Chapter 1: This Was Your Life
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."
Chapter 2: A Little Tuition
Harry listened passively as Cordelia offered her spiel. When she was finally done, and he did admire her brevity, he shook his head to clear it.
"You want to send me back?" he asked, his disbelief obvious.
"You don't have to go," she snapped. "I'm not forcing you. You can move on, free to be with your parents and Sirius and Cedric, where you'll eventually be joined by Hermione, Luna, and the others. That will happen regardless. This is completely optional, a bonus. This is a chance for you to carve your life into something you want."
His eyes narrowed with suspicion. "It can't be that easy."
She rolled her eyes again and Harry marveled at how she had managed to turn such a simple gesture into an unparalleled art.
"Of course it's not that easy, you titmouse!" she bellowed. "There are rules! There have to be. The question is whether or not you can abide them. If you go back, you will be placed at the moment you received your first letter."
His eyes widened. "But that means…"
She nodded. "You would have to return to the world you just left. I can't allow you to cross dimensions, Harry. It would punch holes in the universe, leaving devastation in its wake. The very fabric of all reality would begin to unravel and chaos would descend." She paused. "Or so someone in a big blue box would have us believe."
She shrugged. "People who should live would die, and people who died at their proper time would be alive once more. There's even a chance some malevolent entity could take advantage of the situation and usurp the role Voldemort previously held, totally upsetting the balance. Yada yada."
"Won't sending me back upset the balance?" he demanded.
She blew a lock of hair away from her face. "Possibly, but who cares? That's not our problem. Let one of the Powers deal with it."
He stared at her in horror.
She snorted. "No, I wouldn't really do that. In essence, with your final vanquish of Voldemort, the world you just left has become a closed system. Life will go on without you, because the future of that world has now been spun off into its own reality. We can take advantage of this by reintroducing you into the closed system of the past and manipulating it just for shits and giggles."
She gave him a flat look. "Let me bottom line this for you. I'm offering you a chance to go back and do things over. Sure, some stuff will be different, but most of it will be good. Or at least has the potential to be good. It is what you make of it.
"I can rewind time to send you back. I can do this because, as I said, your defeat of Voldemort was absolute; he's no longer a factor. That said, there are other factors which must be considered."
"Go on," he softly encouraged.
She smiled. "First, you would have to return to the world you just left; no dimension-hopping. Second, you can only go back so far; in this case, when you first received your admissions letter. Now, this is something we can manipulate, as it can be successfully argued that you became truly cognizant of magic when you received that first letter. Considering how it was addressed, you had to know that something bizarre was going on, correct?"
He thought about it and finally shrugged. "I suppose so. I certainly wondered how whoever sent the letter knew I lived in the cupboard under the stairs." He nodded to himself. "I never really thought about it at the time, but that one letter answered questions I hadn't the courage to ask."
She nodded firmly. "See? That's an example of something we can tweak."
He nodded. "It also buys me some time. Not much, but some."
She beamed. "You catch on quick, Hot Pocket. I like that in a man."
Even though he blushed, he was furious. "Hot Pocket?"
"You're adorable!" she cooed. "Take advantage of that, would you? You seriously need to get laid."
"Tell me something I don't know!" he shouted, years of sexual frustration and celibacy roughening his voice. "You have no idea!"
Her eyes widened. "The hell I don't. I lived six years longer than you and had sex twice. The first time was with a guy I thought really liked me, someone with whom I thought I might have had a future, but it turned out he was working with a demon and wanted to use me to incubate its spawn. I let him in to my home, gave myself to him, and the next morning I woke up nine months pregnant with Predator."
His eyes bulged.
She nodded. "Yeah. The second time was while I was possessed by a deposed deity, and it was with a boy I raised and considered my own son, who was in fact the son of the vampire with whom I was in love. Again, I got pregnant. The soul of my baby was sacrificed to make way for this deposed deity to be made flesh. Her birth caused me to fall into a coma – my second, by the way – from which I never woke up, and that bitch tried to kill all of my friends and end the world as we know it."
