Harry and Dumbledore sat for a time without talking. The realization of what would happen next settled gradually over Harry in the long minutes, like softly falling snow.
"I've got to go back, haven't I?" he asked, weighing the day's revelations in his mind.
"That is up to you," Dumbledore replied.
"I've got a choice?"
"Oh yes." Dumbledore smiled at him. "We are in King's Cross, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to... let's say... board a train."
Harry nodded, thoughtfully. "And where would it take me?"
"On," Dumbledore said simply.
Silence fell again, as Harry worked out how to ask his next question. "Voldemort's got the Elder Wand."
"True. Voldemort has the Elder Wand."
"But I'm it's master," Harry continued, remembering the sight of Dumbledore's wand flying in an arc over the ramparts under the sickly glow of the Dark Mark, and the feel of Draco's bloody hand as he wrenched the wands from the other wizard's grip.
"Only until you are defeated, Harry," Dumbledore reminded him, directing a piercing look over his half-moon spectacles. "If you do not return..."
Harry shook his head. "That's not what I meant," he said. "What I mean is-- right now, right this minute, I'm the master of all three Hallows. Like you said, I'm the true master of death."
"Because the true master does not seek to run away from Death," Dumbledore replied cautiously, repeating himself.
There was no sign of a twinkle in Dumbledore's bright blue eyes; he seemed perplexed by Harry's train of thought. Curiously, that made Harry's heart lift a little; for all the old man had seen, for all he had planned, plotted, and predicted, he could not know everything. Harry might not be able to hate the professor for what he'd done to him-- there really hadn't been any other way to beat Voldemort, as it happened-- but a part of him still railed against the way he'd been molded and shaped for martyrdom from the very beginning, and wished he'd been allowed to make his own choices.
He might not always have been the most mature wizard, but he'd never been a child, not the way the professor had meant him to be, and so many people had been hurt or killed due to his ignorance along the way. So much pain could have been avoided, if he'd only known all along what he'd have to do.
"Oh, I'm not running away from it," Harry said, with a wry twist of his lips. "I'm just wondering-- do I have to go back the same instant I was cursed? Or is there really some extra benefit to mastering all three Hallows, instead of just one or two? I'm not invincible, obviously, but-- can I choose when I want to wake up?"
Dumbledore frowned at him. "The Hallows have not been united since the deaths of the Peverell brothers," he answered. "There is no certain lore on the subject, though I would not discount the possibility even if that were not the original intention. We are speaking of deep, uncharted magic; as you have already discovered, will counts more than words at such a level. However, I do not see why you would wish to delay your revival. There is no predicting what might occur while your body lies abandoned; you could rejoin it half an hour after your encounter with Voldemort, only to find Hogwarts in ruins at his feet."
"That's not what I meant, either." Harry shook his head, then took a deep breath. "What if I want to go backwards, instead of forwards?"
Dumbledore was silent a moment; he looked very grave. "Harry, you know the risks of time travel are very severe."
"I've thought this over," Harry insisted. "More than once, actually; I've wondered what might have happened if I'd stolen a time turner from the Department of Mysteries when we went there looking for Sirius. See, the problem with going back in time is that you if you change things you might stop yourself from going back in the first place, and that would create a paradox, so I couldn't have done anything useful with one anyway. But this-- I wouldn't be sending anything physical back. Just my soul. It'd be like waking up from a very long vision, not like time travel at all, really."
Dumbledore considered that. "What led you to believe this might be possible?"
"Merlin, actually," Harry said, shrugging. "Some of the Muggle legends say he lived backward in time. I dunno if that's true-- I've never read the wizarding version-- but Hermione says that legends always have some basis in fact. It just made sense to me that there might be a way to send information back, not to avoid death exactly, but to undo some of the suffering that happened along the way. It's like you said; there are far worse things in the living world than dying."
And my friends and I have seen more than our fair share of them, he did not add, but was sure the professor understood.
Dumbledore nodded slowly. "And due to the manner in which you reached this place, you would return without the fragment of Voldemort's soul that made so much of your suffering necessary. I quite see your point, my boy-- but I must warn you, such a path would be fraught with even more danger than simply returning now, and I could not say what might happen when you reached this time once more."
Harry thought for a moment of all the things that might go wrong, all the victories as well as tragedies that would be undone, all the Horcruxes he'd have to find once again. Then he pictured Cedric's face, slackened in death; Sirius' eyes, wide with shock, as he fell into the veil; Dumbledore himself toppling from the Astronomy Tower; Mad-Eye Moody's eye, mounted like a trophy in Voldemort's Ministry; Nagini's fangs piercing Snape's neck; Fred, Lupin, and Tonks, laid out in the Great Hall; Neville carrying little Colin Creevey...
"It's worth it," he said, filled with conviction. It didn't matter what happened to him. He'd already made his peace with the necessity of his death. But the others had deserved better.
"Very well, then. I only suggest that, should it work, you find someone trustworthy in whom to confide, and that you choose your moment very carefully. I do not believe you will be able to go further back than the moment in which you first mastered a Hallow-- in your case, your father's Cloak-- but you should be able to choose any moment between that and this."
A sense of disbelief momentarily gripped Harry, leaving him speechless. Somehow, despite how often his instincts had been right over the last two years, he'd not quite believed that such a thing might actually be possible. Yet-- if Dumbledore was right-- there really was a chance he could do it. He could be eleven again, back at the beginning of everything.
How could he resist? Hermione would chide him-- again-- about his hero complex, but it was as much a part of him as the colour of his eyes.
Another pang shot through him; he'd been through so much with Ron and Hermione, and neither of them would remember any of this. They wouldn't remember what they'd been to him or each other, or anything they'd learned; they'd be just a pair of eleven-year-old wizards whose biggest triumph was defeating a mountain troll. Ginny would no longer be the fiery young woman he loved; she'd be a little girl again with a blind crush on the wizarding world's hero. Could Harry really do this without their support?
He swallowed hard. Of course he could. He had to. And besides, even if they wouldn't be the same people he'd leaned on so much over the last six years, they would still be there. They would still be his friends. He'd just have to make sure they became the people he knew they could be, that was all.
Harry took a deep breath and nodded to Dumbledore again as the bright mist swept back in, obscuring the old man's figure. "Thank you for everything, sir," he said.
Then he closed his eyes and concentrated very firmly on the unused classroom he'd visited that first Christmas break at Hogwarts. He didn't remember the exact moment he'd first donned the Cloak, but he did remember visiting the Mirror of Erised shortly afterward; he remembered slipping the Cloak off to sit down in front of it. That memory had been dredged up more than once during his disastrous Occlumency lessons two years ago; it was easy to focus on.
The brightness around him increased, then dimmed suddenly. He could feel the chill of stone appear beneath his suddenly folded legs, and his body felt abruptly out of proportion. Was he smaller? Did that mean he had done it?
Harry opened his eyes, and there before him was the familiar, enormous gilt frame bracketing the fondly smiling images of his parents. Hot tears sprang up unbidden, and he took a deep breath. He knew the difference now between this and the real thing, but he could not help the pang of longing that he always felt at every glimpse of them. He reached a hand out to the glass—noticing again how much he had shrunk-- and promised them silently that he would make them proud again.
Then a voice spoke up, sudden and unexpected, behind him.
"So-- back again, Harry?"