After the final Battle of Hogwarts, Voldemort had been reduced to a pile of ash. The Death Eaters had fallen in due course and sent to Azkaban. Some committed suicide rather than chance the Wizengamot's questionable pity. The Imperio defense could not be proven, and was no longer taken on simple faith. Vitaserum was used more freely, and there was no way to prevent the telling of tales.
But happy though the times were, Harry Potter had disappeared.
Among the names of the dead were many of his former classmates. His Gryffindor companions were dead, maimed or scattered to the four winds. The Weasley family had been decimated, with faraway Bill and Charlie the only male survivors. Ginny had disappeared shortly before the end of the war, just after the end of her seventh year, last seen in the company of a tall man with pale hair. No one had been able to definitely say it had been Draco Malfoy, but Ron had disappeared to chase down the rumor. He had been found mangled outside of Hogsmeade, eyes torn out and tongue pierced with an iron nail. No one had been able to discover the meaning behind his death. Hermione had died during an ill-fated raid on a Death Eater camp. She had been so sure in her knowledge of the camp's defenses. Snape had assured her that the raid would be with little risk, but would halt Death Eater supply lines. Unknowingly, Voldemort had been testing his loyalties. All of the Order members at the raid had been killed. At the next Death Eater revel, so was Snape.
It was assumed that the great Harry Potter had died as well. It was only natural, given that so many other brave souls had been killed. The Cause took too many lives, leaving a devastated England in its wake.
But Harry Potter was not dead. He was simply missing.
Somewhere in the land between the dead and the living lies an ether. It is a perpetual soft place, somewhere reality could twist and bend. Harry found himself walking down a beaten path in a meadow. The sun was shining brightly overhead. There were no shadows. There wan an inn up ahead, and he walked the path to it. He carried the names of the dead within his heart, the taste of blood and bile on his tongue and the knowledge that everything was over in his mind. He knew he had managed to kill Voldemort, had somehow stopped the evil from consuming the entire Wizarding World. He remembered Voldemort turning into ash, skin flaking into gray and drifting to the ground. He remembered the red eyes, angry and accusing, the hands reaching for him, the wand that had splintered under the strength of Harry's spell. It had been in a forgotten book in the corner of the Restricted Section; the title worn away with time, all that had identified it was the embossed lily on the cover. Hermione had been dead for months at that time, Ron still missing. Harry had felt compelled to open the book, to feel the lily press against his fingers. He had seen the red ink on the pages, as bright as fresh blood and his mother's hair. He had seen the pages shimmer slightly, and had waited until his eyes could read the feathery script. The spell had been waiting for him, waiting for the right time to be spoken. It could be said once a generation and no more.
Harry found himself at the inn's door and opened it. The room he entered was bright and cheery, but mostly empty. There was a woman behind the bar, wiping it down with lazy strokes. Harry went to the bar and sat down. "Hello."
The woman looked up. For a frightening moment, he thought it was Hermione. She had curly brown hair, brown eyes and a similar facial structure. "Hello, there. Was there something pivotal that just happened?"
Harry blinked. "Er... I just killed the Dark Lord."
The woman nodded. "Things like that might open continuity storms. I'm surprised it's so calm outside, though."
"But I don't understand... Where is here?"
"This is a soft place. This is the last gasp of reality, right before it drops off into nothingness." The woman dropped the rag and held out her hand. "My name is Charlene, by the way. I came here in a doozy of a storm, and I decided to stay. It's not so bad."
Harry shook her hand. "I'm Harry Potter. So what do you here?"
"Just help out. Usually the price to stay here is a story. But if you stay, you just need to work and help out."
Harry looked around. "Not too much business."
"There usually isn't. There's a couple upstairs. They got here yesterday. And there's the poet over there. He says he's Byron, but the man's been dead for ages before I got here, so I really don't know if it's true."
"When did you get here?"