Harry had turned green a while ago. "You win."
She shrugged, though her eyes were hard. "I always do. Deal with it. And I understand about creepy visions, too. In my case, mine were sent by the Powers That Be, the interdimensional beings which govern the universe. You think you know pain? My visions weren't meant for a mortal to bear. Every time I received one, portions of my brain died. I had to bond with a demon just so I could continue to save people."
He stared. A demon?
She raised a brow. "I also had a Saving People Thing."
"Who are you?" he whispered.
"I'm pissed off! I'm trying to help your midget ass, and you're being all moody and sullen. I know you're still a teenager and recently dead, but grow up!"
"Sorry," he said quietly.
She waved a hand. "No big. I should probably be nicer or something. I mean, you did just die. In my defense, this is something I've been waiting to offer you for a while, so I'm a little overexcited. That, and I'm a huge bitch."
He grinned. "That's what I need to learn to be."
She nodded seriously. "You really do. One of your problems, Harry, was that you let people walk all over you. You have to learn to stand up for yourself, because, as you found out, you're the only one who can. Hermione was great, she really was, but she could have done more to help you, even if it was only to listen to you more and harangue you less."
"Maybe," he whispered, though he felt guilty for agreeing.
"Whatever. Look, I'm a good person, Harry, but I'm not a nice person. I've never aspired to be. I've found that, in general, being nice just for the sake of it wastes a lot of time and energy. There's too much emphasis on politeness and feelings, and not enough on truth."
He nodded slowly. He agreed wholeheartedly with that statement.
"I'm not saying that politeness isn't important, and the welfare of others should definitely be considered, but I don't believe in placing myself at the back of the line just to make everyone else feel better. I'm not responsible for the happiness of others; they are. I'm no one's martyr."
He nodded more emphatically.
"Okay, so back to what we were talking about. Sending you back is safe because, while there are commonalities across the realities, each one also has specific hallmarks. Your world had way too many, and most of them were because of Dumbledore. We can manipulate them just as easily as he did." She shook her head. "That Santa Claus impersonator has a lot to answer for."
She held up a hand. "Don't get me wrong. He truly loved you, Harry; he considered you the grandchild he never had. And he meant well, he really did. His heart was in the right place, but I don't where the hell his brain was."
Harry burst into hysterical laughter. Eventually, after several long moments, he got himself under control. "So to what would I be returning?"
She grinned. "Like I said, no Voldemort."
His eyes glazed over and the meat of previous words finally sunk in and raced to coalesce with that she was offering. "What?" he asked in a tremulous voice.
She glared at him. "You really think I'd bring you here and give you this option just to force you to fight that moron again? How is that entertaining for me? I already know how that story ends. Hello! I told you he's gone."
She gave him a kind smile. "He's gone, Harry. Like I said, his soul is no more, so when I rewind time, he won't be an issue. No Voldemort. No horcruxes. None of it."
"Truly?" he whispered.
"Absolutely," she affirmed, "and no other rising Dark Lords, leftover Death Eaters, or any of that crap. Now, don't get me wrong. There will be leftover Death Eaters and, yes, they will be angry at you. But can they do anything? Not really. They were only ever united under Voldemort; most of them couldn't stand each other. You need to become more political, and you desperately need to learn how to control your temper."
He sighed. "I know. Many people have told me that."
She snorted. "Yeah, and the people who did never learned how to control their own."
"But I'm very serious about this, Harry," she said, her tone grave. "When you give in to anger, you allow yourself to lose control. It's your anger that makes you the most vulnerable, and many people knew that and took advantage of it."
He gave an annoyed nod, dwelling on his memories of Malfoy and Snape.
