Time stood frozen around him.
The clean and white washed facsimile of Kings Cross seemed empty now that Dumbledore, or whoever that had been, left him to make his decision. He was left alone with the injured soul shard that was all that was left of Voldemort's Horcurx and even though he'd just been told there was nothing he could do for the pitiful thing… being left alone with it just made it that much harder to ignore. Its soft whimpers of pain seemed louder now than they had been when he'd been having his conversation with 'Dumbledore' and he could hardly walk away from it.
His sympathy might have been severely misplaced and amplified due to proximity, but…
Conjuring a thick blanket out of the air Harry gingerly picked up the weak and trembling soul shard, carefully swaddled it and placed it back down on the bench it had been hiding under. He took a seat on the bench next to the thing and allowed himself to think the decision through.
Would the world he'd left behind truly need him to return?
Voldemort had the elder wand in his possession, but did that mean as much as it did before he'd died? Pulling his feet up Harry crossed his legs and closed his eyes, sinking his awareness into his sense of self and found what he was looking for as the symbol of the Deathly Hallows flashed behind his eyes.
Breathing out a sigh of relief Harry opened his eyes, Voldemort was going to be in for one very big surprise the next time he went to attack or defend himself. Harry had taken the power of the Elder Wand with him when he'd died and it had sunken deep into the hollowed out section of his soul that the Horcux had carved out for itself, joining with what he'd taken from the other hallows instead of 'jumping ship' to a new master. He didn't know what he could do with it yet, but the Deathly Hallows were forever out of Voldemort's reach. Out of everyone's reach.
If he went back into the living world… how long would it be until the next person started chasing after him for the power he'd unwittingly gained? He would risk that power falling into Voldemort's hands if he went back into the living world. There would be no third chance for him, and no second chance at keeping the power of the Deathly Hallows out of the hands of people who would use them for their own ends.
A jagged rasp from the broken creature sharing the bench with him broke him out of his musings and unwittingly provided Harry with a glimpse of the world he had left behind. A brief accidental brush of his thigh against the swathed bundle and he was treated to a flash of what was going on in the real world. For a long moment Harry was frozen in shock at the scene he was treated to, a vision seen from Voldemort's eyes of the battle that continued on without him. He slid off the bench in an immediate knee-jerk reaction to get away from it but stopped just as suddenly. In the seconds before he had broken contact with the Horcux… had he actually seen what he'd thought he'd seen?
Turning around he reached out a trembling hand to reforge the connection to the living world to get the answer he needed. Bracing himself for the vision that would greet him Harry brush a gentle hand to the Horcurx's burnt and bleeding skin and closed his eyes again to better focus on what it would show him. It only took a few moments to confirm what he'd seen in the last second of contact he'd had with Voldemort but… a weight lifted off his shoulders.
His friends were protected.
Voldemort would not be killing anyone else. He wouldn't be able to kill anyone ever again. Harry had been ready to die to stop him from hurting them, willing enough to walk to his own death and now… now Harry's magic was protecting everyone fighting against the Death Eaters. None of the spells Voldemort or his Death Eaters were casting held, they wicked off his friends like water. He couldn't torture them. He couldn't even touch them. Just like his mother had willing given his life to protect him, Harry had willingly given his life to protect the people of Hogwarts against the Dark Lord.
Now on his knees in front of the bench Harry gently cupped his hand around the back of the Horcruxes head and leaned over its shivering body to better lock eyes with it. He watched his people end the war through its connection with Voldemort and felt the sting of tears prickle at the corners of his eyes. They were winning. Death Eaters were being taken down left, right and center as the people of Hogwarts began to discover their new advantage. Through Nagini's eyes he saw Neville follow through the instructions he'd given him, to make sure he killed the snake, and that connection was cut with a mighty sweep of Gryffindor's sword.
The connection switched to Voldemort's again and Harry stayed with the man as the same sweep of silver that had cut through Voldemort's final Horcux also cut through Harry's last connection to the living world. He let go of the Horcux in front of him and leaned back on his heels. He'd made his decision. His friends would mourn him but they would heal, and better yet they would also be protected. There was no need to return to the living world.
