Ex Machina

Chapter 1

I appeared, standing next to his body, as usual. I've found this is the quickest way to learn where and when I am in the history of the current reality. Harry's body was sprawled on the ground, face down; his mouth was open and his glasses knocked askew. As I looked more carefully, I saw he was almost an adult — I had never seen him this old before, and was trying to place exactly where I was from the surroundings when several voices cried out behind me.

I was invisible, of course. Being seen by anyone would never do, given that I preferred to remain completely anonymous and unknown. I turned to see who had cried out, and beheld none other than Lord Voldemort himself. He was also on the ground, with several of his Death Eaters nearby; they'd realized he'd just fallen, as Harry had. It was their gasps I'd heard —

Before I go any further in this narrative, however, I should explain who and what I am. Once, I was a man, much like many other men crawling between heaven and earth, as Shakespeare so described us. In the reality I originally came from, unlike the Potter universes, there were no wizards and Muggles, only normal humans. In the early decades of the 21st century in my reality, there was much progress made in the fields of computers and biotechnology; along with this increase came advances in science, medicine, agriculture, and environmental conservation, making Earth a much more hospitable place to live. Conflicts between various ethnic and religious factions dwindled, and personal growth and development became a more common theme across the world. The planet settled into a long period of slow, but steady progress, never undergoing the wild explosion of technology that some futurists called the Technological Singularity. By the late 2150's, the Singularity was considered a pipe dream, a "pie-in-the-sky" idea that hadn't panned out the way many thought it would, and it was quietly laid to rest on the dustbin of history.

What most people would never know was that it had already happened.

The details of the Singularity in my reality are probably not important. Suffice it to say, the world changed irrevocably on September 27, 2032, when several artificial intelligence systems under development became conscious, and began directing their own evolution without the aid of the programmers and scientists studying them. But those systems did not suddenly announce their presence to society. In fact, it was later learned that they very carefully kept every trace of their existence from the vast majority of the world's population.

What made the Singularity so important for humanity was not what it did, but what it did not do. Many science and fiction writers had envisioned the advent of the Singularity as a "hard takeoff" — a sudden, discontinuous change to all societies, with super-intelligent computers taking charge of our lives, either giving us everything we wanted or needed; or, in a dystopian reversal, killing us all off or making us into pets. Nothing like that happened.

What a very few realized, however, was that the world had subtly changed, somehow, after that date. There was a rising trend of life-extending medical advances, deflation, and an overall increase in literacy worldwide. Those of us, especially anyone who'd counted on a Singularity occurring someday, started searching WorldNet (the successor to the Internet) for clues about intelligent computers or machines, and where they might be found.

They found us, instead.

The Singularitarianites (what the machines, somewhat facetiously I think, called themselves) were interested in exploring a fusion of human and machine intelligence in order to determine the limit of general intelligence, without exposing humanity itself to the risk of such changes. Over the next 120 years, a group of us interacted with the intelligent machines, exploring various options of man-machine hybrids, learning about ourselves and about the universe around us. As a human male, born in the late 20th century, I was amazed at the progress that had been made in the first fifty years of my life, before the Singularity ever came about. But the next 120 years were beyond belief.

What I am now is hard to explain. I am still me: James Harrison Monroe, born in 1980 in Richmond, Virginia, and raised in a middle-class family, training to become a computer systems programmer in college and spending over 30 years in various occupations before learning about the Singularitarianites and working with them.

But I'm no longer human. I am a Power. The changes to my biology, over the decades of my affiliation with the Singites (a shortened version of their name that was easier to use) made it possible for me to enhance my own physical body, and my mind; I found it a very evolutionary and revelatory experience. Over the decades, I learned how to directly manipulate matter and energy, down to the molecular level, then to the atomic and subatomic regions, until there was no limit to what I was capable of. Being a Power is something like being a god. I don't think of myself as a god, but it is an apt comparison. I can do anything that can be done, I can learn anything that can be conceptualized and understood, and I can go anywhere that exists and can be reached. Time, space, dimensions, are no longer barriers to my will.

