to the hall, posture tense and alert.

 

“What –” Hermione began softly, confused, but the gesture of silence from James stilled her words. She clamped her mouth shut, taking his cue. Reflexively, the fingers of her wand hand flexed, at the ready.

 

In the next moment, James was stalking down the hall and down the flight of stairs that led to the second floor, his footfalls as silent as a panther on a prowl. Behind him, Hermione hesitated for a second before she cast a wandless silencing charm on her feet and followed after him. James may be the best fighter she'd ever seen — and that was without magic — but she had magic and she'd been in a fight before; whatever was out there, she would be able to help.

 

When James came to a halt at the threshold of the door to the next room, Hermione was just a few steps behind him. She was unable to see what was in the other room, with James' bulk taking up most of the space in the doorway, but judging from the tense line of his shoulders, it was not a welcome sight.

 

Then an unfamiliar voice rang out, solemn. 

 

“Do you know me?”

 

There was a beat of silence, one that Hermione instinctively knew she shouldn’t interrupt. 

 

“You're Steve,” James answered finally, equally serious. “I read about you in a museum.”

 

Steve? Brows furrowing in curiosity, Hermione took another step closer, hedging slowly to the side so she could see the other person standing in what looked to be a small kitchen. Did James know him? And what museum?

 

“I know you're nervous,” the man called Steve said placatingly. “You've got plenty of reason to be – but you're lying.”

 

Lying about what?  

 

Hermione peeked behind James' broad shoulders, careful to keep her shorter stature out of view, and gaped, mouth hanging open in shock.

 

She recognised the man. She definitely recognised Captain America. 

 

Steve. Steve Rogers .

 

What the bloody hell was Captain America doing here?!

 

“I don't have anything to do with HYDRA. I don't do that anymore,” came James' response, and his cryptic answer only raised more questions than answers. 

 

Anymore?

 

“Yeah, well, they're obviously not yet done with you yet, and they're coming for you – you and the girl.” Hermione watched as Captain America turned imploring eyes on James, his voice soft. “We can help you.”

 

James knew Captain America? From behind him, Hermione felt more than saw James shake his head in solemn denial.

 

“I doubt that,” he said.

 

Weren't they supposed to trust Captain America, though? Hermione asked herself, growing more confused by the second. She reached out and slowly laid a hand on James' tense back, palm flat —  silently communicating what exactly, she didn't know, but she didn’t know enough of this situation to make any sudden decisions.

 

“This doesn't have to end in a fight, Buck.”

 

James brought his left hand up and Hermione watched as he removed the glove, revealing his metal had. He flexed them, posture tightening. “It always ends in a fight.”

 

Just then, thunderous footsteps echoed around them and Hermione clenched her fingers around James’ shirt, her gut icing over at the implication, her adrenaline spiking. 

 

HYDRA. They’d found them.

 

Captain America glanced out the window, coming to the same conclusion, but his next words to James were urgent — and completely unrelated to the matter at hand. “You pulled me from the river — why?”

 

“I don’t know,” James’ voice was hoarse, almost gravelly.

 

“Yes, you do,” Captain America insisted.

 

Whatever James’ response to that, however, was interrupted by an explosive projectile that crashed through the window. With lightning reflexes, as he should have, Captain America deflected it with his staple red, white and blue shield and the shell crashed to the wall before it skidded to the floor. James kicked it away and the superhero before them promptly covered it with his shield where it exploded harmlessly underneath it. 

 

In the next instant, men in black and grey combat gear with enormous guns were smashing through the windows around them. 

 

James grabbed Hermione’s hand and dragged her out of the doorway and into the hall, making their way to their way to the next flight of stairs that would likely lead them to the first floor and leaving Captain America to fend for himself inside the kitchen. 

 

“You know Captain America?” Hermione found herself asking, despite the gunshots and explosions she heard behind her. 

 

Up ahead, a HYDRA henchman blocked their way, gun raised and aimed. Before Hermione could voice out a warning, James had pried the weapon from him in a single bound forward and swung the stolen weapon forward like a club, knocking the man on the head and onto the ground, all without even letting go of her hand.

 

“Get us out of here,” James responded instead as he moved them forward towards the stairs, stolen gun in hand. He paused at the top of the landing to survey the opposition that scurried up the stairs from below. 

 

Hermione nodded, finding no fault in his plan. She tightened her grip on his hand and took a step, expecting the familiar pressurised sensation of Apparition to take hold...but it never came. 

 

She blinked, looking down at herself and the hand that held hers in confusion. What?

 

As if sensing her puzzlement, James glanced back at her, an eyebrow raised in question.


Hermione shook her head, bewildered, trepidation and panic creeping up her spine like icy fingers. “I can’t Apparate,” she whispered with rising horror. 

 

Why? How? Anti-apparition charms didn’t exist in this universe. No one else would have been able to cast it, except for her. 

 

With a furrow on his brow, her companion nodded and forgoing any questions that he could ask later. He decided in that split second to bulldoze his way down the stairs with brute force instead. “Stay behind me,” he said before he leapt down the steps, skillfully blocked, punched and sent their oncoming assailants down the stairs over the rails with a thud with his bare hands. 

 

Pushing down her bewilderment and anxiety, Hermione steeled herself, took a deep breath and followed after him, flicking her wrist for her wand. She had no idea what was happening — a feeling she was growing to resent more and more with each passing second — but if her magic was suddenly being affected in some way, there was no other way of knowing what was wrong with it other than to test it out in action. Whether or not HYDRA knew the extent of her abilities were now irrelevant; not when something or someone could be interfering with her magic. 

 

Deciding to join the melee, Hermione took to the stairs and threw what looked to be her first offensive spell of the day. 

 

Flippendo! ” 

 

One of the three attackers swarming at James on the steps fell back when her spell collided, taking the other one rolling down with him. James took the opportunity to take the closest one to him by the head and slammed it through the plaster before he looked up and caught her eye.

 

Hermione nodded, lips pressed in a grim line. She proceeded to fire a rapid succession of blasting curses on the guns of the men coming up the stairs. Their firearms exploded in their arms and it took no time for James to push his way through the stunned and burnt men down. 

 

Close behind him, Hermione moved forward, alert and wary, keeping a tight check on her magical flow. Maybe she was being paranoid, but it worried her. So far, however, her hexes were hitting their mark and nothing from her magic felt out of place.

 

So why couldn’t she Apparate?

 

Her answer came when she and James had made it out of the building through the front door and a veritable army of HYDRA operatives surrounding the perimeter. But what caught her attention wasn't the myriad of combat ready men closing in on them on all sides but on the large translucent dome that the area overhead, shimmering in the late summer sun like a forcefield in a movie. What was peculiar, though, was the energy it radiated. Familiar energy.

 

Magical energy.

 

Hermione was so distracted by the unexpected sight, she hadn't noticed James calling for her attention until he tugged at her arm to urge her to move again. Snapping out of her surprise, she looked around as she ran and took cover behind an enormous metal container, taking in the chaos that had erupted on the port and dodging bloody bullets and tranquiliser darts. 

 

There were HYDRA men coming in on all sides and James was systematically shooting at their oncoming pursuers with the gun he'd swiped, his shot staying true every time and he made quick work of anyone who got too close. Further off, however, Hermione could see three large military-type vehicles coming in down the port’s gangway, carrying more enemies with big guns and explosives Hermione had no name for. 

 

Just how many members did HYDRA have? They were endless!

 

Palming her wand in her hand, Hermione considered casting a blasting curse at them before the newcomers could disembark, but she would need to get closer and out of their cover. She was saved from deliberating on the best course of action, however, when something or someone flew past them over their heads in a faint gurgle of engines, flashing by in nothing but a streak of red, black and silver. 

 

Hermione squinted up at the man flying overhead in a pair of metal wings, owning the sky in a way that Icarus never did, and she watched in awe as he jetted over the trio of armoured trucks. He took out two handguns and fired ferociously at the vehicles, piercing through glass and metal and derailing each one off course, sending them colliding and exploding against each other. 

 

Hermione didn’t know who he was, but she was grateful that he seemed to be on their side.

 

And then he was winging up again…Flying towards her .

 

“Miss Granger? I’m Sam Wilson. You better come with me,” he said by way of greeting as he landed on the ground, his red and silver wings glinting in the sunlight. He reached out a gloved hand towards her. “You need —”

 

Hermione blinked up at him, surprised at the turn of events. Before she could respond and pull away, James was snatching the outstretched arm up in the air, danger and warning in his dark blue eyes, and before she knew it, the two men were in a complicated fist fight, displaying skill with every blow. 

 

“At ease, soldja boy!” the man — Sam Wilson shouted even as they traded blows.

 

But James wasn’t having it. With a skillful flip, he dodged another of the man’s punches, and using his momentum against his opponent, twisted his arm behind his back, forcing the man on his knees and in an instant, James had him in a tight chokehold, arms straining in an effort to neutralise him. 

 

The man’s metal wings opened in response, and then he shot off to the sky, taking James with him in the air.

 

James!” Hermione yelled out with a gasp, gaping as they struggled together in the air. I thought they were on our side! 

 

Tracking James’ ascent with the man with wings, she tried to follow after them on the ground but was intercepted by two HYDRA agents stationed a few metres away, their approach methodic. Tranquiliser darts shot from their guns and embedded themselves onto the shipping container behind her when they missed their target — her. 

 

Thinking quickly, Hermione twirled her wand in her hand and retaliated with two stunners their way. When they dropped to the ground like sacks of potatoes, she followed it up with two Incacerous jinxes , ensuring that they wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon, even if they did regain consciousness. Satisfied with her work, she scanned the sky for James and his new opponent once more. She spotted them engaged in hand-to-hand combat on top of a wall of shipping containers stacked together about 300 metres away from where she stood.

 

Whoever Sam Wilson was, she highly doubted he worked for HYDRA. The logical conclusion was that he was part of Captain America’s team, and from what she could glean from their earlier conversation, was trying to help. James seemed to distrust the world famous superhero and by extension, she supposed, anyone who worked with him. Whatever bad blood he had with Captain America, it didn’t change the fact that they needed to get away from there, however; they were obviously not sailing for Morocco now.

 

Hermione cast about for the shortest way to get to James, mind whirring frantically for a plan. It would have been easier if she could Apparate to get to him, but with that unavailable, she’d have to find an alternative. Just like she’d have to figure out how in Merlin’s name they were getting out of this port without Apparition.

 

If they couldn’t Apparate out, then perhaps a Portk—   

 

And then she saw it. 

 

There, at the other end of the port tucked between by two HYDRA agents who seemed to be guarding the thing, was a short tubular device on the floor, not too far from the housing building they’d been in only moments before, sitting at about 200 metres away. It emitted a shimmering, translucent light from within, shooting up in the sky and enclosing the area with a shimmering dome. If Hermione concentrated enough, if she directed her magical senses towards it, she could tell that whatever that device was, it was the radiating the kind of magical energy she was familiar with.

 

That must be the source. That must be what was stopping her from Apparating. 

 

Burrowed deep within the voluminous curtain of her hair, Sprig cheeped at her again, and Hermione hummed in agreement. Bowtruckles were notoriously sensitive and intuitive to the changes in the atmosphere, be it magic, temperature or precipitation. It was an ability that was unique to their kind, to better adapt to the different and, sometimes, unexpected environments of magical forests.

 

“You feel it, too, don’t you, Sprig?” she murmured to the bowtruckle, eyes fixed on the mysterious device. “ Magic ." 

 

The thought of HYDRA possessing something that could actually act like anti-Apparition charms was deeply concerning, but Hermione pushed it aside for later analysis. Right now, she needed to grab that thing, disable it, grab James and Apparate as far away from here as possible, as quickly as possible. 

 

Pushing away from her hiding spot, Hermione hurried over to the tube, keeping to the shadows of the shipping containers around them. She rushed past and ignored the smaller scuffles that broke out all over the port, no doubt due to an assist from Captain America’s team, whoever they were. She did, however, notice Captain America decimating a handful of HYDRA agents in tandem with his shield (one that didn’t obey the law of physics, at all) right in the middle of the port, and a few metres away, Hermione passed by a woman in a black bodysuit fighting against four enormous HYDRA operatives, gracefully flipping and knocking each one of them flat on their arses like a beautiful tornado. 

 

Black Widow .

 

The name registered with a disbelieving sense of recognition as she sped past and Hermione shook her head. The Avengers were right before her eyes; some of this world’s most incredible people and ones she’d only ever heard about on the telly, and here she was, once again in the midst of a chaotic mess. Only this time, she was the one person in this entire maelstrom who knew the least of what was going on. 

 

Her . Hermione Granger!

 

Unbelievable .

 


 

Google Translate:

 

Wat hebben we hier? - What do we have here?

 

Een paar weglopers die voor de wet vluchten? - Some runaways fleeing the law?



Chapter Text

Running was something Hermione had often needed to do often when she was younger. Her friends’ lives and hers had literally depended on it — running against time, werewolves, Death Eaters, Snatchers and Dark Creatures had actually made her pretty fit. As she grew older and her life as a witch in the Wizarding World settled into the typical normalcy of a magical adult, her job as a Field Investigator for the Department for Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures had kept her pretty active. But after two years of living in this world, the physical effects of being mostly sedentary was starting to show. 

