"Harry Potter," Lord Voldemort said very softly. "The Boy Who Lived."
None of the Death Eaters moved. They were waiting; everything was waiting. Hagrid was struggling, and Bellatrix was panting, and Harry thought inexplicably of Ginny, and her blazing look, and the feel of her lips on his –
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 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 facedown, listening to the silence. He was perfectly alone. Nobody was watching. Nobody else was here. He was not perfectly sure that he was there himself. He wondered whether, as he could feel, he would be able to see. In opening them, he discovered that he had eyes. He lay in a bright mist, through it was not like mist he had ever experienced before. His surroundings were not hidden by cloudy vapour; rather the cloudy vapour 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 thumpings of something that flapped, flailed, and struggled. It was a pitiful noise, yet also slight indecent. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was eavesdropping
on something furtive, shameful.
He stood up, looking around. 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. He was the only person there, except for—
He recoiled. He had spotted the thing that was making the noise. 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.
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 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.
"You cannot help."
He spun around. Albus Dumbledore was walking toward 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 previously 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 piercingly 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." Harry felt he should feel a bit more, well, sadat the realisation, but he just felt numb. He was dead. Of course he was, that was what he had set out to do. His 'saving people' thing had not left him a choice. At least the others had a chance now. As long as Neville took out the snake like he had told him to, anyone had a shot at the Dark Lord. It didn't have to be him at all, no matter what the prophecy said.
He looked up at Dumbledore, a realisation suddenly hitting him. "You planned this. All of this. From the beginning."
Dumbledore did not seem to have expected that. He opened his mouth, closed it again, frowning at Harry slightly. "I – I have good reason to believe this death will not be permanent for you –"
"Good reason to believe?" Harry said, standing up from his seat. "You sent me out to get myself killed with a good reason to believeit wouldn't be permanent?" He felt his face growing hot, a rage he hadn't felt since his fifth year gathering in his chest. "All these years, you've – you've been manipulating me –"
"Harry!" Dumbledore sounded honestly shocked. "I have been guidingyou, giving you the pieces of the puzzle when you were ready for it. I had to make sure that -"
"Everything went according to plan?" spat Harry. "So your plan included letting all those people out there die because I wasn't ready to solve some bloody puzzle? If you didn't trust me, why didn't you tell your precious Order? Did you really think that I, some seventeen-year-old with a fancy scar, would do better in locating and destroying those horcruxes than a group of adult, fully trained wizards and witches that had experience with fighting Voldemort in the first place?"
Harry let out a hollow laugh. Looking back, it was so obvious that there had been other ways, better ways that Dumbledore could have used the information he'd gathered. But instead he'd put all his bets on one horse. "Why?"
"Harry, you have to understand that the prophesy - your unique connection with the Dark Lord, it made things so much more complicated than you realise. Your destinies were wrapped together more closely than any two wizards were ever joined in history. It had to be you."
"You don't know that" Harry said, his heart hammering in his chest. "You didn't even try to get rid of him in any other way."
"Harry, can't you see I just couldn't take that chance?" Dumbledore looked disappointed, like Harry was a beloved, precocious child who just couldn't grasp the adult concept that the older wizard was trying to explain. "Lord Voldemort had to be destroyed at all costs. The wizarding world could not have survived another full-blown war, so many have died already, too many –"
"Maybe if you'd told me everything from the beginning – told anyone – instead of holding everything back until the last bloody minute, they would've stood a chance."
"Harry, I deeply regret the unavoidable losses we have incurred, but can't you see, we did it! The part of Lord Voldemort's soul that was in you –" he inclined his head towards the miserable, suffering child under the bench, "has been destroyed. Your soul is whole and your own! Lord Voldemort took your blood to rebuild his body, your blood, with Lily's protection inside it. As long as he lives, you cannot truly die."
"Just like you planned," Harry said quietly. "Such a clever plan, too. You played me - all of us like a fiddle, didn't you? For the greater good."
Dumbledore recoiled as if Harry had hit him in the face, Grindelwald's words seeming to have shocked him into silence.