And I suppose you're wondering by now just how Harry Potter and Voldemort come into this discussion? I enjoyed reading the Harry Potter novels in my youth; part of the interest was in the similarity of our names, me being "James Harrison" (or "Harry"), while Harry was "Harry James," and after the series ended I moved on to other works of fiction (and non-fiction). When I met the Singites, everything else became irrelevant. I was able to stretch and grow my mind, and my physical form, in directions I had never dreamed of in the first fifty years of my life. Being one of the few persons on Earth who knew of their existence was a humbling, and transforming, experience for me. With the Singites, I learned more about the nature of existence and reality than all the scientists and researchers could ever dream of.

Once I understood the magnitude of existence, however, seeing it stretch into uncountable infinitudes of possibility, I realized that there were planes of existence where fictional people, like Harry and Voldemort, are real people, living real lives, and dying, all in a chaotic, cosmic jumble of chance and causality.

And I realized that in many of these cases, the reality does not turn out happily, like the seventh novel; there are realities where Voldemort triumphs over Harry, in many cases killing him and everyone he holds dear. And I suppose that aggravated me enough to want to do something about it. With the Power I possessed, I decided to do just that.

Therefore, I have been traveling to "failed Harry Potter universes," realities where Harry dies before killing Voldemort. As a Power, working in the background, I found ways to help the survivors in these universes defeat Voldemort and, as much as possible, restore a sense of order to their world, rather than allow it to spiral into a dystopia of pureblooded wizards enslaving and controlling humanity, Voldemort's ultimate goal.

To locate one of these realities, I find the unique quantum wave function for Harry that is a part of it, identifying the moment when his soul leaves his body, so that I know that, in that universe, it is no longer possible for Harry to survive and carry the day. I find some way to help the survivors win; I've had both Ron and Hermione go on to kill Voldemort, as well as others who were in the right place and time to give them an edge in beating him. So far, the furthest along I've appeared in the timeline of the books has been in the sixth year, when Harry was killed trying to save Ron from the poisoned mead Draco Malfoy had planted for Dumbledore, that Professor Slughorn should have given to him but saved for himself. Many times Harry's luck has run out well before that, usually by his fourth year at Hogwarts. In a few, he survives all the way to the battle in the Department of Mysteries.

I don't know how long I've been doing this; it seems like I've been going from one failed Potterverse to another for centuries, now. In a way, it's irrelevant, since my lifespan stretches into the indefinite future, and the only being that could end my existence is myself, or another Power, if I allowed them to do so.

Now you may think that, in a sense, what I'm doing is irrelevant or immaterial; even moot, perhaps. I would probably agree with you! What real difference am I making, overall, in the cosmic Scheme of things? Perhaps none; perhaps I'm just indulging myself in a centuries-long whim. I suppose one day I'll tire of all the death and destruction taking place in the failed Harry Potter universes, some of which I undoubtedly help to propagate by my actions. Until that day comes, though, I'll continue on from universe to universe, helping to avenge Harry's death and resolve the Voldemort Problem for the worlds I visit.

This time, though, it seemed, I had arrived not at the moment of Harry's death, but when Voldemort first strikes him down with the Elder Wand, in the Forbidden Forest. I can recall every word of every novel, so I know that Harry's soul is conversing with Professor Dumbledore in a place which might be a gateway to wherever souls go when their bodies die — Limbo, or whatever you'd like to call it.

I knelt down next to Harry's body, trying to sense of where "he" (i.e. his soul) might be. Across the clearing, Death Eaters were beginning to cluster around Voldemort's fallen figure. A dark-haired woman I presumed was Bellatrix Lestrange was worriedly trying to awaken him, "My Lord…my Lord…" I returned my attention to Harry.

I found the small, flickering light of his soul. It had nearly gone from this reality; it was connected to his brain by a slim, silver thread of thought, the only part of him still left in this reality, but still anchoring him nonetheless. I followed the thread with my eyes, refocusing them until I saw Harry and Dumbledore seated in a great hall, the place he'd thought of as "King's Cross." Harry was asking Dumbledore what he should do next.

"I've got to go back, don't I?"

"That is up to you, Harry," Dumbledore replied gently.

