He Nearly Killed the Cat
The Enemy Revealed
"What happens to the people in this world?" Harry asked, looking up at Danger. "Won't they notice if I disappear?"
"That's why Ginny came to get you so early in the morning." Danger winked. "If worlds can be separated, they can also be merged, can't they? Only when they're alike enough that no one will notice it, though, or at least that's how we do things." She scowled briefly. "Not like some others I could name. But in any case, all we have to do is find the world that's just like this one, except that Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley are still fast asleep in Gryffindor Tower…"
"And just…" Harry interlaced his fingers. "Like that?"
"A bit more complicated than that, but not by much." Danger nodded. "And anyone who was awake to see you two leaving the castle will think it was a dream, or a trick of the eye, because when they go to look, there Harry and Ginny will be, exactly as they should." Her tender smile returned. "And in the meantime, you'll be with us. Exactly as you should."
"And we get to make a difference in a lot of people's lives, but quietly. Without people making a big fuss over us, sometimes without them noticing us at all." As he spoke, Harry regarded the two adult witches in the portrait. One of them was clearly Danger, while the other, regal in the green robes of a full Healer and handlinked with Sirius, could be no one but Meghan's mother—Aletha, his mind supplied, Letha to us, and to most people really. And we call Sirius Padfoot because that's what we could say when we were babies, and—
"Wait," he said in confusion, his mind finally catching up with the implications of the sandy-haired man who stood beside Danger in the portrait, his face less lined than Harry had been used to seeing it and his expression knowing, even faintly possessive. "But he—but you—but Tonks—"
"Was nine years old when he and I were married," Danger supplied smoothly. "You said yourself it didn't seem fair to make him wait so very long to be happy."
"Well, yes, but…" Harry stopped, shaking his head. Even if I did decide to stay behind, nothing would ever be the same now, would it? I'd always have this somewhere in the back of my mind, and I'd always wonder…
"Are dreams always like this?" he asked after a few moments of thought. "You think you want them, and you chase after them for a long time, and when you finally catch up with them, they're something entirely different from what you thought—or they're exactly what you thought, but you've changed so much that you don't want them anymore?"
"Not always. But that's how you tell the truest dreams, the ones you give your whole life to, from the ones that aren't so true." Danger blew on her picture, shimmering it to pieces. "Because the truest dreams are the ones that stay true even in the having, and give you new dreams to chase as part of them. Does this mean you've decided, or just that you want to talk about philosophy?"
Harry was taking a breath to speak his decision aloud, to make it irrevocable, when a burst of laughter and chatter startled him into a jump. Danger muttered something under her breath, then sighed and got to her feet with a smile, facing the oncoming crowd. "All right," she said, hands on her hips, "who's first?"
Backing away a few steps, Harry watched the group mill around, feeling the balance in his mind begin to slide back from the verge of decision. What Danger had offered was attractive, certainly, but if fighting a war taught one nothing else, it hammered home the lesson that everything came at a cost. Battles won and objectives captured had to be weighed against blood spilled, wounds taken, friends (and enemies) lying still and cold and shrunken into themselves, never to rise again. Even wizard's chess, with its stylized stony violence, was scant preparation for the reality.
If I say yes to this, if I take them all at their word and go with them, what am I losing? He fingered the mokeskin pouch which still hung around his neck, thinking of the shard of mirror, the treasured letter, the now-emptied Snitch, the so-recently-repaired wand now resident in his pocket, all of them emblematic of some painful price, whether paid by him or by another. Who's paying what for this to be real?
One trade-off was easy even for him to see. If he went with these people, left what Danger had called Inner Time, he would leave behind his own friends, the people he'd fought and bled beside. They might, as he'd been so blithely assured, never know the difference—
But what about me?
His eyes roved over the crowd, picking out faces and features he knew, comparing them to the people he knew still slept in the castle behind him. Ron and Hermione were the easiest to find, as both of them looked a great deal like the pair who had walked with him to Gryffindor Tower the day before, but even they were not identical to their counterparts. Tiny hints of bearing and expression, little quirks missing or magnified, hinted at the differences he couldn't see.
This Ron, Harry decided after several moments of watching, moved and held himself with an air of confidence, almost of maturity, which his own world's Ron might develop more fully in a few years but had only in its earliest stages today. Any questions the young man in front of him had about his particular identity and his world's need for him as an individual had long since been put to rest.