"Um... 1991, I think. I was driving to Chicago and crashed into a tree. When I woke up, I was here and listening to the most ridiculous stories." Charlene paused. "They stopped seeming so ridiculous the longer I stayed here."
"It's 2000 where I came from," Harry offered helpfully.
Charlene only shrugged. "I'm not ready to leave just yet. And even if I do, I don't have to go back where I came from."
"No. I've been here longest now. All the others here before me had long since gone, and they sometimes chose to go elsewhere. Sometimes you go where you're needed, or where you need to go. This is a soft place, remember. You can go anywhere you want to."
Harry thought of going back in time. He could prevent the deaths of his parents. He could have warned his former self and saved Cedric. He could have done the right thing and prevented Sirius' death. All the warnings in the years afterward...
"You can't change it." Harry looked up, startled. "I see that look on your face. But as fluid as time is, you can't change anything. Your mind knows it, your mind will keep it in place for you. You can't change the past."
Harry swallowed. "But why can't I make things better?"
Charlene covered his hands in hers. Her touch was gentle. "Not like that, Harry. It doesn't work that way. There's rules. It's all written down in Destiny's book."
Harry abruptly snatched his hands from hers. "Then I want to see it! I want to see it written down in that fucking book that all my friends had to die! I want to see who decided to let them be tortured, that those people deserved to die! I want to see Destiny's book!"
Charlene looked shocked, and pointed behind Harry. "I've never seen that happen."
Harry turned and looked where Charlene was pointing. A door had opened in the wall leading to a maze in a garden. "I think the book is there, Charlene."
She touched his arm, leaning over the bar to do so. "Whatever else happens, stay safe, Harry. And whatever happened, let it go. You can't change it, but you're still alive. It's up to you to honor the dead."
Harry took her hand in his on impulse and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Thanks, Charlene. And you take care, whatever you decide to do."
He strode across the room in quick steps, then went through the door.
Harry walked through the maze, turning at odd intervals, following an inner sense of direction. There was no sun, but light was present all around him. The sky was the purest white, and nothing cast shadows. Another soft place, then.
In the heart of the garden, Harry came upon a robed figure hovering a few inches above the ground. A large book was shackled to the figure's wrist. The hands reminded Harry of Snape's skilled hands, poring over books and writing lists of spells he had to learn to mask his presence among the Death Eaters in London. Something twisted in Harry's gut, something like regret. As much as he had hated Snape, the man had ultimately been fair. The world was not an easy place, and Snape had not arbitrarily tormented him. There had been reason to it, there had been rhyme. Snape hadn't deserved his death.
"I've been expecting you," the robed figure said as Harry approached. "I am Destiny. You asked to see my book. It was a particularly forceful summoning spell."
I hadn't meant to summon you, Harry almost said. He kept the words down and nodded at Destiny. "If you don't mind. It seems so horribly unfair."
Destiny held out the book, opened and ready to be read. Harry could see thousands of tiny lines of script. "Fairness is not a part of destiny."
Harry looked from the book and into the face hidden by the cowl of the robe. "You're blind, aren't you?"
"I see with other things than eyes, young Harry Potter. Read the book you so desperately wished to see," Destiny said.
As Harry began to read, a coldness crept into his heart. It had all had meaning, there had been an ultimate pattern. Every death, every touch of life against another, every accident. Nothing had happened in vain, there had always been purpose.
Humbled, Harry bowed his head. "I'm sorry."
Destiny closed his book. "You are mortal. And such is the knowledge of mortals, short and imperfect. It had to be rearranged so you could comprehend it." Destiny seemed to become impossibly tall all of a sudden. "But you are a child of the Avene line, and have better understanding than most."
"Corrupted to Evans," a voice said behind them.
Harry turned to look at the voice's owner. While it was impossible to tell if the figure was male or female, the creature was certainly beautiful. "I had so loved the taste of the Avene girl's heart. So bittersweet, so trusting. I almost didn't think she'd keep the bastard I spawned on her, but she surprised me."
