Notes: I am amazed to be able to say that Transitions has now surpassed 600 alerts and 100,000 views! I know this story may not have as many reviews as some fics out there, but I still never imagined that anything I would write would get so much attention. You all are the best readers :). In celebration, and in thanks to you, I am pleased to be able to deliver this full-length chapter before the end of the year, as promised. I am definitely not sorry to be closing the door on 2021, though. Hopefully 2022 will be brighter and kinder to everyone. Happy New Year!

Now, as far as the story goes, this part will finally bring the crew's busy Friday to a close. Only three chapters remain after this one (truly), and then the second arc and sequel - which will largely take place at the academy itself- will begin. (Some of you got a brief sneak peek from it on Christmas, though it has now been taken down. But, don't fret, a version of that scene in which you will learn how Plan B actually worked out for them should appear about 3/4 of the way through the next story, if my plot mapping holds).

In this chapter, I tried to give a little more insight into Lavender's and Ron's motivations going into the sequel. It got away from me a little, but I am still considering adding a short character introspective to the beginning of each of the three chapters after this one, similar to Moira's cameo in chapter 24. If I did this, to help set up the squad dynamics and characterization for the next arc, who do you want to see? Susan, Neville, Regin, Aelfdene, or Dean T.? Let me know in a review!

Disclaimer and Acknowledgements: I don't own the Harry Potter franchise or its characters. Some descriptions of Diagon Alley were inspired by the shopping scenes in Books 1-3.

This chapter is dedicated to new readers, those who have followed and favorited this story, as well as to mwinter1, wolf970, Lulu, Hank1967, astudent99, cirque, Deanna Halliwell, iceey, Anon19740, Ermac18, slinky gustavo, Fireandy, cccarie, indie0209, ICQ, RosiePosie, Avis, The Dark Lord Potter, Bernardus, GodOfDonuts, stevem1, yoto, and guests for their comments on chapter 24 and the sneak preview from the sequel which served as a temporary chapter 25.

**Speech in Gobbledegook will be bolded below**


~Previously..."After all, they still needed to shop for potions supplies and meet up with everyone for lunch by 1pm, there was no time to waste!"~


Meanwhile... 7 August 1998 - Near Umber House, Saffron Walden, Essex - 10:30am

In an effort to escape the torrent of hurt and rage clawing at his insides, Ron Weasley apparated from Diagon Alley without sparing a single thought for his destination. In retrospect, given his history of splinching, this may not have been the wisest course of action. Thankfully, in the absence of any physical pain (or missing appendages), he concluded that he must have arrived safely, and most importantly, whole, despite his carelessness. It seemed desperation could be added to the list of proverbial D's. Take that Wilkie Twycross!

Following his brief self-assessment, the well-built red head turned his attention to his surroundings. His initial survey left him wondering exactly how far from the Burrow he had landed. He had scanned every inch of the horizon until the blinding light of the midmorning sun forced him to look away, but nothing in the meadow in which he found himself seemed at all familiar. Seeing no alternative, as he recognized he was too shaky to risk another jump any time soon, he resigned himself to a long hike.

However, suspecting he hadn't quite ended up where he had intended and knowing it beyond a doubt turned out to be two entirely different things. For, when he crested one of several grassy knolls dotting the field, he had been completely shocked to see a large stone Griffin perched atop a high, brick privacy wall in the distance rather than the crooked, ramshackle silhouette of his childhood home. Why in Merlin's name had he ended up here of all places? He certainly had his suspicions, but denial was a seductive temptress.

Sometimes it felt like the entire world was stacked against him. Ron had left Neville and the others in order to give himself time to think. But, as usual, far from clearing his head, his unexpected detour was only serving to stoke his anxiety. Swallowing a yell of frustration, and utterly unable to come up with a good enough reason to turn around, the tall wizard took a few deep breaths before his long strides began to devour the distance. All too soon, he could clearly make out portions of the imposing Georgian façade and lead-roofed entrance porch above the wall line. His fragile resolve crumbled as he approached the outskirts of the property. Nerves frayed, he didn't think that it was possible for him to be less prepared for the conversation that was certain to ensue. Yet, like all Gryffindors, he put his head down and charged ahead.

Frowning, Lavender gently laid her hair brush on the carved mahogany side table and walked to the window. She had dismissed the noise she had heard earlier as a back-firing automobile. Having done exceptionally well in Muggle Studies at Hogwarts, she knew that mundane conveyances just did that from time to time and that it was nothing to worry about. Furthermore, while Umber House was fairly isolated, they did get the occasional passerby on the old, dirt carriage track beyond the tree-line out front. The faint sense of unease she was now experiencing, not unlike that which accompanied the sound of fingernails scraping against a chalkboard, however, wasn't something she could ignore. The house seemed, for lack of a better word, agitated.

Still more curious than concerned, she didn't hesitate to pull the curtain aside to see if she could spot what had caused the disturbance. Peeved by the sun's glare, Lavender opened the bottom sash of the double-hung window to get a better look. It was an act her parents would surely consider the height of foolishness, but she had sorted into the lions' den, so what did they expect? Was that... ? No. It couldn't be. He was supposed to be shopping with the others today, an event from which she was still somewhat displeased to have been excluded, but her father wouldn't be swayed.

As the figure moved closer, the truth became unmistakable. Suddenly realizing she had been staring, and hoping that she wasn't coming across as some kind of love-sick fool, she called out, "Ron- stop! You're about to cross the outer wards!"

He froze and took an exaggerated step back. She sighed; it was hopeless. Even his almost comical reaction to the thought of what might have happened had he not heeded her warning did nothing to dampen the frisson of delight that shot through her at the sight of him. "Stay there! I'll be down in a minute."

Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the large gilt mirror in the foyer as she raced past, she lamented that she hadn't taken more care with her appearance this morning. Oh well, regrettably some things were more important than looking stylish, and this was one of them. Not wanting to give Ron the impression that she was desperate, however, she took a second for herself, fluffing her hair and brushing some imaginary lint off of her clothing. As ready as she would ever be, she opened the door and headed toward him; she wasn't really suited to beating around the bush. "Ron, what are you doing here?"

Her query was meant to sound casual, but even her rather oblivious lover couldn't possibly fail to detect the intensity of her tone or the tension blooming in the air between them.

In an instant, his stormy expression transformed. The anger and jealousy that had taken root evaporated like morning dew. Merlin, she looked like an angel. He greedily drank in every curve and catalogued every curl, worshipping her with his eyes as he had done with his body many times before. Just the sight of her soothed the ache in his heart. He felt lighter, like suddenly everything was more bearable... like he, Ron Weasley, could do anything. In awe of its power, he knew this was love.

"Well?" she prompted, striving for flirtatious but falling flat.

"Er...what was the question, again?"

She giggled at his obvious distraction. Only Ron could make her feel this way. Beautiful and powerful; never a means to an end, and never a mere bargaining chip in her family's quest to climb another rung on the social ladder. "I thought you were going to be in Diagon Alley most of the day."

"I... that is..." Flushing to the roots of his hair, he tried again, "I left early."

Sensing there was more to that story, she gently prodded, "Why?"

"I might have had a fight with Neville."

Now she was really confused, "Neville Longbottom?"

He nodded with a scowl, mumbling something unflattering about the other wizard under his breath.

None of this made any sense, she clearly needed to approach it from a different angle. It was time to appeal to Ron's better nature. "And what did Harry say about the two of you getting into it, then?" If she were at all insecure about Ron's feelings for her, she would probably have felt threatened by his relationship with the dark-haired wizard. Ron loved him... more than he loved most of his siblings, she would wager. But, honestly, it was hard not to love Harry; she suspected most of the Hogwarts' student body had either wanted to adopt him or been half in love with him by the time they had graduated. Well, maybe not the Slytherins. Except Draco Malfoy, of course. If that boy didn't harbor some serious UST for their savior then she'd willingly go on a date with McLaggen.

"He wasn't there," Ron admitted tentatively.

"Is he okay?" Lavender knew she sounded alarmed, but the only time she had seen their former classmate since his confrontation with You-Know-Who was at his birthday party the previous week. She thought he had looked rather unwell, especially by the end of the evening, though Ron had repeatedly assured her that their friend was actually doing loads better and improving every day.

Ron all but sneered, "Greengrass said he had an appointment at the bank this morning, so I am sure he's fine."

She raised an eyebrow at the uncharacteristic display. Now they were getting somewhere. "Do you want to talk about it?"

He hesitated. Several times he seemed as though he would confide in her before retreating again. It would have been adorable if it weren't so bloody exasperating. "Neville and Harry are in the same squad at the Academy," he finally blurted out.

"I see," Lavender replied, though she didn't; not really. "Only... I mean, you and I aren't in the same squad, but that doesn't change anything between us, does it?" She couldn't stop the question from spilling out, even though she knew she sounded anxious.

Surprising her, Ron took a step forward, though clearly still mindful of the spell work that separated them. "Of course not, Lav. Merlin, I... that is... I-I've never cared about anyone the way I care about you. I love you." There, he'd said it. It was out there. All he could do now was brace for the inevitable rejection.

Silence reigned, and for a moment, it was just the two of them; everything else fell away. Though, as neither of them were much for quiet contemplation, that state of affairs didn't last long. Shattering his ear drum, if not also a few nearby windows, she suddenly squealed with delight. "Won-Won, baby, I love you, too!"

"Y-you do?"

Fighting the urge to tease him, she decided simple was best. "Yes." She allowed them both a few minutes to relish the joy and release that came with their respective confessions. "Unfortunately," she warned, bringing them both abruptly back to Earth, "love may not be enough. My family's aspirations for me, and for themselves, make things incredibly complicated." Tears formed at the corners of her eyes as her assessment harshly reminded them of the reality of their situation.

Brown eyes suddenly shining with determination, he offered quietly, "It doesn't have to be. I have it on good authority that love is one of the most powerful forces in the universe."

"Ron..."

"Look, just...hear me out. I know your parents only want the best for you and that the Weasleys are not a wealthy family," he couldn't prevent a touch of bitterness from seeping into his voice at the admission. "But, according to the Prophet, my dad stands a good chance of winning a seat on the Wizengamot next month. My mum is a Prewitt... which is to say, not that I put any stock in such things," he was quick to clarify, "but...well, that's the blood of two so-called 'Sacred 28' families running through my veins. Plus, the twins are making galleons hand over fist at their shop, and - like you - I earned a place at the Auror Academy on my own merits," mostly, anyway, he felt compelled to add mentally. "And, I don't know if you've heard, but Minister Scrimgeour told my dad that I was being considered for an award, maybe an Order of Merlin, for my role in the Battle of Hogsmeade. Not just me, obviously, but apparently there is going to be a vote at the legislative session in September. It should be announced in the paper any day now."

The blonde witch paled as she always did at any mention of the final battle. Though several months had passed, the sheer terror she had experienced when two hulking figures in bone-white masks had grabbed her in the middle of Hogsmeade still haunted her dreams. She knew what they had surely planned for her and hadn't fully come to terms with either how close it had come to happening or the events that had ultimately enabled her to escape. She was seeing a mind-healer, but, even now, as she stood shivering in the light breeze, she could almost smell the suffocating smoke and coppery tang of blood on the air while the ghost of Goyle's rough hands drug her along by her hair and ripped at her clothes. Attending the Academy had never been more important to her, because deep down, she feared that it was the only way for her to face her residual demons and emerge triumphant and whole on the other side.