Gently retrieving his hand from around the back of the Horcurx's head Harry picked himself up and plopped himself back onto the bench as a ghostly image rippled into existence. Familiar walls sketched themselves into being, tracing see-through tables into existence along the platforms of Kings Cross. Banners hung from a clear ceiling and Harry knew that the ghostly form of Hogwarts Great Hall that was forming would be Voldemort's vision of this world between life and death. Its appearance would herald the arrival of his life-long enemy.
He made no move to leave.
He allowed himself a somewhat bitter smirk at the fractured figure of Tom Riddle that appeared before him in a smoky haze, growing into being from the pitiful creature Harry had wrapped and left on the bench. The man appeared facing away from him and out into the 'hall' that had appeared and hadn't noticed him yet, the man was too busy taking in his surroundings. He doubted he'd have been treated to even this ghostly view of the other's vision of death if he hadn't shared part of the man's soul for almost as long as he'd been alive.
Riddle was seated in the Headmaster's chair, and Harry found himself 'seated' at his right, in the spot traditionally reserved for the Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher. The irony of it made Harry lean back to catch his breath. Had things gone differently… Harry's heart ached as the possibilities occurred to him.
"For all that violence and pain, was this end really something to be so afraid of?" Harry asked softly, testing the surface of the ghostly table with his elbow and leaned his cheek on his palm as he waited for the answer, actually curious for it.
Tom Riddle startled, and cracked pale green eyes shot through with chips of red flew wide. "Potter?! What are you— Come to gloat have you?" The broken soul asked, parts of him shifting jaggedly as he moved.
Harry snorted. Were the Gaunts related to the Malfoy's at all? He'd heard something like that from Malfoy at least a handful of times!
"Hardly. Shame you weren't here a while ago, you just missed Dumbledore." Harry replied with false cheer. "We had a lovely chat, I'm sure he'd have been delighted to include you in the conversation."
If he'd been capable of it Harry would have died again laughing at the look he was presented with for that. He was used to people, mostly Slytherin's his age and Snape, looking at him like they were doubting his intelligence and sanity, but to have it directed at him from the face of Tom Riddle made that priceless. Harry was starting to understand a little of why Dumbledore had hung around this place so long waiting for Harry to pass through. In this place, hatred and pain were washed away, and it was easy to exist in just this moment.
Tom Riddle had been born in such an unforgiving time, in a world so harsh that he'd taken that pain and done the only thing someone so broken could think to do with it. He'd rained it back down on everyone around him. What would he have grown up to be if he'd been nurtured instead of scorned? If he'd had even one person to lean on? Perhaps now, in whatever new life that lay ahead, they would both be fortunate enough to enjoy a better future. Death was healing, rest and peace, and Harry couldn't think of anyone who needed that more than the man sitting next to him. Who needed this place to wash away the pain he hadn't been able to shake in the living world.
Laughing under his breath as he got to his feet at the still highly perplexed look still being directed at him Harry got to his feet. Lifting his chin from his palm as he pushed away from the phantom table he walked around it and towards the intangible doors of the great hall.
"Potter! What— Where are you going?!" Tom Riddle asked, rising to his own feet as if he couldn't believe he was seeing.
"… On." Harry replied, as he stopped before the doors he could barely see but must have been completely solid for the other man. He didn't need this place anymore. He hadn't since he'd witnessed his friends win the war through Voldemort's eyes. He felt solid and secure, he'd spent enough time in this place between life and death. Casting a single glance back Harry took one last look at Tom Riddle's soul and felt a faint smile kick up the corner of his mouth at what he saw.
The man was already healing. When he'd first appeared he'd been opaque, broken into pieces and his soul had looked cracked all over. Now the cracks were fewer and smaller and some of the pieces had started fusing together and were merging even as he watched.
"— are you really Potter?"
Harry laughed and left the man's vision of death without answering. He pushed forward into his own and the ghostly visions of Hogwarts swept away from him with each stride, leaving only Kings Cross as it had first appeared to him when he'd first died. Clean and white, pristine in a way that the real thing would never be.
A train ticket stamped with the image of the Deathly Hallows appeared in the air in front of him and the hiss of a train's arrival had him stepping to the edge of the closest platform. Accepting it Harry boarded the train. There was nothing holding him back now from moving forward. His magic would last for as long as those who fought with him lived. He may have lost the battle but… he had won the war. His magic would protect the people he'd left behind for him and his final enemy… would never be able to hurt anyone ever again.
