What's this? A chapter barely two weeks after the last? A miracle, I tell you, a miracle! I did say that I had a lot of stuff written up, and inspiration struck a lot recently. In any case, this one ended up being a bit heavier, by and large, than I expected or intended. Still, they can't all be fluff, and we're dealing with some heavy stuff. It's not all heavy, of course, but a lot of it is. We'll see other, lighter chapters in future, as I wind this down and prep the beginning of The Phoenix and the Serpent, and into the start of that. But heavy ones too.
It's also surprisingly Ron-centric, both in appearance and focus. In fairness, it's due, given how much he's been on the sidelines, and the fact that his reactions are important – not just as the third member of the Trio, where the other two members are actively at loggerheads, but in the context of his own arc. It'll be very important later on. Never fear, the focus will shift back to Hermione soon enough. Very much so, in fact…
Also, surprise appearance by Clint! What's he been up to? Well, that would be telling. Some of it can be gleaned, but other parts are for later chapters.
Ron Weasley sat in the Headmaster's Office and tried not to feel guilty. He was not having much luck.
He knew that he was not responsible for Hermione getting possessed by an insane spirit that was, apparently, part ghost, part god-eating super boggart. He knew that it wasn't his fault that his former best friend and that thing in her body had been caught in a duel to the death. And he knew it wasn't his fault that that creature had somehow activated Hermione's dormant, and apparently vast, mutant powers, and nearly killed them all.
He knew all of that. But he couldn't stop the guilt.
Professor Dumbledore had listened to his story, as he had to Hermione's, studying him with those piercing blue eyes. Then, eventually, he had absolved him of blame.
"Far older, and supposedly wiser, beings than you have been ensnared by that creature, Ronald Weasley," he had said. "Normally, of course, punishment would be due for going into the Forest in the first place at all, let alone so deep – unsupervised, unprepared, and unprotected."
He had let those words hang in the air as Ron's face burned with shame.
"I could say that the experience alone would be punishment enough. What you endured was far beyond any punishment I would even consider sanctioning."
Ron remembered the cruel words, the trickster's forms, and the splinters of his broken wand as his nightmare crushed his throat while wearing the face of his friend. He shuddered.
"Normally, however, I would find a way to gently teach you the error of your ways – not merely the consequences of them, but the reasons why they were wrong to begin with," Dumbledore went on calmly.
Ron braced himself.
"This is not normally."
Ron looked up in surprise. "Professor?"
Dumbledore sighed. "When I heard your story, and Hermione's, I had my suspicions, suspicions that only grew when I examined you. Agent Braddock –" He nodded to the woman who was standing behind and to his left, in the same kind of stance that Sergeant Barnes held when at rest. " – confirmed those suspicions. While the full details would require you to consent to a deeper scan, the essence is quite simple."
He steepled his fingers and regarded Ron.
"A year and a half ago, I told your family that many older and wiser people than your sister had been tricked and enchanted by Lord Voldemort," he said. "I am afraid, Mr Weasley, that you are now one of them."
Ron's blood ran cold, a paralysing fear running through him, as great as any the Fortress had conjured up.
"What?" he croaked, throat dry and closed up. He felt Agent Braddock's sympathetic hand resting on his shoulder, but at a remove, as if it belonged to someone else.
"At some point, Voldemort managed to gain a degree of influence over you," Dumbledore said quietly. "It was very subtle – no more than a pinhole in a sheet of parchment. A psychic wound subtle enough that even with one of the world's mightiest telepaths at your side, one very familiar with hostile influence, and with that of Voldemort above all, it went unnoticed. It was not enough to control, or, indeed, direct you in any notable way. It was, in fact, only enough to do very little, to whisper here and there. For Voldemort, that was all that was needed. To increase your impulsiveness and impatience. To inhibit your caution and common sense. To nudge you into making the wrong choice at just the right moment."
Ron swallowed, as the same thought ran in maddened circles through his mind.
Voldemort had been in his head. Voldemort had been in his head. Voldemort had been in his head!
Had he been able, he might well have fled, screaming. As it was, his legs felt like they were made of jelly, his every muscle like the cut strings of a puppet. He was quite simply too terrified to move.
"How?" he whispered. "What… why?"
Dumbledore looked at him steadily for a long time. "I do not know exactly how," he said. "Though I will most certainly investigate. From what we can tell so far –"
His gaze flickered briefly to Agent Braddock, exchanging a slight nod that Ron caught out of the corner of his eye.
" – Voldemort used a mixture of magic and psychic power. He would not have needed to be anywhere near you when he did so, and he could well have been miles away." He leaned forward. "Voldemort has always had a particular affinity for the mental arts, and even when he was just a man, very few could resist his will even when they were aware of it. Now, he has become something else; something more than a spirit, and less than a man. In the process, his mental powers have increased by an order of magnitude."
"He nearly killed me," Agent Braddock said somberly, drawing Ron's real attention for the first time. Usually, she seemed to Ron to be as cheerful and amused at the world as she was beautiful.
He had no doubt that she was far more dangerous than she let on, even before he had seen her in action. If nothing else, both Harry and Professor Cassidy held her abilities in high regard, and Ron took neither judgement lightly.
Professor Cassidy had decades of experience in dealing with things that were bizarre even by Wizarding standards (and, frankly, by any standard), which included psychics. Indeed, one way or another, he seemed to know almost all of the most powerful ones that Ron had ever heard of.
As for Harry… he was a psychic too. And while Ron might hardly recognise him for all that he'd changed, while he might never truly trust him again, he had to reluctantly admit that his friend – perhaps former friend – had become a very acute judge of character. Which, of course, he thought resentfully, only made him that much better at lying and manipulating.
And then there was Wisdom. He might be creepy, cold as ice, and quite probably insane, enough that more or less everyone stepped lightly around him, but he didn't pick fools to be his seconds.
In any case, she was more than she let on. But she'd never seemed this sombre before. This… grim.
"He caught me by surprise," she said. "He was paying almost total attention to Harry. And he still almost killed me. A couple of years ago, there would have been no almost about it." Her lips twisted. "I don't think he took the fact that I'd previously managed to actually hurt him very well."
Ron swallowed. "Why did he do it?" he managed.
Dumbledore regarded him for a long time. He was, Ron thought suddenly and resentfully, weighing up how much he should tell him.
