So there it was. The truth Harry had so longed to hear. Well, he’d gotten it good, hadn’t he? He could hear Snape jeering from beyond the grave That ought to teach you, insolent brat. As if it wouldn’t still be real had Harry not stood there and watched it all unfold, heard everything from Dumbledore’s own lips.
He had never been meant to survive.
What had Snape called him? A sacrifice? Yeah, that about summed it up. The whole of his Hogwarts education—even those miserable years with the Dursleys thinking he was Harry, just Harry. Every lesson, every meal, every breath he’d taken had been borrowed time.
His job had not been to find and destroy the Horcruxes—not really. Not his job. Anyone could have managed that, with the right information and a healthy dose of luck (which could, of course, easily be brewed). No, all he’d ever been meant to do was die at just the right moment, without fuss, without muss, and if he managed to snip a few threads yet tethering Voldemort to life along the way, then all the better. Clean, neat, tidy. He wasn’t even meant to try and defend himself. Our saviour, Draco had mocked so often, and it was true.
Death had seemed an inevitability for a while now, granted, but…there had always been a chance. A sliver of hope that maybe somehow, some way…
He snorted softly to himself, vision blurring, as he recalled the locket taunting Draco with cruel possibilities that stood no chance of coming to pass.
No, clearly Harry had just been living in ignorant bliss. More lies, meant to keep him docile, his focus shunted away from the cold purpose to which his life would be put. Blinders so he didn’t realise he was simply plodding along, down that long, lonely path straight to the killing floor. He was not the Chosen One. He was no one’s hero. He was just fodder. A pig raised for slaughter, never meant to have friends or lovers or family except to keep him in line, to ensure he didn’t run screaming when it was finally time.
Time to die.
A wave of bone-chilling terror suddenly washed over him, and he swayed unsteadily on his feet, gripping the edge of the desk to keep from sinking to his knees. His heart pounded in a drumming rhythm, picking up pace as it quickened with fear, and his throat was suddenly parched, mouth dry with panic.
Would it hurt to die? He’d faced what he’d thought was unimaginable pain before, pain enough to make him wish he was dead, but he’d always come out the other side in the end, hadn’t he? So many times he’d thought this is it, this is the end, and then he’d escaped by the skin of his teeth. He’d never really stopped and thought about the thing itself. Or, well, he’d thought about it—but always as something that happened to other people. Something that happened to those Harry came to care for, to love, only to have them ripped away. It was a terrible thing—but only because it made him so lonely.
And now he would be the one having to make others feel lonely.
He could flee. He could do as Aberforth had suggested and run. Voldemort could try and find him, but under the protection of the Cloak, there was little chance of his succeeding, not if Harry didn’t want him to. So why didn’t he? Why was he still standing here, letting his panicked thoughts overrun him? He could feel his heart pumping furiously, flooding his veins with adrenaline—he wanted to run. He wanted to be miles away from here, safe and alive with everyone he cared about in a similar state.
But he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t make any false moves, simply because he’d been bred this way—raised to know his place for ten years, then to do what he knew was right thenceforth. He’d called himself a member of Dumbledore’s Army, worn the title like a shiny Prefect’s badge, and he really was. A good little soldier, exactly what Dumbledore had built him into—becoming the kind of man who would not turn tail in the face of death but would gladly lay his life down to serve the greater good.
He was, it seemed, a Gryffindor through and through, dithering under the Sorting Hat notwithstanding. Stupid and brave to the bitter end.
No, there would be no running, no hiding, only walking head high and shoulders back towards that inevitable close.
Except his head felt very heavy, and his shoulders trembled, and he did not know if he could make his legs take him where he needed to go. It was as if his body knew what his mind meant for it to do and was fighting back with every ounce of self-preservation coded into his being.
It was, he thought, the anticipation that was the worst thing. Dumbledore had said in Snape’s memory that it was a blessing to know when you were about to die—but Harry could not disagree more. How he longed, now, to have perished in his escape from Privet Drive—if only his spells had failed, or he’d crashed into the ground at breakneck speed clinging to Hagrid. If only he could have died like Hedwig—so quickly he wouldn’t have known it had happened. Or better yet, to have gone out blazing defending a loved one from attack, taking a spell for Ron or Hermione—or letting Greyback cut him down when he’d lashed out against Draco.
He supposed this was meant to be such a sacrifice, one life for many, but it didn’t feel the same to Harry, not really. This was too slow, too drawn-out—plodding, inexorably, to meet his own destruction. It would require an entirely different kind of bravery—or stupidity—than he’d learned in Gryffindor.
He felt his fingers trembling slightly and made an effort to control them, though no one was here to see him; the portraits on the walls were still empty.
With great effort, he forced his legs to lock under him and support his weight. He stood up straight and felt the blood rush to his head, but he held himself together with several deep inhalations. The air somehow smelled different now—clearer, cleaner. He gulped it down and closed his eyes. How had he never properly appreciated that he was alive at all? He’d agonised over test scores and House rivalries and loathsome relatives and never considered how absolutely amazing it was he was even alive to experience those things. God, what he wouldn’t give for Draco to stamp on his face just once more, to feel his nose crunch and the rush of iron-rich blood flooding his mouth. To feel the pain—to be able to feel the pain.
