The house-elf finished setting the table by laying a small handful of newspapers on the side-board, within easy reach of the headmaster and his guests. The elf, whose name was Ushas, was the oldest and most-respected of the elves who toiled in Hogwarts Castle, and thus it was this elf that had the high honor of serving the headmaster his breakfast. Ushas, who had clear memories of the current headmaster arriving at the school as an eleven year old boy, could easily have served breakfast instantly, through her magic, but she felt the personal touch was called for.
So, on the occasion of a private breakfast in the Headmaster's Quarters, the house-elf would set the table (using the fine china, of course), set out the tea, and arrange the napkins and the cups and glasses for whatever number of guests the headmaster needed to accommodate. The last step was the newspapers. The headmaster was mad for newspapers; the Daily Prophet, the Wizarding Gazette all the way from New York City... even Muggle papers like The Times of London and The Edinburgh Evening News.
To be honest, the headmaster appreciated the extra attention, even though he by no means demanded it.
This morning, Albus Dumbledore was entertaining two of his favorite instructors. He didn't often meet with his teachers in such an informal setting as a meal, but he found that every once in a while it was an absolute joy to have them as guests, where they could simply chat about whatever came to mind rather than dwelling on school business. His guests were Minerva McGonagall and Filius Flitwick. The three of them had been teaching at Hogwarts longer than any of the other instructors, and they truly enjoyed each other's company. As they chit-chatted about their mornings, Ushas placed an egg poached in its shell before each of the professors.
"Well, I hope this year will be much more peaceful than the last," Professor McGonagall sniffed. "Especially now that we don't have You-Know-Who on the teaching staff."
"Yes, that did come as a bit of a shock. Could you pass the pepper please?" Flitwick smiled his thanks as Dumbledore handed the shaker over. "Now, Albus... do tell... who did you con into the Defense post this year?"
Dumbledore grinned. "Actually, Filius, I had a volunteer. Gilderoy Lockhart wrote me several weeks ago and offered to fill the post." He took a careful look around the table; he'd misplaced his spoon. "Ah, here."
"Lockhart? Hah! I've met him; Albus... the man is a consummate fraud. If he's actually accomplished one tenth of the things he says he has, I'll eat my hat." McGonagall tapped her spoon against the egg, cracking the shell in a perfect circle.
"Yes, well... remember the old saying, Minerva, regarding beggars being too picky." Dumbledore's eyes twinkled for a moment. He turned his attention to his own breakfast, but when the edge of his spoon contacted the egg, rather than the gentle crack of the shell, the sound of breaking glass echoed through the room.
Dumbledore's brow furrowed, and for a moment he carefully examined his egg. Then he noticed a pale white light pulsating above a particularly strange looking device on one of the side shelves. "Great Merlin... the wards are down!" Dumbledore shot to his feet and immediately strode to his fireplace. "Minerva... Please round up whichever teachers you can find and have them meet me at the Dursley's. You remember the address I am sure. Filius... come with me, please! We've no time to lose! The wards protecting Harry Potter have just been shattered! Not merely broken, but shattered!"
Minerva nodded and ran through Dumbledore's door. Flitwick grabbed a handful of powder from the canister next to the fireplace. "Shattered, Albus? I thought you said these were blood wards of the ancient magic... what force could possibly be so powerful as to shatter them?"
"I hate to think it, Filius." Dumbledore tossed his handful of powder into the fire and called out, "Arabella Figg's house!" The headmaster disappeared into the green flames, with Flitwick on his heels. They stepped out of the fireplace at Mrs. Figg's house, scaring several kneazles in the doing. Without waiting, Dumbledore headed for the door. Within minutes he was standing in front of Number 4, Privet Drive. Everything appeared peaceful and quiet. There were some sounds coming from the house... but if it hadn't been for the wards falling, Albus would have sworn that this was just another normal morning. The entire situation confused him.
"Albus, I see no foe here..." Flitwick kept swiveling back and forth, looking for the wizard powerful enough to knock down a blood ward as strong as the one Dumbledore swore was protecting this house. "Should we check the house?"
"Yes, I think we should. Here." With a wave of his wand, Dumbledore transfigured the clothing they were both wearing into rather stylish if conservatively cut business suits. Dumbledore's was plum-colored, while Flitwick's was saffron orange.