"I understand what it's like to be surrounded by idiots who are jealous and resentful of you, and make no mistake, that's what most of it was about. From Ron's envious rages, to Snape's pathetic taunts, to Malfoy's endless whining." Her eyes flashed with warning. "They played you and you let them. Don't do that again."
His eyes widened and he nodded once more, this time with resolution.
"Dumbledore often used your anger against you, as did Voldemort, Umbridge, and countless others, turning it around to make you do what they wanted," she added, shaking her head. "What I don't understand is why you allowed it. How many times did it have to happen before you realized what they were doing?"
He hung his head in shame and embarrassment. "Too many," he murmured.
"I'm not trying to upset you," Cordelia said, struggling for civility, "but I need you to understand this. If you're just going to keep repeating your mistakes, I'm not going to waste my time by rewinding it for you." She raised a brow. "And that is what you want, isn't it? You've already decided."
He bit his lip.
She shook her head. "That's another thing we need to address. You have absolutely no poker face. It's so easy to read you."
"Is there anything about me you do like?" he demanded.
She gave him a bland look. "You're brave, but often to the point of recklessness. You're smart, but insecure in your intelligence. You're an excellent leader, but only step up when the situation is dire."
She frowned. "You're one of the most decent people I've ever known, Harry. Yes, I like you. More than that, however, I respect you, which is more important. You're one of the few people who has ever held my respect, which is why I'm offering you this chance. I just want you to make the most of it. In order for you to do that, it's necessary that I point out all the times you were a dumbass." She nodded. "Let's do that now!"
He groaned and dropped his head on the table.
Cordelia hadn't been kidding.
Using some accursed device similar in principle to a Pensieve, she reviewed with Harry not just his major mistakes, but the many tiny choices he had made in haste or ignorance, or out of sheer laziness.
He was stunned by the number of them. He was horrified by how those small mistakes had then snowballed into much greater consequences, ones which he had not only allowed to go unnoticed, but hadn't even posited as possible. He was appalled not only by many of his actions, but also his inaction; specifically, those times when he knew something was wrong, that someone was lying, that there was more going on than was apparent, but he had remained silent, either out of fear of not being believed or being punished.
Yes, he had been a child. Yes, he had been purposefully kept ignorant of his world. Yes, there were a multitude of reasonable excuses which could be mustered, but the bottom line was that he had often been too hasty, too judgmental, and too unwilling to look beneath the surface of things.
He had always been proud of his sense of intuition, of his ability to perceive right from wrong, but making choices solely on gut-feelings without any empirical evidence to back them up had been foolish, and shades of gray existed regardless of whether or not he chose to acknowledge them.
Throughout the review, Cordelia hadn't hesitated to point out where he had gone wrong or where he had slacked off, but she also offered lavish praise when it was warranted, and apparently it was warranted more often than he realized. He didn't believe this woman would say or do anything she didn't mean, so he was forced to accept that her commendations were genuine. It pleased him. It meant more to him that any kind words from his friends, Molly Weasley, or Dumbledore ever had.
Cordelia had witnessed everything, yes, but had been divorced from the emotional aspect of it all. Yes, she felt for him, but she didn't let those feelings rule her perceptions of him and the situations in which he had found himself. He envied that of her, that steely resolve and ability to consider all sides of a situation unflinchingly.
He wondered how different his life would have been had she been there to stand at his side.
"If you go back, he'll have died that Halloween."
He soured. "So I'll still be the Boy Who Lived." Despair washed over him. "My parents will still be dead."
She nodded, chagrined. "Sorry, but yeah, that's something I can't change. You'll always be the Boy Who Lived, Harry, and I can't create a new reality just for you. I can only interfere up to a certain point, and the only reason I can send you back at all is because your destiny has been fulfilled in that world. The Boy Who Lived is, in part, what you were created to be. It's a universal construct."
He blinked. "You mean that, in all the other worlds, it was always me? It was never Neville?"
"No," she quietly admitted. "Despite the machinations of Dumbledore, Voldemort, Fudge, Snape – whoever – it was always you."
