By Nomad
June 2004

Spoilers: None beyond "Chamber of Secrets", as it happens.
Disclaimer: They're all J.K. Rowling's, of course.
Summary: The final battle is won, and now, at last, there is the promise of a brighter future.

He wakes up slowly, and piece by piece, as if his body is carefully reacquainting itself with all its systems. He realises he's lying between cotton sheets, and tries to remember the last time he slept in a real bed. It feels like long ago.

Where is he?

At Hogwarts, of course. Where else would they have brought him? This is the infirmary. He wonders what trifling injury last landed him in here, and can't help but smile a little. A Quidditch injury, perhaps, or some poorly applied spell in one of his classes. Such a long time ago... when he was still a child. Or at least seemed one, to those around him. He'd never truly been one, on the inside.

He remembers the final battle now. That incredible surge, as their wands met and locked for the very last time. A heady feeling, both terrifying and exhilarating; wrestling for control. Knowing that this time, if he failed, he would be utterly destroyed. Knowing that if he succeeded, Voldemort would be gone for good.

He still almost can't believe he won.

"Harry!" They rush into his sick room, and he looks at them closely for the first time - a tall red-headed man and a beautiful young woman, not the awkward teenagers he'd been subconsciously expecting. Of course. None of them are children any more. Come to think of it, how old must he be now? He's lost track of time, more than a little. Perhaps he's still nineteen. He'll have to check the date.

He lets their excited babble wash over him, content for the moment to just melt into it and listen, fill his mind with every detail of them. Ron and Hermione. His best friends.

Then a burst of sudden irrational terror hits, and he sits up abruptly. It's stupid, it's stupid, but- He forces the words out. "What happened to... the body?"

Hermione rests a comforting hand on his forearm. It feels very strange. He'd almost forgotten what an affectionate touch felt like. "We burned it," she says, with a startlingly ferocious expression on her face. Then it softens. "He won't be coming back this time, Harry. Dumbledore made sure of it. You can rest now. He won't be coming back."

He won't be coming back. He tastes the words, marvels at them. It's almost too much to grasp at once. His nemesis of eighteen years... gone. Utterly destroyed, with Dumbledore's seal on it, no less. He's free now. Truly, wonderfully, incredibly, marvellously free.

And then he remembers more. "Dumbledore?" he asks, embarrassed at the way his voice cracks. He's afraid to hear the answer. He has hated Dumbledore, hated him - and yet, seeing him finally go down like that...

"He's alive, Harry." She squeezes his arm, and the held breath comes out of him in a rush, a sigh that he can't even begin to classify. Relief, confusion, worry, dismay?

He's never been able to work out how he really feels about Dumbledore.

Ron nods towards the second bed, and it's the first time he's even noticed it's there. "He's over there," Ron says, and there's such a heavy note to his voice that Hermione's reassurance becomes abruptly ominous.

He's alive... but what else is he?

He sinks back into the bed, feeling suddenly weak. "I think... I need some time to..."

"Of course." Hermione understands, and disentangles herself from him.

Ron claps him on the shoulder. "We'll see you later, Harry."

He lies still for a long time before he can bring himself to check on Dumbledore.

The old man looks... old. It's been long years since their first meeting, and he was hardly young then - but this is a shock. He's never looked as fragile as this. He doesn't look like the mighty Hogwarts headmaster now. He looks like someone's ailing grandfather.

Oh, yes. Always the grandfather. Always the twinkly-eyed yet distant figure, dispensing wisdom and care in little carefully measured pellets, like his beloved Muggle sweets. Oh yes, let's love the poor orphaned boy, but not too much, never too much. Let him have a taste of what he wants, but never allow him to keep it.

He does love Dumbledore, in a way. In that way that you can't help a small piece of you loving someone who so obviously loves you, even if he hurts you in every way he can. He loves Dumbledore... but that doesn't mean he'll ever forgive him.

The sleeping headmaster makes a soft sound, and shifts position as if uncomfortable. Perhaps it's the shadow over him, or perhaps even now he senses something...

He carefully removes one of the pillows from under the old man's head, and waits for him to settle again. Watching the feeble rise and fall of that elderly chest. So thin. So weak. Who would have thought he could ever be so weak?

Then he leans forward, and presses the pillow down.

There's barely even a struggle. Dumbledore dies with the faintest breath of a sigh, and when he pulls the pillow away he could swear that the old man is smiling. When the death is finally noticed and they pronounce him peacefully passed away in his sleep, they won't even be far wrong.

He's not sure whether that satisfies him or not.

He returns to the other bed and lies down, folding his hands behind his head. Strange to think now that it's all over. The battle is won, Dumbledore is gone, and at last he is utterly free.

All in all, it's a pity that Harry Potter can't be here to witness his triumph. But then, they'd always known that only one of them would walk away, at the end. And Harry has given, that he might receive.

He looks down at his body; unfamiliar still, and not quite fully grown - but not so different, really, from the one he once had so long ago, when he was Tom, and the world was his for the taking. Now he is Harry... and the world will be his once again.

He leans back into the soft bed, content for now to rest, and recover, and grow accustomed to his new surroundings. After all, he has plenty of time.

The future stretches out ahead of him, pure and bright and full of promise.