Chapter One

The Fallen

Severus Snape paced back and forth across the dilapidated living room of a run-down hovel on Spinner's End, brooding over the events of the last few weeks, and on his sudden change of fortune.

A scant ten months ago he had returned to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, finally victorious in his quest to gain the position of Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts. For eighteen years he had tried to persuade Albus Dumbledore, the former Headmaster of the school, to give him that job, and for eighteen years Dumbledore had refused him. However, after the fiasco with Dolores Umbridge, from the Ministry of Magic, he had finally been given his heart's desire.

It had been a remarkable, if sometimes frustrating year, Snape remembered, his black eyes straying momentarily to a trinket on the table next to him, a small statue of a black dog. The year had passed with few problems despite some of the … requests … Dumbledore had made of him. He had kept good order in his classes, even with the Potter boy and his insufferable friends, that Miss Know-it-All Granger and the cloying Weasley boy, constantly stirring up trouble. Even, he also remembered, despite the mission Draco Malfoy had been given by the Dark Lord, to kill Albus Dumbledore. A mission, Snape knew, that had served more to strike terror in the hearts of Malfoy's parents than it did of actually succeeding — Snape knew Dumbledore would never have given Draco the least opportunity to succeed; nor would he have harmed Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy's only child. They, however, would never believe that.

And, as it happened, Snape reflected, staring out the window at the grimy, deserted street that ran in front of the house he was in, Malfoy's mission had afforded him the opportunity to further solidify his reputation with the Dark Lord. He had managed to stay in his good graces despite Bellatrix Lestrange's attempts to discredit him by agreeing to perform the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy, an agreement which had silenced, for some time now, her doubts about his loyalty.

Then, just a week ago, as the school year drew to a close, his careful planning, his intricately woven goals, everything he'd worked for over the previous decades had come to an abrupt end: the Malfoy boy finally found a way to smuggle Death Eaters into Hogwarts, mounting a surprise attack that was designed (albeit poorly, in Snape's opinion) to force Dumbledore to react without adequate preparation and thus allow Draco to gain the upper hand, and kill him. But Draco had failed, miserably, to follow through on his advantage, and Snape was required, through the Unbreakable Vow he had made with his mother, to kill Dumbledore himself and escape from Hogwarts with Malfoy and several other Death Eaters in tow. Then, after dropping the Malfoy boy off with his mother at Malfoy Mansion, he had cautiously and, he hoped, imperceptibly, made his way — here.

Snape looked about the room distastefully.This hovel he now prowled about in was hardly habitable: unlighted, without running water, and smelling of dust and decay, it had been years since anyone had occupied it. From the signs he had seen, it was infested with mice, ants, cockroaches and probably other similarly disgusting vermin. Snape, however, had no intention of making himself more comfortable. In fact, working any magic at all now would be ill-advised, he knew. The Ministry of Magic would be hoping for him to make such a mistake.

He glanced again at the dog statue, then looked around the living room, frowning. This house was not even his, but an abandoned Muggle residence a few doors away. After his escape from the school, the Dark Lord had ordered him to return to his home and await further orders. However, the Ministry of Magic, knowing where he lived, had sent Aurors to find him and had taken to monitoring both the house and the general area of Spinner's End for his presence and for magical activity. Perhaps Voldemort was testing him, or perhaps he simply did not care that the Ministry would want to clap Snape into Azkaban for the murder of Albus Dumbledore. Either way, he had not long ago received word that a visitor would shortly arrive to bring him into the Dark Lord's presence. That visitor would be Peter Pettigrew, also known as Wormtail.

Snape's lip curled in disgust. Wormtail, the least intelligent and resourceful member of the Marauders, a juvenile gang started by James Potter, Sirius Black and the werewolf Remus Lupin, had been thought dead for many years now, the supposed victim of a wizard's duel between him and Black on a croweded street that had killed twelve Muggles and left behind only his right index finger. As it had turned out, however, Pettigrew had faked his death to avoid being killed by Black, who knew that he had betrayed James and Lily to Voldemort, framing Black for his death in the process.

Then, disguised in his Animagus rat-form, Pettigrew somehow became a pet in the Weasley household, until Lupin and Black discovered he was still alive, the year after Black escaped from Azkaban. Wormtail managed to bring himself back in favor by finding and helping the Dark Lord return, fully restored, from the bare existence he endured after his Killing Curse had rebounded onto him from the Potter boy.