She laughed, though it was hollow. "It sucks, I know, but don't think the entire world rests on your shoulders." She paused. "Although perhaps that of magical Britain did. However, I know of at least four other people, including myself, with destinies just as wretched, and they're consistent across the universe."
He winced, then sighed. "So what else?" he asked in a dull voice. "No Voldemort, but also no parents. Dursleys?"
She nodded, tears pricking her eyes. "Yes, you will have been raised by the Dursleys – and all that entailed – but that doesn't mean you have to return to them. With no Voldemort, that means no actual blood wards."
He perked up a little. That was something, he supposed, and the damage they had inflicted would be somewhat removed from him. He hadn't dealt with it all, he wasn't sure he ever would or could, but this time he would make them bleed before departing from their wretched lives. He also noticed her choice of words. Actual? Hm.
"Snape will be different, too," Cordelia added, "though not much. He'll still dislike you on principle, just because of who your father was, but he won't have to suffer the burden of being a spy trying to maintain his cover. Not that that was ever a good excuse, because, no way. It's up to you if you want to change your relationship with him. I'd absolve him of the life debt, but if you want nothing to do with him, that's your choice and I would totally support you."
The idea of Snape was one he would have to unpack later. "Hermione, Ron, and the Weasleys?" he pressed.
"All there," she confirmed, "but remember, with no Voldemort, that means no life-threatening situations which bond you tightly to Ron and Hermione. If you want those relationships to happen, you'll have to be more proactive, and I want you think carefully about repeating past mistakes."
He frowned. "What do you mean?"
She raised a brow. "Before I showed up, you were lamenting your lack of friends. If you want things to be different, you need to accept the fact that, as lovely as Ron and Hermione were, they kept you isolated from almost everyone. You didn't develop your relationships with Neville and Luna until your fifth year, and even then you never told them how much they meant to you. You were so busy with Ron and Hermione, you never took the chance to get to know the other kids in your year, let alone in your house."
He scrunched his nose, unsure as to why that could be considered a bad thing.
"Really?" she barked. "That's pretty judgmental. How well do you truly know Dean, Seamus, Parvati, or Lavender? Your interactions with them were confined to very small instances, despite that fact that you lived with them for seven years. Also, don't forget the fact that Ron disappointed you several times, but you always forgave, even when you perhaps shouldn't have. Hermione was loyal, always, but that doesn't mean you often didn't frustrate one another."
He blushed and looked down at the table.
She sighed. "Look, all I'm saying is that now that you have a chance to change things, so why not change yourself and your circumstances for the better? I'm not telling you to forget everything you just left behind, but make some new friends. Learn new magic. Make an effort! Your life will no longer be defined by trying to defeat Voldemort. That leaves you with a lot of free time. What are you going to do with it?"
Well, that was the question, wasn't it? And, suddenly, he had a lot more.
"Luna's mother?" he asked.
Cordelia shook her head. "I'm sorry. Her death occurred before your first year. That won't change."
He curled a lip and then exhaled. "Cedric?" he asked, more hopeful.
She gave him a measured look. "Again, that's up to you. There's a chance the Tournament will still be held, but you won't be entered in it. You can't depend on that to bring you together. You can't expect that he'll fall in love with you again because those circumstances won't conspire to bring you into each other's orbit. If you want him, you'll have to work for him."
"You mean manipulate him," he seethed.
"Oh, grow up!" she snapped. "You don't have to manipulate him, and I doubt you would even if you could. We both know that, despite popular opinion, Cedric Diggory was no pushover and could be more stubborn than Hermione. Manipulate the circumstances! Get to know him sooner. Be his friend. Maybe it will turn into something more and maybe it won't. I don't know!"
She threw up her hands. "I'm giving you the chance to find out. Even if nothing happens, even if you're only friends, it's still more time with him than you had, and it takes nothing away from the love you shared."
He fell silent.