Recognizing that she had not yet responded to Ron's well-reasoned plea, Lavender make a concerted effort to shake off the lingering effects of the traumatic memories. This was important business they were discussing, and she needed her head in the game. However, before she could voice her approval, Ron started speaking again.

"You know how much I respect you, Lav." He paused and exhaled slowly, looking slightly ill. He closed his eyes, and for a minute, she thought that might have been all he intended to say. But then, seeming to derive strength from her nod of encouragement, he pressed on, "I guess what I am trying to ask you is...um... how would you feel about getting betrothed... to me, I mean?"

"What?!"

He couldn't breathe. He had expected it, of course he had; he wasn't completely stupid, no matter what most of his siblings claimed. She was the sun and the moon... and he was nothing. And yet, her refusal was more agonizing than he had anticipated, like a dagger to his heart.

She felt too much all at once: a dizzying swirl of wonder and bliss mixed with excitement and a touch of fear; so many emotions warring for dominance left her light-headed. This was everything she had ever wanted and also something she had tried to avoid at all costs. Finally surfacing from the maelstrom, her smile vanished at the look of misery on her boyfriend's face. Then, it hit her: his lack of confidence, her silence; she had inadvertently caused this!

The startling realization came with an overwhelming desire to fix the issue and ease his pain; and, she wasn't in the habit of denying herself. "Ron, for Merlin's sake, I would be absolutely ecstatic!" Deciding she no longer cared if her parents lectured her for leaving the wards without telling them, she passed through the boundary and leapt into his arms. Holding him close, she murmured into his chest, "Never doubt that, please...and never doubt me."

"I don't!" he exclaimed immediately. She lifted her head and stared at him, her skepticism obvious. Chagrined, he admitted, "but, I did doubt myself...a lot."

Hugging him tighter, she declared, "We'll just need to work on that, then, won't be, babes?"

Reveling in the feel of her pressed against him for the first time in weeks, he agreed absently. It was hard for him to deny her anything when they were like this, a situation he was well aware she occasionally used to her advantage...Exhibit A: ridiculous terms of endearment.

She eventually released him, and he groaned at the loss. Taking his right hand in both of hers, she examined it, palm up, and ran her fingers gently over his heart line. It was a deep groove, just as one would expect from such a passionate soul. Ron's personal relationships were everything to him, and, for better or worse, he was often ruled by his emotions. He had a fiery temper, it was true, and sometimes, in the heat of the moment, he said things he didn't mean. But, he also loved completely, with all he had, and that tipped the scales for her. She could easily ignore the fact that Ron's line was somewhat fractured and began under his middle finger, indicating a restless spirit and a predisposition for on-again, off-again relationships, because she'd spent her entire life observing her parent's polite tolerance and safe, practically anemic affection for one another. She wanted more - much, much more - for herself.

"Let's take a walk," she suggested after a long moment, kissing the rather prominent Mount of Venus area located at the base of his thumb. "The local gardens are lovely this time of year."

"What about your parents?"

She shrugged, "I'll tell them the truth. As leading members of the 'Friends of Bridge End Gardens' charity, they should certainly be able to appreciate the appeal of strolling through the park on such a beautiful day."

"If you're sure..."

"I'm positive. I know the perfect place to plan our approach to my parents and help you figure out what to do about Neville and the others." She shot him a knowing look, "Don't think I've forgotten about how this all started. Come on, let's go!"

Ron was mildly disappointed at how quickly they arrived, because he had really enjoyed walking hand in hand with her in public. It was a simple privilege he'd been denied due to the clandestine nature of their relationship at Hogwarts; yet another basic relationship rite of passage he'd been missing out on by not speaking up about his true feelings for her sooner.

They entered the gardens through a set of ornamental iron gates. He thought the birds mounted on the brick posts anchoring them were eagles, but he was hardly a muggle bird expert. To their right, in a riot of cascading purples and blues, a line of mature wisteria trees formed the Eastern boundary of the so-called 'Dutch Garden.' It looked like a portal to the Faery realm. Leaving him almost no time to stop and admire the view, she led him quickly past some overgrown yew topiary and a circular fountain with a crumbling statue of a cherub and some marine life at its center. The edges were ragged, so it was hard to tell, but he believed the shrubbery had perhaps once been cut into a curved geometric pattern.

If the wisterias had brought to mind a magical waterfall, the archway of trained laburnums she propelled him through next evoked images of summer and sunshine. At the end of the golden tunnel, there was a small brick grotto. "This part of Bridge End is known as 'the Wilderness,'" she revealed, breaking the reflective silence as she gestured for him to take a seat on a stone bench nearby.

"It's nice... sort of peaceful."

"It is," she agreed. "Sometimes I come here when I need to think." Lavender shifted her weight so she was leaning against him, and he obligingly wrapped a protective arm around her waist. They sat quietly in the shaded grove, enjoying the beauty of the setting as well as the company. It was wonderful, and she never wanted it to end. Nonetheless, having thoroughly contemplated their situation, she reluctantly broke the spell. "I am going to come clean to my parents about a few things."

He went rigid, voice pitched embarrassingly high, "W-what?"

She laughed softly, "Don't worry, Ron, I'm not going to tell them everything. After all, a girl has to have some secrets, especially if they're the kind that could get her disowned, or worse. Plus," she joked, "I would hate to have to visit my father in Azkaban after he murdered you; the weather would be terrible for my hair."

He relaxed slightly, "You have many wonderful qualities, luv, but I think your sense of humour may need a little work."

