The Long, Harsh Road
author's note (3rd update): Wow, I was so clueless when I first started posting here: readers are more likely to complain that I don't change canon enough than that I got some dialogue or detail (or important plot point) wrong.
Introductory info. here: this is based on the MCU. The movies, not the comics. It ignores anything you don't see in the theatres. And this is bookverse-HP, meaning that it isn't beholden to anything that isn't in those seven books.
Now, more important: this is a fix fic, and I am through apologising. I've had enough (very judgemental) complaints to push even internet-me into "the spite corner". No mean feat. So, let me spell this out for those of you inclined to judge me based on what I write:
The Long, Harsh Road, in particular, focuses on HP-canon, and covers Harry's seven years at Hogwarts. This is a fix fic, with a bit of canon-welding/worldbuilding, and apology of HP-canon thrown in. Fleshing things out.
Again: this is a fix-fic. And, since this idea seems not to be clear to quite a few people, fix-fics have a certain relationship to canon by definition. It's in their nature. It's what makes them what they are.
Let's go over what a fix-fic is, to see whether or not this story is for you.
A fix-fic is a 'fic that writes canon events happening differently such that a desired outcome is achieved, or, more like, an undesired outcome is avoided. The deaths of beloved characters tends to be my fixation. These tend to be why I write fix-fics.
But, here's the thing. Fix-fics are, again, canon events happening differently. If I were rehashing, then what you would have wouldn't be a fix-fic. It would be a rewrite. But, if I eschewed canon entirely, that also wouldn't be a fix-fic—it would be an au. I like the occasional au, but I find them hard to invest in. AUs aren't fix-fics. They're a different genre.
This is not an au. This is a fix-fic. I like to see how crossovered characters deal with canon events. That's sort of hard to do without using canon events.
This 'fic is made of the familiar made strange, not a hodgepodge of unfamiliar elements. It is a story of secrets and forgiveness, family and redemption. If that's not your cup of tea, I suggest you look elsewhere. Perhaps a nice next-gen fic.
Also, seriously, peeps, I was partway through book five when I started posting. I was very upfront in my second author's note in telling you that I had written the first 110 chapters before Endgame even came out. I'm even further along, now. I'm not going to rewrite everything I have written to write a completely different story that isn't even the one I wanted to tell. I'd be more likely to abandon this thing, which I didn't want to write, anyway.
Chapter One: Dreams and Realities
Harry Potter of Number Four, Privet Drive, knew that he was a freak long before his tenth birthday. He'd known it for years, the information fed regularly to him by his aunt and uncle, with whom he lived following the catastrophic car crash that had ruined his life.
He was told that he was a freak most often by his Uncle Vernon and cousin, Dudley, Uncle Vernon when something difficult to explain happened, or he was feeling particularly vindictive, and Dudley…well, on a regular basis—perhaps whenever his tiny brain recalled the fact.
Harry had accepted that this was a fact, was true, before he'd acquired even a little of the critical thinking skills he would need to analyse its accuracy. Strange things happened around him; he was a freak. Conclusion and premise seemed too far removed, if you took it apart thus. But he didn't think to do that until he was eight or nine. He wasn't sure which.
Looking back on it, all he could recall later was that, whenever it was that he'd first analysed the argument—first thought to question it—he had only just begun to settle into the conclusion that it wasn't true, when his tenth birthday had struck, as the chimes of Cinderella's curst clock, and his conclusion was upended, overruled, by the dreams.
Because surely no one else had such dreams as these; either his dreams before had been freakish, if these be normal; or those dreams had been normal, if these be freakish; or both; there was no avoiding the fact, however, that one type at least of his dreams, the before, or the after, must be odd, and wasn't that what it meant, to be a freak? That there was that about you, something, about which people could only say, "well, that is unusual"?
The before dreams were what he considered normal. Ordinary, everyday objects and things, arranged in unusual combinations, sequences, and patterns. Going to the dentist to find that the dentist was trying to pull your teeth with a guitar pick while his marmalade cat juggled jars of the condiment by the cabinets. Or you were taking a walk through the city park, when suddenly all of the flowers began to sing a nonsense song to the melody of "Blue Danube", but the neighbour was trying to cut the heads off the flowers (and Aunt Petunia wouldn't like that, now would she?)
Harry was fairly sure that normal people have such dreams. He assumed they were a universal constant. Sometimes, it was true, they were less surreal, featuring a giant with a scraggly, full beard carrying him in his arms, whilst riding a flying motorbike, and with such sincere care that Harry cried when he woke, at least when he was little, pining for that overt affection, the compassion, the love that he received only in dreams.
