Harry lay in darkness, listening to the silence. He liked the quiet—so…relaxing. When had been the last time he’d had some real peace and quiet? When had he ever been anywhere so completely and totally dead?

Even without looking up, he could sense that, wherever he was, he was alone in this place. It was just how it felt, that kind of comfortable solitude, with nobody watching. Nobody was there—if ‘there’ was even a place and not just a state of Harry’s mind.

Lying there, in the nowhere place, he eventually concluded that he would have to get up and move, because whatever he was lying on was not very comfortable, and he thought he could feel a cramp forming. It was a somewhat comforting thought—because you couldn’t feel things in dreams, could you? So if he could feel, then this must be an actual place and not simply something he’d concocted in his head.

It was here that Harry realised he was naked—not a stitch on, and it wasn’t just his limbs angled stiffly and pressed uncomfortably against hard surfaces, no. Shame would have typically overtaken him here, but he found he was strangely calm—perhaps because he felt so confident of his solitude? Still, the situation was just a bit intriguing. How had he come to lose his clothes? When had he last had any on? Did clothes still exist in this—limbo, he supposed?

It was only on registering that what he had thought to be darkness had only been the product of closed eyes that he decided to chance opening them—which, he found, he was able to do. Oh good, he still had eyes here. That was all the important bits accounted for, then.

Except opening his eyes revealed a bright white mist—too bright for Harry, and he winced, reflexively closing his eyes again before opening them once more, slowly this time.

The mist, he discovered as his vision came into greater clarity, was a curious thing, pulling away from him as he reached out into it and crawling back in when he drew back, as if it could only be dispelled by his presence. Slowly, he shifted upright and found the floor to be good and solid—smooth, with no texture and neither warm nor cool. Simply there. Not unlike Harry.

As his awareness of existing grew, he began to pat himself down. Nothing hurt—no wounds, that is—so he supposed he was all in one piece. But—he touched his face—hadn’t he had glasses? He supposed that explained the soft, dreamlike blur everything had. For all that ‘everything’ constituted here in this strange limbo-like place. His fingers crawled up his face to brush over his forehead. Scar, still there, but for the first time in he couldn’t remember how long, not pulsing angrily.

A noise punctuated the clear, tinny silence of the nothingness: a strange thumping, as if something were flailing and in pain. Like a kitten stuffed into a sack and thrown into a ditch.

He couldn’t pinpoint the source—and he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to. Pitiful as the sound was, it also felt…like he wasn’t meant to hear it. Like no one was. A new sensation began to pump through him, familiar and unmissed: shame, and he suddenly was no longer fine being nude, not with this strange, sad something out there in the nothing.

As if by magic—he turned and saw, folded neatly only a few paces away, a set of robes. Immediately he drew them on, luxuriating in the scent of warm, fresh linens. And curiously, they fit perfectly, as if they’d been tailored just for him at Twilfitt and Tattings. Appearing out of nothing, just when he’d thought about them, prepared just in his size…

The Room of Requirement. Was that where he was? He stood, smoothing out his new robes, and peered into the strange white mist of nothingness. The mist drew back, as if at his will, and he began to make out more and more of the room. It had a floor, this he’d known, but now he could see it also had a ceiling—covered in latticed glass and curving into a dome, like in St. Pancras—or King’s Cross. There was bright light streaming through, and he wondered if it was sunlight—if he really was somewhere and not nowhere.

More and more of the mist pulled back, revealing a massive hall that reminded Harry of the Great Hall. Everywhere his gaze fell, a something blossomed from the nothing: fantastic tapestries woven seemingly of pure gold and silver and gleaming white platinum covered the walls; and long lines of marble columns the size of full-grown trees stretched in neverending lines into the distance.

Perhaps it was a palace. A Palace of Requirement, then.

A warbling cry trilled behind him, and something brushed his leg, sending Harry leaping away before he nearly trampled underfoot a—peacock?

A lovely peacock with lustrous white plumage strutted about proudly, head bobbing, keeping close to Harry as it circled him and pecking occasionally at the mist, as if hoping to scrounge up some bugs or grain. It kept one wary pink eye trained on Harry at all times, and he watched it, curious and confused, because why on earth had the Room—Palace—of Requirement sent him a bird?

He searched his surroundings once again, struggling to place himself. All was hushed and still, save for the peacock’s chittering and those odd thumping and whimpering noises coming from somewhere close by, still shrouded in the mist…

The more he looked, the more he saw. The mist cleared a bit more, and he found he was in a wide, open space, bright and clean, supported by those towering columns that stretched up to the domed-glass ceiling. Now that he could properly appreciate it, he realised it was larger by far than the Great Hall, larger than anywhere he’d ever been before—and quite empty. He thought he might be the only living thing there, except for the peacock and—

Oh, god.

There, curled on the ground underneath a stone bench newly uncovered by the mist lay…a child. Or something like a child—it was tiny and naked and looked as if its skin had been flayed from its bones. It shuddered under the bench, and in between thumps as it convulsed, it released rasping, desperate breaths. This was what had been making the horrible noises—still was making them.

The peacock hissed angrily at it, ruffling its feathers to puff itself up into something more formidable. Harry sympathised; he was afraid of the horrible thing as well. Not because it might hurt him—but because he might be forced to try and help it, this repulsive little thing. He could feel a sense of urgency in his blood, that he must go to it. Must reach out for it. Mustn’t look away. That he had to face this…this thing that had found its way, without Harry’s permission, into this little sanctuary.

He forced himself to draw slowly nearer, ready to jump back at any moment. The peacock made warning chittering noises at him that he swore he could almost understand, kind of like how he could almost understand Draco when he transformed—

Oh right, that was where he’d seen the peacock before: Draco’s lonely mental moor. That seemed like ages ago, now that he thought about it—and given the strange way time seemed to flow here, perhaps it had been.

Soon, he stood near enough he could touch the thing, if he wanted to. This close, it looked somehow more and less like a human child, and he knew the humane thing would be to comfort it somehow, this ruined mess, but—

“You cannot help.”

He spun around so quickly he nearly tripped over his own feet, and the peacock flared in alarm, flapping wildly and sending up a shower of downy white fluff.

Albus Dumbledore was walking towards him, sprightly and upright. Alive. His robes of midnight blue with golden threading reminded Harry uncomfortably of the shroud in which Dumbledore’s body had been wrapped for his funeral and seemed entirely out of step with the clean lines and fresh white everything of their surroundings. As if that were the truly bizarre thing about this moment.

“Harry,” he said, arms spread wide in welcome. He was whole now and undamaged, no signs of dragonfire scarring. No blackened, Cursed hand. “Well, aren’t you a sight?” He sighed with a smile, then inclined his head. “Will you walk with me? I believe we’ve some catching up to do, and I cannot wait to hear your stories.”

Harry stood stock still as Dumbledore strode away—then quickly snapped into mute action, if nothing else eager to leave the place where the flayed child lay whimpering under a bench. He jogged to draw up alongside Dumbledore, and then they walked for a while in companionable silence, the tall columns passing in lines, until they came to another bench—this time with no disgusting creature lurking beneath.

Dumbledore sat down first, patting the bench in invitation, and Harry slid next to him, never once taking his eyes off of his old headmaster, somehow fearful he might disappear again into the mist if Harry didn’t keep him squarely in his sights. The peacock had followed on quick feet and now leapt up into Harry’s lap, settling down like a broodhen with its feet curled in comfortable repose beneath it and tiny claws digging into the folds of Harry’s robes.

