Harry Potter woke up with a scream stuck in his throat and his wand already in his hand.
It was, unfortunately, nothing new.
With a muffled groan, he fell back onto his bed, relaxing his grip on his wand and scrubbing a hand over his sweaty face. He didn't try to fall back into his usual half-doze again; that bloody battlefield was all he ever saw whenever he tried to get some shut-eye.
Sighing, he kicked off the tangle of blankets at his feet and got up, squinting against the bleak sunlight streaming through the window. He had forgotten to pull the curtains last night. Glancing outside, his mouth twisted in distaste and he reached out to pull shut the drapes anyway.
Damn reporters. They had been parked outside his house, as close to the wards as physically possible, ever since he had become the Man-Who-Conquered-the-Dark-Lord. Those hyphenated names were getting longer and less imaginative every time he turned around.
Even worse, the headlines on the various British papers were getting more and more ridiculous with each passing day. It had started with a crapload of praise and recognition and sycophantic worship. Harry had detested it all and had moved back into his godfather's house at the first opportunity, immediately after he had seen to the start of Hogwarts being rebuilt. Grimmauld Place was gloomy and dusty now that even Kreacher was dead and Harry couldn't be bothered to hire another house-elf or clean everything himself, but it also had some of the best wards in the country and nobody could put a foot onto the property without his say-so.
And then the media had started commenting on the things he bought when he had no choice but to make a trip to Diagon Alley for food and money. The crowds made him uneasy and the entourage of reporters following him had tried his patience more than once. But the people around him always brightened when they saw him out and about, war-weary eyes lighting up whenever Harry passed by, as if he was giving them hope just by being there. So, while nothing in the world would be able to drag him out of Grimmauld Place more than once every week or so, Harry did his best to smile and stop to chat when people approached him.
And in between his shopping trips, for lack of anything better to write about, the media had moved on to his wardrobe. So what if he wore Muggle clothing? Jeans, a shirt, and a practical coat were certainly easier to move around and hide weapons in than flapping robes with wide loose sleeves when you were trying to ward off Blasting Hexes, dodge Killing Curses, keep your allies safe, and kill as many enemies as possible all at the same time.
Stifling a yawn, Harry padded downstairs in nothing but his pyjama bottoms, his hair sticking up every which way. Pigwidgeon was already waiting for him in the kitchen, the only mail-carrier allowed past his wards. The ball of feathers had simply appeared one month after the war had ended when Harry had been exiting the newly-repaired Gringotts and hadn't left since, no matter how many times Harry tried to shoo it back to what remained of the Weasley family. Only Percy and Ginny were still alive though, and the former had submerged himself in the restructuring of the Ministry at Kingsley's side while the latter... well, anything that could've been started between them had long since faded and, last he had checked, Ginny had been applying for a position on a Quidditch team.
Picking up the bundle of letters Pig had brought in, Harry poured some water for the owl before taking a seat at the dinner table. The once-hyper bird had calmed down quite a bit and only hooted and zoomed once around Harry's head in thanks before settling down in front of his water dish.
The letters were of the usual sort. A distant we're-here-for-you-hope-you're-still-alive note from Ginny with a stiffly polite but genuinely concerned this-includes-me-too postscript from Percy at the end, a nagging but distracted get-out-of-your-house-it's-not-healthy-for-you missive from Hermione who, thankfully, had survived the war even if she had been in a coma for six months and had only woken up shortly before the final battle and, luckily, in no shape to take part. It hadn't been pretty when Harry had been tasked with breaking the news of Ron's death to her but she was finally moving on with her life again and Kingsley hadn't wasted any time in hiring her as his assistant and Head of Wizarding Britain Restoration. That department had been made up on the spot since the witch had refused the title of undersecretary. It reminded everyone too much of The Toad.
The third letter was from Kingsley himself, once again offering him the Head Auror position. The man just couldn't seem to leave Harry alone. The fact that Harry had led several armies into battle and had come out successful more often than not for five of the six years they had waged open war against Voldemort probably didn't help his case.
But Harry had no desire to fight anymore. To be honest, he had no desire to do much of anything anymore.
The fourth and final letter was placed in a gold-dusted creamy envelope with no address on it whatsoever. Only a select few could send him mail (or he'd be flooded with fan-mail) but Harry hadn't survived to see his twenty-second birthday by being careless.