"It won't be easy," she continued in a more sedate voice. "I never promised that it would be. But if you love him, if you want to be with him, then shouldn't you be willing to fight for him?"
He nodded absently.
"Listen to my words carefully, Harry," she said, her voice low. "I made that mistake. I lost the only man I ever truly loved because I didn't fight for him. He hurt me, and badly, but I could've forgiven him. My hurt feelings, however, were more important to me at that time than his honest contrition. We both paid for my hubris. If you truly love Cedric Diggory, then you hold on to that boy with everything you've got and destroy anything which threatens to take him from you."
He stared at her for a very long time and at last nodded. "Sirius?"
She nodded, appearing relieved to be treading less emotional ground. "That's up to you. He'll be in prison. You know how to get him out. Take your time and make sure you cover all the bases." She glared. "If you let that rat escape again, I'll kick your ass."
He barked out a laugh. "So I'll remember everything?"
She exhaled. "Yeah, and that's a curse in and of itself, but it's one you'll have to bear. You'll remember them, you'll remember your history with them, and, as circumstances have changed and will continue to change, so will the people around you."
She gave him another one of those looks. "You have to be sure you can live with that. There's no turning back if you decide to do this. You'll essentially be a seventeen year old in an eleven-year-old body, but those around you will be their actual mental ages. You'll have full knowledge of everything you've learned, and I'll be sending you back with a fully-developed magical core, so you'll be as powerful as you are now."
His eyes widened.
"Find out what you like," she suggested. "You excelled in Defense because you were fighting for survival, so your learning was continually spurred on by need. You know your mother was gifted in Charms and Potions, and your father in Transfiguration. Perhaps you'll want to explore those subjects more carefully. Consider Runes and that math course, whatever the hell it's called. Demand advanced study. Everyone always considered you a powerful wizard, so be one. Show up and blow them all out of the water."
She shook her head. "This is something we need to nip in the bud right now. This idea you have that you're Just Harry isn't going to cut it any longer. You were never Just Harry and you never will be. You were never meant to be."
She cut him off when he opened his mouth to protest.
"You need some perspective here, Hot Pocket, so I want you to stop and think about some things. First, you, at twelve years old, defeated a thousand year old monster with nothing more than a sword. That's not normal. At thirteen, you learned the Patronus Charm, a spell so difficult that many people seven times your age could never hope to cast it. More than that, you mastered that charm and repelled a hundred Dementors at once. That is in no way average. At fourteen and severely disadvantaged, you triumphed over older students to win the Triwizard Tournament. Lay aside for the moment the circumstances of your entry and instead look at what you accomplished."
She gave him several moments to dwell on that.
"Now, I want you to think long and hard about something. Is there any other student at Hogwarts, regardless of age, who would have fared half as well? The answer is no. Ron was of average magical strength and a well of wasted potential. Hermione had the smarts, but was nowhere near as independent, both socially and emotionally, as you were; she would have crumbled under the pressure."
"Luna," Harry shot back.
Cordelia thought about that and at last nodded. "I'll give you that one," she said, before smiling, "but Luna would have been smart enough to get out of the Tournament the very night her name was announced."
He grimaced but agreed.
"Finally," she said, "there's this: you defeated the most powerful Dark Lord of three generations, not just once, but multiple times. Think about that. Voldemort never truly defeated you, Harry. The only time he did was when you allowed him to do so."
He reared back in shock, unwilling to consider her statements just yet. "But how will I explain knowing magic?"
She smirked. "That's where I come in."
Chapter 3: The Bitter Suite
Time was an inapplicable construct since his death.
Harry had no idea how long he had spent in this pocket dimension since Cordelia had summoned him. There were moments it felt like months, and others in which perhaps only minutes had passed. He had no need for food or sleep, which left him with a lot of time to ponder and wish and regret and hope.