Harry stared and stared, searching for something—he didn’t rightly know what—that might confirm whether or not this was truly happening, if Dumbledore was actually here, or if he was perhaps a figment Harry’s mind had created, another item prepared by this place at Harry’s unconscious request.

He was every bit the Dumbledore Harry had held in his mind—the Dumbledore he’d always wanted to remember, in his prime, not the way he’d been there at the end. There was no weeping, broken man forced to recall a lifetime of regrets—only a wispy silvery beard and bright, sparkling blue eyes peering down at Harry from behind grandfatherly spectacles. Even his nose was still crooked—and Harry recalled he now knew just how that had happened.

This was Dumbledore. Except…

“But—you’re dead,” said Harry, stating the obvious, and Dumbledore gave a bright little chortle that made the peacock lift its head and release a warning chirrup.

“Oh, yes, quite.”

Harry drew the inevitable conclusion: “Then…I’m dead as well?” He knew the thought ought to trouble him, and it did—but in a removed sort of way. The dying had been the scary part; being dead itself did not seem so bad.

“Ah,” said Dumbledore, his lips curving into an even broader smile, as if he had been waiting for Harry to ask. “Yes, I can see how you might think that. This place does certainly evoke that feeling, doesn’t it?” Dumbledore turned his face up to the glittering ceiling, letting the warm light bathe him. “But while I cannot be entirely sure—even now, some mysteries still elude me—I think the answer is no.

He was beaming, and Harry could not understand why. He shook his head in confusion. “I’m sorry… No?”

“No,” repeated Dumbledore. “Or perhaps more aptly, not yet.”

Oh yes, this was definitely Dumbledore—half-answers and all. “But—that…” He reached to touch the lightning scar again, though for some reason now he could not feel it. Had it…had it disappeared? Or was this just another way in which this limbo was granting him what he had always wished for? Anonymity—or at least normality. “I should have died.” He found he was suddenly desperate to explain that he’d done exactly as Dumbledore had insisted he must if he wanted Voldemort to be truly defeated. He’d done it. “I let him do it! I went to him, and I let him kill me—I let him destroy the Horcrux inside me!”

“Indeed—and you’re as brave a man as I have ever known for that,” said Dumbledore. “I cannot imagine how difficult it was for you to do that. I would not wish it on my worst enemy—only on one of my dearest companions.”

Harry had not felt very brave at the time, this much he could recall. It was strange, the trek from the castle, through the forest… The details were fleeting, like a fading dream. He could not recall the terror and nerves that had wracked him in that moment, walking to his doom, but he knew they had been there. He swallowed. “So I failed?” It was the only logical conclusion, if he was here—perhaps not dead, or not dead yet. They had been meant to destroy each other, there at the end.

“Oh, my boy,” Dumbledore said, laying one hand on his shoulder and leaning in close. “You have succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. And that is why you’re here.”

Harry was not ashamed to say these words, meant as compliments though they probably were, irritated him. Even here, Dumbledore was not sharing his secrets—not proactively at least. Harry would have to drag them from his gently smiling lips.

“…I’ve had something of a day,” Harry said. “If you could explain, sir?”

“Explain what? Surely you already know—after your ‘something of a day’,” Dumbledore said, frustratingly Socratic in his responses, as if Harry were still his student.

Harry resigned himself to puzzling through the whole mess on his own. “I let him kill me,” Harry repeated, half to himself, and he tried to think it over, to recall those final, horrible moments, even though he really didn’t want to. His hand came up to stroke the soft, downy back of the peacock, calming it and himself in the same motion.

“You let him attempt to do so,” Dumbledore corrected. “Only a minor quibble.”

“I let him cast the Killing Curse at me, and there was a piece of his soul that was in me… The container—me—was destroyed…” A lump lodged in his throat, considering his own mortality so academically. How ever did portraits manage it? “And…and so the piece of his soul that was inside me…” Harry frowned at the implication. “It’s gone?”

Dumbledore’s smile was growing, and Harry felt a bit like he was being patronised—if Dumbledore tried to offer him House points for shrewd reasoning, he didn’t know how he might react. “Precisely! He unwittingly destroyed the bit of himself that had latched on to you like a parasitic leech. And with that, you’re wholly yourself once more, dear boy.”

Harry did not feel half as thrilled at the prospect as Dumbledore, still preoccupied with the whimpering, ruined thing they had left behind. He glanced over his shoulder, but they were far from the bench under which the terrible creature still lurked.

“What was that, Professor?”

“None of either of our concerns—as I said, you cannot help it, nor should you waste any more of your precious time trying to do so.”

That suited Harry just fine. “And…and what is this?” he asked, hand settled on the peacock’s back. It blinked up at Harry with curious red eyes, giving a soft plaintive chirrup that suggested he was being lax in his stroking duties.

Dumbledore cocked his head. “I’ve never been much of a bird watcher, my boy, but I do believe that is a peacock.”

“Well, yes, I do know that, but I’m more confused as to why it’s here?”

He was starting to get an idea about the sad creature under the bench, but he still wasn’t quite sure where the peacock had come from. Had he wished for it somehow, like the robes? He definitely didn’t recall the Room of Requirement being able to supply living creatures to its occupants.

“I’m afraid you would have to ask the peacock that.”

Harry had not missed his cryptic, frustrating responses to otherwise straightforward questions.

Deciding that the peacock was one of the less important curiosities he was dealing with at the moment, Harry continued their conversation, still confused as to how he wasn’t dead (yet), as Dumbledore maintained. “But—Voldemort still used the Killing Curse on me. The piece of his soul that was embedded in me was destroyed because of that, you just said—”

You just said, but continue.”

“So just—” He sighed. “How am I still alive? You don’t just survive the Killing Curse—”

You did,” Dumbledore reminded pointedly, and Harry had the strangest sense he’d had a conversation much like this before.

“Well, yeah, but no one died for me this time. That was kind of the point.”

Dumbledore nodded. “Voldemort has taken much from you. He took your parents. He took your friends. He took your safety and security—he took your childhood. He took your school years. He has taken and taken and taken from you, and oftentimes he suffered no ill or immediate consequences of his actions. But today, I think, he will find he has suffered dearly for one particular thing he took from you. Something he took from you…so that he could become him once more.”

Harry thought back, closing his eyes and letting his fingers drift in hypnotic strokes over the peacock’s back. It was the softest thing, and warm, and it curled into him with content little warbles. What had Voldemort taken from him? So much. But to become ‘Voldemort’, he’d taken…

The answer came like his robes had: out of nothing and suddenly there in his mind. “He took my blood,” said Harry. “In the graveyard.”

Dumbledore clapped, his enthusiasm startling the peacock, which dug its claws into Harry’s trousers and hissed in reprobation, its crest raised in alarm. “That he did—and in doing so, he drew Lily’s protection of you into himself, granting you both that small measure of magic that has meant and will mean so much. He linked the two of you, tying your life to his own—while he lives, so do you.”

Not dead yet, Dumbledore had said. He hadn’t failed after all—but then, he hadn’t entirely succeeded either. He’d thought if he died, then Voldemort would too—what was the point in living if it meant Voldemort hadn’t been defeated? The war would go on—his friends would fight and die, this time without him.