"Oh, I like this... Is this what the well-to-do Muggle is wearing these days?" Flitwick spared a glance at his new suit while following Dumbledore up the walk to Number 4. "I think I'll keep it."
"Indeed..." Dumbledore knocked on the house's front door. There was a slight bustle heard from inside. The door opened to reveal Harry Potter himself. The boy was wearing an apron and holding a spatula.
"Professor Dumbledore!" Harry was obviously surprised to see his headmaster. "Professor Flitwick! Um... is there... what brings you...?"
"Who's at the door?" Harry's Aunt Petunia impatiently shoved Harry out of the way. When she saw the two men on the stoop, her eyes narrowed as she recognized Dumbledore. "Oh... it's you. What do you want?"
"As always, it is wonderful to see you again, Petunia. This is my colleague, Professor Flitwick. May we come inside?" As Dumbledore was asking, he stepped past Petunia and into the hallway. "Now... it is important that you answer this question truthfully. Has anything unusual happened this morning?"
"You mean other than a madman and a dwarf showing up out of nowhere and barging into my life where they are not wanted?" Petunia was livid.
"Why, yes, Petunia... other than that, has anything odd happened? Any strange noises? Anyone trying to break in, perhaps?"
At Dumbledore's words, Harry began to grow paler and paler. "Excuse me, Professor... what's happened? Is someone hurt?" Visions of Ron or Hermione hurt flashed through his head, followed by the remaining faces of his friends. "Is it... You-Know-Who?" At Harry's question, even Petunia paled. She played a good game of total ignorance about the Wizarding World, but...
"No one's been hurt yet, Harry," Dumbledore said. "That's why we're here. Something has happened and you may no longer be safe. Any of you. Now... again, has anything strange other that our arrival occurred this morning?"
"Nothing, Professor. I've been up since sunrise and everything was quiet. It looked like a beautiful morning, in fact. I came down early to start breakfast while my Uncle and Dudley were showering." Everyone in the hall could still hear the water running upstairs.
At the reminder of breakfast, Petunia suddenly sniffed at the air. "Get to the kitchen. The bacon is burning!" She turned to Dumbledore. "Now, as you can see there's nothing happening here. Get out."
"I am afraid that until we check the house, we cannot acquiesce to your request," Dumbledore responded. "Filius, if you please, could you check the house. I'll remain here with our charming hostess."
Flitwick nodded and jogged as best he could up the stairs while Petunia fumed. Before the Charms professor could return, Harry stepped into the Hallway, a roll of parchment in his hands. "Professor Dumbledore, an owl just arrived from Gringott's Bank. They're asking me to come to them today to..." Harry opened the scroll "... 'accept possession of the Potter Family Vault, recombine the Potter Family Trust into the primary vault, and oversee the change in security measures owing to the recent change in account status.' Professor... what does that mean?"
Flitwick came back down the stairs. "Albus, there's nothing up there but a short blond hippopotamus and an angry wet middle-aged man with blood pressure problems." He took a deep breath and shrugged. "Albus, there's nothing here..."
"I'm coming to believe that, Filius." Dumbledore turned to Petunia. "Petunia... did you or anyone else threaten Harry with expulsion from this house? Did you, specifically, tell him he was no longer welcome here?" Petunia glared at Dumbledore for a long while before simply shaking his head.
"Thank you, Petunia. Harry," Dumbledore said, turning his eyes to his student. "Did you at any time tell your aunt that you intended to leave, or that you wished she wasn't your aunt, or anything of that nature?"
Harry blushed. It was fairly clear that he had, at some point, thought at least one of those sentiments. But... "No, Professor... I never said anything like that."
"Thank you. Well... this is perplexing. I'll have to re-erect the wards. Until that time, you can't stay here, Harry... it's simply not safe for you, or for your relatives, for you to be here without the protective spells in place. You'll be coming with me to Hogwarts until we find a safer place to put you. Go gather your things," Dumbledore sighed. He turned to Petunia. "As always, it's been a pleasure, Madame."
Arthur Weasley smiled as he reached his desk. Regardless of the long hours, regardless of the low pay, he truly loved his job. Protecting Muggles from irresponsible wizards just made sense to him and gave him a sense of purpose he doubted he'd have, were he in the Department of International Cooperation or in the Sports and Games office. Arthur picked up the reports that had come in overnight, scanning them for anything immediate. Unfortunately, nothing looked too pressing, and he had a report he needed to finish. His office was the smallest and most underfunded section of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, but that was no reason to slack off on the job.
