There was nothing, just a darkness that was at once cavernous and claustrophobic.
"So, I'm guessing dead."
Well, this was certainly anticlimactic.
"I reckon I had supposed that dying for the second time – or would it be the third? – would be more interesting," Harry mused.
There was no Kings Cross station, no Dumbledore, no reunion with dead parents or dogfather.
There was just…nothing.
For lack of anything better to do, Harry had taken to sitting on the floor.
He supposed there was a floor. He couldn't really tell, given that he couldn't even see his hand before his face, but there was something flat and solid beneath his feet, so he had decided to sit upon it and wait to find out what would happen next. He'd always been accused of being impatient and, seeing as how he had no other viable options, he determined it best to stay put.
He wasn't sure why or how this had occurred. He was fairly certain that he had finally managed to kill Voldemort, but what had happened after was unknown to him. How had he died? Had he been killed? If so, who was responsible? He wasn't even sure he really cared, but he still wanted to know. He could only hope that Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Neville, and Luna had lived. It would be rather off-putting to have survived all he had only for his friends to go down with him.
It was a sad testament to his life that he could think of only five people who would care that he was gone. He had acquaintances and allies and such, but no other true friends. He wasn't even sure that Neville and Luna were aware he considered them friends. Well, that was all on him, he supposed. He had turned into a rather surly bastard who tended to keep people at arm's length under the pretense of keeping them safe. He was like Dumbledore in that regard.
He felt bad for Molly. Voldemort had taken her brothers and now one of her sons. He couldn't even imagine what poor George was going through and doubted the man would ever recover from Fred's loss. Bill at least had Fleur, and their child, and Charlie had always come across to him as a loner. Percy would be fine, he was sure, as would Ginny. While the two were not much alike, they were inherently individuals. Percy had finally managed to conquer his need to please others, while Ginny had never cared about pleasing anyone. They would help each other and their family through the hardest times.
He was quite worried about Ron, though. For all of his bravado and nonchalance, Ron was deeply sensitive, often times overly so, and Harry knew that the loss of Fred and himself would hit Ron hard. Hermione would help him, as she always had, but she would lock away that part of herself which also required help. She would suffer in silence as she had so many times.
Neville had become the incomparable man Harry had always somehow knew was lurking just beneath the surface. He had no doubt Neville would lead the fight in putting the wizarding world back together.
He couldn't even posit Remus and Tonks. He shut away his fear for Teddy and allowed himself to hope that Andromeda would step in and raise him properly.
"I miss her," Harry said aloud, surprised by his own voice. "I miss her already."
The primary reason he had kept Luna at a distance was because he recognized himself in her, that part of him which had always been desperate to retreat inside himself and stay there forever. He supposed that had he not been raised by the Dursleys and forced to remain cognizant of the world around him, he might have ended up just like Luna. More's the pity he didn't.
Granted, Luna was far more brilliant than he could ever hope to be, but she was damaged, much as he was, and though he had been the face and the hope of the war against Voldemort, it was in these quiet moments he could admit Luna had been his hope that he would somehow be okay.
That was gone now, and he resented it.
Was this all there was? Was this all he was ever meant to be, a lamb sacrificed on the altar of the egos of Voldemort and Dumbledore? He had fulfilled his purpose and now his time was over.
In a way, it was a relief. The first eleven years of his life had taught him to question if he even had the right to exist; the last six had suggested his existence served only to complete his task. His apparent death certainly seemed to imply that he had been unwise and even foolish to expect anything beyond that.
He couldn't find the energy to be angry. He didn't even have the desire. It was startling, not to be angry. For so long, that had been the only thing which fueled him. Dumbledore had always been adamant that love was the key to defeating Voldemort but, even now, Harry was unsure.
He had loved and knew that he had been loved in return, but love itself, as an emotion, had never filled him fully. He had never experienced its purity or its patience. Instead, it had teased him – had mocked him – making its presence known, but always secondary to anger, confusion, or pain.
But did it even matter now?
He knew that, had he survived, his life would have become a circus of epic proportions. Once the weight of the world had been placed upon your shoulders, you never truly shrugged it off. People still would have demanded things of him. He would never really have been left alone. Others would still have looked to him to solve their problems.
What kind of life was that? He didn't want that for himself.
Of course, he'd never had much a life to begin with. At least not one that he had happily called his; more like a lot to which he was required to adhere. His entire being had been defined by the actions or inaction of others. He'd had nothing to call his own. Even his scar had been claimed by everyone but him.
