When the hat slips over Harry’s eyes, the first thing he hears is gravelly laughter.
Oh, lad. You really want to know what magic is, don’t you?
Can you tell me? He thinks back, idly instead of with great concentration. A lifetime next to blue eyes and mind-swap jutsu tells him exactly how to communicate this way. It’s bittersweet, but over the years some of the bitterness has faded.
There’s a rage deep in his heart at the lives he isn’t living anymore, at the people he’s somehow lost, but in the spaces between grief and confusion there’s room for painful-sweet memories; he doesn’t know enough words in three languages and four lifetimes to explain the ache Ino’s smile gives his chest.
No, I’m afraid not. You’ve got seven years here to figure it out, though. Where will you do it?
I’ve got a choice?
There is always a choice, my lord. But I’ll ask you this, daughter of Godric, son of Rowena, child of the magic that moved between them: what matters more to you?
When Harry thinks of “more”, when he thinks of important things, when he thinks of home—
If you ask about home, he sees Konoha at sunset, two chests rising and falling in the grass next to him.
(Which two vary, but that just makes it better. The sense he now has is no different than it was in those laughing moments, one mind in three bodies).
Just across the river the market is hitting the night swing, paper lanterns set on long poles, and familiar faces waited in the crowed, laughing in stalls and bumping hips and elbows on the well-lit streets. The rookie 9 were well loved, clan heirs, up-and-coming as the powerhouses of the inheriting generation. Somewhere the boys of team nine were ribbing each other into a competition while Tenten bought out a travelling Merchant’s entire weapon stock.
There are giant trees all around and he knows this world, the northern desert and southern islands, the plains and crags and mountains, the valleys in between.
Theirs’ is a warrior culture, slowly backing away from sending children to war. But all have steel to hand, fighting styles and recreational violence. It’s the stretch of deadly muscles, constantly evolving strategy, the thrill of movement and teamwork and victory. It’s not the missions or the awful politics, but the moments in-between, of sweat and strength and becoming a better version of yourself.
Being cut off from that—the general comradery—hurt. It was a connecting tie severed, the ends writhing like a snake cut in half.
(Once he was made of ambition, and now it had cut off, sudden and unbidden, leaving him born anew and untethered, with the ribbons of his dreams-- that had reached away from him into the far-off future, the painted sunset--laying cut at his feet. What does he have to want? What does he hope to do?)
He closed his eyes to speed and trust, scarred and strong bodies throwing wire and shuriken and kunai, moving through sword strikes and flips in breathless multidimensional combat, and opened them to a hall full of children, now obscured by black fabric.
They were the right ages. From eleven to eighteen they should have been the cream of this society’s crop, coming into themselves and their power as graduates ready for fieldwork under a Jonin, yet here they were they were just entering their training.
Just entering their training at all, not just under a squad leader; just beginning their training in general, like five-year-olds entering the academy.
The culture shock sometimes hit him like whiplash and this was one of those times, so he finds himself clinging closer to the things he left behind.
Home is Konoha. It’s shinobi, it’s fighting, it’s smiles and competence and entering buildings through windows, it’s vests and leg wraps and collapsing on training grounds as you work yourself into exhaustion perfecting a new technique, your teammates coming into view above you upside down to laugh at you and then haul your overexerted self home. It’s flying, it’s people that know you inside and out, it’s ribbing and sarcasm and perfect trust earned a thousand times over.
Home is the sun setting over a village of painted leaves, comrades all around you; it’s the laugh of a friend over the clang of cold steel, warmed by a calloused grip, it’s throwing weapons that you know will be caught and working yourself to exhaustion, it’s the shock in a superior’s eye as you prove yourself again and again a legend in the making.
Harry swallowed and tried to calm his racing breath, lungs heaving. If tears stung at his eyes, well—nobody could see them anyway.
The hat may not have seen any of that, or it may have seen every bit.
Its voice curled like smoke between his ears, knowing, assessing. The magic inside the hat felt like the magic of the castle; familiar in a way it really had no business being, whimsical and melancholy and full of the promise of joy.
There is the potential for great loyalty within you, it said. Harry’s chest ached.
But it’s loyalty for something that has no place here. As ambition used to burn in your lungs, so too loyalty led each foot fall. The budding shape of it is building anew in your mind, I can see it, but that’s not yet the core of you—even if loyalty once shaped the person you were.