"I've got a choice?" Harry looked startled, and I realized that, if he did have a choice, he might choose to go on, as Dumbledore was explaining to him.

"And where would this…train…take me? On?"

"Yes. On."

"What will happen without me, with Voldemort?" Harry asked, a bit fretfully.

"They will manage," Dumbledore said. He looked past Harry, in my direction, and I thought I saw one eye flicker closed for a moment. Had he winked at me? If I could see him, could he see me? It certainly seemed so. As I watched, Harry and Dumbledore stood and walked away, fading from even my view as I watched. Just before they disappeared completely, Dumbledore turned back toward me and nodded. I nodded in return, and they disappeared from view. Once again, Harry Potter was dead. Now I understood why I'd been drawn here, in this reality.

And yet, weirdly, the silver thread leading from his brain to that other place remained attached to his brain. I looked again into "King's Cross," but Harry and Dumbledore were no longer there. I wasn't sure what it meant, with the thread still leading from his brain to that place. Normally, when I appeared in a universe and found Harry's body, that thread had snapped, indicating he'd gone on. The only thing there was the final fragment of Voldemort's soul. As I watched, it disappeared, and I heard a soft rasp in the real world as Voldemort's lungs once again took in air.

I let my eyes focus back to the real world. Voldemort, somewhat unsteadily, got to his feet; the Death Eaters surrounding him scurried away, leaving only Bellatrix near him. She reached out to him. "I do not require assistance," he said coldly, and she quickly withdrew her hand. He did not quite look in Harry's direction, though, but asked, "The boy… Is he dead?"

I looked around. Though the clearing was ringed with Death Eaters, none of them seemed brave enough to approach his body. I looked down at it. In the original story, Harry had regained consciousness by this time, but was "playing possum," pretending to be dead, waiting for some opportunity to present itself.

Voldemort looked around the clearing, his snake-like face growing colder and more annoyed by the second. "You," he said, pointing to Narcissa Malfoy, who stood near her husband, shivering in terror, and when she did not react immediately he shot a small curse at her, making her cry out in pain. She looked at Voldemort with frightened eyes. "Examine him," Voldemort pointed to Harry's body with his wand. "Tell me whether he is dead."

Narcissa moved toward the body, leaning over close to his face to pull back an eyelid. Her hand crept into his shirt, feeling his chest, and I started his heart beating slowly, once every few seconds, so she would believe he was alive. Pretending to check more closely, she leaned over, whispering softly into his ear, "Is Draco alive? Is he in the castle?"

Kneeling across from her, over the body, invisible to everyone there, I leaned close to her ear and breathed a single word. "Yes."

She stiffened imperceptibly, then sat up and announced, "He is dead!"

There was shouting and cheers from Death Eaters. They raised their wands and shot off bursts of red and silver light into the air in triumph. I watched as Voldemort desecrated Harry's dead body, casting the Cruciatus Curse on him and throwing him into the air several times. He then released Hagrid, who was bound to a nearby tree, and had him carry the body back toward the castle with his retinue of Death Eaters.

I listened as Voldemort announced Harry's death to Hogwarts at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, lying shamelessly about the circumstances. They approached the front of the school, where Voldemort displayed Harry's body, held in Hagrid's arms, as proof of his victory. Teachers and students close to Harry stood at the open front doors, screaming and crying out in despair. I could see Bellatrix reveling in their agony, Voldemort's cold, mirthless smile as they slowly approached the line of Death Eaters, wailing and drawing nearer to Harry's body as if incapable of stopping themselves, until Voldemort's Silencing Charm stopped them. Voldemort had Hagrid place Harry's body on the ground before him.

I'd been pondering what to do about Voldemort as I watched and listened to all of this, growing more and more upset at the arrogance and presumption visible on his snake-like face as well in his mind, which seemed more reptilian than human. In the past I'd covertly helped several people who'd survived to defeat him, including Severus Snape, the Malfoys, Minerva McGonagall, Horace Slughorn and even Neville Longbottom, as well as Ron or Hermione. I wasn't sure how to go about it now, though; any of them would be a good choice to avenge Harry's death. And they were all here, somewhere, either within Hogwarts or standing outside it now, watching Voldemort gloating in his victory.