How ironic, yet unsurprising, it was to discover that he was just as lonely in death as he had been in life.
"Do you ever stop whining?" a voice demanded.
"No," Harry sullenly replied. "Wait, what?"
"You're not the only ones with problems, you know."
Harry narrowed his eyes in a futile attempt to determine the identity of the speaker. "Where are you? Who are you?"
An annoyed sigh was the immediate answer. "I don't even know why I decided to interfere. I hate dealing with emo kids. Just pop an Elavil and get over it already."
"But since the damage is already done, I might as well see this through," the voice continued blathering. "I'm many things, but I'm not a quitter."
There was a snap of fingers and a sudden flood of light.
A bewildered Harry blinked furiously to adjust to the influx, and when he could finally keep his eyes open long enough not to recoil, he looked up into the fiery eyes of the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
She smiled down at him. "Well, at least your taste isn't in question, so maybe you're not totally hopeless." She stuck out her hand and he took it by force of habit rather than any real interest or desire on his part. "Hi, Harry. I'm Cordelia, and you've been royally screwed. Let's do something about that."
Before he could even open his mouth, they disappeared.
Harry blinked and found himself in a well-appointed sitting room holding a steaming cup of tea.
Cordelia crossed her legs and appraised him. "I never really got the whole tea thing," she said. "It's like crack for Giles and Wesley, but it just tastes like lawn clippings to me."
She waved a hand dismissively. "Later. Let's talk about you."
He snorted. "What's to talk about? It would appear I'm dead."
She nodded. "For now, yes."
He raised an eyebrow.
She nodded again. "Right, let's cover the basics so you have some idea of what's going on, and then I'll answer a few of your more burning questions, okay?"
"All right," he said slowly.
She beamed. "This is a pocket dimension. It's a kind of haven from all of the realities playing out across the universe. With me so far?"
She shrugged. "Good enough. I'm what's called a Higher Being. It's my job to kick back and watch these various realities and make sure they're on the right track. It's a destiny thing."
"I hate that word," he muttered.
"I so understand," she murmured. "I had my own to contend with, and it sucked big time."
He really wasn't in the mood for this woman and her sob story. He was also slightly peeved that she thought her saga was in any way comparable to his own, and said as much.
She scoffed. "You think you're so special? You think you're the only one who's been repeatedly kicked in the teeth because of the manipulations of other people? Bitch, please."
His eyes widened.
"Listen up, Short Stack," she barked, "because I've got a newsflash for you. Yeah, your life was completely trashed because of the whims of other people, other powers which took too much interest in what you could do rather than who you are, but guess what? It happens every day to boys and girls no more or less deserving than you. You totally got a raw deal, and I'm acknowledging that, but you're not Fate's only scratching post."
"Why am I here?" he demanded. "What is this about?"
"Well, aren't you impatient! It's not as though you have anywhere else to be. If you'd quit flapping your thin lips long enough to shut up for a minute, I might just tell you what's going on."
He stared at her, discomforted because, for some unknown reason, he wanted to like her.
She smirked. "It's been a long time since someone was straightforward with you, huh?"
He gave a terse nod.
She sighed. "Look, I can't change what happened to you. Believe me, I would if I could, but trust me when I tell you that I understand. Before I was this, I was human. I had a life, and some of it was good, but a lot of it was truly heinous. I fought Evil. People I loved died. I died. I get it."
He sank into his chair as yet another weight he hadn't even realized he'd been carrying was lifted from him. She did get it. There were no pitying looks or halfhearted commiseration or the desperate attempts at understanding which ultimately failed. There was just acceptance. It was rather nice.
"Back to what I was saying before," Cordelia smoothly continued. "As a Higher Being, my job is to watch what goes on down there, to make sure that destiny is being followed. In most of the realities, you lived. In several, you married Ginny and had some kids and a relatively quiet life."
"Ginny?" he blankly repeated. He couldn't even fathom that. Sure he liked her, and at one time perhaps even fancied her, but he didn't really know her. For all intents and purposes, he regarded her as Ron's sister and little else. She was a nice girl and very pretty, and she was smart and powerful, but he had trouble believing he ended up marrying her.
Cordelia nodded. "In others, you married Hermione."