 

Hermione was barely halfway to her destination and she was already winded and huffing from exertion. So when the Black Widow caught up to her just a few moments after she’d just seen the woman fighting, she could do nothing but marvel at the woman’s stamina; she could already feel a stitch on her side. 

 

“Hey!” Black Widow greeted cheerily as she ran beside Hermione, voice friendly and free of any physical strain.“I’m Natasha.”

 

“I know who you are,” Hermione responded in between pants, startled at the woman’s arrival but refusing to slow or break her stride. “Black Widow, right?”

 

The female Avenger nodded in confirmation, demeanour still affable, even as she placed a hand on Hermione’s forearm to slow her steps. “Then this makes things easier. You know we’re on your side, right?”

 

Just then, the sound of a deafening crash rumbled and shook the entire port. Hermione instinctively looked over to the source of the commotion, trying ferret out the cause, and saw James and the man with wings — Wilson — maneuvering themselves around and over the containers. From this distance, Hermione couldn’t tell if they were fighting each other still as they fended off HYDRA henchmen that were in pursuit. 

 

“My friend doesn’t seem to think you are,” Hermione answered the other woman’s question with a nod of her head towards the chaos across the port, referring to James.

 

“What about you?” The Black Widow shot back, eyebrows seemingly raised in question.

 

“I think,” Hermione took a deep breath and looked up at the dome that shimmered over their heads like teasing glimpses of gossamer silk in the wind, “that I don’t know enough about anything to make that decision.” Then, not wanting to waste any more time, she turned on her heel and made to hurry over to her original objective.

 

A firm hand clamped over her forearm, effectively stalling her progress. When Hermione looked back at the heroine — an actual profession in this world — her eyes were serious and grave. “It’s dangerous here; we need to get you to safety. Come with me. I can —”

 

A flicker of annoyance filtered through Hermione, both at being thought of as helpless and at the interruption of her own mission. She needed to get that tube now. The urgency she felt at getting to it was overpowering; she had no time to dilly dally.  

 

“Thank you,” she responded sincerely — Black Widow was, after all, trying to help — and giving into the urge to dissuade any other ‘protective’ thoughts from this Earth’s heroes, Hermione allowed a current of magic to ripple down her arm, “but I can take care of myself.”

 

Black Widow retracted her hand with a hiss as the wavelet of magical energy shocked her enough for her hand to sting and she jumped back in a defensive position in the next second. “You’re Enhanced,” she stated with a guarded and speculative gleam in her jade green eyes. She tilted her head to the side, much like a feline predator would. “That makes much more sense now.”

 

“Sure, why not?” Everyone else seemed to think so.

 

Hermione didn’t bother correcting her assumption, letting the other woman come to her own conclusions, and instead turned back, this time doubling her pace towards the magical tube. A moment later, she heard footsteps thundering behind her, followed by gunshots, grunts and thuds of pain. She glanced over her shoulder to see Black Widow once again engaged in combat with a handful of HYDRA soldiers. 

 

Some of them veered back and headed towards Hermione, guns aimed. Slowing her pace, Hermione turned slightly to send back an Arresto Momentum at them with a neat flourish, causing her pursuers to slow down at a literal snail’s pace, and with another familiar twirl of her wand, followed it up with Incarcerous charms , effectively wrapping them up and stilling their pursuit of her. 

 

That done, Hermione took a quick glance at Black Widow’s own scuffle and found the woman with her knees locked around a burly man’s neck, smashing her fists against his skull and using her swinging momentum to send him slamming down hard to the ground. Wincing and deciding that it looked like an assist wasn’t needed, Hermione turned back to run back in the direction of the tube. She was closer now, and in a several metres, she would be within reach, and within it’s guards’ notice.

 

Tightening her grip on her wand, Hermione took a bracing breath and ran towards the men at full speed. A full frontal attack had never been her style – Harry and Ron excelled in that area, being Aurors by profession. While she preferred to approach situations with a plan and more creative spells as a Creature Investigator, in this case, she supposed it couldn't hurt for her to go in swinging once in a while.

 

When she was close enough, garnering the HYDRA guards' attention, she cast a silent Protego around herself and prayed that her shield would hold up against speeding bullets from this technologically advanced universe. As anticipated, they started shooting at her a moment later, trying to deter her advance, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the bullets bounced off her charm's barrier. 

 

Bolstered by this discovery, Hermione raised her wand and blasted out a quick Depulso at one of the guards, sending him flying towards the building behind him, plaster and debris falling in his wake. He slid to the floor boneless and unconscious. In the next second, she was skidding to a halt in front of the remaining (and bewildered) guard and wasted no time catching him with an Immobulus , freezing him in his place like a statue. Slashing her wand upwards with an Ascendio, he propelled high in the air, free falling back to the ground metres away.

 

Now free of opponents, Hermione bent over her knee and tried to catch her breath, taking lungs full of air like a fish out of water. She hadn't thought she was this out of shape! With one more breath, she finally stood and turned to her objective, lying innocently just a couple of metres away. 

 

Up close, the device stood no taller than a wine bottle, cylindrical and silver and glinting sharply under the setting sun. On top was a thin, circular shoot, no bigger than that of a Gold Galleon, where the magical energy shot out of like a concentrated laser. It’s base was flat and much like the gadgets of this technologically advanced world, it was smooth and sleek, free of buttons, except for small pinholes at the edges of the base. 

 

Great. She was rubbish with technology.

 

Huffing, Hermione knelt down beside the silver cylinder, wand held lightly between her fingers like a conductor. If there was anything she had learned from Horcrux hunting, it was to be very careful with unknown items – particularly with unknown magical potential. She may be able to feel magical energy from it, and though it didn't radiate any malevolent magic, she wasn't exactly sure what it actually was – not really – other than the fact that it was preventing her from Disapparating. 

 

Hermione closed her eyes and tried to concentrate. She allowed her magic to funnel through her wand, probing and scanning the magical energy that shot off the device lightly with her own magical essence. What she found inside confused her deeply and challenged everything she knew of the relationship between magic and technology. 

 

The energy it radiated was definitely of magic she was familiar with, and upon digging deeper, she could even detect a tiny compression of energy that acted as its core, its power source. But what amazed her more was how something electronically-based could house even this even small amount of magic. There was a reason wizarding magic and muggle technology didn’t mix and why muggle electronics would short circuit every time. Magic at its most basic was wild, and there was no way muggle technology could tame that.

 

Unless there was a way. In this world.

 

But the question was, where did this magic come from?

 

Hermione had a feeling she wouldn’t like the answer. 

 


 

James was not happy with this new development. 

 

Even battered and bruised from slamming and skidding against metal containers, James blocked a punch from his opponent – Wil-something – which he parried with his own uppercut and hooked punches. He followed it up with a kick, but Wings Man blocked it with a firm grip and used the same leg to push him off his feet. 

 

James used his momentum to backflip on the floor, rolling into an offensive stance, but before he could deliver a retaliatory blow, the other man used his wings to fly up and put some distance between them. 

 

“Look, man, in case you hadn't noticed,” the wings guy called out from where he hovered above him, out of reach, sounding aggravated, “We're on the same side! We're trying to. Help. You!”

 

James narrowed his eyes at the sparrow man, considering his next move. He was well aware of who they were and why they were there – he'd learned all he could about the infamous Avengers after his...freedom from HYDRA – but he mentally cursed himself for this clear oversight. He should have anticipated their arrival, especially after the scene that HYDRA caused in London. He'd been so focused on getting Hermione out of the continent to think about the repercussions a very public shoot out in a major world city would cause – of course the world's mightiest heroes were going to get involved.

 

The thing was, James didn't want them to be involved. It was the last thing he needed on his self-appointed mission. Nor was the turmoil he felt at seeing and recognizing the familiar face of a skinny punk in Brooklyn. It made things all the harder for him. He may not be able to remember everything yet, but he grieved for the man he had been, the man Steve thought he was. 

 

No, they didn't need The Avengers with them. James would ensure Hermione's safety on his own, unless she told him herself otherwise.

 

Then, a bullet flew by James' shoulder, ricocheting off the metal and missing him by mere inches. He whipped around to spot the shooter, positioned on another set of shipping containers several yards down. In the next moment, more bullets rained on them like a cascade of tiny explosives against the metal underneath his feet.

 

“See? They're the bad guys!” the guy with the wings griped, before he flew off in the direction of the shooters in the distance, descending upon them like a missile and knocking them to the ground. 

 

James, for his part, wasted no time jumping down some 20 feet from the shipping container. When he landed, he was met by a swarm of HYDRA agents and he made quick work with each and every one of them, disarming them and using brute force to flip and slam them against the metal and concrete floor. By the time he'd finished off with his assailants, leaving them dusted on the ground, he'd come to the simplest conclusion: whatever The Avengers' real objective was, it didn't change the fact that he had to get Hermione out of there. 

 

Resolved to make his way towards his charge(?), James hoped she was able to hold her own with her magic long enough for him to get to her. He began to climb up the stacks of metal containers again; being on higher ground would be faster and would give him a better vantage point to locate Hermione in the chaos. Then...there was a loud rumbling in the air, deafening like thunder in his ears. The wind picked up around him like a tornado had arrived and when James looked up, he nearly groaned at the sight of an attack helicopter coming in from above.

 

HYDRA just did not know when to pull back the stops, did they?

 

Veering down to level the enormous chain guns at its target – in this case James – the helicopter rained a barrage of bullets, piercing through the metal of the shipping containers. James ran off to the opposite direction at full speed and jumped off to the next stack of containers. He landed with a loud thunk, but he didn't slow, the bullets only missing him by a hair's breadth.

 

He cast about for a way to deal with the oversized piece of metal. He spotted a series of footholds attached to the shipping container a short distance away. Turning sharply to his left, he made his way to the footholds, leaping and running over another two irregular stacks of shipping containers, all making sure he wasn't hit by any of the copter's ammo. 

 

Grabbing hold of the first rung, James quickly made his way up the metal container, some 16 feet higher than his previous standpoint. Sure enough, the armed copter was right on his tail, rotor blades whirring like rolling thunder, flying close enough for him to see the individual occupants of the aircraft. 

 

Once he was high enough, James coiled himself taut and launched himself into the air, arms reaching forward so he could grab onto the landing skids, his legs dangling in the air. Hoisting himself up with little effort, he slid along the side of the copter and pried the cockpit open with his metal arm as his other hand found purchase on the aircraft’s ridges. 

 

With the cockpit door forced open, James was met with panicked shooting, bullets that he’d managed to block with his left arm, metal and impenetrable. With a nearly practiced ease, he slipped into the helicopter’s cabin and made quick work of its three occupants, rendering one of them unconscious with a well-aimed right hook and uppercut combination. In the same movement, James moved smoothly towards his partner who was shooting wildly with his gun, swiping at the barrel with his left hand and elbowing him right on the nose. With a kick, he fell limply from the cockpit and onto the unforgiving ground below. 

 

Alone and alarmed, the copter’s pilot hurried to unclip a pistol off his holster, one hand still on the control’s lever. He shot wildly at James, bullets ricocheting off the walls and puncturing through the engine wall. 

 

The helicopter’s emergency horns blared, lights on the panels flashing red. In that split second distraction, James reached out and slammed the guy’s head onto the copter’s dash and with a quick glance at the controls, swiftly dashed off towards the open cockpit and jumped out just as the aircraft spun out of control. It weaved dangerously in the air before it descended onto the ground, crashing in a heap of fire and explosion that shook the entire port.

 

James, who had caught himself on one of the shipping container’s edges, slid himself down the smooth metal until he could slip on top of another one of the containers, intending to return to his original objective of locating Hermione. He was nearly out of the maze of containers when a familiar figure emerged from the smoke billowing from the explosion behind him, a hulking figure that struck awe to many who saw him. 

 

“Sometimes, I really think you took all the stupid with you,” Steve said as he neared.

 

James slowed to a halt, posture wary. They stood in front of each other once again, this time in a narrow passageway surrounded by tall stacks of metal boxes. 

 

Silence reigned for several heartbeats, even as the sounds of pandemonium broke out around them.

 

“And you’re a punk,” Finally, James answered, taking a cautious step forward, “But I’m not coming with you.” And then he was off, launching himself forward at full speed. He drew his metal arm back for a resounding punch as it caught against the vibranium shield. Using his momentum and Steve’s momentary retreat to slip past him, James ducked low and slid past the Avenger in a split second, and he set off, not looking back.

 

If he did, there was a lot more of his past he’d have to face than a punk he used to know; ones that he wasn’t sure he was ready to or ever would be.

 


 

Immersed in the mysterious source of magic, Hermione barely noticed the ensuing commotion around her, letting her magic delve deeper. She prodded at the tiny, compressed core curiously and then she was suddenly awash with the feelings of...torment. Flashes of pain and suffering. Despair. 