In the end, Cordelia had been correct: it was all but a foregone conclusion that he would accept her offer to send him back. After all, he certainly didn't see the harm. No Voldemort and no Dursleys, minimal Dumbledore interference, and possible ... well, he knew what he wanted from Cedric, but was still too afraid to hope for it.
More than anything, however, was the chance to do it right, to have the life for which his parents had sacrificed their own to give him.
Still, he was wary of the repercussions. Yes, Cordelia had all but guaranteed them to be few and far between, but it was only recently he realized said repercussions were limited to his previous experience. They didn't consider a of host of other things that could go wrong.
He was Harry Potter. He neither expected nor believed he was meant to live a life of smooth sailing.
In truth, though he was anxious to go back, it brought him immense relief and comfort that Cordelia would be accompanying him. Unfortunately, hers would not be a constant presence. As a Higher Being, she simply wasn't meant to be manifest for any considerable length of time. She had assured him that he would be able to maintain contact with her and he need only call her name to bring her to his side.
He believed that. He believed her. He believed in her, which was a new and strange experience for him, to believe in something.
He had never believed in the Boy Who Lived rubbish, and his belief in Dumbledore had been tarnished to the point it would take everything in his power not to hex the old man upon their so-called first meeting.
Cordelia was now – in however the hell long this had been happening – his best friend. Their relationship took nothing away from what he had shared with Hermione and Ron, and Neville and Luna, but it was, somehow, more.
The connection had been apparent from their first meeting. She knew absolutely everything about him but didn't judge him. She listened when he wanted to talk and didn't press when he didn't. Every question he asked, she answered truthfully and without hesitation. She told him when he was being an idiot and when he was a genius. She didn't lie, conceal, contort, backbite, sneer, screech, envy, or doubt him.
She was just there for him, like a more lucid Luna.
He sighed and sat down on the couch in his ... room.
For some reason, Harry's pocket of the pocket dimension had remade itself into Gryffindor Tower. He didn't really understand why. Oh, sure, he considered Hogwarts his home insofar as he understood what a home was and why the Dursley house had never been one, but he couldn't honestly say he was that enamored of Gryffindor House, either. Other than Ron, Hermione, and Neville, the House hadn't been too keen on him.
He suddenly heard Cordelia's voice in his head, reminding him that he hadn't expended too much effort in getting to know his housemates.
It wasn't even a trick of magic. Inexplicably, Cordelia Chase had become his own personal Jiminy Cricket, a kind of pseudo-conscience that served to point out his errors in thought and judgment. Still, he found he much preferred her voice to that of Dumbledore, Snape, or even Hermione. Cordelia was at least rational where he was concerned.
Dumbledore had done nothing but constantly make him doubt himself.
Snape had always been overbearing and unfairly critical. Abusive, too. Cordelia had been quick to point out that, despite his debatable heroic measures, Snape’s behavior had been abusive.
Hermione had been his best friend, but he sometimes wondered just how much she trusted him. Everything he ever thought, did, or felt, she second-guessed, as though she always knew better. As though she knew him better, even better than he knew himself.
It had been, well, annoying, actually.
He loved Hermione with everything inside of him. He would not only die to save her but kill without regard to protect her. That would never change. Regardless, he couldn't deny that he had experienced some measure of relief for her absence. Merlin only knew how she would have reacted to all of this, to Cordelia, and the chance to go back. She most likely would have talked him out of it, though he was almost certain this was his best chance.
He collapsed on the bed, which was a duplicate of the quarters for the Gryffindor Head Boy. Not that he had ever seen the room before.
He growled and kicked his restless legs. It suddenly bothered him that Dumbledore had never chosen him to be Prefect. He still didn't understand why Ron had been chosen. Most of the House had considered that an unsolved mystery.
Ron had neither the grades nor leadership ability for the position. He had been adequate, certainly, but even Ron would have admitted he had foisted most of the work onto Hermione. She had complained about it endlessly, but had also shouldered the burden, so she only had to herself to blame.