A sudden red light at the corner of his vision brought Snape's attention back to the present. The dog statue had begun to glow, and he sprang to the window, peering through tattered curtains toward his own house at the end of the street. Outside the door was a small, round man, glancing nervously around as he knocked softly at the door. If the fool's Apparated in, Snape thought, we'll have to move quickly – time will be of the essence.

Crack.

Wormtail jerked, startled, as Snape appeared beside him. Then he recognized Snape's greasy hair and sallow appearance. "Oh, it's you," Wormtail exhaled gustily, relieved. "I'm here to collect you —"

"I know what you're here for, idiot," Snape said coldly, waving his wand at the door. It flew open; Snape grasped Wormtail's shoulder and pushed him roughly inside. Stepping quickly inside behind him, Snape closed the door and tapped it with his wand; it locked and sealed itself with a loud squelching sound. Snape rounded on the smaller man, who stepped back warily. "How are we traveling to the Dark Lord? Quickly, you dolt!"

Wormtail's right hand, which appeared to be covered in a gleaming silver glove, but which Snape knew was really a replacement hand given to him by the Dark Lord, went into his robe and reappeared a moment later holding a small porcelain cup, which he held out to Snape. "A Portkey," he added, unnecessarily. "It will take us to the Dark Lord's sanctuary."

"Were you followed?" Snape asked curtly.

"Followed?" Wormtail echoed. "Who would follow me here?"

"Aurors, dolt!" Snape snapped. "From the Ministry!" His eyes sought out a small ebony raven, placed on a table that was clearly visible from where Snape normally sat while reading. The statue was not glowing, however, and Snape repressed a sigh of relief. He turned to Wormtail and said ominously, "If I lose everything I own because they've traced you here –"

Wormtail's reply, surprisingly, was almost sneering. "You may have brought that upon yourself by killing Dumbledore, Snape. Is any sacrifice in the service of the Dark Lord too great?"

Snape ignored the question and instead said curtly. "We should leave immediately, then. I dislike the thought of keeping the Dark Lord waiting, and the Aurors will likely be here any moment."

With a mocking smile he did not manage to hide very well, Wormtail held out the Portkey and he and Snape each took hold of it. Wormtail counted to three and they each felt the familiar sensation of a hook behind their navel as Snape's house and Spinner's End dissolved into a blur of color and sound. On the table in the living room, the ebony raven statue began to glow.

Moments later they landed: Wormtail off-balance and staggering, Snape easily, almost casually. Looking around, Snape saw the room they had arrived in was the foyer of a Muggle flat; he knew this since there were small rectangles on the wall which were used for the delivery of electricity, something no Wizarding home would need. The room itself was dimly lit, with only a few flickering candles set on the walls for illumination. The walls themselves had been coated in a dark substance that resembled stone; it felt more like they were in a dungeon than a house.

"Wormtail," a high, cold voice said. "Show our guest in. We have much to discuss with him." Wormtail stepped out of the doorway and bowed Snape into the next room, a larger sitting area that looked much the same as the foyer but with more furniture and lighting. Candles hung from the ceiling and there were numerous stands, all lighted; all the curtains were tightly drawn, so that barely any sunlight penetrated around their edges. The Dark Lord, draped in his familiar black robe and his face expressionless, waited for Snape in the middle of the room. Upon one of the sofas sat Bellatrix Lestrange, looking at him coolly with an unpleasant smirk on her once-lovely, now drawn and hard-edged, face.

"Master." Snape inclined his head as he entered the room, keeping a respectful distance until he was allowed closer.

"Well, you've made a right mess of things, haven't you, Snape?" Bellatrix sneered, as the Dark Lord regarded him silently. Snape made no reply, maintaining his deferential posture while waiting for the Dark Lord to speak.

"Do you have anything to say about that, Severus?" Voldemort finally asked, quietly.

Ignoring Bellatrix's taunt, Snape straightened and said smoothly, "Yes, Master, I have been thinking much about the last few days at Hogwarts. The situation, while not ideal, can be recovered."

Bellatrix snorted, but Voldemort held up a hand and she fell silent immediately. "Indeed, I hope so, for your sake, Severus. It would be most deplorable if my plans are delayed even longer by mistakes made by you and the Malfoy boy."

