AN: Back at the beginning of the story I said that it follows story lines, not plot points but what I didn't think to mention was that the story lines a particular scene advances don't always correspond to the POV we see it in, at least not strictly. The POV is obviously telling one part of the character's personal story in a slice-of-life kind of way but it's also showing developments in a chain of events that'll affect other things. I thought that I should get that out there before anyone groans about the two new POVs that pop up in this chapter because they are not the start of something new but actually further previously established story lines.
This unconventional use of different POVs is actually one of the meanings behind the title Sympathetic Properties: all of the minor story lines are interconnected which makes all the tiny developments you see important because a small change in one area can end up causing a big change in another and they all further the greater story of the interconnected whole. For an example you can look at the Dobby scene in the preceding chapter, that had almost nothing to do with Dobby but did further developments with Ginny, Lucius, and even Umbridge that'll all have larger effects later on while only one of those characters had any dialogue and another wasn't even there. It's a counter-clockwise way to tell a story but that's the way my mind works.
Anyway, that's enough about the technical side of things, so let's go.
It had been a strange couple of weeks that had seen him dragged out of his ancient tombs and pulled thousands of miles away to work on things that he'd never thought of doing but at least he could say that it hadn't been boring. As he walked down the corridor Bill ran his hand along the decorative dragon that seemed to grow out of the silver-gray marble wall and tried to puzzle out how his life could've taken such a turn but the most he could come up with were the peculiar actions of his eccentric little boss.
He still had no idea why Overseer Alkrat was really so confident in his abilities or thought of him as a lucky charm but he didn't suppose that he should really complain that much. After all, he was being paid a lot better now and it wasn't like any other tomb monkey like him had ever been allowed on this floor before. Still, he'd feel better if this newfound notoriety came from something he did rather than his boss joking that he was a homunculus, if that had been a joke, because doing the impossible was a little much to live up to.
He'd just gotten to an odd looking fountain and started to look around for where to go when the goblin he was looking for found him.
"Ah! It's Beel!" the mustachioed Overseer enthusiastically cried as he quickly came over to him from a nearby hallway. "Come, we have meeting," the goblin beckoned as he passed him by, giving only half a clue of what he was talking about and no choice but to turn and follow him.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Bill asked doubtfully, wondering if he was supposed to be included in any meeting or if just talking to him now would be what he meant.
"Oh yes," Alkrat said happily. "It's about gold – it's very bad."
"Bad, sir? How so?" he asked curious if he was talking about the teams they had coming up with ways of testing for phony gold and wondering if they had come back with dire news.
"The teams, they no be working," the little Overseer explained. "They sit and draw pictures all day but get nothing done. Argue in circles. It's very bad."
"Oh," Bill said, running a relieved hand through his ponytail that it wasn't much worse.
As a curse-breaker he could sympathize with the people they had assigned to it because if Alkrat hadn't taken every opportunity to send him somewhere else then he'd still be stuck there too. By the sound of things though it didn't look like anyone had come up with the way around the problems he'd run into when he'd explained the basics of it to Harry. The biggest problem in his mind though was that from everything they'd been taught in school, what the goblins wanted them to do was enough to drive you mad.
Harry had then turned everything he thought he knew upside down by telling him about the metals that muggles knew of but that didn't make things any easier to understand. The book he borrowed from that Hermione girl had only added to the confusion too, saying there were a hundred or more elements – most of them metals – and all of them made up of different atoms. The whole subject seemed completely preposterous; the wizarding world discarded the whole idea of atomism centuries ago so why were muggles still using it?
'Then again,' Bill mused, 'a better question might be why does it seem to work for them?'
"Yes, can't continue. That's where you go," Overseer Alkrat said cheerfully with a smile.
"Sir?" he asked, not understanding the goblin's seemingly conflicting message.
"You go," the strange Overseer said with a minute wave. "We give you team. Maybe put you in charge, hm?"
"That's a – a very nice offer, sir," a surprised Bill said, unsure whether the goblin meant being in charge of the entire project. Promotion or not, the last thing he wanted was to be responsible for something that was doomed to fail but there was only one way out that he could see. "I think something else might work better though."
"You no want team?" the tiny foreign goblin asked coming to a halt. "Why you no want team? Everyone wants team. How you get people to do for you if you no have team?" Alkrat asked in rapid succession.
"Oh, I'm sure that a team would be very nice to have but I'm afraid that it might be a bit early for that," he clarified, hoping to let his boss down easily. "I've recently come across a new way of doing things, but I'm still having problems understanding it, so a team may end up slowing things down rather than speeding it up."
"Ah!" the Overseer cried with a gleam in his eye. "You work alone. Very secret, like the alchemists, yes?"
"Secret, yes, that's what I was thinking," Bill agreed, hoping that his boss would forget what he was supposed to do in a couple of days and send him off on another wild doxie chase sooner or later. "It has to do with the muggle way of doing things though, not alchemy," he said hoping to be rid of the homunculus idea.
"Sounds very interesting," Alkrat said approvingly before shooing him away. "You go to office. We get you place to work. I have meeting," he said, before starting off towards the stairs at the end of the hall. "Goblin island. Very exciting," the little goblin said over his shoulder. "No worries," he said as he turned back for a moment, "I tell everyone you do this. They be very happy."
As he watched, the little Overseer scurried down the hallway and disappeared around a corner while Bill tried to work out whom to approach about getting somewhere to hide from his boss for a while. Still, on the off chance that Alkrat didn't come up with something else for him to do he supposed that he could give that muggle book another look or two. After all, he reckoned, what was the worst that could happen?
Her library sanctuary was neat and tidy again after the I.C.W. inspection, without a speck of dust to be seen. Every book was in its proper place and the silent stillness was so complete that the even the minute disruption caused by sunlight pouring through the windows seemed to make an intrusive sound. Everything was precisely as it should be but for once she didn't like it; today Irma Pince wished to be somewhere else, in some other library entirely.
It was more than twenty-three hundred miles from Hogwarts to the Library but today it seemed much further than that. She had sent off the fastest owl she could find the moment she had confirmed her discovery but it had taken twelve full days for the bird to return. That event had happened only a few days ago so if any response from them were coming she needed it to be before her library was overrun by book-battering, dog-earing students who lacked any respect for what they had in their hands.
'Even a response today might be too late,' Irma thought as she slowly stalked through the silent shelves on her way to the small collection of rooms she had adjoining it. 'I might have to wait until Christmas for a meeting and while I may be able to squeeze in work whenever I can, twenty years of academic embarrassment is long enough. Whatever my own faults were, Bagshot has forsaken her duty to facts and truth and Magical Britain needs an authoritative figure when it comes to history, not some revisionist fiction-weaver willing to lie for gold.'
When she had first returned from the Library with a true appreciation for how history was supposed to be done, Irma had hoped to work alongside such a well-established name to help reestablish the intellectual rigor that had been ruthlessly ripped out of their society. She had been dismayed when Bagshot had declined her offer but that was before the folly of her quest had been made clear. You could not reestablish intellectual rigor to a field that had never had it in the first place.
It had taken years to realize it but now she was convinced that all they had in Britain were myths sprinkled with just enough verifiable facts to make the whole thing seem true. She didn't know what was responsible for it – be it an anti-literate, anti-intellectual bias in society or pressure from certain cultural groups – but they seemed to go out of their way to hide anything but the most vague details about how their society had been formed and give the impression that everything had always been as it is now. And the even more lamentable fact was that no one was interested in finding and publishing the truth, least of all Bagshot.
Irma looked in all directions before unlocking the door to her office. Quickly entering, she turned back and quietly closed the door before locking it again; her time digging for the truth had not been easy and she was sure that there were those who'd try to stop her if they knew what she was up to. Now was not the time for openness or transparency, there was work to be done and she was all there was that was not beholden to the way things were.
Correction after correction, complete with citation for her source, had been sent to Bagshot concerning one factual inaccuracy or another and what had she gotten in return for it? She was suddenly stonewalled when she wanted access to the Ministry archives and only stony silence came from her queries. It echoed what she had faced here at Hogwarts; every time she'd asked permission to acquire older material she was denied, primary sources were delisted from the library's inventory, and anything that seemed likely to shed light on their actual history or specific historical figures seemed to vanish without a trace.
