A Kiss Before Dying

No air. Suddenly, there was no air. None to breathe, none in Harry's lungs, nowhere. Odd, that his Invisibility Cloak was suddenly suffocating him. That was it, wasn't it? He felt as though he had fallen twenty feet off his broom and had the wind knocked permanently out of him, but without any pain from hitting the ground.

Except of course, for the pain in his heart. Somehow it was still beating, despite the lack of breath, despite the fact that each thump ticked away one more of the few seconds Harry now knew he had left to live.

In the short minutes since he had finally learned his destiny, his true purpose in the fight against Voldemort, Harry's body had been operating almost automatically, moving him out of the Headmaster's office, through the castle, down the front steps. He had seen the devastation with detached eyes, heard cries and moans that did not register. His talk with Neville happened out of necessity, without conscious thought. Nothing could deter him from the path he must take. The path leading into the Forbidden Forest and the path of his life were now converged, both ending in the same place. Voldemort, a Killing Curse, a last Horcrux destroyed, certain death. There was nothing for it, nothing else to do, but to keep walking forward.

Except now, he couldn't breathe.

The reason was obvious, although Harry's brain, closed off from his surroundings, refused to let him see it at first. But, of course, he couldn't ignore it.

Ginny.

She was kneeling in the grass beside a fallen student, speaking softly, telling her that she was going to be okay. Ginny's voice penetrated the shell surrounding Harry like nothing else could; he wished it was to him she was speaking so reassuringly. It was a tone of voice he remembered from one of those stolen moments during his Sixth year, when they had taken a break from kissing and jokes and talking about Quidditch and OWLs. When he had let himself admit to her that he was scared. Scared about fulfilling the prophecy, scared about whether he had a future --no, whether they had a future -- scared for the safety of her family and their friends.

"Are you scared of facing Voldemort?" Ginny was sitting in his lap as he leaned back against "their" tree, his legs wrapped casually around hers. Somehow, not looking her in the face made it easier to talk about. If he looked right at her, he would let himself get lost in her eyes and he would hesitate, not wanting to see pain or sadness in them. Not wanting to be the one to put it there with his words. Not to mention the fact that he could never look at Ginny for too long without wanting to kiss her and hold her and not think about much of anything other than how good he felt.

"No." Harry answered truthfully. "Not of him." He thought for a moment. "I've faced him before in frightening situations, but I've never been scared of him. I hate him too much, I think. He's too evil for me to fear."

Harry paused, gathering his thoughts. "What scares me is thinking about all I have to do to get to that point - where I face him for the final time. And even more, I worry about what everyone else is going to have to do, and what Voldemort, or his Death Eaters might do to them. I'm terrified of the thought that people I . . . I love, could get hurt in this fight, because of me. You know what happened in the Department of Mysteries. It's only going to get worse, before the end. Once we get to the final confrontation, it's going to be almost over, one way or another. And I just hope that everyone I care about is still alive to see it.

Harry remembered, so clearly, Ginny's response to him. She had spoken in the same calmly reassuring voice she was using to speak to the injured girl, and her words had washed over him like a warm blanket.

"You know this is not your fight alone, Harry, no matter what the prophecy says." When he had tried to protest, she had turned around in his lap and gently placed a finger on his lips. "Shhh, I know, I know, there are things you can't tell me. But we would all be involved no matter what. My mum lost her brothers in the first war, before you were even born. My dad has been a blood traitor his entire life. We are fighting for what we believe in just as much as we are fighting with you." She had looked him right in the eyes then. "With you, Harry, not for you. And when it comes time for that final battle, we are all going to be there. Until the end." Ginny wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned forward so that her words were almost no more than warm breath on his face.

"I'm going to be there. Forever."

Watching Ginny now from under his Cloak, Harry realized he had lied. This was the end, it was time for him to face Voldemort, and he was terrified.

"Was it only because he knew how it was going to end that he was so scared"

Harry didn't know how to answer his internal question. Maybe if he still thought he had a chance to survive this, he would feel differently. Maybe if it felt like a battle, and not a sacrifice, he could think about strategies and spells and diversions. But he had none of that. He only had Ginny's voice in his head and loss in his heart.

But Ginny's voice was fading, and Harry realized that his traitorous feet had kept moving on their pre-determined path towards the Forest.

"It's better this way. I'm already dead. Saying goodbye will only make it harder."