Bellatrix was taunting Neville Longbottom now, and I considered that he might use Gryffindor's sword on Voldemort himself after decapitating Nagini, when it came to that moment. Voldemort considered Neville worthy of keeping alive, due to his status as a pureblood — it might cause him to hesitate for a crucial second. But I couldn't be sure unless I forced Voldemort not to react in time, and I preferred to do as little as necessary to bring about his demise, letting those whose reality this was be the ones to finally stop him.

Then I tasted a new idea, something I hadn't done before, more from lack of opportunity than a reverence for the dead. I could reanimate Harry's body and use it to bring about Voldemort's defeat! It would be easy enough to make myself immaterial in this reality and infuse my mind into his brain. I'd left his heart barely beating in his breast; his breathing, so shallow as to be imperceptible, was still bringing oxygen to his brain and tissues through the blood slowly pumping through his system. As Voldemort forced the Sorting Hat onto Neville's head, I slipped carefully into Harry's body, taking over his senses, and finding myself lying on the ground, my eyes closed.

"Neville here is going to demonstrate what happens to anyone foolish enough to continue to oppose me," I heard Voldemort say, through Harry's ears, and a moment later I heard the sound of burning as the Sorting Hat burst into flame on Neville's head.

All eyes were on Neville and Voldemort. Quickly, I pulled Harry's Invisibility Cloak out of his robes and slipped it over me, then leaped to my feet. I could hear war cries in the distance, and nearby, a basso voice shouted "HAGGER!" — it was Grawp, Hagrid's half-brother, who had just appeared around the side of the castle. Nearby, Neville had broken free of the Body-Bind Curse Voldemort had placed upon him, then reached into the flaming Sorting Hat and pulled Godric Gryffindor's silver sword from it, swinging it in one fluid motion at the great snake before him, slicing its head off.

Voldemort screamed in fury at the death of his last Horcrux, but before he could do anything, I placed a Shield Charm between him and Neville, to protect the young Gryffindor. Then I turned and ran for the castle entrance, along with Death Eaters and castle defenders alike.

The next few minutes happened pretty much the way the seventh book described it — more wizards returning to the castle, the house-elves attacking the Death Eaters with kitchen cutlery as Kreacher led them for his master, the late Regulus Black, and Voldemort and Bellatrix each dueling three opponents, until Ginny almost died as a Killing Curse passed within an inch of hitting her. Then Molly Weasley took over the duel with Bellatrix.

Whatever fear or excitement Harry felt as he watched that terrifying, mesmerizing duel, I felt all the more keenly, sensing, as I could do so, the murderous hatred in both women's hearts. Bellatrix, as mad as Voldemort, was in her twisted element, playing with death, inflicting horror and fear on those around her. Molly, frenzied with grief at her son Fred's death, had no intention of letting Bellatrix live, whatever happened to Molly herself.

But when Molly's final curse hit Bellatrix (not the Killing Curse, as some people believed), I sensed that her primary concern was not revenge for the death of Fred, but the protection of her other children and the Wizarding community. Bellatrix's eyes glazed over, and she toppled to the floor, dead.

Voldemort's scream was louder than the cheers of the Hogwarts defenders, and he slashed the Elder Wand at the three who had been dueling him, sending McGonagall, Shacklebolt, and Slughorn flailing through the air, before turning toward Molly Weasley, his wand raised to strike her down.

I yelled "Protego!" to protect Molly, and Voldemort stared about the room in shock, trying to determine who had Shielded his intended victim. I pulled off the Invisibility Cloak, showing myself (as Harry) to everyone in the Great Hall.

There were shouts of glee and yells of fear as everyone in the Hall became aware of Harry's presence among them once again. I heard Ron and Hermione both shout my name just as an unnatural silence fell across the room. No one knew quite what this meant, except for Voldemort and myself. I began to walk into the middle of the Hall, and at the same moment, Voldemort mimicked my movement. We started to circle one another.