"Bah, humour is in the eye of the beholder. Anyway, I think I need to start by having a real conversation with my parents about my future. I did a lot of things when they revealed their plans to me. I acted out and raged at the unfairness of it all, but I never once sat down with them to share my goals or attempt to work out an arrangement that we could all accept. I don't necessarily regret it, I mean, how could I? It brought the two of us together. But, I can see now that it wasn't exactly the most mature thing I could have done. I know they only want me to be happy, so I owe it to them and myself to be honest with them about what happiness looks like to me. Maybe it won't change anything, but I have to try. And, you're right about your family. If I can get through to them in the next few weeks, even just a little, I think you should have your father approach mine about a contract...by the end of the month at the latest. What do you think?"

"I will talk to my parents tonight. I think they might be a bit surprised, but they'll support me."

"Good. Now, tell me more about this thing between you and Harry that made you start an argument with Neville of all people."

"He's the one who started it!" Ron insisted before quailing under her knowing gaze. "Okay, okay, I might have said a few things that upset him first, but he accused me of being a bad wizard and a bad friend!"

"What?! Neville said that to you?"

"I know! He isn't as innocent and harmless as he'd have people believe."

Lavender considered the changes in their former dormmate and had to concede that he'd grown an enviable backbone, among other things, over the last few years making him much less likely to put up with other people's nonsense than before. "Well, honey, you did spend the last several months antagonizing him about the Academy, he might have been tired of it."

Looking truly affronted, he demanded, "Whose side are you on, anyway?"

"Ron, you know I am always on your side. I am just trying to help you see things from other perspectives."

Mollified by her words, he took a deep breath and tried to put himself on Neville's broom as his girlfriend had suggested. Not that their fellow Gryffindor could actually fly one, he couldn't help but think uncharitably... hmmm... maybe Lavender had a point. He had allowed his insecurity about life after Hogwarts to occasionally get the better of him this year, and he supposed it was only right to acknowledge that Neville had borne the brunt of some of that... or a lot of it, if he was being completely honest. And, nothing he had used to justify his behavior, even to himself, seemed particularly compelling now that he really thought through it. In fact, in a certain light, his actions almost made him seem like a bit of an arsehole... almost. It was just, well, Neville's struggles had been making Ron feel better about himself for years. He didn't have Harry's power or Hermione's brains, and he wasn't funny like the twins or as good at quidditch as Ginny, not that he would ever admit that to her. He also wasn't cool like Bill, and he didn't have his life mapped out like Percy. He had come to terms some time ago with the fact that he was surrounded by many brilliant people, while he himself was mostly average. But, he was usually okay with that, because, even though he might never make friends as easily as Dean or end up being named Head Boy or Gryffindor's Quidditch Captain, at least he was good at chess and wasn't the worst in their year group. That undesirable distinction belonged to Neville Longbottom, no contest, and Ron had always been more successful than Neville... until he wasn't.

By the end of their 5th year, Neville had properly started to grow into himself, both physically and magically. He was no longer failing the practical portions of every one of their classes or blowing up cauldrons on a weekly basis; and, it may have taken them a while, but people had eventually noticed. By their 7th year, Harry had taken to openly praising Neville's skill and commitment, frequently choosing to partner with the sandy-haired wizard in Defense. Hermione had begun to study Herbology with him, and the two of them could often be heard debating the impact that harvesting ingredients during different seasons had on various potions. Even Ginny had taken a brief break from her single-minded focus on the Boy-Who-Lived to express her appreciation for Neville's powerful and attractive form. Still, as difficult as it was, Ron had adjusted to the new dynamic, though perhaps not quite as gracefully as he'd initially believed. Then, everyone had received their offers to take the academy entrance exams before him, and he and Harry had been scheduled to test at different times. The youngest Weasley boy may arguably only have the emotional range of a flobberworm, but even he had detected the difference in his closest friend after he'd returned from the Ministry in March. Through their shared experience, Harry had forged strong bonds with other classmates that day, and Ron had felt like he was being left behind.

Worse, that feeling, which had been growing since the previous September, never completely disappeared. The remainder of the year had been like a yo-yo: sometimes the distance between him and his friends seemed stark and insurmountable, but other times it was like nothing had changed. He knew some of the blame fell to him on account of his unwillingness to confide in them about Lavender. Secrecy was the proverbial enemy of intimacy, after all. Still, at the end of the year, it had been just like old times: the three of them against the world... even if they had invited a few others into their tightknit group. He had been so scared after the battle in Hogsmeade; he didn't know what he would have done without Hermione's cool determination and reassuring presence. The reunion of the trio had lifted a huge burden from his shoulders, but the further they got into this summer, the more that weight had resettled in his heart.

Their lives were so different now, with Hermione spending all week at the Ministry and Harry busy with politics. He feared that this was how it was going to be going forward. Seven years of friendship in life and death situations reduced to superficial interactions in the presence of a dozen other people. Harry hadn't contacted him when he had received his squad letter, and he hadn't returned any of Ron's numerous floo calls either. His best mate clearly didn't have time for him any more, and with so many other things and people demanding his attention, maybe it wasn't too surprising, but it still hurt.

"You're awfully quiet. Should I be worried?"

"I'm just thinking about what you said about perspectives." She was silent, hoping it would coax him into sharing more. Her tactic soon paid off, "I might have been projecting a little, and maybe have taken some of that out on Neville."

Ron was startled when she hurled herself into his arms and proceeded to kiss him so thoroughly he briefly forgot his own name. She smelled of jasmine and tasted of ripe summer berries. It was glorious! Eventually forced to come up for air, she lightly stroked his cheek, love shining in her eyes, "You know, not many people would be capable of being so honest with themselves. I am very impressed."

"Really?"

She nodded solemnly, "Now that you have figured out some of the issue, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know. It's just... what if Harry doesn't want to be my friend any more?"

"What?! Ron, that's ridiculous! Harry loves you like a brother. During the Tri-Wizard tournament, you were the thing he would have missed most!"

"That was years ago, Lavender. Besides, I am pretty sure he wouldn't feel the same way today."

"Ron, what is this really about? I can't help you if you don't tell me."

