A/N: What foul sorcery is this!?
A New Man
Harry reappeared in the town of Kingston, on the road between New York and Albany, with an ear-splitting crack. The sound echoed across the town but his reappearance went largely unnoticed in the sleepy suburb, a dog barked in the next street but there was no other reaction. Harry broke the silence with a single word, "Fuck."
He looked around, and was pleased when he found that his unusually emphatic arrival didn't seem to have drawn much attention. He saw a couple of nearby blinds twitch as someone looked out to see what had caused his thunderclap, but he didn't think anyone had been watching his arrival. He moved quickly out of the street, and out of sight of the hidden watchers.
They'd known where he was staying, even down to the room, and had had someone waiting for him. He drew on his training to calm himself and help him to focus on the torrent of events that had made up the last couple of minutes. He'd always told his recruits that panic served no professional purpose, it was only something to be mastered.
There had been a man in his room, well dressed in the fashion of a banker or lawyer from the muggle world. Whoever they were it had been only them and they'd been waiting for him. They also hadn't had their weapon out. That was interesting, it suggested that perhaps they'd wanted to communicate with him. At the very worst they'd perhaps hoped to lure him into a false sense of security.
No, the communication scenario was much more likely. Sure, they'd had the hit-team waiting just seconds away but where was the value in tipping off the target if they were already completely unaware of your presence? If it had been down to Harry the room would have been charmed for detection and a team of Aurors would have taken the target out on arrival. There was no need for the man inside the room unless they'd hoped to communicate with Harry in some way.
He also remembered that the guns they'd been firing hadn't used bullets. They'd fired darts instead. He didn't know much about muggle technology like that but it stood to reason that they weren't for killing. Bullets were generally pretty effective for that among muggles, there should be no need to switch to the more complex dart ammunition if its purpose was the same as normal bullets.
Unless they knew more about him than he hoped. Bullets certainly hurt and could do a wizard pretty significant damage but they simply weren't as dangerous to a wizard as they were a muggle, simple school-yard spells could heal mundane injuries like bullet wounds. So those two possibilities meant that the darts could either have been loaded with some kind of stunning concoction, or an anti-wizard mixture, if such a thing could be created by muggles.
He wasn't willing to bet on that either way. If it had been him in charge then the back-up team would have been told to use lethal force if necessary. If a meet like that went bad the balance of probability was that the target was violent and dangerous.
Finally he could tell that the level of training they had was very high indeed. Possibly even higher than the teams he'd met in Peru. They'd entered the room quickly and efficiently then immediately spread out as much as was possible within the confined space of the room. If it hadn't been for his magic it was certain they would have taken him down within moments.
The question was what he was going to do about it, now that he'd had the luxury of a few moment's thought.
Did he return to the hotel and hope that the apparent offer of communication was both real and still open to him after their little fracas, or did he continue to evade?
He hated unknowns. If the events of a few minutes ago had shown him anything then it was that he could not afford to underestimate the people in this world, muggles or not. Somehow, they'd managed to track him and and had even got close to having the drop on him.
He couldn't afford to take the risk. Any meeting had to be on his own terms, whoever the group were they'd already demonstrated a willingness to use violence and a pretty damned itchy trigger finger. No, if any meeting was to happen it had to be controllable. He couldn't negotiate from a position of weakness.
So where did that leave him? He had two primary options that he could see. He could continue his research, he needed to follow-up on the Stark coincidence, or he could return to New York and try and set up a meeting with the unknown group on neutral ground.
It didn't take him long to decide. He was still unwilling to place any trust in a group of trigger-happy muggle paramilitary types. No, he'd continue with his research and the best way to do that was to look into Stark Industries.
That meant Los Angeles, and that meant a very long trip indeed. Very definitely beyond his ability to Apparate. If he was to avoid leaving an obvious trail for his pursuers he'd have to be very careful indeed from now on. He certainly couldn't convince some poor taxi driver to take him across the country.
Plane travel was out, even something like a bus might leave a trail that could be followed if he made a mistake somewhere. He grimaced, it looked like he was going to be hitch-hiking. If only Arthur could see him now.
Nearly three whole weeks, gone. Hitch-hiking across America was not, as it turned out, as easy as it seemed. It felt like he'd simply walked most of the distance though thankfully that wasn't quite true.