Snape inclined his head further. "I beg your forgiveness, Master. It has always been my intention to make your return to power as quick as possible. That is why I made the Unbreakable Vow with Malfoy's mother."

"Ah, you anticipated my first question, I see." Voldemort turned and paced a short distance, then turned back at him, his red eyes narrow and penetrating. "Will you be as successful at guessing my next question?"

"It should be obvious, my Lord," Bellatrix added, picking up a goblet from the table in front of her and sipping at the elf-wine in it. "Especially to a Hogwarts professor."

Snape, sparing her a disdainful glance, turned to the Dark Lord. "If you refer, Master, to how I intend to explain why I murdered Albus Dumbledore," he said smoothly, pulling a sealed letter from inside his robe. "This is a letter, with his signature, to the Wizengamot, explaining his decision to risk his own safety in allowing me to make an Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy, whom he anticipated would come to me once she learned of your orders for Malfoy to kill him." Snape returned the letter to the pocket within his robe. "I did not, however, expect to have need of it."

"And why would that be?" Bellatrix asked.

"Only the Malfoy boy, Thorfinn Rowle, the Carrows, the werewolf Greyback and myself were present on the Astronomy tower roof with the headmaster. According to Malfoy, when he arrived on the roof, Dumbledore was hesitant, as if confused. Malfoy was able to disarm him but had not killed him by the time I arrived, after being informed of the presence of Death Eaters in Hogwarts by Professor Flitwick. I stunned Flitwick so he would be of no further use to the defenders and proceeded to the Astronomy tower. After eliminating Dumbledore we began our retreat out of the castle. Members of the Order of the Phoenix had arrived and the deed was done. I did not expect that anyone would know which of us killed him," Snape finished.

"How did they find out it was you, Severus?" Voldemort inquired.

"I believe they were told it was me by Harry Potter." Behind Snape, Wormtail started, and Bellatrix chuckled under her breath.

"Harry Potter?" Voldemort echoed, his lipless mouth forming a thin, grim smile. "How would he have come to know this, Severus, since you've told us you were alone on the tower roof with Dumbledore, Malfoy, my Death Eaters and the werewolf?"

"The Daily Prophet reported that there were two brooms found on the tower that night, yet Dumbledore was alone when Malfoy confronted him. I believe Potter arrived on broom as we were leaving the tower, froze Thorfinn Rowle, and came after us. It's possible he witnessed Dumbledore's death but I believe he simply decided it was me, due to his need to blame me rather than himself and his father for all of his flaws."

"Rubbish," Bellatrix said flatly. Snape looked at her coldly but Voldemort merely smiled.

"Come, Bellatrix! You don't believe Severus is telling us the truth?" Voldemort pointed his wand at Snape, who made no motion other than to gaze at it mildly. "He knows very well the price of lying to me, do you not, Severus?"

"Yes, Master." Snape inclined his head yet again.

"He knows the price," Bellatrix agreed. "But would that keep him from making the attempt?"

"If you know of any such attempts, Bellatrix," Snape countered, "Then by all means bring forth your arguments. Otherwise, you are merely being envious of my duties to the Dark Lord. I assure you, you have no reason to be."

Bellatrix laughed mockingly but said nothing else.

"And now, my dear Bella, Severus and I have some matters to discuss in private, so if you would gather up Wormtail, I will join you later in the parlor." Voldemort gestured toward the door.

Bella's countenance fell. "My Lord, surely you do not need to keep secrets from me, your most faithful servant?"

"We all have our duties, Bellatrix," Snape sneered. "You should be thankful you do not have mine – I suspect that long periods of close proximity to school age children, rather than enjoying the company of our Dark Lord, would not sit well with you."

Bellatrix opened her mouth to retort but Voldemort cut her off. "Do not make me ask again, Bellatrix. Go."

Bellatrix slowly rose and walked to the door, glaring resentfully at Snape as she passed him, then turned and walked down the long hallway which was the other exit from the foyer, a "Come, Wormtail," tossed over her shoulder as she disappeared. Wormtail, glancing after her nervously, bowed obsequiously to Voldemort and followed after her.