The people I was, Harry thought, and laid that thought to rest. Maybe it was addressing all four of him. Or only himself? Those kind of thoughts made his brain hurt on the best of days.
It’s true, though. All the ambition he’d felt had been achieved, more or less, in another life; and now those goals were gone, cut off from him by time and space and whatever waters of reincarnation that had failed to be his Lethe.
And he is loyal, in some way, to the people he has met here—to his cousin, Alexander, and loosely to the woman that raised him; and there are literal dozens of short beings making headway into his heart—to say nothing of a day’s trainride with a handful of children. But.
He’s not loyal at all to this world, would abandon it in a heartbeat for his rightful place. Part of him still views this as temporary, a strange land and a strange life, inferior to where he came from. It is nothing compared to even the ashes of loyalty that remain for his home, which used to be the great tree reaching proud inside him, a burning core of the will of fire.
How can he be loyal to people if he’s not loyal to this life? If he would leave? How can he form goals for the future when his future isn’t here—or at least, if he doesn’t want it to be?
I see, said the sorting hat. So will you bide your time here, studying? Many have. In that case, I have one question for you. The world is a dangerous place. The latest dark lord has fallen, but he was not the first. He will not be the last. What will you do if evil comes for this world while you are still here, if you do not yet love these people?
He’d fought out of love before, defended people he hadn’t known but cared for anyway, the only home he’d ever known; he’d fought a man who wanted to drown the world in the pain he felt. Loyalty to the people of his village, to the heart of it when every wall had fallen, had let him defend it at every cost.
But it wasn’t loyalty to Konoha that had stayed his hand, in the end; that had rendered him unable to kill Nagato when he found him.
We didn’t love the world, Harry thinks, picturing in his mind the word “Shinobi” written on a sea of headbands. When team seven had come back together for the first time, when every nation fought together, when enemies turned as friends to save it.
It wasn’t out of love. If evil comes to this place while I’m here, if it steps foot in my path, then I will rise to greet it.
Why? If not out of love, what guides you?
I don’t need a reason, Harry thought, somewhat annoyed. It has nothing to do with love. I would help anyone, even an enemy, if was the right thing to do.
It was the core of Naruto’s fighting instinct, the heart of Sakura’s defiance, the reason Sasuke never considered going back to the village when he found out what it had done to his brother.
It was why Petunia Evans, who flinched as hard as he once did when Vernon Dursley yelled, even now resided in a castle made of magic.
But that was obvious, wasn’t it? Everyone did that. Regardless of loyalty, regardless of what they wanted, or their own ambition, or how they felt about it—regardless of everything else, people would do what they felt was right.
At the end of the day, people did what they could live with. What would let them look in the mirror afterwards. Who would he be, if he had the power to stop something like that, and did nothing?
To see a stranger struck down by his inaction?
What good was power if you didn’t use it?
Right, Agreed the hat that his ancestor had once worn, with no small amusement. Standing against the darkness is a duty and a privilege. That’s why you’re a “GRYFFINDOR!”
Harry took the hat off in disgust.
The orange light of a well-lit hall greeted him; a cacophony of sound, no longer muted by the magic of the sentient sorting fabric.
He hadn’t sat down on the rickety three-legged stool expecting to have an existential crisis, and yet. Here he was. He stared at his bare palm, closing and opening his fingers, for a long moment. Here chakra could light up with wind and death, crackle with leashed lightning, glow with medical light.
Here Seph had wove magic into the ring he wore, enchantments opened and made permanent with blood, and even that, close on the heel of an oath that bound him. A binding oath, and nevermind his nindo.
I won’t ever leave you again and nothing can make me.
Looking up showed him a tall table of dark wood, one of four throughout the hall, and the tie he wore had shifted colors, along with the hems of his robes, into the colors of his house twiceover.
There are dozens of students in matching garments clapping and cheering for his place among them, faces that blend into a larger whole at the moment, but that will—with the passing of time—clarify into familiar people, friends and allies and comrades, if he lets them.
Standing against the darkness is a duty and a privilege, he thinks, turning the quote over in his mind. He hops from the child-sized stool and down the steps, in no particular hurry, and slips onto a bench next to Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom across him.
He remembers the emotions that had risen in him like a tide, barely more than a fortnight ago; the long line of magic that stretched like a dragon awakening from some deep slumber, a test that wasn’t a test because he didn’t have to think.
