Hello, and welcome back to Coexistence. Glad to have you all here and … I'm just going to disclaim and get out of the way, because I don't have anything else interesting to say.

Oh – thank you to everyone who has encouraged me on both the pacing of the story and the speed of the updates. I was truly not fishing for compliments … but it's nice to receive them anyway.

Harry Potter et al. do not belong to me. Everyone believes me, right? Good.

(11/26/2012) Minor edits and fixing formatting.

# # # Chapter 20 # # #

Harry wanted to be alone.

Want was, perhaps, too weak a word. He needed to be alone; needed to be someplace where, even if there were people, none of them acknowledged his existence. If there were people around, people who knew him, people who could see him … well. They'd probably try to cheer him up.

With no real knowledge of why he was feeling the way he was feeling, the causes, no real frame of reference, anything, they'd try to cheer him up. His friends were good that way.

Peter would be good that way, he bet. Remus, too.

And wasn't that a simply brilliant way to make himself feel better, to think about the source of his current problems? Feelings … Angst. Angst was a good word.

It would help, he decided, if he could bring himself to be truly angry at the werewolf. There was all this hurt, all this ill feeling, and nowhere for it to go except to turn back on himself. He knew Remus. Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that he changed into a ravenous man-eating (if there was ever fresh meat within range, at least) beast once a month, the older boy didn't have a vicious bone in his body.

Leading him to the conclusion that it was a great deal harder to be righteously angry when he knew that Remus wasn't just saying things out of some disgusting fascination with hurting Harry; that he said those things because he thought they needed to be said.

It just really wasn't fair.

And he wanted to dwell on that, at length, without anyone – Merlin, especially without the elder Remus, because wouldn't that be awkward beyond belief? – around to shake him out of his self-pity. Which meant one logical place, he supposed, would be Gryffindor Tower. He could hang around Ron and Hermione with great confidence; they hadn't seen him yet so he was quite sure they wouldn't be able to see him now.

But there was wallowing, and there was wallowing, and slapping himself in the face with the fact that his closest friends – the only people who did know most or all of his secrets, unlike the entire bloody world, the way Remus seemed to think – would not be able to see him if he marched around stark naked, painted blue, with a 'Kiss Me, I'm the Saviour of the Wizarding World' sign on his back … well. He might have been in a decidedly wallowing mood, but he just wasn't quite that masochistic.

Nor was he really in the mood to hang around the graveyard – either one. Again, there was wallowing … and then there was just being plain morbid.

He closed his eyes, trying for that feeling that had allowed him to – he supposed Apparate was as good a word as any – to where Ron was. Apparition without a clearly specified destination was a one-way ticket to suicide in the real world … but it wasn't like there was anything that could hurt him now, was there? And it wasn't like 'take me to where Ron is' had been a proper location specification either. Now if he could just get a handle on it … there! A brief shiver ran through him, but no other significant effects – yet when he reopened his eyes, he found himself in an entirely different place.

Ron's room, back at the Burrow. Figures. Not really all that high on his list of places he felt like being at the moment, but the hint of voices coming from down below quelled his intention of moving on immediately. He crept out of the room and toward the banister, then remembered that it wasn't like anyone was around to see him, and whether he was tiptoeing or stomping with all his might, it wasn't like anyone would hear the impact of his feet on the inch and a half of air above the floor.

So, in one of those don't-try-this-at-home-kids moves, he simply vaulted over the railing, making a perfect silent landing on the ground floor.

"Pettigrew? Truly?"

And froze. Whatever he had been expecting to hear, it hadn't been that.

"Yes, our son captured Pettigrew." This, Harry was fairly certain, would be Mr. Weasley, voice torn between pride at his son's accomplishments and anger that Ron would ever be so foolish as to put his life in such blatant danger; the first voice he was equally sure had been Mrs. Weasley. "Sirius is ecstatic – or rather, he would be, if not for … well, you know. He's taking it hard."

"We all are." Mrs. Weasley's voice wavered; there was a rustle of fabric and as Harry peeked around the door, he saw the two of them hugging. "I – Arthur, I know I should be happy that You-Know-Who's gone, and I am, but …"

"You'd almost rather have them both be alive?" Mrs. Weasley stiffened, and her husband patted her on the back. "I know, love. I know. I feel the same way … I think a lot of us do."

"It's criminal, Arthur. I honestly think that boy thought it was his duty to kill You-Know-Who any way he could. He should have known we would be there to support him … that we'd do the job if we could."

