Ron knew that something was definitely not right as soon as he stepped into the kitchen for breakfast Saturday morning. It was empty and there was no food on the table.
"Mum, Dad? Hellooooo? Ginny?"
He quickly grabbed a dirty pot from the sink and approached the table cautiously, eyeing it as if it were going to suddenly stick a leg out and trip him. To his great annoyance, Fred and George had been testing some of their prototype spells and products on him and Ginny all summer and Ron had learned the hard way that one could never be too cautious, especially after a visit from his brothers.
Maybe this is another one of those Invisible Bubble Charms, and breakfast is sitting under there, thought Ron as he darted forward and furiously swung the pot over the table a couple of times before retreating a few steps back.
The table continued to stand in the middle of the kitchen…innocently.
Ron straightened up and frowned…or another Biting Conceal-ALL-Tablecloth? He still had the marks from last time. Fred and George could be real pains in the arse.
Suddenly his stomached grumbled like a wild beast and prompted him into action. HA! Not going to fall for that one again! And with that thought, Ron quickly snatched a dirty frying pan from the sink and, in one motion, flung both the pan and pot onto the table. They landed with a great clatter as bits of dried egg and congealed porridge flew through the air.
"RON! What are you doing?" Ginny stood at the top of the stairs with a bewildered look on her face.
"I errr…am getting something to eat…I'm hungry," mumbled Ron, who suddenly realized how ridiculous he must look desperately hurling dirty dishes around the kitchen.
Ginny scrunched-up her face, as she did whenever she was considering an especially confounding problem. Then she laughed loudly while Ron angrily picked egg off his shirt, his face burning.
Well, she wasn't laughing last week when Fred had put an Incessant Itching Jinx on her favorite poster of Ashlen Acklefelt and she couldn't stop rubbing her lips together for an entire morning, thought Ron with some satisfaction. Acklefelt was the newest teen-witch heart-throb who had his own talk show on the Wireless and, in Ron's opinion, what he talked about was absolute rubbish – the newest celebrity wizards and witches, gossip, robe and wand fashions, fairy accessories, and other useless girl stuff.
Finally Ginny composed herself and said, with her lips twitching, "Fred and George told me that they only left a little something last night in the upstairs toilet."
Ron groaned. Not another toilet jinx! Last time they visited from Diagon Alley, it had taken an entire afternoon for Mum to reverse whatever the spell was that produced such a foul odor that it burned one's nasal hairs to a crisp within seconds.
Ginny jumped down the stairs two at a time and brushed past him. "Mum and Dad were called away for an Order meeting first thing this morning. We'll have to take care of ourselves today," she said a matter-of-factly.
"Oh, bloody considerate of them not to tell me." He threw himself into a chair at the table as Ginny shook her head in exasperation. "What about breakfast?" he muttered to himself, laying his head face-down on the table.
Ginny shot him a look and began rummaging through a large cupboard, "I don't think that it was a scheduled meeting," her voice was muffled.
"Hrumph." Ron was in no mood to hear more about You-Know-Who or the Order before he ate something. He had had enough of that half-dead chunk of goblin dung interfering with his life, let alone his breakfast – his favorite meal of the day besides lunch and dinner.
Ginny emerged from the cupboard with a half a dozen eggs in hand and her wand in the other. "It was an emergency meeting, Ron." Her face was very serious. "I think something's happened – finally."
Dumbledore stared into the green flames that danced in the large kitchen fireplace of Grimmauld Place, his hands clasped behind his back. They would all would be arriving shortly, or at least as many as could be spared. Many of the members of the Order were on assignment and alerting them of this new situation would not be prudent.
There are too few this time.
The second war was upon them and the Order, although strong in spirit and bursting with determination, was composed of those who had seen too many battles and those who had seen too few, and he knew that Voldemort's defeat could not be achieved solely by the efforts of these few. Dumbledore had never once mentioned his misgivings to another soul – least they give up hope.
But there is hope.
Dumbledore closed his eyes and inhaled slowly. Hope was in the form of a sixteen year old dark-haired young man. They had only to keep him and those that he loved safe until he was properly trained and until he was ready to accept the responsibility – if he ever chose to accept the responsibility.
Dumbledore massaged his temples with his long fingers and sat down at the long wooden table as he centered his thoughts. There were much more pressing issues to discuss today. Harry's disappearance sometime after ten o'clock last night and eight o'clock this morning was extremely worrisome. Petunia Dursley was fully aware of the conditions of their contract and the seriousness of her responsibility. But even so, the Dursleys had left without warning and taken Harry with them.
The door opened, and Minerva McGonagall and Arthur and Molly Weasley entered the kitchen and sat down solemnly at the long table. They had just finished their greetings when Alastor Moody thumped into the room and gruffly thrust himself into a chair next to Remus Lupin who had arrived shortly before.
Dumbledore surveyed his compatriots with pride and was about to rise to his feet when the newest members of the Order, Cassandra Casely and William Leinheardt, stepped into the kitchen.
