Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or any part of that world. Recognisable sections of text have been borrowed from J.K. Rowling, most obviously large chunks of text from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" which is in accordance with copyright law in my country.
You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself. I shall wait for one hour in the Forbidden Forest...one hour…
Harry struggled invisibly down the stone steps of Hogwarts in a kind of daze. The last few hours haunted him like a nightmare: vivid flashes of memory swirled in his mind, seeming more real to him that the quiet substance of the reality in front of him.
The flashes of spell light and hoarse shouting of the Hogwarts defenders resounded in his mind as though they were still there, and the morbid silence of Voldemort's grace period seemed insubstantial in comparison. The castle hallways were silent. Portraits hung still and empty, their inhabitants having abandoned their frames for other happenings. Shrapnel scattered the floor, bent pieces of suits of armour destroyed in Hogwarts defence; shards of stone littering the ground, the aftermath of deadly spell work. All the warmth and life of the castle was gathered in the Great Hall behind him, and Harry's mind shied away from the image of Ginny's face, red and splotchy from crying, Hermione's arms wrapped tight around her body; Ron shocked and pale, leaning against Percy as though the substance of his brother could shelter him from the truth; Mrs Weasley's cheerful face, drawn and haggard.
Fred. Remus. Tonks. Others he had not had time to recognise. Pale and peaceful, and as still as the grave that had claimed them. His mind shuddered back from the thought.
Because, Harry thought, his mind moving sluggish and shocky, wasn't he going to join them soon in death? Wasn't it right, that after all his mistakes, his naivety and stupidity, that he would pay with his death? The visions he had had up in Dumbledore's office no longer shook him; they had the immutability of truth. Of course Dumbledore had had a plan. Dumbledore's goodness, Dumbledore's enmity with Voldemort and everything he stood for would obviously lead him to this conclusion.
And Snape. Snape's love for his mother would naturally make him the man Harry had known: embittered and twisted and tragic. But even then, it seemed a bitter draft to swallow, that Dumbledore would ask Snape to take his mentor's life. And in the end he had even taken his purpose, for to plan the death of Lily's son must have been torture for Snape indeed.
Surely there were many who had suffered great sacrifice for Dumbledore's plan to work. Yet what was Harry's life, when it could save these hundreds of others? If Dumbledore could die for this cause, how could Harry turn away from the Greater Good? If Snape could betray his childhood love, how could Harry not offer his life as a sacrifice to the cause? How neat, how elegant, not to waste any more lives, but to give the dangerous task to the boy who had already been marked for slaughter, and whose death would not be a calamity, but another blow against Voldemort.
And Dumbledore had known that Harry would not duck out, that he would keep going to the end, even though it was his end, because he had taken trouble to get to know him, hadn't he? Dumbledore knew, as Voldemort knew, that Harry would not let anyone else die for him now that he had discovered it was in his power to stop it. The images of Fred, Lupin and Tonks lying dead in the Great Hall forced their way back into his mind's eye, and for a moment Harry could hardly breathe: Death was impatient…
His mind was already removing itself from the present, cloaking itself in numbness in preparation of Harry's sacrifice. Yet his body was not behaving: his blood flowed strongly, his heart beat faster, his hands shook a little with tension or anticipation or fear. How strange that his body fought so strongly for life, when his death was the only sure thing Harry could cling to. His mind swept up, distancing itself from the physical, and yet the beat of his heart thundered strongly in his ears.
Unlike the castle hallways, muffled sounds and thumps could be heard now he was outdoors. Shadows moved about in the predawn gloom, bending and lifting heavy loads that Harry did not want to think about too deeply.
He saw a figure he thought he recognised – it was good Neville had grown stronger, matured from the nervous boy he had once been. Neville would make sure the others would go on without him.
A thought struck Harry out of nowhere, and he pulled of his cloak with a sudden urgency.
"Blimey, Harry, you nearly gave me heart failure!"
Harry might have once smiled at the look on Neville's face, but he was beyond that now, wasn't he? Humour and strength were for the living. Harry only needed determination now. The thought might have shown on his face.
"Where are you going, alone?" Neville asked suspiciously into the silence.
"It's all part of the plan," said Harry, his mind dragged back into reality for this last, needed conversation. "There's something I've got to do. Listen - Neville -"
"Harry!" Neville looked suddenly scared. "Harry, you're not thinking of handing yourself over?"