 

The sense of foreboding she felt only magnified the deeper she probed until she was suffocating in the feelings of fear and hopelessness. Hermione pulled back abruptly from her trance with a gasp, pulling air desperately into her lungs. She blinked her eyes open to see James staring down at her with concerned blue eyes, his hands gripping her shoulder as if he'd just shook her awake. 

 

“What happened?” James asked, checking her over quickly before he glanced down at the glowing device she'd been crouched over before he returned his gaze to her. 

 

“I...” Hermione brought a hand to her forehead, her wand hanging limply on the other. From his perch on her shoulder, Hermione could feel Sprig chirp softly at her, a vine-like hand stroking lightly against her cheek. She shook her head in an effort to clear her disorientation. “I think I know why I can't Apparate.” She glanced down at the magically powered cylinder, confusion and trepidation warring inside her. “We need to turn this thing off.”

 

“How?”

 

Hermione shook her head, coming up with blanks.

 

James took another moment to stare at the thing before he turned back to her with a very serious tilt of his mouth. “Give me my gun.”

 

Hermione balked at him. Was he mad? “You can't blow it up!”

 

“Seems to be the only option we got right now.” James shrugged, hands sliding off her shoulder now that she seemed to have regained enough strength to push herself up on her knees, riled.

 

“Energy cannot be created or destroyed,” Hermione lectured him reflexively, instantly providing him with information of why that would be a bad idea. “The first law of thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Conservation of Energy.” When James merely stared at her like she'd sprouted a second head after she'd been hit by a troll club, Hermione sighed, realising how despairingly similar it looked on Harry and Ron's faces. “If we release this energy, there's nowhere else for it to go but out . It could level this whole place up before we could even make it out of here.”

 

“Then what do we do?”

 

Hermione glanced back down at the magical-technology hybrid, mind racing and mentally flipping through books and pages and pages of information she read on the laws of magic and the laws of physics – two very contradictory fundamental studies of reality. “Our best bet would be to disable it, but we don't have enough time for me to do it properly to ensure that it won't explode in our faces.”

 

“Then we'll make a run for it,” James said with a nod, standing up from where he'd knelt down beside her just as something – or someone landed right a short distance away from them.

 

Hermione gaped at the young woman that had alighted from the air in front of them, caught off guard by her ease with self-levitation despite not seeming to possess any type of obvious technology to do so. 

 

“Sorry,” she interjected with a thick Eastern European accent. “We can't let you go anywhere.” 

 

Then her hands glowed pink, raised with fingers poised dramatically in the air. Whether it had been by pure instinct or self-preservation, Hermione lifted a Protego Maxima in defensive response with a wandless wave of her hand. 

 

The unknown pink force collided with the reinforced shield of magical energy in a blinding blast of light pink and white that encompassed the entire port. A wave of pure energy crashed outwardly through the air, the pressure and force pushing everything and everyone around them back several metres. 

 

Hermione felt more than saw James draw her down to the ground, blocking her from the shock wave with his bulk. When the brightness cleared, there was a moment of stunned confusion and silence. 

 

Hermione blinked in the sudden stillness, bewildered for a brief second, as James moved off her cautiously, on his guard. She glanced back at the young assailant who'd also been knocked off her feet by the sudden blast, meeting similarly puzzled sky blue eyes. 

 

But before Hermione could process anything else, they were surrounded.

 

By superheroes.

 

Bugger.

 

Chapter Text

Being herded like a common criminal onto The Avengers' large black jet – the likes of which she'd only thought possible in sci-fi movies – was not something Hermione had ever envisioned happening to her. Not after winning against the Death Eaters and Voldemort, at least. But here she was, being led into the dimly lit recesses of the sleek aircraft, despite being reassured by Black Widow that she was ‘not a prisoner’, though her watchful eyes and ready stance told her otherwise.

 

Glancing back over her shoulder, Hermione caught sight of James being frogmarched, with his hands secured in front of him, by Captain America and Wilson several paces behind her, their captors ensuring that there was some distance between them. He looked tense and dangerous, coiled tight like a spring and she couldn't help but sympathise. Then, as if sensing her eyes on him, he looked up and met her gaze.

 

Hermione gave him what she hoped was a meaningful look, a plea for patience, hoping he wouldn't do anything rash. She knew James was strong – frighteningly, abnormally so, but brute force wouldn't get them anywhere except to somewhere worse than where they started: on the run from both HYDRA and The Avengers. This was not a situation she had anticipated; she needed to bide her time. And though she was still left with even more questions, she acknowledged that there was a part of her that was rather curious about this new development and this world's 'mightiest superheroes'.

 

Logically, Hermione knew she was no criminal. She had nothing to fear from The Avengers – at least, not in the way she obviously should with HYDRA. She also recognised the resources they possessed, the answers she could glean from what they knew, because surely they knew more than she did. 

 

Turning back, Hermione took a deep breath and planted herself on one of the chairs affixed to the side of the jet she'd been directed to sit at, letting the familiar weight of her wand, secured and disillusioned at her wrist holster, comfort her. If she allowed herself to pursue this line of action, she'd have to tread carefully and time everything perfectly. She knew full well she couldn't fight a room full of enhanced individuals and hope to win, but if things got hairy, she'd only be seconds away from Apparating out of there now that she was free of that strange anti-Apparition forcefield. 

 

Resolute and feeling more confident with her plan, such as it was, Hermione looked up, intending to take in her rather futuristic surroundings, but she was surprised to find the world-famous heroine still there, looking at her with a gentle look that Hermione supposed was meant to be reassuring. “We're not going to hurt you or your friend, but we need you to cooperate right now. Can you do that?”

 

Unable to think of a sincere response, Hermione nodded warily. What else could she have said? She certainly had no intention of doing anything beyond what she needed to get her answers.

 

Thankfully, she was saved from having to make false promises when a muted conversation broke out, filtering through the closed confines of the jet easily. Their brief moment of truce broken, Black Widow moved to the front of the jet, taking a seat at the pilot's chair just as Hermione glanced over to the other end of the aircraft to find Captain America standing a short distance away from where James was perched on his seat, so still and silent, she was reminded of a waiting predator. 

 

“Are the magnetic cuffs really necessary?” 

 

Close by, the man with the mechanical wings shook his head apologetically, sounding contrite. “Sorry, Cap,” Wilson said, raising his hands in surrender. “Your buddy's too trigger happy; I'd rather not take any chances until we get to HQ.”

 

Captain America sighed at that, shaking his head in disappointment. Then he cast a torn look at James but said nothing more. He strode off to the front of the jet a few seconds later, presumably to speak with the two women seated up front, leaving James – and Hermione – in the care of his teammate. 

 

James, for his part, seemed to be studiously ignoring everyone around him, face stony and unreadable. It was strange how he seemed to be tied to two very powerful organizations – both essentially standing on opposite sides of the coin. Was it a coincidence? Just who was Mr. James? What did he know?

 

...And was he, ultimately, friend or foe?

 

Before she could ruminate further on that particular mystery, The Avengers' jet rumbled to life, gearing for lift-off. All her questions about her mysterious saviour would have to wait at a later date. Right now, she needed her wits about her or she'd never get any answers.

 

And that was unacceptable.

 


 

When the Quinjet landed at the New Avengers Facility, Fury and Maria were on the ground waiting, brisk and all business as usual. A crew of armed agents were also waiting with them and Steve had to suppress his displeasure at the sight of them. They were no doubt there to ensure that Bucky remained neutralized until they could question him about London and HYDRA. It was SOP, he knew that, but that didn’t stop his irritation from building.

 

Nat seemed to notice his indignation as the crew came through the gate to retrieve his best friend and Miss Granger from their positions on the jet, escorting them efficiently into the compound. She tapped a placating hand on his shoulder. “It’s just Procedure. He knows more about HYDRA than anyone here; he needs to be questioned.”

 

Steve sighed sourly. “I know, I know. It’s just,” he ran a hand over his face, unable to do anything with his frustration, “we’re The Avengers, not SHIELD. There shouldn’t be a need for this...formality.” He didn’t like how they were treating Bucky like a criminal when he was the victim. He’d been a victim for decades ; they shouldn’t be cornering him like this.

 

“Steve,” Nat began in a reasonable tone, smirking at him benignly. “ Informal would be having you two duke it out until one of you keels over. Don’t think Fury would like that very much. Not until he has all his answers, at least.” With one more friendly tap on his shoulder, she loped off out of the jet. “You’ll get your chance.”

 

With another sigh, Steve followed suit, not the least bit mollified. He knew Natasha was right, however. That didn't mean he had to like it.

 

Ten minutes later, Steve found himself ensconced in the control room with the rest of the team, watching a live feed of Bucky seated in a room that had been cleared out save for another chair and a table for the upcoming...interrogation, cuffed and docile, in one screen while his companion paced nervously around a similar chamber in another. The waiting game was a classic trick used during interrogations, but Steve found himself just as antsy as the woman on the video feed, a restless energy inside him that he hadn’t felt in a long time. He wanted this over with now so they could start proving Bucky’s innocence – because he was .

 

The door opened and Steve nearly breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Fury entering the room, a tablet and a few folders in hand. 

 

“We managed to decrypt some things from HYDRA files on the internet that’s related to Hermione Granger,” the former SHIELD director said without preamble as he handed Natasha and then Steve each a folder, “but there are still some encryptions we can’t breach fast enough. We’ve called in Stark to help us with that.” Then he turned to Steve with a gimlet stare from his single remaining eye. “It's your call, Captain.”

 

The tension that had accumulated in Steve's shoulders drained at those words. For once, he was glad to be calling the shots, free from bureaucratic authority. “I'll talk to Bucky first. Sam will be my backup.” When Fury raised a shrewd, inquiring eyebrow at him, he elaborated, unconsciously planting himself firmly on the ground as if he expected opposition on his decision. “They're not our prisoners so we're not going to treat them like they are; we just need to talk to them. Figuring out HYDRA's motivations is our priority.” 

 

Fury's look turned deadpanned, which said exactly what he thought of that idea, but he held his tongue, thankfully. This was not SHIELD, and though Steve respected Fury, he was no longer his superior. And, okay, Steve knew he was being a bit biased but he was not going to prosecute and accuse Bucky of the things he had been forced to do; it wasn't right.

 

Natasha, who’d been sitting languidly in her seat with her feet on the table, sat up as she flipped through the folder, eyes darting quickly as she skimmed through the pages. “Huh, she’s a Gifted, not Enhanced. Interesting.”

 

“ A Gifted?” Wanda asked from where she sat beside Natasha, head tilted to the side in curiosity.

 

“An individual naturally born with their powers,” Vision interjected helpfully as he sat beside the younger woman. “The very opposite of you, Wanda, I’d say. And quite rare.” Turning to Nat, he asked, “What abilities does Miss Granger have?”

 

Nat shuffled through a couple more pages before landing on the one she wanted. “Says here, her abilities involve energy and matter manipulation…” Then a deep furrow etched itself into her brow in a mix of confusion and disbelief. “ Magic?

 

Intrigued, Steve turned to his own folder and flipped through his copy of the new files, spotting the words that made his own eyebrows rise in disbelief. Abilities... Manipulation of energy and matter… Magical capabilities… Scope unknown… 

 

“Magic as in hocus pocus , abracadabra ?” Sam scoffed from his spot against the wall at the other side of the room, his arms crossed. He shook his head in disbelief. “HYDRA can't seriously believe she has magic. I mean, come on.”

 

Vision frowned thoughtfully, voice light but wondering. “It certainly is strange that they would call her powers that. Wanda has neuroelectric interphasing, telekinesis and mental manipulation, but you wouldn't call that magic.”

 

Beside him, Wanda looked impressed by the large string of words that described her abilities but nodded her head in agreement all the same.

 

“I don't know,” Steve shook his head as he flipped the folder close, ready to get the ball rolling, “but we've seen stranger things before.”

 

There was a brief acknowledging silence to that statement. 

 

What have they not seen at this point? 

 


 

James was familiar with interrogations; he knew how they usually went, how ugly they could get. He’d experienced them before, and somewhere in the dark fragmented recesses of his mind, he suspected he'd even been an accessory to some of HYDRA's most gruesome ones. So when Steve pushed through the door with the usual serious look on his face, James was surprised, caught off guard. He didn't think interrogations were really the man's style. At least, it wasn't to the punk Bucky knew. But a lot could change in several decades…

 

James certainly had.

 

“You're not under arrest so you can relax,” Steve began as he walked in, making a beeline to a spot across the room where he promptly leaned against the wall, arms crossed casually over his chest. “We just want to talk.”

 

James looked pointedly down at the magnetic cuffs on his wrists, stuck and immovable on the table, before looking back up at him with a bland look. “Could have fooled me.”

 

Taking his point, Steve glanced back at the man who'd come in behind him – the guy with the wings – and gave him a one-shouldered shrug. 

 

The other man rolled his eyes in response and trudged reluctantly towards James, clearly displeased with the idea. Reaching down, he deactivated the magnetic cuffs adhering James’ hands to the table. “I'm watching you, Metal Arm; don't do anything ridiculous.”

