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"You're welcome." Ginny arched her back, stretching. "So now that you have all the people around you that you want, what is it that you're going to do? I know you, Harry, and you wouldn't be happy just sitting in the sunlight. Not for long."

Harry chuckled at the thought. "Definitely not. I'd go mad within a week. And then I'd run around howling like a wolf and drive everyone else mad." He howled once or twice under his breath to demonstrate, making Ginny giggle. "No, you're right. I'd need something to do. Something that mattered, something important."

"Auror work?" Ginny offered. "I know that's what you told Professor McGonagall when you went for your career advice session."

"It is, but…" Harry ran his lip through his teeth, trying to get his thoughts to solidify into words. "Stopping Dark wizards before they hurt people is the kind of thing I want to do, but if I could have exactly what I want—which I can, I know, it's in the rules," he added before Ginny could, "I'd want to do it more…quietly, I guess. Secretly. I've had my fill of being the hero on a pedestal that everyone is supposed to look up to and admire."

"I always wondered about putting people on pedestals." Ginny shaped one with her hands. "How are you supposed to get any work done way up there?"

"You're not," Harry said sourly. "Just preen and primp and take your bows, like Lockhart used to do. Malfoy would be better at that part of it than I would." He snickered. "Which is probably what he'd end up doing, if he did get that second chance. He'd be the visible hero, the one all the girls coo over. Sign the autographs, shake the hands, pose for pictures, and meanwhile, the rest of us can get the real work done—"

He broke off as a scuffle erupted in the underbrush beside him, and a tricolored cat shot out of the thicket with her tail bushed out in alarm, a brown fox with enormous ears a step and a half behind, teeth bared. The cat bounded up to Ginny and leapt for her arms, and Ginny caught her deftly and stroked her head. "You know better than that," she said sternly to the fox, who had pulled up short of the rock and was now sitting beside it, whining. "Biting's only allowed if it wasn't true."

Harry stared at the two animals, then at the doe, who had raised her head to survey these newcomers with her mild gray—gray?—eyes. The blurring along her side was still there, shimmering now, as he watched, into the form of something like a monkey or ape, except that its fur was the silver-white color of moonlight reflected on water…

Or my Invisibility Cloak. Demiguise, that's what it's called, Hagrid showed us one once…

The snowy owl spread her wings and glided down to the ground within the clearing, landing neatly beside the fox and reaching over to preen one of its ears with her beak. The hawk ruffled up its feathers, then followed, soaring down towards Ginny, who unconcernedly extended her arm to provide it with a perch. "Good morning, featherhead," she said, stroking the top of its beak with a finger. "I'm glad to see you made it out all right."

"Made it out—Ginny, what is this?" Harry was on his feet, automatically feeling for his wand, his shoulders rising into the proper position for a quick draw. "What's going on?"

"What you asked for." Ginny guided the cat onto her shoulders, then stood up, depositing the hawk on a convenient branch beside her. "What you just told me you wanted. You can have it, Harry, you can have all of it—"

"At what price?" Harry shot back. "What is it you want me to do, or not do? Who are you, really?"

"I can't blame you for being suspicious, Harry, but it's not like that." Ginny looked him square in the eye, her brown irises untouched with so much as a hint of red. "I am Ginny Weasley, and I'm the same person I was yesterday and the day before, when I fought with you against Voldemort. I've just been given a gift, and the ability to offer that same gift to you. And the only price is…" She shrugged. "To do what you'd like to do in any case. To live, and be yourself, and do and have everything you've just told me you want most. To be happy, Harry. Really and truly happy. Is it so hard to believe that could happen to you?"

"In a word? Yes." Harry backed up a pace or two, getting his shoulders against a tree, keeping the animals in sight as though they were a party of Death Eaters. "Rules or no rules, some of the things I was talking about can't happen. Magic can't bring back the dead, and it can't turn back time—"

"I know that, Harry, but you don't understand—"

"All right, that will do," said a new voice. Harry and Ginny whipped around in unison to face the speaker.