He always wanted to be more than just "the youngest Weasley" or "Harry Potter's friend", and now he is. A smile tugged at one corner of his mouth, mingled happiness and pride in this new manifestation of Ron. I don't know what he's found to be or do, but whatever it is, it suits him.
Hermione, for her part, seemed to have found an inner peace and tranquility, an ability to take life as it came, which was a refreshing change from the constant twitchy anxiety about being the best and achieving the most which Harry was used to seeing in her. He thought the changes on both parts might have something to do with the settled ease with which a broad hand, marked with Keeper's calluses, twined around a smaller, more delicate one.
Guess some things really don't change.
Nor, Harry could admit inside his own mind, would it be difficult to get used to his friends without the endless fretting about being "good enough" that Voldemort's locket had attempted to exploit in Ron, or Hermione's impossibly high standards and her determination that he and Ron also live up to them. It wasn't that he'd ever wished they would change to make his life easier, not exactly…
A real friend accepts people the way they are. But that doesn't mean you have to be blind to the annoying things they do, or deny that they're annoying. The smile went after the other corner of his mouth this time. Unless anyone else calls them on it. Then you defend them as far as you possibly can, and tell the other person it's none of their damn business when you're stuck for an answer.
In any case, his friends hadn't changed because Harry had asked them to—they'd changed to suit themselves, or to suit one another if Harry was any judge, which in the long term would add up to about the same thing.
And really? All they've done is grow up. Put aside being childish, because there isn't time for it anymore. Other than that, they're the same as they ever were. Both sides of his mouth worked in unison now, echoing the lightening of his heart as he came to his conclusion. I can live with that.
Ginny slipped out of the group, bumping her brother's elbow affectionately with her shoulder in passing, and came to him, looking searchingly at his face. "You look like you've made up your mind," she said, her voice hovering between statement and question.
"Almost." Harry frowned as he watched the swirl of faces and forms, not finding two that he had expected from the portrait Danger had shown him. "Aren't there some people missing? Shouldn't…" It was harder than he had thought it would be, to speak the wish aloud. "Shouldn't Sirius be here? And Lupin?"
"One of them is." Ginny pointed, and Harry snorted a laugh in spite of himself as he caught sight of the bear-like dog leaning on Danger's legs, looking up at her soulfully while she rubbed his ears with a tender smile. "And the other one would be, but it's too dangerous for him to cross into this world right now. His bond with Danger is… strained, I guess you'd say, and they're not sure how it would react if he stepped back into Inner Time, especially a world where his counterpart just died. I'm sure he's watching—he can probably see and hear everything we're doing—but no one wants to take unnecessary chances. Not this close…"
This close to having everyone together again, Harry finished mentally when Ginny trailed off. This close to having what they want.
Having what I want.
Because I do want it.
The wish might have been hard to voice, but it was startlingly easy to think. It helped that he'd been able to admit the abstract desire to Ginny before being confronted with the concrete reality, he thought, but whatever the reasoning, he was finally prepared to commit himself.
I walked into death with my eyes wide open, and it was the hardest thing I've ever done. This… this is walking into life, instead. The smile returned, more twisted than before. Stands to reason it's even harder. But I've made up my mind and I'm not about to go back on it, not when it really is everything I've ever wanted…
"Which way do we go?" he asked quietly, reaching for Ginny's hand. "To get to this Outer Time, I mean."
Ginny caught her breath sharply once, and her fingers contracted around Harry's, but her voice, when she spoke, trembled only with joy. "They'll show us. As soon as we let them know we've decided. Which…?" She gave the word an upward, questioning twist.
"Yeah, I meant it," Harry confirmed, looking down at her with a grin which, for the first time in longer than he wanted to remember, felt not in the least bit forced. "Want to tell them together?"
"Yes, please." Ginny shut her eyes for a moment, as though holding back tears, then opened them, grinning up at him with a wicked twist that made Harry just as happy her mother wouldn't be around in Outer Time. "They've been waiting for us, you know. To say the words and do the deeds." She tapped the base of his left ring finger suggestively. "We can be any age we need to, once we're sealed to the domain, and promises matter there just like they do here. Probably more."