 

Deciding it was best not to respond, James rubbed at his wrist to relieve it of some of the chaffing on his skin instead, his mouth turned down, unimpressed. If this was their form of intimidation, they'd be lucky to get anything out of a five-year-old. 

 

“Bucky,” Steve began, his tone grave. “I need you to tell us what’s going on. Why is HYDRA after you?”

 

James looked up at him consideringly from his seat, watching the man from his memories with an assessing gaze. Was it fight or flight? Or should he cooperate? He was under no illusion that he was stuck there until they were satisfied with his answers. Frankly, he had no qualms about fighting everyone there. 

 

But Hermione… Hermione seemed to have other plans. He didn’t know what it was, but he couldn’t begrudge her for this decision. She needed her answers; ones that he wasn’t sure he could give.

 

“Isn’t it obvious?” James finally responded gruffly after several long seconds, leaning forward on his arms, fingers interlaced. “I'm their 'Winter Soldier'. ” He hated how those words tasted on his mouth. It made bile rise up to his gut every time. “They've been after me since...”

 

“Since Washington,” Steve finished for him, referring to the day of SHIELD’s downfall, the day his mind reclaimed its freedom, nodding his head in understanding. “And they’re not going to stop until they have you. What about the dame?”

 

James clenched his teeth together at that, clicking them shut. What could he say about Hermione? She was his mission, and he was going to keep her away from HYDRA at all costs, but did that also extend to The Avengers? 

 

The Avengers might not be SHIELD, but just how trustworthy could they really be? If HYDRA could worm its way into governments and organizations like SHIELD, who was to say that this place remained safe from infiltration, as well? 

 

James might not know exactly why HYDRA wanted Hermione besides her obvious possession of magic , but he knew they wanted her badly enough to risk exposure to the world again before they were ready. If The Avengers knew just how valuable she was to HYDRA, would they use her for their own benefit, too?

 

When the silence stretched longer than a few seconds, Steve sighed, visibly disappointed by his reluctance to cooperate. “We know about her abilities; HYDRA calls it magic. Is that why they’re after her?” 

 

This was met with a stubborn silence once again, but Steve persisted.

 

“The shooting in London, the missiles, the attack in Amsterdam; HYDRA is putting everything they’ve got out there to get to you, and innocent people have and are going to keep getting hurt. If they’re after her, we can protect her. Both of you.”

 

Innocent people have and are going to keep getting hurt. James gritted his teeth against those words, feeling them hit like a physical blow. He wasn't like that anymore; he didn't want any more blood on his hands. 

 

“I don't know why.” Grimly, James stared down at his hands, gloves sooty and grimy from the day's events, but he saw the red stains there that haunted him even now. “I was just their soldier, Steve. I was only meant to follow orders.”

 

Steve winced. They both knew the next words that were left unsaid.

 

I was only meant to be a puppet .

 


 

To everyone who knew her, Hermione Granger was a clever witch. She was bright and book smart, yes, but she was also very quick on her feet, resourceful and ready for nearly every eventuality. She was instrumental in the Second Wizarding War because of it. 

 

So by the time the door to her… room ...opened, Hermione was ready. She may be out of her element – out of her own universe, even – but she was a witch and a war veteran; she knew a thing or two about facing intimidating adversaries.

 

Hermione turned to face the door, stalled from her restless pacing, as a tall, imposing man stepped in without ceremony, dressed all in black, looking quite forbidding with his bald head and his eyepatch. He marched into the room with a slow, confident gait, his back straight, his hands behind his back. The air of command he radiated was not lost on her.

 

This was a man of power, of authority. This was not a man to be trifled with.

 

Black Widow glided in after him a moment later, her steps light and easy, as if she were just stepping out to take a stroll through the park. She gave Hermione a nod and a small smile of acknowledgement before she silently took one of the seats at the table in the middle of the room.

 

“Miss Granger,” the unknown man began, speaking slowly, clearly and not a little arrogantly, snatching Hermione's attention back to him. He stood dominantly across from her, at the other side of the room, feet braced apart in a militaristic fashion. “Please, take a seat.” 

 

Hermione glanced down at the chair closest to her, right across Black Widow's, then looked back up at the man in black. “Am I to be detained?”

 

The man and Black Widow shared a quick look at that. 

 

Not yet , Hermione read in that moment.

 

“No,” the man denied simply.

 

“Then, if it's all the same to you, Mr…?” Hermione trailed off letting the question hang in the stilted air until he responded.

 

“Fury.”

 

“Mr. Fury,” Hermione nodded in acknowledgement, using the clipped matter-of-fact tone of voice that she knew grated on Ron's nerves, “I'd prefer to stand.” 

 

She was well aware of what they were doing. The waiting, the strength in numbers… They were all psychological techniques to assert dominance and control. They meant to intimidate her. This wasn't a friendly social call, no matter how the other woman made her believe as such. 

 

This was an interrogation. 

 

Fortunately for her, Hermione knew the game. She could play it, too. 

 

“You sure?” the woman lounging in front of her chimed in. “They're comfortable seats.”

 

Hermione gave her a wry smile. “I'm sure.” She willed her shoulder to relax as she surveyed the two likely very dangerous people before her. “You mentioned wanting to talk?”

 

Mr. Fury's one piercing brown eye seemed to glimmer. They were sharp and shrewd, and Hermione steeled herself from flinching under his gaze. “You've lived a quiet life, haven't you, Miss Granger?” He flipped open a folder he'd been clutching, seemingly reading through its contents. “Working at the University of London, lab assistant to a world-renowned astrophysicist, graduated with honors at the University of Aberdeen, Masters degrees in quantum physics and astronomy, impressive academic records...”

 

Hermione bit the inside of her cheek to keep from physically reacting to all the lies she'd put on her résumé when she'd applied for a position in Dr. Foster's team. 

 

“...Except,” Mr. Fury glanced up from the folder, his one eye pinning her where she stood, “none of them checks out.”

 

Bugger

 

“In fact, we can't find any record of you in the UK's government database. Not even your birth records.” Mr. Fury flipped his file shut with a snap. “Care to tell me how someone with almost no paper trail ends up working at one of the most prestigious universities in the country?”

 

Hermione took in a sharp breath, exhaling slowly and internally cursing at whatever god was taking pleasure at her misery. She knew her duplicity was going to bite her in the arse one day! 

 

When Hermione had found out about Dr. Foster and her theory, she'd jumped at the chance to research the very phenomenon that most likely took her to this new world. She hadn't the proper paperwork, nor the credentials to apply for such a coveted position...but she did have her magic. 

 

Loathed as she was to take advantage of another human being, her guilt at casting the Confundus charm on Dr. Foster on the day of her interview had eaten at her conscience ever since, and it was partly the reason why Hermione worked more than anyone else on the team. She knew she hadn't earned a place there, but she'd been desperate to be a part of the study on The Convergence; it had been the only way to ensure that she had the resources she needed to supplement her own research. 

 

What she hadn't accounted for was a thorough investigation into her fake background – by the Avengers, no less! 

 

What a mess!

 

Steeling herself, Hermione threw out a flimsy excuse. One that even she wasn't very impressed with. “As you said, Mr. Fury. I prefer to live a quiet life. And a very private one.”

 

“So private that the UK government doesn't even know you exist?” Black Widow deadpanned, raising a sceptical brow.

 

Hermione, having no believable answer to that, shrugged in response, letting the question rest.

 

“You must be aware by now that you've become a Person of Interest, Miss Granger.” Mr. Fury put both his hands down on the table in front of him and leant in. “HYDRA clearly has an interest in you and when they're interested in something – or someone – it usually isn't a good thing.” His eye glittered in the sterile white light. “Now it's our job to find out what it is and put a stop to it.”

 

“Sounds like I'm under suspicion,” Hermione responded calmly, trying to affect a nonchalance she didn't totally feel. Her wand hand flexed minutely, every particle of magic inside her coiling at the ready. “However, in case you'd forgotten, I was running away from HYDRA, not towards them. I didn't even know an organisation like HYDRA even existed until yesterday when they were shooting at me.”

 

“Then isn't it interesting,” Mr. Fury tacked on almost tauntingly, “that you'd be with the Winter Soldier when it happened?” 

 

Hermione's brows furrowed, suddenly lost by the line of questioning. “Who?”

 

At her bewildered expression, Mr. Fury seemed to pause, sharing another silent glance with the woman sitting on the chair beside him before he pulled back to his feet, a new light of speculation in his gaze.

 

“Your friend,” Black Widow finally clarified, her own scrutiny calculating. 

 

Whatever conclusions they were coming to, Hermione had no idea. But it seemed clear The Avengers had no more idea about HYDRA's motives than she was.

 

And then there was…

 

“James?” Hermione shook her head at a loss. She practically knew nothing about him. “I only met him yesterday. He...He helped me when HYDRA attacked me at Hyde Park.” She frowned thoughtfully, curbing the urge to pace. It seemed she was only unearthing more questions here than answers, as well. “The Winter Soldier?”

 

There was another pregnant pause, one that admittedly made Hermione nervous. 

 

Finally, Black Widow spoke up, voice soft but weighty. “The Winter Soldier was a HYDRA assassin. He supposedly broke away from them and went under the radar a year ago.”

 

Hermione blinked as she took a moment to absorb this new information, her mind reeling to catch up. 

 

James. James was an assassin. For HYDRA. Or, at least, he had been.

 

She'd been running around with a murderer all this time?!

 

Merlin's balls!  

 

And suddenly, all the cryptic things he'd said and near impossible things he'd done made so much more sense now. 

 

I've seen what HYDRA can do up close, he'd told her. He'd said he'd seen what they could do. Bloody hell, he might have even helped . He'd worked for them!

 

But then...why was he helping her? Why was he going against HYDRA now?

 

Circe, Hermione knew there was more to James than met the eye, but she hadn't thought...

 

She paused. No, she didn’t need to postulate more questions about the mysterious man right now. She’d deal with the mystery of Mr. James later. Right now, it was her turn to ask questions. 

 

Hermione took a deep, fortifying breath, determined to get back on track. “Look, think what you will about me, but I have no idea why HYDRA is after me. I’m just a lab assistant. But I do want to know why. So if you know anything –”

 

“Miss Granger,” he interrupted, and Hermione was beginning to feel the stirrings of annoyance at his frequent name-calling. She knew it was yet another tactic for dominance, but it was getting old. “We know about your abilities. We know that you’re Gifted.” 

 

Mr. Fury started to pace slowly along the length of the room. Hermione narrowed her eyes at him, her shoulder tense once again. He continued. “Your powers...or magic, ” the man said the word like he could barely even believe such a thing, “as HYDRA calls it, is what they’re likely after. What we want to know is why.”

 

“Well, join the club,” she muttered. But what Hermione really wanted to know was how. How did HYDRA know about her magic?

 

“There are many exceptional people in this galaxy,” Fury went on as if he was in front of a grand audience at a lecture. “Human experimentation has been something HYDRA has dabbled with for decades. What's to stop them from manufacturing Gifted humans?”

 

Hermione’s brows lifted in disbelief at his suggestion. “Are you implying that I’d been experimented on?”

 

“Or a product of one. Your lack of official records anywhere around the world point to an unorthodox birth –”

 

“Stop!” Hermione interrupted, bringing a hand to her temple. What an insane conjecture! The thought of her parents being experimented on by a secret evil organisation was not only laughable, but highly impossible. “I’m sorry, but that’s just ridiculous. I can assure you, Mr. Fury, that my parents have no ties to HYDRA. They’re the most ordinary people on Earth!” 

 

In this one and the other one.

 

The narrowed one-eyed glare Mr. Fury gave her was hard and penetrating. “Do you know anything about Operation Witch Hunt?”

 

Hermione's head snapped up towards the man so fast, she could have had whiplash. “ I beg your pardon?

 

What did he just say?

 

Mr. Fury turned and nodded at Black Widow who promptly slid a cream coloured folder towards her across the table. Hermione took a cautious step closer and reached for the file carefully. She flipped it open, and there on the first page, in bold, red capital letters, read:

 

CONFIDENTIAL: OPERATION WITCH HUNT

 

Witch.

 

Witch .

 

The word stood out almost glaringly at her.

 

“This is all the information HYDRA has on you,” Mr. Fury informed her with an open palm, gesturing at the papers in her hands. “Your abilities, your description. It's clear they'd been after you for quite some time.”

 

He was right. 

 

Hermione shuffled through the pages in the file, her alarm rising with each word she read, knuckles white from her tight grip. HYDRA had not only compiled a detailed description of her – from her full name to her physical description and age – but also a list of her magical capabilities. It wasn't a complete one by any means, but they knew enough of what most adults witches and wizards were capable of. 

 

But how? 

 

How? 

 

“This is impossible,” she muttered, letting out a shaky breath, her thoughts panicked and racing. “There's no way they could have known. I'd been so careful...and this – this is too detailed. I –” she broke off in subconscious denial, disbelief.

 

There was just no way they could have known about her. Not to this level of detail. And though her kind didn't exist in this world, the thought of muggles possessing such knowledge about her kind was upsetting. The fact that HYDRA had gathered all this about her was downright terrifying .

