Sitting with his back against the slide at the park near Privet Drive, Harry Potter spent the morning absentmindedly staring at the color-changing clouds. It was as close to freedom as he would be that summer holiday, no more than five blocks from a house that was never a home and a family that flinched when they remembered he was there. The sun was rising, and this was Harry's favorite time of day: the pre-dawn hours when he could pretend he was back at Hogwarts, sitting on the Quidditch field waiting for the game to start, instead of at a dilapidated park being tailed by Order members that couldn't be bothered to actually speak to him. Instead of a boy who was left here, again, while his friends were at home recovering from the Department of Mysteries battle he had led them into. Instead of the godson of a man he had practically killed because he was so damned curious about a dream. Instead of the subject of a prophecy that he could never fulfill, not fast enough, not well enough to actually help his friends.
"Take this from me," he whispered, looking up at the endless, still-pink sky. "Take this prophecy from me!"
"That's an irresponsible thing to demand," said a strangely casual voice behind him. Harry jumped up, wand drawn and pointed at the tall, black-haired man who stood with his hands in his suit pockets, looking terribly out of place beside the orange swing set in the playground at sunrise.
"Who're you?" Harry demanded, keeping his wand steadily in front of him. No one had been there a minute ago.
"Do you really think destinies can be so easily changed?" the man asked in his strange, lilting accent, annoying Harry, who just wanted someone, once, to answer one of his damned questions in a reasonable manner instead of with irrelevant soliloquies. Harry looked more closely at him; realizing he recognized him, his grip on his wand tightening.
"You run the rare bookshop next to Ollivander's." He had dropped a bag of books in Diagon Alley when Harry had lived there before his third year, and Harry had helped him collect them. He'd said that Harry was a good boy, and loped off without once gawking at Harry's scar. "What are you doing here? Who are you?"
"If you want a prophecy taken from you, it has to go to someone else," the man said.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Harry said, trying to regain control over this conversation.
"Who would you want to replace you?" The man narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. They were dark blue, almost black, and permeating. Dumbledore's eyes made it feel like he could see right through you. This man seemed like he could see all of you, even the parts you didn't see yourself. It was disconcerting.
"If you're here to attack me," Harry said, his wand tightly held in his hand, "just do it."
"Do you feel threatened?" the man asked. Harry didn't answer, but the truth was that he didn't. Not really, but he wasn't stupid enough to drop his wand just because this guy wasn't actively shooting spells at him. "So why are you trying to give up this prophecy?"
"Because I failed," Harry answered honestly, frustrated with this situation, with this man who couldn't have been older than thirty standing in the middle of a child's park talking about things he could never understand.
"You only think that's true," the man said, shaking his head minutely even as he continued to watch Harry, "because you're only halfway through the story yet, and don't know what'll happen next."
The man slid closer to the swings and pivoted, holding a chain in each hand as he sat on the low orange swings. Harry had been through enough to know that this display did not lessen the threat.
"I know what I have to do," Harry said. He would have to kill or be killed. That was enough to know.
"No, you don't," the man said, pushing the ground a little and swinging a bit. "You don't even understand the impossibilities you've already faced, but that's because you're young, naïve, and a little delusional."
"How could you not be?" the young man asked, glancing around the little park. "This is the only way you've known life to be."
"You don't know me," Harry said, his back to the slide.
"Well, I know you obviously don't understand prophecies, how they're created or what you've asked, which is basically that someone else take your place," he said, shaking his head and looking up at the sky as it turned more and more blue. "So what am I to do with you?"
They were alone in that park, Harry Potter and this man who was magical and singularly unimpressed with him, but this question was disarmingly unthreatening, almost like an invitation. The man just wanted to understand the situation, and he was asking Harry to help.
"So whom would you have marked in your place with powers he knows not?" the man asked, speaking to himself.
"Expelliarmus," Harry said, deciding it was worth the consequence of expulsion to disarm this unsettling man, but no wand came. The man smiled at Harry as he continued to softly push himself forward and backward on the swing that was too low and too orange and too common for a man spouting a prophecy no others should know.
"So who do you think would do a better job than you?" he asked again, ignoring the brief attack.
"Anyone," Harry said honestly, confused and tired and angry and thinking about all the ways that godfathers could fall through veils and just disappear from this earth. "Anyone but me."
"You would trust just anyone with the responsibility to vanquish Voldemort and then face him again multiple times and survive?" The man stood up and put his hands back in his pockets, the swing knocking gently into the back of his knees. "That's dumb."
"The first time it wasn't even me," Harry said angrily. "It was my mother."
