Important Notes: Regarding Aelfdene's squad leadership, a rather hot topic in the reviews, do not fret. This is a rotational position in a long-term training setting designed to test, teach, and push people out of their comfort zones (as both potential leaders and followers). As the leader of a rather large organization myself, I know how important succession planning truly is. Thus, it is an utterly ridiculous notion to me that over the course of three years, the corps would be satisfied with only attempting to train like 4 people to lead, a few of whom have already shown an aptitude for it. Moreover, as new graduates would be quite low on the totem pole, all cadets would surely also need to learn how to be an effective part of a team that they are not leading, or it would be madness. So, Harry is definitely going to have his chance, and he will almost certainly keep the post by popular demand once he gets there.

Finally, of perhaps much greater interest to most of you, I am debuting minor elements of the next major plot line in this chapter. These seeds will be taking things into another more epic action and adventure-oriented arc, not dissimilar to the good vs. evil tone characterizing some of the earlier chapters of this work. This will be alongside the Academy arc and few other things I have planned that will hopefully be fun as Transitions closes out and this story moves into the first year of Auror training.


Acknowledgements: This chapter is dedicated to new readers, those who have followed and favorited this story, as well as to mwinter1, wolf970, Lulu, Hank1967, Greg, cirque, Deanna Halliwell, Hrh, Strolling Along, iceey, qjhaynes, vish, firebord-fenix, The Dark Lord Potter, Clive54, stevefocus, diegosennin, LewyP93, vcs123, saltysherd, changeisneeded, DaveC, triblood, Bernardus, Anon19740, sleshachoksi, dbreezy93, Ermac18, WDW, cirque, slinky gustavo, Sadhaka, and guests for their comments. I think I addressed most of the pressing issues in the notes above. Happy Reading!

Also, a special thanks to those of you who PMed me with your sympathy and kind words, as well as some excellent questions and welcome insights. I also want to thank my family for helping with some plot ideas and character development- I could not have done this one without you! Information from Tarot for Beginners (Hollander), How To Use Tarot Spreads (Abraham), and The Fortune-Telling Book (Kemp) appears in this chapter.

**Speech in Gobbledegook will be bolded below**


7 August 1998 - Royal Parade, Gloucestershire, England - 7:15am

Wispy strands of silver hair streamed behind her as she made her way briskly back to her flat carrying a small bag from the nearby patisserie. There was something in the air that morning, and she couldn't tell yet if it was good or bad. Momentarily distracted as her thoughts continued to swirl, she tripped on a familiar stretch of uneven pavement, staggering before catching herself on one of the rusting wrought iron handrails that bracketed the two flights of cracked cement stairs. The steep path through the heavily terraced yard wasn't exactly welcoming, but it was home.

Unable to shake the feeling of anticipation, Moira Stuart cast a critical eye over her front garden and stoop. Like its owner, it was unabashed in its disarray. The three in the house number dangled upside down, unmoored and neglected. Still, there was something wild and faintly exotic in the remnants of the early summer blooms, despite the fact that the once orange yarrow and purple irises were now as faded as the dark green shutters framing the windows.

Subtly lowering her wards as she reached for her key, she smiled at the crimson door. It blared as loudly as the muggle firetruck its color evoked in her mind, as cheerfully out of place amidst the dilapidation as the six stained-glass panes of its upper door-lite, whose colorful panels cast a watery rainbow on the scuffed maple floor inside. After stepping across the threshold, a mosaic of green, blue, and yellow coloring her skin and clothes, Moira reset the security spells and headed to the kitchen.

Sweeping through a series of bright rooms with high ceilings, Moira frowned as she catalogued cobwebs in the light fixtures and dust bunnies in the corners. The signs of her recent preoccupation were evident all around her. Shooting several cleaning spells at the grimy switch plates and stray marks on the walls, it was the matter of only a few minutes before the vivid colors of the main floor reemerged.

"Just out of bed, dear?" the mirror in the hall called after her, snide as always. She'd never liked that damn thing.

Moira set the water to boil as she laid her purchase on the table and began rummaging through her tea drawer, frowning slightly at the sight of several bags of green tea which served as an unwelcome reminder of her latest ex. "Good riddance to bad rubbish," she mumbled, tossing them into the bin. Brahan, her sweet brown and white owl, hooted in what appeared to be agreement before resuming his daily grooming ritual.

Finally spotting the dark, elongated leaves of the strawberry blend she had been seeking, she dropped a heaping teaspoon's worth into a striped porcelain cup before adding water. Its wide bands of varying shades of blue were far from elegant, but she had always found the quirky informality of the pattern appealing. Mixing in some sugar and milk, she retrieved a plate for her scone and let the mixture brew. Lost in thought, she startled as Brahan landed on the table next to her, practically on top of the missive she had received from the Ministry three days ago.

Moira still wasn't completely convinced she wanted to become an auror. She was, after all, a grown woman, and she enjoyed her job as a researcher and librarian. Yet, she knew as surely as she knew her own name that her sudden career change was necessary. Sighing, she stroked the small owl's feathers and studied the list that had accompanied the letter for easily the hundredth time. Once again, she paused at the third name: Harry Potter. Naturally, everyone knew who he was, but she could sense something mystical and significant there, something that remained just beyond her reach. Impulsively, she drained her drink, leaving only the smallest traces of liquid. Swirling the cup counter-clockwise, once...twice...thrice, as she had been taught, she flipped it over to drain. After taking a moment to center herself, she righted it and looked inside.