He raised a brow. If anything, that statement was even more bizarre, for if he did have a sister, surely it was Hermione. He loved her more than he did anyone else. He trusted her in a way he had never nor could ever trust another. She was his rock, his anchor, his tether to a life which he had often wished to relinquish. He couldn't imagine marrying her – he couldn't imagine marrying anyone – but he supposed it made sense after a fashion. He imagined they'd be happy, but he felt inordinately sorry for the hair their children would inherit.
Cordelia shrugged. "Those are just two examples, but I think you get the general idea. In some you married Luna, in others you ended up with Ron. In one of my favorites, you and Seamus got together and soundly beat the Weasley twins at their own game. Every single time."
Harry stared at her for a long moment. "Is this a joke?" he finally asked.
She snorted and rolled her eyes. "In any case, in every reality that exists, you've defeated Voldemort. He's no longer an issue. His soul has been obliterated."
She nodded and then eyed him carefully. "Ask me."
He blinked at her in confusion before his myriad thoughts cleared. "Cedric?"
She gave him a sad smile and nodded. "Yes. There are realities in which he lived, in which you are together."
He clamped his mouth shut and looked away, scowling.
"No, it's not fair," she said softly. "There are worlds in which James lived, in which Lily lived, and in which both lived. There are worlds in which Neville never lost his parents, or Luna her mother. There are worlds in which Sirius never went to Azkaban or died, and worlds where Remus was never bitten. There are worlds in which you grew up happy and safe and loved. But there was always Voldemort. No matter the circumstances, there was always Voldemort."
She raised a brow. "And there are those realities which are far worse than the one in which you grew up. There are worlds in which you didn't survive the first attack by Voldemort, and there are those in which you died after your first year at Hogwarts, or your second, et cetera. Still, you always managed to take him with you.
"And there are worlds in which Hermione was killed by the troll, and others in which she was killed by the basilisk. Worlds where Ginny didn't survive the chamber, where Bill became a werewolf, where Luna was slaughtered by Dolohov, where Teddy was eviscerated by Bellatrix, and where Fleur lost her baby. There are things I could tell you about these worlds which would cause you to want to destroy reality altogether."
He swallowed heavily and glared at the cup of tea in his hands.
"In every world, death stalked you. In most of them, you fought against it and won, at least long enough to have some modicum of happiness for yourself. But death is eternal, and it eventually claims everyone. The only thing that matters, in the end, is how you face it. You always faced it like the hero you are."
She leaned forward, her eyes boring into his own. "Remember that, Harry. You're a hero because you chose to be. You didn't run and you never quit. Heroes aren't born; we're made. Don't ever make that out for less than what it is."
He felt a blush spreading across his cheeks and silently cursed her for it. She gave him a look and he forced himself to pay attention. She was seriously scary; in some ways, far more so than Voldemort.
"All realities are unique," she said, "but the one you just vacated is particularly so. One thing a lot of people misconstrue about destiny is that it somehow violates free will." She shook her head. "It doesn't. Destiny and free will can coexist, if not always peacefully. No matter what destiny mandates for you, you always have choices."
"Then I made a lot of bad ones," Harry confessed.
"No," Cordelia countered, "you made ignorant ones. There's a difference. You made the best choices you could with the information you had, which was little to none. You made the choices you did, in part, because you were manipulated into making them. Others you made because you were pressured or because it was easier for you to allow others to assume command."
She fell silent for a moment. "Yes," she finally continued, "you've had failures, and some of those were absolutely your fault, but not all of them. Certainly not most of them. Your problem is that you never realized that until it was too late."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"You trusted too easily. You didn't question things you should have because you didn't really want to know the answers." She shrugged. "You were lazy."
He bit back the sharp retort that was begging to burst forth from between his lips and considered her words. The feeling behind them was true, he knew, and the more he thought about them, the more instances his mind supplied. Finally, he nodded. "You're right."
"I always am. That's my curse."
He snorted. He could like this woman.
Her eyes softened. "I'm glad, because I like you, Harry. I want to help."
"Why?" he asked, voice plaintive. "Isn't it over?"
She nodded. "It is. The one thing all of these worlds have in common is your defeat of Voldemort. With this last and final defeat, you not only saved your world, Harry, but all the others. Everything has played out the way it should have." She pursed her lips. "Perhaps not as it was supposed to, but they're all safe, and that's because of you. So I think you're owed something."
He looked into her eyes and frowned. "Why now? Why me? This version of me, I mean."
"Because now that your destiny has been fulfilled completely, it's your turn to do the manipulating." She grinned. "I'm going to help you, because I'm very good at it."