Full Summary: One morning, Harry Potter wakes up in a different world. His parents are alive, and Neville now bears the scar. Things are different and Harry finds that he's starting to like that the weight of the world is no longer on his shoulders. Unfortunately, Neville may not be able to bear that weight, and Harry has to make the decision about whether or not to allow an unprepared Neville to face the Dark Lord and complete the Prophecy, or if he should accept the responsibility again and finish what he set out to do.

Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter, unfortunately. It all belongs to the talented (and now incredibly rich) J.K. Rowling. Post HBP.

Note: 5/13/10 – Since it's been several years since I first started writing this story, I'll be going back and editing it when I find the time, starting with chapter one. Hopefully it'll improve the overall quality and balance out the gap between the three years it took to write, especially in the early chapters. Thanks for reading!

"So you're back, are you?"

Vernon Dursley's sneer was unmatched in girth and wicked intentions, as if squinting his beady black pupils alone would cause his nephew to spontaneously combust. Weight shifted on one foot, it was hardly noticeable he was favoring his left leg until Harry's approach compelled him to straighten up and pull up his shirt sleeves.

Harry sighed, taking his time as he pushed his trolley towards the fat man. His uncle seemed to be in an even fouler mood than usual, but maybe he was remembering the goblets that had bounced around on his head last summer, when Dumbledore had come to thankfully rescue Harry. It had been quite a sight, his Aunt and Uncle's terrified faces as fancy gold goblets bounced innocently around their heads.

The slight smile the memory allowed him faded at the thought of Dumbledore. Sometimes he still thought he would turn around the corner and see the Headmaster's crooked nose peeking out from behind a book.

"Have a good year, Uncle Vernon?" Harry said charitably.

But Vernon's mind seemed to be on something else. His eyes narrowed, becoming almost obscured by the heavy bags underneath as his gaze settled on the two other people trailing behind Harry a little too closely for his comfort.

"Who're they?"

Harry turned around to look at his two companions. "Oh, these are my friends," he explained, eyeing his uncle warily. "Hermione and Ron."

Vernon's face turned a rather unpleasant shade of purple at this introduction. "I won't be seen consorting with any more of your people; no I won't!" he said firmly, glaring heatedly at Harry.

However, the effect was lost on Harry. Compared to the numerous of monsters, both creature and human, he's encountered in his short lifetime, his uncle ranked fairly low on the fright scale. Perhaps when he had been little, stilling his sobs in the cupboard under the stairs after an especially brutal day in the Dursley household, but he knew now that the fiends in the closet were nothing compared to the ones that freely roamed Diagon Ally's cobblestone streets and Scotland's ever expanding fields. Vernon Dursley had never, for instance, met a Dementor and was forced to hear his mother's last words over and over again. Nor had he ever felt the slimy, icy skin of Inferi clutching onto his arm, trying to drag him down to the depths, or watched in horror as a monster was reborn, saw it rise above the bubbling cauldron, its red snake-like eyes penetrating every fiber of his body –

No, Vernon Dursley was hardly terrifying.

"They'll be staying over," Harry informed him, unconsciously straightening his posture. "No arguments. Just bear with us until my birthday, and we'll be out of your hair for good. Let them stay, Uncle Vernon; it's the least you can do, after everything."

Vernon puffed out indignantly, insulted that his "freakish" nephew felt so comfortable ordering him around. The nerve of that boy! "Why, you…'the least you can do?' You ungrateful brat! You should be appreciative of all we did for you! We fed you, clothed you, gave you a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in! You have noright to tell me –"

Ron and Hermione exchanged significant glances. So this was the infamous Vernon Dursley. They had seen the enormous man from afar –it was very hard not to notice him– but had never been close enough to see the veins popping out of his forehead, the way his fat fists had clenched at Harry's words. Hermione resisted the urge to grab Ron's arm, understanding in an instant how much power this man must have held in her friend's childhood. One swing of a fat arm, even accidentally, would have sent scrawny Harry flying. Carefully watching Harry's reaction, she was surprised to find his expression unreadable. If she didn't know any better, she'd say he was bored.