"A mix of dark and light," she murmured, "so men and women will be involved." In quick succession, she processed a variety of impressions. She saw an arch, and then a bat and a castle. But, as these were less distinct, experience told her these were things that would, if they manifested at all, occur in the distant future. "faces...and a shovel?" These images faced the handle and were positioned closest to the top of the cup, indicating they were events that would soon come to pass. "A social event or meeting of some type with a number of people and... laying the groundwork for something big, which will require my physical exertion." It wasn't too difficult to figure out what these symbols might be referencing, especially not when, at the highest point, just below the rim and slightly above the textured sea of faces, there was a jagged lightning bolt as clear and firm as if an artist had molded it from clay.

"I guess I'll be heading to the Alley today," she informed her owl with a hint of both trepidation and excitement.

Then, as she'd done almost every day for nearly as long as she could remember, Moira retrieved a decorative wooden box from her bedroom. She brushed her fingers over the detailed carvings on the lid as she opened it and removed a small, silk-wrapped package from its depths. Carefully peeling back the layers of fabric, she finally reached a relatively unassuming deck of cards. They were larger than a standard deck, both in their dimensions and their number. The back of each card was covered with astronomical symbols in a muted palette of blue and black, and their edges had been worn away by the years, leaving them as soft as a baby's skin and as rounded and smooth as a river rock. These were her tarot cards, though they had once belonged to her mother.

Almost as if compelled, Moira picked up the deck, situating half of the cards in each hand. There was no resistance as she shuffled. The tools of her trade slid together, one card over another, hypnotically slipping between the folds as practiced and perfectly fitted as long-time lovers. Comfortable, yet satisfying. Again and again, the mindless act drove away the distractions and, like always, brought her that elusive moment of clarity, fleeting though it may have been. Suddenly, the feelings that had been building for several days, tugging at her mind like an insistent child, calmed; as if the universe itself had stilled. The quiet was intoxicating to her, addictive in a way that few could understand. She continued to work with the cards, her awareness simultaneously drifting and coming into focus, crystalizing around some distant point. It almost felt like she was watching herself from outside her own body. Finally, knowing instinctively that it was time to stop, Moira turned over the first card without cutting the deck.

Eyebrows raised at the appearance of the Major Arcana's tenth card in the spread's opening salvo, Moira quickly dealt the next two cards, representing the obstacle and subsequent advice for her current situation, respectively. "It seems I am at the whims of fate once again, Brahan. But, at least this time, it appears the wheel is turning in my favor." Unsurprisingly, the owl didn't respond. "There is a person standing in the way, apparently. A young man, the Knight of Pentacles, to be precise." Tilting her head to the side, she examined the image. "Hmm...transitions and movements. In the reversed position, he is lazy and irresponsible...stagnant and stubborn, often quarrelsome and prone to bouts of jealousy and pride. I can see how someone like that could be a bit of an obstacle." Turning her attention to the final card, she smiled. "That is, indeed, wise counsel." The inverted Four of Cups spoke of new acquaintances, relationships, and instruction, though the overall nature of the card indicated that a touch of hesitation, perhaps even reluctance, to completely move on and embrace the unknown would remain for a time. As she re-wrapped the cards and put them away, her thoughts returned to the list. She couldn't help but wonder if perhaps this reading hadn't been for her alone.


7 August 1998 - Gringotts, London Branch, Diagon Alley - 9:12 am

Ragnuk of Clan Goldenoak, King of the Goblins, Head of the Consortium, and twenty-third of his name, sat hunched over his gleaming Dalbergia desk reading several highly classified reports. The information they contained was...concerning, to say the least. As he briefly set the parchment aside, his eyes were drawn almost against his will to a small tapestry hanging above his door. The woven scene was dominated by a large tree in the initial throes of Autumn, its foliage a mix of green, orange, and many shades in between. As he watched, a single yellow leaf floated gently to the ground. Clenching his fist, he cursed. Regrettably, it was too early for a drink.

"Heavy, indeed, is the head that wears the crown," he lamented, organizing the papers before activating the blood-locked dimensional space inside the middle drawer of his desk. He absently opened the unmarked folder resting on top and then froze.

He was assailed by both blissful and painful memories as he drank in the image before him with the abandon of someone who had been stranded in the desert. With effort, he regained his equilibrium, indulging in one last glance at the lovely female Goblin holding an infant before tucking the latest intelligence documents inside and closing the file. Searching out the tapestry again, he tensely observed the changing leaves quivering in a silent breeze. He waited for a second, then two, before forcing himself to relax. Speaking softly, he revealed, "My dear, I fear that winter is coming, and we are ill-prepared for its wrath."

A deep sigh was the only outward sign he gave of his internal turmoil before he ruthlessly quashed his concerns, just as he would any other enemy. He was not and never would be powerless, even in this. And, so, it was with a renewed sense of purpose that he shut the drawer and re-engaged the lock. He had business to attend to, after all, and he had always been diligent in his duties, no matter the cost.