She stood at the edge of the clearing, hands on her robed hips, looking them both up and down. Her face held a tolerant amusement Harry associated with Hermione, whom this witch strongly resembled, though she looked the age of a Hogwarts teacher rather than a student. The fox at Ginny's feet yipped joyfully and bounded towards her, the tricolored cat slithering down from Ginny's shoulders to follow, purring so loudly Harry could hear it from his place across the clearing. The witch knelt to caress both animals, giving them her entire attention for a moment, then looked back up at Harry and Ginny. "Are you both quite finished?" she inquired.

"I suppose I'd better be." Ginny sat back down on her rock limply. "I'm sorry, Danger, I must not have done it right, but I didn't think it would be this hard, this complicated…"

"Consider how strange the truth really sounds sometimes," the witch—Danger? Harry wondered, and found himself speculating on how one achieved such a nickname—said with a chuckle. "Shall I have a go, and you spend a little time with everyone?"

"If you would." Ginny sighed. "I don't know why I thought this would be easy, nothing with Harry involved ever is…"

Harry was about to protest, but the justice of this observation stopped him before he could speak. He decided instead to watch and think.

Something very strange is going on here. That was obvious, or should have been, he now realized, from the moment they had entered the Forest. It abounded in animals, but they generally stayed away from humans rather than swarming around them as the odd assortment of creatures was now doing with Ginny, escorting her out of the clearing.

It doesn't seem to be involved with Voldemort. His mental emphasis on the third word of the sentence was heavy, but as Sirius had once told him, the world wasn't divided into good people and Death Eaters. To be fair, he'd have to consider the possibility that this particular type of strangeness might be, if not entirely benign, at least not actively evil.

But it does seem to be involved with…well, me. He had to stifle a laugh as Ginny's words recurred to him. And when was the last time my life was simple?

"Well, then," said the witch named Danger, bringing Harry back to the present. She was sitting on the same rock where Ginny had been a few moments before, watching him with a patient smile which blended Harry's earlier thoughts of Hermione with memories of Mrs. Weasley in one of her calmer moods. "What is it you'd like most to know, Harry? You can ask me anything you like. Any question at all."

Any question…any question… A number of them wrestled within his mind, stretching and shoving to be the first one out of his mouth. The winner, when it finally emerged, turned out to be, "What's really going on here?"

"Really going on?" Danger raised an eyebrow. "You don't pick the easy ones, do you? But then you never did." She shifted on her rock, clasping her hands across her knee. "Will you forgive me if I start with 'Once upon a time'?"

"As long as you do start."

"Touché." She laughed softly through the word. "All right, then. Once upon a time, in a land very much like this one, there lived a young man very much like you. He had your name and your face, and he began in the same place that you did. But shortly after a certain event…" She brushed a finger across her forehead. "Things started to change for him."

"But that wasn't anything to do with him," Harry objected. "He was just a baby then."

"True, but that wouldn't matter to his enemies. And by that I don't mean the one you know most about, the one you've just finished battling with." Danger curled her lip. "I could wish it were so easy. Not to disrespect what you've done, but these enemies are more numerous, more widespread, and far, far more devious and underhanded. Their goal is…" She frowned. "How shall I say it? They believe that only one set of choices can or ever should be valid. Those ideas you were discussing with your friend a few minutes ago? They would be horrified that you so much as thought those things. And if, by some chance, they should ever find a world where those things were real…"

"A world?" said Harry, confused. "How can there be more than one?"

"Don't you live in two yourself?" Danger laid her hands atop each other. "One Muggle, the other magical? It isn't quite the same, but it's a place to start understanding. Doesn't the life you used to have, before your eleventh birthday, sometimes feel distant and unreal? Almost as though it happened to someone else, as though you only saw it in a film or read about it in a book?" She looked him directly in the eye. "Or as if it were a dream."

Slowly, Harry nodded.