"Now, to business." Voldemort gestured at the door with his wand, which immediately flew shut. Another wave and the walls themselves glowed momentarily with yellowish light. Returning his wand to his robe, Voldemort seated himself in a comfortable high-backed chair and gestured for Snape to do the same. "Now, Severus, you may be completely candid with me. I am unconvinced that the letter you hold will sway either the Ministry of Magic, or the Wizengamot, in your favor. Your actions have clearly marked you as a murderer in their eyes." As Snape was about to speak, Voldemort held up a hand for him to remain silent. "Yes, I know that only a few years ago, shortly after I returned, the Ministry itself was vilifying Dumbledore. If Harry Potter had not escaped me, there would have been no evidence that I was back, beyond his disappearance, and my plans would not have been delayed searching for the key to his destruction, which has in turn set us back even farther after many of my Death Eaters were captured and placed in Azkaban.

"But now," Voldemort continued, "That fool Dumbledore has at last been destroyed, leaving me free to pursue my plans." He leaned back and regarded Snape intently. Snape, keeping his head lowered deferentially, nevertheless could not help looking into the Dark Lord's red eyes, now nearly glowing with determination. "There is a rumor, Severus that Hogwarts will not reopen in the fall. Do you think that rumor true?"

Snape was silent for some time, considering. Finally he said slowly, "McGonagall will want to open the school again, if possible and if the safety of the students can be reasonably guaranteed. Most of the other teachers will agree or follow her lead. But the actual decision will be made by the governors of the school; McGonagall does not have the strength of will that Albus Dumbledore had."

"You almost sound as if you admired him, Severus," Voldemort said, not quite making it a sneer.

"It is not admiration to acknowledge the abilities of one's opponents," Snape replied with a small shrug. "Any more than it is weakness to be cautious when dealing those of greater abilities than one's own."

Voldemort gave a mirthless laugh. "Are you speaking of me or him, Severus?"

"Of both of you," Snape replied.

This time Voldemort's laugh was genuine. "Well said, indeed!" He stood suddenly and paced the room for a few moments before turning again to Snape. "Do you believe it will be better for the school to remain open, or to close?"

"Hogwarts has not closed, to anyone's knowledge, since it was founded nearly a thousand years ago," Snape said, almost as if giving a lesson on the subject. "Its prestige lies in that fact, and is a measure of its dedication to education. If the school were to close, even for a short time, I believe much of its reputation throughout Britain, Europe, and the world would be undermined."

"Then we must give the governors a good reason to keep the school open," Voldemort decided. "If it does, what do you reckon will be the odds you will be accepted again there as a teacher?"

"I am confident that I can convince McGonagall and the directors of my innocence and the reasons for my actions, Master," Snape said smoothly.

Voldemort nodded, but a moment later Snape was writhing on the floor under the Cruciatus Curse. The Dark Lord had drawn his wand so quickly that there had been no time to steel himself against the blinding, white-hot pain that engulfed him. After what seemed like hours, but was only a few moments, Voldemort lowered his wand and Snape lay gasping for breath. "You may spar with Bellatrix and Wormtail, Snape, but not with me. I ask once more, and will not ask again, what are the odds you will be accepted again at Hogwarts as a teacher?"

Snape's labored breathing slowed; he pulled himself painfully to his feet. "I-I apologize, Master, for not answering before. I believe my odds are about even that I will be reinstated as a teacher once Dumbledore's letter is received by the Wizengamot."

"Will McGonagall accept you if you are cleared by the Wizengamot?" Voldemort asked.

Snape's expression still bore the pain of the Cruciatus Curse. "She is an independent thinker, to a degree, but she has always followed Dumbledore's lead. If I appeal to her thinking on that basis, I believe she will put aside her feelings about my role in his death."

Voldemort regarded Snape silently for a minute. Snape, just as silently, waited for his decision. "Very well," the Dark Lord finally said. "You may make your appeal to the Wizengamot."

"My lord, you spoke of a reason for the governors of Hogwarts to keep the school open…?" Snape ventured to ask.

"I will have Wormtail contact you about putting that plan into operation," Voldemort said dismissively. "For now, concentrate on convincing the Wizengamot, and the governors, that you were but a pawn in the duel between Dumbledore and myself. You may go." With a wave of his wand Voldemort unlocked the door and turned away.

Bowing shakily, Snape backed to the door, then opened and passed through, pulling it shut behind him.

--

Bored and impatient, Harry Potter paced his small, already cluttered bedroom at number four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, trying to decide what to do next. It had been only days since he had returned from school and he had spent that entire time thinking what he would do the moment he left the Dursleys' home forever.

