This was it.
Harry, the members of the Order, and the members of Dumbledore’s Army who chose to accompany him to his final confrontation were closing in on Voldemort. Harry had given everyone strict instructions to leave Voldemort to him, since it was unlikely that any but the Chosen One could actually kill him. His Death Eaters were all dead, in custody, or in flight, and he was alone.
Voldemort stood on a bare patch of earth, lazily twirling his wand with his unnaturally long fingers, waiting. Harry stepped out of the misty dark that drifted across the battlefield and walked forward resolutely until he was standing directly in front of Voldemort, his wand raised. The others followed, making a circle around the two antagonists, and aimed their wands at Voldemort.
He pointed his wand at Harry.
“And so we meet again, Harry Potter,” Voldemort said softly.
“Yes,” Harry replied quietly. “For the last time.”
Voldemort laughed his high, cold, mirthless laugh.
“Do you really think you can finish me?” he hissed. “I cannot be killed. And even if I could, can you become a murderer? Can you kill? Do you have that kind of…darkness in you, Harry? To do what I have done so many times?”
Harry paled, but held his ground.
“I’m not like you. I’m not a murderer; I’m an executioner, though it’s not really a just punishment for your crimes.” His eyes narrowed. “You should sufferer a thousand times more for all the pain you’ve caused, all the lives you’ve stolen, all the people you’ve broken.”
“Ah, but I won’t.” Voldemort smiled thinly. “I may not even die. I may come back to rise again, like I did before.”
“No, you won’t,” Harry said firmly. “I’ve found all your Horcruxes.”
He hissed suddenly and lunged at Harry.
The twelve figures surrounding them surged forward, reminding Voldemort of their presence, and the danger they posed to him. He stopped short, his wand still pointing at Harry, who was strangely reminded of another duel three years ago. This time, however, the circle of wizards surrounding them was composed of his allies, while Voldemort stood alone and friendless against him.
“You’ve only got one chance, and then you’re dead,” Harry said quietly. “Even if you kill me, you’re vulnerable. All your Horcruxes are gone. Destroyed.”
He smiled grimly before continuing.
“You will die tonight, whether I accompany you in death or not. For neither can live while the other survives.”
This last he spoke in a near whisper, and Voldemort’s snake-like eyes widened as he recognized the end of the prophecy he had only partially heard. He hissed again.
“Perhaps. You certainly cannot live while I survive, since I will ensure your painful death.”
His red eyes flickered around the circle of faces. Neville clutched his wand tightly, his face set. Luna stood next to him, all trace of dreaminess gone from her eyes as she coolly pointed her wand at him. Lupin and Tonks stood beside them, grimly intent. Opposite them, Ginny and Ron stood on either side of Hermione, their bright hair lending color to the otherwise dark scene. Moody, Mr. Weasley, Bill, Dean, and Seamus completed the ring around the two duelists.
Each aimed his or her wand steadily at Voldemort and was staring determinedly at him. If any had to cast a spell, they would not miss.
“I suppose you want me to just give up,” Voldemort whispered. “Let you kill me quietly so that you can live the rest of your pathetic life in peace and happiness.” He spat the last word derisively as his gaze lingered on Ginny before turning back to Harry.
“You’ve only got one chance,” Harry repeated, gripping his wand so tightly that his knuckles whitened. “One spell, and then you’re finished.”
Voldemort smiled mirthlessly at him.
“Then I’d best make it a life-changing one.”
Like a striking snake, Voldemort whirled and pointed his wand across the circle.
Harry shouted a spell, but even as the incantation left his lips, he knew that it would not make a difference.
The jet of green light from Voldemort’s wand hit Ginny a split second before Voldemort himself was hit with a bolt of red.
Harry felt the same feeling of helplessness he had when Dumbledore died, and the same instinctive need to do something, anything! But there was nothing he could do.
Even as shouts of “Stupefy!” and “Expelliarmus!” echoed and jets of red light shot from a dozen wands, Harry knew it was too late.
Even when Voldemort fell to the ground, wandless and unconscious, he knew it was too late.
