"I can't prepare for death anymore than I already have"
I open at the close.
The black stone with it’s jagged crack running down the centre sat in the two halves of the Snitch. The Resurrection Stone had cracked down the vertical line representing the Elder Wand. The triangle and the circle representing the Cloak and the stone were still discernible.
He closed his eyes and turned the stone over in his hand three times.
All the trees were bending down to hold him in their arms. It was only the wind and the weight of the branches, but for Harry it was like walking into a cool embrace.
In daylight, seen from the edge, dappled patterns of sunlight danced on the forest floor, and the leaves shone in various shades of green. It was a lovely facade. Tonight there was only darkness, and if Harry closed his eyes it didn’t make much difference.
So much death in the Forest. The unicorn in first year, the acromantulas, the thestrals. The Death Eaters themselves. And now Harry, the dead man walking.
Surely there had to be life here, somewhere? Insects in the cracks of the wood, or worms in the soil. Strange birds and small mammals. The centaurs were nowhere to be seen, which was maybe for the best.
His hand was shaking as he rotated the stone. There must be a reason Dumbledore left it for him: to meet death, but not alone. He’d been taunted with this so many times. The Mirror of Erised. Priori Incantatem. This time it would be real — right? With a shuddering breath, he opened his eyes to greet his beloved dead.
But James and Lily Potter were not standing in the Forest. Nor was it Sirius, an eternal madcap grin on his face. Instead, it was a solitary boy, his blond hair nearly transparent in the moonlight. Not just his hair; his entire figure was shimmering like a mirage. Harry could see the trees through his face as he approached, bearing down ominously. Even from twenty feet away, Harry knew who it was.
The expression on Draco Malfoy’s face mirrored the last time Harry had seen him, filled with terror as the flames bore down on he and his friends in the Room of Requirement. Harry had turned back, Ron and Hermione's cries of protest ringing in his ears, but through the thick smoke of the Fiendfyre Harry had only found Goyle, whose slippery hand he barely managed to clasp. Behind him, Ron —Gryffindor to the end — appeared with Crabbe in tow, but neither of them could locate Malfoy.
Malfoy had called out for help, crying, begging, but had vanished in the smoke. Now he no longer pleaded, instead looking around in mute confusion. Was this a trick? Had he escaped the Room? It couldn’t be. If the Stone had somehow called Malfoy to him, then the other boy was definitely dead.
Malfoy approached, his feet passing through a low bush. Glancing around fearfully with every step, he finally spotted Harry and gasped.
“Potter? What are we doing here? Did the Room change again?”
The Room? Did Malfoy not realise? Something clenched in Harry's chest, and he found himself unable to answer.
“Why would it be a forest?” Malfoy continued, oblivious to Harry’s distress. “I didn’t know the Room did trees. Or are we outside for real?”
“It’s real.” Too real.
Malfoy closed his eyes in apparent relief. “Thank Merlin. I thought I was going to die.”
A sound like a ragged laugh escaped Harry’s lips, and Malfoy eyed him suspiciously.
“What are we doing in the Forbidden Forest, Potter?” Malfoy asked with an anxious tone.
Harry answered carefully. “I need… I’m going to Voldemort.”
“You can’t go to him, he’ll kill you!” Malfoy unexpectedly protested.
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Harry countered reflexively. Malfoy paled even further, his translucent skin going white.
“Absolutely not. These past few months have been hell.” Harry remembered his shouts in the Room. Don’t kill him, don’t kill him!
“Then you know I have to stop him. "
"All alone? Where did Granger and Weasley go? And where are Crabbe and Goyle?"
“They're back in the castle,” Harry said carefully.
“So why am I here?” Malfoy pressed.
“You’re… I called you here. With the Stone.” Turning his palm face up, he showed Malfoy, who peered at it skeptically.
“And what is that supposed to be.”
“The Resurrection Stone.”
“That’s a myth.” Realisation was dawning on Malfoy’s face. “And it’s for dead people.”
