(A/N: This story represents my favorite kind of AU, a "what-if" story: I tweak one element of the Potterverse and then watch the new dominoes fall. It was originally published on Portkey, under my pen-name of Paracelsus.

My thanks to my beta for this story, MirielleGrey, who so needed Yet One More Hobby. And ten points to anyone who spots the tie-in from The Incredibles.)

(Disclaimer: I should hope the fact that I'm discarding the Epilogue in favor of my own interpretation should convince you that I'm not Jo Rowling. If it doesn't, maybe the emptiness of my bank account will.)

"Coming Back Late"

by alchymie

I: How It Ended

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

Dumbledore's closing words continued to ring in Harry's ears – well, Harry's mind – as the vision of King's Cross faded from view. Harry would be returning to his body now, that having been his choice: he would awaken in the clearing, in the very midst of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. That meant he'd have to continue to play dead, he knew, until he had the chance to kill Nagini… then, and only then, would he be able to confront Voldemort for the final time.

But he couldn't feel his body.

Harry tried wiggling a toe (surely that would go unnoticed by his enemies, since he was wearing shoes). Nothing happened. He couldn't seem to remember how to wiggle. In fact, he didn't feel like he had a body at all. He felt like a breath of air, or a cloud, light and floating, and not located in any one spot.

Gradually, he began to see his surroundings. He got the impression of looking down at the clearing: there was his body lying limp, there were the Death Eaters, there was Voldemort being helped to his feet by Bellatrix Lestrange. Interesting, that… it looked as though Voldemort had fallen when Harry had been killed. Dumbledore had been right again: Voldemort's use of Harry's blood had linked them together even more firmly. Harry could see all of this, but not through his eyes: he saw from on high, as a disembodied spirit.

Oh, I get it now. I'm having one of those Out-of-Body Experiences that Aunt Petunia's bridge club used to talk about. Erm, maybe Trelawney said something about them, too – I wasn't paying attention. All right, fine, an Out-of-Body Experience. Can I please get back to having an In-Body Experience now?

But Harry's point of view didn't change. He continued to watch from above as events unfolded. He couldn't hear any words, but he watched as Voldemort cast a few Cruciatus Curses at his body. Then Hagrid was forced to pick up Harry's body and carry it out of the clearing, with Voldemort and the Death Eaters close behind.

Hey! That's my body! Hagrid, stop! I'm not really dead, Hagrid, don't cry, but I need my body back!

The last of the Death Eaters had left now, and still Harry's consciousness was suspended over the clearing. He tried to follow, so that he could reanimate his body in Hagrid's arms… but he had no experience with disembodiment. He didn't know how to move, or what to do – he was totally disoriented. But he had to get back to his body!

One possibility came to mind. Desperately, he cast his sight around the clearing again, seeking a glint of metal… There! There it is. Let's hope this works…

There it was indeed, the ring with the Resurrection Stone, lying where he'd dropped it. Harry had to assume that he was still its master, that it would respond to him as though he were alive – and simultaneously, that it could affect him as though he were dead. In his current twilight state, after all, both might be true.

He focused on his sight of the ring, tried to imagine what it had felt like on his finger… recalled the feeling when he'd summoned Sirius, Remus and his parents…

And Harry opened his eyes. Which was a wonderful thing! He had eyes again!

But then, why was he seeing the clearing in black and white?

He looked down at himself. His form was more than a ghost, but less than a person… yet it was real enough to allow himself to act like he had a body again. He could move his head, stretch his hands in front of him (he noted that the Resurrection ring was now on his finger – it felt very, very heavy to his semicorporeal self). Most important, he could walk… he could go after Voldemort. He immediately set out, realizing after a few steps that he was heading back to Hogwarts.

It was slow going. The ring weighed him down, so that it was a struggle to keep it on his finger – yet he had to keep it, to maintain even this semblance of a body. A couple of times, he was forcibly reminded that, while his body might not be fully solid, the ring was. He got the hang of it, eventually, and managed to avoid any further obstacles – but it was still taking longer than Harry liked.

He put the time to good use, planning what he would do when he rejoined his body. Assuming I can kill Nagini, right off… well, then I have to face Voldemort. I'm master of the Stone, and the Cloak – two of the Deathly Hallows. Can I use them, somehow, to counter the Elder Wand? Voldemort's its master, since he killed Snape, right there in the Shrieking Shack… and Snape had killed Dumbledore…

Half a mo. Didn't Dumbledore just say that he'd planned his death along with Snape? That he did it that way on purpose, to break the Wand's power forever? So Snape wasn't ever the Wand's master… which means Voldemort isn't, either.

But then… then when Dumbledore died, who did become the Elder Wand's master?

When he finally emerged from the Forbidden Forest, he was afraid he was too late. The massed Death Eaters and their allies were in front of the castle, confronting the defenders of Hogwarts. Voldemort was monologuing, of course, and Neville Longbottom knelt before Voldemort… the Sorting Hat on his head.

And as Harry watched, Neville reached up and, in one smooth motion, pulled the Sword of Gryffindor out of the Hat and struck Nagini's head from her body.

There was a great tumult in both armies. The Death Eaters surged forward, forcing Hogwarts's defenders back into the castle. Harry could sense that the fighting continued within the castle, but for the moment, he paid no attention to it. He'd spotted his inert body, lying abandoned and forgotten on the ground.

Carefully he walked over to it, circled it once, regarded it from all sides. Then he laid his spectral body down on top of his physical body, and was delighted when they began to merge. He closed his eyes as a wave of vertigo swept through him.