"Now, Molly … it's nothing so bad as that. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"'Now' yourself! You may not have been listening when that sweet Hermione girl was talking, but I was. She found it in his belongings, Arthur, a scrap of parchment that gave instructions on how to do that spell he evidently used. And some of the consequences. And notes in his own hand-writing on other potential consequences he'd dug up in his research. He might not have expected the timing, but little Harry was planning from the beginning on using that spell to stop You-Know-Who! Try and make excuses for that."

Mr. Weasley sounded defeated. "I can't. As much as I like the boy, I don't – didn't – know him very well. I can only guess at what was going through his mind … and wish that he had trusted us more."

Mrs. Weasley crumpled again. "I miss him, Arthur."

"So do I."

Unable to bear being silent witness to yet more evidence of the unintended consequences of his death, Harry fled.

# # # # #

When he reopened his eyes, they could not immediately tell him anything of note – aside from the fact that it was really quite dark. He would have reached out to try and feel his way around … but, well, that kind of required the ability to touch – one ability he had yet to demonstrate in this form.

Despite the fact that there was no point and would have even less effect, he kicked out anyway; trying to do something to dispel the rising frustration and depression.

"It's like everything I touch goes wrong!" He finally burst; speaking instead of just thinking because, well, who was going to be around to listen to him, and even if they were around, what were the chances that they'd actually realize he was there? "Can't be a proper nephew, can't be a proper wizard, God knows I'm not nearly the friend Ron and Hermione deserve … can't be a proper savior of the wizarding world; I can't even bloody die properly!"

And what did they know about him, anyway? They went on and on about how he shouldn't have sacrificed himself, like it was morally wrong for a fourteen-year-old to take out a vicious enemy that showed no compunctions about killing and torturing anyone and everyone in his way. Including fourteen-year-old boy saviors.

Sure, he would have liked to have lived, but he wished they'd be a bit more realistic! Voldemort had about fifty years on him in experience and who knew how much more raw power – everyone expected Harry to be the massively powerful saviour of the wizarding world just because, well, of course your saviour is powerful. How could he not be?

In his day, Tom Riddle had been a brilliant student, Slytherin prefect for two years and then Head Boy. Had he been at all interested in Quidditch, Harry was sure he would have excelled at that, too. Harry, on the other hand –Quidditch was just about all he excelled at. Quidditch and using sheer bloody luck to get out of all sorts of awful scrapes.

The point was – and this was something he felt certain all the adults had missed – he had been appointed saviour. And that's not just something that goes away; the ravenous public never even considers cutting you a bit of slack because you had just barely mastered drooling at the time you allegedly saved the world.

He had been appointed and then left to his own devices. If Ron's parents were really so serious about protecting him, where had they been all those other times he had gotten himself into serious trouble and escaped through nothing more than pure luck? Standing on the sidelines with everyone else, ignoring the signs (honestly, since when is an eleven-year-old better at putting the clues together than a whole host of adults?) when the bad stuff was going down, and then cooing over his abused body after the fact, that's where.

With that track record, he really wished someone would explain to him why they seemed to think that this time would have been any different. Perhaps, he supposed cynically, because this time all that was left to coo over was an urn of ashes.

"No, it's because they care for you. And people who care, well … we occasionally have problems seeing the real issues, instead of just what we want to see. Until something shocking enough happens that we are forced out of our dream world."

Harry whipped around, shielding his eyes out of habit at the unexpected brightness of the lantern, even though he supposed his retinas were long past the point where he needed to worry about burning them out. A bit embarrassed, he wondered, "How much of that was out loud?"

Bill Weasley – for that was who held the lantern; it made Harry wonder if perhaps he was just fated to meet Weasleys today – said, "I'd guess most of it; I got here about the time you started sticking your feet halfway through the wall."

Now he felt even more embarrassed. "Er …"

"Don't worry about it." The 'cool' Weasley shrugged. "Everyone needs to let off a little steam now and then. I'd even be willing to lend an ear – although I've got a few last vaults to check out before I can really take a sit down to listen properly."

Harry briefly considered fleeing again. Maybe this time he'd land someplace legitimately deserted. "Oh, that's okay, you don't have to …" The lantern flashed directly in his face again.

"Let me rephrase that." Bill said. "From what little I heard, it sounds like you have a lot riding on you, and it sounds like death hasn't made it at all easier. I want to hear about it. I would like to get to know you better, Harry. Listening to you … I admit before, I had always labeled you 'Boy Who Lived' and 'Ron's best friend' and left it at that. But that's not really fair to you. So, if you are willing to wait about ten more minutes, I really would like to talk."

There was something strange in Bill's voice, but Harry was helpless to figure out what it was. "I'd like to get to know you better, since I never bothered to do so back when you were alive. Call it my own bit of penance for not being there when you needed me."