"Voldemort's actions over this past year have been… obscure," he said eventually. "For the most part, he has kept a low profile, at least pretending to unaccustomed humility, bargaining knowledge for temporary alliances, usually as the junior partner. Of course, none of these alliances was sincere and he has betrayed each of his allies without a qualm. He is using them. For what, we cannot be certain, but the nearest estimate is that he is very interested in the nature of Harry's protection, which thwarted him all those years ago. He has said this himself. We also believe that he is seeking more power – either to circumvent it, or overcome it."
Ron frowned. "What does that have to do with me, Professor?" he asked. "I mean, I…" He grimaced. "I don't really know much about that. Harry's told me a few things, but only a few."
"And he would not be able to extract much information from you with the limited hold he had established," Dumbledore agreed. "He did not want information from you, Mr Weasley. He wanted a distraction. He drew you, and by extension, Miss Granger, into the Fortress. Perhaps it was already awake, or perhaps he awakened it specially. He knew that as soon as you were in danger, Harry would be drawn in, and that all eyes – mine, MI13's, and the Ministry's, and many others – would be on that battle alone. He was banking on the likelihood that even Strange could not afford to look away."
He smiled wryly.
"Of course, I don't think that even Voldemort could have imagined what was about to happen elsewhere," he said. "Given what else happened that night, he might as well not have bothered going to such trouble to arrange a distraction."
Ron's frown deepened and he shifted uneasily, before nodding. The rationale made sense, and while he'd only got a fairly garbled idea of what had happened via the Prophet and the Hogwarts rumour mill, there was no way of disguising that something absolutely colossal had taken place. For one thing, apparently his was far from the only broken wand – whatever power had set the world on its ear this time had seemingly not taken kindly to interference.
"What was that distraction for, Professor?" he asked.
Once again, Dumbledore considered him carefully, weighing up what he might say.
"The Ministry of Magic holds many secrets," he said. "Knowledge, artefacts, and portals to powers and places; some of them are of sufficient magnitude that even the Sorceress Supreme treads lightly. They are stored, protected, and where possible – and where safe – studied. I speak, of course, of the Department of Mysteries."
Ron shivered. He had heard of the Department of Mysteries before. When his father had spoken about it, it was mostly just the weird place where they did weird, secret things, and he'd paid it no mind. Now, though, he felt differently. He'd dealt with secrets and secret keepers, strange powers, and deadly artefacts, as real threats rather than vague ideas. If any of those that were being studied, if any of them that were dangerous enough to make the Scarlet Witch wary… then he would be wary too. Especially since one of the whispers he'd heard, from other people with relatives at the Ministry, was that Peter Wisdom was very interested in it.
"Voldemort," Dumbledore continued. "Managed to infiltrate it. What he was looking for, we still don't know – the Department of Mysteries is very finely tuned, and recent events threw it into disarray. However, in my experience, it is best to assume the worst: whatever he was looking for, he has found it."
Ron swallowed, trying to quell the bile he felt rising. "Because of me," he whispered. "He got what he wanted because of me."
"No," Dumbledore said, as gentle and unyielding as Death herself. "He did not. He got what he wanted – if he got what he wanted – because he was clever enough and powerful enough to circumvent the protections on the Ministry. As I said, even if he had not used you, he would have had distraction enough. The events of that night resonated across the globe and far beyond. They were epochal and cataclysmic. Worlds were given life by their side-effects, and entire moons were destroyed in the conflict. Strange, Wanda Maximoff, a Green Lantern without any of the limits of her predecessors, and even Merlin himself, they were merely a few of those that rallied to battle and even they were barely enough to prevent it from tearing the world apart. Our battle with the Spirit of the Fortress was a mere sideshow in far grander events. Voldemort, meanwhile, would barely register as relevant."
"That'd be a mistake," Agent Braddock muttered, and Ron found himself wholeheartedly agreeing with her. Indeed, Dumbledore nodded his agreement.
"Voldemort is dangerous," he said. "All the more so for having learned his limits. He did not stray so close to Hogwarts – and he must have – lightly. He knows the dangers, he is not a fool. Had the mark he left on you been noticed earlier, it could very easily have been him that was lured into a trap." He looked Ron in the eye. "It was not your fault, Mr Weasley. If anything, it is mine – "
" – and mine," Agent Braddock added, with an audible grimace.
Dumbledore nodded slightly. "For not noticing his mark," he said. "I am sure that Harry will have similar things to say in self-recrimination when he comes to consider it."
Ron soured, but said nothing, instead nodding in acceptance.
Dumbledore nodded his satisfaction, then his gaze slid down to Ron's pocket, where the remains of his wand – dumped on him by Harry after their argument – sat.
"Your wand was destroyed by the Spirit," he said.
"Yeah," Ron said roughly, before adding hastily, "Professor."
"May I see it?"
Ron hesitated, then reached into his pocket, closing his eyes at the jagged, splintered pieces, then set them down on the desk, trying not to cry.
The headmaster examined them carefully for a minute or two, as if looking beyond ordinary sight, before carefully teasing them back into a rough alignment.
"I realise that this may be painful, and I therefore apologise," he said, looking up once more. "But could you please tell me how this happened?"
Ron hesitated. He knew that he'd done so for too long when a warm, graceful hand settled on his shoulder.
"You don't have to if you don't want to, love," Agent Braddock said gently, contact and warm voice mingling in a way that would normally have had his blood rushing to two distinct places. "Living through it, then reliving it once already, must have been bad enough."
"It can wait," Dumbledore agreed.
"… would it be helpful?"
"To me, certainly," Dumbledore said. "To you, quite possibly, even if it is not yet obvious."
Ron blinked as he processed that. "You… you think that Mr Ollivander can repair it, Professor?" he asked, hope blossoming.
"I think that there is very little I would put past Mr Ollivander's exceptional capabilities," Dumbledore said. "And while his skills are currently in great demand, broken wands have been repaired before." He looked down at the wand, then at Ron. "However, to fix something, one must first know how it was broken, so as to know whether it is possible to fix at all. This need not happen today, or tomorrow, or at any specific date or time at all. But one must inevitably come before the other. When you are ready."