He had won.
As far as his clan was concerned, Uchiha Obito had been born with his wires crossed.
The baby mastered the art of crawling with record speed and he was just as fast at figuring out which limbs did what and then took to running like a wild animal. Away from his watching cousins. At a speed that put those elder cousins of his to shame. With shrieking giggles that vanished into nothingness the second the toddler was out of immediate sight. When captured, usually hours later, he was utterly pleased with himself and covered in all sorts of dirt. Jokes about his possible connection to the Inuzuka clan were muttered grumpily by Obito's 'favourites', but it was very hard to stay angry at the bubbly baby. He would always gleefully shower whoever managed to catch him in pure affection, even if that also had his 'captor' covered in whatever he'd rolled around in.
Calling him advanced for his age was an understatement. While it was normal for a child to test the boundaries of what they were and weren't allowed to do, Obito took it to the next level. He'd somehow figured out how to get in and out of places before anyone realized what was going on. A door that wasn't locked became an open invitation for him and baby-proofing against the curious little devil became a necessity.
Uchiha Misao would never forget the day he came home from a mission to find Obito in his house. Covered in his entire stock of explosive tags. The baby had been papered from cheek to toes with them and had been caught a breath away from planting a chakra-charged, ink covered hand across a layer of explosive tags stuck to the tatami. A heart attack punctuated with strangled screams and a rapid chain of high-speed movement later and Misao understood exactly WHY his neighbours were so watchful these days. He learned to seal his home against his young clansman directly afterwards and joined in with his fellow Uchiha in keeping a wary eye, or two, on the orphan.
One of Misao's neighbours confessed to firmly believing that the younger Uchiha had somehow walked through his walls to get his hands on a very precious and expensive packet of chakra-conductive paper. The resulting fire from the baby's one and only excursion into that particular neighbour's house would have made the man homeless had he not noticed the smoke coming from his office. Obito was apparently a fire type. A fire type with a naturally large capacity for chakra. The entire packet of chakra conductive paper had practically gone up in smoke, though not quite quick enough not to catch the edge of half-finished report on fire.
The sight of the little giggling ball of mischief being summarily tossed out of households became a common sight in the Uchiha District.
Aside from his apparently effortless penchant for mischief he was a bright, lovable little thing with way too much energy and too little supervision. His only guardian, his paternal grandmother, was too old to chase after a baby and he was too quick to catch most of the time. If his potential as a future ninja wasn't so obvious to everyone who knew him, his clan would have been a lot less forgiving for all the instances of chaos he was the central cause of. It was in the way he moved, aware of himself and his body in the way few other children in his generation were, it was also in the way no one could find him when he was 'hiding', unless he wanted to be found. He might have been a bit slow with learning how to communicate outside of pointing and other wordless gestures but the baby was catching on fast with everything else.
Very quickly Obito was dressing, feeding and bathing himself and even helping his guardian with very simple household chores. His grandmother delighted in the early show of independence when he started wanting to do everything for himself and his clan as a whole breathed a sigh of relief. With Obito's growing awareness of both his sense of self and his surroundings, the incidents that had his clansmen on their most watchful lessened. He was starting to respond to them when they talked to him now and showcased an understanding that had been previously lacking in him. Uchiha Obito still stood out amongst his clan members like a sore thumb, but at the very least he wasn't mindlessly walking into death-traps anymore...
Or 'walking through walls' uninvited.
There was no one in the world Obito loved more than his grandmother.
He loved everything about her. The way her straight, chin length, soft grey hair fell into her dark eyes when she leaned down to look at him. He loved her gentle smile and the way she laughed whenever he did something she found especially amusing, which he strived to do more and more just for that reason. She never raised hand or voice with him and he was always careful never to give her reason to do so. She was always receptive to his hugs and cuddles, unlike his standoffish cousins who were always very quick to be elsewhere whenever Obito just wanted to thank them.