There had always been a bigger plan, Harry had known; it had frustrated him to no end he hadn’t been allowed to see it, to see even a fraction of it really, but he’d assumed, naïvely, that Dumbledore had done everything he possibly could to see that Harry made it out alive, and so it would simply be up to him to do his own part and, well, not die.
Now, though, he saw with brutal clarity that his lifespan had always been measured in Horcruxes—and the time it took to destroy them. Dumbledore had, by taking Harry under his wing and showing him how to snip the threads of Voldemort’s mortality, given Harry the knowledge and power to destroy himself in the doing. Two birds with one stone—no one would ever accuse Albus Dumbledore of not capitalising on such a neat, elegant opportunity. No more lives wasted than necessary—he’d ceded this most dangerous of tasks to the very boy whose life would mark the full-stop at the end of Voldemort’s book.
Dumbledore had seemed so certain in Snape’s memories that Harry would not flee—and why shouldn’t he have been? He’d watched Harry grow up, hadn’t he? Had moulded him into the type of person who would lay down his life for his friends, though it terrified him to do so. Harry had always been prepared to go it alone, to face Voldemort head on, without the safety and sanctuary of his friends—well, now was his chance.
But oh, Dumbledore had overestimated him. The snake yet survived, tucked in a bubble of protective energy within arm’s reach of Voldemort at all times. Even after this, even once Harry was gone, Nagini would still be there, binding Voldemort to this plane. One Horcrux or six, it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things—just like Draco had said.
Perhaps his friends would rally and be able to finish the job for him. Ron and Hermione and Draco—they knew Nagini needed to die, they knew how important it was to destroy that final Horcrux. They were all perfectly capable, so perhaps they’d manage it, even without Harry around. Now that he thought about it, that would’ve been why Dumbledore had encouraged him to confide in Ron and Hermione to begin with, wouldn’t it? Failsafes. Back-ups. Insurance, in case Harry didn’t finish the job himself. Always two steps ahead, that one…
His thoughts began to race, stumbling over each other in a muddled mass, only to slam headlong into the cold, hard truth that shortly, he would die. I’m going to die. No more Harry Potter. No more Boy Who Lived. Gone, just gone.
He repeated these words like a mantra, hoping that maybe if he drilled them into his mind long enough and hard enough, they’d lose meaning and perhaps not be so terribly frightening. It did not work.
The world around him, only moments ago so very vibrant, began to fade, colours dulling and sounds muffled as though heard from deep under water. How long had it been since he’d seen his friends, since he’d parted from Draco for ‘only a moment’? It felt like he’d spent years and years inside Snape’s memories and not only perhaps fifteen minutes.
He had time. He could yet slip down there, under his Cloak, and tempt them away for a final farewell.
He could. But he wouldn’t.
There would be no goodbyes, no explanations—of that he was determined. There couldn’t be, really; they would never understand and would do everything within their power to keep him from going, up to and including slapping him with a Body Bind and sitting on his chest.
They wouldn’t forgive him—not for even considering doing what he was bound and determined to do.
Sure, Ron and Hermione might try to forgive him, but they wouldn’t, really. They would hate him, in a dark, secret corner of their heart. Or maybe they’d wear their hatred for him on their sleeves, like he was sure Draco would.
It was funny; he was almost more terrified of what Draco would feel for him after this nasty business was finished than the act of dying itself.
No, this was a journey they could not take together, and the attempts his friends would make to stop him would waste valuable time. He looked down at the battered gold watch he had received from Mrs. Weasley on his seventeenth birthday. He had wasted nearly half of the hour allotted by Voldemort for his surrender.
He made himself exit the Headmaster’s office at last; he could not shelter in its sanctuary any longer, though his feet dragged with each step he took.
He stepped back out into the third-floor corridor, leaving the gargoyle to guard an empty office, and found the castle empty and still, everyone likely down in the Great Hall, mourning the dead and tending to the living, readying for the next wave of battle—a wave Harry would not see.
He felt as if he’d died already and come back a ghost, floating alone down the long, lonely hallways. The statues and suits of armour had all been marshalled to defend the school, and the portrait subjects were still missing from their frames. Harry had slipped along the castle corridors late at night more than a few times over the years, but never as it was now, the lamps all burning high and bright as if it were midday. It felt like a moment out of time, a breath held, waiting for the final blow.
He drew out his Invisibility Cloak, marvelling once more at its craftsmanship, then pulled it over his head and descended, feeling as if he were floating down the moving staircases, which held their positions fast so as not to delay his journey overlong. Too soon, he found himself standing in the Entrance Hall, and he paused, remembering the very first time he’d stood here. He’d been so excited, so nervous, so scared, so thrilled. Harry wanted to reach back through time and send his younger self away, tell him to bundle himself back onto the Hogwarts Express and just go. Before he became too good a man to not stand his ground.