Ron nodded, and took a deep breath. Then, he recounted the story once more; not the whole night's events, for not all were relevant, but his encounter with the Spirit itself. When it had taken the form of the Winter Soldier. When it had revealed Harry's face, mocking him as it slowly crushed his throat. All the while, Agent Braddock's hand didn't leave his shoulder, and Ron felt far more grateful for it than he would admit, for reasons that had nothing to do with the presence of a pretty young woman.
After what felt like an eternity, but had probably only been about ten minutes, he came to a stop.
"Thank you, Mr Weasley," Dumbledore said, and resumed examining the wand, now wearing a more thoughtful look.
"Professor?Agent Braddock?" Ron asked suddenly, looking up at both of them.
"That thing, it…" Ron began, before trailing off and swallowing. "It showed me what I was afraid of. It used it to get to me, same way it did to all of us." He paused, the next words on the tip of his tongue, burning like acid and fear before he spat them out in a hurry, hoping to clear his mouth of the taste. "Should I be afraid of Harry?"
There was a very long silence, and Agent Braddock removed her hand, both adults sharing a look – troubled in her case, inscrutable in his.
"It's silly, sorry," Ron began.
"No," Agent Braddock said. "No, I don't think you should be afraid of Harry, love."
"But, unfortunately," Dumbledore said softly. "I can see why you would."
Braddock's head snapped around, a sharp comment starting on her lips, before dying in the face of his sombre expression. Something passed between them and she folded her arms, frowning and looking troubled.
Ron, for his part, just met Dumbledore's gaze and didn't say a word, for all that he could almost weep at both the situation and the fact that someone understood. What could he say? That his best friend, former or present, terrified him? That through no fault of his own, he'd got twisted up with Ron's nightmares about the Winter Soldier? No. No, he could not say that. Not yet.
So, he said nothing.
Dumbledore, meanwhile, neatly changed the subject by drawing his own wand, and lightly tapping the middle piece of Ron's.
Before Ron's astounded eyes, the pieces clicked together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the cracks and joins vanishing completely. Dumbledore laid down his own wand, picked it up, then flicked it, causing several golden lines of light to fly out, swooping into a strange shape like a rounded three-point star. Agent Braddock let out a long, low whistle, and Dumbledore's beard twitched in a smile as he flicked the wand again, making the sound dance into a jaunty little tune, before both shape and sound faded away.
"Back in full working order, I believe," he said, handing it back to Ron, who took it in utter disbelief.
"Thank you, Professor," he whispered. "Thank you."
"You are most welcome," Dumbledore said, before looking past him. "As is my next visitor," he added, voice pitched a little louder. "For all that he could work on his timing."
Ron twisted in his seat to see a tall man of indeterminate middle age with iron grey hair stroll in. He was wearing muggle clothing, but he seemed to be entirely familiar with Hogwarts, and, indeed, Dumbledore's office, which he was looking around at with an air of fond nostalgia. At this last, he turned to Dumbledore and smiled faintly.
"A mutant is never late, Albus Dumbledore, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to."
Dumbledore returned the smile, but with a hint of steel in his expression.
"And does exactly what he wishes to, no doubt," he said.
The other man caught the undertones in Dumbledore's voice and expression, and tilted his head slightly.
"Within reason," he said. "I am here to meet my granddaughter, if she is amenable." Then, he turned. "Ah, Elizabeth. Do forgive my manners in not greeting you earlier."
Ron blinked. Who was this man? Dumbledore was watching him with a pleasant but careful expression, Agent Braddock was far more obviously wary, even if she did smile politely as he took her hand and bowed gracefully over it. And who was – oh. The knut dropped just as the man turned to him.
"And you," said Magneto, a great and terrible power before whom even Voldemort had trembled, the father of the Scarlet Witch and, therefore, the grandfather of Hermione herself. "Must be Mr Ronald Weasley."
Ron swallowed and stood up slowly. "Yeah," he said, stiffening his spine. "I am."
There was a gleam in the older man's eye. Approval, perhaps? Or calculation? It was definitely something, enough to put Ron on his guard. He'd heard the stories, though. Wand or not, all he would present to this man if he decided to attack was a brief amusement. Emphasis on the 'brief'.
"We were just discussing recent events," Dumbledore said, stepping smoothly and unhurriedly up to Ron's side, a silent support. "In which he was a good friend to your granddaughter. As he always has been."
The warning, Ron mused, was not subtle.
Magneto, however, merely broadened his smile into something a touch rueful. "So I have heard," he said, before directing his words to Ron. "Harry in particular holds you in high regard, young man. That is not something that happens often. He also says that you are quite the chessmaster. Perhaps one day you might favour me with a game or two?"
Ron managed a shaky exhale and nodded.
"Excellent," Magneto said pleasantly. "Albus, may I prevail upon your hospitality and this young man's time for an escort to the Hospital Wing?"
Dumbledore slid his gaze over to Ron, who hesitated, looking up at Magneto. He'd got two very conflicting perspectives on the man. One was shaped by the stories he'd been told, about a Dark Lord who'd come to power in between Grindelwald's fall and Voldemort's rise. A being that was barely human if human at all, whose savagery even Voldemort feared, who descended on his victims with all the capriciousness and lack of mercy of the force of nature he embodied, with a degree of sadism that chilled the blood. The other, from Harry, was of a grandfatherly teacher, kind and witty and wise, a patient guide and earnestly determined to protect the world and battle the evils that might threaten it – someone, in short, that you could rely upon. Someone you could trust.
However, even Harry was more than willing to admit that the man was dangerous. That the monster was not so deeply buried as it might seem. That the stories of his power were, if anything, underestimates of the truth.
That was the man he might be walking with.
That was the man he might be leaving Hermione alone with.
So he hesitated.
"Or, if Mr Weasley has schoolwork to attend to, I am sure I can find my own way," Magneto continued. Only a matter of seconds had passed, barely more than a pause, but it was there – and going by the look in his eye and the softening of his tone, he'd read every one of Ron's thoughts straight off of his face.
"No," Ron said suddenly. "It's okay. Not a problem. I'd… I'd be glad."
Magneto inclined his head. "You have my thanks, Mr Weasley."
Ron just hoped he wasn't going to have any regrets. Or, at least, that he might live long enough to have them at all.