The Dursleys, his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, along with their son Dudley, had never wanted him here in their home in the first place, Harry knew. They had taken him in only because Professor Albus Dumbledore had persuaded his aunt to keep him so the blood protection his mother, Petunia's sister Lily, had given him by her death at Voldemort's hands. As long as Harry returned to number four, Privet Drive, at least once per year, he was safe here from Voldemort.

In little more than a month, however, he would turn 17 and would be of age, considered an adult in the Wizarding world, and that protection would cease. After that, there would be no point in staying unless Harry wanted to bring Death Eaters, or Voldemort himself, down on the Dursleys. As tempting as that idea was, a retaliation of the 16 years of misery they had put him through, Harry knew he would rather clear out than risk harm coming, even to his aunt and uncle.

On his desk was the day's edition of the Daily Prophet, the Wizarding newspaper. Harry snatched up the paper and once again read the lead story:

Will Hogwarts Remain Open?

The fate of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry still remains undecided, Ministry officials declared late yesterday amid additional rumors about the whereabouts of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and his followers.

"We're having talks now with the school's board of governors," Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour revealed. "We believe the Ministry can provide the same level of protection that has been available to students during the previous administration at the school."

Minerva McGonagall, new Headmistress of the school, added, "The staff at Hogwarts also believes that it can provide more than adequate protection for students, and that parents have nothing to fear by sending their children to our school. Our previous Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, believed highly in having the utmost protection for those in his charge, and I share in that belief."

This statement comes on the heels of recent events at the school where it has been reported that a number of Death Eaters gained entry to the school and a number of injuries resulted, notably the death of Albus Dumbledore himself, apparently sustained in a fall from the school's Astronomy Tower. The circumstances involving his death have not been revealed, either by school officials or the Ministry of Magic.

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, born in 1881, had been Headmaster of Hogwarts for more than 40 years, succeeding Armando Dippet after the 1954-55 school year.

(continued, page 3, column 1)

Harry dropped the paper back on his desk, then sat down, bored with pacing. His mind kept wandering back to Dumbledore's death at the hands of Severus Snape, the one person in the whole world he loathed as much as Voldemort. It was incomprehensible to Harry that Dumbledore should have so completely trusted him, considering what Snape finally did. He was Voldemort's man, and he had fooled even Dumbledore.

He picked up a piece of parchment from his desk that had also arrived this morning, this one from his friend Hermione Granger, and read again,

Dear Harry,

I hope you are doing okay at your aunt and uncle's house. After I spent the weekend with my parents I convinced them that I had to go stay at the Burrow to help with Bill and Fleur's wedding this coming Saturday. They agreed and I arrived here today.

It's going to be quite an affair – Mr. and Mrs. Weasley have fixed up the garden very nicely for the ceremony and Fleur and Gabrielle are both here, preparing for the wedding. If you'll recall, Gabrielle, Ginny and I are going to be bridesmaids.

Ron has permission to fetch you for the ceremony, he and I will come round on Wednesday to collect you and bring you back to the Burrow. Ron is going to be one of Bill's groomsmen. I suspect Bill may want you to be one as well, but I can't speak for him, of course. Look for us to come round about 11 a.m. in the morning, if I can get Ron out of bed by then.

Mrs. Weasley also asked me to tell you that you're welcome to stay afterwards at the Burrow for as long as you want. In fact, she encourages you to remain at least until you turn seventeen, since, being an underage wizard, it might be difficult for you to obtain a place to live.

As for any of the other things we've discussed, Ron and I will talk to you about them when we see you again.

Looking forward to seeing you again,

Affectionately,

Hermione

Harry replaced this letter on his desk, smiling a bit at last. It meant that come tomorrow he would be saying his goodbyes to the Dursleys for the last time. No more would he have to put up with the ugly looks, the meager dinners, his uncle's temper, his aunt's obsession with cleanliness or his cousin's bullying. Even though something in the back of his head told him he should be a bit sad to go, as he was leaving family behind, another part reminded him that he had only known neglect and cruelty here.

The door to his room creaked open and his cousin Dudley's head popped in. "Mum says dinner's ready," he said dully, eyeing Harry with equal measures of caution and resentment. Dudley had turned 17 the day before, although with much less pomp and celebration than in previous years. He had received quite a few presents at dinner time yesterday evening – at least one for each year of age, from his doting mother and proudly beaming father. Or so Harry had heard, in a roundabout way, since he had not been asked to attend. Not that he minded, of course. The less contact he had with the Dursleys, Harry thought, the better.