A pair of figures were standing just at the main doors, conversing, and Harry kept well out of their way, not wanting to be seen. It was Neville and Oliver, he saw, when they stepped into the circle of warm lamplight. They were, he realised, carrying in the bodies of fighters who had fallen out on the front lawn, and as if having to walk to his own death weren’t a heavy enough blow, Harry caught sight who they had presently supported between them: Colin Creevey, who must have snuck back somehow after being evacuated on account of being underage. He looked somehow younger in death—something had savaged his shoulder and neck, and his head lolled at an unnatural angle.
“I think I can manage him myself the rest of the way, Nev,” said Oliver, and he drew Colin up into both arms, nodding once to Neville before heading into the Great Hall.
Neville nodded and watched him go, listing against the doorframe as he paused a moment to catch his breath. There was a track of dried blood leading down from his hairline, and his button-up had been ripped down the front, exposing an even grimier undershirt that was dark with sweat. He looked ever so much older than his seventeen years. After a beat, he sighed, rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes, then turned and trudged back down the steps, disappearing into the darkness to continue his recovery efforts.
Against his better judgement, Harry paused at the entrance of the Great Hall and peeked inside. A quiet lull had settled over everyone—some mute in their grief, others basking in the calm before the coming storm, still others mouthing words, perhaps prayers, under their breath. Hermione was huddled in conversation with Ginny, with Ron hanging back, looking on at them with an unreadable expression.
Draco, who had no one with whom to commiserate, had tucked himself into an alcove under one of the plinths that had once supported a gargoyle. He had a hunted look about him, casting a Tempus Charm before dismissing it ferociously, clearly unhappy with the time.
Harry slipped away into the shadows, leaving the soft, muffled din of the Great Hall behind him. He couldn’t chance Draco looking his way—there was the very real risk he might actually see Harry somehow. He’d managed to remark Harry through Polyjuice, after all; there was no guarantee that, in his desperation, the dragon bits of him wouldn’t sense that Harry was there, right there, and about to do something very foolhardy.
A knife of guilt twisted in his gut. Here was another betrayal for Draco; another choice taken from him without so much as a by-your-leave. Harry hoped that the others would be able to make him see sense, keep him under control and make sure he didn’t…snap. Draco still hadn’t learned in eight months how to keep his temper from controlling the urge to transform—but he would have to now. He was strong enough, of that Harry was certain. He could survive this.
He did not look back again, only hurrying down the front steps and out into the darkness. It was better this way. Better for all of them. The only thing Harry’s heart could handle.
The battered pocketwatch told him it was going on four in the morning, and a deafening quiet rolled over the grounds like a bank of fog. It was as if Hogwarts itself was waiting to see if Harry would actually go through with it—do what he must. What he had to.
Neville was bent over another body—Harry didn’t recognise them, but they’d nearly been strangled by what looked to be a Ravenclaw necktie. A thought struck him then—and not daring to give himself the chance to second guess it, Harry moved towards Neville.
“Neville,” he said, letting the hood of the Cloak fall from his head.
Neville gave a violent start, stumbling onto his arse with one hand clutching at the ragged remains of his shirt. “Blimey, Harry! You can’t do that to a bloke! Thought you were You-Know-Who himself come to call early!”
“Sorry,” Harry said, though he knew he didn’t sound it. He licked his lips, heart racing. This would be his last chance to make sure that…that what needed to happen happened. This was him tying up his loose ends, just like Dumbledore had known he would.
Neville seemed to sense something was up, glancing around as he noticed Harry was alone. “…What’re you doing out here? Where’re Ron and Hermione? And Malfoy?”
“They’re…they’re inside, I needed to just—” God, he hated lying. So he decided not to. “There’s something I need to take care of, on my own. But listen, Neville, I need—”
Neville’s eyes went wide and white. “‘Need to take care of’? You’d better not mean to go and give yourself over to them! You can’t do that, you just can’t! We’re all behind you, a thousand per—”
“I—no, of course not,” Harry said dismissively, quick to cut off Neville before he got going and called others down on them. “It’s just something Dumbledore wanted me to do—don’t worry, it’s all part of the plan. Only I might…I might not be around for a bit, so I needed to ask you for something.” He settled down onto one knee, locking eyes with Neville to be sure he understood. “Voldemort…he’s got a snake. Big nasty one that he carries around with him, calls it ‘Nagini’. Have you heard of it?”
Neville’s gaze went distant with thought, then he nodded. “…Yeah, I think so. His pet, right?”
“Right. But more than a pet, really—and I know this’ll seem like a weird ask, but trust me that it’s important. That snake has to be killed. Has to, understand? Ron and Hermione and Draco, they know that, and they’re gonna try their best when this next wave starts, I’m sure, but just in case they—”
He couldn’t say it—the very idea of any of them, of all of them, gone forever left him mute, killing the word in his throat. It was the only thing keeping him going right now—the knowledge that he might die, yeah, and that was going to fucking suck, but at least it might save all the people he loved. If his unfinished business killed any of them…
He swallowed, struggling to pull himself together. He had to do this, had to keep his head for just five more minutes, arrange everything just so, so that when he met Voldemort and took the Killing Curse for the second and final time, others could take up his slack. Harry had placed his trust in all the right people, of this he was confident. Ron and Hermione and Draco would hate him—but they would finish the job he’d left for them, and then they’d have the rest of their lives to curse his name.
