CHAPTER ONE: THE LONGEST RIDE

The ride back to London aboard the Hogwarts Express was passing like a slow dream. Most students were still rattled over the death of Professor Dumbledore and the circumstances surrounding it. There were no secrets. Word always spread quickly at Hogwarts. Harry smiled ever so slightly to himself as he remembered Dumbledore expressing that very sentiment in his first year, following Harry's battle with Quirrell and Voldemort.

That's not to say that everyone was necessarily saddened over the loss of Dumbledore. Harry knew a number of the Slytherins were glad to be shod of him. After visiting and checking on Neville, Harry was returning to his own car when he ran into a group of them huddled in the corridor. They quickly ended their conversation when they spotted him and the look on his face, one that dared them to say another word aloud. Harry knew he couldn't take on the whole lot; but he didn't care anymore. Fortunately, they had lost much of their fire while trying to grasp the part Draco Malfoy had played in Dumbledore's demise.

No one, not even the Slytherins, had trouble really believing Snape had a hand in this week's events. Draco however, was a different story. He'd always been a loud, bossy and demanding brat, full of hot air and exaggerated bravado. His housemates did his bidding because he was wealthy and connected and popular, not because they physically feared him. In their own way they seemed a bit devastated. Still, Harry had no sympathy for any of them and very little time to waste thinking of them.

Some time after he'd returned to the car he shared with Ron and Hermione, the three of them seemed unable to pull themselves out of their own murky thoughts to focus on the tasks at hand.

"Harry, maybe we should go over the things you and Dumbledore discussed, again," Hermione finally managed.

Harry just looked at her, his eyebrows raised. He knew Hermione was worried about him. It had been a rough week and being forced to sever his relationship with Ginny on top of everything else had drained him.

He replied as calmly as possible, "Thanks for offering, but not now, please. I'm not comfortable talking about it on the train, no matter what spell you used to seal this car."

Seeing the disappointed look on her face, he made himself smile gently and added to both of them, "I'll be at the Burrow in two weeks time. We'll talk about all of that then."

Hermione spent most of the remaining journey reading. Harry and Ron tried halfheartedly to pass time playing wizard chess and Exploding Snap. Luna eventually stopped by for a short visit; yet Ginny seemed to be conspicuously avoiding their car. Finally, the hum of the quiet car and its softly clicking undercarriage pulled Harry back into his own thoughts.

He didn't remember much of the remaining train ride until the Hogwarts Express pulled slowly into the station and he could hear luggage being moved around in the adjacent car. Shocked, he realized he'd fallen asleep. He was sitting in the corner of the seat, the back of his head against the window and lulled to the right side, half facing the seat cushion. His legs were stretched in front of him on the seat and his glasses had been removed. Turning his head to the left, he saw blurred images of Hermione and Ron quietly attempting to lift down trunks and cages. Hearing him shift, Ron turned towards Harry.

"Hey, I was just about to wake you," Ron said.

He'd just gotten down Hedwig's cage and was retrieving Harry's glasses from his jacket pocket.

"Thanks," Harry muttered, swinging his legs to the floor and putting on his glasses. "Sorry, I didn't mean to fall asleep on you."

"Don't be silly, Harry," remarked Hermione. "We're surprised you hadn't crashed even earlier. Ron said you hadn't been sleeping much at all."

Harry stood to help Ron lower the last trunk and his friend met his gaze with a sheepish, apologetic look.

"No, I suppose I haven't been," answered Harry truthfully. "Thanks for making me more comfortable, anyway."

"Actually," Ron said, "Ginny did that. "She stopped by, I think maybe to talk to you," he mumbled quietly. "Anyway, she saw you asleep and asked how long you'd been like that. She said you looked uncomfortable and I helped her move you a bit."

"Oh," was about all Harry could muster.

Ron seemed to understand. Given that it was his kid sister Harry had broken up with, he couldn't help but marvel at his friend's compassion.

Ron slid the door open and the friends took one last look around the car to make sure they had all their belongings before departing the train together.

Kingsley Shacklebolt was waiting for them on the platform.

"Hello you three," he said in his deep, velvety voice.

He immediately stepped to Harry's left side and looked seriously at each of them.