"No," Harry interrupted firmly, eyes cold. "You fed me Dudley's scraps, gave me his huge clothes, and forced me to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs for eleven years until magic scared you enough into giving me a proper bedroom." All the while, Harry's voice remained calm and controlled, but Hermione and Ron could hear the tight emotions barely restrained underneath. "I've got something to do, something that's going to affect you whether you like it or not. In fact, it'll determine whether or not you can still live your shallow lifestyle.

"But I can't do it until after my birthday, and I had promised Dumbledore to endure you until then. So be my uncle for once and let them stay!"

Vernon sputtered, the large, throbbing vein in his neck threatening to burst. After some deliberation, Vernon reluctantly gestured to the trio, ordering them into the car. As they loaded their trunks into the trunk of Vernon's car, Ron whacked Harry on the back triumphantly and whispered, "You sure showed him, mate!"

Harry allowed himself a small smile.

The ride back to Privet Drive was awkward, especially with Vernon glancing at his rear view mirror every few minutes to check and make sure that the teens weren't doing any "funny business." It was a huge relief for all the occupants of the car when Vernon gruffly told them to get out.

Everything was just as Harry remembered. The lawn was immaculately mowed and surprisingly green, though he suspected Aunt Petunia had cheated just a bit. After all, he'd never been able to get rid of stray patches of wilted yellow strays, even after all the threats and punishments when he failed. Lined along the stone path from the driveway to the front door were yellow petunias and purple tulips, planted in a perfect line. Harry scowled; it was almost as if dirt was under his fingernails again, the scorching sun searing his back since Dudley had hidden the sunscreen.

Home sweet home, he thought bitterly. But despite everything, it was his home, even if he was having a hard time recalling any fond memories inside the newly painted white picket fence.

After they had gathered their trunks, Harry, Ron, and Hermione stepped over the threshold into the tense atmosphere of Number 4, Privet Drive.

Dudley Dursley, who looked like he'd rather be anywhere but in the presence of three "freaks," desperately tried to blend himself in with the rest of the room –a feat made in vain, for Dudley's bulk took up about half the hallway. Petunia's lips were pursed disapprovingly, her beady eyes icy, but Harry could have sworn he detected some flicker of nervousness in the way her jaw twitched as Ron gleefully pointed at the light switch. To her right, Vernon placed an arm around his wife protectively, legs spread at shoulder's width in a defensive stance.

"Er…hello again." Despite his earlier rebellion, Harry was finding it difficult to stay vigilant under the Dursley home's bright fluorescent lights, which never achieved the perfect luminescence of Hogwarts lamps, and heavy floral wallpaper. It was all just so painfully cheerful.

"I won't be feeding two extra mouths!" Petunia snapped, her chin raised arrogantly.

Ron's mouth dropped slightly in disgust at Petunia's open hostility. From the vague stories Harry sometimes told, Ron had gathered that his best friend hated his relatives, that they were as stupid as Muggles could be –but he had never thought they'd be like this.

Oh, you won't have to feed us," Hermione said, filling in the silence. "We've brought some food for ourselves."

Both the Grangers and the Weasleys had stuffed their children's bags with food and various survival trinkets, but truthfully they hadn't been initially supportive when their respective children had informed them that they'd be accompanying Harry on his quest. Having a real picture of the importance of Harry's search for the Horcruxes, Arthur and Molly Weasley had understood the payoff and the risks better; it was more a matter of Mrs. Weasley being terrified that Ron and her surrogate son would be hurt, or killed. It took a lot of convincing on Ron's part, but Mrs. Weasley eventually agreed that Ron should go with Harry –they could help look out for each other. Harry smirked, doubting that she would ever stopped worrying about them; which was why Ron had consented to sending his mother weekly owls informing her of their progress and welfare.

Hermione's parents had been more difficult to persuade. She was their only child, after all, and they still weren't very familiar with the wizarding world, even after six years of awareness and wide-eyed trips to Diagon Ally. Hermione told them that she would also owl them, and informed them of the dire need for them to do this, that she would be able to help keep them and the rest of the world safe.