After another moment, Harry cautiously opened his eyes. They were his physical eyes this time, he could see in color. He could hear again. He could feel his arms and legs – boy, did they ache! That settled the matter: he was definitely back in his body. Painfully, he struggled to his feet. The Ring, somehow, was still on his finger; the Cloak, still under his clothes. He reached into his pocket and brought out the wand he'd been using: Draco Malfoy's wand.

Draco's the only other person it could be, Harry told himself. He disarmed Dumbledore the night he died, and disarming must have been enough. Draco became the master of the Elder Wand, even though he never knew it. And I disarmed Draco, so…

He raised the wand and, just as he had in the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, he filled his thoughts with the image of the item he wanted. It helped that, if he was right, the item in question would know that it was Harry's, and would cooperate… might even lend its power to the spell. "Accio Elder Wand," he said, softly but firmly.

From far off he heard the ksssh of a breaking window, then a streak in the air coming right at him. Trained Seeker's reflexes kicked in, and Harry dropped Draco's wand and raised his hand in time to catch the missile. It was the Elder Wand, the Wand of Destiny. He'd done it.

Even as his fingers closed around the Wand, Harry felt a cold shiver run through his body. It was the complete opposite of the tingly warmth he'd experienced when he'd purchased his first wand at Ollivander's, a geologic age ago. But he knew it had the same significance: beyond doubt now, the Wand was his. All the Deathly Hallows were his. Harry had become… well, not Death itself, nor Death's master – Dumbledore's talk at "King's Cross" had dispelled that notion – but Death's vizier, as it were. He could not order Death… but he could give orders in Death's name.

I came back to my body too late, blast it, Harry thought. If I'd come back while we were still in the clearing, I could have stopped Voldemort there. But now there's been fighting, and more deaths. And they're still fighting in the castle, I can hear it now. Voldemort must have stolen someone else's wand when his own went flying.

This has to stop now. I don't dare take the time to stumble in there and confront Voldemort: people are dying! I have to finish this now, and since I have all three Deathly Hallows, I can do it.

Harry closed his eyes again, and though his link with the Dark Lord had been severed with the destruction of the Horcrux in his head, he knew his enemy well enough to picture him perfectly in his mind. Tom Marvolo Riddle, he said in his head, and felt quite sure that Riddle could hear him. You called yourself the Wing of Death, as though it would make you safe from Death. But Death comes for everyone, sooner or later. And now, it comes for you.

Die, Tom Marvolo Riddle.

It seemed to Harry that Voldemort was struggling: he could feel his foe's fury, and an attempt at avoidance (avoiding Harry? something in the battle?), and then an enveloping darkness. He brought his awareness back to the physical world: had he imagined it, or was there was a pause in the distant noise of battle? Then there came to his ears a tremendous roar of voices, and even some cheering. Harry could tell from the sounds that the battle was over. Lord Voldemort was no more.

It was over. At last, after all these years, it was finally over. Harry could stagger back into Hogwarts, greet his friends and teachers, and…

His eyes opened to see the Elder Wand in his hand.

And then the whole farce starts all over again.

How many people have died because of this Wand, these Hallows? If I go in there and explain how I survived, how many new enemies will I make? All the Dark-Lord-wannabes who want the Wand's power? Dumbledore let himself be killed – actually planned to be killed – so that the Wand would lose all its power forever. Can I do less?

I… I have to finish what he started. I can't ever let myself be disarmed, or beaten in battle. Ever. And the only way to do that… is to leave.

If I leave now, it'll be so easy. Everyone already thinks I'm dead. They'll be able to get on with their lives, with the least amount of fuss. All they need is a body to bury. I can do that.

Harry looked around and spotted a fallen log, at the edge of the Forest. A quick wave of the Wand – he didn't even need an incantation, it was so powerful – brought the log to his feet. He Transfigured the log to look like his dead body, complete with clothes, even with glasses. He even put Draco's wand in its pocket.

After a moment's thought, Harry Transfigured a branch to look like his own holly-and-phoenix wand, the wand Hermione had accidentally broken. He still wanted to keep the pieces – maybe the Elder Wand could repair them – but it would be suspicious if they weren't found on the body. He slipped the faked wand pieces into another pocket.

One more thing I should do… I need to do. It's only right. A last wave of the Wand conjured a piece of parchment from thin air. He paused, considering, then made the parchment dirtier, more wrinkled… rather more expected for a parchment he'd supposedly been carrying in his pocket. Harry began to dictate, and words appeared on the parchment: explaining how he'd discovered that he, Harry, had been a Horcrux, and that's why he had to die. Willing his possessions to Ron, and Hermione, and his new godson Teddy. Saying goodbye.

He heard voices from the castle… someone was coming. Quickly he stuffed the parchment into the body's pocket, next to the phoenix wand. Whipping out his Invisibility Cloak, he discovered that it had altered color: it was less silvery, more pearly-grey, as though the addition of the other two Hallows had changed it. Harry wrapped the Cloak around his body, and was surprised when it conformed itself snugly around his limbs – morphing from a cloak into a full-body suit. The Cloak had changed: there was no danger of, say, a foot accidentally being seen now.

Resolutely, Harry turned away from the approaching voices and walked calmly back to the Forest. He didn't look back to see who was coming for his body, didn't want to be tempted from his path. This was the best way, the only way, really, to remove the threat of the Hallows' power forever. Just as he'd walked with open eyes to his death, now he would willingly walk into exile. And yes, it would be painful at first, but at least there would be no battles in his future. Harry felt he'd earned that much, at least.

I've had enough trouble for a lifetime.