Harry reached the edge of the forest and stopped.

A pack of dementors was flying through the trees; he could feel their chill in the air, and knew there was no way he was going to get through safely. He didn't have enough strength to cast a Patronus. His body was trembling uncontrollably. Dying, it turned out, wasn't so easy. Every breath he took, he could smell the grass, feel the cool air on his face—it all felt so alive. To think that people had years and years, time to waste, so much time it dragged, and he was clinging desperately to each second. At the same time, he thought that he would not be able to go on, and knew that he must. The game was over, the Snitch had been caught; it was time to leave the air…

The Snitch. Harry's fingers fumbled at the pouch around his neck for a moment before pulling it out. He stared down at it.

I open at the close.

This was the close. This was the moment.

He pressed the golden metal to his lips and whispered, "I am about to die."

The metal shell broke open. Harry lowered his shaking hand, raised Draco's wand beneath the Cloak, and whispered, "Lumos."

The black stone with its jagged crack running down the center sat in the two halves of the Snitch. The Resurrection Stone had cracked down the vertical line representing the Elder Wand. The triangle and circle representing the Cloak and the stone were still discernible.

And again Harry understood without having to think. Bringing them back did not matter, he was about to join them. He was not really fetching them: They were fetching him.

He closed his eyes and turned the stone over in his hand three times. He knew it had happened because he heard slight movements around him that suggested frail bodies shifting their footing on the earthy, twig-strewn ground. He opened his eyes and looked around. They were neither ghosts nor truly flesh, he could see that. They resembled most closely the Riddle that had escaped from the diary so long ago, and he had been memory made nearly solid. Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts, they moved toward him, and on each face, there was the same loving smile.

James was exactly the same height as Harry. He was wearing the clothes in which he had died, and his hair was untidy and ruffled, and his glasses were a little lopsided, like Mr. Weasley's.

Sirius was tall and handsome, and younger by far than Harry had seen him in life. He walked with a confident swagger, his hands in his pockets and a grin on his face.

Lupin was younger too, and much less shabby, and his hair was thicker and darker. He looked happy to be back in this familiar place, a scene of so many adolescent wanderings.

Lily's smile was the widest of all. She pushed her long hair back as she drew close and her green eyes, so like his, searched his face as though she would never be able to look at him enough.

"You've been so brave," she said.

Harry couldn't speak or stop staring. He thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.

"You are nearly there," said James. "Very close. We are... so proud of you."

"Does it hurt?"

The childish question was out before Harry could stop it.

"Dying? Not at all," said Sirius. "Quicker and easier than falling asleep."

"And he will want it to be quick. He wants it over," said Lupin.

"I didn't want you to die," Harry said. Like his question, the words came without his permission. "Any of you. I'm sorry —" He was talking to Lupin more than any of them, pleading with him—"right after you'd had your son...Remus, I'm sorry—"

"I am sorry too," said Lupin. "Sorry I will never know him...but he will know why I died and I hope he will understand. I was trying to make a world in which he could live a happier life."

A chilly breeze that seemed to come from the heart of the forest lifted the hair at Harry's brow. He knew they wouldn't tell him to go; the decision had to be his.

"You'll stay with me?"

"Until the very end," said James.

"They won't be able to see you?" Harry asked.

"We are part of you," said Sirius. "Invisible to anyone else."

Harry looked at his mother.

"Stay close to me," he said quietly.

And he set off. The dementors' chill did not stop him; he passed through it with his family, and they acted like Patronuses to him. Together they marched through the old trees that grew closely together, their branches tangled, their roots gnarled and twisted underfoot. Harry clutched the Cloak tightly around him in the darkness, traveling deeper and deeper into the forest, with no idea where exactly Voldemort was, but sure that he would find him. Beside him, making scarcely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily, and their presence was his courage, the reason he was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Harry's body and mind felt oddly disconnected now, his limbs working without conscious instruction, as if he were a passenger, not a driver, in the body he was about to leave. The dead who walked beside him through the forest were much more real to him now than the living back at the castle: Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and all the others felt like ghosts as he walked toward the end of his life, toward Voldemort...

A thud and a whisper: Some other living creature had stirred close by. Harry stopped under the Cloak, and his mother and father, Lupin and Sirius stopped too.

"Someone's there," came a rough whisper not far away. "He's got an Invisibility Cloak. Could it be—?"

Two figures emerged from behind a nearby tree: Their wands raised, and Harry saw Yaxley and Dolohov peering into the darkness, directly at the place where his mother and father and Sirius and Lupin and he stood. Apparently, they could see nothing.

"Definitely heard something," said Yaxley. "Animal, d'you reckon?"