“Yeah, it is.” Harry had to go, he was on a deadline. He didn’t have time to talk Draco Malfoy of all people through an existential crisis.
"I don't believe you,” Draco sneered. “For one thing, I’m not dead. And why on earth would you call me from beyond the veil to look upon my face one last time?” It sounded as if Malfoy was quoting a story. Harry supposed that pure-blood children grew up with various versions of Beedle the Bard.
“I didn't call you. It just happened.”
“You're trying to scare me.”
“I don't have time for this, Malfoy.” Harry stepped back, and Malfoy thrust a hand out to grab him by the sleeve.
“Get back here, Potter!”
His fingers passed through Harry's like a wisp of smoke.
“I’m so sorry, Draco,” Harry whispered.
Malfoy gasped and backed away, clutching frantically at the ferns and bushes around him, falling through them helplessly each time. “No, I can’t, I can’t!” He crashed to his knees, and Harry abruptly wondered why ghosts could walk along floors without falling through. But was Malfoy actually a ghost? How did the Stone even work?
Malfoy slapped himself in the face, shocking Harry. “Wake up!” he cried out, but of course nothing happened. His eyes rolled wildly, and he clawed at he left sleeve of his robe, wailing at the sight of the Dark Mark still starkly present on his flesh. Now verging on panic, Malfoy keened and wrapped his arms around himself. “Everything was for nothing,” he whimpered. He took several heaving breaths that sounded like he was sicking up.
Voldemort was waiting, but Harry couldn’t help wanting to comfort Malfoy, who was starting to hyperventilate. And did ghosts feel the need to breathe?
Through his gasps, Malfoy asked, “Are my parents still alive?”
“As far as I know.”
“If you see them, if they are with him… Will you please.... Please tell them I’m…” He broke off, barely able to speak.
Harry frowned. “I could tell them you said you love them?” He doubted he’d be able to have a conversation with any Death Eaters, but there was no reason to argue the point. Malfoy could believe whatever he needed to.
“They know that! Merlin, I’d have run away at sixteen if I didn’t!” The stark admission took Malfoy aback just as much as Harry. He sat back on his heels, took a shuddering breath, then stood up on shaking legs. He seemed to take a moment to gather himself, then said in a trembling voice, “Tell them I wasn’t afraid.”
Harry couldn’t help himself. “That’s a lie, too, though.” Draco turned away sharply, his see-through eyes glistening.
“I know. But tell them anyway.”
They stood silently for a beat, and then Harry blurted out, “Does it hurt?”
“Right now, no. I’m starting to recall… just a moment of total, searing pain. I think that must have been the Fiendfyre.” Harry cringed. The screams had been terrible, not to mention the smell of a thousand books and brooms and forgotten objects crumbling to ash.
Malfoy shook as he remembered it. “There won’t be a body. There’s nothing left of me. I’m nothing, oh god I’m nothing, I’m nothing — !”
“How CAN I? I’m dead, you prick!”
“So am I!”
This stopped Malfoy short. “Wait, really? Is that why you can use the Stone? I thought you were on your way to some heroic, climactic battle.”
“No.” Harry didn’t have time for a full explanation. “I am on my way to Voldemort, but I have to die. I’m... he can’t die until I do, it’s total shit but it has to happen, I can’t tell you more than that.”
Malfoy narrowed his eyes. “What, so you’re just calmly,” he waved his hand in the air, “walking to your execution?”
Harry nodded. "Something like that.” His shoulders sagged. "I wanted to see my parents. That’s why I used the stone.”
Malfoy had the good grace to look abashed. “I don’t know why I’m here instead. Maybe because… it just happened. Is that why you asked about it hurting?”
“Well, he’s more like to use Avada Kedavra as anything, so it probably won’t.”
This didn’t make Harry feel any better. “Yeah, well… I’m kind of on a schedule here, so…”
“Oh.” Malfoy cast his gaze downward.