But no amount of understanding or convincing would ever stop their parents from worrying or trying to help them in any way they could, whether it'd be advice from Mr. Weasley or a bag full of food from Mrs. Weasley and the Grangers.

Hermione fished around her trunk, pulling out a box of snacks her parents had sent them. "Here, would you like some? They're perfectly healthy, sugar free –my parents are dentists, you see."

But her last comment only made Petunia grip her husband's arm tighter, and Vernon to step out protectively in front of his wife. "We have your people working on our childrens' teeth?" Vernon demanded, his eyes practically disappearing as he attempted to glare at Hermione. Dudley, however, eyed the box of treats greedily.

Looking slightly alarmed at Vernon's outburst, Hermione quickly reassured him, "Oh, no, no, my parents are Muggles –non magic folk like you. They're not wizards."

Petunia's scowl deepened, her wrinkles becoming more prominent as her eyes darkened. "So you're like her."

"Like who, Mrs. Dursley?" Hermione scrunched her eyebrows together in confusion.

Petunia's gaze settled on Harry. "Like my freak of a sister."

Harry's fists clenched tightly, his knuckles turning white. Gritting his teeth furiously, Harry reached into his pocket for his wand, preparing to curse his aunt into oblivion. But before he could do anything, Ron had already sensed Harry's anger, quickly grabbing his arm and steering him towards the stairs. "C'mon," he muttered quietly. "Don't go having a row just yet…you're supposed to stay here, remember?"

Hermione followed them, her face reflecting both repulsion at the Dursleys' behavior and pity for their bigotry. The thump of their trunks was the only audible sound in the house, echoing through the hallway and up towards the low ceilings, until Hermione quietly cast a spell to levitate their heavy burden to the top of the stairs, dually saving them some trouble and causing outraged gasps from the Dursleys below them.

Once they were safely within Harry's room, Ron set down his trunk, scowling.

"Your relatives are gits."

Harry had to chuckle at that. "I'd think I've already noticed that, Ron."

Smiling slightly, Hermione suppressed a yawn. "I'm exhausted, are you?"

"Yeah," Harry said darkly. "Tense family reunions with people who hate you are very tiring."

Ron exchanged a worried glance with Hermione, but silently decided not to press the matter any further. Hermione whipped out her wand and gave it a wave; instantly, two sleeping bags materialized on the floor. She beamed, proud that her non verbal spell had worked efficiently.

"You're going to bed, er –sleeping bag?" Ron asked incredulously. "It's four o'clock in the bloody afternoon!"

"Of course not," Hermione denied calmly. "I'm just getting ready."

Ron stared at her as if she were a foreign beast. "You're mental."

Harry chuckled. At least despite everything that had happened in the past six years, one thing has remained exactly the same: Ron and Hermione still bickered like an old married couple.

His two friends joined Harry on his bed as they discussed carefree subjects. Ron made fun of Harry's cousin and proceeded to imitate Dudley trying hide from them, puffing his face out in an attempt to make it as plump as Dudley's. He didn't even come close. Harry talked about Quidditch, who was currently the top seed in the rankings and why he thought Puddlemere United would sneak in an underdog victory, prompting Ron to suggest a fly around Privet Drive. Hermione immediately shot down that idea, pointing out that the neighborhood was filled with Muggles. "Do you want to get caught?" Hermione asked exasperatedly.

Not for the first time, Harry was immensely glad that his two best friends would be joining him. He had tried to put on a brave face for the school, for Dumbledore' memory, and it wasn't like he didn't know that it was his responsibility to find the Horcruxes and defeat Voldemort. At the same time, Harry couldn't help but feel apprehension and fear of what was to come. In reality, this burden has been on his shoulders ever since Voldemort had murdered the parents he never knew; the prophecy he had discovered a year ago had been just the fine print. If he succeeded, then he was fulfilling his purpose in the Wizarding World, the job that had been unknowingly assigned to him his whole life. If he botched the thing…then history would remember him as the Boy-Who-Failed, the wannabe hero who had crushed their hopes and broke whatever promise he had supposedly made when entering their world at eleven-years-old.