Arthur's assistant, Perkins, stuck his head around the corner. "Arthur... one of the Unspeakables was up to talk to you just before you got in. Lowdly, I think his name was... didn't want to leave a note, but asked if you could Floo him as soon as you came in. Said it was important. Something to do with one of the Long-Term Study projects they have going down in the Spooks."
"Well, I suppose I'll have to call him them." Arthur laughed at the use of "Spooks". Nearly every other office in the Ministry used that nickname for the Unspeakables, but never to their faces. Not that you ran into them very often. They tended to go into their secret laboratories and hide there, never to be seen by the other Ministry personnel. He went to the office Floo and placed the call.
He had no idea what one of the Unspeakables would want to talk to him about, which made him both excited and anxious. "Arthur Weasley for Unspeakable Lowdly," he said when his Floo-call was answered. The Unspeakable nodded without saying anything and stepped out of Arthur's view. A few minutes later, another man, Lowdly presumably, appeared.
"Arthur Weasley? It's nice to meet you. Lawrence Lowdly. I'm on one of the Long-Term Study projects... I cannot tell you which one, of course, but... well... something's come up and I believe it involves a member of your family; one of your children, I believe. If this does involve one of your children, I have received special clearance from the Director of Mysteries to speak to you about it."
Arthur was stunned. "One of my children, you say?"
"Do you have a daughter, Ginevra Molly Weasley, born August 11, 1981?"
"Yes, Ginny... She's my youngest." Arthur was still confused. "Lowdly... just what is this all about?"
"Well... er... In that case, I suppose I can tell you. I'm part of the team studying Soul Stones. Have you ever heard of Soul Stones, Weasley? No?" Lowdly was a bit uncertain about where to start. "Well... they are magical artifacts that seem to be made of pure love. There are only a handful of Soul Stones still outside of Ministry control... they are very powerful... very powerful indeed. And it's... well... very rare for them ever to be given from one person to another."
"And just what does this have to do with my Ginny?" Arthur asked?
"Why... Don't you see? It seems that, this morning, your Ginny was given one of the Soul Stones... by Harry Potter, no less."
"What? How is that possible? That I'm aware, he hasn't said word one to my daughter in her entire life! Harry's never even been to my house..."
Lowdly shrugged. "I have no idea, Weasley. All I can tell you is that it happened. We have a way to track when one person gives a Soul Stone to another, and it happened this morning at just past seven."
"You're having me on, aren't you?" Arthur smiled. "I hadn't even left my house yet, and I assure you, Harry Potter wasn't within a mile of my house. It's obviously just a big mix-up. I'm sure we can get it all sorted out."
Lowdly's face was grim. "Weasley, you don't seem to understand... there can be no mistake here. The Stone simply won't... go... if the two people involved aren't soul mates. And we keep perfect records... have done forever."
"Now wait just a minute! Ginny's only ten years old, for Merlin's sake... what you're suggesting..." Arthur couldn't continue the thought.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not suggesting anything. I'm outright stating bald fact, not suggesting." Lowdly held a hand up to forestall further comment. "Let me finish... I understand the ages involved. If I remember right, Harry Potter is no more than twelve or thirteen. You say your daughter is ten... believe me, I know how odd that sounds, given their ages. Especially when you consider the other considerations..."
"What other considerations?" Arthur interrupted. "Is something going to happen to Ginny?"
"Well..." Lowdly looked decidedly nervous. He really didn't want to be the one who dropped this particular piece of bad news on the father of a ten year old girl. "You see... the transfer of a Soul Stone from one person to the other is accepted to be a fully binding... magical... marriage. In accepting the Stone of Burning Bright from Harry Potter, your daughter has pledged her troth in eternal fidelity to her soul mate. That is, to Harry Potter. They're married."
"SHE'S WHAT? MARRIED WHAT?" Arthur couldn't breathe. He literally couldn't find enough air. "I... listen, Lowdly... I need... Well... We'll just have to have her give the thing back, now won't we? She's only ten! There's no... no..." Arthur hated it when people used profanity. It made him uncomfortable, and he refused to do it himself. He stopped talking and took a deep breath. It kept himself from using the one particular word he hated more than any of the other swear word. Calmer, he said, "She'll give it back to Potter, and that's that. End of problem."
