It was an oddly tempting word, more so now than it had ever been before, when life had been something taken for granted. Harry could taste it on the tip of his tongue - cool and clear and cold, just like the room he stood in now, but much heavier, much more demanding. It was the hope of seeing his parents, after more than seventeen years. It was the promise of being reunited with Sirius, and Mad-Eye, and Lupin, and Tonks, and Fred, and Colin. All those people, dead because of him.
Could he disregard their sacrifice, though? Had they died in vain, if he chose to see their faces once more? How could you choose between the dead you missed, and the living, who would miss you?
He looked inquiringly at Dumbledore, as if he expected the old man to give him any hints as to which choice he was supposed to make. But his former headmaster said nothing and only looked back, hands clasped politely in front of him.
“If I do go on,” he said slowly, words forming thickly in his mouth, “I could never go back.”
Dumbledore inclined his head gently. “Correct.”
Harry took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair, unintentionally copying the motion from the father he’d never known. His hand went automatically to shove his glasses a bit farther up his nose before he remembered that in this world-between-worlds, glasses had been deemed unnecessary. “Ron and Hermione know about the last Horcrux,” he said uncertainly. “And there is just one more?”
Dumbledore nodded and looked interestedly at a stray thread hanging from the sleeve of his robes, patiently waiting for Harry to make up his mind.
He paced up and down, pressing his fingers into his eyes so that the whiteness became even more glaring. “He could be finished for good, if I go back,” he burst out angrily, although he didn’t know where the anger was coming from. “But… if I don’t?”
“Chance is not something to be set down in ink, Harry,” Dumbledore answered. “I cannot tell you how the scales will tip. Although you might think I could, as I am - if I may put it bluntly - dead.” He beamed, blue eyes twinkling like small skies framed in the gold of his spectacles.
Harry glanced over his shoulder, down the tracks, but there was no train in sight. Guilt and indecision twisted the pit of his stomach, and he looked back at Dumbledore.
“Will they… think I’m weak?” he said, indicating with his head at the tiled floor of the station. He didn’t know why - perhaps he already imagined he had left a world below him.
“Harry, they will never know the difference.”
He craned his neck again and thought, just maybe, there was the outline of a scarlet steam engine in the distance. Or was the brightness playing tricks with his imagination?
“They can do it, Professor.” He turned back to Dumbledore, who was once again investigating the stray thread; he let his sleeve drop as Harry looked at him anew. “They can win this. I know they can.” He did not have to tell Dumbledore who he was talking about. The Order would keep fighting, because it was their nature. Hermione, and Ron - all the Weasleys - and Neville, and Luna, and everyone. “And the prophecy,” he added hesitantly. “I’ll fulfill that too, by – by doing this?”
Dumbledore blinked placidly at him, but offered no answer.
From behind him there was a sort of shuffling noise, and the Hogwarts Express rolled quietly into place, as though it had hovered on the brink all along. With a whoosh and a last burst of steam, looking gray against the brighter whiteness in comparison to it, a door midway along its cars opened silently.
“Have you decided, Harry?” Dumbledore asked.
His heart clenched painfully in his chest and tears pricked uncomfortably at the corners of his eyes. He could not go on.
He could never go back.
“Yeah. I have.”
I’m coming home, Mum.
With determined steps that made absolutely no sound, Harry strode down the length of the train and stood before the open door. The inside compartment was familiar, indistinguishable from those he’d sat in, riding to and from school for six years. The best years of his life had started on this train; it was fitting those years would end here, too.
He took a deep breath and clambered on. Dumbledore followed.
The Hogwarts Express moved out of the station.
Narcissa Malfoy could not bear to look at the boy on the ground. Harry was Draco’s age, young and immortal and full of all the vitality and possibility that youth signified.
And here was, before her, sprawled unnaturally on the detritus that littered the centuries-old forest. Distant conversation thrummed in her ears - she could hear her sister conferring with the Dark Lord - but the only thing her mind could process was how difficult it had suddenly become to breathe.
From behind her, Lucius suddenly nudged her shoulder as gently as he could. “Narcissa.” She started and blinked up at him, wide-eyed. He looked just as pained as she felt. “He has asked you to check if the boy is dead.”
Her eyes flicked briefly to the Dark Lord’s, red and glaring, and she gave an involuntary gasp of fright. How fitting, she knew, that the mother of such a young boy should be asked to confirm the mortality of another.
She walked over to the prone figure of Harry and knelt quietly next to him. Her hand scrabbled for the left side of his chest, half-expecting to feel a pulse, blood thrumming under the skin beneath her fingertips. There was nothing, nothing but a shell where a heart had once beat.
The words, when spoken, were tremulous. “Dead, my Lord.”
Lord Voldemort looked at the still figure of Harry Potter on the leaf-strewn forest floor, not quite believing that he was dead. Narcissa had claimed it, but he knew better than to trust a Malfoy anymore. His reddened eyes roved over to Lucius - that sniveling excuse for a man was proof enough of that.
He crossed silently to Potter and, almost gently, turned the boy’s jaw towards him with his foot. Potter’s head turned stiffly, in a position that in life would have been endlessly uncomfortable. He did not react, did not stir - not a flutter of a breath passed his lips, already growing cold in lifelessness. Almost as an afterthought, he noticed the boy’s glasses had become cracked in the blast from the Killing Curse.
Lord Voldemort did not notice the bead of blood, redder than his eyes, welling up on his index finger, seeping from a nonexistent cut, from the very pores of his skin.
As the Death Eaters shouted their victory, already preparing themselves for the resolution of their battle, the drop of blood grew slowly larger. It clung to the bone-white skin for a fragile moment, and then dropped to the ground, becoming instantly lost amongst the foliage.
No more followed.
A/N: I've been working on this story for a few months now, and the idea's been in my head even longer -- and now I'm finally at the point where I can start posting it! Updates on this are, I think, going to be a bit more sporadic and less straitlaced than on some of my past stories, but I really just want to take my time with this and make it the best it can be. I can't wait to write it!
Reviews are, as always, massively appreciated, and if you've made it this far I'd love to hear from you. This chapter was a bit more of a prologue than anything, but it's very much an AU Ron/Hermione. Thank you for reading!