"For you or for her?" A new little voice awoke in his head, breaking through the numbing mist that was swirling inside, waiting for oblivion.

"For both of us," Harry thought firmly, but again, he knew he lied.

"You don't think you'll be able to do it, if you stop for her first." The little voice was insistent.

That was the truth. Just looking at her was excruciating. How could he talk to her? Touch her? Merlin help him, kiss her? He would never be able to leave, right?

If he admitted it to himself, he almost hoped she would stop him from going.

And that simply could not happen.

But the voice would not quiet. "What about her pain? What if she was the one laying injured on the ground right now?"

"No question," thought Harry. "Of course I would stop if she was hurt."

"Exactly.She is hurt, kneeling there on the ground. She just doesn't know it yet."

"But, but . . . telling her before I'm . . . telling her now would make it worse." Harry barely realized he had spoken out loud.

"Why?"

"Because . . . it's not fair to make her mourn me before I'm gone. It's cruel. Afterwards . . . afterwards her grief will be pure. Right now it will hurt too much, to have to grieve for me with me right there."

"You are thinking about your own pain again. You don't want to see her hurting. But she is going to hurt no matter what you do. And you won't be around to make it better then."

"She would be spared the knowing . . ." Harry tried again, his thoughts swirling.

"She would be spared the thought that she could have stopped you, right? And part of you wants her to try."

"Ginny would never . . ."

"Exactly. Ginny would never. That is why you have to make it better now. Yourself. Before you leave her alone."

The voice of his heart won over that of his mind. Harry was barely conscious of walking back the way he came, but his purpose was clear. He had left her for an entire year, dammit, and the two or three words and glances they had exchanged tonight were not going to be her final memories of him, after all that time apart. He couldn't leave her with his refusals to let her fight, his admonitions to stay safe, and nothing else.

"She would kill me if I didn't stop to say goodbye."

The completely inappropriate thought appeared out of nowhere and Harry found himself almost chuckling at the incongruity of it. But it reflected the truth of Ginny and he didn't try to hold back his grin. A second later he was serious again, as the reality of his situation came flooding back. There would be no more time for laughter for him.

Ginny was still in the same spot, standing now and watching as two other individuals carefully levitated the fallen girl on a makeshift stretcher, floating her towards the castle. Only after she was safely away did Ginny turn back to the lawn, ready to look for more victims. Harry stood just feet away from her, still under his Cloak, drinking in the sight.

Ginny took a few steps forward and stopped, her eyes narrowed and concentrating, as if she was trying to hear something too far away to make out. After a moment, she shook her head impatiently and made as if to walk down towards the lake. Harry could wait no longer.

"Ginny."

She stopped again, confused. "Harry?"

"I'm . . . I'm here." He slowly pulled off the Cloak, letting it dangle in his hand, helpless to move forward.

Ginny didn't move either. She just looked at him for a long minute with an almost unreadable expression on her face. It was as if she was not sure if she should gasp or yell or launch herself into his arms and Apparate them both far away. But Harry understood. She knew. He could have scripted her next words.

"No, Harry." Ginny didn't scream, she didn't sob or beg or cry. She was completely calm, as if logic was all that was needed to make her point.

In almost any other situation, her conviction would have been enough for Harry. He trusted her that much; her opinions carried weight without the need for explanation first. But of course, her sureness would not help this time. With his last ounce of strength, he began to shatter the hope of their future

"I have to, Ginny. There is no other way."

"Stop it." She was still speaking calmly, but there was the faintest air of distress in her words; as if she already knew that words would not be enough. "I told you a year ago, this isn't all about you. We're all here, just like I promised. I'm here. And we're going to keep fighting. You don't . . . you don't have to always play the hero."

She had stepped closer to him as she spoke, and despite the stench of sweat and blood and death that filled the air, Harry could still detect a faint flower about her and it overwhelmed him for a moment. He choked on his next words, looking anywhere but in her eyes, his voice betraying the bitterness and loss and fear that had followed him out of the Pensieve.

"I'm not playing the hero anymore, Ginny. I'm . . . the victim. The sacrifice."

He couldn't stand it anymore. Without a sound he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her holding on to her so tightly they might have been fused together. He could feel her heart beating against his and wondered, as they stood there, swaying, if Ginny's heart knew. If it could feel the winding down of his.

The next words were the hardest Harry had ever had to say.

"It can't end unless I die."

She pushed back from him then, just far enough to look him in the eyes, and she saw the truth in them. No heroics, no fantastic plans or secret journeys, just the desperate knowledge that there was nothing else that could be done.

