CHAPTER NINE - FINAL ARRANGEMENTS

S ome things had changed since Harry had last been to Diagon Alley, but one thing was just the same as always: The one stop for anything a wizard could need was as crowded as ever. The four teenagers wended their way through the press of wizards and witches, surrounded by lively chatter as the towering sight of Gringotts Wizarding Bank rose above the rest of the buildings.

They exited the flow of shoppers and made their way up the white stone steps. They passed through the familiar set of gleaming bronze doors, but as soon as they stepped inside, Harry came up short, causing Ron to bump into his back.

"Hey, what's—" Ron began, before he caught sight of what had stopped Harry.

The Gringotts anteroom was larger than Harry remembered, and the engraved silver doors at the back were the only familiar sight. A pair of goblins flanked the entrance, but these were not the scarlet-and-gold clad goblins of the usual bank staff. They stood at rapt attention, wearing gold-buttoned sky blue coats and navy blue pants with golden stripes down the side. They also wore maroon berets, and the letters "IGDL" were embossed in silver on the front of both their coats and caps. Long wooden staves polished to a reflective sheen were locked at their sides.

Harry narrowed his eyes as he moved forward, followed cautiously by Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. A tall black archway extended over the silver doors, and another uniformed goblin swaggered up, holding up a hand indicating them to halt.

"Please present your wands for inspection," the goblin instructed them curtly.

After a moment's hesitation, the four teenagers brought out their wands and handed them over. The goblin walked back to the archway, where he reached up and pressed one long finger against the smooth black surface. A small slot popped open, into which the goblin slid the four wands one by one.

There was a soft whirring sound for several seconds, and then each wand slid back out of the same slot and into the goblins waiting hands. There were small strips of paper wrapped around the tip of each wand, which the goblin held up to the light and read carefully before walking back to the four teens.

"What's the IGDL?" Ron asked curiously as the goblin handed him back his wand.

"Please conduct your business quickly," the goblin said, ignoring the question while he returned the other wands. "Loitering within secured areas of will not be tolerated." He shuffled to one side and waved for the four of them to pass.

Inside the silver doors, at least, Gringotts looked much the same as always – at least at first glance. While the long counter and rows of stools were just where Harry had seen them last, there was an odd disquiet that seemed to permeate the air of the vast marble hall. Goblins writing in ledgers or counting coins and gems were hunched over a little too busily. The goblins guiding customers towards the numerous doors down to the vaults walked a little faster than was casual. And the customers themselves went about in a faintly nervous way, often with a bowed head, straight-ahead stare, and relentless gait from one point to the next.

Harry was rather abruptly reminded that all was not well in the wizarding world.

"Come on," he said, leading his friends to one of the available tellers.

"Name," the goblin said brusquely.

"Harry Potter."

"Wand."

Harry blinked, and then once again handed over his wand.

The goblin held up the attached strip of paper to the light, just as the door guard in the anteroom had. After a moment, the goblin tore off the strip and handed Harry back his wand.

They repeated the process three more times before the goblin finally summoned one of the attendants. "Two vaults for withdrawal, Loblock," the teller said to the other goblin.

"I'll meet you back up here," said Hermione, who didn't have a Gringotts vault and would simply be exchanging Muggle currency with the teller.

The teller gave the other three paper slips to the guide, who led Harry, Ron, and Ginny back through the doors to the torchlit stone passageways, where the goblin summoned a rickety cart.

"I don't suppose you could tell me what the IGDL is?" Ron asked Loblock, shouting over the rush of air and creaking of the cart along the tracks.

Their attendant didn't even seem to notice the question.

"Friendly bunch, aren't they?" Ron groused, barely loud enough for Harry and Ginny to hear.

"Things do seem a bit edgy, don't they?" observed Ginny.

"Hagrid once told me that Gringotts was the safest place in the wizarding world except for Hogwarts," Harry told them. "I wonder if they've switched."

Ginny frowned. "There's a difference between being safe and being paranoid. We were supposed to be 'safer' with a bunch of dementors floating around three years ago, remember?"