"Yes, but it's always been you, too," the man said, taking a step closer. "But you don't understand that. Teenagers are rather slow, I hear, though you seem particularly dim."
"Who are you?" Harry was two seconds away from banishing the man into the street.
"If you honestly believe that anyone would be appropriate, I could choose anyone," the man said, walking right past him. "But I'll choose the easiest way for now. You'll have to tell me later who you would have take your place."
"What are you talking about?" Harry asked tensing his arm again, ready to fight.
"I always leave a way out," the man said, rocking back on his heels. "A fail-safe: One person will remember, the person you trust the most to keep the secret, and if you convince them of the stupidity of this truly stupid wish, they'll make sure it never happened."
Harry was beginning to believe the man was mad. "What are you talking about?"
"The rest of your life," the man said, shrugging. "And the rest of the world's."
And that was when everything went black.
The first thought Harry had when he woke up was that his bed was unusually soft, unlike anything at the Dursley house, and even with his eyes closed he could tell there was too much light for it to be Grimmauld Place. Instinctively Harry reached out and grabbed his glasses. Was he at Hogwarts?
He sat up, put on his glasses, and looked around, alarmed. Where was he?
Harry scrambled out of his dark blue sheets and stood on soft tan carpet, staring around him, confused, scared, looking for his wand, which he found on one of the nightstands. He cast a large Finite Incantatem.
There was a white door on the far side of the room next to a desk full of parchment and books much like the ones shoved in Harry's trunk at the Dursleys', but the open owl cage near the window was very different from his own. Seeing his own handwriting on an unfinished letter to 'G' scared him. What was going on here? Instinctively, he looked for a way out.
The window was open, but he had no broom and he was not on the first floor. The door seemed to be his only option, but what if it was a trap? Well, that hardly mattered at this point: he was in a strange room with no other escape. The people wanting to trap him could just as easily come in than wait for him to leave.
Plus, if it was a trap, why would they give him his wand?
Where was he?
Once Harry opened the door, he became, if possible, even more confused. Despite all of the obvious ways this would be an idiotic plan, Harry had still been half-expecting Death Eaters or something. Instead, he found himself in a hallway that would have made Aunt Petunia jealous. There were five doors, two on Harry's side, three across the hall, with paintings of beaches on the walls. There was a window at the end that cast light onto the soft, plush, perfectly spotless white carpet. But stranger than the general cleanliness was the tiny blonde girl running down the hall who stopped right in front of Harry, her eyes lighting up as she gave him a large, happy smile.
"You're up! Come on. Mum has breakfast ready, and then we can play!" the girl squeaked, grabbing Harry by the hand.
At the mention of "mum," Harry's heart froze, for of all of the unbelievable things he had seen in this world-dragons in little wooden huts on the edge of his school, and international Quidditch competitions, and phonebooths that turned into entrances to the Ministry-he had never lived in a home where he could use the word 'Mum.' There was no time for questions, however, before the little bundle of energy began dragging him forcefully down the hall, down a set of stairs, and then into a completely foreign kitchen filled with sunflower imagery and light colors. The little girl ran up to the blonde woman at the fridge, and hugged her.
"You're up early, Harry," the woman said as she picked the girl up and placed her on a stool at the counter. Harry, freed of the girl's hand, quit moving, choosing instead to warily stare at the unfamiliar.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"All right, maybe you're not as awake as I thought," the woman said, her voice easy and unafraid. Warm, even, just like her brown eyes that held humor and love as she summoned two pieces of toast and a plate, putting them in front of the girl. "Butter or jam, Alana?"
"Both!" the girl said, slapping her hands down on the counter. The woman shrugged and started buttering the bread.
"Both what?" asked a voice to Harry's left, making him jump and turn, wand pointed at the man with sandy-blonde hair who just entered the kitchen.
"Both, please," the girl – Alana – said, sounding very much like she had been asked to say please so often that she was beginning to think of it as a game.
"Good," the man said, giving Harry and his wand a strange look as he passed. "Jumpy in the pre-noon hours, are you, Harry?"
"Who are you?" Harry asked, trying to look around this bright, warm house and place it in his memory, but there was nothing there. Nothing to grasp onto, least of all this blonde family who thought it was perfectly natural for him to be standing in their kitchen in the early morning hours in nothing more than his pajamas. "What going on?"
"Well, I'm Christine, he's Matt, and breakfast is going on," the woman said, finishing the toast and putting it on the plate in front of Alana. "What would you like?"
"Shouldn't Hogwarts have taught you about breakfast?" Matt asked, sitting at the counter beside Alana and opening the Daily Prophet. "Don't you have to get up early to go to class?"
"I don't understand." Harry just wanted some damned answers. Where was his aunt and uncle, his cousin. The people he was supposed to live with. "What is this?"