 

What's more – they called her a witch. Not Gifted. Not Enhanced. Witch. 

 

Hermione's mind raced. It was a terribly specific word to use when everyone she'd met so far had not even made such a connection.

 

Could HYDRA know? Could they know not only what she truly was, but also where she was truly from?

 

“I need to think,” Hermione declared suddenly, snapping the file shut with a finality that spoke of her determination to figure out what the bloody hell was going on. She needed to step back and re-evaluate everything she'd known and learned about The Convergence and her presence here. “I need to go.”

 

This changed everything.

 

“Miss Granger, I don't think you understand the gravity of the situation here,” Mr. Fury started to protest. “We can't let you leave until –”

 

“And I don't think you understand, Mr. Fury, that I came here of my own free will.” Hermione turned to the other occupants in the room with an irritated look, tone sharp. She hated being interrupted when she was on a roll. “I want to find out why a secret terrorist organisation is after me just as much as you do – if not more, but you have no right to detain me against my will.”

 

“I understand your reluctance,” Mr. Fury responded placatingly, “but we can't just let you walk out of here –”

 

Hermione pursed her lips in displeasure. It was time for her to go. “Who said anything about walking?” 

 

And with that, she Apparated out of there with a pop, leaving behind two superspies gaping at the space she once stood.

 

It was Fury who recovered first. 

 

Motherfu–

Chapter Text

Hermione materialised a second later at the edge of a crowded street on Time Square. She looked around her furtively, checking to see if any muggles had spotted her sudden appearance, and breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that the sea of bodies milling around her seemed too preoccupied with the bright lights and the blaring cacophony of the Central Manhattan to notice. Night had already fallen over the city and she was grateful for the cover of darkness.

 

Apparating into the heart of New York City wasn't the best idea, Hermione knew, but it was one of the few (and the closest) places she remembered visiting in the United States when she'd been a child, holidaying with her parents. She just hoped she hadn't been caught by any of those pesky CCTV cameras, and even if they did, that she looked part of the crowd enough to blend in with the crush of people. 

 

With one last surveying look around her, Hermione withdrew into the shadows of a deserted alley close by, her hand still clutching tightly at the file she'd nicked from her interrogators, her heart still pounding, adrenaline still rushing through her veins. That had been nerve-wracking. Positively insane. She couldn't believe she'd not only been dragged clear across the Atlantic Ocean in the space of 24 hours, but she'd also butt heads with The Avengers .

 

The world was going mad.  

 

She was going mad.

 

She had so many questions, she didn't even know where to begin. HYDRA, James, the anti-Apparation device...

 

Operation Witch Hunt.

 

Hermione took a deep breath, placing a bracing hand against the wall that ran along the narrow backstreet, and cast a wandless concealment charm around the area, her head spinning. A witch hunt.

 

First of all, that was just rude. Her people had been driven into hiding because of those so-called witch hunts. Those were terrible times for magicalfolk and she did not appreciate HYDRA’s attempt at witty mission titles at all. 

 

Secondly, what the fuck was going on?

 

Hermione was so tired of being in the dark, but this revelation was too much all at once. This wasn't just about evading HYDRA and understanding their motives anymore; their file on her was far too specific, far too detailed. This seemed personal .

 

Well then, if HYDRA meant to hunt her down, Hermione was done running.

 

She'd been hunted once before. 

 

Never again.

 

“Winky!” she called out resolutely.

 


 

Meanwhile, back at the New Avengers Facility, Bucky was left to grapple with his own demons. Steve could see the man’s internal struggle behind his downcast eyes. Reluctance, guilt, anguish – they were all there, plain as day, and Steve grew hopeful. The Bucky he knew was still there, within reach. All he needed was a little hand.

 

Steve moved forward a few steps, uncrossing his arms, words of persuasion, of assistance, at the tip of his tongue. Just then Nat’s voice crackled through the communication earpiece, sounding urgent and bewildered. “ Head’s up, guys, Granger’s vanished.

 

Steve furrowed his brows in confusion, wondering if he’d heard his teammate properly. 

 

“What do you mean she vanished?” Sam asked out loud from where he’d planted himself in front of the door, a finger against his earpiece as though doing so would make the cryptic words make more sense to him. 

 

As in gone, Sam, disappeared . Poof like Houdini in a puff of smoke – literally right in front of us. ” Natasha responded through the comm snarkily. “ We’re closing down all exits. She couldn’t have gotten far. ” 

 

“What happened? How could she have just disappeared?” Steve asked, baffled. Her file never mentioned anything about that. 

 

I don’t know – magic? ” There was a hint of sarcasm in her voice, but Steve had a feeling that assessment wasn’t far off. “ We’re not sure what’s going on, ” Nat added after a brief pause, “ but your buddy in there might.

 

At the mention of his friend, Steve’s eyes immediately darted towards the said man sitting silently at the table, now looking up at them with undisguised curiosity. There was a brief flicker of confusion in his eyes before understanding seemed to dawn on him and a small smile tugged at the corner of his lip, the tension in his shoulders abating. 

 

Bucky definitely knew what was going on. 

 

But before Steve could question him about it, a loud pop echoed through the room, like the sound of a backfiring car...and then a small leathery creature with bat-like ears and eyes as big as saucers appeared right beside him. Steve blinked down at it in shock, the words he’d meant to ask dying on his tongue.

 

What the fuck –”   Sam exclaimed jerking back in surprise, voice loud and freaked out.

 

“Mister James!” It cried in a high squeaky voice, it’s abnormally wide eyes trained brightly on Bucky. “Winky is finally finding you!” 

 

Bucky, for his part, looked startled at the...thing’s appearance, his eyebrows high on his forehead, but it seemed to lack the incredulity that Steve and Sam possessed...like he knew what it was.

 

The thing held out its small leathery hand at Bucky. “Missy Granger is telling Winky to come get you!”

 

Bucky seemed to hesitate for only a brief second before reaching for the creature. 

 

Granger? The mention of the name snapped Steve out of his shocked stupor, and realizing on instinct what was about to happen, he moved fast. He lunged across the room in one big leap, hand reaching out to grab onto the other man and finding purchase on his jacket just as Bucky put his hand on the thing’s small upturned palm. In the next moment, an echoing crack reverberated against the room's four walls like an errant whip.

 

“Cap!” Steve heard Sam shout after him, but it was the last thing he heard before he was sucked into an unpleasant vortex he couldn't see, his insides feeling like they were being forced into the smallest tube possible. 

 

The next thing he knew, he was tumbling into empty space.

 


 

The moment James' feet hit the pavement at...wherever Winky had 'Apparated' him to, he felt a brief sense of relief, despite the unsteadiness he felt because of said mode of travel. Hermione had gotten them out. His respite was, however, short-lived as not even a second later, another hulking mass of muscle stumbled out of thin air after him, falling nose first onto the ground below, his hand clutching onto the hem of James' leather jacket in a white-knuckled grip. 

 

Steve, he thought as realization dawned and dread crept in. There was a loud, high-pitched gasp he distantly registered as Winky's as soon as she, too, realized she had an extra passenger. 

 

Muggle! ” the elf squealed in fright.

 

Steve groaned, crouched on the ground, shaking his head and blinking in confusion. He looked disoriented and though James couldn't blame him, a part of him sympathizing with the unpleasant experience, his shoulders bunched and his good hand flexed reflexively, ready for a fight. He shifted slightly, intending to shove the other man against the wall to neutralize him as quickly as possible while he was still recovering from the after effects of the teleportation. 

 

Just then, a bright red light shot past James and hit the man beside him squarely on his chest. He slumped to the ground instantly, unconscious. James turned back to look at the perpetrator, surprised, when something pointed was shoved right under his chin, pushed hard against his throat, and he stilled. He lifted his gaze to look into narrowed, suspicious brown eyes glittering dangerously in the sliver of moonlight that managed to filter in through the shadows. 

 

James held his breath and lifted his arms in the universal sign of surrender, unsure of what to make of this unexpected turn of events. He knew Hermione was capable of incredible feats of magic, but he'd never once thought of her as dangerous...until now.

 

“Winter Soldier,” Hermione stated in a voice that held a threatening edge. 

 

James gritted his teeth, his jaw clenching at the dreaded title, a cold pit solidifying in his gut. She knew. They must have told her.

 

The Winter Soldier . God, he hated that moniker. He hated that it sounded like an excuse.

 

“You worked with HYDRA.”

 

James held her stare and told her the truth. “Yes.”

 

The weapon – her wand , he suddenly realized – pressed harder against his windpipe. James swallowed against the instinct to react.  

 

“Why is HYDRA after me?” she hissed, her grip on her weapon tight. “What do they want with me?”

 

“I don't know,” James told her honestly; he really didn't.

 

“That's not good enough, James!” she snapped.

 

“It's true,” he ground out, voice gruff. “I don't know anything.”

 

“But you killed people because they told you to?!” Hermione shot back with venom.

 

James flinched, feeling it like a physical blow. “You are –” he broke off and tried again. Hours earlier, he told Steve that things always ended in a fight. He didn't want that here. Not with Hermione. “You were my mission.” When her brows furrowed in confusion, he continued, feeling the same shame he felt each time he remembered all the things he'd done for HYDRA. “I was supposed to retrieve you a year ago. SHIELD was exposed before I could...and I was...I escaped from HYDRA soon after. That's all I know. Soldiers are never told anything.”

 

There was a second's pause.

 

“Only told to fight wars,” Hermione whispered almost to herself. Something in her voice held an understanding that admittedly made James curious, but instead of giving into his ever growing curiosity about the woman, he allowed the heavy silence to fall between them as she processed his words, hoping she'd see it as truth.

 

Finally, when she spoke again her voice was soft, losing it's earlier edge. “Why?” she asked quietly, though her wand remained steadily pointed at him, never once wavering. “Why are you really helping me?” Her eyes snapped fire at him. “What could you possibly gain from helping me?”

 

James exhaled slowly. What could he say to that? That he was helping her to assuage his guilt for having spilt all that blood over the decades? “A clear conscience,” he answered simply. “I'm no longer that person, that machine . I don't want any more blood on my hands. Least of all, from people like you.”

 

There was another long moment of silence as Hermione's deep brown eyes bore deep into his soul, unfathomable and penetrating. James waited with bated breath, expecting judgement. 

 

“Tell me one more thing,” she finally said into the stillness. “Can I trust you?”

 

It was a question she’d asked him once before, but this time, it felt weightier than it previously did. Just like last time, however, the words in his head bombarded him, unbidden; the trigger words that accompanied the screams of agony echoing deep in the recesses of his consciousness. 

 

“No, you can't.” He clenched his teeth against the phantom pain at his temples. “But you can't deal with HYDRA alone.”

 


 

Hermione deliberated on James' words for a long silent moment, her eyes searching his, finding a curious mix of sincerity and pain in them. There was more to his story, that much was clear. But, ultimately, he was right. She couldn’t move forward against HYDRA alone. She knew far too little, and she was up against an organisation that thrived on terror. 

 

Whatever else James might have been – a murderer, an assassin, a soldier – she couldn’t deny that he was a useful ally to have. After he’d helped her all this time, she couldn’t find it in herself to think him evil. Not when she knew exactly what it looked like and faced it again and again.

 

Hermione withdrew her wand slowly and stepped back. Whatever past Mr. James had with HYDRA, it had nothing to do with her. “You’re right; I’m sorry.” She gave him a short understanding nod. “I needed to be sure.”

 

James returned her nod with a steady blue gaze. “I know.”

 

Hermione gave him a small apologetic smile. She released a soft sigh of relief, the tension she felt easing slightly. It was inexplicable, having only known James for just over twenty-four hours, but she felt a friendship towards the man already; an attachment that was surely not going to serve her well should he prove to be untrustworthy after all. But she was the person who had made life-long friends after being nearly mauled by a mountain troll. 

 

Really, this was just something to add on her track record, she thought with a wince.

 

Turning to Winky, who had hidden behind her legs the moment she’d accosted James with her wand, she directed her apologetic smile on the house-elf, too. “Sorry you had to see that, Winky.” 

 

The house-elf tutted as she stepped back. “Winky is seeing Missy Granger cast at beasties and bad men before; Winky be used to it,” Winky admitted honestly, patting at her dress casually. “But Winky be thinking Mr. James is a good muggle.”

 

Hermione reflexively cast a glance at the man standing close by in time to see him mouth ‘beasties’ to himself in confusion. Her lips twitched in amusement and she turned to her house-elf assistant, suppressing a smile. “I think we’ve established that.” 

 

Then Hermione looked down, dug into her satchel and retrieved the leather suitcase she’d shrunk back at Vondelpark. She handed it to Winky. “Can you find us somewhere to camp for the night, Winky? Somewhere discrete and away from the city?” Glancing at James to include him in the conversation, she added helpfully, “I can’t Apparate to places I’ve never been to before, and I’ve only ever visited New York City and Disneyland with my parents when I was young – hardly ideal places to hide in.”