Both were long-time Ministry employees and great assets for the Order. Arthur had managed to persuade William, a Junior Minister in The Department of Magical Transportation, to join their cause. Having a trusted contact who could easily give them access to Portkey set-up and the Floo Network was a much needed advantage. Especially now that Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic, was adamantly refusing any of the assistance he had volunteered, and had heightened security around the Ministry substantially. Dumbledore feared that it was just a matter of time until his tenuous relationship with Cornelius unraveled completely.
On the other hand, Cassandra's appointment to the Order was of an entirely different nature – she had to be brought into their circle out of necessity. Cassandra was an upper level administrator in The Department of Magical Law Enforcement – Auror Headquarters – and though a series of inadvertent blunders by Order Aurors, discovered the farce that was 'The Search for Sirius Black' headed by Kingsley Shacklebolt. They had no choice but to divulge their operation, or risk her reporting suspicious activity out of duty to the Ministry and lose four of their key Auror operatives in the process. Kingsley had vouched for her, and her much-decorated record against Dark Magic had convinced the other members of her fidelity. "So, Dumbledore, why are we here exactly?" asked Cassandra, turning to survey him with polite interest.
"So has he finally decided to crawl out of his filthy rat hole and show himself? That scum," sneered Alastor.
"No, Alastor, Voldemort continues to keep his whereabouts well hidden. We are here to discuss another pressing issue." Dumbledore pressed his fingertips together and slowly surveyed the group gathered around him before speaking. He knew that there was no easy way to broach the subject. "Harry is missing."
There was a stunned silence as the seriousness of the situation descended slowly upon the occupants of the room like a dark veil.
Then William Leinheardt spoke, "What nonsense is this?! How could Potter be missing – he's the most well protected boy in the wizarding world! It's absolutely impossible!" His short moustache twitched and he stared disbelievingly back at Dumbledore, as if he could simply will his statement to be true.
"It seems that his aunt and uncle removed Harry late last night without our detection," said Dumbledore.
"How could that be? He's under constant surveillance!" Minerva's eyes looked as if they were about to burst out of her head. "Who was on duty last night?" she asked sharply, her lips were pressed into a thin line.
Arthur glanced at Molly who was sitting beside him and then said gravely, "Fletcher."
"Mundungus has been detained, and is well aware of the consequences of his lack of vigilance," said Dumbledore.
"So what? He fell asleep again! What's that man been doing all summer but sleeping!" seethed William.
Remus slammed his fist on the table and Alastor swore loudly.
Dumbledore surveyed Molly who sat at the opposite end of the table. He knew that she thought of Harry as her own son and would not take this turn of events well.
Predictably, she stood up shaking from head to toe, her eyes blazing with fury. "He was entrusted to watch after Harry, after last summer's Dementor incident?! How could this happen…how could you let those Muggles take Harry? He's only a child –" She glared furiously at Dumbledore, unable to finish. Her eyes demanded an answer.
"Molly, you are right to be upset." Dumbledore concentrated on channeling his energy. "The wards were strengthened considerably after last summer, and the Dursleys understood that they were not to remove Harry from their home without proper Order protection. The watch on Harry this summer was intended to be a formality. Mundungus was the only member available. We are spread thin and, as you know, there are other pressing matters that need to be addressed." His Transmission seemed to calm her slightly and he broke eye contact when she sank back into her chair and placed a shaking hand on her forehead.
William grimaced. "It's a seemingly simple task, watching at sixteen year old teenager sleep!"
Remus pulled both hands through his hair and exhaled loudly, as did Arthur.
"But how do we know that Harry is in any danger? Couldn't his family have just taken him for a short trip away?" a asked Cassandra calmly, her blue eyes searching the faces of her comrades.
"Believe you me, those Muggles that Harry lives with aren't fit to breathe. The last thing they would do would be to take Harry away for the weekend," said Molly, barely containing her anger.
Arthur reached over and placed his hand on hers and she gripped his hand tightly. Dumbledore noticed Minerva tensing as she did whenever Harry's aunt and uncle were mentioned, and noted that Remus was unusually quiet. This was going as badly as he had feared.
Suddenly the kitchen door opened and Kingsley Shacklebolt walked swiftly into the room and straight towards Dumbledore. He was breathing heavily and wearing jeans with a tattered green blazer, and a red baseball cap was pulled down over his face.
"Why are you dressed as a Muggle, Shacklebolt?" William looked as if he was going faint from surprise, his head swiveling as Kingsley walked the length of the room.
"This was found at the Dursley's home." Kingsley pulled a small tattered piece of parchment from the inner pocket of his blazer and silently handed it to Dumbledore. It was badly burned and looked to have been shredded and then reassembled magically, for there were large jagged chunks missing. "It was written on Self-Inflaming Parchment, but fortunately it looks as if it was…deactivated." A few drops of water slipped from the edge of the parchment and splattered onto the table.
"Hrumph, there's those Muggles for you –" hissed Alastor out of the side of his mouth "– incompetent as they come."
"Fortunately for us, those Muggles left us something that might prove to be very useful," commented Remus coolly.