Moving a few steps to one of the other two doors out of her tiny librarian's office she nullified the curses and unlocked the door that protected her newest acquisitions. Stepping inside she felt a swell of optimistic hope that the future of British magical history was going to change as she took in the private library that had once been barren. A mysterious benefactor, someone who must share her value for the truth of who they were and what their history was, had somehow managed to leave a wealth of old source material for her right under Dumbledore's crooked nose.
Who it was Irma couldn't begin to guess but years of having the shadowy figures of authority work to suppress what she was doing had taught her not to ask around. Asking questions about your good fortune only led to others taking that fortune away from you. She would not allow that to happen now, not when she'd gotten her first big break.
Now that Bagshot had shown just how untrustworthy she was by admitting to be nothing more than a romance novelist deriving success by milking the wizarding world's appreciation of a young child, a more definitive and unbiased voice could take her place. It wasn't enough just to tear the old woman down though, she had to present something substantive, something new to show people that the truth was with her rather than the myths of old. Even if Bagshot was out of the way though it would take the solid backing of a big name to break through people's impulse to ignore what she had to say and there was no bigger name in scholarly circles than the Library itself.
'Even if I have to work alone and wait a year for them to respond it would be worth it for this,' she thought as she picked up a small wooden box from a shelf and placed it on a nearby table.
She opened the box and carefully withdrew the cloth-wrapped bundle inside, taking her time to peel back the protective covering she'd given to her most precious find of all. The ravages of time had been most severe with it, but surely the Library's experts could help with that. She trusted her skill in that regard for the books in her care, some of whom were three centuries old or more, but restoring something a thousand years old was best suited to the masters in the field; she'd content herself with what the pages said, so far as she could make out.
Irma knew that she shouldn't touch it, or at least wear specially enchanted gloves to keep the oils and acids of her hands from decaying it more, but at times she simply couldn't resist looking at the ancient book – though even sunlight might be a danger to its ancient ink at this point. When she'd first come back to Britain from her studies abroad to finally dig into her native history it was with foolish dreams of reclaiming treasures lost to time, like the famous Diadem of Ravenclaw. Never had she thought to discover something just as special and totally unknown like this, if what she had gleaned from it so far was true.
A soft thump came from her office and she spun and drew her wand to face the intruder. Nothing was there to greet her but the view of her tiny office and the closed door to her bedroom on the far side. As she breathed a sigh of relief though a tap on the window caused her heart to jump again.
Placing the cloth back over the book she inched forward and peaked around the door frame until she could see what had caused the noise. Through the glass she could see a good-sized bird, though not one as fluffy and bulky as any owl she'd seen; this one looked lean, sleek and muscular. Her caution was overruled by her good sense when along with the prey she saw in its talons the bird carried a leather-bound carrying case used to protect letters on long journeys.
A silent spell shut the door to her vault of treasures, a protection she was glad she'd taken when opening the window resulted in the visiting bird flying in and spreading the deceased pigeon's feathers it carried with it all over the desk as it landed. A cold, harsh, predatory stare – the same she'd been so often accused of giving to students – came from the falcon to halt her rebuke as if it knew what she was likely to say and didn't want to hear it. Satisfied, it went back to its pigeon as she withdrew the contents of its case and moved back to give it space.
Like she'd hoped, what the bird carried wasn't the normal letter on parchment but a scroll. Still bound in the center and sealed with wax in accordance with their revered customs, she could easily make out the raised relief of the ancient lighthouse on one side and the equally ancient and sprawling library on the other. Breaking the wax seal, she unfurled it and began to read.
'Chanter Irma Pince,' the letter began, honoring her by including the title they gave to every graduate.
'The Library is honored whenever one of our wayward flock wishes to return to our roost,' the self-important writer's vanity indulged itself. 'Though while our doors are ever open to seekers of knowledge, it pains me to say that the services that you've requested are available only to those members and organizations in good standing with us and your standing was downgraded quite some time ago,' it said predictably. You couldn't go decades with nothing to show for it without it hurting what other academics thought of you.
'Additionally, it is with great regret that I must inform you of the passing of your Academic Guide, the revered High Reader Abd Al-Rashid Nagi, who died shortly after receiving your letter.' Though the previous blow had been anticipated, this was the one that truly hurt.
Old Nagi had been her favorite professor – or High Reader as the Library called them – and was as much of a fixture of the Library as one of the great limestone slabs that it was built from. Tough but fair, like a sterner Flitwick with glasses, he'd been the one that was largely responsible for her decision to return to Britain rather than go elsewhere in the world. Irma wondered what the Library would be like without him there to give his notorious first lecture where he bewildered his students by asking, "Time, what is time?" before going on to pontificate about what a historian's role was with regards to time – or at least in regards to how the past was recorded.
'Sad as this is, it may be some consolation to know that your letter lit a fire in the distinguished High Reader's heart that had not been seen in some time,' the letter continued with an unexpected display of compassion from the stuffy institute of learning. 'High Reader Abd Al-Rashid Nagi, who always sought to further scholarly partnerships with far-flung and lesser-studied regions of the world, insisted to the Library's High Chanter that we meet with you about reinstating your position and seeing what the Library can do to further your efforts in the relatively unexamined field of British Wizarding History.'
That long-winded sentence made Irma as nervous and excited as a new Library graduate. She was suddenly so engrossed in reading the rest that she almost didn't notice the bloody falcon depart again leaving a feathery mass on her desk. They were honoring Old Nagi's insistence as if it was his last request, even going so far as to say, "time will be made available to meet with you at your earliest convenience."
With a whip of her wand she vanished the remaining pigeon before darting to her private library to carefully repackage the delicate tome for its journey and spell the case to remain closed. She protected the books she was leaving behind by closing the door, locking it, and reinstating the curses only to find her way out of the office barred and having to unlock and relock that door when she left as well. Taking care to make sure she wasn't observed, she added a lesser hex on the door to stun anyone who tried to force it open; after all, you couldn't be too careful.
Slipping around chairs and tables and down aisles of books, the librarian got to the hallway and started running. When the I.C.W. had started the search of the Hogwarts library near a week ago Irma had asked their leader if he could provide her with traveling assistance to the Library before they'd left. That had been when she had expected an answer at any moment and while he'd been receptive to the idea, she hadn't heard anything from the man since; now she had to hope that they hadn't disappeared without her knowing.
"Pinchy – pinchy – Pincey!" came a voice from behind her, making her look back to see Peeves cackling and flying towards her.
The blasted poltergeist had been wreaking havoc all week from what she'd heard until they finally had to lock him in one of the dungeons. The fact that he was free again didn't bode well for her. Skidding to a halt, she whipped out her wand and landed a stinging hex right on his nose.
"No, Peeves. Back!" she threatened as the poltergeist cradled its face. "I've got no time for you."
The not-quite ghost stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry at her in return for the angry red welt she'd given him before flying away back the way he came. Irma hoped he wasn't going to wreck the library in revenge but right then she had bigger things to worry about. Strangely, that was something she never thought she'd think.
Coming to the main stairwell she clutched the wooden carrying case tightly as she hustled downstairs, and hitting the first floor she ran off again towards Minerva's office. Irma had always been a creature of solitude, it's what came with a dedicated life of study, staying cloistered away by yourself though meant that you were always the last one to know anything that didn't happen a century ago so something as mundane as whether they still played host to foreign wizards or not was a mad gamble at best. If anyone knew though it'd be McGonagall; she was rarely seen without that leader of theirs.
"Well, Madame McGonagall, ze school, she is yours again," Irma heard as she approached the head Gryffindor's office and paused to compose herself before turning the final corner. "There were a few anomalies we found that might be wise to investigate: what appears to be seecret passages – some that don't open, a strange tap in ze girls' bathroom, ze disappearing stair, and of course ze 'Come and Go Room' we were made aware of."
