A/N: Chapter 'King's Cross' and what it could have been. Book 7 spoilers, oneshot, JK Rowling owns Harry Potter. Italics indicate pp 722 of Deathly Hallows.
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.
He cocked his head as a new noise reached his ears, one that sounded like a low rumbling. He and Dumbledore both turned toward the sound as it grew in intensity.
Harry watched as the Express pulled into the station, billowing steam just as merrily as it had in life. He turned toward Dumbledore, where he found a sad and knowing smile, and looked back at the train, realizing its significance. Apparently Voldemort's spell had worked—possibly too well.
"So," Harry said.
"Yes," Dumbledore agreed. "I'm afraid so. And I must say that I am sorry, Harry, one more time. I had hoped that you could conquer the Killing Curse again, that your mother's protection, now in Voldemort's blood would protect you again, but alas…"
"But you said I had a choice?"
"You do," Dumbledore responded, looking mildly surprised. "But now that the train is here, I expected you to board it. Where the train will carry you is the unknown, and you have never been afraid of that."
Harry stared at the train for a long while, wondering where it would take him and what would happen when he arrived there. In life, what was happening to his body right now? How were his friends, family, and professors holding up against the waves of Dark forces crashing upon the castle?
The train meant absolution, closure, and a definite end to his tiring and difficult life. But it also meant that he would leave behind the fate of the world. He looked back to Dumbledore; the aged wizard was contemplating Harry.
"I have to go back," Harry said.
"Well—" Dumbledore started, but was cut off by a rushing sound, such as the one the Killing Curse made, and both wizards turned on the spot toward the source of the noise. Something materialized on the ground near them, something long and tan and—
Even as Harry realized what it was, he couldn't stop his eyes from trailing down over the bushy brown hair, the runway of flawless skin on her back, her supple bum, and her long shapely legs. Then shame and despair washed over him, equally as powerful, because he had just stared at a naked Hermione, but her presence here must mean she had been killed…
"Oh," Dumbledore said, though it sounded more like a tiny gasp. Harry locked eyes with him; saw the look of shame and sadness on his former Headmaster's face too, and then looked back toward where Hermione lay facedown on the station floor. He was careful to keep his eyes on her hair.
He knew he needed something to clothe her with, and as he thought it, a robe similar to the one he wore faded onto the bench next to him. He grabbed it, stood up, and walked to where Hermione was feebly stirring.
"What…?" she asked, her voice thick with the trailing edges of fear. Harry moved around to face her, so that he could look into her eyes, and so that he could avoid looking at her body.
"Hermione?" Harry asked, his voice catching as he said her name. He couldn't believe she had been killed, she who was the most brilliant witch of her generation. Was.
"Harry—?" she lifted her head more, then all at once she must have realized several things, including her nakedness and what had happened to her, because she gave a little cry of a nameless emotion; then, she moved into a kneeling position quickly. Harry kept his eyes riveted on her face: the temptation to look down was so powerful—but no, he couldn't, there were both technically dead, he had to give her the robe.
He held it out, and she took it, never taking her eyes off his, and draped it over her own shoulders. Harry saw Dumbledore moving toward them over her shoulder, but he did not break eye contact with his best friend.
"Where are we?" she asked finally, her voice neutral. She broke gazes with Harry and looked around the station. Incredulity seemed to fill her posture.
"Is this King's Cross?"
"Yes, Ms. Granger, it is," Dumbledore told her, now standing beside her. She gave a little cry of fright and leapt to her feet—her robe flew open for a second—and stared at him with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
"Dumbledore? Harry? What's going on?" she asked. But Harry knew that she was already piecing the puzzle together in her mind, because nothing had ever been able to stop her formidable intellect, not even death.
"Hermione," Harry said, coming to stand next to her. She glanced at him, at Dumbledore, and then at the train idling in the background. The keening noise reached her ears, and all three of them looked toward the small thing.
"What is that?" she asked, moving toward it. Harry reached out a hand to stall her, placing it on her bare arm; she stopped, looking over her shoulder, meeting his eyes once again. He had never before noticed how perfectly chocolate her eyes were.
"Something that we cannot save," Dumbledore said, and she looked at him. She acquiesced and returned to her position next to Harry.
"Are we…am I…dead?" she asked, after just a moment's pause, and Harry took a deep breath. Dumbledore, it seemed, did not want to answer Hermione, for he was still looking at the crying thing on the ground, so Harry did.
"Yes," Harry said, and though he knew it was coming, he was still unprepared for it. She turned and threw her arms around him, already shaking with the force of her sobs, and cried and screamed into his shoulder. The agony in her voice reached a fever pitch, far higher than he had heard in Malfoy Manor, and he shut his eyes tight against the overwhelming tide of grief that threatened him for a moment.
"Why?" she sobbed, still into his shoulder. "Everything was going so well. We were pushing them back, all of them, and then Voldemort showed up; but Flitwick, McGonagall, and Slughorn took him on, and they seemed to be holding their own at least. Voldemort was oddly shaken: and I was watching them push him back, but I was distracted, there were two Death Eaters coming toward Ron and Ginny.
"I called out to them, and started to cast something, but then I heard this odd rushing noise and I woke up here…" she trailed off, calmed down some, but still shuddering a little against Harry. Harry heard a sniff and looked up. Dumbledore was crying again, and the look on his face told Harry the older man thought he'd failed again.