Harry blinked. "And you are?"
"Can't you tell?" the figure said, eyes tawny and heavy-lidded. The voice made him think of whispered voices, stolen kisses and light hands fisted around him before the beginning of a raid. I'll be right back, Hermione had promised. I'll be fine, I'll be safe. Trust me.
And he had, God help him, he had believed her.
"Desire," a new voice said. The voice was sharp and annoyed. "Leave the boy alone, you've done enough."
Desire touched Harry's face, and he could feel his breath quicken in response. "But I can give you anything you desire, child. Anything at all."
"Enough!" the voice snapped. Harry turned to see its owner. She was middle height, with impossibly pale skin, dark hair and dark clothes. A swirl of eye makeup reminded Harry of trips to the British Museum as a child, the dark and dusty hallways of the Egyptian exhibit. "Let him go, Desire. Don't make me come for you."
Desire's lips twisted cruelly. "Fine, sister. Keep the boy. Take his soul, then, knowing you kill family. You know what that did to our brother."
"Leave," Death said, lips tight and voice hissing across the space between them. Desire disappeared with a wisp of yellow smoke remaining, and Death sighed. "Oh, Harry, what am I going to do with you? I wasn't supposed to come for you yet."
Harry's lips trembled. "Why not? You took everyone else I loved."
Death sighed and looked at Destiny. "Well? What does the book say?"
"He called upon the blood to read it. Other than that, I cannot say."
"I hate family meetings," Death murmured. "These things never go well."
"Family?" Harry asked, awed. "I have relatives other than Aunt Petunia?"
Death nodded, then smiled suddenly. "Take my hand, Harry. I won't bring you across, not until you decide to cross. You have nothing to fear of Death."
Harry smiled. "I don't think I've ever feared you."
"Then it's settled. Let me introduce you to the family. They're a little... unconventional."
"Story of my life."
Death laughed, and Harry grinned in response. He liked her. There was a sense of peace all around her, a beauty and grace he didn't think he would have noticed before the war. The war had made him realize how precious life was, how important every detail could be.
Holding Death's hand, Harry felt a pang of sadness. Hermione would have loved this, she would have wanted to read Destiny's book, to wander in his gardens and know the secrets of the universe. She would have wanted to share the rest of forever with him. He found himself telling Death all about Hermione, and she smiled in all the right places.
"She loved you," Death murmured. "All she talked about was you, and strong you could be, how brave. She asked me for a favor, if I could help you." Death stopped suddenly, at the edge of the maze. "I told her all mazes lead to Destiny's garden, any maze, and only Destiny could help you."
Harry found himself fighting back tears. Hermione had tried to help him, even in death. It was so like her, and he could feel her love blanket him. God, he missed her. He hadn't even allowed himself time to mourn.
"But I took her request to Dream," Death continued. "And for a price, he granted her request. He gave you the dream of the Book of Lilies, written by your Avene ancestors. The book's been destroyed for centuries. But it still exists in Dream's library, and he allowed you to read a copy, to get the spell you needed."
"What was the price?" Harry asked, throat closed tight. He knew that for every gift an Immortal gave, there was always a price to be paid.
"He wanted her memories of you. She was reborn again, but her memories of you remain in the Dreaming. Dream wanted them."
"Why?!" Harry asked, voice raw and haunted.
Death's eyes were empty pools. "I want to warn you, Harry. Dream has always been a very sore loser. And even after..." Death stopped for a moment and sighed. She never let go of Harry's hand, as if the physical contact were somehow important. "He's different now, but there's enough of the old version of him left. He's never been able to forgive a grudge. Hermione entered his library, Harry. She stole a book to help you, the potions that guarded your sleep, that hid you from Voldemort. The only way for those potions to exist was to dream them into existence. So she did. She made that book real, brought it back with her to the waking world. Dream never liked being deceived, never liked being stolen from. She took something valuable from him, so he took something valuable from her."