Harry’s head was starting to hurt—a good, old-fashioned confusion headache at least, and not the agonising throb along his scar.

The whimpering and thumping of the creature under the bench was growing louder now, its yowls more plaintive. The urge to rush over and help, somehow—to at least Summon a blanket with which to swaddle it—was almost overwhelming, and he thought if he hadn’t had the peacock napping on his lap, he might have tried to do so.

Harry still thought the notion they could do nothing to help the thing sounded rather callous, but his curiosity about the state of things won out eventually, and he was content to leave it be for now. “I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, sir, but I’m afraid I still don’t quite get it. How did a piece of Voldemort’s soul even get inside me in the first place? I mean, wouldn’t that make me…”

Dumbledore smiled. “A Horcrux?”

“I wasn’t gonna say it…”

“Alas, sometimes we must confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves if we ever want to move past them. Yes, Harry—you were the seventh Horcrux. The only one he never meant to make. When he came to kill you that night, he had already created six others—already split his soul in unfathomable ways. The murders of your parents—and attempted murder of you—were the final straws that broke him into the less-than-human state he inhabited for the next decade and more. The sundering of his physical form was accompanied by the sundering once more of his soul—a shard left behind, unwittingly hidden inside you until this very moment.”

It was no easier a truth to swallow now than it had been when he’d heard Dumbledore say it in Snape’s memory.

A Horcrux. He was a Horcrux. He hadn’t just hosted a shard of Voldemort’s soul—it had invaded him, worked its way into the cracks and crevices of what made Harry Harry and tried to twist and corrupt him, as had been done to Tom Riddle’s diary and the locket.

Fuck. How many dark thoughts had been his own—and how many due to this little parasitic piece of Voldemort latched on to him? Or had they all been his and the Horcrux only magnified them? Did he have a temper, or had it been the Horcrux?

No. No, he definitely had a temper; Dumbledore had been testing it while they conversed. It was almost comforting, knowing some parts of him were definitely his own, even if he wasn’t particularly proud of them.

“Voldemort,” Dumbledore continued, “is an arrogant creature. He thinks himself all-powerful, all-knowing. But you and I have both seen that there is much power in the world that Voldemort has made no effort to understand. Love. Friendship. Loyalty. These may seem trifles, they may seem pithy things—but these are among the oldest of values and carry a meaning, a force, deeper than any magic we have yet created. But Voldemort is, in so many ways, like the Muggles he despises: if he cannot see it himself, then it must not exist.

“He cannot comprehend Lily’s love for you—and so he never understood the protective enchantment her sacrifice gave you. Never understood that it lived in your blood. Never understood that by taking your blood, imbuing himself with it, he took in her love, her magic. His undying body has ensured that her sacrifice endures—and through it, so do you.” Dumbledore looked triumphant, no longer simply content, but self-satisfied. “Not dead yet, as I said.”

“So, all this time—all these years—you knew I was walking around with a little bit of him stuck inside me?” It came out an accusation, which good—it was meant as such. Harry tried very hard not to gape, but he didn’t think he succeeded.

“I guessed, I confess. But my guesses have, usually, been good.”

“And you didn’t tell me? You didn’t try to—I dunno—get it out of me?”

“Would you have liked me to have conked you on the head in your cradle? As we have just been discussing, there is only one way to destroy a Horcrux.”

“…Might’ve been preferable to ten years with the Dursleys…” Harry muttered, and Dumbledore, for the first time, gave a wince.

“…I owe you something of an apology, I think.” Something of an apology was putting it mildly, but Harry let it stand. “I knew you would not have the easiest of lives, growing up in their care—but where Voldemort places no stock in concepts like love and family, perhaps I place too much stock in it. I genuinely believed they would treat you fairly, if for no other reason than you were blood.”

“Blood’s not nearly as important as you might think, sir,” Harry said flatly, thinking of what-might-have-beens growing up with Sirius, or Remus, or even as a Weasley. “Though I don’t reckon it’s possible to place too much stock in love or family.”

Dumbledore nodded, having nothing more to say to that. An awkward silence settled between them, and when it became too much to bear, Harry groped for a topic to continue the conversation, hoping to dispel the tension. “Something happened. The Death Eaters found me, when I left Privet Drive for the last time—and he chased me down and cast a spell at me.” Dumbledore nodded for him to continue, though he did not seem terribly curious, as if he had heard this story before. “It caught me off guard, and I wasn’t prepared to defend myself—”

“Professor Lockhart will be absolutely heartbroken to hear his duelling lessons fell on deaf ears, I dare say.”

“—but my wand…my wand acted on its own. It cast back at him, without my meaning to, before his spell struck, and—and the spells collided. My wand broke his—one he’d borrowed from Lucius Malfoy. Shattered it to pieces.” Harry shook his head. “Why?”

Dumbledore stroked his beard, “Well, I will confess that, like so many things surrounding the two of you, I can’t rightly be sure of the reasoning…”

“Have a guess, then,” said Harry. “I hear they’re usually good.” Dumbledore laughed.

“Indeed. Well, you know that you and Voldemort have been connected since the moment he tried to kill you—though in truth, you have been connected since before then, through prophecy and assumption and magics we may never entirely understand. Regardless, his link between you was doubled when he took your blood to rebuild his human form in the graveyard that night. In that moment, you became connected on a level neither he nor you nor anyone could possibly comprehend, knotting your destinies even more securely than before, more than any two wizards in history. Your blood, your souls, even your wands shared a bond—one you witnessed manifest not long after he regained a corporeal form, if you’ll recall.”

Priori Incantatem, right? His wand started…regurgitating, I suppose, the spirits of the people he’d just killed.”

“A crude description, and not entirely accurate, but we will let it be. Yes, and while you and I know that the cores reacted in this way because your wand was twin to Voldemort’s own, what is important is that he did not know this.” Dumbledore locked eyes with Harry, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You frightened him in that moment, Harry. He’d failed to kill you once already, something he’d chalked up to a freak accident—and here you were again, defying death, usurping his power. He has always lived in fear of his own mortality, and you were that fear made flesh and given life.

“When you duelled in the graveyard, manifesting that connection between your wands, something strange happened. Typically in a duel, when spells collide, there is an exchange of energies that is brief, nigh imperceptible, and abruptly cut. This duel between twin-core wands, though, wielded by two wizards who already shared such an intimate bond, magnified that exchange a thousand-fold. Your magic—not your wand, mind; only your magic through your wand—recognised a brother at the other end of that exchange, imbibing just a small bit of Voldemort’s own magical signature—”

Harry blanched, sputtering, “Wait—now you mean to say I’ve been carrying around a piece of Voldemort in my wand since Fourth Year?” He wasn’t sure why, but this thought shook him more than the realisation a bit of Voldemort’s soul had taken up residence alongside his own for sixteen years. Maybe because he’d used his wand every day, thought of it as a physical extension of himself. He loved it, loved how it gave his magic form, and he didn’t want to think he’d somehow caused it to be tainted with that bastard’s essence.

“That is one way of putting it, I suppose. So when he engaged you again, that night you fled your aunt and uncle’s home, your magic—your wand—saw come before it that same familiar presence…and it reacted, sending back the bit of Voldemort it had stolen from him those years earlier. Some of his own magic—magic more than even Lucius’s wand could hope to contain.” He spread his hands. “So, poof.”