And there was the nightmare with the bright flash of green light, which he sensed had more detail to it than he remembered upon waking. That light was all that ever stayed with him, however, that and a feeling of…bad. It was a nightmare because it carried with it some unidentified badness, not fear, not sorrow, not anger, not shame, not guilt. Just negativity itself, simplistically laid out. That was enough to make it a nightmare.
Harry did not hate the colour green, and did not shrink from the green lightbulbs on the strands of lights people hung up at Christmastime. The only thing that gave him to know that this was a nightmare was that badness it left even when he woke. Something bad came with the green light.
Actually, that dream occasionally surfaced even after the new type of dream supplanted the old ones.
The dreams that Harry Potter considered freakish, himself, the dreams that made him "a freak", started the very night of his tenth birthday. Not those early hours of the morn of July Thirty-First—those were full of the old, ordinary dreams.
But the new dreams began that night. He had not been expecting them, and had at first written off their strangeness as an anomaly—a single instance of confusion, perhaps; if dreams were meant to clarify the data collected over the day, it perhaps made sense that a particularly vexing problem might produce more muddled, insubstantial dreams. It was true that never before had Harry had dreams that were little more than vague impression of colours and sounds(such bright light! What a loud noise!) but school grew progressively harder as you aged, and even now, during the summer break, perhaps….
Before he could think about it too hard, see the holes in his flimsy explanation formulated as he dressed for the day, he shoved all thought and memory of the hazy dream aside, and set to his household chores, content to ignore the oddity of the anomaly. He had important, real things to concern himself with, as cooking breakfast. And weeding Aunt Petunia's flower garden.
But the next night, he had a repeat of the dream of the last. Or maybe it wasn't a repeat—a dream made of nothing but vague impressions is difficult to tell from its fellow hazy muddles. There seemed to be a lot of green, red, blue, and gold in both dreams. What more could you go by?
But the dreams continued, and Harry was forced to reconsider his conclusion that he was not a freak, that nothing was wrong with him. These were freaky dreams. He was sure that normal people did not have dreams of unclear sounds and blurred-together colours, night after night. Maybe he was a freak.
He wondered if the frustration that he felt with the dreams' vagueness was how people who wore glasses felt, when their glasses were missing. That lack of focus was as an itch unscratched, needing to be humoured. He found himself dwelling upon the dreams, "squinting" at them, as if that would bring them into focus.
Perhaps it did.
Time progressed, and, without consciously realising it, within the month, he was isolating individual words, recognisable shapes—an oval, a square, a diamond, with their individual colours: a brown oval, a green square, a white diamond. The difference was small, but it served to make Harry just the tiniest bit curious about the dreams, themselves. And those words, fragments of conversation, which blew "in one ear, and out the other". What was it all about? He wanted to understand, but had no frame of reference.
It took another three months for the dreams to resolve themselves enough for them to become…well, like ordinary reality, he supposed. There was none of the constant flux he was used to with dream-stuff, still, but the haze had sharpened and clarified, for the most part, into a beautiful setting, of lavish luxury, a palace picked out in bright colour and radiant jewel tones and gold. Even before it solidified, that exquisite beauty was so breathtaking that it filled Harry with a sharp pang of loss to wake in his cupboard, with that luscious dreamscape out of reach.
He spent the next month wandering empty halls, learning the lay of the land, amidst the bright gold and rich verdure of courtyard and palace walls. The palace was in suspiciously good repair for being completely empty save for him, himself. But the lack of furniture made telling where he had and hadn't been before somewhat trying.
Halfway through, the ghosts of furnishings appeared, and he found that he always started off in the same bedroom. All the furniture was in greyscale; he could tell it was the same room only because of the placement of the furniture. The bed had been made while he was out. Sometimes, he didn't leave the room (he shouldn't have to), instead lying down on the four-poster bed, staring up at the canopy.
But soon, that struck him as a waste—he was lying down in a cramped cupboard in truth, and while he greatly enjoyed the feel of a soft bed under his back, he knew that it wasn't real, and its effects would not carry over. Why waste time daydreaming when he could do that out in the waking world? It was almost Christmas, after all, and his aunt and uncle (and even his cousin), were paying him less heed than usual—not because small mercies were in the spirit of the season, but because they were too busy buying presents for Dudley.