"No," Harry bluffed calming, the word coming to his lips with an ease lies never had before. "'Course not...this is something else. But I might be out of sight for a while. You know Voldemort's snake, Neville? He's got a huge snake...calls it Nagini…"
"I've heard, yeah...what about it?"
"It's got to be killed. Ron and Hermione know that, but just in case they -"
The protective fog in his mind shuddered. Harry's thought, too terrible to complete, faded away into indistinct horror. But he pulled himself together: this was crucial, he must be like Dumbledore, keep a cool head, make sure there were back-ups, others to carry on. Dumbledore had died knowing that three people still knew about the Horcruxes; now Neville would be able to take Harry's place. Harry must not fail this.
"Just in case they're - busy - and you get the chance -"
"Kill the snake?"
"Kill the snake." Harry repeated.
"All right, Harry. You're OK, are you?"
"I'm fine. Thanks, Neville."
But Neville seized his wrist as Harry made to move on.
"We're all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?"
"Yeah, I -"
The suffocating feeling extinguished the end of the sentence, he could not go on. Neville did not seem to find it strange. Perhaps he, too, was moving in a fog. But Neville was strong, he would recover. He patted Harry on the shoulder, released him, and walked away to look for more bodies to carry inside.
Once his back was turned, Harry swung the Cloak back over his body and moved on towards the forest.
He passed Ginny, who had somehow left the Hall and was whispering words of encouragement to a figure on the ground. She was a good girl, she'd be alright.
He passed Hagrid's hut, silent, dark and lonely in the night.
He faltered briefly, when he saw the swarm of Dementors gliding among the shallower trees of the Forest. He no longer had the strength to cast his Patronus. His hope and joy had left him. Harry wrapped his Cloak around him, as he drew his determination closer. But his thoughts of closure, of ending, sparked his mind, and even as his body rebelled and his heart thundered with life, Harry's nerveless fingers found his Snitch, and he whispered to it softly, "I am about to die."
Soft whispers surrounded him, and as Harry raised Draco's wand and murmured, "Lumos", it seemed only fitting that he was surrounded by the shades of his dead loved ones.
They murmured to him, soft words of encouragement and love, that Harry's mind – still protected by the soft fog – did not always hear, but understood anyway.
His body – the living miracle that it was – fought bravely, longing with every cell and muscle fibre in his body, to keep living, but Harry's determination was impregnable. Surely this would work. Dumbledore had spent years ensuring this outcome, there was no need to worry. There was only a one small thing.
"Does it hurt?" He could not stop the question leaking out from his traitorous mouth.
A little warmth crept back into his body at the sorrow and love he found in the face of his mother.
"Dying? Not at all," said Sirius, with a familiar smile in his eyes. "Quicker and easier than falling asleep."
Figures surrounded him, loving and kind. His father stood silent and proud. Harry stammered out an apology to Lupin. His son, his wife…
Lupin reassured him as he always had. Making the world a better place. Wasn't that what Harry was doing? Even if it was bitter, and hard?
His living friends behind him in the castle seemed less real to him now than his ghostly companions. They were an ideal, a dream for someone else.
He and his companions passed by the Dementors like shadows in the night, which he supposed they were, in the truest sense: none of them fully living now, nor yet fully dead.
The forest grew darker, and his companions lit his way with a soft silver glow that only he could see. He saw well enough to step over gnarly roots, duck hanging branches, and travelled deeper and deeper into the forest with a grace and silence that surely came only to those who planned to embrace Death.
He spied two Death Eaters, and followed them into the dark. His mother smiled at him, and his father nodded encouragement.
They had travelled on mere minutes when Harry saw light ahead, and Yaxley and Dolohov stepped out into a clearing that Harry knew had been the place where the monstrous Aragog had once lived. The remnants of his vast web were there still, but the swarm of descendants he had spawned had been driven out by the Death Eaters, to fight for their cause.
The clearing looked unworldly, a flickering firelight fell over a crowd of completely silent, watchful Death Eaters. Some of them were still masked and hooded, others showed their faces. Two giants sat on the outskirts of the group, casting massive shadows over the scene, their faces cruel, rough-hewn like rock. Harry saw Fenrir, skulking, chewing his long nails; the great, blond Rowle was dabbing at his bleeding lip. He saw Lucius Malfoy, who looked defeated and terrified, and Narcissa, whose eyes were sunken and full of apprehension. Harry wondered idly if his death would help or hurt them, too.