"Breakfast!" Alana chimed, giggling as she repeated her father's funny joke, turning her tiny blond head toward her dad to see if he was laughing, too.
"Good job, sweety," Christine said absently, pointing to Alana's plate. "Now finish your toast."
"I know it's breakfast," Harry snapped at them. The little girl looked over at him quickly at the sound of his angry voice. "I want to know why I'm here."
"There's no need for you to use that tone," Matt said, looking disapprovingly at Harry over the top of his paper.
"Why's Harry so mad?" Alana asked, looking at her mum with large eyes.
"Sleep deprivation," Christine answered calmly, holding out a glass of orange juice for Harry to take. He stared at her.
"What's deprivation?" Alana asked, taking a bite of her toast.
"A lack of something," Christine said. Seeing that Harry was not taking the orange juice, she drank from the cup herself and leaned casually against the counter, thin and tall and completely relaxed.
"I'm not lacking sleep!" Harry exclaimed. Why were they acting like this was normal? "I don't sleep in."
"It's that the rest of the world rises too early?" Matt asked jokingly, as if this whole thing was one big normal morning for all of them.
"I've never sleep in!" Harry finally yelled, slamming his hand down on the counter. "Who the hell are you people, and where are we?"
"Harry, we're at home," Christine said, suddenly not joking anymore as she straightened up. Matt, likewise, was looking worriedly at Harry. "Are you feeling alright?"
"This is not my home!" Harry exclaimed, waving a hand around at this brightly-lit, gigantic kitchen with its breakfast nook and friendly barstools and the family that wasn't his.
"What's this about, Harry?" Matt asked, and now the paper was lying on the counter, his serious blue eyes watching Harry carefully.
"I don't belong here!" How many different ways could he state that very obvious truth?
"Of course you do, Harry," Christine said, looked more confused by his outburst than concerned now. "You belong."
"What are you—" Harry cut himself off, remembering suddenly the man in the park, the man that asked him who he would change places with, the man who was the last thing Harry remembered before he woke up in this strange place.
Harry was dimly aware of someone speaking as he walked toward his vague reflection in the window above the sink. He saw his glasses, his eyes, his forehead-his scar-less forehead.
Pivoting on his left foot, Harry raced back to the stairs, taking them two at a time and running down the unfamiliar hallway. He pulled open one of the five doors in the hallway, trying to find the room he started in.
It took no more than a minute to change, snatching clothes that fit him suspiciously well even as he spotted his trunk and shuffled through everything to find his money pouch and a change of clothes that he threw on without looking. What had that man done? The money pouch wasn't where he normally kept it. He scanned the room, spotting it on the desk, ran over, picked it up, and opened it to make sure he had enough money for the Knight Bus. He did. There were multiple knuts and sickles, but something was missing.
"Harry, you all right?" Matt asked, knocking on the door and pushing it open a little more.
"Where's my key?" Harry asked, looking up from his money pouch.
"To the house?"
"My Gringotts key," Harry said quickly, spinning around to look on the cluttered desk.
"It's in your box in the attic, I think," Matt said, looking carefully at Harry. "What's going on, Harry?"
"Nothing," Harry said, deciding he had enough for the bus. "I'm going into Diagon Alley."
"It's eight-thirty in the morning," Matt said, his mouth setting in a line. "You haven't eaten, and you seem to be having a nervous breakdown. Maybe now isn't a good time."
"I need to talk to someone," Harry said, twisting past this strange, concerned man. Matt grabbed his elbow, and Harry yanked his arm away out of reflex, already reaching for his wand as he crouched into fighting stance. It took a moment for him to override his instincts and keep walking until he spotted the fireplace.
"Harry, stop it. We need to talk. You don't seem well," Matt said. "Maybe you should lie down and Christine'll bring you some soup."
"I'm fine. I'm fine," Harry said, waving off the stranger's concern.
Matt, who looked like he was in his mid-forties, said, "Harry, I'm not going to let you leave right now. Something's obviously bothering you, and I—"
"Something is bothering me," Harry said, seeing the fireplace at the base of the stairs on the left, in the living room, "but it's nothing you can fix. I need to talk to a man."
"Trust me," Harry said, marching forward and searching for the bowl of floo powder. It was on top of the mantel.
"I do trust you," Matt said, watching Harry take a pinch of floo powder and throw it in after calling out, 'Leaky Cauldron.' Then Harry stepped into the fire and was gone.