"And you can imagine what your life might have been if your birthday hadn't happened the way that it did. Think about it, talk about it, dream about it even. Or about the life you might have had if that other particular event had happened another way." Once again, she tapped her forehead. "Or, to come back to cases, if certain things had happened a few months later than that. If one or two people had existed, and had spoken to other people about things they saw and knew. The world would be very different, wouldn't it?"

"Of course it would, but what does that have to do with there being more than one world?" Harry began. "Unless…" He stopped, blinking, as the connection crashed over him. "There is more than one, isn't there? There must be hundreds. Thousands, even. And they're all different. Because something happened differently in every one."

"Very good!" Danger applauded softly. "We'll make a scholar of you yet."

"So everything I said, everything that I wanted…" Harry spoke as the thoughts came to him, listening to his own words with wonder. "It's real somewhere? Or it could be?"

"It was." Bowing her head, Danger sighed. "It was, once. And somewhere it still is. But not for me, and not for you, I'm afraid. Not ever again."

"Because of your enemies." That much, Harry understood perfectly. "They came in and destroyed things, because they didn't like the way it was going. Because they…didn't like that people were happy?" It was a guess, but he thought a fair one, given everything else under discussion.

"Not exactly, but close." Danger picked up a stick and began to scratch in the dirt, creating an abstract design of squares and circles surrounding her feet. "What they didn't like was that it was different. There's one particular way they believe that things should go in this world, with someone like you as the hero, and they don't care if changes make things better or worse or exactly the same except that one person's clothing is red or yellow instead of green. If it's different than the way things are written, they want it destroyed. Put back to the way it 'ought to be'."

"So is that what happened to me?" Harry could feel his heart beginning to pound, his chest tightening as it had two nights before when he had faced what he thought would be his death. "Was I 'put back'? Was none of this real, just a dream or a story or something?" An even more disquieting thought occurred. "Or am I going to be? Were things supposed to be worse than this? More people dying, or taking longer to work everything out, or—"

"No, no, nothing like that!" Danger held up her hands, shaking her head with a smile. "No, the way you've just come is the 'right' one. The known one, the one that's expected and 'proper'." Her quotes, though invisible, were venomous. "But as for what happened to you, that's a bit harder. Your question about things being real is a very good one, and I want to give it the right answer. You see, you were 'put back' to this world…but that doesn't mean it's not real."

Harry scowled. "Thanks, that makes everything clear as mud."

"And just how well would you do explaining the inner workings of a spell to a thorough-going Muggle?" Danger retorted. "Give me a chance, here!" She pursed her lips, thinking. "Tell me this. Can you remember having a different life than this one? Even just a little?"

About to say no, Harry stopped. I came up with all those ideas for Ginny awfully fast. And I feel like I already know how much better my life would be if they were true"Maybe a little. Bits and pieces."

"And the people in that life. Do you think you cared about them?"

"Unless I'm remembering it all wrong, they were mostly the same as the people I care about now. So yes."

"And there you have it." Danger spread her hands. "You cared about people there, but you also care about people here. You love them, and they love you. Which means both worlds are real."

"Love matters that much?" Harry glanced back in the direction he'd seen the shadow that reminded him of Sirius. "Why?"

"Because love is the most potent form of belief." Danger laid a fist gently against her heart. "And in every world where magic is operant, the most important element is belief."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked, though an idea was already poking its hand up in the back of his mind, based on Danger's qualifier. Every world where magic is operant…so if it was the sort of place the Muggles think this world is, one with no magic at all, maybe the rules are different

"Think about a Muggleborn coming to Hogwarts for the first time. When he shouts 'Up!' to his broom for the first time, what happens?" Danger extended her hand, palm down, like her hypothetical student. "Or most of the time, what doesn't happen?"

"The broom doesn't 'up,'" recalled Harry from his first flying lesson, thinking of Hermione and Neville. "Because he doesn't really believe that it will. So…belief is fundamental to magic?"