Reviewing his agenda for the day, Ragnuk began to analyze the Consortium's mundane real estate interests but soon found himself unable to focus sufficiently on the task. Deciding no harm would come of it, he put the work away and gave into his impulse to stand and pace as he contemplated his options. The monarch was uncharacteristically restless in the knowledge that his visitor was scheduled to arrive within the hour, and he still wasn't comfortable with the inherent passivity of his elected approach. It left so much to chance.

Yet, he had been cautioned repeatedly that conditions were not yet favorable for success, and that if he were to put things in motion too quickly or be too underhanded in his dealings, the venture would be doomed to failure. And, given the stakes, failure was not something that any of them could afford. So, he would be patient, even though it chafed against all of his sensibilities as a leader. It was a constant struggle to remind himself that the situation was not yet so dire as to necessitate blind, or unilateral, action. He could, and indeed by all accounts should, take his time to establish the necessary rapport and build a partnership. He knew better than most that it sometimes took years for an investment to mature, and everything he had learned so far confirmed for him that this effort needed to be as free of manipulation as possible and would require his most delicate touch.

The King's grim thoughts were interrupted by a quiet knock on the door.

"Enter"

A sullen-faced Goblin with rather long ears and the light hair common among those of the Silverbeard Clan stepped across the threshold and bowed respectfully. "Your Majesty, your...guest has arrived." The disdain in the younger Goblin's voice was unmistakable, and Ragnuk was not currently inclined to allow it to go unaddressed.

Wondering idly just how long Lord Potter had already been kept waiting, the monarch decided a little lecture was in order. "I am sure I don't need to remind you, Odbert, that my guest, as you put it, recently dispatched the Dark Lord Voldemort in single combat. Surely that warrants some respect, even by your rather exacting standards."

Despite the warning in Ragnuk's sarcastic tone, Odbert Silverbeard foolishly persisted, "But, Sire, he is an untrustworthy human." He had spat the last word as if it were a curse, synonymous with 'piece of shit' or something equally distasteful. While, in truth, the two terms did share a common linguistic root in Gobbledegook, the Head of the Consortium wasn't used to this degree of obstinance in the face of his admonishments. He clearly needed to start utilizing more of the old punishments; it was hard to be insolent when you were shoveling dragon dung... or missing your head.

"I will be the first to admit that sometimes Fate makes strange bedfellows. However, I can say with absolute confidence that Lord Potter is among the best of both our kinds. I won't hear any further disparagements, is that clear?"

"Y-Yes, Your Majesty."

"Good. Now, while I'm escorting Lord Potter to the Ruby Room, I would like you to fetch Ovar and have him meet us en-route."

Aghast, Odbert couldn't help but inquire, "Are you unwell, Sire?"

Ragnuk raised an eyebrow at the young retainer, who immediately flushed before clicking his heels together and executing a smart bow. As the King watched the rather cheeky Goblin scurry away to carry out his orders, he sighed. "Lady Magic preserve us from the audacity of youth. Thankfully, it is an affliction from which I no longer suffer." And, if, as he made his way to the receiving hall, the Head of the Consortium heard the slightest traces of tinkling laughter in response to his claim, well, he chose to ignore it. He wouldn't dream of disrespecting a Lady.

Speaking of youth, Ragnuk frowned as the spartan floo and portkey reception area came into view. His guest stood before him, looking better than he had the last time they had seen one another, but still thin and pale and leaning upon a walking stick. He was honestly embarrassed; not an emotion he was accustomed to feeling. Someone should have settled Potter into one of the numerous comfortable meeting rooms lining the main corridor and offered him refreshment while he waited. At the very least, they should have brought him a chair. It was shameful! The child was obviously still injured.

The guards snapped to attention as he entered the room, and Ragnuk gave them a positively feral smile. His private secretary might have expired from fear if he had observed the number of teeth the Head of the Consortium was currently baring, but fortuitously Irongall had taken a personal day to visit his daughter. Since it would have been practically impossible to find another Goblin fluent in not only the languages, but also the cultures, of the Consortium's diverse network of contacts and cliental, that was one crisis happily averted.

The Goblin King returned his attention to his visitor, "Lord Potter, I hope you can forgive me for this disgraceful lack of hospitality. It reflects poorly on the clans, but especially on me, to have someone I personally invited to meet with me be treated so poorly and denied even the most basic of guest rites." There was quite a bit of shuffling amongst the armored Goblins surrounding them. It wasn't difficult to determine that this episode wasn't going to end well for someone.

Harry, keen to put the awkward situation behind them, bowed slightly and replied, "Everything was fine, Your Majesty. I am honored by your invitation."

Inclining his head, Ragnuk strode to the young man's side. "Shall we, Lord Potter?" At the wizard's nod, he gestured for Harry to follow him. As he passed, the King shot the guards a menacing look that promised an epic dressing down among other, far more unpleasant, means of retribution in their near future. It was no longer a secret to anyone that they were, in a word, fucked.