“—in case they’re busy, or the snake’s too far away, and you see an opening, then—”
“Then I should kill the snake?” Neville finished for him, perhaps sensing Harry’s struggle.
“Yeah. Kill the fucking snake,” Harry said with a firm nod.
“All right.” Neville cocked his head to the side, studying Harry carefully. “…You’re okay, aren’t you, Harry? I mean…all things considered? You’re really not—”
“I’ll be fine, Neville—just remember that bit about the snake. It’s crucial. If you can pass the word along, even, that’d be great.”
He eased back to his feet and moved to draw the Cloak back over his head and be on his way; the longer he dawdled, the more difficult this would become.
“We aren’t giving up, Harry. You know that, right? We’re gonna keep fighting, with all we’ve got. Not for you—for this. For all this. For ourselves.” Neville’s expression was earnest, and even through the blood and grime, he looked…at peace. Determined, not half as frightened as Harry was feeling right now. Harry wished he could borrow some of that courage, just for a little bit, to carry with him into the forest.
“…Of course. Thanks, I know you’re—” The suffocating hand of overwhelming emotion clamped over his throat, and he couldn’t bring himself to finish. He tried to swallow around it, but failed. He could barely breathe, and he closed his eyes, counting down from ten until he didn’t feel like he might confess his dark duty to Neville once he opened his mouth again.
Blessedly, Neville did not press the matter any further, only rose to his feet, patted Harry on the shoulder with a final squeeze, and then shuffled away into the darkness, continuing his recovery efforts.
Harry drew the Cloak back up and set off down the path, heading for the Forbidden Forest.
Just over a small bluff, he could see Hagrid’s hut, lying dark and vacant—no lights, no curl of smoke snaking from the chimney. He paused at the pumpkin patch and closed his eyes, losing himself for a moment in the fond, fading memories made there. The little cabin had been a respite of sorts, a place he could go and just sit back, break a tooth on a rock cake, and listen to Hagrid blather on about the newest deadly creatures he’d wrangled for Harry and his classmates to bond with. Hagrid loved the wizarding world, and it was that infectious excitement for all things magical that had drawn Harry down along this path to begin with.
He hoped Hagrid was all right; he hadn’t noticed him in the Great Hall—and Hagrid was a bit difficult to not notice.
On he moved, passing the pumpkin patch and the darkened hut, and soon—too soon—he reached the edge of the Forest, drawing up short.
Dementors swarmed before him, weaving through the trees in a slow, lazy glide and freezing the very air in Harry’s lungs. They did not approach, but nor did they retreat, and Harry wasn’t sure he would be able to pass safely through this dark, forbidding throng. His wand was still stuffed in his sleeve, but he doubted he had the strength for a Patronus—simply standing here, the great castle looming at his back and his swiftly approaching death before him, it was difficult to recall any warm memories at all, let alone one strong enough to perform the Charm.
And it was here the magnitude of what he was about to do began to settle in his bones, until he was trembling uncontrollably—it felt like he was shivering, or seizing. His breath came in great gulping pants. His lungs ached, the scent of loam and sod filled his nostrils, and the late-spring air was a balm on his face. The distant call of some wild creature to its mate echoed in the darkness, it was all so precious. If he’d known how little time he had, really had, he could have appreciated it all properly. Everyone else got so many years, decades to enjoy life in all its splendour, and he’d squandered the brief glimpse he had worrying over first kisses and O.W.L.s and the Hogwarts Christmas dinner menu.
He couldn’t do this—he was certain his body wouldn’t obey. It would fight him, like a sentient thing, and refuse to move another inch—except that it had to. He had to make it, had to marshal his dwindling stores of courage and just be done with it.
Time was ticking, ticking down—the game was drawing to a close. He had one job left: catch the Snitch, and end it all—
Fingers shaking with nerves, he fumbled with the Mokeskin pouch at his neck, struggling with the cinch. He pushed aside the Marauder’s Map and felt his fingers brush over the cool metal husk of Dumbledore’s Snitch.
He pulled it out, letting it settle in the palm of his hand, and recalled instantly the last time he had seen this particular Snitch.
It had been one of the Seeker’s games he’d played with Draco—their last, he supposed it would have to be. Draco had nearly slammed into a tree trying to catch it and still found himself knocked off his broom. He’d come out covered in scratches from the twigs with leaves sticking out of his hair but the Snitch firmly in his grasp and a triumphant smile on his lips.
Harry had blown up at him for pulling such a dangerous stunt, but he’d only shrugged and said that if he’d broken his neck, he would just have had the dragon heal it.
He felt his heart lighten; that was a good memory. Perfect to close out his mental scrapbook. Perhaps he could even use it to wind his way through the Dementors.
He hoped, despite everything, that Draco kept practising his Patronus. Harry would meet his end with rather a lot of regrets, but one of the big ones, he was realising, would be never being able to see Draco finally manage the charm. Never knowing what memory was his trigger.