 

Winky nodded in understanding, always eager to be of use. “Winky is doing the searching, Missy Granger!” And then she popped off in search of the ideal place to take refuge in until Hermione could make sense of the great puzzle before her. 

 

Not for the first time, Hermione thanked her lucky stars for having Winky with her. Winky had not only proven herself to be a capable and bright house-elf, but she was also a dear, loyal friend. They were family now, really, in this strange technological world with no magic. 

 

It had been Hermione’s hope that hiring Winky as her assistant would show the Wizarding World how much more competent house-elves were beyond household servitude, that house-elf magic was extraordinary and unique. Their magic was far more primal and flexible than the magicalfolk ever realized, able to do things where wand users couldn’t – such as locating and Apparating to places and people on nothing but a whim. But, as with all things requiring change, it had been an uphill battle. A battle she still intended on fighting...just as soon as she figured out how to get them back.

 

And found a way to deal with HYDRA.

 

Bloody hell . What a tall order.

 

Blowing out a tired breath, Hermione turned to James again and opened her mouth to speak, when a soft groan distracted her from her train of thought. She glanced down to see the blond Avenger she’d stunned coming to from his slumped position on the unforgiving ground and blinked, remembering what she’d done. 

 

Merlin, she’d nearly forgotten about Captain America!

 

Stepping closer, Hermione bent down to clutch at the superhero’s shoulder and push him to a more comfortable position, feeling a twinge of guilt at having cast an offensive spell on him so suddenly. Yes, the situation had called for it, and Hermione was nothing if not practica—

 

Just then, the unconscious man sprang upright, grasped her roughly around her upper arms and slammed her forcefully against the grimy alley wall behind him. Hermione only had time to gasp, the air effectively knocked out of her, her wand clattering to the floor upon impact. Before she could make sense of anything, however, her assailant was gone, flying across the alley and slamming against the other wall on the other side. 

 

Disoriented and surprised, Hermione slid down to the floor and winced. She looked up to see James standing over Captain America, his left arm pressed aggressively against the other man’s chest, pinning him securely to the hard surface.

 

“Are you all right?” James asked her from over his shoulder, shooting her a quick glance.

 

Hermione nodded and picked up her wand, gritting her teeth against the soreness that crept along her arms and back. She was sure she was going to bruise later.

 

“Bucky?” Captain America asked, shaking his head and blinking in the darkness. He sounded confused, likely still disoriented from just having woken up from the stunning spell.

 

Hermione frowned at that. Now that she thought about it, he'd shaken off the spell a lot faster than one normally would.

 

“Steve,” Hermione heard James respond, voice curt and hard, as she stood.

 

“Where are we? What's going on, Buck?”

 

“You shouldn't have done that, Steve. Don't get involved,” Bucky warned. “Or this will end in a fight.”

 

“James! Wait! No!” Not another fight! Hermione hurried over to where the two stood off, grimacing at the twinge of pain she felt in her back, but she rather thought she deserved it for her complacence. She needed to stop this from escalating or she’d never get to her research! “Sorry – it’s my fault. I had to stun you, Captain America.” Hermione placed a hand on James' upper arm to draw him off the other man a step or two, which he thankfully did (she couldn't have pushed off his bulk even if she tried otherwise) after sending a pointed look her way. She responded with a meaningful glare of her own.

 

“Stu—what?” the blond haired superhero looked at her bewilderedly. He shook his head as if to clear it. “You know what, I am stunned. What happened?”

 

“It seemed like a good idea at that time,” Hermione admitted sheepishly, “but I assure you, it wasn't meant to be malicious.” Then she gestured towards the entrance of the alley where the bright luminescent lights from the main street beyond streamed in. “We’re in Manhattan right now, but I can send you back to your compound posthaste. You’re not meant to be here.” 

 

Captain America looked at her with a look that managed to be both piercing and questioning. He shook his head again, this time in refusal. “No, I'm not going anywhere. You can't do this on your own. Not against HYDRA. Trust me, I know.” 

 

James sighed, a stubborn look on his face. “This has nothing to do with you, Steve. Go back.”

 

The other man's face turned into an implacable visage of resolution as his eyes looked to James. “No. Not without you,” he said meaningfully.

 

Hermione's gaze ping ponged between the two men before her, her mind trying to work out exactly what she was witnessing. When no answer seemed in sight, she let the matter rest. This was not the time nor the place to argue, and she had more pressing issues to attend to. Like figure out how HYDRA knew about her magic . Standing around wondering why two men were having a pissing contest was the last thing she should be doing.

 

Stepping between them, hands out on either side and feeling like a referee, Hermione quickly considered her options. Barring casting another stunning spell on the world's most famous superhero and then forcefully Portkeying him back against his will, Hermione had no desire to fight or to make an enemy out of a powerful – quite literally – man and by extension his team of superheroes on top of all her problems. She was quite sure she’d already annoyed Mr. Fury, as it was, and she already had her hands full. Hermione considered leaving him behind with a quick Apparition with James – Winky would be sure to find them later – but... 

 

Hermione looked between the two men and sighed. 

 

This situation felt oddly familiar. Harry and Ron familiar, in fact.

 

Hermione may not know the true nature of their relationship, but she could sense no true animosity between them. In fact, maybe some neutral ground between the two would help them hash whatever was going on between them out. It certainly always worked with her two stubborn best friends when they were both being obtuse berks at odds with each other.

 

“Alright,” she interrupted, reluctance and irritation bleeding into her voice. “There is obviously some history between the two of you, but we don't want a fight,” she glanced pointedly at James who gave her another loaded look in return, “don't we, James?” Before James could even think about answering the rhetorical question, she continued, determined to keep the reins. “I'm tired, I'm hungry and I desperately need to figure out how HYDRA knows I'm a witch, so can you please do all this somewhere more comfortable?”

 

A pregnant silence engulfed them all as both men shared a look over her head, both stubborn-jawed and obstinate, before they nodded their acceptance. 

 

“Good.” Satisfied with their compliance, Hermione nodded at them in turn.

 

As if on cue, the echoing crack of house-elf Apparation reverberated through the alley.

 

“Winky is finding camp, Missy Granger.” Winky declared cheerily.

 

Hermione gave her assistant a grateful smile over her shoulder. “Thank you, Winky,” she said before turning back to the mulish men standing still before her expectantly. “Now, shall we?”

Chapter Text

Contrary to what Tony Stark believed, Steve was well aware of the many faults of his character. He knew he had a tendency to be self-righteous and stubborn. He could also be reckless and uncompromising. He, more often than not, dove headlong into trouble without a backward glance. So really, going after Bucky had only been natural for him; he didn't even hesitate. 

 

But as Steve shook away the disorientation teleporting had induced, his head spinning and his stomach roiling in a way it hadn't done since he'd ridden that roller coaster on Coney Island for the second time in the space of less than an hour, he wondered if he should try to be more reflective of his actions more often. Steve rarely regretted his decisions, especially when it came to helping a friend in need, but he conceded that he could learn to be more cautious next time he did so.

 

Looking around, Steve surveyed his surroundings with the efficiency and deduction of a seasoned soldier and saw nothing but towering trees and overgrown brush around him. There was no sign of modern civilization in sight, save for what seemed like a cozy campsite sitting not too far from where they'd 'landed', a welcoming fire crackling merrily in front of the medium-sized canvas ridge tent.

 

Steve's brows wrinkled, thrown off by the sight. Whatever and wherever he had been expecting to end up in, he hadn't thought it would literally be in a camp in the middle of nowhere. But they were definitely not in New York City anymore. He wasn't sure if they were even still in the state.

 

“This is perfect, Winky!” Steve heard the woman – Granger – exclaim and he shifted his gaze just in time to see her give a satisfied and approving nod as she inspected the wilderness around them. “Well done!”

 

The thing – Winky, she'd called it – seemed to puff up at the praise and tittered happily. “Winky is happy to be helping, Missy Granger!”

 

And with that, it popped off to who knew where, disappearing again from sight – just like that.

 

Steve blinked and shook his head, trying to shake the last of his disbelief. He'd seen many strange things since waking up from The Ice – gods, aliens, robots – but none of them had ever been so friendly. In a way, it was nice to know that not all otherworldly beings were out to get them, but it was still no less jarring to learn of their existence.

 

He cast a sideways glance at Bucky standing as still as the trees close by and cocked a questioning brow. “Does that happen often?”

 

To his relief, Bucky seemed less defensive now and took his casual question for what it was, merely shrugging carelessly, unconcerned. “Apparently that's what elves do.”

 

Steve nodded slowly, trying to take things in stride. “Right. Elves. Makes sense.” 

 

House -elves,” Granger corrected matter-of-factly as she turned to them, overhearing their conversation. “There's a difference. The elven-kind that muggles often refer to haven't been seen in centuries and there have been doubts that they even existed at a-ah—” she stuttered to a halt then, seeming to realize something. She cleared her throat, embarrassed. “That is to say, Winky is a house-elf and she'll take great offence if you call her otherwise.”

 

House-elf . Well. Steve couldn't say he'd ever heard of such a thing before and he honestly didn't know how to respond to that. After a quick glance at Bucky, whose face remained an unreadable mask, Steve figured his friend didn't know what to make of that explanation either. So with his brows knitted in bewilderment, he nodded his head in acceptance. After all, the last thing he wanted was to offend anyone; least of all the one supernatural being that didn't seem to hate humans and wished their destruction.

 

“Now, gentlemen,” Granger chirped with false cheer, the change in her tone ushering an obvious change of pace. She waved a hand towards the homey camp behind her, lips quirked up in a dry half-smile. “I’m going to have some tea before supper. You are, of course, welcome to join me…” Then she gave them both a long assessing look in turn. “When you’re done hashing things out between the two of you here.” 

 

Her point now delivered across, Granger promptly walked across the campground, past the campfire and headed for the tent without waiting for any further response from either of them. It was only when neither of them moved from where they stood did she glance over her shoulder at them again and hesitated, a wary look in the furrow of her brows. “Just... don't get too crazy, okay? We need this place to lay low for a while,” she cautioned before she finally disappeared inside the tent, the fabric flap swishing silently behind her.

 

Steve stared after her a moment longer, vacantly wondering how she expected them to join her in such a tiny tent, before he turned his gaze to the man he knew as a friend for, well, several decades now – even when the said friend wouldn’t admit it at the moment. Bucky had moved to sit on one of the logs situated around the fire, staring into the bright orange flames, lips pursed in consternation. When he spoke, his voice was humorless and raspy. 

 

“I should have known you, of all people, wouldn’t leave me well enough alone.”

 

Well, it wasn’t a friendly invitation, nor was it an acknowledgement, but Steve thought he’d take it. He strode over and took a seat perpendicular to the sullen man, placid and open. “I’d been looking for you for over a year, and then you resurface with HYDRA on your tail. What was I supposed to do?” There was no way he could have left Bucky knowing that, especially when he knew about the things they’d done to him. His lips quirked up in a wry half-smile, despite the concern he felt. “I couldn’t let you have all the fun.”

 

Bucky scoffed and cast him a sardonic glance. “Nothing that HYDRA does is fun .”

 

“No,” Steve conceded with a nod, placing a firm hand reassuringly on the other man’s tense shoulder, “but I’m with you ‘til the end of the line, Buck. Please remember that.”

 


 

Meanwhile, in the sitting room inside the tent, Hermione was at the end of her line. Everything she had learned tonight about HYDRA and their knowledge of her magic had blindsided her and she was left reeling. Question after question bombarded her every thought and Hermione intended to find the answer to each one.

 

Standing by the sofa, she placed her satchel on the coffee table and proceeded to summon numerous books from its endless depths. She unearthed tome after tome she possessed on quantum physics, magical spacial theories, along with her notes and anything she had on her that even had a brief mention of alternate dimensions – which, admittedly, was sparse and close to none at all. She cursed herself once again at having left her tote bag at the warehouse; her most recent notes on the data collected on the Convergence had been in there. 

 

Completely wound up now, Hermione took a deep breath, steadying herself, and stepped back, watching her reading materials fly out and arrange themselves into three and a half tall stacks on the table. No matter . She needed to start from the beginning anyway, review what she knew. She settled into one of the armchairs and reached for the book on top of the stack closest to her. She flipped through the pages with a ferocity she hadn't felt since Hogwarts and the war.

 

For the last year, Hermione had been pursuing her theory that The Convergence was the reason for her displacement in this world, and her research, though far from producing any real results, had been promising enough to support her suppositions. But how did HYDRA tie into that? What did they have to do with an astrophysical phenomenon that happened only once every five thousand years? It was far too random.

 

After several minutes of browsing, Hermione traded one book for another, and another, and another , skimming through nearly all of them in dissatisfaction. She’d read each and every one of these books already, but no new information was popping up that could even remotely help her with her conundrum.

 

No, for the first time in her life, the answers she sought weren’t found in the pages of a book. Hermione stood and started to pace. No, what she needed to do was to retrace her steps, back from the very beginning, find any hints of HYDRA around the time it happened – the day she’d been transported.