“I really am sorry, Malfoy. I didn’t want anyone to die, not even you.” He paused, unsure if this admission would make Malfoy feel better or worse. “I wanted to save you. I tried to find you, but the flames were so high, and the smoke was too thick.”
Malfoy cocked his head curiously. “You tried to save me?”
Harry clenched his fists. "Too many people have died because of me." Malfoy snorted at that.
"Don't be a martyr, Potter. It's unattractive." The word martyr hung in the air between them. "Anyway,” Malfoy continued, clearly trying to maintain a brave front, “then I would have been in your debt, and I’d have been a right arse about it, I’m sure.”
“Right.” The silence of the Forest was deafening around them. "I'd better…”
“Do you want some company?” There was a desperate note in Malfoy’s voice. “Until it’s time.”
Harry tried to lick his dry lips, but didn't have any spit. “Yeah, sure. Why not.”
He wasn’t sure which way to go, so he just picked a direction and started walking. Malfoy followed close behind. It couldn’t hurt to have him along, right? When they read the story, Hermione had wondered aloud whether it was really the dead girl’s spirit or a false shade sent by Death to capture the second brother. There was no reason for Death to send Malfoy to tempt Harry anywhere, though. Oh, he’d tempted him in several ways over the years, but not in any way that would dissuade Harry from his task.
A few of last year’s leaves still covered the forest floor, and they crunched as Harry walked over them. Malfoy appeared to stride beside him, but his steps were soundless.
“Death is stupid,” Malfoy blurted out. “We’re wizards, why haven’t we figured this out yet?”
“I dunno, why don’t you ask Voldemort,” Harry answered dryly. “That was always his goal, to never die, and he’s killed for it.”
“I think that’s why they lie to us, you know. To stop people from trying, because it can go so wrong. Read a book about the search for the Philosopher's Stone, it’s always painted as such a fool's errand.”
“Lie about what?”
“People,” and Malfoy didn’t elaborate on which people, “say we can only appreciate life with the threat of mortality hanging over us. But that’s bunk. I didn’t appreciate being alive any more while knowing I could die any day in the Manor. It just made me terrified.”
“You don’t think you’re grateful to have experienced the good things from your life?”
“No. All I can think about are the things I’ll never do.” His plaintive sigh cut Harry to the bone. Whatever things Malfoy had dreamed for his future, Harry would never do them either.
‘Of course,” Malfoy continued, ‘I haven't let myself think about the future for some time now. It was survival, day to day.”
‘I know exactly what you mean.” The long days spent camping, the rows, hunger, the strain on his psyche. It had been one foot in front of the other. He hadn’t even given much consideration to Ginny, to a career, to a life after. Maybe that was for the best; now Harry didn’t have many hopes to dash.
The Forest grew denser as they went deeper within. Harry found himself pushing branches aside; Malfoy ducked behind him, unwilling to glide through them even though he now had the ability. If he was trying to not bring attention to his ghostliness, it wasn’t working. Facing Malfoy’s mortality was bringing Harry’s own into stark relief. Distantly he recognised the practicality of Dumbledore not revealing his fate until the end: the more time he had to dwell on it, the more frightened he became.
Malfoy spoke up again. “People are going to remember you. They’ll remember that you did this, tell the story.”
“So what?” Harry snapped. Malfoy jumped back; he’d obviously meant it as a comforting statement. “I won’t be there. People can say what the fuck they want about me, I won’t know it.”
“Better than what they’ll say about me, I wager!”
“Who fucking cares? You won’t know either!” Harry picked up his pace, and Malfoy obviously scurried faster behind him, because his voice was right in his ear.
“Maybe I will know! Maybe — maybe people will come here and taunt me. Merlin, I’m going to be a dare for generations of Hogwarts students. Sneak into the Forest and take the piss out the ghost of Draco Malfoy.”
Harry snorted at that. “I thought ghosts were so strange when I came to Hogwarts. Most Muggles don’t think they’re real. They’re really afraid of death, too.”
“Most people are afraid of death.”