"Hogwarts has certainly gained its fair share of eccentricities since our founding," McGonagall's voice drifted to her from the office as Irma got closer. "I trust those difficulties didn't pose problems for your investigation? Did your men use my suggestions about how to search the Room of Requirement?"
"Yes, yes, they were very 'elpful," the short Frenchman said from his seat across from the Deputy Headmistress as Irma looked in. "Ze men still detected some very Dark magic in it though so eet may be wise to check that big room of discarded things it can turn into. Besides that, ze search 'as been largely pro forma since ze word coming from Geneva is mixed," he said with a wave. "We 'ave a very pretty stone that feets every description we 'ave of ze Sorcerer's Stone but does absolutely nothing; does not even register as magic at all."
"So you believe that Dumbledore was telling the truth about it?"
"For that it ees too early to say," Mr. Delacour said with a wave. "Dumblydore may still 'ave created that stone 'imself, and 'e 'as been very cagey; there is a deeference between lying and not telling ze whole truth. It ees almost enough to make me wish I could take 'im with us to interrogate as a 'ostile witness – but alas," the man said with his arms wide, "that was not something ze Ministry would allow as part of our agreement, so per'aps later."
"So where will your investigation go from here?" McGonagall asked, catching sight of her as she lingered by the doorway wondering whether she should interrupt or not.
"With our findings about ze stone itself so far being inconclusive, ze international community weel want reassurance that Gringotts gold 'as not been forged – well, not in both senses at least," the Frenchman said with a smile. "That may take while. Meanwhile, many – like myself – weel be going back to Gringotts while ze rest will be going back to Geneva. Just in time too with your school year to start, no?"
"We should have a few hours of peace and quiet before they arrive," McGonagall agreed before turning her full attention to her. "Is there something I can help you with, Irma?" she asked, slight traces of annoyance thinning her lips.
"Ah, Madame Pince," Mr. Delacour said as he rose from his seat, "just ze person I was coming to see next. You inquired about a portkey to Egypt some days ago, no?"
"I did indeed," Irma replied with an apologetic glance to Professor McGonagall.
"I am sorry to say that ze Ministry 'as a very convoluted process for international portkeys," the Delacour man said with a look that didn't offer much hope. "Ze goblins, on ze other 'and, like to skirt such things," he smiled as he reached into pocket of his robes. "To comply with Ministry laws, they say you must agree to work for them for the day–," the man said as he produced what she took to be a contract, "for which you weel be paying them – then they weel take you to Cairo."
"Can they really do that?" McGonagall asked as Irma looked over the 'zero-day' work contract that she was supposed to turn into them when she arrived to see how much she'd be spending to get there.
"I 'ad them explain it to me," Mr. Delacour said in return. "Eet is technically within ze letter of ze law," he reassured her, "but not within ze spirit. Eet makes me wonder 'ow they will 'andle ze island arbitration today; it should be interesting. Speaking of," the stout man said as he checked his pocket watch, "I should go; eet would not do to be late."
"I can't thank you enough, Mr. Delacour," Irma said as she used McGonagall's quill to sign her name. "You're a career saver."
"Not at all," the man said with a wave as he produced a portkey. "Who doesn't 'ave a soft spot for ze Library of Alexandria? They produce some of ze best minds in ze world. I am trying to get my daughter, Fleur, interested in going there once she graduates Beauxbatons; she is very smart."
"If you are going to trust your life to them," Minerva said ominously and pointing to the portkey, "then you're going to need to take that off the grounds before you activate it. Only the Headmaster can create portkeys that go through Hogwarts wards," she informed them.
"Of course," she said as she pocketed the contract and portkey. "And I'll try to make it back in time for the Welcoming Feast."
"Well, it's not really going to–," McGonagall tried to say before she was interrupted by Delacour.
"–Eet is a pity I couldn't stay longer," Delacour said as Irma started to slip out of the room. "I never got a chance to study your wardstones or get that Animagus transformation out of you."
"You'd have better luck with the wards," Minerva said dryly as Irma hit the hallway.
"You say that but ze last wardstone I saw I broke," the man jokingly replied, "and I am a man who managed to talk a veela into marrying me."
"You'd have better luck getting that out of me too," McGonagall replied, earning a laugh from the Frenchman. "But that'd also be me keeping you from your arbitration."
"So sad," Delacour jovially replied. "You 'ave been 'elping me so much weez my Eenglish," the man said putting back on the heavily accented speech he'd had when he arrived, the humor of which drew another laugh from him.
As she hurried away from the office and towards the boundary of the school grounds Irma considered how strangely friendships made people act. With all else being equal, she thought she was much better off on her own.
The different colored arrows and crosses wiggled along their flight paths on the Quidditch diagram as the train rumbled its way north from London. For the last two days he'd tried to even out the figures' movement so they'd seem to glide across the map like they're supposed to but if push came to shove he'd settle for getting the point across. They were going to win the Quidditch cup this year – they were, even if they had to die trying!
His compartment door opened suddenly, sending him scrambling.
"Oi! Here he is," a voice called.
"Out!" Oliver barked at whoever it was as he tried to hide his work from spying eyes.
"Well, isn't that nice, Fred?" a nearly-identical voice asked as Oliver's brain caught up to who it was. He knew Fred's tone of voice when he heard it, especially when he tried to switch names right in front of him.
"Yeah, it really shows how much Wood values us, doesn't it?" the now-obviously George agreed.
"Fred, George," he said in a different tone as he took in the best two Beaters he could ask for. "Come in, come in. Take a seat and close the door," Oliver said, gesturing with his diagrams. "I was going to wait and get the team together this weekend but since you're here we might as well start early."
"Are you mad?" Fred asked.
"You want to practice the first week we're back?" George followed up as they sat, as if practicing were somehow unreasonable.
"Absolutely," Oliver said doggedly, now fully in his element as Quidditch Captain. "None of the other teams will have even thought of training yet. We're going to be the first ones off the mark this year–"
"–Then the first thing we're going to need are tryouts," George interrupted, sending Oliver's thoughts reeling like he'd flown straight into the ground at speed.
"Tryouts? Why do we need tryouts?" he asked. "We've easily got the best team. We should've won the Quidditch cup last year–"
"–And we would have if Harry hadn't been in the hospital wing for the final match," Fred said unhelpfully.
"Owing to circumstances beyond our control, yes," Oliver agreed with a lump in his throat, the memory of Gryffindor's worst defeat in three hundred years coming back to haunt him.
"And that's why we need tryouts," George pressed seriously. "We need reserve players–"
"–If not an entire team–," his brother added.
"–To make sure that doesn't happen again."
The enormity of what they were saying made Oliver feel like he'd been pelted with Bludgers.
"You have any idea how long it'd take to train up a couple of reserves, let alone an entire team?" he asked instead. "Why go through the trouble when we've already got the best? Plus, I've spent the entire summer devising a whole new training program for us which I really think it will make all the difference."
"Will it make a difference if Fred and I get our skulls cracked open and can't fly?" Fred asked with a nod to his brother George. "Or if the Slytherins decide to break Angelina's legs before the first match?"
"Y-yeah," George agreed with a look to his brother. "I don't think that'd be good for anyone."
Oliver didn't like where this train of thought was taking them. Harry's injury, and their subsequent loss, might be something the Slytherins would try to repeat. Madam Pomphrey could mend anything they'd likely do in a heartbeat though and the player who did it might have to sit out the game themselves… unless they got another student to do their dirty work for them.
"Training reserve players will take too much time," he said with a shake of his head. "We'd be a month behind schedule before our first match."
"McGonagall's not going to like it when people complain," Fred added, for once just as serious-sounding as his brother.
"McGonagall's dealt with it before," he said stubbornly. "She wants to win as much as we do."
"Then she's really not going to like it when three Weasleys go up to her and complain," George pointed out in a way that Oliver was really starting to dislike.
"–We can make it four if we get Harry to come along," Fred added. "He'd do it. You think he's lived with us long enough to qualify? He's still not a ginger, but nobody's perfect," the boy answered his own question with a shrug. "If we get him though we could probably get the girls to join too."