That was another realization Cordelia had forced him to confront: Hermione liked being burdened. She charged toward insurmountable odds to prove her worth. She took on too much, sacrificed too much of herself, and often it was tasks she assigned to herself. Either she didn’t believe anyone else would pick up the slack, or she didn’t believe them to be as competent. Probably a mix of the two.
No matter how hard Harry had tried, no matter his words, she refused to accept he loved her because she was Hermione Granger and not just the brightest witch of her age. That was just sad. Harry was sad for her.
As for his being a Prefect, granted, Harry's grades hadn't been too much better than Ron’s, but at least a solid letter grade above anything the latter had ever achieved. Frankly, if Harry hadn't made Prefect, the only logical choice should have been Neville.
Hermione, in the interest of fair play, had admitted she hadn't believed Ron to be a good selection, but it was the choice that had been made and they all should have respected Dumbledore's infinite wisdom.
What a pile of shit.
Neville had thought McGonagall had chosen Harry but was ultimately overruled by Dumbledore. Harry sadly thought this was all too possible.
Luna was of the firm opinion Dumbledore had sought to mitigate Ron's perpetual jealousy of Harry by giving him something Harry would never have the chance to attain.
Personally, he thought Luna's guess was the right one and he burned with anger that Dumbledore had pitted even his own friends against him.
The more he considered it, the more he felt that Gryffindor had not been right for him. He supposed he was brave, but he wasn't glory-seeking like Ron and, to a lesser extent, Hermione. He had never felt the need to prove himself. He had just wanted to be left alone. Any so-called great feats he had performed had been done because there had been no one else willing or able.
Ron was always trying to get out from beneath first the shadows of his brothers, and then later of Harry, never realizing the only shadow cast upon him was his perception of himself. Hermione had been desperate to be first in the class not to prove that she was the smartest, but to prove a Muggleborn could be better than a Pureblood. Harry had never understood this, for no Pureblood would have conceded superiority, and what would their validation be worth? Nothing.
Harry loved them dearly, but he concluded Cordelia had been right again. Ron and Hermione had isolated him, either unintentionally or by choice, not only from the rest of their House but the entire school. He had let them, however, because it was easier, so ultimately that was on him.
The Hat had told him that he would have done well in any House. He hadn't wanted to go to Slytherin, but why was Gryffindor the only other alternative given? Had it been true, or had the Hat been directed? Was it even possible to manipulate the Hat?
What would have his life had been like if he had been Sorted into Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw? Who would his friends have been, if he'd had any?
Neville had confided he had been offered Gryffindor or Hufflepuff. He hadn't been able to decide, so the Hat had chosen for him. Luna said she had been offered her choice of all four Houses and had chosen Ravenclaw, because that had been her mother's House; she later admitted it had been the wrong decision.
Hermione and Ron hadn't mentioned whether they had been offered other Houses, but Luna had suggested - and Neville had agreed - that Ron could have either gone to Slytherin or Gryffindor, while Hermione most likely had been given her choice and chose Gryffindor because it had been Dumbledore's House.
He had been rethinking so many things lately, such as his meeting Ron on the train. Was that a coincidence? He now knew that the Express was never filled to capacity, so Ron hadn't been telling the truth about every other compartment being occupied. The question was, why had he lied? For that matter, why had Molly even been at the Platform? Surely the Weasley family would have used the Floo or merely Apparated.
Had it been another Dumbledore scheme?
Harry doubted this, primarily because, though Molly had been an intense supporter of Dumbledore, she had never followed him blindly. Indeed, they had often quarreled, specifically about Harry. In fact, she was the only one who had ever, with any consistency, stood up to Dumbledore and countless others on his behalf. She had relentlessly argued his placement with the Dursleys, his mandated interactions with Snape, and a host of other calamities which Harry had been forced to endure.