"Promises matter?" Harry said, glancing up as Danger emerged from the crowd, slipping to one edge of the clearing. A shimmer in the air nearby took on the shape of a slender man as she approached it. His sand-brown hair was shot with gray, one hand was raised as though he leaned against a window, and he stared down at Danger with such love and longing Harry could almost feel it. "Like that one?"
"Exactly like that one." Ginny blinked hard as Danger lifted her own hand, pressing it against an insubstantial patch of air on the other side of the nonexistent pane of glass which separated her from her mate. "I don't know how she did it. Being alone for so long, never having any idea where he was, or if they would ever see each other again…"
"She trusted him to find her." Harry drew Ginny closer to him and slid his arm around her shoulders, squeezing her against his side. "And he trusted her, to be strong and to never stop believing she'd be found. If she'd been the one out there in Outer Time, she would have found him too, wouldn't she?"
Ginny nodded. "And they both had to be strong another way, too," she said, swallowing before she went on. "She had to be the last one they came for, because… well, Harry, because of you. Whoever did this to us, they put the two of you in this world together to balance out something. I'm not quite sure what it is, but you and Danger share some kind of strength that would have given them trouble if they separated you. And because you're so central to the story this world tells, it would resist strongly if our friends tried to come for you before it was over. So they had to wait to come for you, and that meant waiting for Danger too." She sighed deeply. "I could wish all I saw was how romantic it is, because it is romantic. But I keep thinking about how painful it must have been, and how hard."
"Isn't that part of romance too?" Harry caught a bit of Ginny's hair between his fingers and slid them down its length. "Breaking down any obstacle, living through any pain, to be with each other again? Being ready to do anything for the other person, even the hardest and most important things there are?" He felt her going still against his side as his words sank in. "Like making the big promises, the ones that matter," he finished, glancing down at her. "Making them, and then keeping them. Forever." He allowed himself a grin. "Isn't that what you meant?"
"Yes, but I guess I'm just old-fashioned some ways." Ginny leaned back against his arm, her expression deceptively demure. "I want you to ask me, not the other way around."
"But it's perfectly all right for you to ask me to ask you?" Harry frowned. "How does that work?"
"It's a girl thing, you wouldn't understand." Ginny waved an airy hand. "Are you going to get to it sometime today or what?"
"For that, I might not get to it at all," Harry mock-threatened, and felt Ginny's shoulders quiver in the laugh which meant he had fooled her not one bit. "All right, all right, fine. Do you want me to do the pose and everything, then?"
"That's up to you, though I can't say I'd mind." Ginny had dropped her teasing tone now, though her eyes were still sparkling. "I don't think any girl would, really."
"Maybe someday I'll test that out. Kidding," Harry added quickly as Ginny stiffened against him. "I was kidding. Let me see here…" Disengaging from Ginny but reclaiming her hand in the process, he dropped to one knee, looking up at her, hearing the soft gasps and squeals from their spectators and feeling the power building in the clearing as his intentions became clear. "Ginny Weasley," he said, squeezing her hand slightly, "will you—"
After nearly a year of war, some instincts were ingrained too deeply to lose overnight. Harry yanked on Ginny's hand instead of finishing his sentence, catching her on his free arm as she stumbled forward, then lowering her swiftly to the ground and shielding her body with his own. The sound, behind them, of eight or ten other people also diving for cover or to shelter others was all but obliterated by a rising shriek of wind, accompanied by a rumble of thunder and the sudden darkening of the day.
This cannot be good…
"Well, well, well," drawled a cool voice. Harry gritted his teeth, fighting the feeling that he ought to be able to name its owner. "Look what the cat dragged in." The voice snickered once in appreciation of its own humor. "Such a clever little kitty it is, finding everything I'd been so careful to hide. Or was I careful after all?" The sarcasm in the voice, already heavy, redoubled itself. "I suppose it never occurred to you that I might have wanted you to find them—because once you found them, I could find you, and crush your unnatural, pathetic, sappy little Pack in its entirety, once and for all?"
A snarling hiss ripped the air in answer. Harry, looking up, was unsurprised to see Hermione's face twisted in fury, her fingers crooked as though she longed to sprout claws and tear at her enemy.