His aunt had taken, inexplicably in Harry's opinion, to bringing him a plate in the evenings if he didn't come down for dinner; Harry had not yet been inclined to join the Dursleys at dinner. For some reason, that was not going to happen tonight, if Dudley had been sent to collect him for dinner. Harry suspected that Vernon wanted to find out what he'd been up to here in his room for the past few days. "I'll be down in a sec," Harry said tonelessly.

"Get a move on, then – I'm starving," Dudley snarled and disappeared, closing the door. Harry managed a smirk; he could believe with absolutely no difficulty that his cousin was hungry. Dudley was vast, nearly as wide as he was tall, and while he'd managed to worm his way out of the diet needed to keep him small enough to fit in the uniform of Smeltings, the school he attended, the Dursleys no longer continuously plied him with sweets and pastries. Consequently, Dudley was usually in a foul mood when he was hungry, and he was hungry most of the time. Worse, Harry thought, Dudley had taken up boxing some years ago and had become the Junior Inter-School Boxing Champion of the South East, which had done nothing to improve his humility but had tended to sharpen his appetite. Also, if anything, it had made him even more of a delinquent and a bully than he'd already been before, vandalizing the neighborhood with his gang and terrorizing younger children.

Harry sighed and trudged downstairs to the kitchen where his uncle Vernon, eyeing him as he might a stray dog that had wandered into his home, said brusquely, "Haven't you got anything better to do than mope about your room eating our food, boy?"

Harry shot his uncle a dirty look. Vernon Dursley, a large, beefy man, with very little neck and even less sympathy for Harry, had never been happy with having his nephew in his home. "And you can keep that look to yourself, thank you very much!" Vernon added, pointing his dinner knife at Harry, then gesturing at the fourth chair. "Hurry up, then, Dudders has been ready to eat for ten minutes."

Harry sat down opposite Dudley, looking resentfully back and forth between his aunt and uncle at either end of the table. His aunt Petunia wore an expression that was somewhere between annoyance and distaste as they began passing around food. As usual, Harry was last to be handed the food and had to scrape the bowls clean for his portion, while Dudley's plate was nearly overflowing.

The meal passed in silence, with only the telly going for Dudley to watch one of his programs as he ate. Harry kept his eyes on his plate, with the uncomfortable feeling that both his aunt and uncle were staring at him as he ate. Dudley, of course, had eyes only for the telly or his plate, switching back and forth in rapid succession as he shoveled food into his mouth and watched a cartoon show while chewing.

Finally, his portions gone, Harry pushed away from the table and began to get up and take his plate to the sink for cleaning and stacking in the dishwasher, but Vernon held out a hand to stop him.

"Wait a minute, boy. I want to know some things before you go."

Harry looked at his uncle, surprised. Usually Vernon Dursley couldn't wait for Harry to be out of his presence. "What?" Harry asked.

Vernon fixed him with a beady-eyed stare. "This is your last summer home from that – that school you attend, isn't it?"

"Yes," Harry said. He had no intention of mentioning that he wouldn't be going back there.

"And when you leave here next time, you won't be coming back?"

"Sorry to see me go?" Harry asked sardonically. "No, I won't be coming back after I leave."

Dudley stopped watching his program and began paying attention to the conversation between Harry and his father.

"So," Vernon continued. "Will you be going to live at that house your godfather left you last year?"

Harry shook his head. "No."

"Why not?" Vernon demanded.

"Because I'm letting someone else live there," Harry snapped back.

"What in ruddy hell for?" Vernon asked, sounding outraged. The idea of letting someone else use his property for free would never, ever enter Vernon Dursley's mind.

"My business," Harry said shortly. "Besides, I don't want to live there anyway." He didn't mention that living there would remind him every day of Sirius and that he could hardly bear the idea even now, much less actually trying to stay there, with his godfather dead.

"But you're going to be leaving soon?" Vernon pressed him.