Had it not been for the girls headed to New Mexico for some scientific research which went entirely over Harry's head then it would surely have taken more than a month to complete the journey. They had taken him more than half of the way in just a few days, and had even provided diverting conversation. Even if their babble about Einstein-Rosen bridges was completely beyond him. He doubted even Hermione, or the boffins down in the Department of Mysteries, would have understood. The woman had this scary intensity that could only be generated by the truly erudite. Her intern, Darcy, had been easier to talk to, though Harry had needed to find that special wavelength in his brain that was usually only needed when talking to Rose.
The rest of his journey had been substantially worse. He was utterly tired of seedy motels and terrible coffee. He was tired of pickup trucks with no suspension worth mentioning. He was tired of smelly and overweight men who were nevertheless too damn nice to dislike properly.
He'd made it though. He was finally in Los Angeles and at no point during his journey had even noticed any indication that his progress was being watched by anyone at all.
That did not mean he was going to drop his guard though. The one thing he'd had in abundance for the last three weeks was time to reflect on his tactics and strategy.
It was obvious that the group he'd encountered in his hotel room in New York had found some reasonably effective way of tracking him despite his concealment charms. What was also clear was that it wasn't anywhere near completely effective.
He'd thought long and hard about how they could have been managing it. He had come up with a few theories.
The first was that his wandless abilities weren't up to snuff and that they had been tracking him through the many cameras that littered New York. It was unlikely, but not completely impossible given how little he'd practised with the ability over the last few years. As a result he'd taken to avoiding cameras wherever possible on his road-trip.
The second theory was that his spells were fine, but that his pursuers simply used some unfamiliar technology to track him. That didn't seem all that likely to Harry. He wasn't a magical theorist, but he was pretty sure the whole purpose of the spells was concealment. The spells didn't care how he was being watched, only that the people doing the watching couldn't learn anything important about him.
Nonetheless, it was a possibility. So he'd decided to do some research on the surveillance technology available to muggles.
His third theory was that there was actually some magic involved at some level. He was hesitant in the extreme about that theory as it was all hand-wave and no fact. He'd already seen that there was no magical world like his own here. None of the people he'd encountered had shown any indication that magic might be normal and so he felt that was the least likely scenario.
And so the theories continued, each more crazy than the last. Ultimately the only thing he was reasonably sure about was that he had somehow been tracked using muggle cameras, something that shouldn't have been possible, from his understanding of how the charms worked.
Until he knew more about how it had happened he would simply have to be much more careful. For that reason he had, for the first time in many years, started to grow out his beard properly and adopted a broad-brimmed hat. He'd even changed his glasses.
It might not have fooled a determined searcher, but it had been enough of a change that when he'd last chopped the beard off little Lily had burst out crying.
His journey across the states had not been without benefit, though. Now that he had taken the time to remember a few of the major towns on the route he could Apparate from Los Angeles to New York in a few jumps in less than a minute. As a bonus he now had more than twenty different towns to which he could Apparate if he lost control of the situation.
The first thing he did upon arrival in Los Angeles was find a safe-house. He wouldn't be staying there, its sole purpose was to act like one of the Auror safe-houses. To be used only in a dire emergency. If Harry came under attack again he needed a place fixed in his mind as the safe location.
He settled on an abandoned and rather run-down warehouse by the shore. Just in case the place acquired some squatters in the time Harry was in L.A. he made sure that the place he'd be Apparating to was well out of reach of anyone just looking for some shelter.
He then explored the city, dressed up in classic tourist garb and with a pilfered camera in hand. There was a lot to be said for the invisibility afforded by ubiquity. It was not something he'd had much chance to use back in the Wizarding world. It was a rather novel experience.
After learning his lesson in New York Harry approached his every action in L.A. with caution. He was no longer using the many redirection charms in his every-day investigations. Instead he had opted for a more subtle charm that merely made his features hard to describe or remember. It didn't allow him as much freedom of movement as the other, more powerful, concealment charms but it did not influence the reactions of those around him at all.
With the standard concealment set muggles would instinctively avert their gaze and carefully avoid Harry in even busy locations. He thought that those unusual reactions might just have been enough to cue in whoever was looking for him. Perhaps.
We was currently sitting in a tiny café not far from the Stark Industries headquarters. From his window seat he could watch the comings and goings from the carpark, though there was little of value to be gained from that particular surveillance. Stark evidently employed a lot of people.
No, much more worth-while was the fact that this café sold exactly the kind of pretentious, hand-crafted coffee that aspiring young business-types thought made them sophisticated. It made a rather good trade off Stark employees coming and going during their lunch-breaks. There was an almost constant stream of interns rushing through the door with a list in hand, who soon left underneath a precarious tower of cardboard cups.