"That headcase Hagrid kept a whole bunch of stuff in here," said Dolohov, glancing over his shoulder.

Yaxley looked down at his watch.

"Time's nearly up. Potter's had his hour. He's not coming."

"And he was sure he'd come! He won't be happy."

"Better go back," said Yaxley. "Find out what the plan is now."

He and Dolohov turned and walked deeper into the forest. Harry followed them, knowing that they would lead him exactly where he wanted to go. He glanced sideways, and his mother smiled at him, and his father nodded encouragement.

They had only traveled a few minutes when Harry saw light ahead, and Yaxley and Dolohov stepped out into a clearing that he knew had been the place where the monstrous Aragog had once lived. The remnants of his vast web were still there, but the swarm of descendants he had spawned had been driven out by the Death Eaters, to fight for their cause.

A fire burned in the middle of the clearing, and its flickering light 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.

Every eye was focused on 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, but most likely counting silently in his mind, and standing still on the edge of the scene, Harry thought absurdly of a child counting in a game of hide-and-seek.

Behind the dark lord's head, still swirling and coiling, the great snake Nagini floated in her glittering, charmed cage, like a monstrous halo.

When Dolohov and Yaxley rejoined the circle, Voldemort looked up.

"No sign of him, my Lord," said Dolohov.

Voldemort's expression did not change. The red eyes seemed to burn in the firelight. Slowly he drew the Elder Wand between his long fingers.

"My Lord —"

Bellatrix had spoken; she sat closest to Voldemort, disheveled, her face a little bloody but otherwise unharmed.

Voldemort raised his hand to silence her, and she did not speak another word but stared at him in worshipful fascination.

"I thought he would come," said Voldemort in his high, clear voice, his eyes never leaving the flames. "I expected him to come."

Nobody spoke. They seemed as scared as Harry was, his heart now throwing itself against his ribs as though determined to escape the body he was about to cast aside. His hands were sweating as he pulled off the Invisibility Cloak and stuffed it beneath his robes, with his wand. He did not want to be tempted to fight.

"I was, it seems...mistaken," said Voldemort.

"You weren't."

Harry said it as loudly as he could, with all the force he could muster; he did not want to sound afraid. The Resurrection Stone slipped from between his numb fingers, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw his parents, Sirius, and Lupin vanish as he stepped forward into the firelight. At that moment, it felt like nobody mattered but Voldemort. It was just the two of them.

The illusion was gone as soon as it had come. The giants roared as the Death Eaters rose together, and there were many cries, gasps, even laughter. Voldemort had frozen where he stood, but his red eyes had found Harry, and he stared as Harry moved toward him, with nothing but the fire between them.

Then a voice yelled: "HARRY! NO!" Harry turned: Hagrid was bound and trussed, tied to a tree nearby. His massive body shook the branches overhead as he struggled, desperate. "NO! NO! HARRY, WHAT'RE YEH —?" "QUIET!" shouted Rowle, and with a flick of his wand, Hagrid was silenced.

Bellatrix, who had jumped to her feet, was looking eagerly from Voldemort to Harry, her breasts heaving in her tight corset. The only things that moved were her, the flames, and the snake, coiling and uncoiling in the glittering cage behind Voldemort's head.

Harry could feel his wand against his own chest, but he made no attempt to draw it. He knew the snake was too well protected, knew that even if he managed to point his wand at Nagini, fifty curses would hit him before he could cast a spell. And still, Voldemort and Harry looked at each other, and now Voldemort tilted his head a little to the side, a mirthless smile on his lipless mouth.

"Harry Potter," he said very softly. His voice might have been part of the spitting fire. "The Boy Who Lived...come to die..."

None of the Death Eaters moved. They were waiting: Everything was waiting. Hagrid was struggling. Bellatrix was panting, and inexplicably, Harry thought of what her heaving tits might look like without the corset, about Madame Rosmerta and Cho, Romilda Vane and finally Ginny, with her blazing look, and the feel of her lips on his.

Harry wanted to believe he was dying without any regrets…

…but, that wasn't entirely true.

If he allowed himself to be brutally honest...there was one small yet persistent regret that had been nagging at him since he saw Snape's memories. Harry saw the way witches acted around his father and Sirius. Their shy nervous giggling and not being able to meet their eyes. Snape had hated it because it was a reminder of how popular the two were. Harry was shocked because that's how a lot of witches had acted around him!

He had thought they were acting weird because they didn't want to talk to him or worse, were laughing at his attempts to talk to them!

Now that he knew the truth, he wished he hadn't been so oblivious!

It was a selfish and childish regret.