"And if you don't . . ." It was not a question.

"Then he can never be beaten."

"Why, Harry?" He heard her unspoken question. "Why you?" She thought he was only doing it to keep the rest of them safe. And he was. But of course, that wasn't all.

Harry had to put the past two years of effort, learning about and destroying the Horcruxes, into a few precious sentences. Even now he knew that the hour Voldemort had given him was waning; he needed to go soon.

"I . . . we . . . Voldemort and I . . ." the words wouldn't come. He looked away from her, as he had done a year ago when he had something difficult to say, and tried again.

"We are connected. Ever since he tried to kill me the first time, a part of him has been . . . inside me." Harry felt Ginny shudder in his arms. "And as long as I am alive . . ." He trailed off, and Ginny finished his words.

"He can't die."

Harry didn't have to explain any more. The implications were clear. And he could see in her eyes that she understood.

This was their end.

Harry recognized the desperation that flashed across Ginny's face then. It held the same feeling that had consumed him and Ron as they stood, trapped, in the dungeon of Malfoy Manor and listened to Hermione scream. It was the look of no hope. And almost immediately, it was replaced by unimaginable pain.

"You see? This is why I shouldn't have stopped!" Harry railed at the voice that had pushed him to Ginny. "Look at how much she is hurting!"

"Look yourself. She is hurting for you, not her."

Harry looked at Ginny with eyes that were as wet as hers. Both voices were wrong. The pain was not for him, or for her. It was for them.

An echoing voice across the grounds broke through the moment. "Harry Potter! I am still waiting!" Voldemort. "Will you let your friends continue to sacrifice themselves for you? To die? You can save them all, but time is running out. Fifteen minutes are left of your hour. Think about your friends, Harry Potter." The voice died away.

"Gin . . . Ginny . . ." Harry could barely speak past the lump in his throat. There was no time for all the things he wished he could say, to ask her to promise to go on with her life, to tell Ron and Hermione goodbye, to thank her parents. He had to trust that she knew all that.

"Shhh." Ginny's calm demeanor was cracking and she too sounded as if she was barely holding it together. "Just . . . just hold me."

So he held her, trying to clear his mind of everything but the feeling of Ginny, shaking silently in his arms, and failing miserably. And then they were kissing, tentatively at first, but then with an intensity and desperation that did not make any sense, and yet, Harry was powerless to stop it.

This was not a kiss of blissful oblivion or sun-filled days. Harry was painfully aware of his surroundings, of what this kiss meant for him and for Ginny. But, at the same time, the feeling of her was all consuming. And he knew, as he made the kiss shallower and allowed his lips to again trail softly over hers, and across her cheek and into her hair, that she would be strong enough to let him go, even if he was not.

The kiss was over. Harry and Ginny stood there on the lawn just holding each other, neither wanting to be the one to let go, but knowing it would have to be done.

"I love you, Ginny." He had never said it before.

"Yes." There was not really much else to say.

But then, "I love you, Harry."

No one had ever said that to him before, at least, not that he could remember. How could he ever turn his back on that love?

But he did know how.

"I know, Ginny. Forever."

The reason he loved her so much was because she was the kind of girl who could let him go; who could kiss him and love him and send him to die because it was the right thing -- no, the only thing, to do. Harry had been grateful a year ago when Ginny had accepted their break up with understanding and strength. Now he was astonished at what that strength was allowing her.

No other girl would have let him go, which was why no other girl would have made him want to stop.

He loosened his arms from her waist and gently placed a last kiss on her forehead. Picking up his Invisibility Cloak from where it had fallen from his grasp, he stared at her, still not sure how he was going to ever be able to stop looking.

She made the decision for him. Nodding, tears pouring down her face, she turned away first and looked back towards the castle.

"When I look back, you'll be gone."

Harry nodded, even though she wasn't looking at him anymore. All the emotion of the last few minutes was draining out of him again and the numbness was stealing its way back. He pulled the Cloak over his head.

Ginny's strength pushed at him, gently at first, and then more urgently. He backed up slowly, and then, finally, turned away, trying to keep the last image of her burned in his mind, even as his eyes once again found the edge of the Forest.

There was still no air. But soon it wouldn't matter anyway.

Mel's First Scavenger Hunt Clue # 3: What one-shot-that-became-longer did Ella and Andi dare Mel to try her hand at writing?