"And that was me?" Harry asked incredulously.
"Her most valuable possession," Death affirmed sadly. "He's been... strange lately. He doesn't leave the Dreaming. He doesn't visit the gallery. He won't allow visitors. Usually Delirium and I visit, sometimes Despair will. But now he won't let us through."
"So what's the use of meeting the family, then?" Harry asked, voice bleak. It would be like the Dursley home all over again, dreariness and duty, bitterness and resentment.
Death shook her head and they resumed walking. "We're not all bad, Harry. But we have our realms to look after, our jobs to do. It's hard. While I'm talking with you, holding your hand, I'm also there for every death to ease their passage and take them where they need to go. I speak to every birth, I tell them of their lifetime to come. I'm there, Harry, beginning and ending, and I'm here with you. You're my nephew, my family. And I'm here for you."
"Aunt Death?" he asked, blinking at the sound of it.
She smiled. "Pretty much."
"How did Hermione die?" Harry asked, voice small and pained.
"She said it was Avada Kedavra, someone behind her. She never saw it."
Harry let out the breath he hadn't known he had been holding. "Oh."
"Look, Harry.... Why don't we visit Del? She loves company. She might help lift your spirits a little..."
"No, Aunt Death, I don't think so. I need to sit and think for a bit..." Harry pulled his hand from Death's grasp over her protests.
The world began to swirl crazily around him, and he heard Death shouting his name in a frightened tone. What would Death be frightened of?
Harry fell onto a meadow. He felt something break beneath him, and screamed from the pain. He was rolling down the slight incline, every motion jarring the shattered left leg. He finally stopped, weak and dizzy and close to passing out. He groaned and tried to open his eyes when he heard shouts around him. There was no question of even trying to get up.
"Oh dear! He fell from the sky!" a high pitched female voice cried.
"Mrs. Little, mind the chickens! They're escaping the coop!"
"But the sky is falling! The sky is falling!" the female voice cried. Her voice was diminishing in volume, as if she was running away.
The other voice, male, sighed. "I should bring you to Queen Hood. She'll know what to do, and she'll be able to test if you're werewolf or not."
"I'm not a werewolf," Harry moaned feebly.
The male voice harrumphed in doubt. "I'll let the Queen decide. A new pack came in, they're killing all the sheep and chickens. I'm only a farmer."
When the farmer lifted him up, Harry passed out from the pain.
A cool cloth was pressed against Harry's forehead, waking him. "Umph?"
"Be still, Harry, or you'll get soaked."
Harry's eyes snapped open and he struggled to sit up. He was staring at an impossibility, Ginny Weasley sitting in front of him. And very, very pregnant.
"Harry, your leg is barely healed," she admonished.
"But... We thought you were dead!"
Ginny shook her head. "I'm sorry about that. But I had to go undercover to help the Order. There were more spies than just Snape, you know. And I had to help one of them."
"Blaise Zabini. Draco Malfoy was another one, that's how we knew Blaise was compromised. The two of us had to get him out."
Harry's eyes goggled. He hadn't known. No one had told him.
"They didn't want anyone to know, in case the potions didn't work," Ginny said softly. "I really am sorry, Harry. I didn't want to worry anyone. We didn't know our spells would backfire so we couldn't get home."
"We got to Blaise in time, but we were surrounded. I did a Portal spell, and so did Draco. Our spells merged, and it became unstable. The next thing we knew, the three of us were transported here."
"Where are we?"
Ginny smiled. "Would you believe in fairy tales, Harry? Queen Red Riding Hood took us in. There was some confusion when we first landed here, and we were almost jailed. But she knew about Traveling Mirrors, and thought we had used one to get here. She assumed it shattered. So she accepted us into her court."
"Red Riding Hood?" Harry asked, voice faint.
"Yes. She's actually Queen Red Riding Hood III, and she rules the Second Kingdom. She just pardoned all the wolves in the kingdom thanks to Wolf and Virginia."