Yes, she had been rather hurtful with her remarks about Sirius, but now, with more objectivity, Harry understood her concern. The truth was that, regardless of how much he had loved Sirius, the man hadn't been a good choice of guardian. Not after ten years in Azkaban suffering under Dementors. Not when Sirius often hadn't been able to distinguish Harry from his father. Not after Sirius had placed vengeance above the welfare of his godson.
And that just led to a whole slew of further questions. Why hadn't Sirius been given a trial in the first place? Dumbledore had been the Chief Warlock even then. Was it to separate him Harry Sirius, to put him with the Dursleys and that blood protection that, in the end, hadn't been worth much? Had Dumbledore simply been exhausted and overworked in the face of Voldemort's vanquish? And though Dumbledore was the leader of the Wizengamot, why hadn't the other members of that body, as well as the Minister and DMLE - hell, even the Black family! - insisted on a trial?
It would be so easy to blame Dumbledore. It would even feel good.
But was it right?
Probably not. Harry didn't truly believe Dumbledore was so malicious. Single-minded, absolutely, and even myopic, but generally benevolent. Dumbledore had also been incredibly naive, and about so many things, particularly with regard to how he expected people to act. He had never learned to anticipate the actions of others or how to ameliorate them. No, he had been far too impressed with his own abilities. He had been prideful, and pride was often the one vice that could never be truly conquered.
Not that Harry could cast aspersions in that regard with good conscience. He knew his own pride had gotten the better of him at times. It wasn't so much that he thought himself better than anyone else, but that only he was capable of certain things. Even though it had been wrong, he had taken some measure of pride in that belief, one which had been fostered by Dumbledore, the Ministry, his schoolmates, and the entire wizarding world – when they weren't crucifying him, of course.
Even if the threat of Voldemort would be removed in this new reality, he would still be the Boy Who Lived. He would still have to confront expectations that were nothing more than myths created by charlatans to sell books. There would still be Dumbledore and Snape and Sirius and Malfoy and the rest of them. Did he truly have it in him to go through all of that again?
He would still be an orphan. He would still have been raised by the Dursleys.
He would be able to do many things over, correcting and adjusting, but there was still his loneliness. That would never really go away. He had loved Ron and Hermione beyond measure as the siblings he never had, and the Weasleys had treated him like one of their own. The problem was that he wasn't. He was not a Weasley; he was a Potter, the last. He was alone in the world.
Further, without Voldemort, Harry suspected he would have a lot of free time on his hands. What was he going to do with it? He wasn't Hermione; he couldn't live in the library. All too often, he had sequestered himself inside his own head. Everyone always thought him brooding, but he wasn't. He had been thinking. It was rather ironic, considering how often he was accused of not doing that at all.
But he did. He thought all the time. He thought and reexamined and dwelled.
Sometimes he wondered if the reason he was so pants at Occlumency was because, without his knowledge, his mind had created barriers even he couldn't breach.
He didn't want to think so much anymore. He just wanted a chance to do something, to feel something. Something that was his and belonged only to him.
He wanted to go back, he did, but what did he want to happen?
He would still have no parents.
Sirius would still be imprisoned. Harry didn't plan on allowing that for very long, of course, but after Sirius was released, what then? What did he want to have happen? The idea of Sirius being his guardian was laughable. Sirius would need help, serious help, and while Harry would make sure he got it, Sirius would become just another responsibility. As much he loved Sirius, Harry didn't want that. Not again.
He also didn't want some random adult thinking they had rights where his life was concerned. He would not allow himself to be placed under anyone's heel, particularly someone appointed by Dumbledore.
His relationship with Ron and Hermione wouldn't be the same. It never could be. He hoped they would be best mates once more, but Cordelia had been right: without Voldemort, one of the fundamental constructs of that friendship would be absent.
No parents, no guardians, no best friends.
What did he have, then?
He startled and turned toward the door. Cordelia was leaning against the jamb, regarding him.
“You'll have me, Harry, and I promise you always will.”