Harry's childhood with the Dursleys had left him ill-prepared to deal with the opposite sex. He had grown up to be extremely introverted, and he didn't have the social awareness during his years at Hogwarts years to understand just how famous he was. That the moment he stepped into the castle his first year he could have had 7th-year witches in a broom closet!

And there was no one to teach him!

None of the teachers at Hogwarts were going to tell him that his unruly black hair was attractive and that he shouldn't be ashamed of the scar Voldemort left. That seeing the lightning bolt, proof Harry had "defeated" the most powerful Dark Lord as a toddle made girl's knickers wet.

Sirius was the only one who would have told him, but he had left Harry's life too early before he could.

That left Harry stumbling his way through school inexcusably thick to how many witches would have dropped their knickers for him in the Great Hall, in front of Dumbledore himself just to say they shagged the Boy-Who-Lived.

The realization had flipped his worldview upside down. It was hard to believe that him: the skinny, glasses-wearing Harry Potter was that popular. It got him thinking about the conversations, the opportunities he had missed at Hogwarts. The demure smiles from Parvati Patil at the Yule ball. Her sister Padma too! Harry could have had them both!

Romilda Vane had even tried to drug him!

Harry wished the girl had just told him she liked him. Maybe if she did the light would have clicked on in his brain and he would have seen all the other signs.

Voldemort had raised his wand. His head was still tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into his red eyes and waited. If the dark lord wanted to see him afraid, he was going to be waiting all night.

Instead, he smirked, wondering how Voldemort would feel if the dark lord knew that the last thoughts of the famous Boy-Who-Lived weren't about all the witches he could've but didn't shag. It was rather silly, all things considered. But he was dying, so he could be honest with himself.

Harry saw Voldemort's mouth move and a flash of green light and closed his eyes.


When Harry opened his eyes again, he was lying face down, listening to silence. Voldemort, the Death Eaters, and even the sounds of the forest were gone. Nobody was watching. Nobody else was there. Harry was perfectly alone.

A long time later, or maybe no time at all, it came to him that he must still exist, that there must be some kind of afterlife, because he was lying, definitely lying on some surface. Almost as soon as he reached this conclusion, he 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 that he still had eyes.

Harry lay in a bright mist, though it was not like any mist he had ever experienced before. His surroundings were not hidden by cloudy vapor; rather, the cloudy vapor had not yet 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 anymore.

Then a noise reached him through the unformed nothingness that surrounded him: the small soft thumping of something that flapped, flailed, and struggled. It was a pitiful noise, yet also slightly indecent. Harry had the uncomfortable feeling that he was eavesdropping on something 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 roof 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. Harry 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, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.

Harry 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 near 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.

"Leave it be, Harry."

Harry spun around. Sirius was walking toward him, smiling and looking more alive than when Harry last saw him in the forest. His skin was flush with color, his long hair was neat, and his eyes were bright.

"Harry!" Sirius spread his arms wide, and then for the first time in years, Harry was hugging his godfather.

Stunned, he wrapped his arms around him, and just like before, his mouth was moving before he could stop himself.

"You're dead," Harry said like it wasn't something he'd known for years.

"I am," Sirius replied matter-of-factly.

"Then...I'm dead too?"

It hadn't registered in his mind yet. But saying it out loud made it real.

"Ah," Sirius said, his smile growing warmer, "That is the question, isn't it? But no, Harry, I don't believe you are."

"But…" Harry raised his hand instinctively toward the lightning scar, which seemed to have gone missing. "But I should have died—I didn't defend myself! I meant to let him kill me!"

"And that," Sirius said, his eyes shining with pride, "is exactly why you're still kicking. Leave it to James' son to get one over on death itself!"

Happiness seemed to radiate from his godfather, like light, like fire: Harry didn't think he had ever seen anyone so utterly happy.

"All right, out with it then," he said, wanting Sirius to explain.

Sirius barked a short laugh. "You know the answer already."

"I let him kill me," Harry stated, more to himself than to Sirius.

"Got it in one," he nodded approvingly. "And?"

"So the piece of his soul stuck inside me..."

Sirius leaned forward eagerly, urging Harry onward, a wide roguish grin on his face.

". . . has it gone?"

"That's right, Harry!" Sirius clapped his hands. "Voldemort destroyed it. Your soul is now whole, and completely your own!"

"But if that's true, then…"

Harry glanced over his shoulder to where the small, maimed creature trembled under the chair.

"What is that, Sirius?"

"That?" Sirius glared at the creature, his expression hardening slightly. "That's a pitiful remnant not worth our concern. Best to leave it be."

"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 Sirius. "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 Sirius and the stunted creature under the chair were the only beings there. Then, as if a fog had lifted, the answer came to him.