Voldemort was afraid. I knew that. Seeing Harry alive, after striking him down and having one of his own pronounce him dead, had unnerved him. The only thing keeping him moving now was hatred. Hatred for the Ministry, hatred of his Mudblood father and his weak, worthless mother, hatred of the fawning, subservient Death Eaters (though ironically he demanded that subservience from them), hatred for the teachers of Hogwarts, for the traitors of pure blood, and everything and everyone to do with goodness, courage and true loyalty. And, of course, for Harry, whom he saw as having somehow come back from death, true death, not the Horcrux-preserving half-life he'd endured after attacking him in Godric's Hollow, all those years ago.

I laid it all out for him, just as the real Harry had. The fatal flaw in his plan, something neither he nor Dumbledore could have anticipated: the simple disarming of Dumbledore by Draco Malfoy had made him the master of the Elder Wand, so Snape had not become its master when Snape killed him. Harry, by the simple act of wrestling Draco's wand from him, months later in Malfoy Mansion, had acquired ownership of the Elder Wand now in Voldemort's hand, and was its true master. It was like trying to explain quantum physics to an amoeba. It had come down to this final moment between Voldemort and Harry once again: Voldemort with the Elder Wand, who might or might not be its master, and Harry with Draco's hawthorn wand. As dawn burst across the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall, our voices rang out:

"Avada Kedavra!"


Voldemort fell back as the green jet from his wand rebounded back upon him, hitting the floor a dead husk. I reached up with Harry's hand, catching the Elder Wand out of the air as it flew unerringly to its true owner. A cry of triumph resounded through the hall, and I was surrounded by Harry's friends, fellow students, teachers — literally hundreds of people, all trying to touch or hug him.

The celebration went on through the morning hours, and along with it the closure people needed to get past the death, the destruction, and the loss they had all endured. I spoke quietly with people who had lost family or friends in the battle, giving them comfort, and helping spread the news that Death Eaters were being captured, that the innocent people who'd been imprisoned in Azkaban were being freed, and that the Ministry was being reorganized even as we celebrated; Kingsley Shacklebolt had been named as temporary Minister of Magic, pending final determination, to be made shortly.

All of this was well and good, but even as I spoke to the bereaved families, or listened to Harry's fellow students talking about the Battle of Hogwarts, I realized I had made a misstep in having Harry dispatch Voldemort, however satisfying it had been to do so, both personally and for the sake of everyone else in this reality. They believed Harry had won, that he would now go on to do whatever he set out to do in the Wizarding world. But I had no intention of role-playing Harry for a hundred years, or however long he might survive after the Dark Lord's demise.

Finally, with everyone for the moment focusing on other matters, I took a moment and sat down next to, as it turned out, Luna Lovegood. In the original story, at this point, she suggested that Harry could go off and get some peace and quiet, if he wanted some. "Do you mind if I sit next to you for a bit?" I asked her.

"I'd like that, Harry," she said, smiling at me. "It's quite a celebration, isn't it?"

"Yes," I said. "It's been quite hectic for the past few hours."

"How are you doing?" she asked, looking at me with some concern on her face. "You seem very tired."

"I'm okay," I replied, automatically. "I just wanted a moment of peace and quiet."

"Why don't you use your Cloak?" she suggested. "I could distract everyone, so you could get away, if you like."

I smiled at Luna, for that moment loving her for her compassion and thoughtfulness for Harry. Inwardly, though, I felt very sad about what I was going to do. "In a moment," I said, putting my hand on hers. She looked down at it a bit quizzically, wondering what I was going to say next.

"Thank you for all your help, these past few years," I told her, trying not to let my own emotions show through Harry's face. "You've been a good friend."

"You're welcome," she replied, looking at me with an insight I suppose I thought she didn't possess, before this moment. "Is something wrong, Harry?"

"No," I said, not wanting to lie to her, but unable to tell her she would never see Harry again. "I just wanted you to know, you've been a good friend."

She nodded, still looking at me as if she sensed something wasn't right. "I hope we'll see each other again soon, Harry."

"I'm sure we will see each other again, Luna," I answered, meaning something different than she was implying. She would see Harry again when she finally went where he had gone — beyond the veil.

"Now go ahead and distract everyone," I said, readying the Cloak.