“Yeah, but it’s different. We know there’s at least something else, for ghosts at least. And people don’t just disappear, there’s… there’s portraits, and shades.” Harry remembered the figures of his parents emerging from Voldemort's wand.
“Portraits aren’t real, though. It’s like a Pensieve of a person.”
“Do you have one? A portrait.” Harry imagined a snooty little Malfoy, berating passerby from a tapestry.
“I have several. I was sixteen in the last. I suspect my mother will burn it,” he added matter-of-factly.
“She never liked them. She thinks a glimpse of what you can never have again is cruel. She and Father had an awful row about putting her mother’s portrait in the Manor. I'm inclined to agree with her. It feels like grasping at a desire you can never fulfill.”
They moved deeper into the trees, winding around a small pond. The Forest didn’t smell as it should down here, like loamy soil and rotting leaves, crisp moonlight and chlorophyll. Instead it had the vague scent of Trelawney’s classroom: artificially spicy, damp velvet and black tea. Harry thought about portraits, the ones he had known at Hogwarts, the ones he wished existed.
“I don't have any of Sirius,” he voiced at last. “There weren't any in Grimmauld place, he was disowned.”
“He's my cousin,” was Draco’s only reply.
“Was your cousin.”
“I suppose I'm past tense now, too.”
“I hope I see him.” An owl hooted in the distance, and a thought struck Harry. “If you go anywhere, and see him first, if you see my parents, don’t tell them I’m coming. They'll be so sad.” It would have been different if they’d been able to hear it from Harry himself.
“Don’t be stupid, Potter. Even if I can escape this purgatory, I would never go to the same place as you.”
Did Malfoy believe he was going to Hell? Fuck, what if he was going to Hell, trapped by the dark magic performed by and around him, imprinted in his very skin? Was there a Hell at all? Was there even a Heaven?
“Ghosts think there is Heaven, at least,” Malfoy said, and Harry realised he’d asked the question aloud.
“Ghosts also have a Headless Hunt,” Harry said nonsensically, and Malfoy burst out in startled laughter.
“They are rather absurd, for the most part. Binns doesn’t even know he’s dead.” He tried to swat at a leaf, but his hand passed through ineffectually. “Do you think I’m stuck here?”
Harry tried to imagine it: an eternity of the Forbidden Forest, only the animals and centaurs for company. Malfoy had always been frightened of this place.
“Maybe this is my punishment,” Malfoy continued, gazing around the Forest in trepidation. “It's an awful destination. Perhaps I am in Hell.”
“To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure,” Harry quoted. “Dumbledore told me that. No, I don't believe there is a Hell,” Harry decided. “And I don't believe you'd go there, even if there was one. You don't take any pleasure in it.”
“In what, exactly?”
“Any of it. Torture, murder. You aren't your aunt.”
Malfoy scoffed. “We’re a whole rotten family, Potter, don't kid yourself. I don't think there’s any way for me to escape my roots, even in the afterlife. I'm tied to my tree surely as the leaves are tied to the ones all around us.”
“But Sirius and Andromeda…”
“They were brave. I'm a coward.” Malfoy gestured at the Forest. “I think I know why I'm here. I wasn't even brave enough to face the afterlife. I died like I lived, too weak to pick a side. Now I have to stand here helplessly and watch you be brave, take the stand I couldn’t.”
“You think I'm brave? You don’t think I’m just giving up?” Harry whispered.
“You're stronger than me.” Malfoy closed his eyes, clearly uncomfortable at the admission. “I think I always admired you, in a way. I was jealous.”
“I wish…” It was pointless, but Harry felt it was something he should say. “I wish things could have been different.”
“No, you don’t,” Malfoy said, without malice. “You knew what you were doing when you refused my hand on the train. We were never destined to be friends, you and I.”
“Guess not.” There was no more to be said; Harry had spent enough time wallowing in what-ifs when he was younger.