No, his time was better spent wandering the palace some more, now that he had a way of telling the rooms apart. He'd already memorised its every twist and turn, but now, he could put function and name to the other rooms of the palace. Shame that everything was grey, though.
New Year's Day brought a nice surprise: grey people, wandering the halls, or standing still (on guard, Harry decided). None of them noticed his passing, and he couldn't speak to any of them. The guards might as well have been statues (they didn't even seem to need to breathe) but the other people—well, since he accidentally walked right through someone (a little girl, he thought, with long, dark hair, tripping over her dress as she hurried off…somewhere. He didn't follow her)… well, he had the sneaking suspicion that he wasn't there in truth.
Although he came to realise that the same day repeated, with the little girl following the exact same path, to the point that he learnt exactly when to step back and let her pass, by the end of the week, he never did follow her. He was much more interested in the two little boys out in the palace courtyard, probably learning how to defend themselves. Maybe Harry would learn something; who knew?
He had no idea who they were, or why he felt strangely drawn to them, as if they were his reason for being here at all, but he ignored that line of thought to watch them.
One of them was taller, and broader (about Harry's age, if Harry had to guess), with long hair (Harry shrugged; all the adults seemed to have long hair, here). He carried a hammer at his side. It was inscribed with strange symbols, and seemed to be faintly glowing.
The other boy was smaller, seemed much younger, perhaps seven or eight, with black hair, and a lither musculature. He didn't seem to have a special weapon, which was just as well; Harry found the hammer kept drawing his concentration when he should have been watching the boys being walked through sword training by an old man with hair that probably was grey. He was uninteresting, though, so Harry paid him little heed.
He was too busy watching the two boys. Either their voices were very, very deep, or something was still distorting the sound, but they seemed to be spending quite a bit of time exchanging what seemed to be fairly light-hearted remarks—he couldn't see anyone's face, including theirs, but neither of them tried to kill each other. He imagined that they were complaining about the taskmaster, or something, or maybe some light teasing. He imagined that they were best friends—or maybe even family.
He shut down that line of thought. There was no way to know for sure, and it made him aware of a certain hollow area in his heart he hadn't noticed before. That craving for affection that is ordinary for children, but which Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had done their best to stamp out. Freaks didn't deserve notice.
They looked so happy. Harry tried hard not to compare the minuscule amount he knew about them to himself. It was a difficult task; he spent the week making up stories about who they were, what their connection to one another was. He forgot to watch the taskmaster. They were the reason he was here. They were the key. He was sure of it.
He assumed that he'd have more time to watch that scene, to watch that day. All the other dreams had seemed to last for a month, at least. But then again, there hadn't been any people, in them. Perhaps he'd been given only a week, each time, and hadn't known, without any way of measuring such time.
But starting January Eighth, everything shifted radically, again. He wasn't Harry Potter, anymore, in his dreams. He could never figure out who he was, exactly, which sounds strange, but his dreamscape seemed to still be developing itself. People's voices were faded and unusually deep, as a recording set to slow, their words dragged out in a harsh, low growling. And the people were still grey, all around him. But now, there was no weekly scene. Events from days and years apart were crammed together into the sleep and dreams of a single night.
Not that he knew that while he was sleeping. While he was sleeping, he was sure, he knew more than he remembered upon awakening. He found his way through the palace with casual ease, and didn't need to think about it, and he seemed to spend most of his time with the hazy figure of the other boy. But neither of them had a hammer, and no one carried any sort of identification. Harry-who-wasn't didn't escape the universal epidemic of low, drawn-out speech.
His dream self was one of the two boys, but they were both younger than they'd been in the repeating dream, and Harry, reflecting, recalled from somewhere that he'd heard that people seldom looked the same throughout their entire lives. Either boy could change a lot in those four or five years. Right?
Whichever of the two he was, he was shy, reserved, trailing behind the other, following him around, letting him decide what to do, and how it should be done. And the other didn't seem to mind a bit. Dream-Harry was content with the situation, just glad that they were close. There was a certain strong fondness towards the unidentified companion of Harry's dream-self that carried over even into the waking world, to Harry.
They spent much of the first day sneaking around the palace, with the other motioning for silence, holding him back from continuing forward, occasionally. If Harry had been himself, he might have complained that he'd spent a month wandering these halls, and was sure he could direct the boy wherever he needed to go (the slow-speeched people seemed to have no trouble understanding one another). But he wasn't Harry. He was the other boy, a boy with a different history to Harry Potter. With a less well-developed mind.