And so, he sat with her, the soothing sound of water trickling in the background, and spilled the whole, sad story. When he was done, he felt a lot better, but also kind of silly. Hearing it out loud made him realize that he might have been over-reacting just a tad. It also made him think that maybe he was a touch too possessive about his friends.

"It is totally understandable that your feelings were hurt when Harry didn't make time to speak to you about the letter, especially when he evidently wasn't too busy to plan an outing to Diagon Alley or schedule an appointment at the bank."

"Er... Greengrass is the one who set up the shopping trip, and I think he made that Gringotts appointment at least a week ago."

"Oh, well... Are you sure he wasn't just out of the country or something?"

"I don't know..."

Ron now sounded even more miserable, which hadn't been her intent at all. He obviously still had a lot more self-reflection to do, but she was confident he would get it all sorted out eventually. Baby steps.

"Just assess the situation now that you have a better understanding of everyone's motivations, including your own, and don't bottle it up. Talk to Harry, Ron, it will help. But, you know, try to give him the benefit of the doubt," she cautioned gently.

"Okay," he consented with more confidence than he felt.

"As for Neville, I think you owe him an apology, don't you?"

"If I have to," he agreed, slightly reluctant. He was a bit ashamed of his behavior, and not just the display at the robe shop that morning. But, any discomfort he might feel when he admitted to the other wizard that he had been in the wrong paled in comparison to what Lavender might do to him if he didn't at least make an effort. She could be a real beast when she wanted to be.

"You do," she asserted firmly, rather proving his point. Checking one final time that the two of them were alone, she leaned in for a kiss before helping him off the bench and steering him into a secluded corner. "Do you think you can apparate to Diagon Alley from here?"

"I think so, and listen, thank you for everything. I don't know how I got so lucky to have you in my life."


7 August 1998 - The Leaky Cauldron, Diagon Alley, London 1:17pm

Oblivious to the irritation of the veritable sea of muggles forced to navigate their way around her, Moira Stuart stood transfixed on the pavement off Charing Cross Road nervously twisting the end of her silvery braid. Eventually coming to some internal decision, she crossed the street, pausing only briefly under the shadowed cut-out of a witch stirring a large, busted cauldron that few could see. This was it. She could do it. Time to give herself over to fate and hopefully make some new friends in the process... or at least not end up getting banned from the premises like that one time in Budapest.

Knowing it wasn't going to get any easier, she offered a silent prayer and stepped through the open door of the oldest pub in London.

The noise level sky-rocketed as soon as she was inside the wards. The silence had given way to raucous laughter and the buzz of dozens of conversations coming from every corner. Overwhelmed, she stumbled her way through the crowds.

"I mean, I love him, but…" offered one woman standing at the bar.

Then, shouted from across the room, "Merlin's beard! Was she on Potions at the time?"

"Thanks for that… lovely image," a middle-aged witch retorted from somewhere to her right.

"Well, you know what they say, darling... sharing is caring." Everyone in her vicinity chuckled at the cheeky reply.

It was a lot. Moira didn't visit London's magical district often. She conducted most of her business by owl order, and when that wasn't possible, she greatly preferred the small shopping enclave in Cardiff to the bustle of Diagon Alley. However, now that she was safely tucked away in a slightly quieter corner, she could appreciate that, dark and shabby it may have been, there was something undeniably special about the Leaky Cauldon. Maybe it was the history of the place: witches and wizards had been talking sports, debating politics, or just gathering there for a pint since the 1500s. Though, between the dingy walls and water-stained tables, it didn't seem like the place had been cleaned much since then either. She wrinkled her nose as she wrenched her shoe free from a sticky patch on the floor. Weren't there charms for that? It was all part of the experience, she was sure.

Ready to face the crowds once more, she moved away from the wall and scanned the room for an empty table. Her instincts screamed. Merlin's pants! There they were! She ducked inside one of the many stone alcoves to observe. Sitting at two tables pushed together and located as far from the fireplace as possible while still being in the main dining room were three witches and two wizards, all of whom appeared to be between 15 and 20 years of age. Two of the witches had dark hair, but that was where their similarities ended. The one seated next to the young but very well-dressed wizard in glasses was impossibly elegant. Her curls were arranged artfully down her back and every gesture with one of her expertly manicured hands was a study in poise and grace. Even with her powerful intuition in play, Moira wasn't prepared to speculate on the nature of the relationship between the two without more information. She had initially assumed they were related in some way, but after carefully studying their body language for the last few minutes, she was no longer certain.

Shifting her attention to the others, she noted that the much larger woman directly across the table from the first was also well-groomed, but everything from her chin-length bob to her sturdy shoes screamed that she was the practical sort who ultimately favored substance over style. Her male dining companion, for unlike the ambiguous nature of the connection between the first pair, there was no doubt in Moira's mind that the two most physically imposing members of the quintet were a couple, reinforced that assessment. She remembered the man's kind hazel eyes. He had been in her testing group at the Ministry. She thought his name was Ned or maybe Orville? Either way, the eyes were unforgettable. They were warm but also conveyed an endless curiosity and a hint of mischief. Scrutinizing him more closely, she decided that he was technically a blond, but the locks, which he wore in a short, simple style, tended toward the darker end of that spectrum. He was clean-shaven today, though he had sported some stubble last Spring, if she recalled correctly. The thick brows and well-proportioned features, however, were the same. All in all, he was quite attractive. However, just as she had surmised the day they had met, she suspected what really drew people in was his quiet, steady confidence that suggested that he was a man of principles who was exceptionally comfortable in his own skin.