The walk itself was a little tense, but after enough time and innocuous questions about his and Hermione's experience as students had passed, Ron became pretty certain that his companion wasn't going to kill him. After that, it merely became awkward, questions interspersed with silences. Ron found them uncomfortable. Magneto, on the other hand, seemed quite unbothered by either the silences or the stares they attracted.
Even leaving aside his manner of dress, the man radiated a sense of power and authority that reminded Ron quite distinctly of a more controlled version of Harry when he was in one of his curter and more authoritative moods, or Dumbledore when matters became deadly serious. He was not the only one who spotted the similarities, and even if no one recognised Magneto at all – which was quite likely – then they would still have known that this was not someone to be crossed. So they retreated, and watched. Sometimes, Ron wished he could do the same.
Instead, however, his mind turned to the situation at hand, just what had drawn Magneto to Hogwarts. The Spirit of the Fortress was now contained and being much more thoroughly imprisoned, it was no longer a problem. However, it had been a very big problem. An almost catastrophic one, in fact.
Once, Ron would have been horrified at the sheer scale of the damage; an entire valley devastated, turned to ash, glass, and… well, whatever Hermione's chaos magic had done to some of it. A year ago, it would have been beyond anything he could have ever imagined. Yes, the horrors the thing that had possessed Hermione had wrought made him shudder, but given who and what had been involved, he just thanked Merlin that they'd got off so lightly.
Well. In that respect, anyway.
Now, Hermione was in the Hospital Wing, always watched by either Professor Dumbledore or, currently, Professor McGonagall. It was to protect her, yes, from herself if need be. Given what he'd seen those powers do, Ron could well believe she'd need it, especially given how he'd also seen what had happened when Harry's odder powers had kicked in.
They had repeatedly almost fried his brain, and the brains of more than a few people around him, and that was what had happened when they'd been allowed to develop relatively naturally. Hermione had not been so fortunate, and Ron wasn't stupid.
Those wards, initially around her bed, now around the cordoned off section of the Hospital Wing, allowing her to stretch her legs? The ones that made reality snap back into place like a rubber band whenever she accidentally stretched it with a stray thought? They weren't there to keep her safe from herself. Not entirely. They were there to keep everyone safe from her.
"Of that I have no doubt," Magneto said, and every muscle in Ron's body all but seized as he realised he'd said that last part out loud.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean –"
"You did," the older man said simply. "And you were right." He eyed Ron. "Please stop trembling, young man. I am a reformed character – and even in my darkest past, I never killed on a whim, much less when someone voiced a simple truth." He pursed his lips. "Granted, my responses were not always pleasant, and certainly could be shameful, but they were never lethal."
Ron swallowed. "I'm not sure if that's really comforting," he said.
Magneto snorted. "No, it probably is not," he agreed. "Very well. Let me put it like this: by my very well informed count, you have risked your life at least four times specifically to protect my granddaughter." He shot Ron a very pointed look. "I owe you a debt, Ronald Weasley."
Ron managed to relax a little. Life debts, and debts in general, were complicated things when it came to magic – and the more old school you were, the more important they were. Magneto might not be a wizard, but Ron felt that he was very old school.
"Right," he said. "Um. Thank you?"
Magneto chuckled. "You are welcome," he said. "Though really, I should be thanking you." He regarded Ron for a moment. "You know, I am actually quite impressed by you."
Ron blinked, feeling peculiarly proud. "Really?"
"Oh yes," Magneto said. "Anyone who can not only survive the kind of insanity that follows Harry Thorson around like a bad smell, but willingly following him into the fire time and time again, even when he himself tries to stop you… that is a mark of someone impressive. Impressive and, I think, very capable."
He waved a hand.
"My granddaughter, after all, absorbs knowledge like a sponge, understanding theory with exceptional ease, and with magic in particular, knowledge is power. Especially when one is tutored by Asgard's God of Magic. As for Harry… that boy was born ready for the battlefield, in ways that have nothing to do with his Asgardian blood. Lightning reflexes, eerie composure in the face of battle, remarkable resilience, and a talent for lateral thinking that borders on the bizarre – all make him a natural warrior. Both have manifold advantages even before you take into account the sheer power they have developed. And then… there is you."
He regarded Ron, steely eyes now very clearly weighing him up.
"You have none of the natural advantages they both had when you all first met, much less the ones they have developed since," he said. "Your sole advantages, or so it would seem, were a knowledge of the world around you and a gift for strategy that manifested in chess. The first is more than moderately useful, but this age of upheaval causes all that was known to be overthrown. The old truths are called into question, the impossible is now the every day, and even the great Doctor Strange is not always certain of what the future holds."
His expression, Ron felt, said that he was very much not satisfied with the implications of this, but it passed as quickly as it had come.
"The second is potentially very useful, but your gifts are so far untutored. The world is far more complicated and messy than chess – your enemies play with different pieces and by different rules. You know this, I think. Strategy is a matter of taking the longer view, and only a very few chessmasters can make the world dance to their will in the quick-time of combat. Strange, of course, is the usual example. He's practically the only one good enough to have done it more than once and survived. And usually, they cheat." He tilted his head. "You could be the magical answer to Captain America – at least, as far as strategists go. But that would take time and a dedicated education."
Ron frowned, not quite sure where this was going, or if he really wanted to know. However, part of him was curious. The rest of him, meanwhile, was not curious, but it was even less curious to find out what might happen if he interrupted Magneto, life debt or no life debt.
"So, one gift obviated by circumstances, the other frequently rendered useless by the chaotic and hectic nature of the trouble you find yourself in," Magneto continued. "What has allowed you to endure? What drives you on? Why do you seek out fights you could easily and honourably avoid?"
He let the questions hang in the air, and after a couple of minutes, Ron realised that he was expected to answer.
"I don't know," he said honestly. "I suppose people don't pay much attention to me." He half-shrugged. "Can't blame 'em. 'mione's smarter than anyone else I know, except Dumbledore and Strange, and now she's got chaos magic and powers like you. Harry's… Harry."
"He most certainly is," Magneto murmured. "And yes, people do overlook you, don't they? I am equally sure that more than one has come to regret that. But the intelligent ones do not. Voldemort is one of them."
Ron jumped, and Magneto smiled slightly.
"I was listening in on your conversation," he said, unabashed. "Which is part of why Albus was not best pleased with me. I think that he sees what many others have, which has in turn been relayed to me: loyalty. Given and reciprocated – which, in fact, is why you are so angry now. In your view, that loyalty has not been reciprocated."