"I'm very confused."
Ginny smiled. "You rest, then. There's time for explanations."
Harry grasped Ginny's hand. "I'm so glad you're alive, Ginny. I was so afraid you were dead, that everyone was gone."
"I was gone, but not dead." Ginny leaned over awkwardly. "Don't worry, Harry. It's safe here. You could live here in peace."
Harry was slipping back into sleep, and didn't respond. He didn't know what peace was.
"We thought perhaps if he came from your Kingdom, you would know him," Queen Riding Hood III mentioned in regal tones to Virginia Lewis. The Queen had asked King Wendell of the Fourth Kingdom to send the Tenth Kingdom visitors. Virginia Lewis and Wolf had arrived without Anthony Lewis, the other visitor. Wolf had once been a native of the Second Kingdom. Queen Riding Hood had been amused to see him once she saw how discomfited he was in her presence. He was altogether too attached to the human girl, and was willing to risk the Queen's wrath to be at her side.
Virginia merely shook her head. "No, your majesty. I've spoken with Ginevra, and I have no idea who he is. She knows him, though."
Queen Riding Hood nodded, and shifted slightly uneasily in her red robes. "Ginevra has been a wonderful addition to our court. But her homeland has always mystified us. When you arrived to help save the Nine Kingdoms, we understood that she must have also come from the Tenth Kingdom. But is it truly so large that you wouldn't know of each other's homelands?"
Virginia's smile was soft and almost secretive. "It's a really big place, Your Majesty. It's really hard to see it all."
"We hope that before you return to the Tenth Kingdom, you may speak with the boy. He's been injured, and Ginevra tells us there was a war."
Virginia's brows furrowed and she glanced at Wolf in confusion. "War?"
"A magic war of some kind," Queen Riding Hood murmured with a flick of her hand. "Ginevra and her companions had narrowly escaped certain death from that war."
"I think I should check on the boy, then, make sure he's all right. War victims aren't always stable," Virginia murmured.
"Our thanks, Virginia," the Queen murmured. "Arrangements have already been made for your visit. You will be staying at Malfoy Manor. Ginevra assures us that she will still be able to help you in any way, despite her approaching confinement."
Virginia nodded, not quite sure what to say. A courtier spared her from making some sort of comment by directing her and Wolf away from the throne. To be honest, she was only too glad to leave. There was something about most of the royals in this world that rubbed her the wrong way. They reminded her too much of the stuck up patrons in the restaurants back in New York, and she hated the way the fake smiles felt on her face.
The nameless courtier led Virginia and Wolf through a twisting maze of corridors and into a suite of rooms. "The stranger is in here," the courtier said before leaving.
"This seems like a really bad idea," Wolf murmured against Virginia's ear. "What if she didn't really pardon wolves at all? What if this is a trap?"
Virginia gave Wolf's hand a squeeze. "We'll be fine. This isn't a trap, we're heroes, remember? We helped save the Nine Kingdoms. Just relax. We'll talk to the kid, we'll get back to New York and we'll be fine."
The boy in question was lying on a bed, facing away from the door. He had messy black hair, round glasses and bright green eyes. He was talking with a very pregnant redhead. "But Ginny, I still don't get it. Malfoy?"
The redhead only smiled sweetly. "He's not as bad as you've always thought, Harry. He's been good to me, and it's worked out really well." Ginny moved her hands protectively over her belly. "I'm so excited and scared at the same time, but in a good way. Like waiting for the right time to open presents at Christmas."
Harry's face softened somewhat. "All right. As long as you're happy. So what happened to Zabini, then?"
"He used the story of being Draco's cousin to secure a position at court. But..." Ginny shrugged. "He didn't like it here. Magic is perfectly acceptable, but he missed our world. He went off in search of a Traveling mirror over a year ago, and he never returned. We last heard he had made it to Dwarf Mountain, but no one said anything about him to us. We hope he's okay, that he's found a good place for himself."