"Hi Kingsley," the three each responded a bit distractedly, as they were a little shocked to see just him.

Either sensing or seemingly reading their thoughts, Kingsley began, "Tonks and Moody are waiting beyond the platform barrier for you two," he said, nodding toward Ron and Hermione.

"Fred and George have just departed with Ginny. Harry, you and I will leave momentarily from this side of the platform once I send Hedwig and your things to your room at Privet Drive," he continued as he bent to release Hedwig from her cage, sending her on her way.

"Wait," uttered Harry, as Kingsley drew his wand and pointed it toward Harry's things. "I'll need to get my Firebolt from the trunk."

"No, you won't," answered Kingsley simply as he stood straight and with one silent swish of his wand, Harry's possessions disappeared.

"I understand you have as much a knack for Apparating as you do for flying that Firebolt of yours," he added with an ever so slight and fleeting smile to his lips.

"But he's not seventeen yet," interjected Ron, with Hermione standing beside him looking a bit concerned by Kingsley's oversight of the rules.

"It doesn't matter now, does it?" asked Kingsley, his voice lowering to a deep whisper.

"Things are different," he added. "The Ministry is up to its eyeballs in disaster. It doesn't have time to worry about the small things. Getting Harry to safety as quickly as possible is my charge and I'll be damned if bureaucratic nonsense will get in the way."

Turning to Harry, he said "Trust me, Potter. We need to move quickly."

Harry nodded once.

"He's right, guys," he said facing his friends with a firm look upon his face. "Once you two get through the barrier, Kingsley and I need to go. We'll talk soon."

Ron nodded back and turned, pulling a still worried looking Hermione beside him, walked forward a few seconds and both disappeared with their belongings through the barrier.

"All right, Harry," began Kingsley. "Let's start walking and on my count of three, we'll be out of here and in front of your aunt and uncle's home."

In what had to be less than a minute later Harry found himself standing next to Kingsley and pulling on his still ringing ears, staring grimly up the driveway of his least favorite place in the world, number four, Privet Drive.

"Oh, by the way Harry, we've bought you a few hours of peace and quiet," Kingsley said thoughtfully.

"Sorry," said Harry curiously.

Kingsley went on to explain, "Moody paid your relatives a little visit earlier this morning. Let's just say they eventually agreed to clear out for the day and spend some quality time in the countryside."

Harry couldn't help but smile deeply as he imagined Moody's negotiating tactics.

"I bet that was priceless," he said.

"Utterly," agreed Kingsley. "Come on, let's get inside. There are some things we need to discuss."

"Yeah, okay. I kind of gathered as much at King's Cross," replied Harry as he opened the front door.

He led Kingsley into the kitchen and prepared tea and sandwiches for them both. They sat together at the table with the late afternoon sun glinting off Aunt Petunia's spotless appliances.

"Look," Kingsley began pointedly to Harry. "Scrimgeour knows how you feel about the Ministry at the moment and you know he's not happy about it."

Seeing Harry's dark look and raised brow that clearly conveyed how very little he cared about the Minister's happiness, Kingsley continued, "All that aside, he also knows you are still a target and wants you protected."

"And in turn, I'm supposed to do exactly what for him?" Harry asked hurriedly and a bit irritably.

"Take it easy, Harry. I'm not here to convince you to do anything for the Ministry," Kingsley answered simply.

His elbows on the table, Harry leaned forward and put his chin at the edge of his palms and rubbed his face roughly.

"I'm sorry, Kingsley," he began, but Kingsley cut him off.

"Don't apologize. I'm not that sensitive a bloke," he said.

Kingsley continued, "Obviously I, along with a few others, just happen to work for both the Ministry and the Order. Even though Scrimgeour's methods can sometimes be questionable, his aim has always been to undo the dark forces. That's why we all stayed with the Ministry even after Fudge's debacle. Believe me, if Fudge had somehow escaped being sacked, the Auror resignations would have been flying all over the Ministry. Anyway, our show of solidarity didn't exactly deter our current Minister from questioning Tonks and me to no end, so I can understand some of what you're feeling."

"That makes sense that he would, although I never really thought about it from that end," Harry admitted.