Harry was looking for a mark, for someone slightly higher up than an intern, someone who may actually know something.
On his second day staking out the café, and fifth day in L.A., as he'd been careful to spread his time at the café out as much as he could bear, he found his man.
Or, rather, he found his woman. Tall, leggy, blonde, she may as well have been wearing a badge proclaiming her to be a trophy secretary. She was joined by a man whom Harry quickly decided would be no use to him, he had the look of a researcher about him.
If muggle researchers were anything like the boffins in the Department of Mysteries then he'd probably have trouble telling Harry who his employer actually was. Such things were simply unimportant to the kind of people who lived in a world of theory and numbers.
It came as no surprise to Harry, as he eavesdropped on the conversation between the two, that the man was living up to Harry's expectations. His awkward flirting was simply painful to listen to. Harry found himself impressed by the girl, apparently named Marcy, the fact that she'd even agreed to what was always going to be a train-wreck of a coffee-date either spoke to commendable open-mindedness or abject stupidity.
As Harry was feeling charitable, he'd decided on the former.
Harry sipped at his cup of coffee, the least pretentious he could find on their menu, while their conversation crashed and burned in a way that reminded Harry of his own early forays into dating.
When, at last, their cups were empty and Marcy had a polite excuse to curtail their 'date', Harry rose to follow them from back towards the Stark compound. As had become his custom since his run-in in New York, his eyes constantly scanned the quiet pavements and nearby buildings for any unduly interested eyes.
When they reached the carpark, fate smiled on Harry at last. Marcy made some kind of excuse to her suitor, who had perhaps offered to walk her back to her desk, and walked quickly towards one of the cars towards the back of the carpark. She bustled around for a moment, making a show of getting something out of the back seat, until she was sure that her admirer was no longer watching, then the stood up, and slouched against the car as she rubbed her face tiredly.
Harry watched quietly from behind one of the ornamental trees that surrounded the Stark Industries buildings. The carpark was guarded, by a single guard at the entrance, and there were a number of CCTV masts dotted across around the area, but he was easily able to avoid them. He didn't need to get into the carpark; he just needed to get close enough. He took a note of the car, and its license plate, before walking slowly back towards the café to await his next opportunity.
It came much later than he'd hoped, but at last, just as the café was closing up for the evening, he saw Marcy's car exit the carpark. He rose quickly from his seat and stepped out into the street, walking quickly to keep her Chevy in sight.
He cast a glance around and ducked behind one of the bushes that lined the road outside of the Stark building. With a pop he apparated to the top of one of the buildings nearer to Marcy's car and began the long process of tailing her. It took him half an hour, and hundreds of short hop apparitions before she finally reached her destination.
It was a block of flats in Anaheim, nice ones too, a recent development. Harry watched from nearby as she pulled her car into her designated spot in the underground lot, marked, helpfully, with her flat number. With another pop he appeared behind a pillar, just meters from her, it was quiet enough that she didn't hear it over the sounds of other cars echoing through the underground space.
He followed her through up the stairs of the apartment building. He didn't really need to, after-all, he already knew which flat she was staying in, but after all the effort he'd gone to so far that day he didn't want to be tripped up by someone parking in the wrong spot.
She lived on the third floor, no great climb, and her flat had the name M. McKinnon, over its letterbox. He waited for her to enter, then waited a little while longer before walking up to her door and rapping smartly on the white-painted door.
"Look, Brad, I'm not—" she said as she threw the door open, a look of exasperation on her face. When she realised it wasn't who she thought it was her eyes widened. "Who are you?"
"Marcy McKinnon?" Harry asked in his best official sounding voice, the one he'd used when conducting investigations when he'd still been on the street. "Do you mind if I have a few words with you?"
"I, uh, sure," she said as she tried to regain her mental balance. He looked into her eyes and was unable to read anything from her, save the blind panic many people felt when confronted unexpectedly by law enforcement. "Wait, sorry, who did you say you were?"
"Sorry, where are my manners," Harry said with a pleasant smile. One thing he'd learned early on in his time as an Auror was that it was not only the bad guys who had guilty consciences. In fact, whenever he met someone who was completely confident when confronted, he knew that they were definitely up to something. "I'm Matthew Montague, I'm with the US Marshals. I have some questions I'm hoping you may be able to help me with. May I come in?"
"Well, sure," said Marcy, not even asking to see any ID. That made things easier. Harry nodded at her and smiled again, he still had it.
"Wonderful, thank you," he said as he stepped into her flat and looked around for where to go next.