He spent the next ten minutes casting every Detection Charm he could think of, as well as weaving several curse-breaking runes into the envelope that would make it burst into flames should anything dangerous be identified. The letter remained intact. Harry was just a tiny bit disappointed.
Suspicion still tingled at the back of his mind, and while his instincts and magic had hauled him out of trouble more times than he could count, Harry chose to ignore both for now and tore open the letter.
"Is this a joke?" He murmured, arching an eyebrow at the card he had pulled from the envelope. It depicted a joker perched on the railing of a bridge while holding a clock. The clock face showed both hands pointed at twelve, and judging by the night sky in the background, it was midnight.
With a scoff, he got to his feet again and tossed the card and envelope into the trash before tucking the other letters into the messy pile on the counter with their predecessors.
The joke hadn't been much of one.
"Okay, this is getting old fast."
The increasingly-familiar envelope was back on his dinner table, as it had been every single morning since the thing had arrived a week ago. It didn't matter whether Harry threw it away or tossed it outside or had Pigwidgeon fly off with it and drop it somewhere unknown – it always came back. He had even made a tick mark at the corner of the envelope just to see if it was the same letter. Imagine his surprise when said mark stared back clear as day against the parchment the very next morning.
"Either this is somehow more important than I think," He muttered crossly as he picked up the letter once more. "Or someone out there has no life and really wants me to kill them."
He eyed the smiling joker for a long moment before tossing it back onto the table. He had no time for this. Halloween was tomorrow and he had to stock up on the essentials – primarily, alcohol. There was just no way he was going to get through the anniversary of his parents' death, the anniversary of Neville's death, and the anniversary of the end of the war without an astronomical amount of firewhiskey.
Even the reporters had had the decency to clear off his lawn, no doubt heading home to spend the day getting ready for tomorrow. Some would make plans to visit the cemeteries, others would stay inside and have their own quiet celebrations, and still others would be like Harry, cooped up in a room with nothing but alcohol for company.
He knew for a fact that Hermione would be spending Halloween with Ginny and Percy at least, and they would visit the graves of their families and friends together. Harry preferred going by himself. He had buried many of them personally, including half the Weasley clan when Hermione had been in a coma, Ginny had been too busy crying, and Percy hadn't been mentally capable of doing it alone.
He would have to make a trip back to Godric's Hollow as well. He had had a tombstone made for Sirius even though there was no body, and Remus, Tonks, Andromeda and Ted, and little Teddy – the child of whose parents and grandparents he had promised he would protect but had ultimately failed in the end – were all buried there as well. Harry liked to think that they would appreciate being placed together.
Shrugging on his coat and stepping into his shoes, Harry paused to check his appearance in the hall mirror to make sure he didn't look too tired or too jaded before heading for the door. No need to scare whatever children he would undoubtedly come across today, and he'd have more than enough time to drink himself into a ghastly state over the next few days.
It soon turned out that the long few days Harry had buckled himself down for wouldn't be happening anytime soon, at least not in the way he had been expecting.
It was nearing midnight and the fire had died down to a few glowing logs of wood.
As he was prone to do when he had long periods of time to kill on his hands – which happened quite often now that the war had ended – Harry went over all the battles he had fought in, the ones he had won and the ones he had lost. Faces of his dead allies, his dead friends, his dead family, flashed through his mind in no particular order and the faces of the various witches and wizards who had killed them were never far behind.
He consoled the mix of rage and agony weighing heavily in his chest with the fact that he had tracked down and killed most of those Death Eaters if they hadn't been taken out on the battlefield, and the rest were cooling their heels in Azkaban.
Six years ago, he would never have thought himself capable of murder. Now, well, he still disliked killing but he couldn't help regretting not blowing Bellatrix's head off before she had gotten Sirius, and he most certainly did not regret cutting through the swathes of Death Eaters to protect his people.
Perhaps it was best Albus Dumbledore had died one year into the war. Voldemort would probably have taken over half of Europe by now if the old man was still leading, and he'd look at Harry with that patronizing twinkly-eyed expression while spouting about love and keeping Harry locked up in that thrice-damned Dursley household and preventing him from actually learning anything at all useful.
Harry snorted into his drink. The headmaster would be vastly disappointed with the way his precious golden boy puppet had turned out. Harry couldn't bring himself to care.