Leaving the unsettled masses behind them, only Ragnuk's personal guard followed at a respectful distance as the pair moved at a slow pace toward their destination. Harry suspected this was entirely for his sake, though it wasn't really necessary. Nevertheless, the considerate gesture seemed completely in line with his own, admittedly limited, experiences with the King, though at significant odds with the ruler's fierce reputation in the wizarding world. In light of the display he had just witnessed, however, Harry wouldn't presume to speculate on which persona was a more accurate reflection of the monarch's true self.

Harry shivered as the small group turned off the main corridor, causing all the torches lining the passage to flicker violently. While it was cold this deep in the bank, what he had just experienced had nothing to do with the temperature. There was something down here that set his magic on edge. Moderately intrigued, Ragnuk nonetheless placed a warm hand on the young man's shoulder, gently guiding him in the opposite direction of the disturbance. "We're nearly there," he assured the Potter Lord.

Suddenly, an elderly Goblin appeared from nowhere and intercepted them in the middle of the hall. Just like several other members of the Consortium Harry had observed on their journey, this one stopped to pay his respects to the King. But, unlike the others, he also introduced himself, holding out his hand for Harry to shake. "Lord Potter, you may call me Ovar."

With a slightly bewildered smile, the young wizard returned the greeting, "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."

The old Goblin looked him in the eye and gently squeezed his proffered hand as a look of sympathy washed briefly over the harsh planes of his face, "Oh, child..." At the rather obvious probe, Harry snatched his hand back, shocked and confused by the Goblin's invasive magical assessment and slightly ashamed over his own impolite reaction.

Ovar spoke directly to Ragnuk, "There is a malignancy lingering in his bones. Perhaps it was left by the killing curse, or maybe it is a result of his time in the realm of the dead. No matter the cause, its persistence does not serve him." The 'or us' was left unsaid, though Ragnuk heard it clearly all the same. Ovar was one of the few who knew well what awaited them.

Lord Potter, understandably, seemed upset at the intrusion, his offense no doubt compounded by the fact that the old healer had spoken (in English, at least) to Ragnuk about him as if Potter himself weren't standing right there. Working quickly to overcome the disadvantage Ovar had placed them in, the King considered and disregarded several potential courses of action. He knew instinctively that, despite the rather blunt set-up Ovar had provided, now wasn't the right time to offer a potential remedy. Instead, he decided it was best to attempt to break the tension with humor, "You've become so dramatic in your old age, Ovar. I was unaware you still had aspirations for the theatre." Completely altering his earlier plans, because there was no scenario open to him now where Ovar's continued inclusion in this meeting was permissible, he briskly dismissed the elder Goblin without giving him an opportunity to reply. "If you will excuse us, Ovar, Lord Potter and I have a few things to discuss."

If the healer was in any way surprised by the turn of events, he didn't show it. "Of course, Your Majesty," he responded with a bow. Turning to the wizard, he bowed deeply again. "Lord Potter, it is an honor."

Watching the elder Goblin's retreat, Ragnuk felt a familiar headache coming on in response to the healer's antics; the two of them would have much to talk about later. But, for now, he gestured for his guest to enter the ornate conference room. "It's just in here."

Harry stepped into the aptly named 'Ruby Room,' curious as to whether King Ragnuk had selected it purely for its color scheme. There was certainly enough red and gold to satisfy even the most fanatical of Gryffindors. From the scarlet walls to the gilded fireplace and candelabras, everything screamed opulence. Even the tea and pastries waiting for them had been plated on gold dishes. It was undeniably a board room, but it wouldn't have been out of place in the Palace of Versailles.

More than a little overwhelmed, Harry took a seat in one of the Red Louis XV chairs arranged around a stone slab table that seemed to glow from within. Its thick layers of runic charms hammered at the edge of his senses. While the surface had clearly been spelled for things like honesty and integrity, there was no telling what else might be embedded in the sophisticated clusters. The weight of the magic was so oppressive, he felt like he would drown in it. But, just as he brought up his flimsy occlumency shields in the hopes that it would give him some respite, the pressure receded significantly.

"It seems I owe you yet another apology, Your Grace. I wasn't aware of your... sensitivities when I chose this venue. I have rarely encountered a wizard so in tune with the magics of stone and earth. If it is too uncomfortable for you, we can reconvene in my private office." Ragnuk was honestly so taken aback by Potter's reaction to the magic of the room that he barely registered that he had just issued an unprecedented invitation to the young wizard, indirectly offering him a true glimpse into the beating heart of the bank. Even he would have difficulties justifying such an action to the Consortium's Board of Directors, but needs must.

The relief in the boy's voice was clear as he reassured his host, "It's fine now, Your Majesty. Whatever you just did... toned everything down quite a bit."

"I completely deactivated the matrix. I confess to being intrigued that you are still able to detect something."

"I mean beyond the... echo, I suppose you could say, in the room itself, there is just a quiet humming, now; it's hardly anything, Sire"

"From the table?"

At Harry's nod, a look of shock flashed across the monarch's face, "You can... hear the harmonic resonance of the matrix? That's... " With a slight shake of his head, the Goblin smiled wryly, "You are a source of constant surprise, Your Grace. A defining trait of your House, or so I have been led to believe...the stories my grandfather would tell. Do you intend to pursue your mastery in Runic studies? You obviously have a rather strong affinity, since we use a very different and more subtle sequencing technique here at Gringotts than what you have been exposed to in school."