The final member of the group was by far the most emotive, making the busty red-head the easiest to read, despite the duality of her nature. On the surface, she seemed vivacious and carefree. Even now, she was excitedly regaling the others with some tale from her shopping adventures, aware of, but unconcerned about, any looks she was receiving due to her volume and general exuberance. Moira believed this persona was real, but also that it only represented one facet of the whole. For, even as she playfully stole a chip from one of the others' plates and made a production of eating it, her sharp eyes scanned the room for possible threats. Indeed, in her subtle check that she had easy access to her wand and enough room on her right side to draw it unimpeded, a totally different side to the witch was revealed. One that was driven and ambitious; serious, and even ruthless, if the situation called for it. A little girl who had been forced to grow up too fast. A woman who would never hesitate to do what was necessary to protect the ones she loved.

Moira's new teammates were fascinating, and she was determined to introduce herself... really, any minute now. She was definitely going to go over there and speak to them. Probably. Wait a minute...butterbeer! Yes! She was in a pub. So, of course, she could just buy drinks for the table and carry them over herself. It would only be natural for them to ask her to join them after such an overture, and it wouldn't seem stalker-ish at all. Hopefully.

With a deep breath, Moira approached the counter and opened a tab. If everything went well, she might swing for another round. If it didn't, she could always drown her disappointment in Fire Whiskey. Either way, now she wouldn't have to fumble with any coins until later. For better or worse, it didn't take long for Tom to fill six glasses and place them on a tray for her. "Thanks," she offered weakly. It was go time.

Moira picked her way carefully across the room, thankful that she had not sloshed too much of the sweet beverage over the sides of the mugs on her way over. Breathing a sigh of relief, she was just about to announce her arrival when someone jostled her roughly from behind. She watched in horror as disaster unfolded. The tray slipped from her hands. She had somehow managed not to drop it, but the force of the motion still sent the glasses flying, dousing both her and the red-headed witch she had been spying on for the last half hour with their sticky contents.

Susan shrieked as the icy liquid soaked her blouse causing the entire pub to turn to see what all the commotion was about. However, before the others even had time to react, Harry had both witches and anyone else who had been in the splash radius cleaned up and dried off. At the same time, a nearby waitress quickly banished the glassware and plucked the still soggy tray from Moira's slack grip. In less than a minute, the only evidence remaining from the mishap was another sticky spot on the floor, which, to be fair, might have actually been there before.

When it seemed that no fight was going to break out, most customers went back to their drinks. Still reeling, Moira whipped around to get a look at the clumsy oaf who had run into her. It was somehow easier than facing her future squad mates. The culprit was a very tall wizard with too many freckles and bright red hair. He was obviously several years younger than she was, but she would guess that he was still old enough to be finished with school. If his slightly hunched shoulders and look of contrition were any indication, the man knew he was at fault. Frowning a bit, she tilted her head to the side. He was familiar, though she knew they had never met. Ah. Of course. "The Knight of Pentacles, I presume?"

Her odd statement woke everyone from their collective daze.

"I'm sorry?" Ron replied, thoroughly confused by the strange silver-haired woman in front of him.

"You should be," Moira, agreed with a slight glare.

"What are you doing here?" Neville challenged, ignoring the stranger in favor of making sure Ron knew that he had some explaining to do.

Continuing as if Neville hadn't spoken, Moira advised, "But, you can make it up to me by apologizing to all these people and replacing the drinks."

Ron gaped at her for a moment before acknowledging Neville, "She's right. I...er do owe you an apology for this morning... and the whole year, I guess, when it comes down to it. For what it's worth, I am sorry for how I treated you. You didn't deserve it, and I hope you can forgive me."

Neville was shocked. He had imagined many possible ways that his next encounter with the red head could go, and while he had derived more personal satisfaction from some scenarios than others, a genuine apology from his former dormmate for all his dragon shite and not just his outburst this morning had never seemed like even a remote possibility. There were a thousand things he could say, but most of them seemed petty in the face of true remorse. Instead, the blond offered his hand to shake, "Apology accepted."

"Motus Subsisto," Millicent cast quietly, freezing their ex-classmate in place. It didn't have the brute force of the petrification spell, but it would still prevent Ron from going anywhere for a few minutes. Neville correctly assumed that she typically used it on her family's horses. "Who are you, and what have you done with Ron Weasley?" Neville smirked internally, that was his girl. It was times like this that he really wished he had sorted into Slytherin... or at least been part of some kind of exchange program during his last two years. Either way - Go Snakes!

Across from him, Harry canceled the spell with a wave of his hand and sent a pointed look in Millie's direction. She merely winked at him and blew him a kiss.

Ron turned an interesting shade of red for a few seconds but surprisingly kept his cool. It was, after all, his terrible temper that had put him in this situation in the first place. "Thanks, mate," he said with a nod to Harry, who naturally smiled back.

Wanting to speak with Harry in private, he started to ask the brunette to go with him to get drinks before changing his mind. He didn't want to test Tom's crowd control measures, and there were still a lot of people who wanted a piece of the 'Chosen One.' No one was bothering them currently, but he thought it might be a bit risky to first parade his friend through the dining room and then make him a stationary target at the bar. He was sure there would be another opportunity this afternoon to peel away from the group. "I'll just go get those butterbeers now, shall I? Be right back."

With that, Moira plopped down into the seat next to Susan, "Finally. I thought he would never leave."

Unable to restrain herself any longer, Daphne burst out laughing. It was a bit starling, since the former Slytherin wasn't exactly known for being demonstrative, especially in public. Still, she wasn't the only one losing their battle with amusement over the absurdity of the situation.

One witch who wasn't the least bit amused, however, was Susan Bones. She had just opened her mouth to demand an explanation from the odd woman, when the woman in question turned to address her directly. "I'm sorry about what happened before, you know, with the drinks. It was an accident, and well, you know what they say about setting yourself free by trespassing."

Moira looked to the blond wizard from her exam group for support. "I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that one," he responded mildly.

"It's just like the one about rocks and kettles and glass houses," she explained confidently.