"Alicia and Angelina? Probably," his brother agreed. "Don't know Katie too well though."
"You're talking mutiny," Oliver said to his horror. It'd be the end of his Captaincy. There'd be no way that McGonagall would take his side if the whole team turned against him.
"That has a nice ring to it," Fred smirked.
"What other choice would we have besides quitting and forcing you to have tryouts?" George, the bearer of dire news, asked. "It's going to be bad enough with everyone thinking that you don't want to compete."
"Compete?" he asked curiously. "Who'd I be competing against?"
"Our brother," the twins said in unison.
Wood looked at them for a moment.
"Percy?" he laughed, knowing that this had to be a prank. "Percy wants to play Quidditch? I haven't even seen him on a broom since our first year. And you two would either be pelting him with Bludgers all day or he'd be calling for a time out every time the wind messed up his hair."
"You think we'd quit for that prat?" George asked with a look.
"You'd think Wood would know by now that there's more of us than that," Fred said to his brother.
"Then who?" Oliver asked, casting his mind about to find any other Weasley that could possibly make it on the team and coming up blank.
"Ron," the brothers said together again.
"The Second Year?" he asked incredulously.
"McGonagall hand-picked Harry as a First Year," George reminded him, "and Ron's been much more focused on Quidditch than he has this summer–"
"–We think he's got his heart set on playing for the worst team imaginable," Fred added, "and sees the Gryffindor team as the best way to get there."
"Plus, he's not bad," George shrugged.
"You know what the rumor-mill will say about it though, Fred," the real Fred said to the not-Fred Fred. "They'll take one look at the Air Wave Gold he's got and know that Wood's too scared to hold tryouts."
"Who's too scared?" the older boy asked defiantly as if daring him to say it again. "Where'd he get an Air Wave anyway?"
"Charlie," the twins replied.
"It's the one England gave him to bribe him into playing for them," George added.
Oliver had to admit that when it came to broom bribes that it would've worked on him. An Air Wave Gold might not be as fast as a Nimbus, not once they got up to speed, but over a short distance – like the space between hoops – the Air Wave would have an edge. He'd been playing long enough to know that he'd beat any Second Year in an open competition but with this being his second-to-last year left at Hogwarts maybe it wouldn't be bad to have a skilled Keeper take over when he graduated.
He finally let out an exasperated sigh.
"You realize that this ruins the entire training program I came up with, don't you?" Oliver asked them with a look.
"Yeah, but now you get to come up with a whole new one," Fred said with great amusement.
"That doesn't help much, Fred," he replied sourly.
"I'm George," Fred said before motioning to his brother. "He's Fred."
"No," Oliver corrected him. "You're Fred, he's George. Only an idiot can't tell you two apart."
"Not to say that you're right," George cut in to say, "–but how do you tell us apart?"
Oliver debated telling them for a moment, in case they use it to improve their Name Change gameplay, before concluding that it didn't matter either way. Those two could change their names all they wanted, they couldn't change who they were.
"You're the serious one," he said to George. "Fred's the one that makes dumb jokes."
The twins glanced at each other as if wondering whether that was true.
Barchoke wanted everything to work out, he really did, but keeping everything together was becoming a painful chore. There were times he missed having a heavy-handed and all-powerful Grand Overseer that could force things through on pain of death but those were too often betrayed when things went wrong and he didn't want to end up that way. In the week – no, that wasn't right, two weeks? – maybe week and a half, he can't remember, since he got roped into doing this stressful job the fear of being stabbed in the back and replaced had lessened somewhat, and the fear of Ministry invasion had thankfully died down, but that didn't mean that getting everyone to agree about what to do next had gotten any easier.
With most of the bank's functions severely curtailed by the ongoing gold problem that had overseas exploitation all but shut down and most foreign markets too hesitant to have anything to do with them, Gringotts had become a smaller place. Everything seemed tightly packed around them now which made them see much more of each other than they would have before this group decision-making thing had gotten started, and that seemed to rub everyone the wrong way. It'd quickly come to the point that whenever they didn't need to be in the same room together that most of them stayed as far away from each other as possible.
'Director' Fillast had simply gone back to his duties overseeing the building itself, though he seemed happier about it now that the dragon had been removed from the lobby. Gutripper had predictably gone underground to take out his frustrations on his Enforcers or the disparate goblin groups that lived Down Below while both Bankor and Slaggran went Below together as well, though not for the reasons that Barchoke had thought. It turned out that the unlikely twosome had been working together to get 'their honored guests,' as they liked to call the captured Hit Wizards now, to like them and to make their stay as pleasant as possible.
As strange as it seemed, the love of food cut across cultures to the point where now their 'guests' were starting to look a little fat. Still, he supposed it was better that they were seen by their families to be overfed rather than starving and Bankor's clever plan to insinuate to the Prophet that Gringotts held nothing against the Hit Wizards for doing their jobs but had no other option than to hold them while the Ministry was uncooperative seemed to be going pretty well. Something was certainly working because whether it was that, the Ministry backing down from their attack posture, or Alkrat's suggestion to reach out and present a good face to the shops – if not some combination of all three – commerce had steadily returned to Diagon Alley and they were now processing so many cheques that they just might drown in them.
For his part Barchoke had been trying to get off the top floor as much as possible; the Grand Overseer's office was big, too big, way too big, big enough to fit a giant in with room to spare unless the ceiling was lower than it looked, and it was depressing to boot. When he tried to sleep it was hard to get thoughts of the now-dead Largrot out of his head long enough to close his eyes and when he did the feeling of being so close to his adjoining office was oppressive. When he did sleep enough to finally get to work the silence from the bedroom and Overseer's meeting hall was so grating that he couldn't concentrate.
In a bid to ward off the weight of all that silence he had dragged Lichfield out of wherever he'd been hiding, but that hadn't worked that well. Lester had been full of the same casual disregard for authority as he'd always been, not even mentioning the change in his position once, but he kept what he was willing to talk about to a Gringotts-topics-only area. He was friendly enough but the old man was of the opinion that if the Ministry thought that he was instrumental in whatever was going on with the Goblin Nation then they might take it out on the boy's case when they finally decided to hear it in court.
The implication was clear and Barchoke made sure that Bankor knew it so that Hobson would know what to do when the time came. After that, he spent his time wandering the halls of the bank and though he liked the way that everyone seemed to hurry about whenever he came into sight that did nothing to make things any better. Now he knew why Largrot had stayed cooped-up for so long, there didn't seem to be anything he could do to get rid of the zone of solitude that seemed to follow him everywhere.
Eventually he found his way back to the abandoned bit of rock in the North Sea that they were trying to keep the Ministry from taking away from them. It seemed colder and windier now that the trees had been cut down but in general it fit his mood. Besides the occasional glimpse of Hobson, some of what must be the people working for him, and the Weasley that Alkrat went on about there was no one there to remind him he was alone, so he liked it for that if nothing else.
Perhaps his solitude came from the long years that fat, old Largrot had refused or had been unable to leave his office and everyone had gotten used to avoiding the person in charge. If that was true, perhaps what he needed was to go out and find a project of his own to oversee – or Grandly Oversee as the case may be – where him doing so wouldn't crush it like it would with Lichfield. If it wasn't though, if this is what came from the change in what the Goblin Nation was itself – then he didn't like it. They were all charged in making those decisions as a group now so if anyone was to suffer this way it should be all of them or none of them.
It was on the third such time that he walked around the island that he began to wonder why nothing was getting done here. He had put that Hobson fellow in charge of building an all-goblin settlement and they'd had a whole week to work on it, so why wasn't anything happening? Since meetings were his only way to interact with people now Barchoke had called him to his office to find out the status of the island and didn't mind too much when the nervous-looking Hobson asked for a couple of days to put together a proper presentation of their plans since that would give him something to look forward to as well.