Harry was left speechless – which Bill evidently took as consent. "Good. Thanks."

It wasn't until several minutes later that it occurred to Harry to ask, "Wait … you can see and hear me?"

Bill looked up only briefly from his inspection – both the lock involved and the inspecting process looking fiendishly complicated to Harry's untrained eye – and spared only a distracted, "Well, of course. Can't everyone?"

# # # # #

Bill's office – which is where he ended up leading the still-confused ghost – was small but surprisingly comfortable. Harry actually spared a moment to miss being corporeal – the chair across from Bill's desk really did look inviting.

"How's the public taking it? My death, I mean." Harry asked, as he settled for hovering about an inch above the comfortable-looking chair.

Bill huffed a sigh – the sort that would have sent his fringe flying upwards had he had any. "There's been a huge uproar, of course. Sad as I am to admit it, it certainly does lend a certain credence to your 'saviour' theory – people are acting like chickens with their heads cut off, wondering how the wizarding world will survive without you."

Harry smiled mirthlessly. "Rather a large sea change from when they were all bound and convinced I was stark raving mad, eh?" He shrugged. "It'll survive the same way it did all those years before I was born. Either they'll muddle it out somehow, or they'll pick some other poor average-but-lucky child and toss the saviour title onto him next. Anything to shift the responsibility for actually doing something away from themselves."

"Don't you think that's a bit harsh?"

Harry leveled a Look at the eldest Weasley.

"Okay, perhaps not. Not everyone is like that, though."

"Not everyone, no. But entirely too many of them."

"At least you have Headmaster Dumbledore on your side. He wouldn't do that to you."

Harry snorted. "Dumbledore is a paranoid old man who wouldn't know good intentions if they bit him on the arse."

Bill's eyebrows raised. For a moment, he looked about to protest in Dumbledore's defense, but eventually just said. "Now that sounds like a story. What happened?"

Harry paused. Contemplated. Finally shrugged, figuring 'in for a penny, in for a pound'. "Well, there's a bit of background you need to know first … first off, when I died, I didn't exactly come back here immediately …"

# # # # #

"Wow." Bill said when Harry finished the abbreviated version of his story. "You really have been through a lot recently, haven't you?" Elbows on the desk surface, he rested his chin on his hands. "I admit I don't really understand why you refused to tell everyone your last name, either. It sounds like it would have been really helpful – especially in convincing the Headmaster that you were sincere."

"That's part of it, actually." Harry made a face. "That would be like taking the easy way out. And part of me would always suspect – well, really, outright know – that the only reason he trusted me was because I'm a Potter, and of course Potters can't be anything but Light."

"And that's not right, either." Bill said slowly. "I'll agree to that." He lifted his chin just enough to release one hand to engage in a 'go on' motion. "And the other reasons?"

Harry sighed, resisting the urge to curl up with his knees against his chest. He really did not need to look any more vulnerable and defensive than he did already. "That's … a bit harder to explain. It's … there I'm free to not be a Potter. And I don't want to give that up."

He raised his hand. "I know, I know, 'What's wrong with being a Potter?'." Bill closed his mouth. "Being a Potter means that I became the Boy-Who-Lived. They already know about James and Lily dying; if it came out that I was their son, that would raise question of how I was still alive, which means that the whole Boy-Who-Lived mess would probably come out, too."

He ticked off a second finger. "Being a Potter earned me the hatred of my aunt, uncle, and cousin, which in turn had a pretty big impact on the happiness – or lack thereof – of my childhood." Another hand raised. "Please. Spare me the platitudes. It's over and done with and nothing has scarred me too horribly."

Third finger. "Yes, at first I was flattered when everyone told me how much like my dad I was. But they did it too much. There's a point beyond which I'd like to be known as 'Harry', not as 'James Potter's son and isn't it just so amazing how much like his father he is?'." A pause. "Besides which, now I've actually met the guy. And if he grew up anything like his teenage years, I don't actually see it as a compliment."

"I'm sure they meant it as one." Bill offered; there wasn't really anything he could do to refute the rest of it. "I know I've only ever heard good of the man." A pause. "Except from Snape." A shared grin.

Harry had tired of ranting and explaining for the moment; had he still had a corporeal throat he suspected he would have been thoroughly parched. Bill, for his part, seemed to have decided that he'd forbear with asking any more questions for the moment; he seemed to be idly fiddling with some paperwork.

A question that had been percolating in the back of Harry's brain slowly moved forward and made itself known. "Bill … do you know if there was a Claudius Malfoy, in this timeline?"

The redhead stilled, then slowly put his pen down, hand shaking with suppressed emotion. "… Yes." He whispered. "And not a day goes by that I don't …" His fists clenched until the skin around the knuckles were white.