"I regret to say that I didn't take Ancient Runes at Hogwarts, Sire."

Letting the implications of that settle for a moment, the King found himself caught flat-footed yet again in a conversation that he had orchestrated. It was as exhilarating as it was frustrating. He adored a challenge. After a brief internal debate, Ragnuk surrendered to instincts that he had rarely had cause to doubt, "If you are interested, Your Grace, I am certain one of Gringotts' Runic Masters would be very keen to speak with you about this talent and could possibly be persuaded to provide you with an introduction to Goblin rune lore in exchange. "

Green eyes wide, Harry uttered the only response he considered appropriate under the circumstances, "Your Majesty, I am flattered by your offer."

As King Ragnuk made a notation in his diary to reach out to Ulfarr later that day, he observed with some amusement that Lord Potter was, even now, very careful not to touch the table. Fascinating.

For his part, Harry still had absolutely no idea why the Goblin King had wanted to meet with him today, and the stress of the unknown was starting to take its toll. It had already been a bizarre visit, and he wished fervently that the Head of the Consortium would just cut to Hecuba, as the saying went. Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face, for Ragnuk soon closed his book and focused intently on Harry.

"You and I are not the first of our respective lines to sit across from one another at this very table. In generations past, this would have been a meeting between the kings of two peoples, united in common purpose. We share a long and proud history of service to the Lady, and those of our blood have often stood together against Magic's most dangerous foes; fighting, and even dying, to protect the safety and sanctity of our world and our craft."

Taking a drink, Ragnuk gauged his guest's reaction before continuing, "Until just over a century ago, well after House Potter formally surrendered its crown, it was expected that the Potter Heir's first official act upon reaching his or her majority would be to meet with their counterpart at Gringotts. In turn, the Consortium has always honored this particular rite of passage very highly for those in your House. While this practice has fallen out of favor in recent years, it is my intention to restore it and, with your assistance, the alliance it once signified."

The Potter Lord seemed a touch skeptical, but still interested, looking him directly in the eye and exhibiting no signs of reluctance or revulsion at the proposal. It was no doubt more than he deserved at this point.

"I have had more than enough enemies to last me a lifetime, Your Majesty, but an honest and honorable friend...that would be a blessing to cherish."

Ragnuk's gut twisted, but he did not hesitate. How could he given what lay in the balance? "As you say, Your Grace," Ragnuk acknowledged, taking a deep breath. The wizard's words had both belied and served as a reminder of his youth. "To put it plainly, I asked you here today to share my aim and, in recognition of the tradition of our ancestors, to present you with a gift; one that demonstrates our respect for your line and serves as a token of the Consortium's appreciation for your service to this realm."

Harry's eyes fluttered briefly in disbelief. He honestly couldn't fathom what to say to that other than, 'thank you,' which seemed rather inadequate, all things considered, so he stayed silent.

The King started to say something, but seemed to decide a bit of levity was in order first, "You know," he pronounced casually, a twinkle in his eye, "You are very quiet for a human... it isn't a criticism, I assure you, merely an observation."'

The reluctant smile that flickered across Harry's face at the almost teasing statement appeared to be the monarch's cue for resuming the heavy explanations, "Many of my advisors would not want me to admit this to you, but I think, in this, it is important for me to be as frank with you as I can be, so that you will understand what I offer and why."

Ragnuk took another sip of his tea, as if fortifying himself for the revelation to follow. In his mind's eye, the twisted road he had previously thought to take sprawled before him. It tempted him still, but its end was dark and uncertain. Sighing, he made a decision; humans truly were the most vexing creatures. There was almost nothing he hated more than being forced to change his plans, but the wizard was right, an honest and honorable friend was a blessing worth more than its weight in gold, and he was certain that they would need every advantage they could gather before it was all said and done. Marshalling his strength and offering a prayer, the King turned resolutely from the old course; he...they would forge a different path. With his next words, the monarch knew there would be no turning back. Her sisters stared as Clotho suddenly dropped her earlier selection and seized an entirely new thread to weave the next panel.

"You see, the Consortium carries a great deal of guilt for what many consider an abdication of part of our responsibilities to this land during my father's reign and much of my own. Our retreat from the world at one of its darkest hours - not once, but twice - is a shame I will carry to my grave. It is all the more damning to me, and to my people, that unlike us, House Potter never waivered; fulfilling its promise even at the expense of its own near extinction. That, you, a mere child, who as an underage wizard and the only surviving member of an ancient and royal bloodline should have been protected and kept far from the fight, quite literally gave the last full measure of devotion to the cause a few weeks ago, was a humbling and horrifying wake-up call for us."

The Goblin leader paused to give everything a moment to sink in, placing a chocolate mignardise on Harry's plate before serving himself. "Realizing that you were forced to stand alone - and suffered for it - because of our choices...my choices; well, that was a bit difficult to face, I'll admit. Yet, denial is for the weak and ultimately serves no one, as those who fail to learn from their mistakes are destined to repeat them. And, that is something I cannot allow to happen."