Every eye was fixed upon Voldemort, who stood with his head bowed, and his white hands folded over the Elder Wand in front of him. He might have been praying, or else counting silently in his mind, and Harry, standing still on the edge of the scene, thought absurdly of a child counting in a game of hide-and-seek. And why shouldn't he take note of the absurd, now, before his death? Fear was for the living.
So Harry took in the sight, and felt…nothing.
His brain was making intellectual connections from habit, nothing more. Behind Voldemort's head, swirling and coiling in deadly loops, the great snake Nagini floated in her glittering, charmed cage, like a monstrous halo.
When Dolohov and Yaxley re-joined the circle, Voldemort looked up. He spoke. Harry caught his breath. It was time.
Invisible at the corner of the scene, a sweating Harry pulled off his Invisibility Cloak and stuffed it beneath his robes, with his wand. He did not want them sullied, but did not want to be tempted to fight.
He paused, a moment longer, but there was nothing left to do and every reason to step forward: it was the easiest and hardest thing in the world to announce himself.
Chaos erupted as he stepped into the light. Cries, gasps and even laughter from the circle that stood around Voldemort. Voldemort had frozen where he stood, but his red eyes had found Harry, and he stared as Harry moved towards him, with nothing but the fire between them.
The two stood in a halo of silence.
A deep bellow: Hagrid was bound and trussed, tied to a tree, but he struggled as Harry continued to step forward. Harry met Voldemort's eyes, the circle calmed, and Voldemort raised his wand. His head was tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear -
He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.
Harry lay face down, listening to the silence, He was perfectly alone. Nobody was watching. Nobody was there. He was not perfectly sure that he was there himself.
After a time, it came to him that he must exist, must be more than disembodied thought, because he was lying, definitely lying, on some surface. Therefore, he had a sense of touch, and the thing against which he lay existed too.
Almost as soon as he had reached this conclusion, Harry became conscious that he was naked. Convinced as he was of his total solitude, this did not concern him, but it did intrigue him slightly. He wondered whether, as he could feel, he would be able to see. In opening them, he discovered he had eyes.
He lay in a bright mist, though it was not like mist he had ever experienced before. His surroundings were not hidden by cloudy vapour; rather the cloudy vapour had not formed into surroundings. The floor on which he lay seemed to be white, neither warm nor cold, but simply there, a flat, blank something on which to be.
He sat up. His body appeared unscathed. He touched his face. He was not wearing glasses any more.
Then a noise reached him through the unformed nothingness that surrounded him: the small, soft thumpings of something that flapped, flailed and struggled. It was a pitiful noise, yet also slightly indecent. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was eavesdropping on something furtive, shameful.
For the first time, he wished he were clothed.
Barely had the wish formed in his head, than robes appeared a short distance away. He took them and pulled them on: they were soft, clean and warm. It was extraordinary how they had appeared, just like that, the moment he had wanted them…
He stood up, looking around. Was he in some great Room of Requirement? The longer he looked, the more there was to see. A great, domed glass room glittered high above him in sunlight. Perhaps it was a palace. All was hushed and still, except for those odd thumping and whimpering noises coming from somewhere close by in the mist.
Harry turned slowly on the spot, and his surroundings seemed to invent themselves before his eyes. A wide open space, bright and clean, a hall larger by far than the Great Hall, with that clear, domed glass ceiling. It was quite empty. He was the only person there, except for –
He recoiled. He had spotted the thing that was making the noises. It had the form of a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuff out of sight, struggling for breath.
He was afraid of it. Small and fragile and wounded though it was, he did not want to approach it. Nevertheless, he drew slowly nearer, ready to jump back at any moment. Soon he stood close enough to touch it, yet he could not bring himself to do it. He felt like a coward. He ought to comfort it, but it repulsed him
"You cannot help."
He spun around. Albus Dumbledore was walking towards him, sprightly and upright, wearing sweeping robes of midnight blue.
"Harry." He spread his arms wide, and his hands were both whole and white and undamaged. "You wonderful boy. You brave, brave man. Let us walk."
Stunned, Harry followed as Dumbledore strode away from where the flayed child lay whimpering, leading him to two seats that Harry had not noticed, set some distance away under that high, sparkling ceiling. Dumbledore sat down in one of them, and Harry fell into the other, staring at his old Headmaster's face. Dumbledore's long, silver hair and beard, the piercing blue eyes behind half-moon spectacles, the crooked nose: everything was as he had remembered it. And yet…
"But you're dead," said Harry.
"Oh, yes," said Dumbledore matter-of-factly.