Across the circle, Ginny had fallen too.
She wasn’t moving.
Harry sprinted forward, leaping over Voldemort’s inert body, completely indifferent to the stray spells flying around the circle. His only thought was that he had to get to her, that she had to be all right; she couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be. If she was…
He reached her in seconds and knelt beside her. He brushed the strands of hair that lay across her white face out of her eyes with trembling fingers.
He drew her body into his arms and clutched her to him, fisting one hand in her hair as her head dropped limply against his shoulder. She had been warm and breathing an hour, a minute ago. He’d kissed her before the battle, a kiss full of heat and life and promise. She had been so alive then, alive and laughing and full of fire. But now…now she was cold…so cold…
He couldn’t breathe. There was a huge pressure swelling in his chest, a wail of misery and fury fighting to get out. If he let it out, if he howled his grief and rage to the skies, he would fall into an abyss of pain and darkness that would swallow him up. It would paralyze him, and he would be unable to complete his final task. He couldn’t give in, couldn’t let himself feel, not yet. He had to finish it first, had to destroy Voldemort before he could mourn his Ginny.
He laid her body gently back down to the ground and stood. A single tear forced itself out of his right eye and rolled slowly down his cheek, but he compelled himself not to notice. If he did, if he allowed himself to feel, he would shatter into a thousand pieces. His face had become a hard, icy mask, and those around him retreated from the look in his eyes. He turned stiffly and walked to where Voldemort lay on the hard earth.
Voldemort’s snake-like slits opened. He seemed disoriented for a moment, but only a moment as he shook off the aftereffects of the spells that had hit him. He looked up to see Harry standing over him.
“I want you to be aware for this. I want to be the last thing you see before you finally die. I want you to know that you are defeated, and that you will never hurt anyone ever again,” Harry said quietly, bitterly.
“You see, Harry?” he said softly. “We are not so very different, you and I. I have murdered thousands and you…you are about to murder the greatest wizard who ever lived and take his place.”
Harry stared at him coldly for a moment, his eyes like chips of ice. Voldemort didn’t quail; he’d never show weakness like that. But there was something like uncertainty, something like fear in his red eyes and serpentine face.
“I’m not like you. I can feel the deaths I cause. And it is more painful than my own death will ever be. After I kill you, I will never kill again. With your death, I am finished.”
Slowly and deliberately, Harry pointed his wand at Voldemort’s heart, or where the heart would have been, anyway.
“And the greatest wizard who ever lived was Albus Dumbledore,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
He watched, detached, as Voldemort’s body jerked once, outlined in green light, and then lay still, the light in his red eyes extinguished so that they were dark and dull.
He turned and walked towards the spot where Ginny lay, his legs moving almost of their own volition. Something other than his muscles seemed to be holding him up, something that disappeared as he reached her side.
He crumpled next to her.
The wizards who had rushed to Ginny’s side when she had fallen backed away as he lay his head on her chest and wrapped his arms around her. He found himself hoping, willing her heart to beat, telling himself that it had only stopped for a moment, that it would start again, and she would open her eyes and smile at him. She’d tell him not to be silly; it wasn’t real. It was just a nightmare, just a dream.
Just a dream.
He started whispering to her, begging her to wake up, to breathe, to live.
“Ginny, Ginny wake up, please don’t be dead! It’s over, Ginny, we won! He’s dead, dead for good! Oh, Ginny, you’re safe; he can’t hurt you or anyone else anymore! Ginny please don’t be dead, don’t be dead, you can’t be dead! Please, Ginny, wake up!”
But she didn’t. Her heart remained still and silent. It was a silence that seemed to have a sound, a silence that pressed on his ears and overwhelmed all other noises so that he could hear nothing but the nonexistent beat of her heart.
He continued to whisper brokenly until the pressure in his chest stole his breath, and he couldn’t speak for the miserable agony that threatened to overwhelm him.
The single tear that had forced its way out of him earlier was now followed by another, and another, and another. He began to shake with the force of his sobs as tears began rolling freely down his cheeks, soaking the front of Ginny’s robes.