Harry took a breath, heartbeat skipping. “Then…then do you think I could’ve finished him off? If I’d been able to keep up the duel? If I’d retaliated, instead of letting the wand do all the work?”

“It is possible,” Dumbledore allowed. “But as I said: this is merely conjecture. Even as vaunted a wandmaker as Ollivander could not, I think, have predicted what might happen or explained it to Voldemort. Certainly not without knowing your own history in detail.”

A thought struck Harry, though, and he wilted. “…But most of the Horcruxes hadn’t yet been destroyed. So long as at least one remained, he could’ve always come back, right?”

“Indeed, he could have—but it would have taken a great deal of time and effort, and who is to say he could have rallied his Death Eaters to his side a third time, after they had seen him beaten twice? You might not have killed him—but you may well have defeated him. Just as you might have managed to strike him a sore blow had you raised your wand—now your Elder Wand, congratulations and my condolences—against him when you met him in the Forest.”

Harry frowned. “…I didn’t want to chance a ‘might have’…” He’d wanted it to be done, to be over. He hadn’t wanted to abandon his friends to the ravages of another drawn-out war. There would still be fighting, there would likely still be dying—but if they could finish his work, kill the snake, kill Voldemort, then this might well be the end of it. For now, at least.

Harry turned his head to take in more of the Palace, which was revealing more of itself with each passing moment. “What is this place, anyways?”

“Now that is a fine question.” Dumbledore eased to his feet, cocking his head in curious confusion as he took in their surroundings. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for a while myself—looks familiar, wouldn’t you say?”

Now that he mentioned it, it did look familiar. “It looks…” Harry said slowly, “like a train station. Maybe King’s Cross?” He squinted—in the distance, beyond the tall, tall columns, he could see the mist pulling away to reveal what looked like platforms, though there were no trains in the bays or passengers milling about, as he was accustomed to seeing. He thought, from their position, they might even be sitting on a bench between what would be platforms 9 and 10, and he wondered idly what might happen if he rushed through the wall separating the two.

“King’s Cross Station!” Dumbledore placed his hands on his hips, taking a few steps and looking up and down the ‘platform’ forming around them now. “You really think so?”

Harry felt his irritation pique. Dumbledore was the one who had put the question to him, after all. “I mean, it’s obviously a train station of some sort, right?”

“Without any trains?”

And then, as if on cue, the mist drew away from further down the line—and a train materialised from nothing, looking not unlike the Hogwarts Express but made of soft blues and silvers with gold gilding. Harry pointed. “But there is a train.”

“Ah,” Dumbledore said, a soft little thing. “So there is. So there is.”

It sounded a bit like he was humouring Harry, and he recalled now that he was still quite angry with Dumbledore and hadn’t made it through even half the reasons why. “The Deathly Hallows,” he said, apropos of nothing, and settled back onto the bench.

“Oh, yes…” Dumbledore said, a ghost of worry flitting across his features—good. He could stand to feel a little guilt. Dumbledore sighed and joined Harry once more on the bench, hands clasped between his knees. “I know I’ve asked a lot of you—like Voldemort, I took and took and took from you, giving little in return. So I know I’ve no right to ask it, but I would hope that you might find it in your heart to forgive me. Someday, at least.” He scrambled to explain himself, “It’s only, I worried—needlessly so, I can see now—that you would suffer from the same foibles as I did, that you would not be able to resist their temptation if presented with them freely and wholly. Without having to work for them, without understanding them. To give you the Cloak, why that was a trifle—and if it had not undone your father, I saw no reason it might undo you. But the Stone? The Wand? These…these I did not entirely trust myself with, and so I did not entirely trust you with them.” He raised his head, fixing Harry with plaintive blue eyes. “How foolish an assumption of me, to not recognise wholly, as I have on some deeper level for a time now, that you are a better man than I. A good man, as I hear it.”

“What…what are you talking about?” Harry asked, suddenly wrong-footed by the startling sincerity in Dumbledore’s apology. He had expected more cryptic rigmarole.

“They aren’t Hallows—merely powerful magical objects. Powerful and dangerous—something I must confess…I have always been attracted to.” Dumbledore slumped back against the bench, his hands curling in his lap. “Perhaps I thought I could tame him—tame them, I mean. Perhaps I thought…” He shook his head. “It matters not what I thought. I was a fool all the same. Seeking to conquer the unconquerable is folly—a trap that exposes you for who you truly are. In Voldemort’s case, a scared little boy. In mine, an arrogant old man.”

Harry shifted uncomfortably—it felt a little bit like he wasn’t even a part of this conversation anymore, that maybe Dumbledore was arguing with himself.

Dumbledore took a shuddering breath and gave a little sniff, head ducked—Harry was grateful for it, he didn’t really want to see his old headmaster cry. “I find myself wondering at odd times…if Voldemort and I didn’t have more in common than we either wanted to admit. We both had visions for the future, goals we would sacrifice most anything to accomplish. We wanted those Hallows—spent our lives searching for them. All with the goal of becoming Master of Death—whatever that might mean.”

Harry nearly choked on his own tongue. “Wh—don’t be ridiculous! That’s like saying Voldemort and I are alike because we both like treacle tart!”

Dumbledore glanced up, wiry brows shooting into his hairline. “He likes treacle tart? Unexpected…”

“I—it’s a hypothetical, sir,” Harry sighed, scrubbing at his hair. “The point is, unless you were out there killing without compunction and stringing up Muggles and torturing your enemies, then I feel comfortable saying you’re nothing like him. This—Master of Death stuff, the means are important here, not the ends.” This, he wanted Dumbledore to understand, if only because self-pity, he’d been informed by a reliable source, was just not attractive. He could feel his anger being muted by this place; everything from the living world was slowly but surely fading from his mind. How long could he linger here, he wondered, before he forgot his friends and loved ones altogether? “You chased Hallows—you didn’t make Horcruxes.”

“Hallows, not Horcruxes,” murmured Dumbledore, wringing his hands in his lap. “But perhaps no less bloody, if I had persisted…”

“…You mean if you’d gone along with what Grindelwald wanted?”

Dumbledore gave him a warning look. “Not what Gellert wanted. What we wanted; do not pretend I was not complicit in this. I am sure Bathilda painted a pleasant enough picture for those who might like to believe I was coerced, but you must know I was no starry-eyed innocent. I think you will agree with me that, on the whole, the truth—no matter how nasty it may be to swallow—sits better in the stomach than a sugar-coated lie.”

Harry could not dispute that.

The creature under the bench continued to whimper, its calls echoing, but Harry wasn’t so distracted by it now, and the peacock was dozing comfortably in his lap, its head tucked under a wing.

“…So it’s all true, then? All that—that claptrap about dominating Muggles and ‘the greater good’?”

Dumbledore closed his eyes for a moment and nodded. “I cannot express the depth of my shame for ever having entertained such thoughts—I would blame it on the folly of youth, but we both know you could throw a stone and hit three witches or wizards with more sense in their left thumb than I had that summer.”

Six months back, Harry might have bit out a hearty You’re damn right! and held on to his bitter disillusionment, but in a corner of his mind echoed sage words indeed: “What’s the point of it all if you can’t imagine you’ll be a better person when you’re five-hundred-and-fuckteen years old than you were at seventeen?”

“But it was Grindelwald who knew about the Hallows first, yeah?”