Ron shifted uncomfortably. "I don't think lying about it was the right thing to do," he said. "Hermione deserved to know."
"I would agree," Magneto said mildly. "I suspect that Harry would too, deep down. However, like you, he too values loyalty. In this case, to Wanda. He acquiesced to her wishes on the matter, as I have, no matter whatever else he might have thought."
Ron wrinkled his nose, but changed the subject. "Loyalty doesn't keep you alive, though," he said.
"It does not, which is part of why Harry has tried to keep you and my granddaughter away from his particular brand of madness," Magneto agreed. "Personally, I think he lets his fears get in the way of his common sense."
Ron's jaw dropped. "You think…" he began, then trailed off, unsure of where to take that. Of all the people to take his part in his ongoing dispute with Harry about his habit of putting him and Hermione firmly on the sidelines, whether by what he now recognised as carefully crafted emotional appeals or simply brushing past them, this man was not one of them. Then again, he'd never really imagined that he'd be talking to Magneto at all – the entire situation was surreal.
"I do," Magneto said. "You are a fairly talented wizard, with a sharp mind and a strong will, full of potential that is just waiting to be fuelled and shaped. Many speak highly of you, and not merely platitudes about your courage – though those too are well earned. Your powers are not in the same class as those of your friends, but what of it? A needle is no less deadly than a sword, properly applied. In fact, there are many ways in which it is more useful."
He tilted his head thoughtfully.
"In fact, a Swiss Army Knife might be a better comparison," he said. "A powerful wizard can teleport – apparate, transform everything from their surroundings to themselves, manipulate the elements, camouflage themselves, enhance their own senses, induce wakefulness and sleep, project shields, and attack and counter-attack on a spiritual level by the time they leave school, among many, many other things. Aside from raw power, your only limits are training and knowledge. You are tested in combat, if not seasoned, and far more open-minded than most of your people, willing to understand and to learn. I have trained people with a fraction your ability, and others with a fraction of your brains." He smiled slightly. "In my old days, you would have been a prime recruit: powerful, intelligent, and driven, when motivated. And, with, of course, a vast capacity for loyalty."
"… thank you?" Ron said, uncertain of how to take this.
Magneto chuckled. "I am sure Charles would have had similar opinions," he said. "It is certainly why you have attracted the attention of figures as diverse as Peter Wisdom and Thor Odinson himself." When Ron started at the latter, undoubtedly wondering how on Earth the older man had heard that, he chuckled again. "Harry mentioned it; for all that he prefers to keep you safe, he holds you in high regard. He felt the need to cite an authority to prove your talent, I think, not that he needed to do so. His judgement, and my own, are proof enough."
"Oh," Ron said, taking refuge in monosyllables.
Magneto nodded. "I daresay he has other reasons, of course," he went on. "Harry always was one to try and protect innocence wherever he could. No matter how futile that might have been, he still tried. His understanding of loyalty, of course, relates very heavily to protection. If he is loyal to you, then there is nothing he will not do for you. Which, frankly, can be both magnificent and utterly terrifying."
He turned to Ron, grey eyes pinning him like an insect to a card.
"What about yours? You are loyal to your friends, utterly loyal. How do you understand loyalty?"
Ron hesitated, then thought and thought hard.
"You stick by people," he said. "Even if it's scary, even if it's mad, you stick by them. You trust them. No matter what. And…"
"And you don't lie to them," Magneto said softly. "You don't set them aside. You don't try to keep them safe."
Ron stared at him in disbelief, hearing his thoughts so clearly articulated.
"Your loyalty is a powerful thing indeed. You may be reluctant to do so, yet when they seek to turn you back, you will do anything to prove you are up to the task. And above all, you are loyal to your family."
Ron started as that gaze peeled away any feeble disguise he might have mustered.
"You seek training. Trial. And ultimately… revenge."
"How," Ron began, anger squirming past caution. "Who?" he demanded.
"I have known of Hermione for some time now, and even had I not, both you and she would be of interest thanks to my daughter's connection to Harry," Magneto said calmly. "Therefore, I have kept an eye on you both. As for specifics… I have known Sean Cassidy since he was only a few years older than you are now. We have had many differences of opinion down the years, but he gave me what he deemed an appropriate briefing – partly to prevent me from asking you too many penetrating questions. Another part, I think, was that he hoped I would dissuade you from your quest for vengeance on HYDRA."
Ron stopped. So did Magneto. The older man was now swathed in shadow, eyes gleaming an electric blue as he looked down at Ron, crackling with distant power.
"You?" Ron asked, in understandable disbelief.
Magneto's lips twitched in a grim smile. "Me. It makes more sense than you might think. I am an example of what you might become, Ronald Weasley, if you continue down that path. Or I was. Vengeance consumed me, Ronald Weasley, when I was your age and younger. I spent decades hunting down those who had taken my family from me, tormented me, transformed me into a killing machine, and in the process I twisted myself into a monster greater than any of them. Your community whispers my name in fear, you tremble before me, and both on the strength of a reputation that hardly touches on the true depths of darkness that I reached. Do you want to know why Professor Cassidy worries? Because he has seen this before. Because he has seen me." He leaned forward. "And believe me, my boy. My path is not one you want to follow."
Another person might have looked away, perhaps shuddered. But Ron looked him square in his glowing eyes. "If you think, if Professor Cassidy thinks, that I'm going to stop," he said. "Then you're both wrong."
"I didn't think you would," Magneto murmured, the glow fading and shadows retreating. "Some things must be experienced for oneself." He paused, mulling over his next words. "A long time ago, a very wise man told me, 'revenge will not bring you peace'. It took me nearly thirty years to understand what he meant." He shot Ron a long, sidelong look. "For your sake, I only hope that you are a quicker study than I am."
Ron scowled, but did not argue. Magneto saw his reaction, he could hardly have missed it, but forbore to comment. He had said his piece, and seemed content enough with that.
Ron, however, was left with much to chew over.
Ron was not the only one chewing over things. Harry, for one, had decided that since he was going to face the matter of the secret he'd kept from Hermione head on and admit that, yes, not only had he screwed up, but so had Wanda, he wanted a second opinion on how to address it. He'd half expected Carol to object or suspect him of wavering, but she didn't.