Tear his mask off, maybe. The man who stood between two trees at the edge of the clearing, his face covered with black cloth so that only the vaguest outlines of features were perceptible, was perhaps an inch or two taller than Harry himself, though what should have been the slender elegance of his frame was slightly marred by a hint of a developing paunch. He wore finely-cut robes and leather gloves of the same shade of black as his mask, effectively cutting off all points of recognition other than his figure and voice.
But I can't help feeling like those should be enough…
"Wait a minute here," said a deep voice whose owner could not possibly be as calm as he sounded, and Sirius Black, human once more, pushed himself to his feet, brushing bits of twig off his own robes. "You want me to believe that you sat back and watched us find each other just so you could come in here and swat us all at once?" He snorted and shook his head, rather like his dog form on discovering something foul enough that he didn't care to investigate it further. "Talk about making it harder on yourself than it had to be!"
"This is true," added Aletha, rising to stand beside her husband, then lifting her daughter up beside her. "If it was our Neenie you wanted, you've had plenty of chances to take her. She's been active in several different Inner Times, all of which you'd already touched yourself. So you ought to have been able to find her and bring all this power of yours to bear." She bent again, this time giving Neville a hand up. "Which, yes, I do feel, and it's very neat, the way you've sealed us off from Outer Time. Though I have to wonder how long you think it will last against all of us."
"As long as it needs to." Their enemy's sneer was audible in his voice. "As for why I did what I did, that's no concern of yours. Why don't you spend a little time thinking about how much I'm going to enjoy watching all of you be rehabilitated into your proper selves? Permanently, this time, with no clever little Legendbreaker to come riding to the rescue?"
Harry sucked in a quiet breath as the venom in the voice finally identified it for him. Turning his body so that his right side was shielded by Ginny's still-recumbent form, he slowly drew his wand. It's possible he's shielded, but most shields only block hostile spells, and this one's about as un-threatening as it's possible for a spell to be. Not to mention, so basic he may not have thought to block it out…
"You know, I've been thinking about you some," said a cool, clear tenor, and a boy who resembled Hermione rose to his feet. He was very nearly the same height as the man he faced across the few feet of forest clearing, and his voice held similar notes of disdain and disapproval, but his diction was clearer, more crisp and precise, and he had the physique of an acrobat or a dancer, long and lean without an ounce of excess fat.
Or a Quidditch star. One who's still playing, who's making sure to keep himself in form.
Rising to one knee, keeping an eye on the matched pair, Harry ran over his movements in his mind. He had known this spell literally since his first year, but he was only going to get one shot at it.
"Thinking about me?" their enemy repeated slowly. "Should I be flattered?"
"Probably not." The younger man folded his arms, leaning back on his heel. "Since what I was thinking was that we'd been hit by someone whose basic personality trait seems to be incompetence. I mean, really. How hard would it be to make sure that everyone you want to get—especially since you seem to have a particular vendetta against my lovely twin, here—" He helped Hermione up, squeezing her hand before he released it. "—is actually home when you make your first strike?"
A low growl emerged from behind the mask. The young man raised one brown eyebrow and continued. "Truth hurts, doesn't it? Face it, man, you missed your primary target entirely, floundered around causing loads of damage to people who were barely involved in what I think you're trying to do, and wrapped up—assuming I'm identifying you correctly here, which I'm fairly sure I am—by causing yourself more problems than you solved. Including, in your case, actually sparking off your own personal experiences with Outer Time." He smirked, the expression naggingly familiar. "I may not be as familiar with this ridge as some, but to me, that sounds a lot like—"
Wingardium Leviosa, Harry enunciated clearly in his mind, executing a textbook swish and flick in the direction of their enemy's mask. The man yelped and tried to clutch at the fabric as it obediently levitated, following the line of Harry's wand, but it was already too late.
"Draco Malfoy," Ginny growled, her lips curling back from her teeth. "I should have known…"
Would you agree with her? And did you know it too? More about the hints that were dropped, none of them quite anvil-sized but some of them surprisingly large, next chapter! Also my apologies, as always, for making you wait so long… work is not my friend sometimes.
More very soon, since I've already got it started and work currently is my friend, to say nothing of how behind I am on my NaNo… I'm cheating terribly on that, you know, but words are words, and I think you're all happier to have them to read sooner rather than later…
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