Popping another small dessert in his mouth, Ragnuk decided there was little point in holding back now, particularly in light of what he had just confessed. It certainly hadn't been his intent when he had arranged this meeting. Indeed, this in no way resembled how he had envisioned the proceedings. But, as his heart already felt lighter for his admission, he couldn't find it in him to regret it...yet.

While he couldn't disclose everything, not the least of which because he didn't know everything; so much remained inaccessible to them, shrouded in darkness and frustratingly obscure. But, for this...well, in for knut, in for a galleon, just about covered it. "Our elders confirmed that your... return was the work of Lady Magic herself, a reward from the Goddess. A blessing, to be sure; one that you unquestionably earned through your service and sacrifice... but perhaps also an indication that the realm will face additional trials, and she will have further need of a worthy defender." This was as direct as Ragnuk dared to be at this juncture, and he still feared that he had gone too far, even allowing for the obliviousness of wizards and youth.

Too accustomed to the fickleness of Fate to be truly surprised by what he believed King Ragnuk to be saying, Harry opted to ignore the broader implications for the moment as he latched on to one of the monarch's earlier statements. He would give everything its due consideration once he was in his own space. "I didn't stand alone, Your Majesty," he quietly refuted. "So many walked with me, fighting beside me. Even at the end, I wasn't alone."

The ruler must have heard something in Harry's tone, hinting at the one part of his journey into the realm of the dead that he had not shared, for he acknowledged the wizard's correction with a nod. "I, of course, meant no slight toward your loyal friends and compatriots, Your Grace. They conducted themselves with honor, and their deeds will surely be memorialized in poem and song."

"Heir Longbottom's battle with Voldemort's snake would make pretty excellent source material; his heroics even won him the girl," Harry joked, smile turning to outright laughter when Ragnuk raised an eyebrow before making an exaggerated notation in his book with a quill.

"In all seriousness, I merely wished to signal...nay, vow, that the Consortium will work to make amends and shall stand with House Potter to confront whatever dangers the future may hold, be they mortal or divine. As it has been, so shall it be."

The promise settled, heavy, but hopeful, leaving Harry certain that there was far more to this story than he had been told. It rankled a little, naturally, most especially due to his experiences with a certain headmaster, but given how often the Goblins had suffered at the hands of wizards in the past, and how little the two of them really knew each other, Harry couldn't honestly say he would have acted any differently in Ragnuk's place.

"Now, on to happier things, and the primary reason I requested this meeting. To celebrate your House and in commemoration of the 18th anniversary of your birth, I present to you on behalf of the Consortium, the Lily Evans Potter Scholarship for Post-Graduate and Mastery Studies. The trust as it is currently endowed will pay for two Hogwarts graduates per year to undertake a Mastery or other post-graduate course of study at either Oxford's Collegium Magi or another accredited international magical academy of their choosing for the next 10 years. With even the most conservative financial management of the trust, that period doubles. As I have assigned one of my clan's shrewdest investors to oversee the endowment, I am confident it will continue to fund the higher educational aspirations of wizards and witches of your choosing for many decades to come."

Harry was slightly stunned at the enormity of the gift; this was certainly no sweater or bar of chocolate. He was also unspeakably touched at the Goblins' decision to honor his mother. Blinking rapidly, he composed himself, keeping Andi's lessons firmly in mind; he didn't want Ragnuk to think he was an ungrateful idiot. "I... a simple thank you isn't... it means more to me than you could ever know that you have created this lasting tribute to my mother. I am told that education was important to her and that she prized learning and academic pursuits very highly. You know, she is almost never recognized for the fact that it was her efforts - and nothing that I did - which led to Voldemort's first defeat. She bought the world more than 13 years of peace with her life, and most merely remember her as the muggle-born wife of a magical peer. I... do not have the words to adequately express my gratitude, Your Majesty."

"Are we not allies?" Ragnuk asked intently.

"Er... we are, Sire."

"Did we not break bread together?

Uncertain of where this line of questioning was going, Harry merely glanced at the half-eaten chocolate on the plate in front of him before nodding in the affirmative.

"Have I not made my regard for you sufficiently clear?" Before Harry could even begin to formulate a response, the Goblin King demanded, "Then why do you call me by my title and not my name?"

Harry hesitated as his Chatelaine's stern warnings on Goblin etiquette ran through his head, "I am afraid I don't understand, Your Majesty."

"Ragnuk. I must insist that you call me Ragnuk. And, I would consider it a privilege if you would allow me to address you as Harry."

Things had taken a rather odd turn, and none of the lectures he'd received, nor anything he had read, had prepared him for it. Obviously, the Potter effect had struck again. Mindful of the somewhat exasperated monarch across from him, Harry forced out, "Of course, S..Ragnuk."

"Excellent! I will have your account manager owl you the parchmentwork concerning the scholarship so that you may determine what, if any, criteria you would like to attach to it, what the application process will entail, as well as how you want to select the winners. If you anticipate more than a handful of applicants, I would suggest putting together a recommending board to weed out the unworthy and provide a preliminary ranking and assessment for you to use to make your decision, but, of course, you must do as you see fit. Once you have finalized the details, Gringotts will be delighted to handle the publicity angle."