"Yeah, well, at least he's not mad enough to try and get information out of Moody. Alastor's contempt for the Ministry is well known," Kingsley added. "Scrimgeour's on edge because he thinks if he knew what Dumbledore and the Order had been up to and what the Order is doing now, it could speed up the Ministry's efforts. Frustrated though he is that neither you nor any currently identified Order and Ministry members will reveal anything to him, he's still smart enough to know that this Ministry and the Order will both fight the same battle in the long run."

Kingsley leaned forward. His eyes traveled towards Harry's scar for a moment and then intently back to Harry's own gaze. He seemed to be pondering his next words.

"Harry, no one in the Order has any clue of what you and Dumbledore were doing together this last year. We know McGonagall inquired once, and we now know Dumbledore asked you not to reveal it."

Kingsley paused for a moment and then continued, "I need you to understand we have discussed this in depth and no member of the Order will ever again ask you to divulge that information, not ever."

Still uncertain of where this conversation was headed, Harry quietly said, "Okay."

Kingsley went on, "Know this as well. This fight will be long and hard. The Order has always fought against You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters, and we will continue to do so. Part of that fight has included our efforts to aid and protect you. Don't think for one moment that stops because of our losses. As much as those losses cost us, we must push forward."

Kingsley stopped for a moment to clear his throat before continuing. "I admired Dumbledore immensely, and in the short time I got to really know Sirius, am proud to have known him. They were two of the bravest and best men I've ever known. Lupin, I and the rest are determined to help you finish this fight."

Harry found himself a little taken aback at hearing someone else voice similar feelings towards two of the most important people in his life. His own emotions were whirring just below the surface. Trying to remain focused, Harry was a little slow in processing Kingsley's last statement.

"What? You know…" Harry began, but Kingsley silenced him with a slightly raised hand.

"Listen to me carefully," he said calmly. "We don't know what it's all about, we don't know what else you have to do, and again, we won't ask. What we do know is You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters won't rest until they've gotten to you by whatever means necessary."

Harry knew the last part to be an absolute truth.

"We know you're carrying a huge responsibility," added Kingsley. "Dumbledore had always said as much. He only told the rest to Sirius, and only a few days before the battle at the Ministry. I know that much because Sirius was furious. He ranted about it to Lupin and me. He too, wouldn't divulge what was involved. All he kept saying is you should have been told the full truth. Lupin tried to assure him that Dumbledore had his reasons but Sirius was so adamant, I admit, he had me convinced and I don't even know what I was convinced about."

Harry lowered his eyes for a few seconds, let out a sigh, and spoke dejectedly.

"Funny, Dumbledore admitted as much the night Sirius died. Of course that was after I had a very Sirius-like fit and nearly destroyed his office."

Seeing a mingled look of impressed shock cross Kingsley's face, Harry nodded grimly and continued.

"I was a bit unhinged, I'll admit. Honestly, I wish I'd known earlier all that I know now. It may have changed some things; then again, maybe not. There's no telling, Kingsley."

Harry stood and began pacing the kitchen.

"All I know is Voldemort has to be stopped. I wish Sirius and Dumbledore were still here to help me." Stopping and turning toward Kingsley, he said firmly, "But they're not."

Standing and walking toward Harry, Kingsley said, "No, they are not; but we are. Moody is running the Order now. There was no question among us that Dumbledore would have wished him to do so. Let us continue to help you. We can still work intelligence and security, run interference and give you time to do whatever you need to. If you need more than that…well, I know Lupin is an old family friend and I hope you'll trust, you can come to me for anything. We do know what's at risk, Harry, for all of us."

With that, Kingsley extended his hand and Harry reached to shake it. They nodded once to each other and Kingsley turned to walk towards the foyer.

"Oh, by the way Potter, I certainly understand your desire to stay out of this house as much as possible. I won't tell you not to leave it, so just be careful. You know how the blood protection works. The closer you are to home, the better. Try not to stray too far too often, all right? Dawlish and a few others will be nearby. You need not engage them unless you want to. They're just extra security. Watch your back."

With that he turned on the spot and vanished.

Harry stood alone in the darkening kitchen. He and Kingsley had talked a long time. Imagining the Dursleys would soon be home, he quickly washed the dishes, turned on the porch lights and went upstairs to his room.