Dumbledore nodded, looking a touch relieved Harry was not laying into him for his childhood beliefs. “It was he who first informed me of the legend—and of the Hallows’ purported fantastic powers. I didn’t believe him, not at first, but…he fascinated me. And soon enough, what fascinated him fascinated me. He had come to Godric’s Hollow not by chance but design—to seek out the grave of Ignotus Peverell.”

“Then the Peverell brothers…they were real? Like in the poem—Death really did create the Hallows and gave them to the brothers?”

Dumbledore gave an ambivalent little shrug. “Well, I think there may have been some liberties taken with the details over the years. By this point, I think it is more likely the story is indeed just a story, a tale invented to explain the creation of extraordinary magical items by extraordinary wizards. There are many fantastic things in our world, Harry, but by and large, the simpler explanation tends to be the correct one.” He gave Harry a wink. “But I can only guess.”

“So the Wand…the Stone…and the Cloak.” Harry shook his head. “How did my dad wind up with the Cloak?”

“Well, in much the same way you wound up with it. It was passed down by a parent. Ignotus gave it to his son, and he gave it to his, and so on and so forth, father to son and mother to daughter until it came into the hands of Ignotus’s last living descendant, born as Ignotus himself was in the village of Godric’s Hollow.”

Dumbledore was giving him a very pointed, knowing smile, and Harry goggled; he hadn’t actually thought his mad ravings had been true. “Me?”

“You, Harry. When James showed it to me, I immediately recognised it for what it was, and you cannot imagine the excitement that raced through my blood, holding at last in my hands the third brother’s Hallow. I had told myself so many times that my interest in the Hallows lay long-buried in the past…but as you know, I am a consummate liar. I could not resist the idea that I might, in the end, succeed where Gellert had failed and unite the Hallows.” His face fell. “More arrogance. Even in my golden years, I still struggled with it. When your parents were murdered, and the Cloak fell into my possession…I made an Unbreakable Vow—with myself—to return it to you once you were of age. I still did not trust myself wholly with it—but if you had it, then at least I might be able to keep it in my sights. Relatively speaking, of course.”

“But—you said you’d given up looking for the Hallows when you saw the Cloak. Even though you already had the Elder Wand?”

“I said that I had told myself I’d given up, Harry—that is a rather different thing.” His voice was strained, and he seemed unable to bring himself to meet Harry’s eyes. “I’m a stubborn fool—an idea, once it has taken me, is not soon cast aside.” He sighed. “And it had well and thoroughly taken me, those many years before. The idea of putting the Muggles in their place—not because I necessarily thought myself better than then, but because I thought them worse than me. Misguided. Barbaric. History of Magic had been one of my favourite subjects in my school years, and time and time again I had seen magical folk and creatures dominated, driven away, persecuted by the Muggles they only wished to live peacefully alongside…” He covered his face with one hand, hanging his head. “And then…there was Ariana.”

“Your sister?”

Dumbledore nodded. “What those Muggles did to her—what they forced her to become. Perhaps you have heard, too, of my father and his quest for revenge? Oh, his efforts were admirable—at least I thought so at the time. He’d only wanted vengeance, to set things right by gentle, innocent Ariana… But he’d gone about it all wrong and ultimately paid the price, dying alone and forgotten in Azkaban.

“My mother moved on—tried to flee from the shame of my father’s actions. She poured herself wholly into caring for Ariana, and while I admired her efforts for a while, her sacrifice…I eventually came to resent her. To resent them all. And oh, Harry…” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “The resentment festered. After all, in my new life, with my new friends and new community, I was gifted! The brightest wizard of my age! Brilliant, with a promising future ahead.” He opened his eyes again, favouring Harry with a wry, sidelong grin. “…Modesty is a trait I have only recently learned—and even now I confess, it is a bit put-on. At the time, I had no compunctions about being exactly what I thought I was: a guiding light for the dullards around me, one to whom others could—nay, should—look to for direction. But my light couldn’t gleam half as bright plagued by the shadow of the rest of my family’s secrets and shame. So I sought an escape—a way out. A path forward for me, on to the glory I felt I had earned. Deserved.”

“…You sound a bit Slytherin, Professor.”

“Not the worst name I have been called,” Dumbledore said with a faint smile. “But Slytherins do not own the market on ambition. As I understand it, Mr. Weasley’s elder brothers are doing quite well for themselves in their Diagon Alley shop.” The humour faded from his face quickly, though. “And I know these words will ring false, given all I’ve just told you, but I did love my family. Deep down, truly I did. I loved them, as they loved me, but alas—that resentment. I no longer liked them—and I was selfish, as we have established. Selfish and cowardly, too fearful to face the truths my mother and brother and even my sister struggled with daily.” He grimaced. “It is a shameful thing to admit, especially in the presence of one who has just shown more courage than I can quite truly grasp myself.”

Harry shifted, discomfited; he had never been accustomed to praise, at least not for deeds in which he felt he had no involvement. Letting Voldemort strike him down had been no choice at all, only a foregone conclusion.

“But then, my mother died, and I was the eldest, the only one left to care my siblings. Ariana wasn’t even aware of herself half the time, and Aberforth…well, Aberforth was Aberforth, dealing with our family’s situation in his own fashion. Suddenly my future no longer held visions of rising to greatness, leading people and earning the respect and acclaim I felt my due. No, now I was to return to my village, angry and bitter and trapped. It was the feeling of being trapped, I think, that weighed the heaviest. Took the greatest toll on me. Oh I could have visitors, I could exchange letters with like-minded scholars and such, but in the end I was there, alone, with siblings who I did not feel any particular affection for—a sentiment, I thought, returned—and who would never appreciate the sacrifice I had made for their well-being.”

Dumbledore’s expression cleared, and the lines seemed to ease a tick, smoothing until he looked somehow forty—or even a hundred and forty—years younger. When he spoke again, his tone had a gruff, almost mischievous rumble to it. “And then he came along.”

Harry didn’t need to ask. “Grindelwald.”

Dumbledore nodded. “You cannot imagine what a breath of fresh air he was to one so choked off as I. How his ideas caught me—aroused…my curiosity,” he added with a quirk of his lips, and Harry pointedly looked away, feeling his cheeks heat. “Not even at Hogwarts had I encountered a mind that challenged me so—cocky, arrogant, but so free. He was bound by nothing—not the laws of man, nor propriety, nor basic nature it seemed at times. I saw myself a prisoner, with Gellert my freedom. His manifesto spoke of we wizards taking our rightful place as the heads of civilisation, subjugating the simple Muggles and leading all magical peoples into the light. It would be a revolution—and he and I would spark it.”

Harry’s expression must have reflected his unkind thoughts, for Dumbledore tapped the side of his nose and said, “Now, don’t think me so naïve, Harry. I could hear in his words strains of the wizard he would eventually come to be—but you must understand what the world was like at the time. The Muggles were constantly squabbling, often involving wizarding kind in their wars whether we wanted to be or not; Gellert made what I though was a fine point that if the Muggles could not be trusted to govern themselves, perhaps they needed a stronger hand. It was here I committed myself wholly to the notion of doing ill for the greater good—for the good of wizards and for the good of Muggles. Both peoples needed my guiding hand and Gellert’s strong convictions—a beautiful balance, he and I. And if he at times seemed callous, almost cruel, well that was folly of youth, and as he matured so too would his ideals, especially with me at his side.” He sighed in recollection, a ghost of a smile tugging at his lips as he stared into the bright, white nothingness around them. “I will admit I wilfully ignored…too many signs. Closed my eyes, turned away. He was dazzling enough to blind, and if I stuck with it, if I kept him in check and didn’t flinch, then the end result would more than justify the means.”