Someone had grabbed his shoulder and was shaking him, pulling him away from Ginny. He clung tighter to her, determined not to lose her. The person clutching his shoulder became more insistent, and started calling his name.
“NO! I won’t let her go!” he shouted, and opened his eyes.
Bright light seared them as he opened his eyelids. The blood-soaked battleground disappeared, he was lying against something soft, and Ginny…Ginny’s body was gone. He groped around frantically, desperately looking for her. But all his searching hands encountered were pillows, sheets, and blankets.
He was lying in his bed, in the dormitory he shared with Ron and the other sixth-year boys. His cheeks were wet, and his eyes and throat felt raw and swollen, as if he’d been sobbing in his sleep.
“Are you all right, mate?” a concerned voice asked. The hand gripping his shoulder suddenly let go.
Harry wiped his eyes roughly and started fumbling for his glasses with one hand, the other still frantically searching for Ginny. As his vision focused, he could see Ron staring at him, his freckles more noticeable than ever on his bloodless face.
“Ron! Where’s Ginny?” he demanded hoarsely, looking around wildly.
His friend’s anxious expression became confused as he answered.
“I dunno…did you have another vision or something? Is she hurt?”
“I don’t know,” Harry answered sharply. He threw off the covers, shoved his feet into his trainers, and grabbed the sweatshirt that lay crumpled on the floor by his bed. Tugging it over his head as he went, he ran down the stairs to the common room, completely ignoring Ron as he shouted after him, “Whadya mean, you don’t know?”
His eyes began scanning the common room frantically the moment he entered it. He looked once, twice, a third time, his breath coming harsh and ragged as he searched urgently around the room for her.
She wasn’t there.
He dashed to the staircase that led to the girls’ dormitory and took the stairs two at a time.
He was almost to the top before the steps melted into the slippery stone slide and began wailing. His feet slipped out from under him, and he flailed wildly forward with his arms, desperately trying to catch hold of the top of the slide, but his fingers couldn’t get any purchase on the smooth surface. He landed hard on his stomach, cracked his chin on the stone, and slid down to the bottom.
“DAMN IT!” he yelled as he lifted himself up on his elbows and slammed his fist into the floor.
He spat blood from a cut inside his mouth and rubbed his hand irritably. He should have remembered about the slide; Ron had fallen down it last year. But how was he going to find Ginny now?
Hermione’s head had popped over the back of an armchair at his exclamation and the loud wailing of the slide, looking scandalized, and he immediately pushed himself to his feet and hurried over to her. She stared at him, her mouth agape in surprise. He grabbed her arm urgently, making her drop the huge tome she had been reading. It fell to the floor with a loud thud, but neither of them noticed.
“Hermione, d’you know where Ginny is? I really need to see her, it’s important!”
“Harry! What’s up with my sister?” Ron’s voice came from the stairwell seconds after Harry spoke. Hermione turned towards Ron’s voice, but Harry ignored him.
“Hermione! Where’s Ginny?” he demanded, tugging her arm.
She blinked and turned back to him, taken aback.
“Are you all right, Harry? You look terrible…you’re shaking! Don’t you think you should go see Madam Pomfrey?”
He shook his head impatiently as Ron stepped out of the boys’ dormitory with an expression on his face that was somewhere between an angry scowl and a worried frown. He hurried over to them as Harry continued to question Hermione.
“I’m fine! Hermione, please, can you just tell me where Ginny is?”
“Oh! She’s in her room getting dressed; she told me she’d meet me down here in a few minutes. Do you want me to get her for you?”
He nodded fervently, practically jerking her to her feet as he helped her out of the overstuffed chair. She hurried to the reformed staircase that led to the girls’ dormitory, glancing worriedly over her shoulder at the two boys as she disappeared up the steps.
“What’s wrong? Has something happened to Ginny?” Ron demanded as Hermione left.
“I told you, I don’t know,” Harry said shortly, pacing in front of the fire. Ron stood in front of him next to the armchair Hermione had vacated and crossed his arms.