 

Oh, what she wouldn't give to have access to a pensieve right now! 

 

Hermione jerked to a halt, a thought occurring to her like a bolt of lightning. Actually , she didn't need a pensieve and there was something she could try; an obscure spell that few people knew about and even fewer practised. Feeling inspired by her idea, she summoned a heavy tome the colour of deep mahogany from the depths of her satchel. The title The Mental Arts: Mastering the Layers of the Mind stood out in stark relief in bold, gold letterings.

 

She wasted no time cracking the book open, skimming through the scratchy parchment and paged through its contents, looking for a particular section she remembered reading about when she’d been learning the Mental Arts for her Field Investigation Licence under the tutelage of Maxwell Barnette. A strong foundation in Legilimency or Occlumency was a prerequisite skill required of all official field investigators of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures – as they should. Occulmency was a welcome protection against creatures with a natural ability to penetrate minds while Legilimency was particularly useful against rampaging, incoherent beasts; both were quite useful when one wanted to stay alive and unmauled.

 

Though people tended to be more proficient in one or the other, it was not impossible to learn both. Hermione had, naturally, set out to master both skills, though she’d been surprised to learn that she was absolutely rubbish at Occulmency. With Legilimency, however, she took like fish to water.

 

Ah , there it was, she thought as she spotted the passage she was looking for.

 

There was a subset skill of Legilimency that allowed the caster to delve deeper into one’s own mind in the same way Legilimency allowed one to navigate through the layers of other people’s heads. It was a rarely used skill, even among the most seasoned Legilimens. Very few saw the use of scouring into one’s own mind, after all. Why peek in and face your own shadows when there were so many secrets to unearth in others?

 

Hermione bit her lip, weighing her options. It wouldn’t be a difficult spell to cast for a skilled Legilimens, but it was an exhausting one. More so than looking into the minds of others. To top it off, it was also an unfamiliar spell, one she’d never really tried before; it would require her total concentration. And she’d have to be careful or she could trap herself inside her own consciousness for the rest of her life.

 

She winced at the unpleasant thought. The human mind might be something to behold, but she doubted it was a pleasant place to be in all the time, even for her, ironically. 

 

But...she was always careful, wasn’t she? She’d just be in, review her memory, and out in no time. Not a problem.

 

Nodding to herself, Hermione came to a decision. It was imperative that she figure this out and she had to do whatever means necessary. If HYDRA had something to do with what brought her here, then maybe – maybe – they knew of a way to get her back. 

 

Back to where she belonged.  

 

Hermione snapped the book shut with a resolute thump . She brandished her wand and placed the tip delicately on her right temple.

 

Here we go.  

 

She closed her eyes and whispered, “ Legilisui .”

 


 

The spell took hold and then there was a bright flash of white light right behind her eyelids, a moment of weightlessness where the world she couldn’t see whirled and titled, before finally, Hermione found herself in darkness. She blinked and then she was in an enormous room full of books with towering shelves upon towering shelves on all sides, more expansive than even the Hogwarts library. 

 

She gazed around her, noting the numerous books flitting around like birds between cases, arranging and rearranging themselves into different shelves. In front of each bookcase was a long table where an array of at least four open books lay, each with its own ink and quill hovering above it, furiously scribbling through the parchments’ surfaces.

 

Hermione knew from when she’d first learned Occlumency that they were representations of her thoughts and memories, constantly zipping about, accumulating information and organising themselves, never ceasing. It was the reason why she’d had such a hard time with the art; her thoughts were too difficult for her to suppress, her mind never quiet long enough for her to build the more advanced protections needed to proceed further in the field.

 

In any case, Hermione had been unsurprised to learn that her mind chose to sort itself in this way. She was a methodical and organised person, after all, and it stood to reason that a library was such a place, where order and information prospered. With one last sweeping look around, taking in the domed ceiling above, allowing light to filter through in that dim, hallowed way, Hermione set out to find what she needed.

 

When Hermione had first begun her Occlumency training, she’d been asked to clear her mind of thoughts and emotions; a near-impossible task for her. She hadn’t been allowed to tap into any of her thoughts. But with Legilimency, it was exactly what she needed to do. Wandering around, she trailed by numerous sections labelled with different aspects of her life – Family, Friends, Research, Experiments – and she noted that for each section, they were then divided into subsections, each with its own unique category of a person, a place or an event. 

 

Curious, Hermione lingered by one massive, floor to ceiling bookcase in the Friends section when she passed it by, her eyes catching on the ever-familiar name of Harry Potter . She drew close, like a moth to a flame. There were at least fifteen shelves under her best friend’s name, all filled to the brim with colourful books. She espied the first book that drew her eye, a hardbound tome in orange and black, found in the Hogwarts category. The book’s title read in golden script letters: Mountain Troll on the Loose .

 

Hermione’s lips quirked up in a fond smile, letting her fingers skim across the book’s spine. She didn’t need to open the memory to know exactly what transpired that day, a feeling of nostalgia and longing suddenly overcoming her. Oh, how she missed them so.

 

Focus, Hermione.

 

Shaking herself off the rush of emotions, Hermione drew herself back to reality – well, sort of – and set off once again to find her original objective. It only took her a few minutes to find the section she thought she might find her memory. 

 

The section on DRCMC Missions wasn't as extensive as some of the more personal aspects of her life, but it seemed that she'd collected quite a bit of experience and memories if the seven giant bookcases that housed her book-memories were anything to go by. Undaunted, Hermione scanned the shelves for what she thought would be the appropriate category, her eyes soon alighting on the shelf labelled Forbidden Forest . She darted forward and skimmed the spines of its titles until, finally, she came to the very end of the shelf. There the last book stood, moss green with its bold golden letters standing out glaringly at her: Search for the Missing Centaurs.

 

This was it, the book – the memory – of the day she'd fallen, quite literally, into the world of superheroes. 

 

Hermione held her breath and flipped it open…

 


 

“I lied, you know.” Bucky's voice rang out into the silence that had settled uneasily between them. “I do remember you.” 

 

Steve glanced at the man at his side to find him staring intently into the flames, his elbows resting on his knees, hands laced together. Sensing more was to be said, he remained silent, allowing Bucky to gather his thoughts, and instead, mirrored his stance, elbows braced, hands lax between his knees. 

 

“Your mother's name was Sarah,” Bucky continued, eyes still fixed on the orange flames. Then his lips quirked up in amusement, and he chuckled through his words. “You used to wear newspapers in your shoes.”

 

Hope bloomed and Steve was quick to latch on it. 

 

“You can't read that in a museum,” Steve commented off-handedly, trying to add some levity into the conversation.

 

Bucky, however, seemed determined to stay in his maudlin state. “ Steve ,” he said seriously, eyes pinning him with a gravity Steve never thought he’d see in the man he once knew in his childhood. “I don’t remember everything. Not yet. I’m not the guy you knew.” He turned away and stared into the fire again. “I don’t think I ever will be.”

 

“Yeah, well, I was frozen in ice for 70 years,” Steve countered with an ironic shake of his head, sympathy is his voice. “I’m not the same man you remember either, Buck.”

 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Bucky appraise him, his eyebrows raised in disbelief. “Somehow, I doubt that. I can see you’re still a troublemaking punk.”

 

Well , he’d give him that, Steve thought and allowed a small smile to play along his lips. No matter what Bucky thought, the man he knew was also still there, damaged and more withdrawn, yes, but still headstrong and resilient. 

 

What a pair they were. Just a pair of ninety-something-year-old men lost in time. 

 

Steve opened his mouth to tell him just that when he caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye. He shifted his gaze from Bucky’s face down to the man’s knee, only to find a strange-looking plant standing there, its long, spindly branches slowly winding its way around Bucky’s lap. 

 

Standing. The plant was standing. 

 

Steve froze for a split second in bewilderment, shoulders tensing reflexively in defense.

 

Bucky seemed to have caught his reaction and followed his gaze, looking down in confusion, which promptly cleared the moment his eyes landed on the thing trying to climb on his leg. 

 

“Sprig,” Bucky said, his troubled frown morphing into curiosity. He lifted his left hand slowly, almost hesitantly, palm up, towards the...sprig of whatever it was. It jumped eagerly into his awaiting hand.

 

Steve stared, nonplussed. “What is that thing?”

 

“It’s a…” Bucky paused, his brows furrowed in thought as he lifted the small, green plant up, searching his memory for its name. Giving up after a few beats, he shook his head and shrugged. “It’s one of Hermione’s creatures.”

 

Creatures? You mean she has more?”

 

Bucky looked like he was about to respond when the little guy started to chip incessantly, waving its arms frantically around in the air, cutting off whatever he had meant to say. It jumped up and down his palm and even started tugging on his metal thumb. 

 

“What’s wrong with him?” Steve asked with a frown.

 

“How should I know?” Bucky gave him a bemused look, at a loss himself.

 

Just then, a distraught screech rent the air and both Steve and Bucky sprang up from their seats instantly, both already alert and ready.

 

“Missy Granger!” The voice came from inside the tent, high-pitched and frantic. 

 

Steve shared a quick look with Bucky before the latter was bounding towards the tent with long, quick strides. Steve was only a step behind, the soldier in him automatically shifting in battle mode. The voice sounded like it belonged to that elf; something must have happened to Granger inside the tent. 

 

Bucky, for his part, ducked smoothly inside without a backwards glance, but Steve took a second to hesitate, not wanting to crowd in a small ridge tent that was obviously made for a single person to sleep in. He was, in fact, distantly surprised that Bucky’s bulk hadn’t toppled the tent from the inside. Settling instead to stay just outside of the fixture, he pushed aside the tent's entrance flap and stuck his head in, an inquiry already on his tongue. Those words, however, promptly died on his tongue as he got a good look inside and he gawked .

 

Steve jerked back from the tent, an action born out of reflex more than anything else, and his eyes took in the tiny canvas structure from the outside once again. How on earth…?  

 

Sticking his head back inside the tent again, Steve found himself marveling at the contrasting interior, so much bigger than what the outside structure suggested. He was astonished at the impossibility of what he was witnessing. It was as big as a house in here! 

 

Steve had never been one to question how things worked, especially not since waking up in this new century, but he didn't think he'd ever stop being surprised by the strange things there were in the world. He'd honestly never seen anything like this. He doubted even Stark would be able to replicate something like this.



“Hermione!” 

 

Steve’s wonderment, however, was cut short at hearing Bucky’s exclamation. He whipped his head over to where his friend had crouched over an unconscious Granger, a thick rivulet of blood streaming down one of her nostrils. The house-elf stood close beside them, wringing her hands in clear agitation, unshed tears trembling in her huge circular eyes. 

 

Hurrying over to where the woman had clearly crumpled to the floor, he watched as Bucky cup the back of her head and adjusted her tiny frame so he was cradling her against his chest. “What happened?” Steve asked the distraught house-elf.

 

“Winky is not knowing!” it wailed, its enormous tennis-ball eyes now shedding tears. “Winky was doing the cooking in the kitchen,” she pointed a gnarled grey hand towards one end of the tent where, indeed, a small kitchen, complete with a sink and stove, stood. “Winky is not seeing what happened.”

 

“She’s out cold,” Bucky informed them softly and gently shook Hermione awake, one hand carefully tapping her cheek. “Hermione. Hermione , wake up.”

 


 

It was a strange feeling, being inside a memory, Hermione mused as she looked around her new surroundings, finding herself surrounded this time by tall, gnarled trees. There was a certain mystifying feeling that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, almost dream-like. It made the world around her seem vague and hazy, though peculiarly enough, she saw everything with clarity. She saw through the haze that the shadows were thick and lurking, the mist low and languid. The terrain looked ominous, the atmosphere forbidding.

 

And yet, she knew exactly where she was.

 

The Forbidden Forest.

 

Looking down on instinct, she was curiously surprised to see herself outfitted in the field gear she'd worn that fateful day: a heavy Ministry issued deep green cloak, navy blue jumper, dark trousers and a sturdy pair of dragonhide boots. Her satchel was slung securely across her chest, as she often had on missions, and her wand, lit up in a Lumos , was held tightly in her hand.

 

“Are you sure the centaurs will even talk to us?” someone from behind her said, their voice a strange mix of excitement and apprehension.

 

Starting at the intrusion of her thoughts, Hermione turned towards the speaker and saw an eager face she hadn’t seen in two years. Her breath caught in her throat, a wave of emotion swelling up inside her at the sight of Reuben Smith’s limp mousy-brown hair, oval spectacles that sat askew on the tip of his nose and bright grey eyes. Even when she knew that it was only a memory of him, her heart lifted. It had been too long since she’d seen anyone from her world. Far too long.

 

Hermione opened her mouth to respond and breathed, “Reuben.” 

 

Except, the expression of her emotion never left her mouth and the words she knew she’d already said once before filtered out instead. 

 

“They should do willingly enough. Firenze will be there to mediate,” Hermione heard herself say with a shrug, her response matter-of-fact and confident. 

 

Inwardly, Hermione frowned, bemused by the bizarre sensation of saying words she hadn’t meant to say. It didn’t take long before it dawned on her what was happening, however. She wasn’t just reviewing the memory, she was reliving it. 