This only served to make Daphne laugh harder, which drew Moira's attention to her and then Harry. When she made eye contact with the messy-haired wizard, time seemed to slow. The first thing she did was revise her initial estimate of his age. There was no way that a teenager could be as powerful as he clearly was. She felt ridiculous when she realized that this was obviously Harry Potter. She blamed the fact that she hadn't immediately recognized him on the stress of the day...and because she'd assumed he would be taller. Then, just when she was about to attempt a more coherent apology to the witch on her left, Moira sensed something in him that she had not expected. "Oh... you have the gift."

"Er.. what?"

"But you aren't very receptive to it," she lamented without acknowledging his question. "You need to open yourself up more. I have some bath salts that can help with that."

Susan couldn't take it any longer, "Excuse me, but who are you?"

"Oh, didn't I introduce myself?" At the negative head shakes all around her, she offered her name. "Moira Stuart, at your service. Though, my friends call me Mo."

"Don't say it, don't say it... you were a Hufflepuff," Susan chanted to herself under her breath.

"Is she okay?"

"I'm sure it's just been a long day for her," Harry replied kindly, since Daphne was still giggling too much to speak.

"I'm a member of your academy squad."

"You've got to be kidding me," said Susan, eyes wide in disbelief.

So that was where he'd recognized the name from. "I spotted you all when I came in, and I thought I'd stop by to say hi. It er... didn't quite go how I'd planned."

"You don't say," Susan couldn't help but snipe.

"I remember you now!" Neville exclaimed. "We took our entrance exams together, right?"

"We did, yes."

"I'm Neville, by the way, Neville Longbottom, and this is Miss Millicent Bulstrode."

"Hello," Moira greeted, suddenly feeling a bit shy.

"I'm Susan Bones," the red-head finally relented, forcing out a smile, "and that's Harry Potter and Daphne Greengrass, over there," she finished, knowing better than to leave those introductions to Neville.

"It's nice to meet all of you."

"Oh, and the boy who ran into you is called Ron Weasley. He'll be at the academy, too, but he's in a different squad."

Well, at least now she had a name for the Knight.

Speak of the devil, "I'm baaack! Who wants butterbeer?"


7 August 1998 - Lower Levels, Gringotts, London Branch - 7:30pm

After many years of working together, Ragnuk was no stranger to Irongall's fondness for packing his schedule whenever the other goblin planned to be away. His self-professed 'minder,' who also happened to be his personal secretary, claimed that, in his absence, ensuring the King was busy was the only strategy that had any hope of succeeding in keeping him out of trouble. Still, as today had been excessive, even by his assistant's ridiculous standards, it was a relieved and slightly weary leader who, about halfway through the bank's second shift, finally managed to extricate himself from the last of his official obligations for the evening. He wasn't entirely certain what he had done to deserve a meeting with a goblin like Ashhelm at the end of such a long day, or ever, really, but he and Irongall were definitely going to be having words.

More than happy to escape the confines of his office again, Ragnuk ordered his guards to remain at their posts. He neither wanted nor needed an escort to his next appointment, since it would require a more... personal touch.

He was still stewing over his encounter earlier that afternoon with the dour Rune Master, and he had no intention of allowing this next assignation to end so unsatisfactorily.

Ragnuk had revealed far more than he'd wanted during his audience with Ulfarr. Unfortunately, the Consortium's leading scholar hadn't been sufficiently enticed by the prospects of teaching a student with an innate talent for sensing and understanding runic magic once he'd learned that student was a wizard. Left with few alternatives beyond just ordering the other Goblin to comply, something he was loathe to do for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the disastrous impact it would almost certainly have on the quality and tolerability of the tuition Potter would receive, Ragnuk had, for the second time that day, been forced to resort to - if not complete honesty- then at least a very robust and entirely truthful disclosure.

In large part due to how much they didn't yet know, the monarch had deliberately kept the number of Goblins witting of the disaster potentially looming on the horizon to the barest minimum. An apocalyptic panic wouldn't do anyone any good, especially if the vague signs and historical references ended up meaning nothing. However, there were a few events that had occurred that couldn't be merely chalked up to coincidence or completely dismissed, and so he had quietly put together a small research team nearly a decade ago. Today was the first time he had added a new member since he had established it.

Ulfarr Axeheart now knew that the magical world, including the Consortium, could be in trouble and that Ragnuk's grandfather was largely responsible for the scarcity of information with which they currently had to work. In his madness, King Ragnor had decimated the royal archives, obliterating the sacred knowledge that their people had accumulated and preserved for millennia, scroll by ancient scroll. To further their own power, his advisors at the time had skillfully concealed the extent of not only the destruction, but also the former King's mental decline. It wasn't until Ragnuk's father, Ragnarok, finally took the throne many years later that the horrifying scope of the loss was discovered by a select few. By then, the damage had already been done. Ragnor's illness had ravaged his mind for decades, during which time most of the academics who might have been capable of reconstructing portions of the records had either died of natural causes or been victims of the silent purge orchestrated by Ragnor's inner circle in his name. The small bits they had quietly managed to piece together in the intervening 80 years were incomplete and largely compiled from fragmentary documents that had been housed in private collections as well as through dedicated efforts to transcribe lore that had historically been passed down as part of their oral traditions. Only a handful of Goblins living today knew that much of their cultural history was likely lost forever, and Ragnuk planned to keep it that way for as long as possible.