"Precisely." Danger smiled. "And what's easier to believe in than a story? Especially a really good story, with heroes you want to cheer for and villains you love to hate? Only we know that no one's ever completely good or evil, so we want to see as many sides of everybody in the story as they're willing to show us. And if there's a nice love interest somewhere in there, so much the better, because anyone who hasn't been crossed in love herself wants to see the boy and the girl get each other and live happily ever after."

"But…" Harry paused after the word, frowning. There seemed to be a point missing. "What is happily ever after?" he asked after a moment. "Or—is that what Ginny was trying to get me to find out, asking all those questions?"

"Gold star for you." Danger nodded firmly. "Everyone has his own, or her own, happily ever after. And you've come to a point, just now, where yours could be one of two things. So here it is, in plainest language. If you truly meant what you said yesterday, if you're tired of trouble and strife and fighting and everything that goes with it, then you can close your eyes and wish us all away, and away we'll go, no questions asked. You'll wake up in your own bed, and you might remember that you had an odd dream about walking and talking with Ginny, but it will fade as you prepare for the day, the way dreams do, until you don't remember it at all. You'll go on with your life, and you'll have your friends and eventually your family, and you'll be ordinary and contented as long as you live. Not a bad reward for a hero."

Harry considered this. It's what I want, he tried to remind himself. What I've always wanted. Only…

"Or?" he said when his thoughts refused to travel past the mental ellipsis.

"Or you can take what we're offering." Danger blew into her cupped palms, then turned her hands outward with a spreading motion and a slight laugh. "Have a look."

A panorama of impossible worlds spread before Harry's astonished eyes. Here, a castle sitting firmly on star-studded space; there, a pair of towers connected at the top by a slender bridge; in another place, a cottage in a wood, tantalizingly, impossibly familiar, with three or four figures moving about it in comfortable, domestic patterns…

"This is what we call Outer Time," said Danger, breaking into his reverie. "It's our home base, our planning space. We rest there and recuperate, between missions."

"Missions?" Harry asked warily, looking at her from the corner of his eye. "If you're looking for another hero—"

"We are, yes, but not a destined or prophesied one this time." Danger flicked her fingers, making the scene vanish. "As you've rightly said, Harry, you never had a choice before, so here it is. Your chance to choose. You can stay in this world, this piece of Inner Time, and live out your life happily. Or you can come to Outer Time, and make a difference in untold numbers of lives. You see…" She sighed. "It may be cheating to tell you this, but it's a fact, and you ought to know it before you decide." Her lip caught between her lower teeth as she pondered her choice of words. "You're not the only one," she said at last. "You never have been."

"The only one of what?" Harry's hand rose, without his conscious volition, to touch his scar. "Living Hor—"

"No, no, not that," Danger disclaimed hastily. "Or…well, no and yes. You're the only one here. In this world, this place, this time. But there's the rub…because as you worked out for yourself a little while ago, this world isn't all there is. Not even close. There are hundreds, thousands, millions of worlds out there. And somewhere in almost all of them is a child like you once were. A child caught up in something much bigger than he is, forced into a fate she doesn't want. You see, the destined, reluctant hero is one of the easiest figures to identify with, the easiest to care about. The easiest to believe in. Do you understand?"

"Because it's believed in…it happens?" Harry hazarded. "It happens over and over, because people want it to be that way?"

"Precisely." Danger sat back, her hands clasped around her knee once again. "Which is where we come in. We can't change the fact that there are heroes, but we can change what makes a hero. What's around them, what's expected of them, what and who they're believed to be and do and require. Alter the ideas. Twist the myths." She smirked briefly. "Break the legends."

Harry debated asking why this was funny, but decided the question could wait. "What do you twist and break them into?" he asked instead. "What kind of changes do you make?"

"You hit on the most important part of our particular mission yourself." Danger repeated her earlier action with hands and breath, this time creating the image of what appeared to be a formal portrait. "We feel it's most important to give heroes families. People they can trust, people they can depend on. Not to the point of helplessness, but with the understanding that most things in life don't have to be done alone."