He turned the Snitch over in his hand, reading the writing scrawled across the casing: I open at the close.
His heart skipped a beat, lurching into a fevered rhythm, and his breathing picked up. Though he ached for time to move as slowly as possible, it mercilessly plowed ahead, and his brain was finally firing on all cylinders.
This was the close—the close of his story. The end of Harry Potter.
He pressed the golden casing to his lips—resolutely not thinking about how Draco had nearly swallowed it—and whispered: “I am about to die.”
The shell broke open with a soft snick, and he lowered his hand again, raising his wand beneath the Cloak and murmuring, “Lumos.”
The Snitch lay in two halves, cracked like a tiny golden egg, and in the centre sat a black stone Harry had seen before only in memory, when it had been fitted into the setting of a ring once owned by Marvolo Gaunt.
The Resurrection Stone still bore signs of its destruction as a Horcrux, a jagged lightning-bolt crack running right along the line representing the Elder Wand in the Hallows symbol that had been etched into its face.
A thrill ran through him—when, after all, would he ever have another chance to see if the Resurrection Stone truly lived up to its name? It could do nothing to save him now, true…but it would make the going easier. He thought he might be able to manage it, if he could have friends and family by his side as he walked this last, lonely road. People who would not try to stop him, not beg him to reconsider, but just be there, strong and welcoming, as he was about to join them.
It would not hurt to try, so he closed his eyes, wished very hard, and turned the stone over thrice in his hands.
“Oh, my brave, beautiful boy,” someone said, a wispy whisper faint as a breeze but there, real, and beside him.
He opened his eyes slowly, hardly daring to turn around—but unable to keep himself from doing so, because he had to see, he had to see them.
It was just as Beedle the Bard had described: there, and yet not. Not ghosts, no—more memory brought into the present. They had an unmistakable air of insubstantiality about them, but they moved towards him with a purpose, walking rather than floating as ghosts did, and all of them—all four of them—had the same broad smile, steeped in pride and radiating love, just love.
His eye was drawn first to James, who was of a height with Harry—which might have been something of a disappointment if he’d not been about to die. It would have been nice to hold on to faint the hope he’d sprout a few more inches before puberty had finished with him.
James was wearing not robes but a casual outfit, all trainers and jeans and rolled-up sleeves, and Harry wondered a bit morbidly if this was what he’d died in. His hair, like Harry’s, was untidy and rumpled, and his glasses looked just a bit out of fashion. Dad glasses, Harry thought, recognising the frames as the same ones Mr. Weasley favoured. He looked like a good man, like a proud father, and not like the priggish bully Harry had seen in Snape’s memories. It wasn’t that he doubted the memories—it was only that he hadn’t wanted that to be the last memory he had of his father. He didn’t think it was so terrible a thing to want to die believing the best about your loved ones.
Sirius loped up alongside James, and Harry nearly didn’t recognise him, for he was far younger—or at least looked it—than Harry had known him in life. Perhaps he’d chosen the form in which he would have liked to have met Harry—perhaps this was the Sirius Harry was meant to have grown up knowing, his godfather. He threw an elbow up onto James’s shoulder, his free hand in one pocket and a cocky grin on his handsome face.
Remus joined them, and here as well the ravages of time had been swept away, the lines on his face no longer quite as deep. Here was Moony, wide-eyed and thrilled to be back among his mates—though when he ran his hand through hair that was much thicker and darker than it had been in life, Harry caught the glint of moonlight off the wedding band he wore.
A hand came up from behind to rest gently on Harry’s shoulder, and he felt his breath catch in his throat, swallowing it down in a thick lump as he turned to see his mother.
She was beautiful. Pictures hadn’t done her justice—even Snape’s memories had not prepared Harry for the sight. She was beaming at him, absolutely glowing. Her long auburn hair fell soft around her shoulders, carrying the aroma of may bells, and her green eyes—“You have your mother’s eyes,” he’d heard enough times to make him sick—seemed to peer through his own down into his heart, drinking him in and seeing all of his secrets at once. She did not flinch at whatever she saw; her smile only softened, fond and proud.
He let the Cloak fall about his shoulders, and she took his face in her hands. Her touch was neither warm nor chill, and when she brushed her thumbs over his cheekbones, it was like a gentle breeze. “My brave, beautiful boy,” she repeated. “My Harry.”
The lump was back in his throat now, choking him. His eyes burned with emotion, and Lily’s form blurred as unshed tears welled up. He blinked them back, though; he would not waste this moment, this most precious of moments, weeping like a child.
James stepped forward, bringing up a hand up to rest on Lily’s shoulder. “Look how far you’ve come. Look at all you’ve accomplished. We are so, so proud of you. You’re everything we hoped for and more.”
“Only a tiny bit more to go,” said Remus with an encouraging nod.
“…Does it hurt?” he asked, before he could stop himself. A childish question, and one that betrayed his fear, but he had no shame before these people.
“What, dying? ‘Course not!” Sirius snapped his fingers. “Easiest thing I’ve ever done! Quick as a wink, over in a flash.”