Now that he was surrounded by the others Barchoke rubbed his head and wondered if this had been a good idea at all. Sharing the blame with everyone else if things go wrong might be what'll save him from Largrot's fate but the discussion that came beforehand seemed to constantly make them fight against their own worst impulses to get there. Gutripper's dagger flashed and embedded into the polished stone table causing the part-goblin Taskmaster he was snarling at to jump.
"You want to put humans on our island?!" the half-blind Overseer demanded with a red-eyed glare. "Goblins fought goblins and stared down the Ministry to get that island and now you want to hand it over?"
"There could be many reasons why Taskmaster Hobson might want to include an area for humans," Overseer Bankor tried to politely point out in order to cover his suggested hire's bad opening choice of words while Hobson's – secretary? Female assistant? – stiffly circled around to pass out a folder to each of the Overseers. "Gringotts has employed humans in virtually every department for hundreds of years, not only for access to the magical and non-magical worlds but for their magical abilities as well."
"Yeah, someone's gotta get the pizza around here," pudgy Slaggran wheezed in agreement.
"So with that in mind," Bankor placatingly continued, "perhaps knowing why humans would be there and what precise purpose it serves would put your justified security concerns to rest."
Just like all the other threats they'd been subjected to lately the nearly constant threat of violent death by Gutripper's blade didn't seem to hold that much sway anymore. Fillast and Slaggran turned back to Hobson to see what he had to say while Gutripper left his dagger in the table, though he did take his hand off it at least. Ever-silent Braglast used his own dagger to peek into the folder in front of him as if he'd never seen one before.
The brown-blooded part-goblin at the far end of the table seemed to wither under the focused scrutiny and shuffled around the small pile of papers he'd brought with him as if they'd give him cover. The act reminded Barchoke a lot of himself just a month ago when all he'd had to worry about was a curious letter from a twelve year old. The main difference between them he could see though was that this guy had an assistant that was setting up a thin wooden contraption and looked like she wanted to hit him for standing there like an idiot; he'd never had that, at least he didn't think so, unless you counted Lester.
"Erm – right," Hobson said when he'd collected himself. "Now the job that um – all of you – tasked me with, the creation of a city, is a much more expansive project than just putting up a bunch of buildings so that people can live there–"
"–Why?" Fillast asked with a sharp eye on the wizard. "What would happen afterwards, how we exploit the island's resources and maintain the settlement to further that goal – that would seem to be a separate issue. So why would settlement creation involve more than the construction of the settlement itself?"
"There is one thing that's the same in both the magical and muggle worlds," Hobson said by way of a response, "and that's that the economy is the lifeblood of a society. As I'm sure you all know with your experience banking, that for a society to be strong their economy has to be strong, and if the economy is weak or crashes then the society it serves becomes weak and could begin to crumble."
Out of the corner of his eye Barchoke saw Braglast shoot a look at him and an idea as heavy as a solid gold boulder settled in his stomach. Even with the dragon breathing fire down Diagon Alley they'd never considered what would've happened if they'd stopped doing business with everyone as a whole, and now that everything was being done through cheques them throwing the wizarding economy into turmoil would be an even easier thing to do. Any turmoil likely wouldn't be limited to the wizards though since having all the money and being the cause of all their problems would remove any reason the Ministry had not to push through their doors, no matter how many people died doing it.
Bankor gave him a distressed look too as this economic warfare idea occurred to him. He shook his head and gave the other goblin a shushing gesture to tell him that they weren't even discussing it, least of all with a dubious outsider here. Strained smile on his face, Barchoke looked back at Hobson and after a moment Bankor did the same; Braglast looked like he'd never moved at all.
"So using that principle as a base," the nervous part-goblin said as he continued. "We can see that to expand a society or to develop something completely new – like an all-goblin city – proper care must be taken in the planning stages to construct the city around an economy that properly umm–," Hobson glanced to the female that was placing large white parchments on the wooden frame and seemed to be whispering something. "Exploits – that properly exploits the island's biggest asset."
With a gesture from Hobson his assistant pulled away the first plain white piece of parchment to reveal what was underneath. On a dark blue background stood a lone stone tower stretching to the stars as sparking explosions happened in the distance. At the base of the picture was emblazoned, 'Discover the secrets of the Tower of Nicholas Flamel! Open to the world for the first time in 600 years!'
He was about to ask what this had to do with anything when Alkrat clapped and happily cried, "Ah! You talk the tourism!"
"You know about tourism?" a surprised Hobson asked.
"What's a tourism?" Slaggran wanted to know.
"Oh! We make lots of money for tourism in Cairo," Alkrat smiled. "Many monies changed from all over and Egyptian Ministry pay finder fee for every tomb. Plus they pay us not to destroy pretty treasures and they lease it for display."
"You get paid not to destroy stuff?" Slaggran wheezed. "Why don't we just do that? We could not destroy anything and then everyone would owe us money."
"Because it doesn't work that way," Fillast rebutted. "We have to be the ones to find it to have first claim on it."
"Oh," the other goblin said as his idea for unlimited gold fell down a shaft.
"So 'finders, keepers'?" Hobson asked, summing it up with two words.
"Oh yes, we find lots and get lots of money," Alkrat smiled and making him wonder precisely how the strange mustachioed goblin had boosted Overseas Exploitation by three hundred percent.
"So what does that have to do with this?" Barchoke asked pointing to Hobson's display.
"Well, with proper planning and encouragement we could have wizards from all over the world paying for the opportunity just to see this historical curiosity," the Taskmaster said, now seeming more at ease with himself. "And once they're on the island–"
"–We kill them," Gutripper interjected.
"Oh! That be very bad," Alkrat moaned immediately.
"What? No," a flustered Hobson said. "We just make sure they have a good time and sell them overpriced food and trinkets to take home with them before telling them to come again."
"That sounds like doing nothing," Fillast said, cutting to the heart of it.
"Do humans really pay for that?" Barchoke asked, turning to Alkrat.
"Oh yes, very much," the little goblin said happily. "With the tombs and the mummies, very scary. Call them holidays."
"Just how much money is there to make off this?" he asked Hobson, everyone around the table seeming all the more interested – though it looked skeptically so on Gutripper's part.
"Precisely how much is at stake is impossible to know for sure," the part-goblin equivocated, "but there are things we can do to get a reasonable estimate of what's potentially out there. On the second page of the folder you have before you," he said pointing to the objects in question, "you can see more of the data I've used to do my calculations."
The sound of turning pages filled the room as almost everyone opened the folder to see graphs and columns of impossibly big numbers while Hobson helped his assistant remove the poster and get handed a straight, pointed stick.
"Unfortunately for us, the Ministry of Magic has never conducted a proper census to discover precisely how many people Wizarding Britain contains," the Taskmaster said as he gestured with hands and stick. "During my time at the Ministry they always used an estimate of one hundred thousand people–," Hobson pointed to one part of his large piece of parchment where a figure '100k' appeared.
"–But I never saw anything official to back it up," he continued, "and my own experience based on the size of muggle populations and how their cities look has always led me to believe that it was considerably lower, probably around the thirty to forty-five thousand mark." Again Hobson pointed to the parchment where '30k-45k' placed itself next to the larger '100k' figure.
Out of curiosity, Barchoke glanced to Slaggran to see if he had any opinion on the numbers Hobson proposed and saw nothing but a goblin patiently waiting for the next figure to come. Did they not even know how many active accounts they had in the bank? It'd seem to him that such a thing could be used to get an estimate as well but he wasn't about to waste time now trying to get that information.
"Muggle governments, on the other hand, are actually very good in this regard," Hobson said happily as he turned to another page of his stack of papers. "The latest census data for Britain shows that the muggle population grew to be fifty-seven-and-a-quarter million people in 1990," the man informed them as his stick led a '57.25M' figure to join the others and the whole meeting felt like a bucket of ice-cold water was just poured over them as they looked to each other to make sure they'd heard him correctly. "And with that we can begin getting an estimate of what the global wizarding population could be like."
"–Wait," Barchoke objected before the little man could run off on them. "That can't possibly be right. How could there be fifty-seven million people in this country?"
"The food they'd have to produce to sustain that kind of population would be impossible without magic, wouldn't it?" Overseer Fillast asked which was a much better objection than what his own thoughts were right then: 'That number's too big for my head!'