"Oh, this way," said Marcy when Harry stopped. She led him into a comfortable sitting room. "Please, have a seat. Would you like anything to drink?"
"No, thank you, this shouldn't take long," he said as he slumped into one of her very squishy chairs. He looked around at her well appointed living room. It was a little spartan for his taste, he'd always felt that a room should be a little messy; it made it feel lived in, and Lily had always been only too happy to oblige him with that particular preference.
"So, how can I help you, officer?" She asked as she carefully sat down in another chair across from Harry's own. She smoothed her pencil skirt down nervously.
"You have nothing to worry about," Harry reassured her. "I'm looking into an organisation called A.I.M., Advanced Idea Mechanics, they've had some dealings with Stark in the past. Do you know anything that might be useful to our investigation?"
"Well… I. I don't know," said Marcy. "I remember something about them. Some guy called… uh… Killium? Right? What are you investigating them for?"
"Killian," said Harry. "There is evidence that his organisation is involved in human trafficking, but I can't tell you any more than that. The purpose of this conversation is just to see how far their tendrils reach. So, you know of the man?"
"Well, yeah, back when I started at Stark he was a bit of a running joke in the office," she said, thoughtfully. "He kept ringing up, every day. He had some idea for a, I don't know, a charity or something? He wanted Mr. Stark's backing for it."
Harry's weak legilimency backed up her words. There were no images of the man, only the sound of his voice and memories of some of the office staff laughing over the man's desperation to reach Stark, whom everyone knew to have an attention span only slightly longer than a goldfish when it came to such issues.
He saw a brief flash in which one of the other girls had commented that Killian might have had better luck if he'd had breasts, a sentiment apparently shared by Marcy.
"And did Mr. Stark give him that backing?" Harry asked, keeping a mental note of Marcy's apparent dislike of her employer.
Marcy very slowly shook her head. "I don't think so?" she half asked. "He stopped ringing not long after I joined. I don't think Mr. Stark ever got back to him."
Harry leaned back in his chair as he felt another avenue of progress rapidly going cold. "So, to your knowledge, there is no connection between Mr. Killian, and Mr. Stark?"
"No," said Marcy, more confidently this time. "Maybe they did speak back then, but I haven't seen anything about that Killian guy in years."
"What about Maya Hansen," said Harry, hoping against hope. "Have you heard the name before?"
"I don't think so," she said, her face apologetic. "It's not familiar."
Harry slumped, close to a week of work and it was starting to look like Stark Industries might be a dead end. His only chance for reliable information would surely be Stark, but the man was being held hostage in some third world dust-bowl.
"Sorry," said Marcy. "Maybe you should ask someone like Pepper?"
"Pepper?" Harry looked up. He saw images of an attractive red-headed lady in Marcy's mind, one that, Harry was surprised to see, she had a healthy respect for.
"Sorry," said Marcy again. "Uh, Virginia Potts? Mr. Stark's personal assistant? There's nothing that Mr. Stark does that she doesn't know about."
"Ah, yes, Miss Potts," said Harry, feigning recognition. He pushed himself to his feet, at least he'd got something out of this day's work. "We have been looking for her, actually. Nothing untoward, just the same reasons I'm talking to you now. Do you have any idea where she may be?"
Marcy frowned, and Harry caught a hint of suspicion on the edge of her thoughts. "Well, Mr. Stane let her go a few weeks ago, when Mr. Stark was taken by those terrorists."
That was certainly unusual behaviour. "What was the reason for her dismissal?" Harry asked. It was unlikely to be important, but his interest was piqued.
"Well, she's not been fired, not really. But she's on 'Paid Notice'," said Marcy, even going so far as to use air-quotes.
So, basically, she'd been fired pending Stark's death. Harry was impressed despite himself, that was callous. But while it was strange, it really wasn't applicable to Harry's search.
"Do you think Mr. Stane has had any dealings with Mr. Killian?" He asked. He'd seen Obadiah Stane mentioned in a few of the stories on Stark, but had decided he probably wasn't worth looking into. The man seemed to be as straight-forward as they could come. He shook that off, talking to Stane almost certainly wasn't worth the effort. He wouldn't fall for the government agent act, that much was certain.
Harry stood up, grunting as he did so. "Well, thank you for your time, Miss McKinnon."
"Oh, um, you're welcome," she said, surprised. After a moment she bounced to her feet, relief seeming to radiate from her in waves. "Here, I'll show you out."