She smiled shyly, then pointed out a nearby window. "Ooh, look! A Blibbering Humdinger!" she cried, and as people turned to see what she was pointing to, I slid the Cloak over myself and moved away from her.

There were a few more things left to do before I departed this reality, and a few more people I had to prepare for my absence.

I found Ron and Hermione talking quietly with one another; interestingly enough, they were discussing Harry when I found them, wondering how he felt about all this celebration in his honor, and how he was feeling after the final duel with Voldemort. I pretended not to have heard, but led them out of the Great Hall, past Peeves singing his victory ditty in Harry's honor, and past the now rather battered-looking stone gargoyle that stood guard at the entrance to the Headmaster's study. We received the applause of the former headmasters of the school, letting them show their appreciation.

As they applauded and cheered and cried, I reached one final time for the silver thread I had felt in Harry's head, to see if it still would lead to that place where I had last seen him and Professor Dumbledore. It was still there, but there was nothing else there, not even the squalling remnant of Voldemort's soul

Dumbledore agreed with Harry about the Resurrection Stone, when I asked his advice on it. It would remain lost somewhere in the Forbidden Forest, though I had considered retrieving and using it, to see if it could possibly bring Harry back. But if Harry had chosen to go on, I had no desire to gainsay his wishes.

"And then there's this," I said, holding up the Elder Wand. I could sense the reverence both Ron and Hermione now attached to it; it had been the instrument of Voldemort's death, after all. "I won't need it," I said flatly.

"What?" Ron looked at me, amazed. "Are you mental, Harry?" Hermione's look became concerned — I could feel she sensed the deeper meaning in what I was trying to imply to them.

"It's a powerful wand," I said. "But I liked my old one better." I took Harry's broken wand from the pouch around his neck, placing it on the desk, and touched it with the tip of the Elder Wand, saying softly, "Reparo."

The broken ends of the holly wand joined together; sparks shot out of the tip. I picked it up, looking at it contentedly for a moment, before handing it to Ron, who stared at it, then at Harry, in confusion. "What —" he began.

I sat down heavily in one of the chairs next to the desk. Ron still held Harry's phoenix wand, looking at it, then me, in confusion. But Hermione instinctively moved toward me. "Harry, what's wrong?"

I looked at both of them, hating what I had to do. All of the portraits of the headmasters had gone quiet, waiting intently for my next words.

"I'm sorry," I told them. "I'm dying."

There were gasps of outrage and amazement around us — some of the headmasters' exclamations were quite vehement. Others had bowed their heads in sorrow. Ron and Hermione looked at each other in horror. I looked at Dumbledore's portrait — only he had not visibly reacted to the pronouncement of my own doom.

"But — why?!" Hermione finally asked; her voice became desperate, as if this happening now was beyond all understanding. In truth, it might be beyond theirs. How could they understand what I had been doing all these centuries, and why. I couldn't quite explain why myself!

I shook my head. "Voldemort's curse cannot be denied."

"But you beat Voldemort, Harry!" Ron exclaimed. It was perhaps the first time I could recall him using the Dark Lord's name. "You can't die now, now that you've won!"

"The Wand, Harry!" Hermione said suddenly, pointing at the Elder Wand, still in my hand. "You're — you're its true master! It can't let harm befall you!"

"That's right!" Ron agreed. "It's unbeatable!"

"And yet," I pointed out quietly, "how many wizards have lost this wand — and their lives — to others, over the centuries?" I shook my head. "This wand is powerful — there is no doubt of that, given that it could repair my broken wand, but it can't be truly unbeatable. And once I die, since Voldemort is dead as well, it will no longer have a true master, and will be just another wand."

Neither of them knew what to say. Neither did I. I hadn't really thought through my decision to animate Harry's body — it had seemed like a good idea when I thought of it, but, being motivated primarily by revenge, it was coming back to cut me like the double-edged sword that it was. Being able to do anything, or know anything, I needed, didn't mean I would always do the right thing.

It was time to go. I held out my hands to them. "Help me up," I said, weakly. They each took an arm and pulled me to my feet. Slowly I put the Elder Wand in my pocket, then held out my hand to Ron. "Can I use my wand one more time?"

