When Harry reached the edge of the forest he paused, the chill of the Dementors holding him back. In his current frame of mind, he could not call forth a single happy thought to summon a Patronus.
As he stood there, contemplating, his thoughts turned briefly to Quidditch. Absently, he pulled his Snitch out from the pouch at his neck, seeking comfort in the familiar. His mind made the intuitive leap:
I open at the close.
Just like that, he knew what the words meant, knew what he had to say to open it. And the moment he found the Resurrection Stone within, he understood the intended purpose of Dumbledore's final gift: to call the spirits of his dead loved ones in this time of need. There was no hesitation, no second thoughts. As he closed his eyes, he willed them to appear.
When he opened his eyes moments later, his friends and family stood scattered around him; not in the flesh exactly, but a definite presence, certainly more substantial than the Hogwarts ghosts.
His eyes fell upon Hermione and Ron first. They stood together, and to one side, looking somehow hardier than they had when last he had seen them— in their dying moments. Instead, they were as they had been, before the camping trip from hell.
Even Sirius and Remus shone with a vitality that they had not possessed in all the time he had known them. There was no glint of insanity in Sirius' eyes, no eternal weariness on Remus' face. Then there were his parents, standing side-by-side, and smiling as broadly as they did in his favourite photograph of them. They were all smiling at him.
And still Harry's heart pounded in fear. Even their smiles could not shake his fear of dying.
And overlaying that fear was the guilt, the feeling that he was responsible for each of their deaths. He tried to apologize, "I wanted to say, I'm so—" but Hermione cut him off before he could say the word.
“Don't you dare apologize, Harry," she admonished, "You practically begged us not to go, but it needed to be done, Harry."
Beside her, Ron nodded his agreement, "You know I didn't want to die any more than you do, mate. But I'm proud to have gone down the way I did, destroying a piece of that bastard!"
Harry opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again without speaking. He was about to let himself be killed for the exact same reason; who was he to argue?
Instead, he nodded his acknowledgement then squared his shoulders against the chill of the Dementors, his mind made up.
The spectres stayed by his side as he walked deeper into the forest, their presence lessening the Dementors' effect and granting him the courage to put one foot in front of the other despite the knowledge that each step brought him closer to death.
The sounds of the battle faded behind him, as he moved deeper into the forest. Time seemed to slow. The forest was unnaturally quiet, the only sound the crunch of his steps. He encountered none of the forest's native creatures, nor any sign that they might still be around.
It seemed like he'd been walking forever—and no time at all—when he finally came across his first sign of life: the sound of two Death Eaters, Yaxley and Dolohov, stumbling through the nearby trees, their wands blazing. If their reaction was anything to go by, they'd heard him too.
Harry slipped the stone into his pocket, as they came into full view. Then, he gathered his courage and stepped forward his empty hands up in a gesture of surrender. "I believe Voldemort is expecting me," he called out, speaking loudly to keep the fear out of his voice
At the sound of his voice, Dolohov and Yaxley turned their wands on him. It took all of Harry's willpower to not draw his own wand, to make no move to protect himself. "Lead me to your Master," he repeated himself. Neither man understood the reference.
Yaxley looked far more interested in cursing Harry than leading him anywhere, but he did so all the same, shoving Harry forward and kicking him as he directed him deeper into the forest. Though he stumbled, Harry made no move to resist, allowing himself to be directed, albeit roughly to the clearing he had seen in his vision. Harry had suspected that the Dark Lord had been clear in his orders: he wanted to kill Harry Potter himself.
They couldn't have been travelling more than a minute when Harry caught his first glimpse of the firelight shining through the trees. As he stumbled through the last of the trees, his eyes took in the small gathering of Death Eaters, those few that Voldemort had held back from the battle.
In the centre of the clearing stood Voldemort, Nagini's corpse hanging like a scarf across his shoulders, stroking her with an uncharacteristic gentleness with his left hand while his right gripped the Elder Wand. Two human corpses lay crumpled on the ground where they had fallen, Hermione at the Dark Lord's feet and Ron a few paces away.
Voldemort looked up at Harry's ungraceful arrival.
Harry met the dark wizard's eyes, despite the fear coursing through his body, "I believe you've been expecting me," he managed to say.
Voldemort stared back at him, his expression unreadable, "Ah, Mr Potter, I was beginning to think that I'd misjudged you," he smiled maliciously, "but here you are. Finally come to join your friends in death?"
Harry stepped closer, meeting his nemesis's eyes, red and soulless, as he answered, "Let's just get this over with, Tom," the words braver than he felt.
The effect of that one word was instantaneous. The blank expression in Voldemort's eyes transformed into a glare so forceful that Harry thought that he might drop dead from that alone. "My name is Lord Voldemort!"
Harry snorted, his eminent demise stripping him of his life-preserving inhibitions. "You can make up all the names you'd like, Tom, but you'll always be Tom Marvolo Riddle… Now are you planning to kill me? Or are you just going to stand there and glare all night?"