He’d stood at the end of the world before and put his body, all three of them, between careless, selfish evil and all the lives that stood like stars at his back, glowing lights not yet snuffed out, a tapestry of civilization, of hope and humanity.
The world had stood with him once, and he had stood for the world.
Let evil try, he thinks, looking around and smiling as the sorting concludes and smiling children laugh with relief and burgeoning comfort, taking in the new that will soon be homey and familiar. He doesn’t love them—not yet, and not really, but the embers of it are red-hot in his belly, waiting only for fresh air and time to burn well and burn bright.
It’s been two weeks; two weeks and a few days that he has known about this world of magic instead of chakra, of graduate-at-seventeen instead of graduate-at-eleven, and the part of him that had cried and screamed at Haku on a bridge in the middle of Wave is still sitting back, stunned, at the idea of allowing children to be children.
Even then, he’d determined that don’t use the child soldiers as mindless tools was a lofty goal, radical and something he’d have to fight for all his life. None of them had managed to stop at ‘don’t use child soldiers’, and even now Harry struggled with the idea, having lived it and lived it comfortably.
By the logic of this place, even their unflinching strength in the fourth war, the hope and power of the battlefield, would be considered ‘too young’. Even Sakura, dressed as a Jonin through and through, her hands healing hundreds if not thousands—even she would have been a child, to these people, better suited to study than make war.
He looks at the tentative friends he’s made, at Draco across the hall who looks back with a tentative smile that Harry returns times a thousand, and thinks these children are younger than he ever was, though he’s only ever been six years older.
(Why can’t he remember being older than seventeen? Why can’t he--)
Harry looks to his immediate surroundings, at Hermione flipping some truly bushy hair back over one shoulder and setting her plate, slowly but surely speaking up about the things she’s read when no one makes to quiet her; Ron with huge stars in his eyes taking in the sheer amount of food, the vastness of the hall and the gold of their plates; Neville looking around with surprise at the noise and happiness around the table, the way they include him in every conversation, the way he’s a part of this.
Draco takes in Harry’s wave and grin and the set of his shoulders relaxing, the blonde turning with confidence to his peers in silver and green and Harry breathes out something of relief. Somewhere, though he doesn’t know it yet, he’s laughing with Alexander and tasting butterbeer for the first time.
The magic of the castle is ardent and warm in a way he struggles to quantify even to himself. It feels alive, more so than even the magic of Potter Keep, and the sense of welcome stretches along his bones like a hug, like a hot bath, like Shikamaru knocking shoulders with him under the summer sun.
It feels like Sakura, Sasuke and Naruto fourteen and together, safe in Kakashi’s house in a way they never were, asleep in a big bed with all their limbs tangled together. That had never happened, of course, but the sensation is there, soft and wrapped around him like a gossamer hug. If he examines it too hard it feels like the safest touch he’s ever known, like a chakra impression of Kushina in a sunlit meadow, except without any kind of time limit-- and frankly that’s just too much to unpack.
Harry weaves his way into the conversation with something like ease, relaxing as he realizes he can’t possibly say anything so awkward or outlandish that they’ll turn their backs to him. It is always a risk, a fear deeply buried, no matter how bright the golden image of the three of them coming together after the war.
Sakura had been teased mercilessly, Naruto nearly abandoned, and Sasuke so thoroughly separated from his peers and superiors that it had taken years to break through to him.
Harry had kept to himself for most of his childhood, exploring the world of his dreams, and only in the last few years managing to embrace the difference instead of hide it. The difference between now and then is staggering.
There's a wand holstered at his forearm in a fancy holster, professionally charmed so he can't even feel it, and he's got a pouch of kunai that's bigger on the inside hidden under genjutsu at his hip. On his finger glints a ruby set in mithril that will tell him if he's about to drink poison or potion and it connects Seph to him across time and space. The castle around him brushes like a bijuu against the back of his mind, huge and ancient and welcoming him home.
It’s absurd how at-ease he feels in his own skin, settled and safe, all the curiosity and worry over classes and magical mysteries pushed aside for tomorrow.
The conversation he had with the hereditament of his forefather lingers, but Harry has more answers than questions. The experience has left him feeling sure in himself.
He doesn’t have to love this world to fight for it-- he only has to be a part of it.
And for tonight, at least, he finally is.