"Well, I've included a brief synopsis of how their census works on page three and a breakdown of their findings on page four," Hobson explained, "but suffice it to say that the method has proven to be reliable and the results are within what you'd expect for modern industrialized countries. We're actually comparatively small to others I could name: the United States has almost four-and-a-half times our population at almost two hundred fifty million people and China blows us both away at over one-point-one billion people."
"How could there be over a billion people on this planet?" Barchoke asked, his mind simply failing to even imagine putting that figure into reality.
"I've included world population data on pages five and six," Hobson said gesturing to the folder in front of him that he wasn't about to go anywhere near. "And also a bit of how they've come to their estimates, the current one being that the Earth now has around five-point-three billion human inhabitants, and that's expected to pass six billion by the year 2000 and approach ten billion by the year 2050.
"The important part for us," Hobson continued before any other objections could be raised, "is that those estimates give us a better idea of how big the world's magical population might be. If we assume that our magical-to-muggle ratio is the norm for the entire planet, then going by our earlier estimates, we calculate that there is somewhere between two-point-eight million to nine-point-two million people worldwide that could qualify as part of the global magical community," he said with a point of his stick as those safely-smaller numbers appeared near the other estimates they correlate to while the ludicrously-big '5.3B' joined the previously ridiculous '57.25M' figure.
'Maybe it's a good thing we've been shut off from the rest of the world for so long,' Barchoke thought as he rubbed his head again. 'The numbers they casually throw around are big enough to make your head spin.'
"Now I know what you're all probably thinking, and you're right; we did have that gruesome war with You-Know-Who some years ago that resulted in many deaths and disappearances, so our magical population could be abnormally low when you compare it to the rest of the world," he said, immediately proving that he had no idea what anyone around the table was thinking. "And in that case the estimated global wizarding population could be much higher than we have it here – but to get a conservative estimate, we're going to assume that they're right and look for ways to expand later if we happen to be wrong."
"Yeah, no need to go nuts with the numbers," Barchoke said before he could stop himself.
"Hehe, you the funny," Alkrat said with a smile.
"Um, what does–," Bankor started to ask, even going so far as to raise his hand to get Mr. Hobson's attention. "What does the size of the world's magical population have to do with how much your Flamel Tower tourism endeavor stands to make?"
"That's a very good question," Hobson said as he motioned his assistant to move on to the next large blank parchment but again Alkrat beat him to it.
"They be bringing the money," the mustachioed goblin said happily.
"That–that's actually where I was going with it," the young Taskmaster said approvingly, which made the little Overseer's grin wider. "The estimate lets us know how many potential customers we have and that's important because them visiting us means they're bringing their money to our island and spending it in our shops, restaurants, hotels, and any other attractions we can come up with," he said energetically, his use of the word 'our' sticking out like a sore thumb. "Those goblin businesses can then pay the goblins that work for them as well as paying their suppliers, and then those goblins can turn around and pay rent for housing that'll also be available on the island, and the island's economy will grow up from there."
And just like that suddenly everyone was talking at once.
"Will the housing be above ground or below?" Bankor inquired.
"What are these suppliers and precisely what will they be supplying?" Fillast wanted to know.
"What about the goblin section?" Gutripper all but demanded.
"What kind of food they gonna serve and when are we breaking for lunch?" Slaggran wheezed.
Hobson looked like a dragon handler on his first day of work and he wasn't the only person who couldn't get a word in edgewise.
"WAIT!" Barchoke shouted, cutting through the din and understanding why the last Grand Overseer took up slapping the table to get attention in the first place. "Let him speak," he said in a normal tone.
"Oh, um, yes," their newest hire said as he scrambled to figure out how to answer that barrage of questions. "There's definitely going to be a dedicated goblin section. We're not sure exactly how big the tourist part will have to be at the moment, but everything else is going to be goblin related and for goblin use," Hobson stammered to reassure them.
"And when it comes to things being above ground or below," he continued in his long uninterrupted stream, "I'd like to have as much of it above ground as possible – it is your city after all and it'd be unconscionable to force you underground again just for human convenience," the wizard said, perhaps being the first of his kind to ever say such a thing. "But I know that there may be some that might prefer to live that way, so that'll have to be taken into account as well – though that opens up the problem of porous rocks and flooding–"
"Our diggers have ways to take care of that," Fillast contributed.
"That's wonderful," Hobson said in the way that only a goblin with too many self-imposed boulders on his back could. "We haven't gotten so far as to what the shops and restaurants will initially be offering but thought that we could rebuild and repurpose the original guard towers to suit that purpose.
"I also wanted to give our guests the chance to get a peek behind the bank doors so to speak and get a glimpse of goblin culture," he said as if he were eager to know more himself. "I had the idea of adding events that were targeted at the adult visitors that could showcase what goblins do for fun – be it music and dancing, drinking and the like – but the only idea that was offered, besides dragon rides, was gladiatorial combat that people could bet on, but I couldn't tell if they were joking or not," Hobson admitted with an obviously unrehearsed confession, if the look on the man's assistant was anything to go by.
Barchoke's eyes weren't the only ones drawn immediately to Gutripper, nor was he the only one to wonder what was going to happen when the Overseer reached out and withdrew his dagger from the table in order to stare into it for a moment.
"Gutripper's Gallery of Gore," the goblin said to himself approvingly, now seemingly over his earlier objections to the idea.
The comment drew an almost comically unsettled look from the Taskmaster before the human-looking goblin turned to his assistant and gave her the tiniest nod behind a panicked smile and he was sure that something of the sort would make it into the next design meeting.
"You still haven't answered the question about money," Barchoke said to try to get them all past that unsettling issue. "Enough with how you're getting the numbers," he said to Hobson, "Just tell us how many wizards you're looking to bring here and how much money that means for us."
"Er–right, right," the man said as he nervously shifted through his papers again. "I've included the relevant national tourism statistics in your folders as well as what I could find for what we'd like to see as a comparable single entity within it," Hobson blabbed, coming dangerously close to diving back into the safety of his numbers again. "But, if we're as successful as we'd like then the conservative estimates could have the island see anywhere from twelve hundred to four thousand visitors a year," he said, finally getting to the bottom line.
"Admittedly doesn't sound like a lot–," Hobson continued, proving once again he knew nothing about what they thought, "but at ten and fifteen galleons a piece it would bring in between fifteen and fifty thousand galleons a year, just for tickets alone, and perhaps three or four times that coming from the other attractions."
For once even never-phased Braglast looked stunned by what he heard.
"Two hundred and fifty thousand galleons?" Barchoke said, as if testing the large number out. "And that's per year from this?"
"Or sixty-five if there aren't that many wizards in the world," Slaggran wheezed unhelpfully.
"That may not sound like that much compared to what Nimbus may make in a year, I don't know," Hobson said with a pained tone of voice as if he were completely ignorant of how even a thousand galleons could make or destroy a fledgling company. "That only represents a starting point of where we could go though. Muggle tourism adds billions of pounds into the British economy every year and even once you convert it into galleons it'd still be in the billions."
'There's never been anything like this before,' Barchoke thought to himself, 'not in this country at least.'
It was more than that, he knew. The way the part-goblin was talking this wasn't as if it were something that them in the bank would be able to control and direct like they did with everything within their walls, this was something new. This was – suddenly his blood ran cold that panicking fear of putting a step wrong, getting stabbed in the back, and living forever in whispers of scorn and ridicule resurfaced once again; he had vaguely thought that it'd be harder to reject their claim to the Isle of Gringotts if they had people living there but this...
'This is taking the Goblin Nation and turning it into an actual goblin nation,' he couldn't help but think. 'The Halfwit was a part-goblin that led us to failure and destruction a thousand years ago,' Barchoke thought as prickles formed on his arms. 'Swinedine the Swindled did the same with Flamel six hundred years ago. We're overdue for failure. Is listening to a Brownblood how I do it now or… or would not doing this be the thing that leads to failure?'