Harry smiled, it was clear that there was something going on there, but quite what it could be he had no idea, nor did he especially care. In his experience people could be nervous about the most inconsequential things when talking to an Auror. As if he was going to delay a murder investigation to chase up someone late renewing an Apparition license. "Your mother clearly raised you well."
"Well, manners cost nothing," she said quickly as she walked him to the door. "That's what she always said."
"Indeed, they do not," said Harry as he stepped out of her apartment.
Tony Stark, Alive!
Late last night the Pentagon announced that Tony Stark has been found alive and in reportedly good health by US military forces in Afghanistan...
Harry was sat in a greasy spoon eating a very unhealthy breakfast, or that had been the intent, at least. As soon as he'd seen the morning headlines he had spent much more time staring at it in silence. He was fighting the urge to jump out of his seat and punch the air.
Tony Stark was alive. Tony Stark was returning to the U.S. Tony Stark, Harry's one known link to Maya Hansen and maybe Killian too. The first step on Harry's road home.
It would be a few more days until he would be able to organise a meeting with the man, as he'd surely be whisked away to hospital and have to endure days of debriefings from men in suits that are ever so slightly too large for them. Hopefully he'd be able to catch Stark when he returned home, and hopefully that would be soon.
He would have to start watching Stark's place in Malibu. He'd visited once already, and found it to be a godsend as far as infiltration was concerned. The huge bay windows were gaping holes in any perimeter when he could simply Apparate through them. If push came to shove, Harry could always Apparate directly into Stark's bedroom to talk to him.
He folded up the newspaper and returned his attention to his hash browns, though his mind was far away.
"I fail to see how the insecurity of your installations is in any way my problem," said Wolfgang von Strucker as he picked at his fingernails.
"You didn't say anything about his… his… abilities!" cried Aldrich Killian as he slammed a fist down on the metal desk between them hard enough to leave a deep dent.
"What did you expect?" asked Herr Strucker mildly. "It is Harry Potter, is it not? Why would you think he would not have the ability to perform magic?"
"Because that's not how the world works!" Killian paced back and forth, so red in the face in his anger that he was nearly glowing. "Physics, chemistry, everything is explainable through science. Magic cannot exist in a universe governed by our laws."
He stopped and pointed a shaking finger at Strucker, "You knew this would happen. You knew we'd get some kind of freak of nature. This is sabotage, that's what it is!"
Strucker reached up and removed the monocle which he always wore, and started cleaning it on his sleeve. "You have made the mistake of every other scientist," he said without looking up. "You believe that you have a telescope, or a magnifying glass, perhaps, that allows you to inspect the universe, every little bit of it. But like a child playing hide and seek you think that all that you can see with your pitifully inadequate theories is all that there is."
He raised the monocle back to his eye and blinked to refocus on Killian. "You don't for a moment realise that there is so much more in this universe than your small minded philosophy can possibly imagine. There are worlds out there, and worlds within worlds, each as different as it is possible to be. You are blind, and always will be. Your only saving grace is that you were also useful, but it seems even that quality is rapidly diminishing…"
"Are you threatening me?" Killian asked, his fists clenched tight enough to draw blood.
"Yes," said Strucker as he sat back in his chair. "You were given a task, one that is important to us, and you come to me complaining of sabotage?"
"You are lucky that your work on Extremis is still useful to us." Strucker steepled his fingers in front of his face. "And that I am not yet willing to reveal my organisation by running around after a children's tale. You will dedicate any resources you have to the search."
Killian growled and for a moment it looked like he might lash out at the other man, but a raised eyebrow held him back. He gritted his teeth. "I will remember this insult, Herr Strucker."
"Good, I would hate to have to repeat the lesson," said Strucker, seemingly oblivious to Killian's bubbling rage. "Now, if you are quite done wasting my time with your requests for me to act the nursemaid, there are other things I need to do."
Killian stepped once towards Strucker, who had immediately turned his attention back to the papers on his desk. He paused, and seemed to think better of taking it any further. He spun around and stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him with such force that both door and handle were left warped and bent.
Strucker raised a finger to his ear. "Someone see to the door. And I want our people to keep an eye out for Potter. They are to take no action unless he notices their presence, but I want to be kept informed of every one of the abilities he is able to manifest. Oh, and see to it that should he fail in his task, that Killian is unable to pass on any information about us."
He nodded to himself when he heard the immediate affirmation in his ear. Really the Potter project had been nothing more than a curiosity when it had been given over to A.I.M. Now, though, it was much more interesting.
The powers Potter had already shown were impressive, though not really anything that could not be done through technology or physical mutations already. What was interesting was the potential.