Unconsciously flattening his hair over his forehead, Harry stepped out of the Leaky Cauldron and into Diagon Alley, heading straight for Ollivander's. He pushed through the crowds, twisting around strangers, past Fortesque's and Quality Quidditch Supplies. It was like tunnel vision almost, and he found his way to Ollivander's and then turned left to the rare bookshop beside it.
As the bell rang out, Harry tried to locate the owner. It wasn't hard; He was helping bag a patron's books and saying, "Thank you for shopping at Rare Books."
"Oh, I've always loved your shop, Robert," she said, shrinking the bag of books and putting it inside a larger bag she carried on her shoulder.
"I'm glad," Robert said, nodding over her head at Harry, "because I don't think he's quite as happy as you."
The woman turned to follow his motion and saw Harry scowling in the doorway. "No, he doesn't seem very happy at all."
"In fact, he's probably seething," Robert said, his tan hands resting on the wooden counter between them. "Or brooding. Something melodramatic and angsty, no doubt."
"Oh, you're Harry Potter, aren't you?" the woman asked, smiling at him. Harry grimaced; fame was the last thing he wanted to deal with this strange morning. "Be sure to look in the back left section, it's great for school children."
She walked past him and out of the store.
"What can I do for you, Harry?" Robert asked pleasantly, as if the boy had just stopped in for a normal chat about books instead of having jsut woken up in the middle of a house that was not his with a bunch of strangers looking at him like he was the one who had lost his damned mind. The casualness of the man's greeting set Harry's teetch on edge.
"You can change it all back," Harry suggested. The man picked up a stack of books from a cart beside him, and walked around the counter to the shelves lining the walls, his eyes taking in all the titles. Harry followed.
"What do you mean?" Robert asked innocently, sliding a book onto the shelf.
Harry glared. "You were the one that changed everything."
"Yes." Robert was so casual about the admission that Harry was momentarily confused. But one of the best things about being stubborn is that it doesn't take long to remember your original annoyance.
"What did you do? Why did you do it?"
"I brought you to a world where you can see yourself from the outside," Robert said, shifting the book in his hand so that he could take one out of the stack and put it on the shelf halfway up the wall. "I thought you'd be more grateful, actually."
"Grateful?" Harry exclaimed, wanting to knock those stupid books off the shelf and make him talk to Harry straight-on. "Why would I be grateful?"
With a flourish in his voice that made it sound like he had practiced saying it, Robert answered, "I've given you the opportunity to fulfill your wish and find your answers."
"What answers?" Harry asked. "I woke up this morning in a bed that was not my own, in a world where I'm living with strangers who think I'm their son—"
"They don't think you're their son," the man said, putting another book on the shelf.
"What? Then who are they?"
"The McGraths adopted you when you where a baby when—"
"Fine," Harry cut him off, not really caring. "Bring me back to my world!"
"Why would I do that?" Robert asked, sounding honestly confused. "You haven't changed yet."
"Take me back," Harry said stubbornly.
The book stack was down to two, and Robert was carefully wedging one onto the bottom shelf. "I'll take you to a new world, which ever world you choose, as soon as you tell me your answers."
"What answers?" Harry repeated, terribly frustrated.
"Who would you want to take your place? Who would you want the prophecy be about if not you?" the man answered, turning on the hardwood floor, and leaning against the book-covered shelves.
"I'm not going to pick someone for that," Harry said, thinking of dead parents and professors with dark lord's on the back of their heads whose hands burned when they touched Harry. Thinking of a graveyard and a knife and Cedric Diggory dying just because he was standing a little too close to Harry.
Robert tilted his head, examining Harry, and said, "You said, 'Take this prophecy from me,' and I asked who you'd give it to and you said, 'Anyone,' and I said, 'Anyone?' and you said, 'Anyone but me.'"
"So I brought you here in order for you to be able to chose someone specific."
"I'm not going to choose someone else!" Harry wanted to cast an Incendio on the whole store. "Just take me home."
"That's not up to me," Robert said simply, his mouth curved in a sad smile. "If you want to go, you need to convince the person you trust the most to keep the secret of your other life."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means that the person you trust the most with the memory your old world remembers it. Figure out who you want to replace you, convince that secret keeper, and then you'll have that world."
"If you knew who I trusted the most, you must know who I trust with the prophecy," Harry said.
"Yes," the man said, shelving another book.
"Then just make that world!" Harry glared at the back of the man's heading, willing it to explode. Harry had enough to deal with this summer without some crazy bloke playing a prank on him
"The point is for you to know whom you trust," Robert said calmly, annoying Harry more.
"No, there is no point to this stupid thing! I woke up this morning in a home I've never seen with people I don't know—"
"You couldn't pick your replacement in your world so I brought you to an unfamiliar one where you can see the responsibility of the prophecy through your easiest replacement," he said, obviously frustrated with Harry for not understanding this.