“Maybe you don’t know, but you can at least tell me what’s got you so worked up! Did you have another vision? Or a dream or something? Come on, mate, she’s my little sister! I worry about her, too!”
Harry hesitated, then nodded and sat on the couch, but moments later was up again, too anxious and worried to sit still.
“What happened?” Ron asked.
“It was more like a normal dream than a vision, I suppose,” Harry began. “But it was so real…I could feel everything…I’d almost swear it really happened.”
He paused. Ron waited a minute before urging him to continue.
“Well? What happened in the dream?”
“I…I was fighting Voldemort.”
Ron flinched at the name, but Harry ignored him and kept going.
“You and Hermione were there…so was the Order and the D.A….and Ginny. He killed her, Ron. He killed her right in front of me and I…I just…Merlin, it killed me! She looked so still and cold and…and I held her and she felt dead, Ron!”
At this Ron grabbed his shoulders and shook him, his face white.
“But…but it didn’t happen, Harry! It didn’t happen, she’s not dead, she’s fine! We’ll just…have to make sure it doesn’t happen, that’s all!”
Harry nodded and glanced at the stairs.
“I know, I just…I just want to make sure she’s all right. Where the bloody hell are they?”
It seemed like ages before Hermione reappeared, followed closely by Ginny, though it had only been about five minutes.
“Sorry, Harry, I wasn’t quite dressed – oh!”
It had taken him three steps to reach Ginny as she spoke. Her expression changed from concern to surprise as he grabbed her hand, pulled her out of the stairwell, and crushed her against him. He held her as tightly as he possibly could, his face buried in her hair. They were so close that he could feel her heart beating.
One or two tears of relief sneaked down his cheeks as she tentatively raised her hand and began stroking his back.
“Harry?” she asked breathlessly. He grunted.
“I hate to ask, but could you not squeeze so tight? I can hardly breathe.”
His grip on her immediately slackened and he raised his head to look at her face. She gasped.
“Are you all right?”
He nodded impatiently as she raised her hands to his face.
“You’re so pale,” she whispered. “And you look like you’ve been crying. What happened?”
She stroked his damp hair off of his clammy forehead. His scar stood out lividly against his pale skin, and he had dark purple shadows under his wet eyes. Her fingers brushed his scar and he flinched, as if in pain.
“I dreamed I was fighting Voldemort…it was so real, Ginny! I could feel everything; the wand in my hand, the ground under my feet…everything. It was one of those dreams that make you wonder if it really happened after you wake up, it was so vivid. And…and you were there and…he killed you. You died Ginny, I felt you die, and oh, Merlin, it killed me,” he murmured as she ran her thumbs under his eyes, gently wiping away the remnants of tears that had escaped from them.
Hermione gasped and raised her hands to her face as he spoke, and Ron hesitantly put his arm around her shoulders.
“Oh, Harry! No wonder you were so upset!” she said, but Ron shushed her gently as Harry continued to stare at Ginny.
“I can’t let that happen,” he said quietly. “You’re too important to me.”
He raised one hand to her face and brushed the side of her cheek with trembling fingers, his other arm secure around her waist. Her eyes widened, and she pressed his hand to her face, then turned her head to kiss his palm.
“Your hands are cold,” she murmured against his fingers.
“Yes,” he whispered back, “but I’m starting to get warm again.”
He pulled her to him again, more gently this time, and closed his eyes.
“Don’t worry,” she soothed, running her fingers through his hair and stroking the bak of his head. “It was just a dream.”
He nodded wordlessly.
Just a dream.
Though he felt a great surge of relief that it was just a dream, a cold ball of dread and fear remained in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t let his dream come true. He wouldn’t. He cared about her…loved her…too much to let it.
And he knew what he had to do.
He had to end it. Had to keep her out of the war, had to keep her away from him.
To keep her safe, he had to let her go.
But not yet. Not now, not when he was holding her safe, warm, and alive in his arms. Later, when he could stand to leave her, when he could stand to let her go.