"I'm gonna be honest with you, Harry," she said. "I'll call you out when you screw up, same you do for me. I love you too much to do anything else." As his cheeks went rosy, she added with a sigh, "But facts are facts. I've got girlfriend bias." She grimaced. "Also, tact is not my middle name."
"You're selling yourself short," Harry protested, and at a flat look, sighed in turn. "Okay, fine. Boyfriend bias," he said wryly, getting a snort in return. "But seriously, you are selling yourself short. Just a bit."
"Well, however much I'm selling myself short, the best advice I can give is to be upfront and open," Carol said. "But I don't know Hermione that well, and I'm not sure if that wouldn't just piss her off."
Harry's lips twisted as he picked up her train of thought. "And while I can be smooth, she won't trust that at all," he added. "Which might just piss her off even more." He frowned, rubbing his jaw. "What I need," he said slowly. "Is a middle ground. Smooth and solid, upfront and subtle, and preferably someone who knows either Wanda or Hermione – or preferably, both."
"Any names spring to mind?" Carol asked, eyebrow raised.
"So," Clint said, leaning against the kitchen wall, arms folded, hawk-like eyes watching the two teenagers with a certain wry amusement. "Let's sum this up: Harry got caught between Wanda and Hermione - his godmother and one of his best friends. He tried to do right by both as best he understood it, fucked up, then Hermione got possessed by a nightmare that activated Omega class mutant powers and sent her chaos magic into overdrive. She's traumatised, exorcised, figures out that she's Wanda's daughter, and all emotional hell breaks loose."
He pointed at Harry.
"At which point, you picked a side," he continued. When Harry looked like he was going to protest, he got an unimpressed brown stare that snapped his mouth shut. "Which you did, whether you realised it or not. Then one of your other best friends who, let's face facts, we're also lying to in ways that make Hermione's parentage look like chicken-feed, picks a side of his own, on her behalf – but also probably because he's pissed at a whole bunch of other things you've been doing. So, we've got a kid, Hermione, with enormous and barely controlled powers whose world has just been turned upside down and if we're honest, is feeling more than a bit betrayed. We've got another kid, Ron, who's a seething mess of unresolved issues, and feeling pretty betrayed too. It's mostly on her behalf because he's the loyal type, and he has a blatant crush on her, but it's more general too."
"General?" Harry echoed.
Clint raised an eyebrow. "Harry, that kid would walk through fire for you," he said.
Carol made a sound of agreement under a troubled expression. She met Clint's gaze and got only more troubled. She saw where this was going.
"I know," Harry said tightly. Ah, so he got it too. Well. Maybe. "I don't want him to. I have been trying to keep him and Hermione out of this."
"Yeah," Clint said bluntly. "That's part of why he's pissed." He rolled his shoulders. "I don't know either of them, really, but I've heard enough. Hermione can take or leave the kind of craziness you get into. She's a million miles from a coward, but she's not a fighter by nature – at least, not on the battlefield. She can, if she needs to, but it's not her preference. If she felt she was in your circle of trust, that maybe she could help with research, she'd probably be happy, though she'd fret like hell about the kind of danger you put yourself in."
"But Ron is different," Harry said flatly.
"He is," Clint said. "Hermione… I don't know how that one's going to fall out. She might forgive you on the surface, but resent you for it forever, even if it's so deep down that even she doesn't realise it. Or she might straight up never forgive you. Or she'll just forgive you. Eventually. But if you're upfront about it, the way Carol suggests, and you cop to your mistakes, then I think she'll stop having so many problems with you." He grimaced. "Which doesn't mean that she won't have a whole forest of bones to pick with Wanda."
He jabbed a finger suddenly at Harry.
"That is something you need to keep your nose out of. This is something they need to sort out between them, and since you couldn't stay neutral if you tried, you'd be no help even if they wanted a mediator. Wanda can look after herself, Harry. I know you want to help, I do, and so does she – she loves you like her own." He paused and grimaced. "Which, by the way, is probably part of why Hermione's having issues with you."
Harry stared at him in blank incomprehension. "What?" he asked, completely dumbfounded. "She – but – what?"
"What he's getting at is that Hermione sees you as Wanda's favourite," Carol said. "She thinks that she's the one who wasn't wanted, that even if all the risks were real, you were the one that Wanda took a chance on, not her. She thinks Wanda loves you more. Which, by the way, sucks to be on the end of."
"But Wanda doesn't love me more," Harry protested.
Privately, Clint wasn't so sure. In his experience, most parents had favourites. It was human nature. If they were good parents, they never let it show and treated them all the same. The problem was that it didn't matter whether or not Wanda had a favourite. You were meant to treat your children the same, and thanks to both the way life had turned out and enough good intentions to build not just a highway to hell but an overpass and a few service stations too, she hadn't.
And if she did have a favourite, the cynical part of him added, it probably wasn't the one whose face brought up all kinds of traumatic memories.
Out loud, he said, "that's easier for you to say than Hermione to believe. Frankly, for anyone to believe. Wanda might love the two of you equally, but with Hermione, it's all been at arms length, avoiding her whenever she can."
"She wasn't exactly around for most of my life, either," Harry said testily.
"But the first moment it became clear that you were safer with her than without her, she was at your side and making it perfectly clear that she adored you," Clint said evenly. "The way I hear it, Strange himself had to stop her from taking you in. You practically had to be pried from her arms with a crowbar, and if it had been anyone but him, they wouldn't have had a chance in hell of succeeding. It's not exactly common knowledge, but Hermione definitely knows. Hermione herself? Given away as soon as she was born, and avoided like the plague afterwards."
He raised a hand to forestall Harry's indignant protests.
"I know, it's more complicated than that, on both counts. Anonymity protected her, but it was never an option for you. You know that, I know that, hell, I bet that she knows that. Wanda sure as shit does. But we're not talking about logic."
"I know," Harry said sourly. The good thing, Clint thought, was that he did actually sound like he knew, rather than just saying it because it was expected. He wasn't happy about it, but so be it.
"Right now, she kind of hates Wanda," Clint concluded. "One part is that she wants nothing to do with her. The other part is that she's furious that Wanda seemed to want nothing to her. She felt –"
"Neglected," Harry sighed. "Unwanted. Believe me, I know the feeling."