"My easiest replacement?" Harry repeated.
"Well, the one it was easiest for me to arrange," Robert said.
"I don't understand." Why couldn't he just change it back?
"You don't have to," the man said, setting the books down on the footstool and facing Harry. "Just go home."
"That's all I want to do!"
Robert looked amused, his blue eyes like an ocean, expansive and patient. "I meant go home to the McGraths."
"That's not my home."
"But it could be," the man said. "Or, at least, it's a place where you can find your answers."
"I don't have any questions," Harry lied.
"Everyone has questions," the man said simply. "And maybe they'll help you find those as well."
Robert wasn't going to give in, Harry realized. Whatever he had done, whatever spell brought this place into existence and erased his scar and made that happy, blonde family think he belonged would not be undone. It was like a dreadful weight settling upon Harry's heart.
"Who are they?" he asked. "That family."
"See, you already found a question," Robert said proudly, turning and going back to his counter.
"Are they Death Eaters? Are you?" Harry asked.
The man stopped and looked at Harry for a long moment, tan and thoughtful and curious. "I'm no Death Eater. Neither are the McGraths. They are—well, you can find that out for yourself."
"How do I know you're not lying?"
"You don't," he said, shrugging, "but as I just performed the amazing feat of changing the entire history of the world without bothering to try and kill you, maybe you ought to try to figure out who you trust the most with the responsibility of the prophecy and focus on the other things secondarily."
"If you have all of this power, why not just pick the right person?" Harry asked. The man looked at him again.
"Because it's your wish," the man said, turning around and handing Harry a few books to hold for him as he climbed a stepladder.
"I hate you for this," Harry said as the man took the book from him and put it on the shelf.
"You're fifteen, you hate everyone right now, but as long as your anger serves a purpose, it's fine." He was so frustratingly nonchalant. "Go back to the McGraths now. Their home is called the Stump."
"To get back to my world, I just need to find the one I trust the most to keep the secret and tell them who I trust most?" Harry asked through gritted teeth. This was so stupid. Like some sort of game to determine the fate of the world.
"What's your obsession with going back to your natural world? I'm offing you a new world where your wish is a reality, where you have what you wanted: a life free of the prophecy," Robert said. "Why are you so opposed to that idea?"
Harry didn't know what to say, and said so.
"I think, Harry, that that's one of the questions to which you need to find an answer," he said, a book in each hand. "Here, you are a boy with a family who has breakfast together in the morning, and takes trips just to see the rest of the world. You had two boys who treated you like a brother, a girl who is a sister, and two adults who took your to King's Cross station when you were eleven, and hugged you goodbye. Voldemort did not mark you here, and you are not attached to the prophecy that you so wanted to give away a few hours ago. Go figure out what that means."
"But if that's- if you're telling the truth," Harry said, puzzling it together, reaching up to touch his forehead, only to find it smooth and unblemished, "then Voldemort never attacked me. I don't have to kill him. Didn't face him when I was eleven, right? It wasn't me."
Robert paused for a moment, looking at him out of the corner of his eyes. "Look at your wand, Harry."
So he did, but it wasn't his wand. How did he not realize that the moment he picked it up? It may have been holy, but it wasn't the right shape. Wasn't even the same core. Harry could practically feel that. But it still felt right in his hand.
"It's a different world, Harry."
"He isn't trying to kill me."
"No," Robert said condescendingly, "he's not."
And maybe that was the moment that Harry realized the full potential of this gift, this new world. The man seemed to have noticed that Harry was beginning to understand.
"Go home and figure out whom you trust."
Harry was shaken, thinking about this. He could pick anyone, anyone in the world, to take his place. He could pick someone strong and smart and capable, someone who could duel the Dark Lord and defeat him properly instead of relying on dumb luck and his friends. Someone who wasn't merely lucky, but had actual talent. He could find the person that needed to lead the Order. In the meantime, Harry could be normal. Normal.
Harry looked at Robert and asked, "What's in this for you?"
"You are a cynic, aren't you?" Robert asked with a smirk, looking down at Harry.
"A bit, yeah," Harry said.
"I get a savior, Harry," he said. Harry took a step back and shook his head at the man. Giving someone the prophecy was not creating a savior. That would mean that for all of the years of his life that's what Harry had been, and that wasn't right.
"I'm no savior," Harry said.
"Then pick your own as well."
I hope you all enjoyed this. I just wanted to post the first chapter and see if there was some interest. I need something to do while waiting for the sixth book and this will be really fun. It takes place in the Prelude to Destiny/Backfire universe. Check out my livejournal if you want!