"Thank you. It is very much appreciated."

"I have just one more item of business I would like to discuss today, if you are amenable."

"By all means, Y..Ragnuk, I am at your disposal."

The Goblin gave a nod of approval and relaxed back into his chair. "For the last month, I have been considering ways in which I could assist in reconstruction efforts. After all, I have a great deal of capital, premiere warders, and contacts across the globe that could be put to use, and a damaged infrastructure and sluggish economy are bad for business. Unfortunately, despite the fact that my kin have ethically run the magical finance system since before the days of Camelot, I am also the reclusive leader of a race currently known more for its rebellions than its contributions to our collective society. Cuthbert Binns is an abomination, and he will always be an enemy of the Consortium, alive or dead."

"He is a mutual enemy," Harry agreed, dryly. Then, in typical Gryffindor fashion, and reaffirming for Ragnuk why he was quickly growing fond of the young wizard, he volunteered, "I think he should probably be exorcised."

The Goblin leader looked both interested and amused, "I feel honor-bound to advise you to check with you solicitor first... but, if you were to somehow manage it, I think even Odbert would be willing to adopt you into his clan."

Following the sentiment, if not the exact meaning, Harry smiled and added, "It would be a public service, really."

Ragnuk laughed before growing serious again, "So, may I count on you to keep me informed of any... opportunities you come across?"

Harry faltered for a moment. Despite everything Ragnuk had said today, he felt conflicted. The aid the King offered could potentially help them all move fully beyond the wars of the last century. However, he wasn't naïve enough to think that the Consortium did much out of the goodness and kindness of their hearts, and he didn't buy the 'peace is good for business' argument, no matter how much easier it would be if he did. From Andi's frequent comments regarding many Goblins' devotion to Lady Magic and their discussions today, Harry could almost believe that a desire for... atonement could be playing some role, but not knowing their ultimate motivation or goals left him uneasy. For, while it was no longer Sir 'Bribed-a-lot' Fudge's ministry, Scrimgeour and his lot were hardly paragons of innocence and virtue. They were politicians and would certainly be susceptible to Ragnuk's machinations, especially if the Man-Who-Conquered paved the way. He had absolutely no desire to be used in such a manner, even if he supported the end result. On the flip side, for better or worse, he basically trusted Ragnuk and considered that it might even be a good thing if the Goblins could buy themselves a little more good will and influence within the corridors of wizarding power. It would likely make Hermione's goals of achieving more rights for creatures and members of other magical races a bit easier, if nothing else. Plus, he wanted an alliance...knew deep down inside in ways he didn't like to think about that he, actually, needed it, in a very real sense for reasons he was reluctant to even contemplate. Gah, to Hell with it, "Of course, that is my understanding of what allies do for one another. In fact, as I am sure you are already aware, the Wizengamot is seeking bids for the re-warding of significant portions of the main shopping district in London. We are set to vote on who to award the contract to next month."

The King nodded. He, of course, knew the Ministry was in the market for a warding firm. And, while he hadn't yet received a proposal containing the parameters of the job, he was expecting it any day now. "Thank you, Harry. I am sure Gringotts will be tendering a very competitive bid. And, if anything else comes to mind, I hope you won't hesitate to reach out. I value our correspondence."

"As do I," Harry agreed.

Mindful of his very full schedule and satisfied that he had achieved as much as could be expected in a single meeting, Ragnuk stood abruptly. Harry quickly mirrored the King, scrambling to his feet somewhat awkwardly as he was still loathe to interact with the table in any way, even in its currently inert state. The Goblin frowned but chose not to comment, instead moving to conduct a soft exchange with the well-armed warrior who had stood guard outside the door. Less than a minute later, two more guards joined the first.

Ragnuk turned to address his guest, "This was a very profitable discussion; the first of many, I hope."

"Your Majesty..." Harry began, freezing at Ragnuk's pointed look. His eyes flickered to their audience before returning to the monarch. The wizard's confusion and discomfort were evident, but the King gave him no quarter. Clearly, they were doing this. "Um... that is, I mean, Ragnuk, I am grateful for your time, today." He was naturally grateful for much more than that, but he was also beyond ready to get out of this room and escape the bank.

"Harry, my personal guard, Durinn, will escort you to the Alley." The Goblin in question gave a quick bow. "Alius and Bari," the King ordered, "You are with me." In a matter of seconds, the two groups had gone their separate ways, with Durinn dutifully ushering Harry to yet another part of the bank he had never seen before.

Though Harry could easily imagine that Durinn wanted to rejoin Ragnuk as soon as possible, the Goblin guard was careful not to rush his charge. He walked on Harry's right side and just slightly behind, covering his back while remaining in easy reach. He assessed that Durinn considered Harry's clumsiness in the stone halls a far greater threat to his safety than any potential attack. Neither of them spoke a word until they eventually approached what could only be a secret exit to the outside. Harry was happy that the day was a bright one, a major contrast to the cool darkness of the underground tunnels in which he had spent his morning. The guard held the door for him, and Harry stepped into the blinding sunlight. He offered the guard a smile, "I am grateful for your escort, Master Durinn."

"The pleasure was mine, Your Grace," the Goblin responded with a bow.