"What happened?" Harry asked.

The tension did not decrease in the slightest. "I don't … I never found out. I think my father knows … but if he does, he never saw fit to mention that to me. After all," and here's where Bill's share of bitterness found its way in, "he was only a Malfoy. And who 'decent' cares about them?"

"When was it?" Harry's voice was quiet; it was intuitively obvious that here he was treading on uncertain ground.

"My third year. Easter." Bill stared through the desk, a haunted look to his eyes. "He went home … we were planning on going together, and hang convention, but then I … I don't even remember, anymore, what happened, but I ended up not going after all." His voice, still that rasped whisper from before, sank low enough to where Harry was hard-pressed to hear it at all. "And he never came back."

They shared a moment of silence for a young Ravenclaw who had, most likely, been only one of many to fall afoul of the Dark Lord – and pay with their life.

"That's why I had to stop him, any way I could." Harry said quietly, after the silence had held long enough. "For people like Claudius, and Professor Snape, and Cedric … anyone his corrosive influence has touched."

"You may not believe it." Bill replied, just as quietly, "But there are other people who believe as you do, and who would go to equally great lengths to do what you did." I am one of them was not stated outright, but the implication was obvious even to Harry.

"But they weren't there, and I was." Harry replied. "They didn't know the spell, and I did."

"And that, I think, is why they feel so guilty. Because they think they should have been the ones standing in your place; they think yours is another innocent life lost needlessly."

Harry considered that for a moment. He had already made his protests; there seemed to be little point in repeating them. Finally, he said slowly, "… So what?" He paused, as if to gather his thoughts. "Perhaps my life is innocent, although I hope you will allow me to beg to differ. But in the end, I made the choice to spend it. It was a choice made entirely of my own free will. Even if they had been there, I would probably have still made that choice."

He paused. "And I think that's the point. It was my choice. And whatever they say, I think that really, the only person that should make my choices for me is me. Whether it's how much I study or when and how I die … that's my choice."

Harry snorted suddenly. "Besides … Voldemort had just been resurrected, I was surrounded by his loyal Death Eaters, was injured from the maze, not to mention dripping all over the place from where Pettigrew drew my blood …" out of a sort of gruesome habit, he rubbed at the knotty scar that still remained even in his ghostly form "… what are the chances that I would have actually survived, anyway?"

"As you yourself said, you've gotten out of some pretty bad scrapes before." Bill pointed out. "But I guess we'll never know, now, what life might have been like had you lived. Or if you would have."

"No … no, I don't." Harry agreed. "But, knowing what I know now … it's amazing there, Bill. I wish you could see it. I mean, yes, Voldemort still exists, but it's so much easier to forget … and the people …"

"One person in particular, perhaps?" Harry had been doing a good job of staunchly avoiding Bill's eyes, but his voice expressed the same … sympathy? gentleness? … warmth as Harry suspected his eyes would have.

"I – that is …" He didn't know how well ghosts could blush, but he figured at the moment he was certainly making his best effort. "It's not …"

"Don't say 'like that'." Bill interrupted, suddenly serious. "I intentionally never said anything about what it was or was not. It's obvious to anyone that Remus is someone special to you, Harry. Don't demean that."

"I … you're right." Harry smiled weakly. "He is. And not knowing … I mean, I'm sure he hates me now. And I can't bear that." He pressed his hands halfway through his head before regaining control and making a pretense of rubbing his temples, wishing he could at least touch himself. "He was absolutely right, you know. I should have trusted him … with that, with everything. But it's so hard … and the worst thing is … I still don't want to tell him.

"It's like … if I pretend long enough and hard enough that I'm not Potter, that I'm not the Boy-Who-Lived, that all I am is a dead boy named Harry who may have done his part to save the world, but isn't really all that remarkable otherwise … I keep hoping maybe one day I'll wake up and it'll be the truth."

"I sincerely doubt that he hates you." Harry's head shot up, but he managed to remember to avoid Bill's eyes by a hair's breadth. "I have no doubt that he was hurt – to be fair, I'm sure you would have been too, even if you had known he was keeping secrets from you. And people who are hurt often lash out in ways they regret later."

Harry shook his head. "You don't understand. He was … so cold. At first, yes, I could see him as having been lashing out. But – no, he seemed to really believe I ought to leave. He really … didn't want me there anymore."

"Over that small a matter? I doubt it, Harry. I'm sure he was just angry and hurt … he's probably sitting there right now, hoping that you'll come back soon so that he can apologize to you for being such an unfeeling bastard."

"He's not unfeeling! Or a bastard!" Harry protested indignantly.