They managed to sneak around the palace without once being caught by a guard. Harry, reflecting upon the dream when he awoke, would wonder whether the guards hadn't just pretended not to see them—but then, why would they have? Just who were these boys?
It was as an itch that couldn't be scratched, consuming all attention with a need.
But there was something else, too. Harry cherished the dream, thought of how comfortable the two seemed around one another. Thought of how different their treatment of one another was from how the boys at school treated him. The boys…and Dudley. And the Dursleys. He had no memory from his waking life to compare it to. Everyone at home treated him with contempt. The boys at school were too afraid of Dudley to make an overture of friendship. He was alone, with no friends.
This was his first experience of friendship, or maybe of what a familial relationship should be. There was no wariness, no rejection, no fear—there was no bad. To Harry, such a dream was more precious than all the gold adorning the palace walls. It made him wish he were the boy, and not Harry Potter. If the dreams had been building up to this, then all the wait, and all the soul-searching he'd engaged in, had been worth it. Even for just this dream.
But it wasn't just that dream. There was always at least one dream per night, many of them quite ordinary—the boredom of being instructed in…something, what, he couldn't tell; there were no tools of the trade lying about to help him identify what he was being taught, but he recognised a teacher when he saw one, even if she was a strangely youthful old woman in an old-fashioned grey dress (was the dress grey?).
He decided it was probably a class on court etiquette when she gave a very formal-looking, deep bow.
Of course, if this were a court, then it was also possible that he was someone of some sort of importance, despite being a child, and she was showing him respect.
At the end of the week, he was back in the covered courtyard, trying to wrap his chubby hands around the handle of some manner of blade. He was probably about five years old, which struck him as insane, when he awoke. Who lets a five-year-old anywhere near a knife?
Then, he remembered Aunt Petunia teaching him the basics of cooking when he was six. It was alright, then; no one in the palace seemed concerned, and the old man probably knew best.
In between the two dreams, he saw much of the other boy—or rather, he was often around; everyone was still grey and hazy. Dream-Harry went often to the library, a huge room with towering shelves that made Waking-Harry wonder how anyone reached them, and windows that flooded the room with light. The first time Harry saw the library, his dream-self was probably about the same age he himself was—a rare moment of coincidence. Whatever he was reading (it was a mess of strange symbols Harry didn't recognise), it was very interesting, sparking all sorts of new ideas and theories lost upon his awakening. Of course.
But he seemed to research, and read about, a number of different topics, some interesting, some boring. Sometimes his dream let him keep some basic knowledge of what he'd been studying—history, language, magic…wait, what? There was no such thing as magic.
There could be in dreams, though. Just as, in dreams, there could be friends, and family who loved him, and people who respected him, without him even having to do anything impressive.
It felt as if something in his heart were being filled up. Unfortunately, said part of his heart also seemed to have a hole in it, because the dreams left him with a strong longing for the palace, for his family, for his friends, for home. Number Four, Privet Drive had never been home to him. He saw that, now.
He missed them, all of the inhabitants of the palace, despite not having a single name to go on. He treasured the dreams, the only thing he had to look forward to. The teachers at school were no fonder of him after New Year's than before.
He wished the dreams were real, that he was that boy, whoever he was, out there, somewhere, dreaming that he was Harry Potter, and would wake to go on adventures and have fun with…his brother, Harry decided. They were definitely brothers.
He remembered the dream in which someone had actually made him cry after one of those stupid training lessons with swords. An older kid had come over, probably to test out the new meat. He'd gotten away with it because this weird society thought that if you were beaten up, then you deserved it. A real man could fight, even a child, and prowess and skill were the only important things. They'd looked the other way—if Harry was too weak to defend himself, this would be a good lesson. The older kid had even gone easy on him.
But Harry's brother had disagreed, challenged the older boy, somehow won (perhaps because they were closer to being the same age, if Harry was the younger of the two; why couldn't he tell; that sort of thing should be obvious?) and had slung an arm around Dream-Harry's shoulder, leading him away from the battleground with a fierce glare towards anyone who looked their way.
They shrank back, and Harry didn't need an interpreter of growl-speech to know that the boy's tone was concerned, and that his words were "Are you okay?" in growl.
He said something suitably macho in reply, and the boy nodded, but was clearly still worried, and hauled him off to be looked over, even though he only had a single cut, on his arm, and it wasn't that deep.
This was what family was, Harry decided. What Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon would never give him. What, perhaps, only his dreams could.