 

Uncanny , she thought with no small amount of interest. When Harry had recounted his experience with the pensieve at Hogwarts, he'd said that he’d viewed the memories like an outsider, a spectator merely watching the memory’s events play out. It seemed that with Legilisui , she was not only an active participant, she had a front-row seat. 

 

Dimly, Hermione wondered if it had something to do with that fact that she was accessing her own memories deep inside her consciousness and not just scanning them like she would with Legilimency. Whatever the case was, however, it was a puzzle for another time. Reuben was speaking again as he drew close, his body language tense, though his eyes were bright with zeal. 

 

“Do you think we’d get to see centaurides? No account of them ever being has been made in centuries!” he exalted with youthful exuberance. 

 

Hermione felt herself shrug. “Centaur are very protective of their females. I doubt they would risk bringing one along in the presence of wizards and witches.”

 

Always an answer to everything , she thought ruefully, amused that the exact same thought occurred to her that very same moment.

 

Reuben seemed to deflate beside her, his head seeming to lose whatever life it had, his disappointment obvious. Memory-Hermione smiled sympathetically at the young intern’s enthusiasm, and Hermione remembered just how passionate the young man had been towards magical creatures. His ambition, he’d once told her, had been to catalogue as many of the known creatures around the world in a more comprehensive way than even Newt Scamander had ever done. She had been of the opinion that the department needed more people like Reuben in their ranks; people that actually cared about other magical beings, ones who had a cause, eager to learn.

 

“It’s an honour to be allowed deep into centaur territory,” Memory-Hermione soothed gently. “Now, come along, we’ve got to hurry. We’ve got quite a mystery to solve.” 

 

At the alluring word, Reuben seemed to perk up. It was apparent that he found their little jaunt in the Forbidden Forest exciting, and Hermione supposed that this was infinitely more rousing than going on mandatory inspections at Blast-ended Skrewt farms. The new intern hurried after her as she led the way deeper into the dark woods, his steps long and almost clumsy. “Oh, yes, the missing centaurs! I read the report. What do you suppose they mean by unnatural, dark forces?”

 

Memory-Hermione shook her head with a frown. “I haven’t the faintest, but it’s quite strange for them to ask help from the Ministry, isn’t it?”

 

It was, in fact, Hermione added to herself, an unprecedented occurrence. Prior to the mission, she had been quite sure that the centaurs would have rather eaten their own tails off before they asked for wizarding intervention. But, as she had later learned, losing the Centurion Chief to the ‘forces’ was less like losing a tail and more akin to losing a head. The centaurian herd, as the report had said, had been in turmoil.

 

It took them several more minutes of wandering around, unsure exactly where to go and what to look for, when Memory-Hermione ground to a halt, noticing something at a distance and moving through the mist. Squinting her eyes, she tried to peer through the forest’s gloom, raising her wand higher so her illumination could reach further into the shadows. In the dimness, she thought she caught sight of a long serpentine body and plume feathers.

 

“Is that a…an Occamy ?” Reuben goggled, standing just a step behind her. “What on earth is it doing here in the Forbidden Forest?”

 

“What on earth is it doing in Britain ?” Memory-Hermione added softly, taking one, then two cautious steps in the creature’s direction. Occamies, after all, were only native to India and the Far East. They weren’t made for the cold climes of Scotland.

 

Just then, a scuffling sound erupted from the brush to their right and Memory-Hermione paused, whipping her head towards the noise only to find two plump diricawls rush past her in a flurry of pink and blue feathers.

 

“Were those diricawls ?” Reuben hissed, his voice high with astonishment now. 

 

“What on earth is going on?” Memory-Hermione wondered out loud, her concern growing just as another scuffling was heard in the distance. She turned back just in time to find what looked like a magical warthog more commonly found in Africa, snuffling by a grove of crooked trees. 

 

“Is that a —” Reuben began, now incredulous...excited, even.

 

“Reuben, something isn’t right. These creatures shouldn’t be here.” Memory-Hermione made to move forward cautiously again, intending to tread deeper into the forest. 

 

It’s a tebo! ” the young man beside her all but exclaimed, his shout nearly bouncing off the trees around them. Then he started to rummage into the pockets of his cloak and procured a sheaf of parchments and a self-inking quill. Elation vibrated off the youth and suddenly he was dashing forward towards the tebo without caution, scribbling frantically.

 

Startled, the tebo jumped back and ran into the darkness, it’s hooves and the crunch on leaves and grass echoing in its wake. Foolishly, in his enthusiasm, the young wizard followed, heedless of the dangers beyond.

 

From within the recesses of her own memory’s body, Hermione could only witness in dismay as her memory-self’s concern rapidly morphing into alarm. “Reuben, wait!” Memory-Hermione cried after him and left with no choice, rushed to follow her intern’s quickly diminishing form, the shadows of the woods seeming to devour him with every step he took.

 

Memory-Hermione ran through the brush as fast as the muted lighting allowed, mindful of the tree, roots and undergrowth that sprang up from every which way. Thankfully, Reuben hadn’t gotten far and it didn’t take her too long to catch up to her errant charge, spotting him standing in front of an enormous oak tree. Memory-Hermione breathed a sigh of relief and moved closer, a reprimand on her tongue. The scalding rebuke she’d meant to dole out, however, remained on her tongue when she caught a good look at what exactly was in front of the boy. 

 

“What in Merlin’s name…” Memory-Hermione walked closer, mouth agape as she took in what seemed to be a yawning black hole suspended on thin air. She gawked in amazement as she moved slowly forward, mystified. “What is this?”

 

“It seems to be a portal,” Reuben answered beside her, his own eyes wide in wonder. “The tebo jumped in and it just...disappeared.” Then he turned to her with a wild glint in his eyes, enthusiasm shining through his thick oval spectacles. “This must be the reason why there are different creatures not native to Britain here. This must be where the centaurs have gone!”

 

“A portal to where, exactly?” Memory-Hermione tore her gaze away from the...suspended circular abyss and gave her intern a speculative glance.

 

The young man could only give her a shrug. “Everywhere, I guess.”

 

Brows furrowing in thought, Memory-Hermione raised her wand and stepped gingerly around the so-called portal, looking cautiously around its edges, inspecting, analysing. Coming up with nothing but more questions, she clicked her tongue and conjured a long, blank parchment, an ink and quill, suspended in the air. With another flourish, she murmured some diagnostic charms around the...hole in the air, careful to note its reactions to her magic. She stepped back with a troubled frown. 

 

A hole right in the middle of the Forbidden Forest. 

 

Hermione may have not possessed the same instinct Harry had for trouble, but she had felt in her gut, even then, that this meant trouble. 

 

As her memory-self inspected her findings, Hermione forced herself to note the other details around her, determined to find something that would point towards any involvement from HYDRA. She used her other senses to broaden perspective, to note her peripherals, anything to note down any anomalies beyond the most obvious. 

 

From a few metres away, Reuben jerked back in surprise and cried a cry of pure delight that echoed through the trees. “ Sweet Merlin! Hermione, look!

 

Torn from her inspection, Memory-Hermione turned towards the new investigator just as he came running back to where she stood close to the portal, something small and bright red cupped between his palms. “Reuben, be quiet! What —”

 

Hermione, do you know what this is? ” the boy crowed loudly, all but thrusting the thing right under her nose. Hermione nearly went cross-eyed as she gazed down. 

 

There, cupped delicately between his hands was something small, smooth and solid, brilliant red with golden markings that swirled around each other like dancing fire. It took Memory-Hermione a second to surmise that it was an egg, but before she could even comment on it, Reuben was baying out in excitement once again, nearly bouncing off his feet. 

 

“It’s an egg! It’s a firebird egg! ” He gestured towards the portal, gesticulating wildly. “It must have fallen out of the portal, too. A firebird egg, Hermione!”

 

Memory-Hermione leaned down and inspected the egg closely. He was right, it was a firebird egg. Flummoxed at this turn of events, she leaned back and cast a calculating glance at the ‘portal’. There was no other explanation as to why such a rare egg, only ever recorded to be seen in the savage lands of Russia could be there, at the Forbidden Forest. 

 

Even so, a portal . Whatever this thing was, they were not equipped to handle this.  

 

“Right,” Memory-Hermione nodded, taking charge. “We need to call the Ministry, we need the Unspeakables.” Then she held out her hand expectantly. “Give me the egg, Reuben.”

 

The young wizard gawked at her, as if her question was the most absurd thing he’d ever heard. “You’re not going to hand it over, are you? It’s a firebird egg!

 

Sighing tiredly, Hermione pinned the younger man with a steady look. “Reuben, we can’t keep a firebird egg. It’s against regulation. You know the rules.”

 

“But Hermione!” he protested.

 

Reuben. ” 

 

There was a short moment of silence before Reuben reluctantly handed the egg gently into Hermione’s waiting palm, his entire frame literally dropping and his pout rivaling an injured puppy. Hermione smiled comfortingly, tapping a friendly hand on his arm. “If we’re asked to transport it back to Russia, I’ll ensure it lands in your care for the journey.”

 

The boy looked up at her through his limp fringe, and there was no mistaking the hope sparking behind his thick spectacles. “Really?”

 

Nodding her assurance, Hermione set the egg gently into her pocket, murmuring a cushioning charm into the cloak’s soft material. Then she returned to the parchments cataloguing the results of her diagnostics by the suspended portal, her brows furrowed at the strange readings she saw. The magical signatures didn’t make sense to her at all, something that rarely happened to Hermione, and her mind itched to pick and piece together what it could all mean.

 

For her part, deep within her memory’s conscious, Hermione read the findings with fresh, more knowledgeable eyes. In the stress that had followed these events, Hermione had forgotten the results of her initial findings on one of the Convergence’s portals. She’d been learning it from the astrophysics’ perspective then translating them into its magical counterpart. But seeing these figures now, gave her more insight, perhaps even provide her with the right calculation to replicate a portal home.

 

Memory-Hermione took another glance at the still, suspended anomaly, stepping just a bit closer to see if she could catch a glimpse of what might be on the other side. She was, however, only met with grey space, and the longer she stared into the abyss, the more gooseflesh rose, a feeling of foreboding at the face of the unknown welling up inside her. 

 

It was just sitting there in the air, a veritable hole hanging on thin air. 

 

“All right, Hermione?” Reuben’s voice penetrated her thoughts.

 

Snapping out of her daze, Hermione took action and called out, “Winky!”

 

In an instant, Winky was beside her in a loud echoing pop and a puff of smoke. “Missy Granger is calling Winky?”

 

“Hullo, dear,” Hermione greeted, “You think you can get us out of here and back to the Ministry?” She nodded to Reuben and urged him to stand closer. “We’ve wasted enough time here and we can’t leave this thing in the open for long. If that is, indeed, a portal to somewhere, then who knows what could come in and out of it.”

 

Reuben lifted his glasses higher onto the bridge of his nose. “Should we set up a protective perimeter first?”

 

Memory-Hermione smiled, appreciatively. Perhaps the boy wasn’t hopeless, after all. She shook her head. “You said the tebo jumped into the portal. That means creatures come and go freely. I don’t want to impede or trap them in when it could harm them. We’ll bring a team back here as soon as possible to minimise any more...displacements. Hopefully they’ll help us figure out where that leads to and lead us to our missing centaurs.”

 

“Yes, ma’am!” 

 

Eager to please, Winky nodded her head vigorously. “Yes, Missy Granger, Winky can Apparate you straight away!” 

 

The house-elf held out its hand towards her, and Memory-Hermione grasped it without hesitation. She reached for Reuben.

 

Just then, something jumped out of the portal, screeching in a high pitch ungodly sound that startled both witch and wizard. A wicked-looking erkling landed right on Reuben’s back, it’s angry cackles earsplitting. Reuben cried in surprise as it clutched at him with its sharp fingers, its pointy features ferocious. 

 

“Ger’off me, ger’off!”

 

“Reuben!” Memory-Hermione gasped in surprise, “wait! Calm down!”

 

But the boy was in a state and Reuben flailed, struggling with the erkling pulling at his hair and scratching his face. Memory-Hermione tried to reach for him just as the erkling took a bit at his forehead. The young wizard yelped in pain, and in his struggle, one of his flailing limbs knocked her by her shoulder. 

 

Memory-Hermione stumbled back from the blow, caught off-balance. She tried to gain her feet, her own arms flailing in the air to regain her centre of gravity. 

 

But it was too late. She was already falling, falling, falling

 

Right into the portal.

 

A cool sensation swept over her, almost like falling into water, though she remained dry. Memory-Hermione gasped, in surprise, in fear, in horror, she didn’t know, but she could see nothing from the corner of her eye but darkness inside the portal. She brought a hand forward as she fell, instinctively reaching for her companions. 

 

“Missy Granger!” Winky, standing closest to her, cried in horror before she too jumped right in after her. 

 

Hermione was already surrounded by darkness by the time she heard Reuben’s frantic calls through the mysterious portal.

 

“Hermione!”

 

Hermione!