"I'm so sorry, Hermione," Dumbledore said. "I wish I had been there to protect you all, to prevent this from happening, to stop you from being ripped from the world at such a young age.
"But I thoughtlessly put the Resurrection Stone on, and I ended any chance I had at protecting Hogwarts! The Deathly Hallows and my own foolishness are what killed you. I'm so sorry," Dumbledore said, and turned away. Harry just held onto Hermione. She had been silent through Dumbledore's words.
"No," she said, raising her head a little. Before Harry's eyes, the mess that was her face rearranged itself into perfection, as if wherever they were was some kind of super Room of Requirement. He felt his forehead again where there was no longer a scar.
"A Death Eater killed me," she said. "Or Voldemort. Not you."
Dumbledore gave a watery chuckle. "You two are remarkable," he eventually said. When he turned to face them again, his tears had been erased as well.
Silence fell between the trio for an indeterminable length of time, since the only things that existed were the station, the train, and them. They were all considering what happened next: Hermione wondering where she went from here, Dumbledore knowing and struggling with the choice that faced Harry, and Harry realizing that selfsame choice as he looked between Hermione and the train.
"What is this place?" Hermione asked, curiosity filling her voice. She still clung to Harry.
"Something akin to a way-station, I suppose," Dumbledore told them, making eye contact with Harry. "A time to find yourself, to come to terms with your own end, and then to move on," he continued, turning slightly toward the train.
"On where?" Hermione asked.
"Just on," Harry whispered, though they all could hear it.
"Harry, you have a decision to make. There is very little time left," Dumbledore said, looking at the train again, from where more steam had begun billowing.
Harry closed his eyes. He knew the decision he had to make: death and Hermione or life and a world without her. It was like his soul was being ripped in half, as a piece stretched out toward life and the other one longed to stay with Hermione, who had been his one constant during the last seven years. She was the only one to never abandon him, and she couldn't go back. She was dead. There was no part of Voldemort's soul stuck to her to save her.
He sighed and looked into Dumbledore's ice blue eyes. He tightened his arm around Hermione and stared toward the Express. It was fitting, really…
"I can't go back, not now," Harry said. If his heart could pump, it would have sped up.
"Go back?" Hermione asked, drawing back a little.
"I was another Horcrux, Hermione. Voldemort killed me, and in doing so killed another piece of his soul. But he didn't kill mine; I could go back if I wanted to." She gave him a wide-eyed look of comprehension, and then drew back more, pointing her finger at him.
"But you have to!" she cried. "You can't die just for me, Harry!" she screeched. "I'm not worth it! There's so much for you to live for—"
"You're not worth it?" Harry asked, feeling anger for the first time in this strange place. "How could you say something like that? You always knew I would die for you, and if that's what I have to do here, then I will!"
"But Harry, you can live!"
"Hermione, I'm not leaving you to die alone," he told her, chest heaving. He could not believe she would think he would just go back without her.
She was crying again. "But Harry, you can't die just because of me. You're the hero. You have to go back to everyone. There's so much waiting for you. So much you can do."
"I'm no hero, Hermione. I've just cheated Death a bunch of times. This time, though, I won't. I'm going to get on that train with you."
As a short silence fell between them, Harry suddenly realized Dumbledore and the odd keening thing had disappeared. He and Hermione were alone in the station now, with only the train left.
"But Harry…" she said, but she seemed to know it was useless. She just stared into his eyes, and he stared back into those endless brown orbs. There was so much emotion there, so much feeling, that it drew him in. She was Hermione, his best friend, the only person he had been able to count on through everything that mattered.
"Let's go," he said, gently taking her hand and leading her toward the waiting train. The door they were approaching slid open of its own accord, allowing them entrance. As Harry mounted the steps just behind Hermione, he looked around the empty station again.
So this was really it. All along, all during his death march into the forest, some part of him had been hoping that lightning would strike twice, that somehow he would survive the unsurvivable again. It didn't appear like that would happen; sure, he could go back, but he didn't want to anymore. He didn't want to leave Hermione. So he was really dead, just a cold piece of meat on the Forbidden Forest floor.
And the enormity of it all hit him at once. He would never see the Weasleys or anyone else again; he would not able to learn the fate of the battle, nor of the world itself. Would their sacrifice matter? Would someone be able to finish off the snake and then Voldemort now the Horcrux within Harry had been eliminated?
He and Hermione took their seats toward the front. He was on the inside, near the window, and he looked out of the clear glass. He wondered all of these things and then felt Hermione's hand on his, reassuring in its solidity—here, at least—and warmth. He squeezed and she squeezed back.
He wanted to reach up and wipe away the tears that had started to fall from his eyes, but he knew he wouldn't. He looked at Hermione and saw her silently crying as well. But she was smiling too, if only a little bit. He leaned his forehead against hers.
With a lurch, the train started moving forward, toward the brilliant white nothingness where the station ended. Nothing mattered anymore, except that he was there with Hermione. Whether or not their lives had been wasted, they would never know, and it was of little consequence now. Hand in hand, leaning against each other, they sat quite still as the train left King's Cross.
And so Harry and Hermione went on.