Five minutes to Halloween. The muffled howl of autumn wind swept by outside. Harry took another gulp of firewhiskey, neither enjoying nor disliking the scorching
Sometimes, he wondered what his life would have been like if he had simply packed a bag and left the country. Would Voldemort be ruling Britain at this very moment? Would the damn prophecy even matter if it wasn't fulfilled? After all, it had been a combined effort of him and his friends that had destroyed Voldemort's horcruxes. Without them, Harry would never have been able to off the Dark Lord. Looking back at it now, it didn't even really have to be him to mete out the final blow.
Three minutes to the thirty-first. He absently wondered how his surviving friends were doing.
In the end though, he wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he had run away. He had never been one to take the easy way out and leaving his friends behind to face a psychopathic madman with apocalyptic tendencies and delusions of greatness just didn't sit well with him.
One minute to twelve. Then he could really start getting drunk and no one – namely Hermione – could accuse him of giving in to depression since half the continent was doing the same thing.
But now that the war was over, maybe Harry really could leave. Just... head to wherever he wanted. He was not going to take up a post in the Ministry of Magic no matter what Kingsley tried to do, and Minerva wouldn't be knocking down his door with employment contracts for another year or so since Hogwarts was still being rebuilt though she had already subtly hinted that the DADA position would be waiting for him.
Other than that, Harry really had no actual direction in life anymore. Struggling against evil wizards and trying not to get killed was mostly what he had known since he was eleven years old. Throw in fifteen years – five of which were mostly spent in a deathtrap of a school that was, ironically enough, far better than being at 'home' – of dodging Vernon's meaty fists, doing backbreaking chores, and running from Dudley's bullying and he might as well extend the whole survival and problem with authority thing back to nearly the beginning of his life. Not exactly the best influence when attempting to choose an honest normal career path.
Twenty seconds to midnight. A few sparks popped in the fireplace, inordinately loud in the silence of the house.
Looking back, Harry could remember the exact moment that the fallacy of ever having a peaceful life had started leaving him. Frankly, it had been a long time coming but the minute Cedric Diggory's death and Voldemort's return had truly sunk in, Harry had known that peace was not – could not be – for him. Sirius' death the following year had only driven that point home.
Sometimes, still, he wished he had been a little smarter, grabbed Cedric and seized the bloody Triwizard Cup to take them back the second they had landed in that graveyard. He wished he had been a little faster and hexed Bellatrix to kingdom come before she had struck Sirius and pushed him into the Veil. He wished he had been just a little stronger and stopped the numerous casualties during the six-year-long war.
Sometimes, he wished he could go back and do better.
Five seconds to midnight. He was already three-quarters in to his fourth bottle of firewhiskey and was barely slightly buzzed. He wondered if he could get his hands on anything stronger.
However, other times, most of the time now, Harry just wished he could get a break. Leave everyone's expectations behind. Leave his own farce of a life behind. Leave Hermione's haunted eyes and Ginny and Percy's defeated postures and rows upon rows of hand-dug graves behind.
Somewhere below him, the grandfather clock chimed, strident and reverberating as the sounds echoed throughout the house.
"That can be arranged."
Even partially inebriated, Harry was up and on his feet, wand in one hand, knife palmed in the other, and his magic at the ready in the blink of an eye, the bottle of alcohol on the floor and a wordless, wandless Shield Charm already hanging in the air around him.
The same seemingly disembodied female voice laughed, chime-like and amused. "Over here, little one."
Mentally twitching at the nickname, Harry swung to the left where the voice had come from and almost did a double-take when he found that blasted joker card floating in the air. Except for the fact that the clock said joker was holding looked like it had been flipped open, like an inside-out pocket-watch, and instead of the far wall staring back at him through the card, a swirl of gold light shone from the hole instead.
Figuring, like he had so many years ago when a house-elf had popped into his room, that 'What are you?' might be more than a little rude (he was a killer, no denying that, but that didn't mean he didn't know his manners), he settled on, "Who are you?" instead. With a faint hint of threat underlining it. He wasn't that polite.
"Stand down, young one," The voice was still very much amused. "I will not harm you."
"I'll be the judge of that," Harry retorted loftily and didn't ease his battle stance. Call him paranoid, but he'd rather be prepared than caught off-guard. "Now who are you?"
Another melodious laugh that sent a shiver down his spine. "You may refer to me as Fate. And no, this is not a joke."
Which had been exactly what Harry had been speculating, and he immediately narrowed his eyes. Granted, he'd never had mystical entities pop into his living room in the form of a card before, and a joker at that, but he had been Muggle-raised, unlike Ron, and wasn't taken in by facts and logic, unlike Hermione, so he had long accepted the fact that just about anything was possible in the Wizarding world.