"Then...I'm dead too?"
"Ah," said Dumbledore, smiling still more broadly. "That is the question, isn't it? On the whole, dear boy, I think not."
They looked at each other, the old man still beaming.
"Not?" repeated Harry.
"Not," said Dumbledore.
"But…" Harry raised his hand instinctively towards the lightning scar. It did not seem to be there. "But I should have died - I didn't defend myself! I meant to let him kill me!"
"And that," said Dumbledore, "will, I think, have made all the difference."
Happiness seemed to radiate from Dumbledore like light, like fire: Harry had never seen the man so utterly, so palpably content.
"Explain," said Harry.
"But you already know," said Dumbledore. He twiddled his thumbs together.
"I let him kill me," said Harry. "Didn't I?"
"You did," said Dumbledore, nodding. "Go on!"
"So the part of his soul that was in me…"
Dumbledore nodded still more enthusiastically, urging Harry onwards, a broad smile of encouragement on his face.
"...has it gone?"
"Oh, yes!" said Dumbledore. "Yes, he destroyed it. Your soul is whole, and completely your own, Harry."
Harry glanced over his shoulder, to where the small, maimed creature trembled under the chair.
"What is that, Professor?"
"Something that is beyond either of our help," said Dumbledore.
"But if Voldemort used the Killing Curse," Harry started again, "and nobody died for me this time - how can I be alive?"
"I think you know," said Dumbledore. "Think back. Remember what he did, in his ignorance, in his greed and his cruelty."
Harry thought. He let his gaze drift over his surroundings. If it was indeed a palace in which they sat, it was an odd one, with chairs set in little rows and bits of railing here and there, and still, he and Dumbledore were the only beings there. Then the answer rose to his lips easily, without effort.
"He took my blood," said Harry.
"Precisely!" said Dumbledore. "He took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it! Your blood in his veins, Harry, Lily's protection inside both of you! He tethered you to life while he lives!"
Harry watched bemused as Dumbledore explained it all.
"And you knew this? You knew - all along?"
"I guessed. But my guessed have, usually, been good," said Dumbledore happily, and they sat in silence for what seemed to be a long time, while the creature behind them continued to whimper and tremble.
Their conversation began naturally, and Harry listened spellbound as Dumbledore explained the past.
Then Harry sat in thought for a long time, or perhaps seconds. It was very hard to be sure of things like time, here.
"He killed me with your wand."
"He failed to kill you with my wand," Dumbledore correct Harry. "I think we can agree that you are not dead - though, of course," he added, as if fearing he had been discourteous, "I do not minimise your sufferings, which I am sure were severe."
"I feel great at the moment, though," said Harry, looking down at his clean, unblemished hands. He felt present in a way he had not felt back in the forest, when presumably he inhabited his real body, in the real world. "Where are we, exactly?"
"Well, I was going to ask you that," said Dumbledore, looking around. "Where would you say that we are?"
Until Dumbledore had asked, Harry had not known. Now, however, he found that he had an answer ready to give.
"It looks," he said slowly, "like King's Cross station. Except a lot cleaner, and empty, and we are in between trains."
"King's Cross station!" Dumbledore was chuckling immoderately. "Good gracious, really?"
"Well, where do you think we are?" asked Harry, a little defensively.
"My dear boy, I have no idea. This is, as they say, your party."
Harry had no idea what this meant; Dumbledore was being infuriating. He glared at him, then remembered a much more pressing question than that of their current location.
"The Deathly Hallows," he said, and he was glad to see that the words wiped the smile from Dumbledore's face.
"Ah, yes," he said. He even looked a little worried.
For the first time since Harry had met Dumbledore, he looked less than an old man, much less. He looked, fleetingly, like a small boy caught in wrongdoing. Harry sat in silence as he listened first to Dumbledore's explanations, and then apologies. And while he did his best to pay due attention, he found himself turning something over in his mind.
"So you planned your death with Snape, you meant him to end up with the Elder Wand, didn't you?
"I admit that was my intention," said Dumbledore, "but it did not work as I intended, did it?"
"No," said Harry. "That bit didn't work out." Perhaps, he realised as comprehension dawned on a sacrilegious thought, Dumbledore's plan had not been…perfect.
The creature behind them jerked and moaned, and Harry and Dumbledore sat without talking for the longest time yet. The realisation of what would happen next settled gradually over Harry in the long minutes, like softly falling snow.
"I've got to go back, haven't I?"