It was only polite to thank someone whenever they did something nice for you and his grandmother had said that hugging someone was the best way to thank someone. The cousins that went out of their way to teach him things or baby sit him for his grandmother whenever she had to attend meetings as an Elder of the clan were apparently rather shy and wouldn't stay still for their thanks. Which was okay, he was always thanking them in other ways. Just last week he'd managed to find a really big toad and made a gift of it to give to the clan head. Learning how to read might have been hard but he was glad he'd learned how, it was only appropriate to say his thanks when his grandmother had trouble with her eyesight. He'd had to sneak it into the man's pocket so the man could accept it without feeling too shy, but it had been worth it because it had also made his grandmother laugh! She had come back home from her meeting that day laughing so hard she could barely walk and when he asked her if the Clan Head had liked his thank you she'd folded him into the warmest hug he could remember and laughed into his shoulder for an hour straight.
He would have happily spent every hour of every day with her if the woman had let him, but Uchiha Sumiko was of the opinion that young boys needed fresh air and space to run around. Obito wondered when she'd gotten child-rearing mixed up with puppy training but didn't ask out loud. He obediently went out to 'play' when she told him to and found other ways to occupy his time. Most of which went into figuring out new ways to make her smile.
At first he brought home all sorts of bugs, toads and small fish he trapped in plastic containers which she helped him identify then gently suggested he put back to where he'd found them. Learning from that he started bringing in plants and flowers which she enjoyed a fair bit more and displayed around their home in vases and empty jars depending on the size. He caught a rabbit once and brought it back to be admired before it was released and then one day he brought back something that made his grandmother smile so brilliantly that he kept bringing it back. Kept bringing her back.
Nohara Rin was the first child his age he'd ever met outside his clan, she had pretty chocolate brown hair and eyes that warmed to a lovely caramel colour in the sun with purple rectangles on her cheeks. They'd tripped over each other searching for flowers to bring back to their respective homes and the invitation to play at his house had been inspired. His grandmother had yet to stop smiling at the mention of his new friend and invited Rin to come back whenever she wanted. Rin became Obito's second favourite person, another that he strived to make sure smiled and laughed as often as possible and by the time they were just about old enough to enter public schooling they were thick as thieves.
His grandmother was utterly convinced that he'd introduced his future wife to her.
"Baa-chan, I'm five." Obito reminded her, sweating a little at the idea of marrying anyone, let alone so young. He loved Rin and he'd would have cheerfully died for her, but she was practically his sister. "As in only five years old, way too young to get married!"
"No need to be shy about this Obito! You only have to wait eight years to make her a proper Uchiha! Oh I can't wait to see the faces of my future great grandchildren~!"
He was only five years old and she was already making plans for his future children?! "Wait, did you say eight years?"
"Only eight years~!" His grandmother confirmed, dark eyes dancing with delight. "You can get married as soon as you turn thirteen and ask her parents and the Hokage for permission! You already have mine!" Obito fled the house, it was the one and only time he didn't enjoy hearing her laugh.
"Do you think she was messing with me?" He asked his friend after he'd finished telling her all about the conversation, having caught her on the way to visit his house. "Thirteen is way too young to get married! I thought it was seventeen or eighteen for sure!"
"I thought it was twenty one." Rin confessed, quirking an eyebrow up in confusion. "Maybe it's just different for the Uchiha Clan?"
"I hope not… twenty one sounds so reasonable." Obito muttered. "I kind of want to find an adult that'll tell us the truth properly instead of making fun of us… an adult that's not baa-chan."
"I don't want to ask my parents, they're just like Sumiko Baa-chan, they keep asking me when the wedding is going to be."
"Adults…" Obito scoffed, rolling his eyes. "She said she wants to see the faces of my children! I'm a children. Child. Children aren't going to happen for years, and totally not when I'm thirteen! Thirteen is not adult, thirteen is teenager—"
A light rustle in the tall grass nearby caught Obito's attention, had he found another rabbit? His grandmother had rather liked petting the last one, maybe they could keep one as a pet for a while? Holding up a finger to his lips to signal for quiet he snuck up on the small animal hiding in the patch of forest they were currently playing in and crept closer and closer until—
"Rin-chan!" he whispered eagerly, "It's a puppy!" It was a puppy and his grandmother was going to LOVE seeing this one! Everyone loved puppies didn't they? It was hard NOT to smile around them! The pudgy cream and brown animal was small, with extremely short fur and when the two of them actually managed to catch the thing they found out it had a curiously squashed looking face and large soulful brown eyes.