Bill laughed, and ruffled the space where Harry's hair would have been – not a terribly effective gesture, but Harry appreciated the thought. "I know that and you know that … but this is another of those things about people. We tend to be inclined to believe the worst about ourselves."

Looking back on what he knew of Remus and his self-confidence issues, Harry had to agree with that particular assessment at least.

"I think you should go back." Harry tensed. "Look at me, Harry. From what you've said so far, that seems to be the trigger."

"But …"

"You're never going to know if you don't go back there and ask." Bill pointed out. "And this may be the time into which you were born … but you and I both know where your heart lies. Go to him. Ask him why he said the things he said. Tell him …" Seeing the look of instinctive refusal on Harry's face, Bill's tone gentled even further.

"Tell him what you just told me, about the young dead boy named Harry. He'll understand, I think. If he's even half as special a person you think he is … if he's anything like the Remus I know in this time … I think he'll understand."

Something clicked, and it occurred to Harry that this sounded a lot like the advice he had given a younger Bill on the subject of Claudius Malfoy. Not exactly the same, perhaps not even as similar as it seemed – but the perceived similarity caused a bubble of hilarity to rise in his throat.

He was probably grinning like a fool, and like a fool he had no real idea why. You can dish it out, but you can't take it, can you? And perhaps that sniping inner comment was what firmed his resolve, as he nodded once.

Tell me to go back where I belong? Where my friends, where the people I trust are? Well, too bad for you, Remus … I may have friends here, though we have been forced apart, but you're my friend too. Like it or not, you're stuck with me now. And I'm going to prove it. There's no getting away from me now.

A new blaze of resolve lit in his heart (how cliché that sounded … but was there any other word for the heated feeling in his chest?), and he straightened. "Thanks, Bill. For everything."

"Thank you, Harry, for sharing your time with me."

The triumphant background music, had there been any, would have faltered, as Harry fought embarrassment at the sincere tone in Bill's voice.

"So you're going to do it, then?" Fingers brushed through the space where his chin would have been, and both of them fought a sudden chill; this time it was Bill's cheeks who reddened slightly in embarrassment. "Good luck."

Of his own free will and entirely intentionally, Harry's head rose and he met Bill's eyes squarely, clear green to murky brown.

Ready or not, here I come!

# # # # #

"Percy's gotten sick, again, and Charlie's down with the chicken pox …" He waved his hands in broad gestures. "Dad's taking off work, but with Mum's latest pregnancy being the hardest on her yet, it's …"

"You feel like you ought to be at home helping. I understand." The blond looked past him, his eyes sad and oddly blank. There was a pause, long and uncomfortable and waited. "Well … another time, perhaps."

"Yeah …" The silence stretched. "… I'll see you after break."

"… Yeah." In a flurry of controlled movement, the blond turned to leave.

There was a knot in his throat, and a growing sick feeling to his stomach. If you let him go now, this is the last time you'll ever see him again. He didn't know the source of this feeling, not yet, but his belief in it was absolute. And before such a feeling, what else could he possibly do?

"Claudi! Wait!" Bill Weasley yelled, running to catch up with his friend.

"What?" The Ravenclaw asked, stopping his movement away, although he did not turn to look back.

"I … you know my family is important to me. But you're important too." Bill grinned at his friend's back. "I ought to go home … but with my dad there, they should be fine. They won't be happy with me – but," he flicked at his faux earring, enjoying the way it jingled in his ear, "it's not like that's exactly a new thing either."

"So …" He sidled around in front of his friend, who looked like he had just barely decided against turning away again, and peered desperately at his friend's face for any sign of comprehension. Bill somehow managed to keep on grinning, though he felt less and less in the mood to, as the blond's face retained its closed expression. "… I guess what I'm trying to say is … is the offer still open?"

And slowly, Claudius Malfoy began to smile back.

9 April 2005
11 September 2012

The AU issue: The question has come up quite frequently as to what the relationship between the past and future worlds is. As this is something that may very well not be discussed in the story proper, I thought I'd soliloquize a bit now.

The past may or may not have been the original past of the present time. I'm guessing not, myself … James didn't look like he was planning on having a crisis of conscience and rescuing Snape anytime soon to me. But regardless of that, the ripples Harry has created due to his presence have branched it off quite firmly. (Ugh … a diagram would be so helpful right now …) And it is a branching off; the original past remains undisturbed and trundles its merry way on to the original present.

Eventually, this changed past will make its own way towards becoming a changed future, and the two will continue to exist in parallel, only the presence of Harry in both giving any clue to their original kinship.

(Short answer: No, nothing Harry does in the past affects the present.)