He took another step forward.
Voldemort started to raise his wand, his expression unreadable, once more, "So anxious to die, Potter?"
“HARRY! NO!” a voice, from behind Harry, interrupted.
Harry turned; tied to a tree at the edge of the clearing stood Hagrid, struggling against the ropes binding him securely.
“NO! NO! HARRY, WHAT’RE YEH —” he repeated, only to be interrupted by a silent curse from Yaxley, before he could finish his question.
Harry turned his attention back to Voldemort. Despite his earlier bravado, it took conscious effort not to draw his wand as Voldemort raised his own once more. He'd come here to die. He was Voldemort's last Horcrux. He had to die.
The silence was heavy, the only sound the crackling of the fire, as the two wizards continued to stare across it at one another. Finally, Voldemort spoke, “Harry Potter… The Boy Who Lived…”
His proclamation was followed by another brief silence, then the words, "Avada Kedavra!"
There was a flash of green light, and Harry knew no more.
When Harry awoke he was surrounded by a bright mist. Slowly, the mist dissipated, transforming itself into what looked to be an empty and clean version of King's Cross Station.
He was alone, except for a writhing form. Harry reckoned it was a physical manifestation of the Horcrux that Voldemort had destroyed when he hit Harry with the Killing Curse. It lay beneath one of the seats and was shaped vaguely like a naked child, if someone had taken a naked child, whipped it to within an inch of its life then set it on fire until its skin was raw, rough, and flayed-looking.
It made the most pitiful noises and Harry stood staring at it, feeling like a coward, unable to bring himself to touch it and yet unable to step away.
He was still standing there, staring, when he was startled by the appearance of Headmaster Dumbledore — or what looked like the Headmaster. He was just as Harry remembered him, in appearance, but when it came to dispensing information and explanations, he was far more forthcoming with Harry than he had ever been in life.
First, Dumbledore explained how Voldemort had failed—thorough his own greed—to kill Harry, killing instead the Horcrux that Harry had harboured for so many years. He then elaborated on how Voldemort had, unintentionally, anchored Harry to life. Voldemort's absorption of Lily's sacrifice into his own blood, at his resurrection, kept the magic alive, for as long as he himself survived.
The Headmaster explained how the bond between Harry and Voldemort worked to given Harry's wand power over any that Voldemort might wield. They even spoke of the Deathly Hallows: about Dumbledore's ill-advised quest for them, and about how Harry had come to be the true master of death.
Whether it was the Headmaster's intention or not, the more they spoke, the more the true meaning of the prophecy became clear to Harry, and the more he realized how truly self-fulfilling it was. Not a single word of it would have been true, had Voldemort not heard it and tried to stave off defeat by first trying to kill him and then trying to use his blood — to the same end. And yet, that same prophecy had moulded Harry's whole life, moulded him into a sacrifice that need never have been.
So, when Dumbledore offered him a choice he had not been expecting—the choice between going back, and moving on—the choice—which should have been a simple one—wasn't. He had lost so much already: his parents, his childhood, his mentors, his adolescence, his best friends, his innocence … and yet yearn as he might to move on, to stop fighting, he could not bring himself to give up what remained or to forsake the Wizarding world and those few friends of his that still lived.
He hesitated, "It's just so— I mean, even if I go back, it doesn't change anything. Everyone will still be dead: Mum, Dad, Sirius, Moody, Remus, Tonks, Fred, Ron, Hermione...and how many others? How many others died while I tracked down Horcruxes?"
The platitude with which Dumbledore answered—about pitying the living instead of the dead—did nothing to calm Harry's growing anger.
"It just seems like such a waste," the boy continued, "Why did so many have to die? The war should have ended years ago… it shouldn't have been my job to end it!"
A contemplative look crossed the Headmaster's face and he seemed to struggle with the question of whether he should share something or not. It was not an expression that Harry was used to seeing on Dumbledore's face.
When he finally spoke, Dumbledore seemed to choose his words carefully, "With strong conviction, and virtuous intentions, there is perhaps, a way..."
He paused before continuing, "Most consider it just a fey tale and just to attempt it requires the unanimous agreement of the entire International Confederation of Wizards. But there are reports of a way, not to turn back time—which would create colossal paradoxes—but to instead create a split—a sort of alternate universe, one might call it—by introducing someone from the present to a point in the past. Both universes would continue to exist, but the person travelling back would live out the rest of their life in the newly created universe.
"Perhaps, if you were to go back, once the battle is won, you might try your hand at re-writing the world you live in…"
In the end, Harry realised that he needed to go back.
Not for those he'd left behind—most of those he cared for deeply were on this side of the veil.
Not from any desire to finish off Voldemort—he'd more than done his part by dying, let someone else finish him off.
No, he decided to go back out of a burning desire to set things right, to erase the prophecy that should never have become more than eerie words uttered in a seedy tavern.