"I guess it was just all too beautiful," Harry continued, his voice monotonous. "Just too poetic for Voldemort to be defeated by the power of lovefor you to pass up the opportunity. You like your pretty children's tales of love, loyalty and innocence so much you want to twist the entire world into how you think it should be. And you honestly think it is all for the best."
Harry walked over to where the twisted imitation of a child was whimpering, and with an effort of will gently picked it up, cradling it in his arms. "If you'd told me everything – told everyone, get the Order of the Phoenix and the Ministry and the entire Hogwarts staff involved... do you think they wouldn't have listened to you? To the greatest wizard of our time? But no, instead I had to set off on some – some grand quest, doing everything by myself, thinking I was the only one who could get this whole mess sorted out. And Remus and Tonks and Fred and Dobby and –" He choked, unable to continue the list. In his arms, the child shifted fretfully, but it had fallen quiet.
"Harry… You have the chance to go back and defeat Lord Voldemort once and for all," Dumbledore said quietly, carefully.
"And if I don't?" Harry replied, narrowing his eyes.
"You would be able to… move on."
"So those are my choices?" Harry said, carefully pulling up the hem of his robes and wrapping the flayed abomination in his arms in them. It was a bit easier to deal with when it was covered up like that. He'd picked it up simply because Dumbledore had said there was no point to it, but now the child seemed to be breathing more easily, he was glad he'd done so. "Those are the choices you give me? Back to all the pain and fear and loss that your machinations created, or give up and die?"
Dumbledore's face was twisted in an expression of pain that almost made Harry feel wretched about confronting him. Almost. The man had treated him like a puppet ever since his parents had died. Left him with the Dursleys, never making sure they weren't the horrible, abusive excuse for adoptive parents they turned out to be. Always holding back information, only letting slip the things that would steer Harry in the direction he wanted to.
Who knows to what lengths the man had gone to ensure his plans and plots turned out the way he wanted them? Had he made sure Sirius, his godfather, had gone to Azkaban without a trial so the Dursleys were the only apparent option? Had he fabricated the defences for the Philosopher's Stone so that Harry, Hermione and Ron were ideally suited to make it through them, with Harry the only one left to confront Quirrelmort? (He'd always wondered when he got older and learned more about magical defences why Dumbledore hadn't simply warded the whole corridor and be done with it instead of constructing something more akin to a gameshow). Had he picked Snape to be his Occlumency teacher on purpose, knowing that his enmity with the Potions master would prevent Harry from really grasping the concept?
His head spinning, Harry turned his back on Dumbledore. He could go back and finish off Voldemort. Dumbledore's machinations had brought them this far, he might as well take the opportunity now it presented itself. But part of him rebelled against the very idea, rebelled against accepting the reality that the man had imposed on him. Who knew how many lives had been lost while he lay dead on the forest floor? Visions of Ron and Hermione, laying broken on the floor, flashed in front of his eyes. Ginny hit by a killing curse. Neville being mauled by Voldemort's giant snake. McGonagall hit in the chest by a barrage of spells, this time never to rise.
"No," Harry said, pulling the child, the piece of Voldemort's soul tighter to his chest. "I won't."
"Harry, if you choose to die here everything – the deaths, the sacrifices – all will have been for naught!" Dumbledore said, rising from his seat. There was a note of panic in his voice, and Harry shied away from him when he felt the man trying to put a hand on his shoulder.
"I won't choose to die either," Harry said, his voice hoarse. "I want to – I want to go back and…" He fell quiet, not entirely sure what he wanted, just that it wasn't this, not this impossible choice between a fate he never wanted and giving up entirely. Spots started to dance in front of his eyes as he turned back to Dumbledore, every fibre of his being screaming out in denial over the two roads that lay ahead of him, paths that he had no intention to take.
I want none of this to have happened.
A sensation of turning around, looking at the single path that laid behind him.
The last thing Harry saw before darkness overtook him was Dumbledore's mouth opening in surprise, his hand stretched out towards him, but he was too far away to reach him.