Leaning forward, Harry peered at the portrait. Its ornate frame reminded him, for a second, of the Mirror of Erised he had encountered in his first year at Hogwarts, which showed the heart's desire of the person looking into it. But, as Professor Dumbledore had warned him, the mirror could show you only your desires—it wouldn't tell you if they were good or bad, or even if they were possible…

But this is possible. The certainty rose to the surface of his mind as he thought about it, as though it were something he had learned in that same first year that he were only now recalling. Maybe it shouldn't be by some people's rules, but it is. And as strange as it sounds, it might even make me happy.

If I decide I want it, that is.

Shaking this off, he concentrated on the portrait itself. Like that long-ago mirror, it showed him an image of himself surrounded by a number of other people, but whereas in the long-ago he'd had to guess at most of the other people's identities, in the now, most of their faces were familiar to him.

Not always what I'd expect, though. He stifled a laugh under a cough as his eyes took in every detail of the pale-blond boy pictured opposite him, from the ruby-red Quidditch robes embellished with a golden C and the polished wooden flute cradled between slender fingers to the confident set of the narrow shoulders and the faint smile visible in the cool gray eyes. But I thought he'd be interesting to know if he had a fair shot at life. Looks like I was right.

Looking down, he blinked a few times. "I know her," he said almost to himself, going to one knee to better examine the impish grin of a girl a few years younger than himself, her brown-sugar skin and black braids set off admirably by her Healer-apprentice robes of mint green. "I've seen her before. But…" He glanced up at Danger. "I shouldn't have. Should I?"

"Should and shouldn't are such loaded words. You did, didn't you? Talking to Ginny as you walked into the Forest, telling her that she wanted to go home?" Danger smiled tenderly at the girl's image. "And even if you didn't recognize her then, you do now. Her name is—"

"Meghan," Harry interrupted. "Meghan Lily, for my mum. But everybody calls her Pearl. She's my sister, or as good as. Just like…" He got to his feet again, grinning at the brown-haired girl who stood between his own figure and that of the boy who was, and was not, Draco Malfoy. She wore perfectly pressed Gryffindor day robes, and her prefect badge gleamed over the top edge of her leather-bound edition of The Horse and his Boy. "Just like Hermione. Who is your sister, but you've brought her up since she was a baby. Brought all of us up, really, with your friend from school, and her husband, and yours…"

His voice trailed off as the full impact of his words, and of the adults sitting and standing among their children within the portrait, began to strike home.

This is like the Mirror of Erised all over again—finally seeing my parents, my family, and wanting, so much, to go to them, to be with them. His eyes rested hungrily on the figure of his godfather, lounging comfortably in an armchair, dressed in robes of Auror red. A few threads of gray wove through his black hair, and his face was mature in a way the Sirius of this world had never achieved, but hints of the old Marauder spirit still lurked in the silvery eyes. To be one of them. To have the life my parents wanted for me, even if they couldn't give it to me themselves.

How can that be wrong? Especially when you pair it up with being able to give other kids a chance at the same thing?

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Author Notes:

Well, it may not be wrong, but things can always go wrong, now can't they? Especially when Harry's involved…

Consider all the usual apologies made. Work and having a life can be very difficult for a writer. Surpassing Danger is approaching critical mass, I hope and believe, but I won't give an ETA in case I have to be proved wrong yet again. The next chapter of this, though, is already partly done, so it should be coming fairly quickly.

In original writing news, A Widow in Waiting continues to gain sales, though slowly. I'm in the works for getting it made into an audiobook, which will definitely help things along. Also exciting—I've been asked to appear at Shevacon in Roanoake, Virginia, this coming February! Mark your calendars now if you live on the East Coast and are free to travel!

Be Careful is currently being covered by the PFW podcasters, and we're working on setting up a time for an author interview. If there's anything you'd like to know, now is a good time to ask me!

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