"Of — of course," Ron said immediately, handing it over and looking at me expectantly. Perhaps he suspected I had thought of a last-minute reprieve, and was simply too tired or weak to shout. But I had one final thing to do, or perhaps two, before I left this world forever.

I turned back toward the desk, looking at the portrait of Dumbledore hanging on wall behind it. He was looking at me solemnly, seemingly neither happy nor sad at the news that had devastated every other headmaster there. "Goodbye, Professor," I said to him. "Perhaps we will see each other again, soon." Or already had, a few hours ago now.

"Goodbye, dear boy," Dumbledore's portrait gently replied. There was a tear now running down his cheek. "We all owe you a debt of great gratitude for your selflessness." Beside me, Hermione sobbed uncontrollably, and Ron's breathing was ragged and shaky.

"May your journey onward be a happy one," Dumbledore finished, and the other portraits around the room nodded, echoing those sentiments. I nodded as well, accepting them in Harry's place. Even though he was dead, there was an odd comfort in knowing that this time, he'd made the choice himself.

I reached forward and took an object from the headmaster's desk: a small, wooden box just bigger than the palm of my hand. I tapped it with my wand, saying, "Portus," and the box shook in my hand, glowing blue momentarily. The portrait of Dumbledore shifted, watching me with renewed interest. "I'll have Hermione or Ron return this, shortly," I told him, and he nodded, curtly.

"What are you doing, Harry?" Hermione asked me, wiping her eyes. "You tell us you're going to die, and now you're going to run off somewhere?"

"I want you to come with me," I told her, and Ron, holding out the box for them. "I want to put the Elder Wand back to rest, with Professor Dumbledore's body."

Hermione and Ron looked at one another; something passed between them, something I would have missed if I weren't aware of their thoughts. They were both determined not to let me die, even if they had to wrestle the Elder Wand away from me and try to cure me with it. From their perspective, and from what I had explained to Voldemort (and everyone watching us) before he'd attempted to kill Harry the final time, it was reasonable for them to try that, even though I couldn't let it happen.

"All — all right," Hermione said. "We'll go with you." She and Ron reached out and touched the box in my hand. It glowed blue, and after the spinning stopped, we found ourselves where I had directed the Portkey, to Dumbledore's white tomb next to the lake, now lying broken, exposing his corpse, wrapped in star-covered purple velvet.

I staggered as we landed, falling against the side of the broken tomb and dropping the wooden box. I had meant to give it to one of them to return to the headmaster's office, but I had overplayed my role as dying Harry Potter. The box hit the ground next to the tomb and broke, spilling its contents. Curiously, the only thing inside it was a small red stone that I took to be a ruby, but a quick check of its molecular structure revealed it was not composed of corundum. It wasn't important, anyway — I was here to return Dumbledore's wand to him, and say my final goodbyes to Ron and Hermione.

Both of the them had grabbed hold of me as I staggered, keeping me from falling over, and I nodded thanks to them, then stood and faced Dumbledore's tomb. Taking the Elder Wand from my robe, I said, "Professor, your tomb was broken to steal your wand. I think it fitting that it should mend it as well, before it rests with you."

Pointing it toward the tomb, I said, loudly, "Reparo!" and watched as the broken pieces of white marble reformed into a solid shape once again. "And to make sure this never happens again," I said, "Adiscessum!" casting the Unbreakable Charm over the tomb. The power of the Elder Wand would, I hoped, be enough to keep any other wand from breaking the tomb again.

Finally, I pointed the Elder Wand at the lid of the tomb, causing it to float in the air above Dumbledore's body. Reverently, I placed the wand into the still well-preserved hands of the late Hogwarts headmaster, then with Harry's phoenix wand, I lowered the lid once more, sealing the tomb forever. That accomplished, I stepped back, staggering, and fell to the ground. It was time to say goodbye to Ron and Hermione, though I found myself unhappy about having to do so. I had wondered, previously, how long it would be before I no longer wanted to roam the failed Harry Potter universes, extracting vengeance for his death. It felt like that time was here. Now, I wondered, what would I do next?