He looked to the goblins around the table and for once saw only heavy thought written on every face, even Gutripper's. For some reason the face he lingered on longest was Alkrat, that was until he figured out why. The strange foreign goblin was the one in charge of Corporate Accounts and was the only one of them that knew anything about this tourism thing and yet he looked just as puzzled as the rest of them.
"I know this can work," the determined mish-mash of human and goblin that was Hobson said when he looked to him.
Balanced as he was on the knife's edge and no one around him willing to offer their opinion, Barchoke refused to decide one way or the other.
"Continue with your planning," he said instead, thinking that leaving everything exactly the way it was would be the safest course of action he could take. "I think we'd all like to see what all you come up with."
The goblin-man had a very relieved look on his face he and his assistant quickly gathered up their things and left though whoever-she-was looked like she never wanted to be seen in public again. It was far more comforting to wonder why he'd bring his secretary to such a meeting, much less use her in that way, but perhaps it was the bit of human strangeness in him that was coming out. Why any goblin female, familiar-looking as she was or not, would go along with it defied any explanation though. Was Hobson mad? Was his madness catching? Did Hobson just manage to find himself the most ungoblin-like goblin to ever be born that's somehow able to put up with all that? And if he had, what kind of boulder had she been living under? It didn't make sense.
The meeting was over and everyone knew it, just as they knew that nothing had been decided – or really even could've been decided until they knew what would happen next. Whether they were wondering why he'd called the meeting this early or were reeling from the potential profit, they all seemed content to keep their thoughts their own and see themselves out, all except Bankor though but he'd expected that. Rather than let them all slink away entirely he cornered Alkrat on his way out the door.
"With the big numbers he was throwing around today, you can't be involved with something like that in Cairo," Barchoke said with more confidence than he felt. "If you were then your revenues would be off the chart."
"I be the audit now?" the mustachioed goblin said with his hands raised, making him realize how accusatory it must've come across as.
"Should you be?" Bankor asked as he came up, as if a guilty goblin would ever admit such a thing.
"Oh, no," Alkrat said honestly. "I no do the tourism. Cairo Ministry, they do the tourism. We get tiny percentage for the tomb and the mummies," he said holding up the tiniest part of his pinkie to show just how small a percentage he was talking about.
"Tiny percentage still lot of money, but not lot of money," the foreigner said, his tone of voice for once making his meaning clear. "Full percentage," he said pointing to the direction Hobson had gone, "that lot of money. I go now?" he asked, looking at them warily. "Check Nimbus? Big numbers."
Barchoke let the strange fellow go and tried not to take the cautious glances he shot back at him as anything more than what he'd do in that position because Alkrat wasn't the reason he was uncertain. He didn't like letting other people be the ones to make big decisions for them any more than he liked having to be the one to make them but that's the situation they were in. The chance of overwhelming failure made for an unsettling day and he couldn't shake the feeling that calling this meeting could be close enough to 'counting your dragons before they hatched' to somehow make the outcome turn to ash in front of his eyes.
As much as he'd tried in the last few weeks to offset as much responsibility as possible onto everyone else he still feared that it wasn't going to be enough. It had been his idea to give Flamel and Dumbledore to the I.C.W., his idea to take on the Ministry and seize the island for themselves, his idea to force the Ministry to negotiate for their Hit Wizards, and his idea to populate the island to keep it from anyone else. So little of it had gone according to plan though that you'd be hard-pressed to call it a plan.
The I.C.W. seemed determined to keep their neutrality and resist all attempts at bribery, the Ministry stubbornly refused to negotiate about anything, and Delacour had surprised them with an opportunity for a legally binding settlement on the island before they were ready and they'd had to take it or risk losing the chance entirely. It was the inevitable outcome of everything he'd started and while any reasonable person would have to see the rightness of their case, the fact that its fate was outside his control made him nervous. All of this could still go very wrong.
He and Bankor stood there for a while saying nothing. He wanted to ask him if everything was ready, if Hobson was prepared, and if he knew what in Gott's name to make of the Brownblood's scheme to make it rain galleons down on them like – well, rain, apparently. Barchoke didn't ask about any of it though; after a long moment the other goblin drew out his pocket watch to check the time.
"I should go," Bankor said as he closed the watch and put it back in his pocket.
With that they turned and separated, Bankor to look to oversee their present, Barchoke to worry about their future – and whether he'd still be a part of it.
All the visits during the summer made for a quieter time than what she heard coming from the compartments around them but she wouldn't have traded them for the world. It did lead to a bit of awkwardness though when they'd run though everything that's happened in the last few days and then had nothing to talk about and hours left to stare at each other. It almost made her wish that they hadn't already done all their catching up weeks ago.
It came as a bit of a relief when Fred and George stopped by to tell the guys that Wood had gone mental over the summer and warned that the older boy was planning something big, perhaps even surprising the whole house with tryouts in a few days, so they'd best be prepared. The news provided the boys with one of their standby subjects to talk about, though the prospect of tryouts gave Ron a sickly color for some reason. Hermione left Harry and Ron to it while she dug into her things and wrote out a letter to her dad.
She didn't come right out and say that she was wrong for the way she'd behaved – because she wasn't; it was deserved, in a way – but she did say that she appreciated him taking her all the way down to London in spite of it and said that she intended to write more often this year. Exactly what she'd say in the letters depended on whether Malfoy and the Slytherins were even bigger prats than normal, but she didn't say that. More open dialogue between them or not there were still certain things that her dad didn't need to know about and the true extent and casual acceptance of anti-muggleborn prejudice was one of them.
Harry was nice enough to loan her Hedwig so that she could mail her letter, and the owl had been kind enough to agree, but walking to the rear of the train so that she could have a less turbulent takeoff brought with it an uncomfortable feeling of being watched. Telling herself that it was an overactive imagination only worked for so long when people in every other compartment either stared at her questioningly or quickly turned the other way to talk amongst themselves when she passed by.
It wasn't until she'd seen Hedwig safely off the train though that she figured out what it was about her that caused that kind of reaction, and of course it was Harry. Parading down the train with Harry's distinctive owl on her arm after he'd been in the Daily Prophet for days, she might as well be carrying around a sign saying, 'Ask me all those uncomfortable questions you don't want to ask to Harry's face!' Hermione couldn't believe how stupid she'd been to not even consider what being so publicly connected to Harry would mean and she hurried back as quickly as she could before anyone plucked up enough courage to ask – or worse, slip past her to corner Harry about it himself.
"Alright, be back soon," Ron said as he backed into the hallway ahead of her.
"Where are you going?" she asked before the boy could turn away.
"To the trolley to get some snacks. Do you want anything?" he asked, his hands clutching a stack of gold and silver coins.
"Where'd you get the money?" Hermione asked before she could think, only to scold herself when she did. She knew that the Weasleys were of fairly modest means but she didn't want to imply that they were too poor to afford giving out any spending money at all.
"From Harry," Ron said with a lop-sided grin. "He said he wanted to spend it so it'd make its way back to Gringotts and I thought, 'Why not blow it all on sweets like we did last year?'" her friend explained.
Hermione struggled to keep her eyes from rolling at the typical boyish behavior and managed restrict herself to an unamused huff that he didn't manage to see. Perhaps her father was right; perhaps boys really didn't grow up any more than they had to. On a societal level she could see why Harry'd want the gold to go to Gringotts – she had been the one to point it out to him after all – but that didn't mean that she approved of him wasting money in such a childish fashion.
"Nothing?" Ron asked as he backed away, waving the money back and forth almost like her father would. "Things always taste better when they're free."
"They're not free if someone's paying for them," she said still a stickler for strict sentence substance.
"Suit yourself then," her red-haired friend shrugged as he turned to walk away. "It leaves more for us."
'Oh, I hate this!' she thought as he left. 'As much as Harry should be safeguarding his money, he's still right about getting the gold back to Gringotts but since Hedwig's already miles away and who knows if it'd be safe to have Dobby appear on a moving train, then spending it does seem to be the best alternative. After all, most of the coinage that's left in circulation may well be in the hands of students and there isn't much for us to spend it on normally.'