Dumbledore scanned the parchment and then slowly raised his head and spoke slowly and deliberately, "We have evidence that the Dursleys have been communicating with others in the wizarding world." He placed the scrap of mangled parchment on the table and seven heads leaned into read its contents:
669 Quanedung……London 11 pm Bring him………all or noth……..……M. Dursley………alive……activeva.......charms
"Voldemort!" seethed Alastor, his magical eye rolling madly in his head.
"Perhaps, Alastor," said Dumbledore thoughtfully, "However, there is no evidence to suggest that Voldemort was behind this."
Angry voices immediately filled the room.
Dumbledore held up a hand, "Yet."
William leaned forward, his palms resting on the table and his eyes overly bright, "Dumbledore, if you are suggesting that someone besides Voldemort has ill intentions towards Potter then you are mad! " He slapped his palms on the table for emphasis. "Why, the entire wizarding world has pinned their hopes on him!"
Minerva turned toward Dumbledore, her face very grim, "Indeed, it seems very unlikely that any wizard would want to hurt Potter besides Voldemort. It would be simply nonsensical!"
"All I am saying is that we must not jump to conclusions." Dumbledore fixed his eyes on each person assembled around the table. "If Harry is in danger, then we cannot afford to be hasty. I don't have any evidence that suggests anyone other than Voldemort would want to harm Harry. However, in such times, we must assume that we are not without other enemies."
The atmosphere in the room remained extremely tense. Only the crackling of the fire could be heard as the witches and wizards became lost in their own thoughts.
Finally Arthur spoke, "What do our sources say about Death Eater activity?" He looked like one who was desperately trying to tackle an insurmountable problem by breaking into doable components.
Kingsley, who had taken a seat next to Cassandra, spoke, "The only information I can divulge is that Voldemort and the remaining Death Eaters have been unusually quiet for the past several months." He glanced at Cassandra who nodded and he continued, "However, the Ministry has dispatched a number of Special Mission Aurors to try to track them. There's nothing that suggests they have been planning any attacks, but again, Voldemort specializes in deception and covert operations. However, we are currently following up the lead that Bill found." He looked pointedly at Arthur and Molly.
"It does seem rather civilized for Voldemort, doesn't it?" mused Remus. "Persuading the Dursleys to deliver Harry to them…" he trailed off and stared into the fire, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
Arthur nodded. "I agree with Remus. I wouldn't expect that he would resort to dealing with Muggles. But, perhaps, we've underestimated him. "
"Could be the work of the Imperius Curse!" barked Moody suddenly, who seemed to be especially agitated at this thought.
"We've taken precautions to prevent Voldemort from operating through the Dursleys by such means," said Dumbledore quietly.
Cassandra turned to look at Arthur and Molly. "But considering that the majority of his Death Eaters are incapacitated and still being held by the Ministry, he obviously can't take Harry by force. So why wouldn't he resort to more stealthy tactics?"
Minerva made a small noise, seeming to agree with this line of reasoning.
"Enough of this!" Remus stood up abruptly, knocking his chair backwards onto the floor with a clunk. "We have an address, and Harry is missing! Who's with me?"
Dumbledore sat back in his chair; he knew that this was inevitable.
Arthur's chair scraped against the stone floor as he rose. "Remus," he said simply, his eyes conveying the rest of his thoughts. Alastor grunted and pushed away from the table. Remus looked at Arthur and Alastor, nodded slowly and bent down to collect his traveling cloak.
William cleared his throat loudly, "Excuse me, and I hate to be the one to ask, but before we rush out ready for battle here, how can we be sure that Potter is still alive?"
A stony silence descended upon the room. It seemed as if everyone momentarily froze. Cassandra's eyes darted from William to Remus to Dumbledore.
"Of course Potter's alive, don't be ridiculous, Leinhardt!" snapped Minerva, her words ringing loudly through the room.
Dumbledore spoke sharply, "Arthur, contact Jamison in the Improper Use of Magic Office immediately. Tell him to forward any underage accidental magic or defensive spells reports from the last twenty-four hours directly to me, particularly any reports involving the use of the Patronus Charm."
"So, you do think Voldemort and the Dementors are behind this," said Cassandra knowingly. "This is merely a precaution. If Harry were in any danger, he knows how to defend himself, and that his magic would lead the Ministry and us straight to him. We should only hope that we are so lucky not to be alerted to his whereabouts through this means, as it would confirm that he has been put in harms way," Dumbledore said calmly.
Molly abruptly sat up in her chair, relief flooding her face. "The wards!" She turned to Arthur, her eyes shining with unshed tears, and whispered, "As long as Harry is with his aunt and cousin, he's safe."
"Yes, thanks to Professor Flitwick and Professor Snape, the wards that protect Harry were extended beyond the bounds of his aunt and uncle's neighborhood. As long as his aunt or cousin remain alive and with Harry, no spell can harm him or his family." Dumbledore concentrated on shutting down his face. He didn't want the others to see his worry as he thought of other non-magical alternatives that Harry could fall victim to in the wrong hands.
A/N: Thank you to Allikiwi, who has gently prodded me into getting myself more organized with posting. Whoohoo! Next chapter on its way!