"Yeah," Harry replied, weary of the questioning. "Tomorrow, in fact." All three Dursleys looked at him: Vernon had put on a leering smile, apparently heartened by the news of Harry's imminent departure; his aunt Petunia, on the other hand, was frowning at him, whether in disapproval or concern Harry could not tell. His cousin Dudley's expression, on the other hand, was completely blank – he just stared at Harry dully, his mouth absently chewing the last bits of his dinner. "My friends Hermione and Ron will come by tomorrow about eleven to help me move out."

"Tomorrow, eh?" Vernon repeated with a calculating look on his face, his fingers drumming the table unconsciously. "Where will you go, then?"

"To Ron's parents' house, they've invited me there for a while," Harry told him. Vernon snorted.

"Are you sure it's all right for you to leave?" Petunia spoke for the first time since Harry had come downstairs. Harry, Vernon and Dudley all looked at her in surprise. It was not a question Harry would ever have expected to hear from his aunt, who mostly only concerned herself with compulsively cleaning the house, spying on her neighbors and keeping Harry as much out of sight as possible.

"Of course it's alright for him to leave!" Vernon sputtered. "He's ruddy well old enough, isn't he? Don't they consider him an adult when he's 17? You are 17, aren't you, boy?"

"In a month," Harry muttered. His uncle could remember that he'd been given a house from a single conversation a year ago, but couldn't remember how old Harry was, even after living with him for 16 years.

"But Dumbledore," Petunia said hesitantly, fearing that mention of the name would upset Vernon. And it had – Harry's uncle had gone red in the face and the vein in his forehead was beginning to pulse. "Won't he want you here until you turn 17?"

"That old codger has got no say in how this house is run!" Vernon bellowed, "Coming in here, practically kidnapping us, trying to force us to drink God-knows-what kind of –" his next word seemed to come at great effort – "magical drink, especially after that ruddy candy that Dudders was tricked into eating a few years ago that nearly killed him. I won't have it in my house, Petunia, do you hear?"

As incorrect as his uncle's rant about Dumbledore had been, Harry only said quietly, "You won't see Professor Dumbledore again, anyway. He's dead."

Both his aunt and uncle turned quickly to look at Harry. "Dead?" Petunia gasped, covering her mouth.

"Dead?" Vernon echoed brusquely. Dudley looked back and forth between his mother and father, then nicked the last bit of dessert and popped it into his mouth. "How did he die?" Vernon demanded.

"It doesn't matter," Harry said wearily. "What matters is, I have to be gone before I turn 17, so nothing will come round looking for me."

"Like who?" Vernon asked. "Like your ruddy friends, that red-haired man or his infernal brats?"

"No," said Harry, turning to look at Dudley. "Like dementors."

Dudley gasped and spit out half-chewed dessert onto his plate. His father and mother turned to him and Petunia blurted out, "Duddykins, what's wrong? Are you all right?"

Dudley was staring at Harry, wide-eyed with horror, remembering his encounter with the dementors two summers ago. Petunia tried to get him to drink some water, but he pushed it away. "Y-you're leaving tomorrow, then?" he stuttered, looking directly at Harry.

"That's the plan, Duddykins," Harry said coolly.

"Don't get cheeky," Vernon ordered. "Right, then! It's settled – you're leaving tomorrow. Forever." His uncle pushed back from the table and stood. "Help your aunt with the dishes," he commanded, then walked into the living room. Dudley lurched to his feet and followed his father, leaving Harry and his aunt alone in the kitchen.

Harry helped Petunia clear the table in silence and began putting on an apron to start rinsing down the dishes when she waved him away. "I want to make sure the dishes are cleaned properly," she said dismissively, although Harry thought she was being rather less nasty than usual. He shrugged and returned to his room.

Laying on his bed a while later, Harry reread Hermione's letter. It would feel strange tomorrow, he knew, walking out of this house forever. And it would be forever, he knew; he could not imagine any of the Dursleys ever wanting to see him again, even though his aunt had reacted strangely to the idea of him leaving their home, and to the news of Dumbledore's death. It was puzzling.

Still, Harry knew, what Petunia or his uncle or cousin were thinking weren't important compared to what Harry would be dealing with before long. After Bill and Fleur's wedding, he would be trying to figure out where Voldemort had hidden his Horcruxes, the enchanted items that contained fragments of his soul, as well as where Voldemort himself was.

Somehow, without Dumbledore's help, Harry would have to find a way to defeat Voldemort. And kill him. The prophecy that Dumbledore had told him about at the end of his fifth year, the one uttered by Professor Trelawney 18 years ago, foretold that either he or Voldemort must kill the other, for "neither can live while the other survives."