But most of all, he was scared of whoHarry Potter would be when the battle was over. Would he be dead, just another fallen name on a gravestone, or would he be alive without really living? Would he cease to be the Harry Potter those at Hogwarts knew him to be and become some kind of monster like Voldemort, or would he decline into a shell, pushing everyone he knows and loves away from him?

Would this war, his duty, break him?

Harry wasn't afraid of backing out at the last minute. He knew that he would finish this in honor of all those who fell in the fight against Voldemort. It was the aftermath that brought about the worst nightmares, his worst fears manifested in vague metaphors and frightening images. Though his nostrils only twisted into small slits and his mirrored reflection's green eyes faded to black before emerging blood red in his dreams, sometimes it was the abstract that claimed his terror more than reality.

Because he knows where he stands with Voldemort. He knows that the pale faced snake was trying to kill him, that Harry needed to somehow preserve his body and soul as he fumbled in the dark for some answers to the world's problems. He saw Quirrell, Barty Crouch. They couldn't have always been terrible people; even if they were, it was apparent to him that the occasionally dark intention had not fully been nurtured until they met Voldemort.

He'dfaced Voldemort before and survived. But each time Harry had felt himself change, ever so slightly, his innocence being stripped away little by little.

When it was all said and done, he didn't want to simply be the ghost of the boy who'd eagerly accepted an invitation into a world he'd seen as an escape from a miserable life.

Ron and Hermione had always brought out the best in him, and were the ideal people to help him save the world, no small feat in itself. Professor Dumbledore had said that Harry's greatest strength was his ability to love; he sincerely hoped that would still be there after their mission was over. He smiled as he recalled their discussion about Ron and Hermione coming with him; he'd feared they would get hurt, but mostly where that would leave him if he had to carry their bodies back, limp and heavy like Cedric had been. To spare them from pain, but also to selfishly prevent himself from witnessing their destruction, he'd wanted to do this alone.

However, they were stubborn buggers, and Harry was grateful for that.

Not surprisingly, the Dursleys hadn't bothered them at all, and the sky outside was soon streaked with blue and orange, the clouds dispersing into wispy lines in the air. Harry watched the dust linger in the streak of light by the window, breathing in the stuffy air of a room that had presumably not been vacuumed or even stepped in since last summer. Though he found himself missing the Scotland sunset, his four poster bed with red curtains and heavenly soft pillows, this room didn't feel out of place. The springs in the mattress were more prominent, sure, and he feared that if he laid on his bed he would send dust bunnies flying, but for some inexplicable reason it still felt like home.

His eyes drifted, peeking at the bed under heavy eyelashes. Suddenly the annoyance of springs poking him whichever way he turned no longer seemed important. Exhausted, Harry didn't bother to brush his teeth or change in pajamas; taking off his glasses and setting it on the nightstand in one fluid motion, he collapsed on the bed, drifting asleep as he heard the rustling of sleeping bags and a drowsy hoot from Hedwig.

Unlike most nights recently, he fell asleep easily. Sighing in satisfaction, he allowed himself to become immersed in the satisfying quiet of slumber.

"Harry! Harry, wake up!"

The pillow was soft; he never wanted to wake up. Murmuring into the pillow, his face squashed comfortably against it, he wished he was better at nonverbal magic so he could shut the curtains with a single unspoken spell. "Just a few more minutes, Hermione…"

There was a slight pause. "Who's Hermione, your girlfriend?"

Harry was sorely tempted to roll his eyes. Of course it was Hermione; who else could it be? It was too early in the morning and he was far too groggy to accurately place the voice, but logically, it must be his bushy haired friend. Definitely isn't Aunt Petunia, he thought. And the girlfriend dig was definitely Ron's idea –that must be why there had been a pause.

"Really funny," Harry said a little louder, making sure Ron could hear too. "Bloody hyenas, you lot are. Seriously, let me go back to sleep; don't want to be tired when we go down and face the wrath of the Dursleys –"

"Dursley? You mean Vernon, Petunia, and Dudley?"