Harry thought that, even now, Dumbledore was still trying to justify his actions a bit, but he let it stand, instead pressing, “But—what did the Hallows have to do with Grindelwald’s plans? You said he came to Godric’s Hollow looking for the Cloak.”

“Oh, they had everything to do with our plans! The Deathly Hallows—when he first put the notion to me, I laughed in his face. Magic could achieve fantastic things, I told him, but there were no shortcuts to true greatness, and if he wanted to see his vision brought to life, we needed to use our minds, our intellect, our cunning—not rely on ancient relics of myth and legend. But he wore at me, shoving evidence and anecdotes down my throat until I choked and was forced to accept that perhaps the Hallows were indeed real and the key to our plans for dominion. The Elder Wand would be the signal of our unstoppable power and a point around which armies would rally. The Resurrection Stone would, Gellert explained, allow us to manipulate the line between life and death, to call upon ancient mages from the past to create a new order of power. Me…well, I had more mundane plans for it, seeing the Stone as way to unite my family once more—and finally being freed from the responsibility of caring for my siblings. They were the only sticking point in all of this, the only thing keeping me from spiriting away into the night at Gellert’s side to finally begin our meteoric rise to glory.”

“And the Cloak?”

Dumbledore frowned in thought. “He’d come to the village seeking the Cloak…but somehow it seemed to be the least important of the Hallows to him. Neither of us felt we really needed it, after all—not for conventional use, we both being adept spellcasters. I expect his interest mainly lay in the completion of the Hallows trio by collecting it—and in doing so becoming what he had referred to as ‘Master of Death’. Invincible.

“Only with the three Hallows gathered together could we hope to complete the important mission laid at our feet. Which meant…we would need to travel, to search the world for clues, follow leads, question and investigate and, if necessary, steal the means to our revolution—the means to ushering in a new world for wizarding kind and Muggles alike! A better world.” Dumbledore grimaced, his face lined with sorrow. “…Two months I wasted with Gellert. Two months I spent utterly enthralled by him, by his vision, by his caprice and sharp mind. By his freedom. Two months—two months standing in the full force of his sun, leaving the only family I had left in dark shadow.” He shuddered. “And then summer ended, and so did my delusions.

“Aberforth and I…we could not have been more dissimilar, and that has always been for the best. Where I walked with my head in the clouds, he always kept his feet on firm ground, and so of course it was he who had to bring me back down from the heights, to shout at me those unsavoury truths I had ignored in favour of Gellert. To remind me that I was still not free.

“The argument became a fight, a real fight, and Gellert…I told myself he lost control. That he’d always had a hot head under that cool exterior, but I think that was another of my calculated lies. I don’t think I’d ever seen him more in control, more conscious, more conniving than in that moment. Maybe it was cruelty—or maybe he did it to free me. A twisted sort of love. The only kind I think he was actually capable of.

“Whatever the truth of the matter, the outcome was all the same: Ariana was dead, and nothing would ever be the same again. That summer had been the best of my life…and now it would be the worst.”

Dumbledore gave a little huffing gasp, his voice growing thick with emotion, and Harry caught the glint of tears burning tracks down the weathered cheeks. It was an uncomfortable thing, watching someone you had practically worshipped weep so openly, and though Harry had been reminded at so many turns that Dumbledore was just as human as anyone else—and just as prone to folly—the sight still moved him.

“My apologies, my boy,” he said with a sniff, dabbing at his eyes and nose with a white handkerchief edged in gold. Harry idly wondered if people with names as long as Dumbledore’s ever bothered to have their belongings monogrammed. “How unbecoming.”

“Oh…no, it’s fine,” Harry assured him, in all honesty, though he didn’t think he sounded that sincere, still wrong-footed by the display.

Dumbledore sniffed again, then swallowed, and when he spoke this time, he sounded as if he had marshalled his emotions. “Well, that was Gellert’s stint in Godric’s Hollow done. He fled, which must have surprised no one but myself. I suppose I imagined us joined at the hip, and if ever there came a need to make a quick departure, it would be at each other’s side. But instead, he vanished in the night—taking with him his light and life and brilliant, dazzling future. A bundle of what-might-have-been. I did not feel self-pity here, though. I felt only guilt. Guilt and shame—and that, I thought, as I laid my dear sister in the ground, was also what I had earned. What I deserved.

“Years passed. Gellert continued his plans for conquest without me, as I learned through rumour, and though I had long since abandoned any idea of ever standing at his side in that respect, I cannot deny that it hurt. To think yourself special to someone and be so thoroughly disabused of such a fanciful notion is a humiliation almost palpable in its pain.

“Word was he had procured a powerful new wand for himself, and though most would have put it down to mere fearful gossip, I knew that Gellert had found one of the Hallows without me and would be on to the next in due course. It was around this time that I began to be approached for positions of influence myself—even the Minister for Magic post. But I declined—I had seen what even the taste of power could do to me and knew I could not be trusted with it.”

Harry opened his mouth to say that, at the very least, he would have made a much better Minister than the likes of Fudge or Scrimgeour. After all, Dumbledore had the power of self-reflection, the ability to learn from his mistakes. He would have seen Voldemort’s return coming, surely; he would have mounted more effective defences. And then Harry might have been reviewing notes right now, cramming for his N.E.W.T.s while gorging himself on a steady supply of exploding bonbons Owled to him by his very-much-alive mother.

But Dumbledore held up a hand, stilling any protests. “No. However poorly you may think others functioned in the post, I had learned well that power only led to my undoing—whether it came in the form of a man or a position.” He carefully folded his handkerchief, slipping it back into his midnight blue robes. “Power corrupts those too weak-willed to wield it—which is to say, anyone who seeks it. For the greater good, or otherwise. True power manifests in the moment, in those who are called to be leaders in an hour of need and do so simply because they must. Some still do not grow into it, but others…well.” He smiled at Harry, that familiar twinkle back in his eyes. “No, I think altogether I was best suited for a quiet position on the faculty of a wizarding school, where I could make no great mischief. Engaging with young ones and not so much moulding their minds as helping them think for themselves. I think I managed well enough. I was told by a fair few whose opinions I valued that I was a good teacher—”

“You were the best—” Harry started reflexively, his irritation with Dumbledore dashed by the discomfiting display of emotion. It was more and more difficult, now, to recall why he was meant to be angry with Dumbledore—these bits and pieces of his life that were fading like snatches of a dream. He could feel his fury roiling just beneath the surface, but maintaining an outlet for it, remembering its source, was proving impossible the longer he spent here.

“Well, I will thank you for the flattery and not do you the discourtesy of believing it idle. But still, I could have done more, I think. While I hid away at Hogwarts, funnelling my guilt and shame and regret into building a better future for the witches and wizards to come—something I had always aspired to, you will recall—Gellert continued to grow in power. They say he feared me and was amassing forces so that he might be prepared to fend me off if I ever marched against him—and perhaps that was his reasoning. But I would never have done so—because confronting him would mean being met with the truth.”

Harry frowned. “The truth, sir?”

