Chapter 1: The End of an Era
"If you can dream and not make dreams your master;
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same."
Harry Potter woke with a start, heart thumping wildly against his ribs. He was drenched in cold sweat, and shaking, his scar throbbing dully on his forehead. He racked his brains to remember, simply recollecting a blinding flash of green light before his dream slipped elusively from his grasp like early summer mist.
Scrambling frantically out of bed, he leaned against his windowsill and stared beyond the confines of his room into the inky darkness, which engulfed Privet Drive, anxiously scouring the sky for any sign of the Dark Mark, yet nothing unusual was to be found. The luminous orange glow of the street lamps shone hazily through the night, casting a circle of light around each post, with night's eager fingers stretching to fill in the gaps between them. The rows of neatly manicured front gardens with their little low fences stretched away to left and right as far as he could see. Nothing ever changed in Privet Drive. This was much the same as it had looked for as long as he could remember, with everything perfectly in its place. Muggle suburbia. Home of the Dursleys.
He turned restlessly and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror that hung on the inside of his wardrobe door. He regarded his reflection for a moment. He'd certainly grown a great deal in the past year, and now had to stoop slightly to see his full image in the glass, but much of his appearance remained the same as it always had. The black mop of hair, which stuck out untidily at all angles, the distinctive green of his eyes, and the little round glasses, which he thoughtfully pushed back up his nose, none of them had changed. His face, however, appeared to be much older, more aware, and Harry suspected that this was to do with some of his recent experiences, as he'd been forced to mature very quickly this last year. He couldn't help but wonder what Voldemort just been doing to wake him up like this.
Harry impatiently pushed his hair aside and examined the scar, which zigzagged across his forehead and still twinged painfully from his dream. He had got that lightning bolt scar when Voldemort had tried to murder him when he was little more than a baby, and Harry was aware that the most evil wizard the world had ever known still intended to kill him now. No harm could ever come to him whilst under the care of the Dursleys, Dumbledore had seen to that, but now that he was leaving that protection, his future was very uncertain.
He vaguely traced the aching scar with his finger, and his troubled expression relaxed into a small smile. That scar linked him with Ginny, and touching it was almost like having her there beside him. He wondered if it had woken her too. A couple of years ago she'd performed an ancient charm on him so they could share between them the excruciating agony Harry experienced in his forehead when Voldemort was near, or in a particularly murderous mood. The bond the charm had created between them blossomed into love, strengthened further by everything they'd been through together.
Throwing himself back on his bed, he stretched out and listened intently to the silence of the night, punctuated only by Uncle Vernon's rattling snores. There was no soft hooting tonight, as Hedwig's cage was empty; she had flown with a message to Ginny two days ago, and, knowing how much his owl hated travelling by Floo Powder, Harry had asked if she could stay at The Burrow until he arrived himself. This was to be his final night in Privet Drive, but what was notable about this particular occasion, was that Harry was now moving into his seventh and final year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and although he would complete his studies just before his eighteenth birthday, he had no intention of returning to the Dursleys for those last few weeks. It was time for a new start, a new life and he was never coming back.
He was impatient to reach The Burrow, not only to see Ron, Ginny and the rest of the Weasleys, but because he was strangely alienated from the wizarding world here in Privet Drive. This made him feel very anxious about those he cared about, and their letters were barely enough to reassure him that Voldemort had not attacked. He had awaited each owl with increasing restlessness over the summer, and was trying not to fret about Sirius, his Godfather, who was currently incommunicado on some sort of mission against Voldemort in Transylvania. He wished he were of age so that he could do something active in the fight, rather than feeling completely useless here at Privet Drive.
He sighed heavily, and reached for the piece of parchment that lay on his bedside table. Rolling onto his stomach, he propped himself up on his elbows and began to re-read the last epistle he'd received from Ginny. A broad smile spread across his face, as he could almost hear her animated voice talking to him through the written words.
Thanks for your last letter. I can't believe they're still treating you like that. Well, I can believe it, but I'd rather not. Are you sure you're OK? Just hang on in there, and you'll be back here before you know it. I miss you, and I'm counting down the hours until I see you again. 5pm on Friday. I can't wait…"
Harry couldn't wait either. He'd actually made arrangements with Mr Weasley so that he could travel to The Burrow earlier, in time for lunch, and hadn't told Ginny. The opportunity to catch her unawares was simply too good to pass up. It was now less than ten hours before he'd see her again and he could just imagine the look on her face when he sneaked up behind her… Still smiling, Harry pulled off his glasses, hugged his pillow towards him in his arms and closed his eyes. Blissful drowsiness swept quickly over him, and for once nightmares were absent as he fell asleep.
Harry squeezed into the empty seat in the tiny space beside Dudley at the kitchen table, and silently reached for a slice of toast, each precision cut by Aunt Petunia into an equal sized triangle, and stacked in regimented rows. Harry was convinced that she must use a setsquare on every slice, as nothing else could create such a regular shape.
"Wash your hands, boy," Uncle Vernon bellowed, without even bothering to look from behind his morning copy of the newspaper. "Don't they teach you anything in that school of yours?"