As for the looming threat, there was tantalizing evidence in the remaining chronicles that suggested the existence of a ritual previously known to their people that was capable of defeating, or at least forcing the retreat, of the mysterious enemy who apparently sought to destroy them...maybe. Nothing was definitive. In fact, the only thing that Ragnuk was reasonably certain of was that if there was a foe, the Goblins could not vanquish it alone. Every scrap of parchment and every half-remembered prophecy that made even the most oblique reference to this evil indicated that the last time such a danger had appeared, goblins and wizards had been required to work together to prevail. His gut told him that one rather famous wizard of his recent acquaintance would be quite critical to the endeavor, though he couldn't pinpoint exactly how or why. He had begrudgingly shared these suspicions with Ulfarr, who had scoffed at the idea that their great civilization could possibly need the aid of any wizards for anything. But, he had subsequently agreed to begin a correspondence with Potter and even to meet with the young lord at least once before the end of summer, just in case. When questioned, the scholar reminded the King that a wise Goblin played both sides to ensure he always came out on top.

So, with a bounce in his step, Ragnuk swiftly navigated the familiar tunnels leading to his next engagement. He really needed to spend more time amongst his people. He had always aspired to be a more approachable leader than his father, to see and be seen by others, carrying out the duties of everyday life, without a guard. Not that he could blend in, exactly, but in addition to giving him a more unfiltered look at life in the Consortium, it offered him a bit of the independence that he craved as much as the next Goblin.

Since it wasn't that late yet, there were many Goblins still out and about. Some were conducting business, others were visiting with friends and family, and a few, he was pleased to note, were honing their fighting skills. After all, just because it had been a few centuries since the last rebellion didn't mean they could afford to become complacent. Ragnuk knew better than anyone what they could be facing in the decades to come. Besides, a little revolution was good for the soul.

By the Lady, he felt so alive as he mingled, exchanging pleasantries and nodding politely at passersby. It was almost like the more distance he put between himself and his office, the younger he felt and the less the pressures of the monarchy weighed on his mind and his conscience. It sounded ridiculous, but if he didn't know any better, he would swear that there was a dementor hiding in his desk, slowly feeding on his energy and happiness until nothing remained but a husk and a crown. However, realistically, he knew the only soul-sucking parasite hanging around was paperwork. It would someday be the death of him, he was sure of it.

Making a left at the next intersection, he immediately took note of the harsh lighting and warmer temperature in this corridor, as well as the faint scent of citrus lingering in the air. Gringott's primary medical facility was close at hand.

The Goblin monarch suppressed a shudder as he finally reached the sterile, white expanse of Ovar's domain, never more thankful that he had been blessed with good health and a strong constitution. Needless to say, he was not a fan of the infirmary. He had always found the place deeply unsettling. Looking around in hopes of locating his slippery cousin, he spotted several devices that looked as though they would be more at home in an interrogation chamber than halls of healing. Tiring of their slightly creepy game of hide and seek, he gave up and called for the medic, "Ovar!"

The Goblin in question appeared silently before him, infuriatingly undaunted by Ragnuk's presence. "Sire," the healer acknowledged calmly, "What brings you here this evening?"

'As if the little shit doesn't know,' he thought darkly. His mother's clan was full of trouble-makers. Most of the Thunderhorns made Urg the Unclean look like a beardless diplomat.

Cognizant that his threats were ineffective against one of his oldest friends, particularly since said friend had never been shy about demonstrating the distinct advantages that his intimate knowledge of biology afforded him in a fight, the King opted for a direct approach. "Your actions this afternoon weren't part of the plan." Ragnuk's rebuke was mild, as he was legitimately interested in hearing what his cousin had to say for himself, but it was still there.

"Your plan would have failed," the elder Goblin responded bluntly. "I was simply saving you from yourself, and in the process, hopefully helping to save us all."

It was admittedly the same conclusion he had already reached on his own, but Ragnuk was still left speechless for a moment. There were after all very few beings still alive who would dare criticize him in such a way, especially to his face. Then, quite unexpectedly, the King broke out into a grin revealing more teeth than strictly necessary and acknowledged, "You bring up a good point, Cousin. Such a service should certainly be rewarded. What would you ask of me?"

"If you would lock the door behind you when you leave, Your Majesty, I would be most grateful."

"Ovar, be serious!"

"My request is entirely genuine, Sire."

At Ragnuk's exasperated look, the other Goblin elaborated, though it clearly pained him to do so. Thunderhorns. "Elrhok Iceshield's sister, Jotdrana, has taken to visiting me of an evening. She is convinced I am in need of a companion. I also think she may have some kind of medical fetish, because she is forever commenting on how inviting she finds these cots, and I caught her trying to steal a stethoscope last week."

Chuckling, because Ovar deserved it, the King sought confirmation, "And, I take it you do not welcome her pursuit?" He needed to be sure, because mating rituals could be quite complicated depending on the clan.

"I would rather mate with a dragon."

"There's a difference?"

"Now I know exactly what to buy you for your next name day... a sense of humour."

"You know, it's awfully hard to do your shopping from a dungeon."

"I'm resourceful, I'm sure I can manage. You know I've always been very committed to doing my part to prevent the suffering of others."

They were both laughing by the end of the exchange. Ragnuk missed this. His meeting with Rune Master Ulfarr hadn't been nearly as enjoyable, the pompous troll spawn.

"As an expression of my gratitude, I will have one of my great nephews approach this Jotdrana's brother with an offer. The boy I have in mind is young, but he has nearly finished his apprenticeship and is seeking a bride. I don't think the Iceshields would turn down an opportunity to marry into the royal line, no matter how distantly. But, even if the couple ends up being incompatible, it will at least distract her for a time." Curious, he couldn't help but ask, "Have you given any thought to re-marrying?"

"Have you?" The King's anger flared briefly before subsiding. He wasn't truly surprised at the sharp reaction to his own ill-considered question. Ovar had always been bold, and his mother's clan was well-known for its impertinence.

In a tacit apology for his overstep, the healer changed the subject. "They may not thank you for proposing the match."

"I suppose that's just something I'll have to live with. If we are to prosper as a people, sacrifices have to be made."


Up Next: Remus and Ted's excellent adventure and Scrying for Dummies.