"He took my blood," Harry said.

"Exactly!" Sirius said, his eyes filled with amusement. "He took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it! Your blood flows through his foul veins now, carrying Lily's protection with it! It bound you both to life while he lives, the arrogant fool."

"I live...while he lives?" Harry repeated slowly. "But I thought it was the other way around? That we both had to die? Or is is the same thing?"

Distracted by the creature's whimpering, Harry looked back at it again.

"Are you sure we can't do anything for it?"

Sirius waved a dismissive hand. "That thing is beyond saving. Don't trouble yourself over it."

"Then explain... more," Harry asked, and Sirius smiled.

"You were the seventh Horcrux, Harry, the Horcrux he never meant to make. His soul was so unstable that it broke apart that night when he came to kill you. But what escaped from that room was even less than he knew. He left more than his body behind. He left part of himself latched to you, the little boy who survived.

"But the fool has never understood what truly mattered. Love and loyalty—what does Voldemort know about that? Nothing. He took your blood thinking it would make him stronger, not realizing he was also taking the very enchantment Lily placed on you when she died to protect you. His body keeps her sacrifice alive, and as long as that sacrifice survives, so do you."

"Then if I'm not dead," Harry asked slowly. "Where are we?"

"Well, I was going to ask you that," Sirius said looking around, seeming to really take in their surroundings for the first time.

"Where would you say that we are?"

Until he had asked, Harry had not known. Now, however, he found that he had an answer ready to give.

"It looks," he said, "like King's Cross station. Except a lot cleaner and empty, and there are no trains as far as I can see."

"King's Cross station!" Sirius' smile had become a bit sad. "You know, from the moment you were born, James and Lily never wanted to let you go. They always dreaded the day when they'd send you off to Hogwarts."

There was a pause. The creature behind them whimpered, but Harry no longer looked around.

"I've got to go back, haven't I?" Harry said, more to himself than to Sirius.

"That is up to you, Harry," Sirius shrugged. "You've already given so damn much of yourself to this war. No one could blame you for being done with it all."

"I've got a choice?"

"Of course," Sirius nodded. He glanced around the vacant station. "Way I see it, you could...let's say, board a train and leave this all behind."

"And where would that take me?"

"Somewhere new," Sirius said simply.

They fell into silence again.

"Voldemort has the Elder Wand though," Harry said after a moment.

Sirius nodded grimly. "He's got it all right."

"But...you don't want me to go back?"

"I want you to choose what feels right for you," Sirius said, "if you choose to go back, then it needs to be because you want to. You've already fought so bravely. Voldemort has only one Horcrux left. You can trust your friends, trust the Order to finish this fight. You've sacrificed enough, Harry."

Harry glanced again at the raw-looking thing that trembled and choked in the shadow beneath the distant chair.

"Don't pity that thing, Harry," Sirius said, far more disgusted than Harry was of the creature. "You've done your part. You've been so brave. If returning feels too much, it's okay to say it's enough. If you feel that stepping back now is what you need, then let others carry on. They're strong, Harry, and they'll keep fighting. Remember, you are loved, and you were never fighting alone."

Leaving this place would not be nearly as hard as walking into the forest had been, but it was warm and light and peaceful here and Harry was tired—bone-deep exhaustion from years of fighting, of losing people he loved, and finally, facing his own death to protect the world from Voldemort.

"You really think it's okay? For me to just...go on?"

Sirius stepped closer, reaching out to grab him by the shoulders. "Harry, you've sacrificed more than any one person should ever have to. You've been braver than most could ever dream of being. It's okay to go now."

The approval to let go, to let others carry the torch was all Harry needed. He turned toward the gleaming train tracks, where the train waited, its doors open as if expecting him.

Walking toward the train, each step felt lighter than the last. The burden of being the boy who lived had weighed on him from the moment he'd learned of my fate.

Now, he was just Harry. Harry who had a choice.

As they boarded the train, Sirius sat down beside him. "Now, I can't go with you, Harry, so we only have a little time left. But there's still a lot I need to teach you, so listen close."

As the train pulled away from the station, Harry looked at Sirius who was grinning.

"The thing you need to understand about being famous and handsome is that women…"

Story is Rated-T right now, but if you know anything about Westeros, that isn't going to last long!

Changed Dumbledore to Sirius because I think Sirius' personality fits better for where the story is heading (M-Rating) and while I was reading the King's Cross chapter I kind of got the feeling that Dumbledore was still manipulating Harry.

The line: "By returning, you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say goodbye for the present."

Super guilt-tripping right?

Anyway, thanks for reading!