"And you? Is this a good place for you?"
Ginny's smile was soft and sweet. "Oh, Harry, it's so different here, and wonderful, too. I couldn't believe it at first, but now I've been here over a year and I love the place." Ginny's face turned wistful. "I wish Mum could be here. She would have loved it, and with a baby..."
Harry squeezed Ginny's hand gently. "You'll be okay."
Wolf chose that moment to clear his throat. "Uh... Her Highness wanted us to talk to you," he said. "Well, the boy, anyway."
"Ah. Shall I leave you all alone, then?" Ginny asked, trying to push herself up.
"No, that's all right," Virginia said, just as Harry desperately grabbed Ginny's hand and said "Stay, please."
Ginny grinned. "Good. Because I was too comfy in this chair anyway."
Introductions were made, and Harry found himself telling his story. Virginia and Wolf had needed a lot of explanations, but he found himself enjoying it. Telling Ginny about the events since her disappearance had been painful, the tension knotting up his insides. Harry could feel the strain ease as he told the strangers about his life. Talking made it better. They understood him, they believed him.
Virginia and Wolf looked at each other, then moved off a little bit to talk to each other. Harry closed his eyes. It didn't matter what they decided, he would be fine with whatever fate had in store for him. He carried the blood of the Immortals, he had been a child of prophecy and had saved the Wizarding World. He felt calm somehow, not quite at peace but certainly more in control of himself.
"Come with us," Virginia said. Wolf hung back, hands in his pockets. Harry got the feeling that he normally wasn't so docile as he was being, that it was something about the place he was in. "We're going back to New York. That's what they've been calling the Tenth Kingdom. Our world, our place. You don't have to go back to England if you don't want to, but you can come with us, have a normal life. It sounds like you never did."
"Can I think about it?" Harry asked. "It's an awful lot to think about."
"Sure. We're supposed to be staying at Malfoy Manor."
Ginny brightened. "That's my home. I'd love to have you stay."
Wolf smiled. "Why don't I help you home, then? I'm stronger than I look."
Once Harry was alone, he stared at the walls around him. Did he even have anything back in the Wizarding World anymore? Bill and Charlie should probably know that Ginny was still alive, but the last time Harry had tried to owl them, the owl had merely flown in circles overhead and never delivered the letters. Who knew what would happen if he tried it again? He had always thought of them as older brothers, but he didn't know how they felt. And with Ron dead... would they want to be associated with the Boy Who Lived, the one that had helped drag their little brother into that whole mess?
And what was there in this place? Oh, Ginny had told him what life was like in the House of Red, what she had seen so far of the neighboring kingdoms. She hadn't seemed like the type of person to love court, but she seemed so happy. She had a life here with Malfoy. And while he didn't know what he felt about that, she had been so transparently happy. Hermione had that same kind of face when looking at him. Hermione had looked at him that way once, she had loved him that much once.
She sacrificed everything for me, everything. Even me.
Harry didn't realize he was crying until the scalding tears fell onto his hands. They had caressed and killed. He didn't know what to do with himself anymore. No one had ever talked about the end of the war. No one had expected him to survive the final battle, though no one had ever mentioned that to him. Yet somehow he still drew breath.
I wasn't supposed to take you yet, Death had said.
Harry suddenly sat up and wiped his eyes. He had summoned Destiny without realizing it, using the heritage he hadn't known he had. He had a score to settle with Dream; he had Hermione to save. He refused to believe that her missing memories could mean so much, that Dream would want them. He refused to believe that they belonged to anyone else. If Hermione would have given her memories away, they should have gone to someone worthy.
Wet hands pressed to his chest, Harry closed his eyes and willed himself to talk to Dream.
You do not belong here.
Harry's eyes shot open. He honestly hadn't thought it would work. "You have something of mine," Harry said, voice stronger than he had hoped it would be. He was walking, his left leg perfect, and he noticed he was dressed in Quidditch gear. It was the closest thing to battle armor he had ever worn in his life.