"Yup," Carol said. "Also, I might not know her that well, but I get the feeling that Hermione's not going to admit that in a million years."
"Oh, there's a chance," Harry said sourly. "It's somewhere below pigs flying and marginally above the sun rising in the West, but it's there."
"Well, you let them sort it out," Clint said. "If nothing else, the last thing Wanda wants to see is her kids fighting."
Harry started, but nodded reluctantly. "What about Ron?" he asked.
Clint considered his next words. "Ron doesn't seem like the forgiving type," he said eventually. "It's the flipside of that kind of loyalty, often enough. People who are that loyal expect it to go both ways, and they don't take it well if they think someone hasn't held up their end. I'm not talking about arguments or squabbles, I'm talking about the serious stuff. This is serious stuff. You've been keeping secrets from him, and from what I hear, he's come to accept that."
Harry's grimace spoke volumes. "Grudgingly," he muttered.
Carol shot him a sharp look and something silent passed between them, and he sighed.
"I know, I know," he said. "He doesn't have to like it. Just accept it."
"Except that this isn't something he has to accept," Clint pointed out. "Not as far as he's concerned. This isn't just something that you have to keep quiet, that isn't really his business. This is about Hermione, about him, about the three of you. This is something that, in his eyes, you should have told the truth. Worse, not telling the truth nearly got the three of you, particularly the girl he's head over heels for, killed or worse."
This time, Harry went ice white and stiff as a board, and Carol's sharp look was directed towards Clint and ratcheted up to a full on glare. When it came to those two and each other, Clint thought wryly, 'protective' didn't even begin to describe it.
"It wasn't on you," Clint continued. "There's a lot of people in positions of responsibility who should have said or done something. Your own father, for instance. Or your headmaster. And Wanda most of all."
"Not Strange?" Carol asked.
"Strange not doing something tends to be even more significant than him actually doing something," Clint said. "No one's dead, everyone's sane, Hermione's powers and secret are out in the open, and she's going to be one hell of a lot more cautious about using them now. Sounds to me like that suits him down to the ground."
"Except that Wanda would kill him," Harry pointed out.
"Yeah, it probably didn't go totally to plan," Clint agreed. "More risky and more traumatic than he'd have preferred. But the general idea fits his methods." He waved a hand. "Anyway, Ron's not thinking about all these authority figures. They're distant to him, and honestly, he probably half expects them to lie and jerk you all around. You're a different matter. You, he trusts."
"Trusted," Harry said flatly, emphasising the tense, before laughing bitterly. "You know, the dragon at the First Task? It tipped him off that Bucky, that the Winter Soldier, was still alive. Not in so many words, and not that it was Bucky, but enough to plant a seed. So, he did what any good friend would do. He asked me."
He shook his head, a self-mocking smile of self-loathing on his face.
"Bucky was in the room, not six feet away," he said. "So, I lied."
"Harry," Carol said. "You didn't –"
"Have a choice?" Harry asked. "Oh, I did. It was an awful choice, but it was still a choice. And I didn't just choose to lie. That would have been one thing. Because I didn't lie. Oh no. I did something much worse." He let out a bitter chuckle. "I got clever. I told him the truth and nothing but the truth, and bent it into a circle that Strange would have been proud of. I implied, I diverted, and I lied with the truth. I danced him away from the idea that the Winter Soldier was alive, and in the end, I let him lie to himself. All the while, I told him what I was doing. I told him that I was a brilliant liar, that I would lie to him if I had to – but I'd feel really bad about it. 'I'm the best liar you'll ever meet', I said. 'And you can trust me on that'."
He smiled that bitter smile.
"And you know what? He did."
There was a stunned, appalled, silence. Harry very conspicuously did not look at his girlfriend, half-slumped, half-hunched up. Seeing that, Carol reached out and touched his shoulder in reassurance, and he flinched, before slowly relaxing. But he only relaxed so far, and her expression only remained troubled.
"Natasha would be proud," Clint said quietly. "Your uncle too."
"What, that my first response to a straight question was to twist the truth into a knot?" Harry asked, then laughed mirthlessly. "Maybe they would. A misleading truth is so much more effective than a lie, so much harder to unravel, and so much easier to tell – once you have the knack of it. Then there's composure, of course. I hardly dropped a beat. Oh, and I knew exactly what buttons to press, to wind him up and down. Yes, full marks and a gold star for me."
"Performing that well under pressure, from an ambushed question, is something that takes a lot of agents years to master," Clint said evenly. "So, yeah. A bit of that. Mostly, though, I think they'd be more proud about how it made you feel. It's a skill, Harry. So's being able to put an arrow or a bullet through someone's eye from distances that'd normally get you a call from Guinness. It's useful. Sometimes, it's necessary. If you become numb to it, that's not a good sign. That's when you know you should stop. And if you enjoy it… then something is very, very wrong with you."
"Maybe," Harry said quietly. "But this isn't exactly something I can stop, is it?"
Clint sighed. "No," he said. "No, it isn't."
"Ron's not going to forgive me," Harry went on flatly. "For this, with Hermione? Maybe. Eventually. When she does, probably, though I doubt it'd be anything before. Actually, I hope he doesn't, because if he forgives first, that'll set the two of them wrangling. For Bucky?"
He let that hang.
"He might," Carol said quietly.
"Would you?" Harry asked. "If you were in his shoes, would you forgive me?"
Carol held his gaze for a long moment, then looked away. "I don't know," she said eventually, unhappily. "I really don't."
"Me neither," Harry said.
"He might surprise you," Clint said. "What happened to Bucky – my grandfather – was mind control. If there's one thing that the British magical community is familiar with, what Ron's family in particular are familiar with, it's mind control."
That little reminder of the relationship got a small jolt from both of them, who had apparently forgotten that little fact. Clint hadn't, and never would. Bucky wouldn't either. Neither of them was the demonstrative type, not about things this personal, but that didn't mean it didn't matter. It didn't mean that the rest of Clint's family, which he privately thought was almost convoluted enough to be Harry's family tree in miniature, mattered any less, either. The Kent family had the sharpest eyes in the Nine Realms on them now.
"Besides," he added. "Most of the Weasleys already know."
Two sets of eyes widened like tennis balls, two mouths asking one question in identical inflection and eerie unison.