“And it will be quick, Harry,” Remus said. “Voldemort wants this over. He’s terrified of you—he won’t draw this out.”
Harry’s eye was drawn, again, to the ring on Remus’s finger; he was twisting it in what Harry suspected had become nervous habit. “…I’m sorry I couldn’t save you,” he said miserably. “I would never have asked…”
“We didn’t go down without a fight, though,” Remus said with an easy smile. “I think that’s all any of us could have asked for, eh? For it to matter. And it did matter, Harry. Never imagine that any of us would have done a damn thing different.”
“Well, I might’ve been more careful around drapery,” Sirius said.
“And I’m beginning to think it wasn’t such a good idea, asking Wormy to be our Secret Keeper, yeah, Love?” James added, and Lily just shook her head fondly, as if this was a conversation they had had a thousand times before. Harry couldn’t help himself, releasing a warbling chuckle.
A chill wind carrying a foul odour rushed over him, drowning out Lily’s faint, comforting aroma—it carried past the line of waiting Dementors, emanating from deep within the Forest as a forbidding reminder of what he had come there to do. They would not tell him to go—though he wished they would. He wished they would remind him of why he needed to do this, who he was doing it for—because the further he walked away from the castle and its defenders, the tighter he clung to his own dwindling life thread, feet dragging and will flagging.
All this time, he’d railed against being denied choices, having decisions made for him…and now here he was. Forced to make the only decision he wished he didn’t have to.
He turned to his father, praying his voice didn’t break as he asked, “…Will you walk with me?”
“Of course. Until the very end.”
“And beyond,” Lily added, kissing his forehead.
Harry supposed he was at the age where he ought to be embarrassed receiving a kiss from his mother, but he only wished he had time for a thousand more.
He glanced to the Dementors with a frown. “…Will they hurt you?”
“No,” Sirius said. “Nor will they you.”
Harry nodded, looking at them all in turn, his eyes lingering last on his mother. “I wish I’d known how to call you sooner. I didn’t realise…and now there’s no time…”
“Oh, my dear, sweet Harry,” she said, expression serene. “We were always there—and we’ll always be there. Death himself could not tear me from you.”
“There’s never enough time,” James said. “That’s the terrible thing about life—and one of the great things about death.”
Harry would have to take his word for it, he decided.
He pulled the Cloak back up and set off into the Forest. The Dementors crowded in, but the sapping chill and upswell of sorrow that usually overwhelmed him in their presence was stayed, and he passed through the line of despair incarnate without issue. He hadn’t needed a Patronus after all—it was just as Sirius had said: his companions were guiding and protecting him, and as a group of living and dead and in-between, they marched into the old growth, into the heart of the Forest.
The deeper Harry pressed, though, the closer the trees and undergrowth grew together, until the moonlight no longer reached, the only light that of the softly glowing incorporeal beings keeping him company as he plodded onward to his doom.
Harry still had the Cloak clutched tight around him, though he sensed it was no longer necessary. He wanted to be seen—needed to be seen. But even its protective comfort was appreciated, for however long it held.
On he trudged, nearly tripping several times over the grasping, curling roots and sliding on slick detritus. The Forest was vast, and he hadn’t the faintest clue where Voldemort might be camped out, but he would stumble upon it eventually—or it would stumble upon him. He could feel that clock still inside him, ticking down those last few moments with stuttering finality. When it stopped, then he would be where he was meant to be.
His companions walked beside him, gliding soundlessly through the darkness, and he clung to their presence for the courage to keep his feet moving in time, one in front of the other. They did not seem to mind the Cloak, and every now and then, he would glance at one of them and find them staring warmly back, a small comfort but one he would take all the same.
His mind wandered in these final few moments, his body moving without conscious direction, and he thought of the first time he’d gone wandering through these woods. They’d been just as dark and imposing then as now. Draco had been there—tiny and terrible and an absolute, utter coward. He was still terrible but no longer tiny, to Harry’s chagrin, and far from a coward. What was he doing now, Harry wondered—still furiously checking the time? Had he given up on waiting and gone in search of Harry? Had he found the Headmaster’s office empty and sought out Hermione and Ron? Were they even now searching the castle for him?
Had they realised what he meant to do?
Half of him (the self-serving Slytherin part, he thought) prayed they might come save him, spare him from this final, terrible task—and the other half (definitely the hard-headed, impetuous Gryffindor part) knew that if he saw them, if they found him, he’d Curse them on sight and Disapparate. He loved them, they were his friends—but he could not let them stop him (or worse, follow him).
“What was that?” came a rough, gruff voice just up ahead, and Harry froze under the Cloak. He could just make out the faint glow of wandlight through the shadows of the thick-knit trees, and he strained his ears to catch any more sounds. Beside him, his parents and Sirius and Remus stopped as well, their attention fixed beyond him.
“What was what?” another voice asked, just as rough and gruff. “I don’t see nothin’.”
“Me neither… Maybe they’ve got an Invisibility Cloak. Y’think it might be—?”