His grandmother thankfully kept the teasing to herself when they popped up to show her their latest find. She simply accepted the puppy from them and examined it like everything else they'd ever presented her with, though she DID have an amused glint in her eyes that Obito pretended not to notice. "It's a boy dog, a pug." His grandmother noted, brushing an ever-gentle hand over an extremely soft ear, "And look here, he belongs to someone. His fur is clean, his claws are trimmed and he's very healthy. See how bright his eyes are? And pink his gums are? Very well taken care of, I bet someone must be missing him very much right now, why don't the two of you see if you can find his owners?"
"Yeah!" Rin enthused, jumping up from her seated position, "It'll be like a mission! Like mama and papa! It'll be like playing ninja but BETTER because we have a mission to complete!"
They asked for information about a possible owner around the Uchiha district first.
Obito couldn't imagine his stuffy older cousins keeping a puppy of all things but he'd wanted to cover all of his bases just in case one of them turned out to be like his grandmother. Who secretly-not-so-secretly loved all things small and cute. Every lesson his grandmother had given him in interrogation and detecting deception was put into practice. In the end all that was revealed was that a surprisingly larger amount of his cousins than he initially thought were inclined towards cute things. A few were raising goldfish, some had a parrots they swore up and down were nin-animals. There was a cluster of older Uchiha that fed pigeons every morning and while there was a cousin of his that kept picking up stray animals off the street, he also anonymously dropped them off almost immediately afterwards at the Inuzuka clan shelter.
Not a single person in his clan seemed to be secretly keeping a puppy.
Obito was convinced they'd have been able to find out more if he'd been allowed to continue with the search but his clan head found them. The man had scruffed them and tossed them unceremoniously out of the district upon witnessing them trying to get one of his elder cousins to fess up and told them not to come back until they'd 'Worked the idiocy out of their system'.
"Bet he wouldn't be so grumpy if he DID have a puppy." he grumbled darkly, rubbing his bruised rump. "Poor pup, pity he doesn't have a collar."
They gave the puppy a good scratch after checking. The lovable thing was safe and thankfully unharmed from their impromptu tumble, and was more than happy to sit in Rin's arms as they broadened their search for an owner outside of the Uchiha district, wagging its curly little tail the whole time. It was fine with being handed from person to person as evidenced by the tongue lolling happily out of his mouth and the way it licked at their fingers when they pet him.
None of the stores selling pet supplies knew of the puppy or its owner and none of the passing villagers did either. A trip to the Inuzuka Clan kennel and they were told that the puppy wasn't one of theirs either, or a stray.
"Keep looking, I'm sure you'll find the owner." a grinning Inuzuka suggested, her voice deepening into a cackle. "I'll be sure to take good care of him if you can't find the owner by the end of the day."
Obito and Rin scampered. The offer had been too readily given, and there had been a wicked edge of unholy amusement to her laughter. Rin hugged the puppy protectively to her chest, stared back at the woman now waving cheerfully at them from the doors and Obito was reminded of the thinly veiled amusement in his grandmother's eyes.
"Do you get the feeling that we're missing something?" his friend asked.
"… kind of like we're not getting part of a really funny joke? Yeah." Obito grumped, taking the young pug from Rin and gave it his best stare-down. He couldn't see the thing that was so funny about the dog that his grandmother and the Inuzuka had seen, not even after a really thorough examination. The puppy was clean and well fed, with no fleas or ticks and it looked, smelled and reacted like any other dog he'd ever seen. Pinning it with a suspicious squint he kept up the stare-down and got a lick to the face for his efforts, with more tongue lolling for good measure.
Relinquishing the dog to Rin so he could wipe his face with the edge of a sleeve Obito made a face at her giggles and threw his hands up. "You got any other ideas? I got nothing." He admitted, keeping a side-eye on the dog the whole while. Only two of the adults had made any sort of indication that the dog had something funny going on with it but that was two adults too many, especially if his grandmother was one of them. Though the fact that his grandmother WAS one of them was the only reason he wasn't too suspicious of it. She'd never have let him walk off with it if the dog had been anything other than harmless.