The previous year, Harry and Dumbledore had explored various memories using Dumbledore's Pensieve, a magical device that could hold memories taken from people's minds, which Harry had first seen the year of the Triwizard Tournament in Dumbledore's office. The memories Harry and Dumbledore examined in Harry's sixth year concerned the childhood of Tom Marvolo Riddle, whom the Wizarding world knew today as Lord Voldemort. Harry saw Riddle's mother Merope, his grandfather Marvolo Gaunt and Gaunt's son Morfin, whom Riddle eventually framed for the murder of Tom Riddle, Sr. and his parents. He saw Dumbledore's first meeting with Riddle in the Muggle orphanage where Tom spent his first eleven years, and Tom's return to Hogwarts ten years after his graduation when he attempted to secure the Defense Against the Dark Arts position from Dumbledore, who refused him the job. He saw Riddle meet with Hepzibah Smith, saw her proudly show him the Hufflepuff Cup and Slytherin's locket, Hogwarts artifacts that Riddle would later steal and frame Smith's house-elf Hokey for the crime of her murder. Finally, Harry had procured, and seen, the memory of a meeting between Riddle and Horace Slughorn where Slughorn, the Hogwarts Potions professor at the time Riddle attended school, described a Horcrux to the future Dark Lord, who then went on to create, not one, but six Horcruxes, each one made by the murder of a wizard or Muggle.

Two of those Horcruxes were now destroyed: the diary of Tom Riddle, a diary that had possessed Ginny Weasley and forced her to release the basilisk that lived in the Chamber of Secrets far below Hogwarts castle, and Marvolo Gaunt's ring, which had somehow cost Dumbledore the use of his right hand; it had remained blackened and shriveled throughout Harry's sixth year.

Just before Dumbledore had died, he and Harry had traveled to a cave where Dumbledore believed one of Voldemort's Horcruxes was hidden. He and Harry, with great difficulty, had recovered a locket hidden at the center of an underground lake on small island in a bowl of gleaming green liquid that Dumbledore had drunk, at much cost, to reveal the locket, only to learn later that it was not a Horcrux but a fake, with a message from someone with the initials "R.A.B." who claimed responsibility for removing it. It was the liquid which seriously weakened Dumbledore and prevented him from stopping Draco Malfoy from disarming him on the Astronomy Tower after he and Harry had arrived, having seen the Dark Mark set above Hogwarts after returning from finding the fake Horcrux.

Harry, who had been wearing his Invisibility Cloak, had been inexplicably immobilized by Dumbledore as Malfoy burst through the door of the Astronomy Tower. He witnessed Malfoy's failure to kill Dumbledore even though ordered to do so by Voldemort, who threatened to kill his family if Draco failed, witnessed the arrival of other Death Eaters, including the werewolf Fenrir Greyback, who had mauled Bill Weasley earlier that night, and witnessed, finally, the arrival of Severus Snape who, in spite of pleas for help from Dumbledore, attacked and murdered him with the Killing Curse, the Avada Kedavra. His paralysis lifting as the Death Eaters left the tower, Harry pursued Snape but was unable to stop him or Malfoy from escaping.

And now, with his mentor dead, Harry faced the monumental task of seeing Voldemort dead and his Horcruxes destroyed. He had no idea who, beyond Ron and Hermione, could help him see the task through. Rufus Scrimgeour, the Minister of Magic, wanted nothing more than his fawning complicity in all Ministry matters. The Order of the Phoenix: Remus Lupin, Alastor Moody, Tonks, Professor McGonagall, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Bill and Charlie Weasley, and others, were engaged in a war to stop Voldemort, but their ranks had been reduced in the last year due to murders by Voldemort and his Death Eaters; they would be hard-pressed to lend him much support. Most of the members of Dumbledore's Army, the group formed in his fifth year to learn Defense Against the Dark Arts in spite of efforts by Dolores Umbridge to teach them nothing but "book theory," were in their last year at Hogwarts or had been taken out of school by fearful parents.

Well, you knew the job would be dangerous when you took it, a small voice in the back of his head said, and Harry managed a smile, knowing that he had taken the job and that he would see it through until the end, come what may. Harry closed his eyes, wondering how long it would take to complete and soon he was snoring softly.