"Get out of my head," He demanded instead, tucking his knife away but keeping his wand out. "And if you really are Fate, then I feel I should probably warn you that I've never been very partial to the whole preordained future in the first place. Whatever you're here for, I don't want any part in it."
"So very defensive," Fate mused placidly, ignoring his first request entirely. "Yet you fulfilled my prophecy with little protest."
Harry's jaw tightened before he put his wand away and dropped back into his armchair, fully intending to ignore the disembodied being. Unfortunately, the card only circled around to hover several feet in front of him instead.
"It had to be done either way," Harry snapped. "If not by me then someone else. The prophecy was fulfilled by a large number of us. It took all of us to destroy the horcruxes and hold back the Death Eaters at the same time. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to off the bloody bastard."
"Indeed," Fate agreed easily, making Harry frown in suspicion. "Nevertheless, my prophecy has brought you much grief over the span of your life. Thus, in exchange, I am willing to offer compensation."
Harry snorted derisively. "Compensation? That's hilarious. Since when did Fate herself come all the way down here to offer compensation for carrying out a prophecy?"
Fate ignored his skeptical rhetoric completely. "You wish to start over. It is within my power to give you a way to do so. To leave this place and its sorrows and live a peaceful life."
Harry heaved a sigh. "I'm someone who follows the old adage: if it sounds too good to be true, it generally is too good to be true. So thanks, but no thanks."
The gold light blazed brighter, flaring as if Harry had finally managed to annoy the entity. He inwardly cheered.
"And what will you accomplish by staying here?" Fate challenged. "You humans, drinking your lives away at the first sign of tragedy."
Harry's temper snarled in his gut but he had never been one to explode in anger at the first given occasion and it had only gotten better over his years in command so his tone of voice was measured and even when he spoke again.
"Maybe to you, six years of war isn't much in the greater scheme of the universe or whatever," Harry said flatly. "But we're the ones who have lost more than we've ever thought we would lose. I'll thank you to keep your opinion to yourself."
Fate's voice was cooler this time. "Nevertheless, you have nothing to gain by staying here. I could give you the chance to start over, as you wished mere minutes ago. Send you to a world where you are no longer the Boy-Who-Lived. A world where you will simply be whoever you wish to be."
Harry threw his hands up. "And do what, exactly? Whether I stay here or go there doesn't change the fact that I have no desire to do much of anything."
"You will go to school once more."
Harry held back a sneer. "I don't want to become a professor."
"As a student, youngling."
Harry blinked. "I'm twenty-two."
Fate definitely sounded more irritated now. "Obviously, I will reduce you to a suitable age. Do keep up."
Harry rolled his eyes and reached for the abandoned alcohol on the ground. It disappeared just as his fingers brushed the bottle. He grimaced in aggravation but straightened up again without complaint. "I refuse to be turned back to an eleven-year-old."
"Then a homeschooled student of fourteen," Fate proposed, a little too quickly in Harry's opinion, but that might be his slightly intoxicated state and paranoia talking. "Recently orphaned due to a raid. All transfers and paperwork you humans are so fond of will be dealt with."
"Orphaned? Raid?" Harry arched an eyebrow. "So Voldemort is still alive and waging war? And you expect me to have a peaceful life?"
"What would it matter?" Fate pressed. "You will no longer be a symbol to the Light. You could have nothing to do with the battles, attend school as you once wished to, without the chaotic death-defying adventures you had here."
Harry frowned darkly, a part of him not quite believing the fact that he was actually thinking it over. "...You said I would be fourteen. Would that put me back in my fourth year? During the Triwizard Tournament? But I'm not the Boy-Who-Lived. Then-"
"Neville Longbottom is the Boy-Who-Lived," Fate interjected smoothly before proceeding to answer all the other questions Harry had lined up, much to his displeasure. "Your parents are still alive. Sirius Black never went to Azkaban. Peter Pettigrew still escaped. And Cedric Diggory... well, I suppose that depends on how well Neville Longbottom handles the situation."
Harry swallowed, feeling a mix of longing and nausea. Cedric could be- And Neville was- And his parents were-
"What about me?" Harry ventured, bordering tentative in a way that made him scowl. "Where am I?"
"Oh that version of you is very much alive," There was a note of something in her voice that Harry couldn't quite decipher. "Also a fourth year, so you will evidently need another name."