They continued along the path, and Harry spied a faint glow in the distance, likely from a fire. That had to be where Voldemort was waiting. Malfoy obviously spotted it as well, because he baulked along the path.
"I don't think I can go with you."
“No. I have to do this alone.”
“Everyone dies alone.” Malfoy ran a hand through his hair. “How unfair life is,” he muttered, almost petulantly. Harry figured he had a right to whinge. They were only boys, only children really, no matter how old Harry felt in his bones.
And if he didn’t step up and do what he was raised for, more were going to die before the night was over. This was it, then.
The fear inside him made him reckless, and Harry stopped on the path and thrust his hand out. “Let's start over, here at the end. Potter. Harry Potter. Thanks for walking with me.”
Malfoy stared at the offered hand so long Harry thought the gesture might be refused. Finally he raised his eyes to Harry’s. “Malfoy. Draco Malfoy. It’s been an honour, strangely enough.” His ghostly pale hand rippled through Harry’s own sweaty one, a chill skittering along Harry’s fingertips. Suddenly Draco’s eyes went wide, and he watched his own hand fall limply back to his side. It was his right, so he couldn’t be looking at the Dark Mark. His gaze was locked on his wrist.
“I suppose I should have expected no less from this tragedy,” he murmured. He looked at Harry again, with a gutted expression. “It’s a pity, isn't it. You and I. Our threads cut too soon.”
His voice was as hollow as his appearance. Harry wanted to comfort him, but there were no words of comfort to be had here at the bitter end. A sharp laugh echoed through the trees — Bellatrix? — and Harry squared his shoulders.
“Go on, Potter. You're going to die like you lived, as well. Righteous and principled to the end.” There was an odd tinge of pride in the statement.
“Goodbye, Potter. Good luck.” Harry saw Malfoy glance down at his hand, and hesitate, before fading back into the Forest.
Green light, and nothing.
In Kings Cross, much was revealed.
Harry’s talk with Dumbledore had been truly illuminating, but he could sense it drawing to a close.
“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love. By returning, you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say good-bye for the present.”
Harry nodded. “Fewer families. Remus and Tonks are gone, you know. They left a son.” If only he could have seen Remus one more time, to say that he would look after Teddy.
“Yes,” Dumbledore nodded sadly. “And so many of your peers, felled in their prime. But that is not your fault, Harry.”
“Our threads cut too soon,” Harry murmured.
“Oh, nothing, just something Malfoy said.” Harry didn’t think he would ever forget a word of their conversation, the last before his apparently temporary death.
“Draco? Was he fighting alongside you?” Dumbledore looked hopeful. He had been willing to give Malfoy a chance, back on the Astronomy Tower. Harry hated to tell him the bad news.
“No, he died. In the Room of Requirement. It all happened so quickly.” It was still so surreal, the fact of Draco's death.
Dumbledore seemed crestfallen. “I did not see him cross over. Perhaps his spirit hid from me. Did he not realise the error of his ways, then?”
“I think he might have, afterwards.”
“After death? So many of us do, it seems. I suppose you can assume Draco did, as well.”
“I don’t have to assume, he told me,” Harry explained. Dumbledore started beside him. ”Sir, the Stone, it didn’t work right. It just made Malfoy appear. Was it supposed to be my parents? Was it because he had just died?”
Dumbledore stared at him more intensely. “Are you very sure it was Draco Malfoy who came to you, Harry?”
“Completely sure. He was still a git, but he was really upset about being dead. He also wanted me to lie to his parents and tell them he wasn't afraid.” Harry didn’t finish the story. Draco walking with him as far as he could go, speaking with him about death and the afterlife, his words a strange comfort… that was a secret between the two of them.
“Oh, Harry. My poor boy.” Dumbledore looked piteously sad, and Harry was suddenly frightened.
“Why, what’s wrong?”
Dumbledore merely placed a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe someday you will understand. A thread cut too soon, indeed.”
Harry never felt so guilty as when he awoke on the cold ground of the Forbidden Forest and lied to Narcissa Malfoy.