Rin's parents, both of them medics that worked at the hospital during the day, had the same amused reaction. Though their reaction was more bite-your-lips-don't-laugh, than every other reaction they'd gotten.
"You should let him go Rin-chan, I'm sure he'd find his own way home." Nohara Ren, Rin's father, encouraged. The man's face visibly twitched with the suppressed urge to laugh while Rin's mother, Nohara Miina turned her laughter into coughs she forcibly directed into her elbow. By the end of the day neither Obito nor Rin could ignore it.
"Okay, fess up! There's no way you're a regular dog! A normal puppy would have been whining for food by now!" Obito declared, pointing a finger down on the dog he'd taken from Rin and planted on a bench.
"You're too calm!" Rin added, standing shoulder to shoulder with him and joining in on the stare-down. "We noticed all the adults, game over!"
The puppy sat down and offered them a paw.
Obito wavered for a moment as those brown eyes turned soft and soulful, more innocently adorable and—
—Jumped so hard he felt like he might have left his skin behind. Snatching his hand back from where he'd been about to accept the puppy's paw Obito skittered backwards and hauled a just as startled Rin behind him as someone leaped out of the bushes to their left.
The boy who'd leapt out of the bushes looked like he'd been dragged backwards through a few other bushes before choosing the one he'd just come out of. He had sticks, bits of grass and leaves stuck to his wild grey hair and his clothes had seen better days. They were all scratched up and dirty, all the way from the half-mask he was wearing to the tangled scarf around his neck and the baggy shirt and shorts he was wearing. Overall he looked like he'd waged a war on the forest and had lost miserably.
The puppy Rin and Obito had been fussing over and petting all day blew a razz at the new arrival and vanished in a cloud of clean grey smoke.
Black eyes pinned Obito in place with a glare so fierce that it could have come directly from one of his many cousins and shifted over his shoulder to share it with Rin, who he still had shielded behind him. "Why did you interrupt our training?!" The boy snapped, irritation clear in every line of his body. "I had to chase you all over Konoha!"
"T— training?" Obito stuttered.
The boy was silent for a long moment and eyed the two of them up and down. Obito caught the curl of a sneer, barely visible though the contours of his mask as the other turned away in dismissal. "Never mind, I don't want to hear it. I have to get back to training. Unlike some people I don't have a lot of free time." he snorted in derision and then left as abruptly as he'd arrived.
"Did he just—" Obito grit his teeth together and breathed out through his nose, clenching and unclenching his fist as a lick of pure fury lit to life inside him.
"Obito— I think that was his s-summons animal! No wonder everyone was laughing at us!" Rin moaned around her hands and crouched to the ground in embarrassment, looking like she wanted the ground to open up and eat her.
When he brought the question to her, Obito's grandmother laughed long and she laughed hard. Harder than that one time she came back from the meeting with the clan head. This time though Obito knew she was laughing at him, or rather the situation he'd so trustingly walked into, and he wasn't finding her amusement quite as charming as he did back then.
He had been utterly blindsided. Not just at the fact that innocent looking animals could apparently be summoned out of thin air and could vanish the same way, but by the fact that that almost everything in his life could somehow be tied to the way of ninja life. The games he played with his grandmother and cousins, matching the way they folded their hands together. The group stretches everyone in the clan did every morning and afternoon. The 'adventure' books he read, which were apparently cleverly disguised history books and even the herbal mixes he'd helped his grandmother make since he was old enough to lift a mortar and pestle and not immediately put everything in his mouth.
His grandmother was a wolf in disguise and he hadn't noticed till she'd let her fangs show. He was apparently old enough now not to be 'coddled' anymore and it seemed like she'd been waiting for this exact moment for the last five years. His grandmother had been raising him in preparation to become a ninja. Like she had with her son, his father, and he hadn't noticed until he'd literally been slapped in the face with it.
She had already enrolled him in the Academy, he would be starting in a week and... there was already a boy his age who knew how to summon animals out of thin air. Obito was going to be so far behind the learning curve—
"Oh my god, why didn't you warn me!" he shrieked, scrambling into his shoes and barely waiting until he had them completely on as he bolted for the Clan library.
His grandmother's laughter could he heard almost the whole way there.