Through a stand of trees, wands help aloft and casting bright witchlight to cut through the Forest’s gloam, stepped Yaxley and someone who Harry thought might be the mutilated Dolohov. They squinted, peering into the darkness with wary expressions, but though they were looking right at the spot where Harry stood flanked by his companions, they showed no signs of recognition.
“…Was sure I heard something,” said Yaxley, hacking a thick dollop of spittle onto the ground.
“Maybe an animal?” Dolohov suggested with an exaggerated shudder. “The Carrows were saying Hagrid kept a whole zoo in here, all kinds of dangerous beasts I hear—and that’s not including the natives.” He cast about, eyes scanning the treetops, and drew his Death Eater robes tighter about himself.
Yaxley withdrew a pocketwatch, frowning. “Nearly time. We should head back—doesn’t look like Potter’s gonna show.”
“Fuck it all,” Dolohov grumbled. “The Dark Lord’s gonna be rightly pissed off…” He massaged his mangled features and shuddered again, much less exaggerated this time.
“Try and stick close to one of the giants when you tell him—they make for easy cover.” Yaxley clapped Dolohov on the shoulder. “Come on, no getting around it. At least we might see some action now.”
Dolohov muttered his agreement, and together they turned to trudge back into the Forest. Harry waited until they’d moved a few paces ahead, then followed at a distance. This was, he supposed, his last chance to turn back—his last chance to survive. His last chance to ever see his friends again.
He carried on, and his parents and Sirius and Remus followed silently along at his side, favouring him with encouraging nods and smiles whenever he glanced their way. He was beyond grateful they were here with him, that they would be with him until the bitter end—“And beyond,” his mother had said—because with each step closer to the Death Eaters’ camp, Harry became increasingly certain that he would never have been able to bring himself to go through with it, necessary though he understood the act to be.
Too soon for Harry’s comfort, the trees began to thin out, and the leaf litter under his trainers gave way to dirt and stone as they approached a clearing. He could see light ahead—firelight, weaving to and fro and mottling the branches above. When they stepped into the clearing, Harry recognised it as the place where the great spider Aragog had once made his lair. The webs had all been burned away, and Aragog’s children had been driven out, turned on the castle to fight for Voldemort.
The light he could now see was cast by a great crackling bonfire that had been built in the middle of the clearing, flames climbing so high they licked the boughs crowding in above. All around were gathered a motley crew: Death Eaters, some masked, and others like Bellatrix unabashed in their bloodlust; werewolves skulking at the edge of the clearing, their eyes glowing in the low light; a pair of towering giants with cruel, sculpted features; and even a few odd creatures Harry had never seen before. Maybe he shouldn’t have skived off Seventh-year Care of Magical Creatures and Defence Against the Dark Arts after all.
All of them—human, beast, being—stood in stark silence, watching and waiting, save for Bellatrix, who paced around the fire like a nervous animal, her wand twitching eagerly despite her dishevelled appearance. Beyond her, Harry caught a flash of white—and saw Lucius Malfoy, sitting huddled with his wife as far as it was possible to be from the circle of Death Eaters. Lucius’s gaze snapped to and fro around the glen, as if he expected to be trounced upon at any moment, and Narcissa stared blankly into the fire, her face sunken and shoulders slumped in defeat. Harry sent up a silent apology to Draco. They hadn’t been able to save Draco’s parents after all.
None in the camp remarked the arrival of Yaxley and Dolohov, though; instead, they were all staring, rapt, at Voldemort, who sat upon a great wooden throne that looked to have been Transfigured from an ancient stump. He was hunched forward, elbows on his knees and Dumbledore’s wand clasped tight in his bony white fingers. His head was bowed, and Harry could see he was mumbling something under his breath. It almost looked as if he were praying, but Harry rather thought he was counting. Counting down the minutes, or perhaps the seconds now, until Harry’s time would be up.
Just over his shoulder, still swirling and coiling inside a huge magical bubble, hung Nagini. Harry’s hand twitched, ready to go for his wand, but he had no doubt that her glittering, charmed cage could not be penetrated by anything but the most powerful of spells—certainly nothing Harry could manage, even with the Elder Wand, in the split second he might have to attack before fifty Death Eaters pounced upon him.
“…What word?” Voldemort rasped, not bothering to look up, as Yaxley and Dolohov drew close to the roaring bonfire.
Dolohov balked until Yaxley elbowed him sharply, inclining his head forward. Dolohov swallowed and then spoke, voice tremulous, “…N-no sign, my Lord. The Dementors’ line was unbroken as well.”
Voldemort slowly lifted his head, and Dolohov quickly backed up to stand alongside Yaxley, perhaps hoping that with two equidistant targets, Voldemort would be unable to choose which messenger to shoot first.
He did not draw his wand, though—only stared into the dancing firelight, the licking flames reflected in his burning eyes. His fingers tightened around Dumbledore’s wand, and Harry wondered if he might snap it—
Bellatrix rushed to Voldemort’s side with a fevered My Lord!, settling at his feet with supplication writ large over her features—but Voldemort only held up a hand, and she instantly fell silent.