"I didn't even say I was going," Harry shot back tersely. He clasped his hands together. Damn, he wanted another drink.
"But you are considering it," Fate said smugly.
Harry glared at the card (Why was it a card anyway? And a joker at that?). "I can't just up and leave. I have friends here."
"Friends you no longer interact with?" Fate taunted slyly. "When was the last time you replied to one of their letters?"
Harry glowered. Apparently, Fate was a stalker. "You know, all this time you're trying to persuade me to go to this other dimension, you haven't told me why. And don't feed me bullshit about compensation. I wasn't born yesterday."
The light burned even brighter. "It is compensation," Fate insisted tersely. "Horcruxes are against the laws of Death. You helped restore the balance. And... You allowed Death to retain his freedom in this world when no one else would have allowed it, found a way when no one else would have even tried."
Harry stilled, one finger tapping against the armrest. He hadn't known he had done any such thing; just that he had no wish to be Master of Death. So, shortly after the final battle and after tossing it numerous times only to have it return to him, he had used the Elder Wand to destroy the Resurrection Stone, and then snapped the Elder Wand and stowed it away in the Room of Requirements. The loss of the Stone meant that no one could gather all three items ever again, and even if the Elder Wand could never truly be destroyed, one artifact gone meant that there could be no Master of Death.
"Balance restored as it must be, Death freed as he should be," The golden light softened and, for the first time since this bizarre situation began, Harry sensed an air of genuine honesty coming from the entity. "We are indisputably indebted to you, Harry Potter. Thus, I offer you a new life. Do with it what you wish, but it is yours. There are no strings attached, no trap waiting to ensnare you, no ultimatum forced upon you, no conditions you must one day meet. A gift, freely given."
Harry closed his eyes. "Too good to be true," He muttered. There had to be a catch somewhere but it was clear that Fate wasn't going to divulge it anytime soon. She wasn't lying outright – everything she had said had the ring of truth to it – but she wasn't telling the whole truth either, and a half-truth was still a whole-lie.
Frankly, Fate would have made a good Slytherin.
Back to the matter at hand though. If – if – he went, what did he have to lose? He couldn't remember the last time he had really sat down and talked to Hermione after the war. He had brushed off Ginny and Percy's letters with short, disinterested responses, and that was only when he could be bothered to reply. He had no desire to join the Ministry, no matter how much he liked and respected Kingsley, and he had no intention of becoming a Hogwarts professor either, at least not anytime soon, even if one of his favourite professors came around to ask again.
The others were moving on with their lives anyway, while Harry was... stuck. All three of them had jobs, and while Harry had more than enough money to live out the rest of his life without ever needing to raise another finger, he had nothing to do either, nothing he wanted to do, and no longer anything he had to do. War veterans only had jobs when war was being waged.
And he'd actually be able to meet his parents. Well, not his parents, per se, and he might not even be able to properly meet them, but he would be able to see them laugh and interact with each other, and really, that was more than Harry had ever hoped to have when it came to his mother and father. Sirius wouldn't have that far-too-thin gauntness to his features either, or that haunted, bitter burden of guilt that Harry sometimes caught in his godfather's eyes. Except for a traitorous friend, this Sirius hadn't lost anything.
And maybe, with Neville handling matters instead of Harry running around and botching things up because no one would bloody tell him anything, maybe that future would turn out far better than the one Harry currently lived in. If he had to, he could even nudge Neville in the right direction; subtly tip him off without letting anyone know he was doing so.
It really wouldn't be that bad.
Harry almost jumped when the delighted voice cut through his thoughts.
"Then let's not waste any time," Fate continued. "As I have said, I will handle the transition. Your belongings will be waiting for you. Oh, but I'm afraid the Invisibility Cloak must stay behind. The Harry Potter in that world already has one and poor Death has enough trouble keeping track of all his possessions in every parallel world."
Harry gaped a bit as he began pushing himself out of his chair. "What?! Wait! I didn't agree to anything! I was just thinking-"
He was cut off as the gold light suddenly flooded the room, blinding him as it wrapped around his being in a warm cocoon. Just before the gold faded to a serene black, Harry swore he saw a tall ethereal figure standing in front of him, an almost fond smile on features he couldn't quite make out.
"What you do from now on is for you to decide, Harry Potter. Use this opportunity wisely. And good luck, young hero."
Just before darkness dragged him under, Harry made a mental note to run in the opposite direction if Fate ever came calling again. The entity was utterly too used to getting her way.