I have nothing of yours, you are mistaken. But you're not a sleeper, you don't belong here. You have no right to wander in the halls of the Dreaming. Dream seemed almost perturbed as he sat on his high throne, swathed in robes of pure white.
"No right? I'm your nephew whatever generations down, and you have my girlfriend's memories of me! Those are mine! No stranger should have them!"
No. But they were freely given, and now are mine.
"I want them back!"
Dream's eyes glittered dangerously. Do not overstep your bounds. You are blood, but you are still mortal.
"Or what? Kill me? I don't think so. Aunt Death said it wasn't my time. She won't take me until I'm good and ready to go, and I'm not ready to die yet. Not until I have what's mine, not until I have Hermione back."
Dream looked stricken. What? Death... promised you?
"I'm not afraid of Death. She's kinder than you. She understands and she knows. She doesn't sit up on high and watch without seeing. She knows because she lives it." And suddenly Harry knew it was true, knew that Death had a better understanding of life by occasionally living it as a mortal. The knowledge of the Endless was waking in his blood, like calling to like. "Death has given me her protection."
You forsook such protections, Dream challenged.
"I didn't," Harry said firmly. "I got lost, I fell into the Nine Kingdoms. But I'm not lost now, I know my way home. And I know you won't risk the Kindly Ones, not after already having lost to them. I know."
Knowledge is power, but it tasted bitter, like ashes. Harry hadn't wanted to see Dream's face twist in helpless rage and fury, hadn't wanted to know he could hurt his uncle that way. He didn't want to become the thing he despised.
I did Orpheus a kindness. To live for eternity as a bodiless head... he asked me to.
Dream's voice was small, beaten. Harry didn't gloat. It hadn't been his purpose.
"Her memories are all I've got left," Harry said quietly. "Please give them back to me. Let me keep whatever I can."
Dream seemed to sigh, a broken old man trapped within a boy's husk. What will you do with her memories? She's lost to you now.
"But I'll remember. She can still be alive to me, I'll keep her in my heart. No matter what happens, we'll be as close as we were before she died."
Dream was suddenly going through a trunk beneath the throne. There was a watch, a snow globe with an Arabian palace, a locket, a glass jar with glittering darkness inside. There were other trinkets here and there, unrecognizable shapes. Dream finally lifted a small gold cube in his hands. Her memories of you, payment for the spells to keep you alive.
"I know. And now it's my turn to keep her alive."
Such love you had for her.
"I love her still," Harry said simply. "She's part of me. I can't let you have anything else of hers, not when she's mine."
It was hers to give.
"Dream, I would have married her. I would have had a family. I know we talked about it, I know we hoped for it. All I'll have of it is what she dreamed, whatever she remembered of them. That's all I'll ever have of her now." Harry's voice was soft. "Haven't you ever loved, Dream? Haven't you ever loved enough to do what's right, even if it hurts? I had to let her go on that raid, I had to let her do her part. I had to trust her."
Dream pushed the cube into Harry's hands. You're a fool, Harry. You've idolized a selfish little girl.
"Maybe. But she was mine. She'll always be mine. And I'll always belong to her."
Harry sounded so confident, so sure. You will resent these memories.
"Maybe. Maybe not. But they're all I have."
Didn't Desire offer you more?
"It wasn't real. It wouldn't have been true. Hermione deserves better."
Head bent slightly, Dream nodded. Take it. Keep it out of the Dreaming, lest it try to steal another aspect of my realm. She would have become a thing of the Dreaming otherwise, she would have become a fixture here.
"There are worse fates," Harry said gently. "It's not so bad."
Don't speak of what you don't know.
"But... I do. As detached as you are, you were never cruel, not really. You didn't mean to hurt anyone. You didn't mean to, and while you may have seemed cruel, it was never with intent to be. You weren't malicious about it. You never gloated or belittled someone. You just didn't care, which can be bad enough."