Dumbledore nodded. “A truth I had been avoiding for many, many years by that point. The truth of which of us had in the end actually cast the Curse that killed Ariana. Had it been Gellert? Had it been Aberforth’s misfire? Or…had it been my own spell ricocheting? Had I murdered this innocent, this child who had looked to me as her protector but who I only ever saw as a burden?” His voice started to thicken again with repressed emotion, but he swallowed it down. “That was my greatest fear. Not the corruption of power, not the disappointment of my peers—only the knowledge that I had been the one to snuff out her life. It was terrible enough to know that my neglect of her for a summer fling had put her in danger in the first place—still terrible more to learn I had struck the killing blow.

“And I think on some level Gellert knew about this chink in my armour. He had always been so clever, so skilled at seeking out weak spots. I know he would not have hesitated to mark mine and file them away to capitalise on later. No, whatever might have lain between us at one point…it would have been no trifle to him to use my sister’s death against me and strike what would surely have been a mortal blow. So, as cowards are wont to do, I avoided him. I ignored the pleas from all corners to stand up to him, to leave off grading parchments long enough to put a stop to the senseless violence sweeping the wizarding world. I ignored them until it became no longer possible to do so. I could not let go any longer that which I had inadvertently brought about.

“Of course, many a book has been penned about what happened next. I won the duel—and with it, mastery of the Elder Wand.” He said it in a very small voice, as if he were ashamed. “Even in that moment, I did not want to cross him. I did not want him to look at me with fear, hatred, betrayal. Disappointment. We who would have been young gods together.”

A memory, clear and clarion, came to him through the hazy, muzzy fog: Harry, standing before the Mirror of Erised, enraptured by the false future he saw within. He had a good idea now of what Dumbledore would have seen when he peered into the Mirror, and it would have been just as much a lie as Harry standing there with his mother and father had been.

“…I don’t think he felt any of those things,” Harry said after a long beat of silence. “Grindelwald. I don’t think he—resented you, or whatever you were afraid of. I saw, when Voldemort found him while he was tracking down the Wand. He said it left him a long time ago…for a better man than he was.” In his mind’s eye, he saw the hunched, skeletal figure defiant, the shadow of the merry-faced Gellert in Dumbledore’s stories still visible, beneath all the years of muck and grime.

Dumbledore looked down at his lap, lips twitching. “Time alone with our thoughts can lead us to finally accept dark truths about ourselves. I would like to think he did feel some sense of the horror he wrought upon the world—and shame for it.” It sounded very diplomatic; Harry didn’t believe it—he knew there was a tiny part of Dumbledore, remembering Grindelwald, young and beautiful and wild and still loving him a little for it. But he let him have his pretty words.

The whimperings of the creature huddled under the bench no longer disturbed Harry, faint and fading as his memories of his life beyond this way-station.

A thought struck Harry here: “Your arm—back in Sixth Year… You tried to use the Resurrection Stone, didn’t you?”

Dumbledore nodded. “You cannot imagine the thoughts that went through my mind when I came across it, quite unwittingly, in the old Gaunt home—” He paused, brows knitting, before smoothing again in wry amusement. “Or perhaps you more than anyone could imagine, Harry. Regardless, I confess I quite forgot myself in my emotion and tried to use it straight away, forgetting entirely that it was not merely the Stone but now a Horcrux and thus imbued with dark, dangerous magics. I had spent countless hours poring over texts and accountings concerning this Hallow, and here it was, in my possession! I plucked it from beneath the floorboards of the rotting remains of that ramshackle cottage, placed it on my finger, and imagined that I was about to see them. Ariana, Mother, Father… That I could finally apologise, that I might show them what I’d done to rectify the sorrow my actions had brought about…”

He cradled his head in his hands, hunched and miserable.

“You must think me such a fool now. After all this time…I had learned nothing. I would never have been able to master the Hallows, I could see it now. I would only ever have used them for personal gain, this I had just demonstrated in living colour—the final proof that my dreams of glory had only ever been just that. Childish, naïve dreams.”

“But—it was only a natural reaction! I mean, I’m sure I might’ve done the same if I’d found that ring and known what it was!” No, that was a lie; he definitely would have done the same—he was a foolish, impetuous Gryffindor through and through, and without Draco’s steady presence ready to clock him sideways when he got too hot-headed, Harry probably would have been his own undoing several times over in his quest to track down Horcruxes. “Who hasn’t lost a loved one and wished they could bring them back? You weren’t foolish, just…I dunno. Impatient, maybe.”

Dumbledore did not seem consoled. “Impatient men cannot unite the Hallows—selfish men, arrogant men, everything I had once been proud to be. That’s the rub! The Hallows, like power, cannot be wielded by men who seek them. I had only ever been fit to hold the least among them—the Elder Wand—for I had come upon it reluctantly, defeating its former master in the name of protecting others. That is how one tames a wand of power, Harry: by taking it not for personal gain but to save others. To save others from it.”

In Harry’s mind flashed an image of a dark alcove, Draco clinging close and desperate, begging Disarm me, please. A kiss. Expelliarmus.

“The Cloak, the Stone, the Wand—they were never meant for me. I was permitted to hold them for a time, but only long enough to pass them on to more worthy possessors than I. Ones who would use them to shelter erstwhile enemies. Ones who would use them to harness courage for self-sacrifice. Ones who would use them to risk their lives and stand up against whatever threatened all they held dear.” He lifted his watery blue eyes to Harry’s, patting his hand. “You have earned the Hallows, Harry. You deserve them. You’re one man in a million million.”

At this, Harry felt the very last of his anger ebb away, replaced, instead, by idle curiosity tinged with a hint of frustration. “…Why’d you have to make it so difficult, though?”

Dumbledore gave a wry chuckle. “I confess that was by design. Here again, I imagined in you the same flaws I saw in myself. I worried that if I gave them to you outright, if you did not study them, learn of them, come to fear them even, then you would fall to the same temptation as I and Gellert had. I would beg your forgiveness for such an assumption, but—”

“No, no…” Harry nodded. “I mean, I’m not proud of it, but you’re not entirely wrong. Not saying I would’ve taken up world domination if I’d gotten them around Christmas instead of, you know, five minutes ago or however long it’s been, but…I’ve learned there’s value in waiting ‘til you’re ready for some things.” Dumbledore gave him a shrewd look, like he could see right through Harry, and Harry busied himself with petting the peacock, not meeting his gaze.

“…Indeed. But you proved yourself, as I had every confidence you would, and so now, here you stand—not dead yet. The true Master of Death in every sense—for you did not flee death as Voldemort did, as Gellert strove to do, as I flirted with. You walked into its arms, unflinching, knowing in your heart that there are a great many things worth laying down your life for.”

Harry supposed that was true—but equally true was the fact that there were so many desperately beautiful people, things, experiences in the living world as well, and a pang of regret echoed in his chest. The peacock stirred in his lap, its long tail swishing softly against the gleaming white floor as it did so.

“Still, it is a blessing that Voldemort never learned of the Hallows—while I doubt he would have had any use for the Cloak, and the Stone would have only reminded him of his own mortality, the Elder Wand would have been a terrible weapon in his hands. He would not have been invincible, no, but…” Dumbledore’s brow creased. “It is a path I am glad we did not have to pass down.”

“You expected him to go after the Wand, though—even without knowing about the Hallows.”