Still, if the money was going to be spent either way then at least she could try to find a way to repay him for her part of it.
"Get butterbeer if they have it!" Hermione called after him.
Going back into the compartment when she knew that it'd be just the two of them together was a very fidget-inducing experience. Whenever she and Harry were away from each other for long enough that wall of ice between them seemed to reform, no matter how many times they've broken it.
'Of course they could be completely different walls being broken down rather than the same one over and over again,' she thought as she entered. 'It does seem to be slightly different social situations that bring it up rather than–'
"Did you see Ron?" the black-haired, mop-headed source of all her worries asked, turning from the window and yanking her from her thoughts.
"I did," Hermione replied stiffly as she retook her seat next to him. He seemed far more at ease in comparison to her so she tried to think of something else to say to keep it from getting awkward.
She could bring up how to handle people's inevitable questions about what was going on with him and Dumbledore but even if she asked how he thought she should handle people asking her instead of him, that still wasn't the sort of thing he'd be eager to talk about. She could bring up all the sweets he was buying but that might reinforce the barrier she was feeling between them rather than breaking it. Bringing up his reasons for it though also posed a problem since anything related to Gringotts might veer them off towards cheques or credit cards, interest rates, or who knows what all else and that wasn't the sort of thing she wanted to be talking about.
'Oh, what did boyfriends and girlfriends that weren't quite boyfriends and girlfriends talk about besides their studies?' she asked herself.
As loath as she was to push things with Harry into a definite category, she couldn't help but think that it might actually help fully and finally break the ice. Out in the hall Hermione saw Lavender and Parvati walk past and glance in on them, only to immediately start giggling amongst themselves as if mocking her plight – not like either of them had a friend that was a boy let alone a boyfriend.
"So where'd you get the money?" Hermione asked in a last ditch attempt to talk about something tangentially related. "I thought you said you'd run out."
"I did," Harry said only to immediately correct himself, "at least I thought I did. That was on my desk today. I think Dobby found it when he was packing my things."
"So you're saying that you had so much money lying around," she said as she thought about the quirky little ironies that came from Harry's financial situation, "that you actually lost money, didn't notice, found it, and are now spending the money that you never knew you had?"
"At least I'm not paying for a hundred and forty years of school again," he said with a smile and a shrug. Hermione returned his smile as his self-deprecating humor successfully thawed a bit of the wall between them.
Before she could think about anything else to say to follow up, the thumping sound of running footfalls drew their attention to the corridor. The footfalls stopped when her two least-favorite Slytherins drew up short when Draco pulled Pansy to a halt. As incongruent as that was to everything she'd seen it was nothing compared to the pug-nosed girl whirling around to slap the blond-haired ponce across the face so hard that the noise from the surrounding compartments died down.
"Don't you dare grab me again!" the girl declared as she yanked her hand out of his and stormed off once again, leaving him glaring mutinously at her.
The tension in the compartment jumped when Draco shifted his sight to them and came inside to vent his anger and embarrassment on them.
"Having a good time with your girlfriend, Potter?" Draco drawled with a bright pink hand print marring one cheek. The venom he injected into the word girlfriend made her stomach roil at the insinuation.
"As a matter of fact, Malfoy, I am," Harry replied making her roiling stomach freeze and leaving her wrong-footed to know whether to be supportive of it or shrivel up. "What happened with your girlfriends though?" he asked in return. "Did Crabbe and Goyle break up with you or was it just Pansy?"
Hermione's eyes darted a quick look along the bit of corridor she could see. Harry was right, Malfoy's goons were nowhere to be seen. Had they simply outrun them?
"Like I need them," Draco scoffed. "This is going to be my year, Potter, so you'd better just watch yourself if you know what's good for you," he said ominously.
"Oh, I'm really scared," Harry retorted.
"You should be," Malfoy smirked as they glared at each other for a moment longer before the boy turned and walked away as if trying for the swoopy bat-like stalking glide of Professor Snape only to fall short.
The immediate decrease in tension was enough to thaw her stomach and focus the remaining uncomfortableness on what Harry just said about what they were. Intellectually she knew that Draco's use of the word girlfriend had just been a sharp stick he could use to poke Harry with and that Harry's agreement was an instinctual sign that it didn't hurt as well as opening up the possibility for him to use the same stick against Draco. What she didn't know though was whether that acknowledgement actually matched up with how he thought of her or not; she'd certainly used the boyfriend term in her own head a time or two but neither of them had said it out loud yet.
Unlike before, Harry was obviously feeling the awkwardness as well, flattening his hair and looking nowhere near as confident as when he was staring down Malfoy. Hermione didn't know what to say or how to bring it up for clarification without running the risk of him saying that he didn't mean it. That wasn't to say that she wanted to force him into it if he didn't want to, it was just–
'There has to be an easier way to do this,' she grumbled to herself, hating the powerlessness she felt in the situation.
"Er–," Harry said, the single sound sounding louder than it should in the overly quiet compartment. "Do you wan–," the boy cut himself off as he fumbled for the right words.
'He's really doing it, isn't he?' Hermione thought, for once pleased by his tendency to jump into things.
"Would you like to be–?"
"–Yes," she said quickly, cutting him off so that neither one of them had to go through the whole thing.
At a loss for anything else to say Harry agreed with an "Okay."
For a moment they sat like that in silence, the strangeness of it having frozen them in place. Eventually this kind of bubbly feeling took over and it was hard to keep a smile off her face. She glanced over to Harry and saw an identical one growing on his, which somehow merited a chuckle from both of them. She bumped his shoulder like she had weeks ago in Diagon Alley and he smiled in return before chuckling at something completely different.
"What is it?" Hermione asked curiously.
"Nobody's going to believe it if we tell them that Malfoy got us together," he said with a smile just short of laughter.
Hermione shook her head but chuckled anyway. She supposed that it was a good thing that Harry could laugh at the little ironies in his life but at the same time she couldn't help but affectionately think, 'Sometimes my boyfriend's so stupid.'
Ron's arms were bulging with sweets when he returned and the flurry of activity he caused made it seem that he was throwing a party for them. Dumping everything into an empty seat wasn't advised with all the butterbeers he'd gotten but fortunately none of the bottles broke. While he told them between bites of chocolate frogs about running into Seamus and Dean it was the official change in their relationship status that stayed in the forefront of her mind, and Harry seemed to be the same judging by the way he kept glancing at her and smiling.
"What?" Ron asked eventually, his eyes shifting back and forth between them. "What'd I miss?"
Hermione didn't know how to answer that, let alone trust herself to say it without smiling like an idiot. Harry though had no such compunction.
"Er – Hermione's my girlfriend," her boyfriend said.
"Yeah, so?" their bewilderingly baffled friend asked, failing to catch the momentousness of the occasion.
"He means officially," Hermione explained, moving closer to her boyfriend and looping an arm through his. "As in boyfriend and girlfriend."
"Oh," he said with a nod. "Droobles?" Ron asked offering them bubblegum.
'That boy wouldn't know exciting if it slapped him.'
AN: Wealth in the wizarding world, like its population, is a strange thing to nail down and Rowling herself has never been consistent with them. I'll take it as a given that you've seen others point these inconsistencies out rather than taking paragraphs to drone on about them but if you haven't, such posts aren't hard to find. Trying to account for some of these inconsistencies is the reason why I've done certain things in the story, like making Hogwarts a private school that you must pay to attend rather than one that's free to the public and never giving hard numbers about how much money people have.
That said, I found myself rubbing up against having to give some hard numbers in this chapter when dealing with Hobson's island plans, his projections, and where his numbers came from. The population and tourism numbers he rattled off are as close as I could get them, though extrapolating them into the wizarding world numbers did rely on guesstimations, though I'm of the opinion that the wizarding population is much closer to Hobson's estimate than Rowling's. That would not only help explain why their society is the way it is but how the cloistered medieval mindset they've fostered would make even the goblins have difficulty dealing with the sheer size of the modern muggle world and the amounts of money that we so casually throw around.
As always, thanks for reading.