"My Lord, you're making new friends, I see," came a familiar voice.

Harry whipped around, "Andromeda- I... Hello." He had been convinced he would have to search all over the Alley for her, and yet, here she was, like magic. He frowned a little...if she or Remus had placed any kind of tracking charm on him, they would be having words.

Having a fairly good idea about what might be going through Harry's mind, she cursed the Headmaster along with his bloody Order and shared a smirk with the guard who promptly took his leave now that his assignment was complete. "I didn't think that the Goblins would traipse you through the main lobby like a peasant after your private audience with their King, it would be crass." She laughed at the expression on his face. "We always used this entrance when I accompanied Grandfather Arcturus to the bank as a child," she explained. "He wouldn't tolerate waiting in line like a commoner, and he had enough political and financial power to get what he wanted most of the time. Since that power now belongs to you, I considered it likely that I would find you here."

He shook his head with such exasperation that Andi couldn't help but be amused. "Live a little, Harry. It's a hard life, you might as well enjoy a few of the perks!" He was very quiet, so she could only imagine what he had discussed with the Goblin King. Her teasing had barely managed to cajole a wary smile out of him. Hopefully seeing his friends would help. Speaking of... "Who are you expecting, today, my Lord?"

He sent her the same look he always did when she used his title, which was, of course, mostly why she had done it. People who thought Nymphadora got her mischievousness from Ted were mistaken. The Blacks recognized the importance of a good joke...and an impressive arsenal of curses, the darker the better.

"Well, Daphne said she and her father would definitely be in the Alley this morning, and Neville told me that he would meet us, too. Since I can't see him passing up an opportunity to spend time with his girlfriend, I suspect Millicent will be there. Let's see... Ron, of course. Oh, and Susan plans to do most of her shopping with her Aunt, but she did say she would try to meet us for lunch," he dutifully recited. "I think that's it, because Hermione's at work, and Dean will be getting his supplies with his family later. His brother wants to take him...he's an auror, too. Maybe Dora knows him?"

"Maybe so. We'll have to ask her this evening." She offered him her arm, "So, where to first?"

He accepted it, and together they headed west in the shadow of the bank, though the angle of the late-morning sun meant that even Gringotts' towering white edifice offered little shade. "Since you scheduled me a private fitting next week," Harry began in a slightly bitter tone, "The others decided it made sense for them to get their uniforms while I was at my meeting." She knew he wasn't thrilled about the appointment she had made for him, but as she considered it one of her duties to him as her Paterfamilias to see him well-turned out and dressed appropriately for his station, he was just going to have to deal with it. She felt a tug as he stopped to check his watch, "They should still be at Madam Malkin's."

"Good, that's just over there," she explained, gesturing to her right. As they had exited from one of the rear doors of the bank, they opted to remain in the narrow passage between Diagon and Horizont Alleys. The area was far cleaner than such a place would be in the muggle world, and since the robe shop had more than one entrance, this route made for a bit of a short-cut. As they picked their way though the deserted stretch of road, Harry spotted the backside of a toy shop called Pilliwinkle's and some kind of lighting store known as Flimflam's Lanterns. Both businesses had storefronts along Horizont Alley, which Harry had never actually visited before, despite its proximity to Diagon itself. Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions was next to Amanuensis Quills, just ahead.

The shop's back door was hard to miss, because it sported a colorful campaign sign with a picture of the squat, smiling witch herself, decked out in elegant mauve robes of her own design. It flashed the words: "Vote Malkin. The Right Fit Every Time" in a continuous loop. Clearly, with just six weeks to go before September 21st, election season had arrived.

Andromeda grabbed the door and guided Harry inside, preparing to be mobbed by a bunch of teenagers. However, the jingling bell that would normally have heralded their arrival could not be heard over the shouting of two male voices.

"It's ridiculous... you don't deserve it! I have been by his side through everything, for the love of Merlin! I am his best friend and three times the wizard you will ever be! You're just a fat, clumsy, F..."

"Shut your mouth, Weasel! I know you have no manners to speak of, but control yourself, there are ladies present. And for the record, you're a jealous prat who's on academic probation, which makes you both a terrible friend and a terrible wizard in my book. If Harry knew half of the things you got up to when he wasn't around, I doubt he would ever speak to you again. He can't abide a bully, which is exactly what you are."

"You better watch your back, Longbottom, because your grandmother won't be around to save you at the Academy."

"Are you actually threatening me? Do you think that there is anything about you that I find intimidating? Now who's being ridiculous... Plus, I don't need my grandmother to have my back, because, unlike you, I will have Harry. And, also unlike you, I won't be a possessive, capricious arse who turns on him at every opportunity and doesn't appreciate him!"

"ARRGH! I am leaving!" With that, Ron stormed out of the shop and into the Alley, slamming the door behind him without looking back. The crowds outside parted like the Red Sea as people quickly moved to avoid the obviously angry wizard. He didn't seem remotely concerned about the disturbance he was causing as he pushed his way toward one of the district's designated apparition points and disappeared with a pop.

Breaking the stunned silence in the shop, Harry decided to announce his presence, "It sounds like I missed a lot while I was at the bank."

~~ To Be Continued