"Plenty of things," Harry retorted, suddenly unwilling to put up with this behaviour from his uncle any longer. "You know, like…magic?" At the very word, the newspaper rustled furiously, and was hurled down forcibly on the table. Uncle Vernon materialised from behind the pages, purple faced, his moustache bristling, and his jaw hanging unattractively open in sheer outrage that Harry had dared to answer him back. His temper exploded.
"How many times have I told you, boy. You are never to mention your…your unnaturalness under this roof?"
"Hundreds," said Harry calmly, beginning to butter his toast without having washed his hands.
"How dare you!" Uncle Vernon roared, saliva forming in the corners of his mouth with rage. Dudley's tiny piggy eyes looked up with instant interest. This scene clearly had the potential to be far more interesting than the television that was currently babbling away in the background. "We've fed and clothed your ungrateful hide for sixteen years, and you have the audacity to throw it back in our faces."
"The clothes were Dudley's cast offs," Harry remarked, crunching blithely into his toast.
"That's besides the point," Uncle Vernon blustered furiously, more enraged by Harry's manner than what he was saying. "You should be grateful we even did that, especially given your abnormality."
"Ah, yes. Being a… wizard," Harry stressed the final word heavily. "I'll be fully qualified in about ten months. That should make next summer very pleasant for us all, shouldn't it." He grinned to himself as he watched Uncle Vernon's face contort painfully as his mind wrestled with the concept of what Harry could actually do to them when he was allowed to use magic outside of school. Harry had deliberately omitted to tell his relatives that he wasn't coming back, and consequently Uncle Vernon wore an expression of such disgust, revulsion and fear that he looked as though he was trying to swallow a blast-ended skrewt in his effort not to lose his temper with Harry.
"Harrumph," he snorted, and snatched his paper up again, shaking out the pages furiously and submerging his crimson face behind the sheets.
Harry tried hard not to laugh out loud, but it was extremely difficult. At his words, Aunt Petunia turned very pale, and clutched the kitchen sink in an attempt to steady herself, deep rasping breaths shaking her bony frame. Dudley's eyes widened in pure horror at the intimation, and he was currently trying to shuffle his chair as far away from Harry as he could manage. Dudley's fear of adult wizards had clearly not diminished since his encounter with Hagrid many years before had resulted in a pig's tail protruding from the seat of his trousers.
Suddenly, an image on the television screen caught Harry's attention and sobered him instantly. He silently shifted backwards for a clearer view of the screen and listened intently.
"Police were called in to investigate after neighbours reported a disturbance in the early hours of this morning. Upon breaking in to the property in Laburnum Grove, they discovered the body of Perseus Appleby. Early forensic reports have been unable to establish any cause of death, and this combined with no signs of violence and a complete lack of evidence have once again baffled the police. This is the latest in a series of identical murders, stretching the length of the country over the past two years…"
Harry turned away from the television, and studied his toast carefully, feeling sick to the pit of his stomach. He could picture what had happened in Laburnum Grove very clearly indeed. The Apparition of Death Eaters, those darkly hooded and cloaked figures looming, laughing, as they circled the pitiful figure on the floor. The torture their victim would have suffered as the Unforgivable Curses were cast upon him one by one: Imperius, Cruciatus, and finally the one to end it all, and the flash of green light he'd seen in his dream, the Avada Kedavara.
His chair scraped back along the kitchen floor, and he found his feet running back up the stairs, carrying him to his bedroom. The door slammed shut behind him, and he leaned against it breathing deeply. It sounded like things were getting worse. He could remember the same experiences so well: the merciless laughter, the agony of the Cruciatus Curse ripping through him sending every inch of his body screaming in torment. Then, there was what Voldemort had done to Ginny. He shivered. In a fit of nervous energy, he spent the next hour or so packing, and repacking his trunk, restlessly checking beneath the loose floorboard time and time again for forgotten quills, or pieces of parchment, searching for spare socks, until finally he could do no more. He took one last look around the room, and nodded. It was time to go.
Harry was always bad at waiting, and this time was worse than ever as he impatiently watched the living room clock, the pointers slowly, slowly dragging themselves so reluctantly towards noon. Aunt Petunia was covering all of the furniture with white sheeting, smoothing the corners with hospital-style creases and removing everything of value from sight. Harry knew how much she despised this mess in her pristine house, but her fear of magic was paramount, so she chewed her tongue and said nothing. Dudley was nowhere to be seen, and Uncle Vernon stood, filling the doorway with his massive bulk almost as if he was trying to barricade the rest of the house into safety.
The Westminster chimes sounded gently through the room from the golden carriage clock on the mantelpiece, and Aunt Petunia caught her breath, her hand fluttering to the pearls at her throat in fear.
"Vernon," she whispered, eyes widening until they were as large as saucers. "It's midday."
"There'll be no nonsense this time," Uncle Vernon threatened, beginning to turn purple once more. "You hear me, boy?"
"Fine," Harry muttered, desperately wanting to get out of there with as little fuss as possible.
A sudden pop, and Mr Weasley appeared out of nowhere, right by the fireplace.