Harry scowled as he started to wake up, his mind picking up with increasing clarity the note of confusion in Hermione's voice. Joke's over. "Yes, Hermione, those Dursleys."

"Why do you keep on calling me 'Hermione'?"

Pounding a fist against the pillow, he forced his body to roll around and face her. "Because you are –"

His tongue froze when instead of bushy brown hair forcibly tamed by a hair clip, there was a girl with flaming red hair sitting on the edge of his bed. But what really shocked him was the fact that she looked so much like the laughing pictures of his mother, amusement sparkling in her eyes. He rubbed his face, the drool off his lips, thinking he must be having another vivid dream, that this was Voldemort or his subconscious's way of punishing him.

It wasn't his mother. He couldn't see squat, but he could make out her eye color, which was certainly not green.

Quickly, Harry groped behind him for his glasses and wand, only to find himself reaching in thin air.

"Looking for these?" the girl asked, holding both items in her hands. She had apparently gotten them from the bedside table on the other side of where it normally was. Harry snatched his possessions back, thrusting his glasses on and pointing his wand at the girl, whose hazel eyes widened in surprise.

She didn't lookdangerous. But Harry had learned first hand not to judge a book by its cover –literally. The incident in his second year with the diary Horcrux was enough to make him wary of appearances.

"Harry, what's wrong?" She bit her lip nervously, but she didn't take any retreating steps.

"Who're you?" Harry growled, forgetting that he wasn't wearing anything but boxers. He stood up so that he was in front of the girl, at an advantage in an offensive position. His thoughts wandered to Ron and Hermione. Where were they? And where was he? This was definitely not in Number 4, Privet Drive; the room was completely different! It was filled with wizard items, from live action Quidditch posters to a bookcase full of volumes on spells and potions. Harry scanned the strange room with wild eyes, hoping that his friends were okay –

The girl looked at his shirtless body with a wrinkled nose. "Put on a shirt or something, Harry! I don't need to see all that. Hermione, maybe, but for me, that's gross."

"Answer the question!" Harry demanded sharply, making the girl jump.

She squinted at him. "You really don't know?"

Before Harry could utter another impatient demand, the door behind him swung open. Harry instinctively leaped to the side, allowing him to keep an eye on both the girl and the newcomer. But the person that strode in was the last person he'd expected. Harry had anticipated a Death Eater, Voldemort, Uncle Vernon, not –not –

Sirius Black walked in breezily, ignorant of the tension in the room. He spotted the red haired girl sitting on the bed and affectionately ruffled her hair, causing her to squeal in protest. "Uncle Sirius!" she whined indignantly, which only caused Sirius to laugh with aching familiarity.

Uncle Sirius? Part of Harry's brain registered, but the majority of him was frozen stiff in shock, and the wind seemed to have been knocked out of him. Sirius was alive, he was here –

It couldn't be. The laugh was Sirius's, the movements, the eyes. Harry's mind flashed back to that horrible day, and he felt helpless as the image of Sirius falling back and disappearing behind the veil consumed his vision. It felt like he was there, all over again, his godfather's hand stretching out to him.

His grip on his wand slackened, and it finally slipped through his fingers and onto the rug.

Soft as the sound was, Sirius turned his attention onto Harry, tilting his head to one side as he quickly examined his godson's stiff posture, bulging eyes and twitching fingers, which were attempting to grasp the wand that was no longer there.

Everything felt like jelly, his knobby knees fighting not to shake, to give any more weakness away than he already has. Merlin, what would Harry have given a year ago for something like this, to see Sirius again healthy, happy, and whole. He could feel his heart beating fast and hard against his chest, shifting nervously as he inferred that the other occupants of the room could hear it clearly.