“Oh indeed. I had been sure he would try ever since your duel in the graveyard of Little Hangleton, when your wand overpowered his. He saw in that moment that he could be beaten—so it is little wonder his obsession immediately turned to finding a way to keep that from happening again. Lesser men, men with the capacity for self-reflection might have searched themselves for weakness, or explored what it was inherent to you, Harry Potter, that had nearly proven his undoing. But this was Voldemort—Lord Voldemort—and the very idea that you possessed some quality he lacked would have struck him as ludicrous.

“So instead, he searched for the unbeatable wand—the wand that was said to pass from hand to hand, searching for the strongest master. It consumed him, more than any quest had since the creation of his Horcruxes, convinced as he was that once in possession of the Elder Wand he would finally be invincible.”

Harry thought back, trying to recall the stream of memories Snape had left for him; they were blurring together into a muddled mess. “When you planned your death with Snape…you meant for him to end up with the wand, didn’t you?”

“I admit, that was my intention,” said Dumbledore, adding with a hint of a smile, “but it did not work out as I planned, did it?”

“No,” said Harry. “That bit didn’t work out as you meant at all.”

“I do not think it was necessarily for the worse, though. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Harry expertly dodged the question, as he really did not want to discuss his relationship with another student in front of his Headmaster. Dumbledore had known the both of them since they were eleven, after all; it was beyond awkward.

The peacock stirred gave a warning chirp of reminder, and Harry began absentmindedly stroking it again. “…Draco didn’t want me to seek out the Elder Wand.” He didn’t know why he’d said that, only that it felt like it needed to be said. Dumbledore seemed to think Harry was some paragon of goodness, and that he’d never wanted the wand, never dreamt of what he could do with the power it promised. Harry needed him to know that at least one person had seen through Harry and done all they could to put him off his own flirtation with becoming a Hallows seeker.

Dumbledore reached over and scratched the peacock under its chin. It stretched out its long neck, lids fluttering in pleasure. “Did he not?” he mused. “Well, happily enough, you have not sought it out. It has come to you, freely. I therefore think you are entitled to do with it what you will now, without fearing Mr. Malfoy’s disapproval.”

Harry frowned at the implication. “I don’t fear his disapproval.”

Dumbledore gave an ambivalent nod, weaving a bit. “Well, you are a braver man than I. I confess I have been wary of the disapproval of the Malfoys quite since taking up the post of Headmaster.”

Harry became aware, once again, of the creature under the bench, out of sight yet not out of earshot. He reminded himself it was not their place to help it. Still, its existence was a reminder that this place was not a place at all. Not really.

They had been chatting so banally, as if they were old friends, that Harry had yet to come to grips with what his still being here meant. Not dead yet, Dumbledore had said, and the acceptance of what that meant—what he would still have to face—began to weigh heavy across his shoulders.

“I’ve got to go back, haven’t I?”

“Got to? Oh no, dear boy. What happens next is entirely up to you.”

Harry blinked. “Wait, I’ve got a choice?” He hadn’t realised it wasn’t a have to, and the idea he might be able to choose one or the other frightened him a little, honestly.

“Oh yes,” Dumbledore said, turning his head towards the empty platforms unfurling into the distance. “You likened this place to King’s Cross Station, no? And—” He nodded further down the platform on which their bench sat. “There’s a train, ready to go—waiting only for a passenger. I’m sure if you were to board it…well, you’d enjoy a nice trek with a comfortable rest at journey’s end.”

“…A journey to—to where?” His throat was dry and raspy as he asked.

Dumbledore stared at the train, not looking Harry in the eye, and only nodded and said, “On.”

Harry watched the train too—it really did look just like the Hogwarts Express, and he could imagine that riding on it would feel like riding the Hogwarts Express too. That thrill of excitement, the sense that he was finally going home—reuniting with friends and loved ones. It wasn’t a bad way to travel, not at all.

But still, a thought niggled, and he turned back to Dumbledore.

“…You want me to go back.”

“My boy, what I want for you is none of your concern anymore. I do not say this to be heartless—quite the contrary, I say it to free you. I hope that you no longer feel obligated to follow the whims of a pitiful old shade.” But, because he was Dumbledore, he could evidently not resist adding, “I think, though…that if you should choose to return, the world would be better off for it. In my experience, a world with a Harry Potter in it has been much more exciting and fulfilling than one without him, and I think I am far from alone in that sentiment.”

“If I go back, though…” Harry frowned. “I’ll have to fight him again, won’t I? Voldemort.”

“As always, that is entirely up to you.”

“Well yeah, but…not exactly much of a choice, is it?”

Dumbledore gave an ambivalent nod. “Everything is a choice. Some choices are better than others, though, I will grant you. And not that I would want to try and sway your decision—”

“Oh of course not, no, not you,” Harry said, tone dry as the Sahara.

Dumbledore smiled, the old sparkle back in his eyes. “—If you were to return, you would be in as promising a position as ever to finish him, for good. I cannot promise it, but—”

“But you guess?”

A nod, sage and sure. “You have more than earned a peaceful rest, Harry, and trust that neither I nor anyone else would judge you for boarding that train. But you are loved, and you would be missed dearly. In returning, think not of the lives you might save from Voldemort, sundering Horcruxes and wielding Hallows—but of the people whose lives you enrich simply by existing. By being Harry, just Harry. Think not of ensuring that fewer souls are maimed or families torn apart—but of ensuring that those who deem themselves unworthy of love are disabused of that notion entirely.

“A choice cannot possibly be a wrong one if it results in a bit more love in the world, Harry. And you have so much love left to give.”

Harry glanced back once more, down the column-lined hallway where the raw-looking thing lay trembling and choking in the shadow beneath the marble bench. The peacock snuggled against his breast, its breathing soft and even now—it was asleep.

He sighed; he had wanted his choices and, yet again, been given one. He needed to learn to start appreciating the luxury instead of moaning about it. Getting here had been difficult enough—but going back would be no treat either, and it was so peaceful here, aside from the ugly thing under the bench. Peaceful and calm and full of light—everything the real world wasn’t just now. If he went back, he would be returning to the middle of a war. Returning to pain and loss and the possibility of more death. Maybe his own for good, this time. This all gave him pause, as he was so very tired. Also, he was really not looking forward to having to face Draco’s inevitable wrath, as word would no doubt get around about what Harry had done… He would be ‘Potter’ well into mid-life, at this rate—assuming Draco ever spoke to him again.

Reluctantly, he roused the peacock with a little shake and shooed it from its perch. It gave him a look that said it was considering shitting in his lap for the offence but blessedly decided against it.

He eased to his feet, brushing his robes clean of errant white down. “…Can I ask you one last thing?” he said.

Dumbledore crossed his hands over his lap, peering up at Harry with an expression of abject contentment. Harry had the sense that Dumbledore was trying to memorise him, that maybe once Harry left here, Dumbledore would start to forget again as the real world grew distant and muzzy in his memories.

“Of course, my boy.”

He glanced around—at the not-Hogwarts Express, at the towering columns, at the glittering domed ceiling beyond which streamed impossibly brilliant light. Glorious. Heavenly.

“Would you have gone back, if you’d had the choice?”

Dumbledore only beamed at him, and the mist once more began to coalesce around them, obscuring Dumbledore from view. Still, his voice rang out, clear and unmistakable: “Who’s to say I didn’t have a choice?”


Men Who Love Dragons Too Much Copyright © 2018 by fencer_x. All Rights Reserved.

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