"Ah, there you are, Harry," he said, smiling benignly at him. "How are you? Good summer, I hope?"
"Er… not bad," Harry grinned at him, suddenly feeling a lot better about everything.
"Mr and Mrs Dursley, nice to see you too," Mr Weasley continued, offering his hand, which Uncle Vernon pointedly ignored. "Ah, yes. Right," Mr Weasley said, looking slightly abashed and rather flustered. "Well, we'd better get a move on, Harry. It's lunchtime at work and I've not got long. Have you got everything?"
"Right here," Harry said, indicating his trunk and Hedwig's cage.
Mr Weasley, waved his wand at the electric fire, which promptly exploded and shot across the room, leaving a gaping hole in the ornate stone fireplace. The fire bounced off the sofa and landed with a thump on the deep pile of the living room carpet. Aunt Petunia moaned to see her beautiful home decimated like this once more, even though she knew it would be impeccably restored as soon as her nephew had gone.
"Go!" Uncle Vernon growled, moving towards his wife. "Get out of my sight, boy."
"Well, I'll… er… I'll see you then," Harry said, wondering if he would ever set eyes on them again. He smiled at Mr Weasley and shrugged. He had expected it to be like this. His trunk was balanced, end on, in the fire place, and Harry squeezed in beside it, enjoying the warmth of the flames that were gently licking around his legs.
"The Burrow!" he cried, and caught one final glimpse of his Aunt and Uncle before the whirling, twisting sensation filled his senses as he was hurtled along, eyes tightly closed. The feeling of being thrown, and tumbled as if in the midst of a storm at sea, was slightly unpleasant, but he soon felt himself slowing and flung out his hands to prevent his usual inelegant entrance of sprawling across the Weasley's kitchen floor.
"Harry!" Ron's delighted voice greeted him, and Harry straightened up, grinning widely at his best friend.
The Burrow's kitchen was small, crowded and chaotic, yet one of the most friendly and welcoming places Harry had ever known in his life. It was hard to imagine anywhere that could provide a greater contrast with 4, Privet Drive. The scrubbed deal table where Ron was sitting dominated the room, and other surfaces, like the old Welsh dresser were almost buried under mountains of parchment, hundreds of framed wizard photographs of all seven of the Weasley children and assorted cookery books with titles such as 'Magic and Mushrooms. One hundred favourite recipes.'
"Harry, dear!" Mrs Weasley exclaimed a little breathlessly, as she hugged him tightly. "Lovely to see you."
"You too," he smiled at her, blushing a little from her affectionate attention, but it was true, it felt incredibly good to be back here. She stood back and regarded him seriously.
"They've not been feeding you properly," she commented, frowning slightly. She waved her wand, and slices of bread instantly shot out of a wooden container onto the kitchen work surface, where they began to dance with fragments of ham and salad. Harry ducked quickly to avoid a plate that was whisked across the kitchen, it collected the sandwiches, and gently wafted down onto the table right in front of him.
"Now eat!" she instructed, smiling fondly at him. "Ginny's down by the river. You can go and see her when you're done here."
"Thanks," Harry grinned, and settled down at the table, feeling completely ravenous. She nodded in satisfaction, and then bustled out of the room with a basketful of clean laundry. "How's your summer been?" he asked Ron, through a mouthful of sandwich. "Heard from Hermione lately?"
"Yeah," Ron said shortly. Harry looked quizzically up at him, and Ron shrugged. "Don't ask," he said flatly. "She's arriving later today anyway."
"Ah! OK," said Harry, wondering what on earth was going on between them now. He was momentarily distracted by something in the photograph of a younger Fred and George exploding, and engulfing the two perpetrators in billowing clouds of lilac smoke. They emerged coughing, with identical expressions of sheer delight. Harry chuckled to himself.
"How's the joke shop doing?" he asked, steering the conversation well away from Hermione.
"It's great," Ron said enthusiastically. "If Mum and Dad'll let us, maybe we could go through to Diagon Alley one day this week, and you can see. They've come up with some brilliant new stuff, you know, sweets that completely dissolve your tongue for five minutes, that sort of stuff."
"Sounds like they're having fun then," Harry said
"Too true," Ron laughed. "I warn you now though, don't use any soap you find in the bathroom. They've not got it quite right yet, and it took Percy a week to get the purple stain off his hands. You can just imagine how well that went down. We got a whole seven days of how it was compromising his position in the ministry of Magic."
Harry laughed at this very creditable impersonation of Percy's fussiest voice and took a final bite of sandwich. A picture of Ginny could be seen over Ron's shoulder winking cheekily at him, her face alight with laughter. His insides quivered.
"And Ginny?" he asked seriously.
"Worried about you," Ron chuckled. "Honestly, the pair of you are as bad as each other. It's a wonder Hedwig didn't collapse this summer with all those letters. Go on then, go and see her."
Harry got to his feet, blushing slightly but with an irrepressible grin on his face, the excitement fluttering in his stomach like an assortment of exuberant Cornish pixies.
"See you later then," he said, and set off into the bright sunlight, running across the rambling and overgrown garden towards the river.