He shook his head, ridding himself of the itchy strand of hair that had fallen into his face. This wasn't real, he needed to accept that –Sirius was dead. Why, when he had finally accepted that his beloved godfather was truly gone, would Sirius appear? He didn't think he could bear it if he lost his godfather for the second time especially in light of Dumbledore's recent death by Snape's traitorous hand. It was funny; Snape had despised the Marauders, including Wormtail, but in the end, he had committed the very crime that rat had done, and murdered the man had that trusted him without fail, given him an undeserved second chance…

It was decided. This Sirius was a trick, a ploy to weaken his defenses. It was a low blow meant to knock him off kilter and distract him from his mission –this was Voldemort's doing.

"And here's the birthday boy!" Sirius boomed as he enveloped Harry into a familiar and comforting hug. Harry told himself to push this false Sirius away, to resist the urge to cling to his godfather forever. He would hear Snape's low gravelly voice in his head as his resolve failed: Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves…

He found himself welcoming Sirius's strong arms and his familiar scent, which not too surprisingly always smelled a bit like a wet dog.

Wait, "birthday boy?" But his birthday isn't today.

"Better get changed, then, Harry." Sirius slapped Harry heartily on the back. "Everyone's waiting downstairs."

"Everyone?" Harry asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

However, the mistrust was missed on Sirius. "Oh, don't worry; they're not all here yet. We're still waiting on Remus and your dad. I think he said something about getting some Firewhiskey –becoming a man and all, you know." Sirius grinned at him proudly.

Harry felt his heart skip a beat at the mention of his father. Was this some kind of weird illusion where all the dead suddenly came to life again? But Harry didn't know the red haired girl, and Remus isn't dead –

Blinking furiously, he tried desperately to wake up. He pinched his arm, thought really hard about home, was even tempted to tap his feet together three times, even though he didn't have any red sparkling shoes. He tried to maintain his control, to keep his panic buried under the surface –he can't let the enemy know that he's on to him. But what the hell was he supposed to do? He didn't know how many were out there, what their game is. He understood, on a strategic level, why they had chosen to wear Sirius's face. But why the stranger? Why in this house that feels like it should be familiar but is nothing like home?

Sirius frowned when he noticed Harry's wand on the floor. Gingerly picking it up, he handed the wand to his godson, who paled even more at seeing his outstretched hand.

"You look like you've just seen a ghost," Sirius chuckled.

Harry didn't answer. He found his eyes wandering towards the red head still sitting on his bed, expecting her to say something to "Uncle Sirius" about Harry's hostile behavior earlier. But she merely stared determinedly back at Harry, eyes narrowed ever so slightly and lips pursed, but said nothing.

"Well," Sirius said, breaking Harry's thoughts. "We'd better get out of here and let Harry get ready." He turned around and began to walk out, pausing at the doorway. "You coming?" he asked the girl, who nodded and, with one last worried glance at Harry, closed the door behind her.

After standing in stunned silence for a minute, Harry sat down heavily on the bed, the springs groaning in protest. He laid back and stared at the ceiling, thoughts bursting through the nerves and cortexes of his brain –at least, that's what he assumed was happening based on his vague memory of primary school biology. Setting aside the fact that it was apparently his birthday and they were expecting him to change into something decent, something that wasn't overly large on him or grey as elephant skin, he ran through all the scenarios he could think of. It had to be some kind of trap, what else could it possibly be? But Sirius was just so Sirius that it made Harry doubt that theory. Or perhaps he just wanted to find a reason.

Sighing heavily, feeling his shoulders rise and fall with the weight of yet another burden, Harry decided that he'd play along for now, do a bit of digging about this place. He opened the closet and to his surprise found a row of hanging clothes and neatly folded stacks of jeans. Clearly someone had taken the time to do his laundry, since he didn't nearly care as much about wrinkles when he did laundry for the Dursleys. But as he zipped up his jeans and threw a shirt over his head, he realized something.

We're still waiting for Remus and your dad. He'd noticed it before, but with the shock of seeing Sirius, Harry hadn't really given it as much thought as he should have. Releasing the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, Harry knew with frightening clarity that when he went downstairs he would see people that he didn't know, save for some photos and stories, people that he hasn't seen alivein sixteen years. Not since a three flashes of green light had stolen his life away.

Downstairs in this strange house, Lily and James Potter would be waiting for the birthday boy.