Lowdly only looked sad. "Arthur, it doesn't work like that. You have to understand... these stones are some of the most powerful magical objects we know of. We're not talking about some pretty bauble a would-be Casanova gives out to any woman he comes across... They mark true, pure romantic love between two people. As such, they can only be given from one person to another when the two people are true soul mates. A person would be mad to risk giving it to anyone else, because the power of the stones would burn the soul of a 'false love' to a cinder, you see?"
"I'm trying to tell you, Arthur... it's happened and there's nothing to be done about it but accept it! You're lucky they really were soul mates! If Potter didn't really love your daughter, his soul would have been consumed for the crime of giving it falsely... and if she didn't truly love him in return, so would hers," Lowdly shuddered. "You really don't want to know what happened to the people that's happened to."
Arthur just stared. "I... I need to go and have a talk with my daughter, I think..." He had the same stunned expression one would expect to find on the face of a man who had just been struck in the head by a brick.
"Er... Certainly... I will need to speak to her as well, at her convenience, naturally, and her husband's. Um... Please... er... convey my happiest congratulations to the new bride," Lowdly smiled, but it seemed forced. "And Weasley... for what it's worth... you should try to be happy for them... they certainly are going to be..."
Ginny paused at the bottom of the stairs. For some reason, seeing her mother bustling about the kitchen brought sudden feelings of sadness and loss and regret, as if she hadn't seen her mother for years. That didn't make any sense at all, because her mum had tucked her into bed just last night! But it didn't matter. Ginny rushed forward and wrapped her arms as far around her mum as she could, in the tightest hug she could manage.
"Well... good morning to you, Ginny!" Molly hugged her daughter in return. "You look bright-eyed. You're usually much less cheerful when you first wake up."
"Yes, but it's a new day... a different day!" Ginny smiled up at her mum and hugged her again. "It's an amazing day!"
Molly's face broke into a tight smile. "Who are you and what have you done with my daughter, Little Miss Grumpy-Morning?"
"Oh, Mum... don't be silly." Ginny rolled her eyes. Without being asked, she opened the china cabinet and started setting the table for breakfast. She counted out the plates, but paused. "Mum, has Dad left for work yet?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes... your father left... oh... a little while ago." Molly lit the heat beneath the bacon pan.
"All right." Ginny counted out the number of plates needed for her mother, herself, Ron, the twins, and Percy. She stared at the plates... there were no more than two with the same pattern, and some had obvious scratches, discolorations, or even hidden chips in their edges. Vaguely, not aware she was saying anything, Ginny whispered, "Mum would like a new set of dishes... enough to entertain with... and if it's a gift from me, she can't call it charity..."
"Hmm? I didn't hear you, Ginny. What did you say?" Molly brought the jam pot and the butter dish out of the kitchen and put them in the center of the table.
"What?" Ginny shook, as if waking up. She wasn't sure what had just happened. "What, Mum?"
Molly stopped. "What? I thought you said something, dear." She studied her daughter for a moment. "I think you're not as awake as you think you are," she said with a smile. "No, when you finish with the silver, why don't you go up and... Ginny? What is that?"
"What is what, Mum?" Ginny laid out the last fork and straightened. Looking around the table, she asked, "What do you mean?"
Molly pointed to Ginny's hand. "That ring, Ginny... where did you get it?"
Ginny held up her hand. "Oh, this? I found it on my bed this morning. At first I thought it was some prank by the twins, but nothing happened when I put it on. It's pretty, so I decided to keep it."
"May I see it?" Molly held a hand out.
"Sure!" Ginny took the ring off and looked at it. Harry and Ginevra, Always. It made her smile. "Here you go, Mum." She looked at her mother, whose initial look of cautious curiosity had darkened. "What?"
"Ginny... you put the ring back on."
"No I..." Ginny looked down at the ring. It was sitting where it had been all morning, on her left ring finger. "Oh... sorry... here." She took it off again. It took all her willpower to drop it into her mother's outstretched hand.
Molly was staring at the stone. "Ginny, this is a diamond! A big one! Just where do you think your brothers would ever come up with enough money to include this in one of their..." She stopped talking as she saw the inscription. She stared at it for a long, hard moment before turning her eyes back to her daughter. "Ginevra Molly Weasley! How did you get this ring? What do you mean, taking a ring like this from a boy you hardly know? One of your brother's friends, no less!"