"That is up to you."
"I have a choice?"
"Oh yes." Dumbledore smiled at him. "We are in King's Cross, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to...let's say...board a train."
"And where would it take me?"
"On," said Dumbledore simply.
"Voldemort's got the Elder Wand."
"True. Voldemort has the Elder Wand."
"But you want me to go back?"
"I think," said Dumbledore, "that if you choose to return, there is a chance that he may be finished for good. I cannot promise it. But I know this, Harry, that you have less to fear from returning here than he does."
Harry glanced again at the raw-looking thing that trembled and choked in the shadow beneath the distant chair.
Dumbledore began speaking again, but Harry stood up, and wandered slightly away, over to the edge of the nearest platform. He stood still there, and thought a bit about Hogwarts. About the defenders, like Ginny, and Neville, who had already begun putting their lives back together just by getting up and keeping on going.
He thought about Tonks and Fred and Remus, who did not have the chance. And Hedwig, poor, innocent Hedwig, whose only mistake had been to love him.
He thought about clothes.
Somehow, Harry thought, pondering the warm, dry robes that clothed him, the robes had appeared as he wished for them. They were simple, presumably, in the greater scheme of things. Familiar. Easy to wish for.
He thought about Kings Cross Station. He thought about trains.
Cocking his head, he concentrated hard and deep. Dumbledore's voice murmured kindly on behind him. Then distantly, in the manner he might expect from a place so much like the Room of Requirement, he could hear distant engine sounds approach.
Harry pondered deeply one moment longer. This place, like the Room of Requirement, somehow answered his wishes. Here he stood on one platform, and a distant train would soon arrive to take him...onward. And the logical progression of that thought, presumably meant…
Without giving himself time to think, he jumped down, directly onto the tracks, and scrambled across them. His heart sounding loud in his chest, Harry hoisted himself up onto the opposite platform, and shook himself down, blood roaring in his ears and pulse pounding.
His mind fixed firmly on what he wanted, Harry's hands fluttered between pockets, his heart alight with hope. Small things. Familiar things that were easy to wish for. His fingers trembled nervously until they withdrew from within his clothes a train ticket, clearly marked with his destination.
Just as they had done many times before.
He looked up to see Dumbledore had drawn himself to his feet. The old man now stood directly across from Harry, on the opposite platform. "My dear boy," he called, across the sound of the swelling train noise. "My child. Harry. Are you sure? Is this what you want?"
Harry gulped. He wasn't, precisely. But still… "I know now," he responded, "if I can go back to make a difference…" He paused. "Knowing this, if I can go back, then this is the only choice I can make."
Dumbledore was silent. The sound of the train grew closer.
Once more, Dumbledore opened his mouth. "My dear boy, you would be alone."
Harry was slightly proud of his crooked smile. It said everything that needed to be said.
"I would never…Do you realise…?" Dumbledore looked flustered, lost for words. "No one would ask you to do this."
"I'm sure, Professor."
The most complicated expression crossed Dumbledore's face. He asked once more, plaintively.
"Are you sure you're sure, Harry?"
They met each other's eyes across the tracks, and neither said a word. Everything that was necessary to explain and understand was shared through their measuring gazes.
Harry opened his mouth, but Dumbledore's words once more filled the air. "We are all lucky, brave man, that we have you."
With a sudden thunder, the promised train came into sight, with a hiss of steam, breaks squealing. The billowing haze hid the Headmaster's figure from view.
Smoke and mist curled thickly around the stationary train, and Harry shook himself once more, before stepping on hurriedly. Passing quickly to the windows, he looked out at the solitary figure of his Headmaster. Dumbledore's expression was no longer incomprehensible, but regretful, and grieving, and something else besides.
Harry wondered if Dumbledore was looking at him in awe, but that was clearly a silly idea.
Dumbledore called out once more, faintly heard through the glass. "Good luck, my child."
"Tell me one last thing," Harry stood, and called out suddenly from the window. "Is this real? Or has this all been happening inside my head?"
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his figure straightened joyfully in the mist. His laughing voice carried clearly to Harry over the sounds of the engine.
"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
And, with a hiss of steam and smoke, the white mist drifted up around the window, hiding everything from sight, and with a jolt, the carriage began to move.
Harry gazed back at the figure of the Headmaster for as long as he could see it. Then, turning slowly, sat down on the seat. The ticket held tightly on his lap, Harry fixed his destination vividly in his mind.
He closed his eyes.