"Bucky insisted," Clint said. "It was one of his conditions for guarding you. He knew that he was going to be dealing with Ron Weasley more than pretty much any other Hogwarts student, and Arthur Weasley's death… was a special case." A mercy kill, he added silently. "He felt that the Weasley family deserved to know. They would get a veto."
"Natasha kicked him out of bed for that one, and Steve tried to talk him out of it, said that he was putting himself in danger. They had a real shouting match when Bucky pointed out the hypocrisy. Honestly, it was the angriest I've seen Steve." He glanced at the two of them. "Except when the Red Room got you two, and that was a different kind of angry. This time? Well, they're basically brothers, and take it from me, when brothers fight, it gets ugly." He snorted. "You wouldn't believe how much Steve can swear."
"How many know?" Harry asked, as he absorbed this.
"All of the adults," Clint said. "The Twins were going to be told when they were of age."
"'Were'?" Carol asked sharply.
"They figured it out. Thankfully, they went to Loki first. After that, they worked out some kind of arrangement with him and Bucky." He shot a look at Harry. "Don't get too surprised if strange things start happening to him – I heard something about how he's market research."
"Market research," Harry said. "For their joke shop?"
"Joke shop, defence contractor, Stark R&D lab," Clint said, shrugging. "One of the above. Or all of them."
Harry's eyes went cold. "Market research," he repeated, and now there was a definite edge to his voice. "You mean 'test subject'."
"Yes," Clint said, meeting Harry stare for stare. "Leave it." It wasn't snapped, or barked, or above normal volume. It was, however, not in any way a request. "That's between them and him. Loki mediated it, which means that it'll be sewn up tighter than an airlock, and you can bet that Dumbledore and McGonagall will be keeping an eye on it, meaning that whatever the line is, they won't cross it."
Harry held his gaze for a long time, something cold and dangerous flashing in those emerald depths, stance utterly rigid. Had he been a cat, his tail would have been lashing like mad. Eventually, however, he relaxed.
"Fine," he said. "How'd the others take it?"
"They understood," Clint said. "I can't see him being invited to any Christmas dinners, but Molly lived through Voldemort's war, she knows mind control. The others grew up around people who'd experienced it at the hands of the Death Eaters. And all of them know about Ginny and the Diary. Plus, the Twins aside, they've all seen some pretty gruesome evidence of what can be done to someone with magic. What HYDRA did to people, with magic. And without it."
"Ron won't be that logical," Harry said flatly. "He won't just accept it."
"He's got a couple of years yet," Clint said. "People can change a lot in that time. You have."
Harry twitched, as Clint earned another venomous glare from Carol. This one had less bite to it, however, as instead she gripped her boyfriend's hand.
"I'm not trying to hurt you," he said. "But Ron's already done a lot of growing up. You've done more. Don't underestimate him."
"I'm not," Harry snapped. "I'm not underestimating him, Clint. I know him. I know him well enough to press his buttons, to lie to him and make him thank me for it, and to make him do exactly what I want without lying or using any powers at all. Gods help me, I could do all of that, even now that he doesn't trust me anymore. My uncle, Strange, Natasha, even Professor Dumbledore. They all showed me how to push buttons, even if they didn't know they were doing it. But what they didn't do was teach me where those buttons were."
He shook his head angrily.
"This isn't about growing up," he said. "This isn't about changing. This is about who he is. You said it yourself, Clint. Ron is loyal. He's loyal to friends. He's loyal to family. Not telling him about Bucky? That's betrayal. Bucky himself? Bucky killed his dad. Sure, he'll know what we know, but that won't matter. I knew it when I thought that he'd killed my dad for a moment, last year, when he put him in a coma. Remember? A HYDRA assault team rolled up to take us out, and I nearly executed them all in cold blood, right there on the street. If Jane hadn't interrupted, I would have. And if I'd had the range, I'd probably have done the same to Bucky. As it was, I was perfectly primed for Strange to point me, us, at HYDRA's base and tear straight through it and gods help whoever was in my way."
He shook his head slowly, and the expression on his face chilled Clint's blood.
"That's not even half of what I'm capable of, when someone hurts the people I care about," he said quietly. "Yes, I've learned control. But I'm colder than Ron is. I always have been, one way or another. When it comes to emotional stuff, I'm more practical, and Hermione's more practical than me." He grimaced. "Usually."
"Special circumstances," Carol muttered.
"Right. Well, Ron… Ron is not like that. He's not stupid, he's not weak, but…" Harry exhaled. "There's no side to him. When I say 'what you see is what you get', I don't mean that there isn't more to him, I mean that he doesn't pretend to be anything he's not. He can barely even hide a bad mood for five minutes, much less a good one. Mostly, it doesn't even occur to him. For better or worse, he's an open book. And he tends to see things in black and white. Not completely, because that's insane. But there's not much room for grey, either. Not for something like that."
He looked at Clint.
"I know Ron," Harry said. "And that part of him? That's not going to change. Not for decades. Probably not ever."
Clint didn't voice disagreement with any of that, because truthfully, what he had seen, heard, and read about Ronald Weasley fitted that description to a tee. He also got the point that Harry was driving at: the core of people tended to stay the same.
Natasha was in many ways a completely different person to the one who'd left the Red Room, and his grandfather was in just as many ways (and more) a completely different one to the one who'd gone in. But their core personalities? They'd remained. They were still recognisable, for better or worse.
The same went for all the Avengers, a group who'd all undergone some radical changes at various points. Loki, for instance, was no longer a psychopath who killed for giggles and smirked while extracting eyeballs, but his wit, his confidence, his penchant for dramatics, and his capacity for utter goal-oriented ruthlessness were still exactly the same.
Still. They'd changed in just as many ways, too. And neither Harry, nor briefing files, were perfect.
"He might surprise you," he said instead.
Harry smiled a mirthless smile. "Maybe."
Well, that was heavier than I expected. Yeah, there's a bit more Ron than expected here. As I said, Hermione will have much more of the spotlight later on. However, Ron's reactions ARE important.
Also, yeah, the Weasleys know. It wasn't just a casual thing, either, but I didn't want to write it out. Suffice to say, there is good reason that Bucky keeps a particular eye out for Ron (and Hermione, but mostly Ron) as well as Harry, and it's not just the obvious.