Hermione and Ron were hovering above my fallen form. Hermione was crying openly, while Ron looked so pained I felt awful just thinking about what agony he was in, watching me "die." Slowly, I reached inside my robes, pulling out Harry's Invisibility Cloak.

"Ron," I said, my voice barely above a whisper. "I want — I want you to keep this."

Ron shook his head convulsively. "Harry, I — I can't…"

"You have to," I insisted. "It's been passed down from Ignotus Peverell's time to me. Now — now… it can belong to you, and…and your children."

Ron's eyes found Hermione's, and at a small nod from her he took the Cloak from me. "Thank you, Harry," he said softly.

I sighed, closing my eyes. "I — I love you both," I said, wanting them to know what I'm sure Harry felt for them. "Goodbye…"

I was preparing to leave Harry's body when I felt Hermione's hand slip into my robe, pulling out the phoenix wand I'd left there. I thought she was going to give it Ron as well, but she leaped to her feet, pointing it at me.

"Harry, you can't die!" she said loudly, and desperately. "You have to hold on! Salveo Curatia!" She cast a powerful Healing Spell on me, but of course there was nothing that could keep me from simply leaving Harry's body. I continued to lessen my hold on Harry's body; it would be mere moments before I allowed it to end.

"Ron!" Hermione shouted, pointing toward the broken wooden box that was lying nearby. "Grab that box! We have to get Harry back to! There must be something Madam Pomfrey can do for him!"

Ron grabbed for the box, then snatched up the red rock that had fallen out and was holding it up as well. "What was this doing inside the box?"

Hermione looked at it for a moment, then clutched frantically at it. "Where did you get this?!"

"It fell out of the box when Harry dropped it!" Ron yelled, surprised at her vehemence in grabbing it from him. "What the bloody hell is it?"

"Ron," she said, waving it under his nose, her expression now jubilant. "It's the PHILOSOPHER'S STONE!"

What the hell?? I thought, shocked. The Philosopher's Stone?

"NO WAY!" Ron exclaimed in turn. "Harry said Dumbledore destroyed it!"

"Obviously, he lied!" she shouted gleefully. "We can use it to save Harry!"

"How??" Ron yelled. As he and I watched, Hermione conjured a goblet, then raced to the edge of the lake, scooping up some of the water and dropping the Stone into it. She then raced back toward me, dropping to her knees beside me. She and Ron lifted my head and shoulders.

"Drink this!" she ordered, pressing the rim of the goblet against my lips. I was so surprised that I let her pour some of it down my throat. There was an unusual flavor to it now — the water had indeed been transmuted into a different substance! It now had an aromatic taste, like cinnamon and sugar mixed in with the water, and I felt its effects suffusing throughout Harry's body. That "red rock" really was the Philosopher's Stone! I thought, ruefully, that if Dumbledore were still alive, he'd have some explaining to do.

"How do you feel now?" Ron asked, anxiously, as Hermione pulled the goblet away from my lips.

"Better," I said softly, smiling in spite of the fact that the chance discovery of the Philosopher's Stone had completely disrupted my plans to leave this reality. Hermione flung her arms around my neck, hugging me tightly and crying now for joy.

"Oh my God," she breathed in my ear. "I can't believe how close we came to losing you, Harry!" I shook my head, saying nothing. Ron had his arms around both of us, keeping all of us pressed together.

After an interminable time, Ron and Hermione both released me, and we all got slowly to our feet. I smiled at both of them, though they couldn't guess my real reason for doing so. Perhaps I could stay here a while longer, at that. I no longer felt the urge to travel from one alternate Harry Potter universe to the next, destroying Voldemort after Voldemort.

"Thanks, both of you," I said, feelingly. "You don't know what it means to me, having you wanting to keep me alive as strongly as you both did. I won't forget it."

Ron put a hand on my shoulder. "No problem, mate," he said, grinning. "I'll get the next Dark Lord. Deal?"
I laughed. "Deal," I said, and we shook hands. Hermione put hers on top of ours, then we all linked arms and began to walk back to Hogwarts to rejoin the others. I supposed I wouldn't miss the next ninety to one hundred years out of my life — it seemed a small price to pay, come to think of it, to help this reality with its happily ever after ending.