After a long beat of uncomfortable silence as all waited to see how he would respond to Harry’s absence, Voldemort spoke. “…So, the boy has abdicated his duty,” he said, voice high and soft but echoing with sharp clarity through the dead silence of the camp. He rose slowly to his feet, and his expression betrayed the hint of a frown as he continued to stare into the heart of the flames. “I confess, this was…unexpected.”
Harry could hear the collective intake of breath. A calm, collected Voldemort was often more dangerous than one who was on an emotional bender. He wondered if, in the stillness, one of those present would hear the sound of Harry’s heart beating frantically against his ribcage—it was a wonder he hadn’t already been found out.
“Perhaps I have given Harry Potter too much credit,” Voldemort sighed. “I was, it seems, mistaken in—”
“You weren’t,” Harry said, as loudly as he could and with all the force he could muster. He strained to hear his voice in the deafening silence, praying he didn’t sound a fraction as terrified as he felt. He would not give them that satisfaction.
Harry’s hands were sweating as he tugged off the Invisibility Cloak, stuffing it inside his jumper, along with his wand. He did not want to be tempted to fight back; this could not be a duel—it had to simply be an execution. The Resurrection Stone slipped from his fingers in his fumbling, lost in the litter of leaves and pine needles, and the warm comfort of his family and friends blipped out in an instant. He missed them immediately, but though they had shepherded him this far, these final few steps he would have to take on his own. He could not afford the distraction of their presence, no matter how much he longed for it—in this moment, it would be just himself and Voldemort, as it had always been meant to be, here at the end of all things.
His appearance, though, seemed to shatter the tense hush that had settled over the camp, and in an instant, the clearing erupted into life. The giants sprang to their feet, violently shaking the trunks of the trees nearest to them and showering the Death Eaters with leaves, the werewolves burst out into howls of excitement and began slavering at the mouth, and the Death Eaters released cries and gasps—even riotous laughter.
Voldemort himself stood frozen in place, as if convinced this was some sort of trick of the eye, an illusion. He fixed Harry with an unreadable expression as Harry took a step closer, and another, until only the great bonfire stood between them. As if he himself could not believe the moment had finally come, the moment he had prepared so long for.
“HARRY! NO!” a voice yelled, broken and begging.
Harry let his eye comb the camp until he found its source: fuck. There was Hagrid, tied to one of the trees with thick ropes—clearly the giants’ handiwork. He struggled vainly against his bonds, shaking the branches overhead as he did so. He had scratches all over his face, and one eye looked as if it had been bruised—but he was alive, well, and rightly horrified at what Harry was doing.
“YEH CAN’T DO THIS! GET OUTTA HERE! WHAT’RE YEH—?!”
“Silence him,” Voldemort said, bored—and one of the masked Death Eaters standing nearby swished their wand through the air. Hagrid fell mute, mouth still working as he screamed and begged for Harry not to do what he was bound and determined to. Harry turned away, back to Voldemort. He could not bear to look Hagrid in the eye.
Bellatrix had leapt to her feet as soon as Harry had shown himself, and she now paced behind Voldemort with an eager, manic energy. She was doing a very poor job of holding back her cackles, and they leaked from her at odd intervals, spilling out as depraved little chuckles that echoed around the clearing.
The Death Eaters, emboldened by Voldemort’s turning mood and the mounting excitement that something was about to happen, began to crowd in closer, no longer fearing their master lashing out in frustration. Harry swallowed, but held his ground and resolutely did not draw his wand. He felt weak, vulnerable—probably because he was. And Voldemort knew this, a curious, grotesque smile tugging at his lipless mouth as he considered Harry’s sudden appearance…and what it meant.
“A celebrity graces us with his presence,” he said, so softly his words were nearly lost amidst the crackling fire and Bellatrix’s sniggers. “Harry Potter. The boy who lived.”
And not wanting his last words to have been an admission that Voldemort had read him right, Harry said, “I rather prefer ‘Scarhead’ these days.”
The camp held its breath. The giants had fallen silent, and the werewolves watched with predatory gazes. The Death Eaters were frozen in place as all waited to see if this would finally be it, if Harry would finally die. Hagrid was weeping now, still struggling against his bonds in vain, and Bellatrix looked like a hound ready to snap her lead and run her master’s quarry to ground.
Harry could hear his own heart, pounding desperately in his ears and drowning everything out, and he thought inexplicably of Draco and the cold surety with which he held himself, banking his dragonflame beneath so much ice that it was an inferno when it finally broke through. He clutched the feeling to his chest, so tight it seeped into his own skin, and made it his own.
Voldemort tugged back one sleeve and raised Dumbledore’s wand in a ready stance, head cocked to the side as he waited, just in case, to see if Harry might try to make some daring last-minute escape. If there were allies waiting in the woods around them, if he would draw his wand and engage in a proper duel. Harry only stared back, marshalling what little courage he still had in his stores. Do it, he urged silently, Do it now. Now, while he could still stand, before his nerves failed him and he broke, betraying his terror—
His ears rang, a high, bright note drowning out everything else, and he saw Voldemort’s mouth move before he even heard the spell being cast as a violent jet of green streaked towards him—
And then there was nothing.