You're still a child.
"And so are you, Daniel."
Dream looked up sharply, lips thinned into a line. Don't come back while you are awake, Harry. Only if you're dreaming, if you know what's good for you.
"I never did," Harry said softly, cradling the golden cube. It softened in his hands, and he pressed it to his chest. He could feel it push through the Quidditch gear, into his chest, burying itself deep into his heart. "I never knew what was really good for me, just what I needed to do and how it needed to be done. No one ever talked to me about consequences. They all expected me to fall over and die."
And now? Now that you can't die? Death won't take you now, so where does that leave you? Dream's voice was harsh, cold.
"And so I live," Harry said, voice soft. He could feel the warmth of Hermione's love course through him. "And I keep her alive inside of me."
Harry pushed himself mentally out of the Dreaming and opened his eyes. He was in the sickroom of Queen Red Riding Hood's palace. The tears had dried on the backs of his hands and on his face. He could feel the warm ache deep in his chest, knew he now carried Hermione within him. Every girl might still look like Hermione, but he knew what the real thing was like, knew what real love was like.
When Virginia and Wolf returned the next day, Harry was ready to go with them. He could start over in New York as a cousin or something. He wouldn't be Harry Potter anymore, but Harry Lewis. He would have a forged diploma and go to college. He would learn how to be something more than the Wizarding World's savior. He would become the godfather to Virginia and Wolf's baby, he would learn to live. And when he was old, when he thought he was tired of life and ready to leave it, he would call on Death. When he was ready, she would be there, young as ever, smiling as ever. Maybe she would find Hermione's soul so Harry could return the memories she had given up to save him. Maybe Death could help him fill up the holes inside of him, maybe she couldn't. But Death would come for him, beautiful as ever, his soul attracted to her eyes. He would go quietly, gently, ready for anything. He would go with Death when he was old and gray because it was time, because Hermione was waiting, because he had lived the life Hermione had wanted him to have.
Haven't you ever loved enough to do what's right, even if it hurts?
It would hurt to live, but it would be right. It's what Hermione had wanted. He would live, he might learn to love again. He would have a new family in a new place, a new life. He would do it, because it was right.
"She must have been special," Virginia said gently, taking Harry's hands in hers.
"She still is," Harry rasped, close to tears.
"It's a girl," Wolf said suddenly. "I can tell. May we...?"
Harry laughed. "I'd like that. I want her to be loved. I want her to be everything Hermione wanted to be. I want her to live..." Harry's throat closed over his unshed tears. "I want the best for her, what I would've wanted."
Wolf's hand closed over Harry's shoulder, giving him a gentle squeeze. "I understand. And we'll all do that, we'll all love her."
Harry closed his eyes and smiled. He fell back into the fluffy pillows. He would never see Hogwarts again, never see England. But the memories there were too painful, too sharp and terrible. He didn't know if he would ever be ready for them.
"We're here, Harry," Wolf continued. "Whatever we can do... It's not easy to lose family, to be the only one left. But it's up to the survivors to keep the dead alive. We carry their names, we carry their faces. We're the ones to live for them."
Harry opened his eyes and looked into Wolf's earnest ones. "Yes. Exactly. That's exactly it, Wolf. That's what I have to do."
"So live for her. And we'll help you."
Harry could feel the hope building within him, something he hadn't felt since he had heard about Hermione's death. It felt soft, warm and fluttery, right where Hermione's memories were kept. He could smile and mean it now. He could live and mean it now.
Harry lifted his water glass in a toast. "To starting over."
"To starting over," Wolf and Virginia chorused. "And to not missing any part of life," Wolf added, slinging an arm around Virginia's shoulders. "To being better, to knowing how to be more than you thought you could be."
"Here, here," Harry said, drinking the water.
It was about time Harry stopped waiting for things to begin, and just get on with it. He grinned at his new friends. "To new beginnings."