"Mum, it's just a ring... it's my ring. Can I have it back, please?" Ginny's eyes were wide and terror-filled.
Molly grew red as her anger increased. "Absolutely not! I'm going to hang on to it until we see Harry, and you and I both are going to talk to that boy about casually giving out such expensive and inappropriate gifts. You're not even eleven years old, yet, Ginny... not for another month! You're much too young to be accepting..."
Ginny's attention to her mother's words dissipated slowly. Rather, her attention was caught by what her mother's hands were doing. The hand holding the ring clenched into a tight fist, and then slowly extended toward Ginny. Her mother's hand stayed there until Ginny, rather tentatively, put her own open palm under her mother's fist. It was only then that Molly's hand opened, dropping the ring back into Ginny's grasp. Ginny quickly shoved the ring back onto her finger, and all was right with the world again.
Molly never seemed to notice a thing. "... and you can be sure we'll be talking to your father when he gets back! Oh yes... I'm sure he'll have a thing to say about this!"
"Mum... what's going on? You woke me up?" Ron stood at the bottom of the stair, rubbing his eyes randomly. His hair looked like a bright orange rat's nest.
"Your baby sister has taken it upon herself to start accepting gifts. From a boy. Your so-called best friend, no less!" Molly steamed.
"What? Harry's giving Ginny gifts? Mum... what are you going on about?" Ron asked, confused.
"This!" Molly held her fist out and opened it. Her look of condescending victory faded as she realized there was nothing in her hand.
"Mum... there's nothing there." Ron was confused. He sat down at his normal place at the table. Whatever it was, it could wait until after breakfast.
Molly stared at her hand for a moment, and then looked back at Ginny, who jerked her left hand behind her back as quickly as she could.
Not quickly enough. "Ginny, you have that ring back, don't you?" Molly was only barely hanging on to her anger. "How'd you take it from me?"
"Mum, I didn't! You gave it back to me!" She held her hand out in front of her. The diamond ring was easily visible. Ron's eyes bugged a bit.
"Harry gave that to you? When? Is he here?"
"That's not important, Ron," Molly said. "Harry probably sent it directly to her with that owl of his. You know, Ron... if this is how your friends treat your little sister... It's obvious that boy has no respect..."
"DON'T YOU DARE TALK ABOUT HARRY LIKE THAT, YOU JEALOUS OLD HAG!"
No one moved.
No one even breathed.
Ginny's eyes looked like they were going to explode out of their sockets. She covered her mouth with both hands, alarmed and surprised that the scream of rage directed at her mother had actually come from her mouth.
Ginny burst into tears and ran for the kitchen door.
It took a moment for Molly to recover. "GINEVRA MOLLY WEASLEY, YOU COME BACK HERE..." She started after her daughter, only to be brought up short by the sudden appearance of her husband in the fireplace.
"Molly! Where's Ginny... we all need to talk... something... something strange has happened. And... well... we all need to talk."
"You don't know the half of it, Arthur! Do you know what your daughter just called me?" Arthur cringed. Molly was on the warpath, and that was never a good sign, especially in a sensitive time like now.
"Molly, I'm sure she didn't mean it, whatever it was. We need to talk to her calmly, like..."
"She called me a hag, Arthur! To my face, she said this!"
Arthur cringed. "She didn't mean it, dear... she's probably upset, what with everything that's happened to her this morning."
That stopped Molly cold. "Arthur?" Her husband pulled her in close and gave her the best hug he could manage. "Arthur, what's happened to my baby?" The anger Molly had felt not two minutes before seemed to drain from the woman. "Is she going to be all right?"
"Er... Yes... I've been assured she'll be fine... but... well... she seems to have gone and gotten herself..."
"OH, ARTHUR! SHE CAN'T BE PREGNANT! SHE'S NOT EVEN ELEVEN YEARS OLD!" From the kitchen came the distinct sounds of a twelve year old boy choking on his morning pumpkin juice.
Arthur tried to figure out the best way to tell his wife, and then decided to just jump into it. "Er... No, not exactly, Molly... I don't think she's had time to get to that point yet, seeing as she's only just been married this morning..."
Molly stiffened in his arms. Slowly, she looked up at her husband. "What do you mean, Arthur? What do you mean, married?"