"Don't remind me," said Ron with a shiver.

They arrived at Harry's vault, where Loblock took his key and opened his safe without so much as a word. Harry hastily scooped some gold and silver into his bag, and the cart set off once more. The process was repeated at the Weasleys' vault, and they began the trip back to the surface.

"Are you sure this is enough?" Ron asked sourly, peering into the purse he and Ginny had brought. His feelings towards his family's financial situation were probably skewed, Harry thought, by the nine thousand galleons Fred and George had just so casually declined. Harry would have offered to share all his fortune with the Weasleys in a heartbeat, if he thought for a second they would accept.

The cart rumbled to a stop, dropping the three teenagers off. Hermione was waiting for them on one of the benches near the exit, focused intently on some papers in her lap. She looked up when they approached.

"Good, you're back. First thing's first," she said, a businesslike gaze spitted on Harry and Ron. "We need to get your course schedules filled out. So sit."

Ron glowered, but made no argument, and took a step towards the bench.

"I've got a better idea," said Harry. "Let's head to the Leaky Cauldron and work on them there. And lunch is on me. No arguments," he added quickly, smiling and pointing a finger at each of his friends, who had all opened their mouths to protest.

-- --- --

The Leaky Cauldron was much like Gringotts. It looked the same, even smelled the same, but there was something in the air. Gringotts had held a faintly overbearing sense of vigilance, like you couldn't move without being noticed. The old pub that bordered Diagon Alley and Muggle London, though, possessed an underlying tension as thick as pipe smoke. When they walked inside, heads turned fractionally to observe them out of the corners of a dozen sets of eyes, then after a moment, dismissed them and turned back to tankards and whispered conversations.

They took a table near the fireplace and tried to ignore the persistent feeling of being watched. Hermione set Harry and Ron to work on their course schedules, pecking at them like a mother hen.

"I thought you saved this attitude for homework," Ron griped as Hermione tried to explain his course requirements.

"This will determine the entire course of the rest of our schooling!" she explained in a heated whisper. "You may not think it's important, Ron Weasley, but when – if, at this rate! – you graduate, you'll be grateful you picked the classes that can help you find a job!"

"And which are those?" he grumbled dolefully. "Not like there's much I'm fit for anyway, with five measly O.W.L.s. Maybe Fred and George need someone to organize their shelves in the shop," he finished disgustedly, slumping back into his chair.

Hermione's gaze softened a bit. "Come on, Ron, don't sell yourself short. You've got five classes to choose from, with plenty of variety." She held up a hand and began counting off fingers as she read. "Charms, Herbology, Defense, Care of Magical Creatures, and Divination."

"Look on the bright side, mate," said Harry, putting on a wry grin. "No more Potions."

Ron gave a sharp sniff of laughter, then sighed as he sat up again. "I wasn't too keen on more Transfiguration, either. Small favors, I guess…" his brow furrowed. "Is Firenze is coming back to teach Divination again?"

"Probably," Harry replied. "He can't exactly go back to the forest, can he?"

"Good point," said Ron. "I wonder who we'll get stuck with for Defense this year."

"Whoever it is, they can't possibly be worse than Umbridge," Harry said fervently.

"And if they are, there's always Dumbledore's Army," Hermione said, smiling.

"You think anyone will risk coming back for D.A., after what happened last year?" said Harry.

"Well, you said it yourself; no Umbridge. And the Daily Prophet said earlier this summer that the position of Hogwarts High Inquisitor has been disbanded."

"You think they might bring Professor Lupin back?" Harry wondered.

Hermione looked thoughtful. "Well… It's certainly a possibility, with Dumbledore back in charge."

"Wouldn't he have said something about it if he were, though?" Ginny pointed out. "It's not like we haven't seen him this summer."

"Whoever it is, so long as they're not Ministry-appointed or downing Polyjuice potion I'll consider it a good start," Harry said flatly.

Ron sighed heavily and threw down his course schedule. "I suppose I should just take all of them, shouldn't I?"

"That's the spirit," Hermione said encouragingly. "Keep your options open for when N.E.W.T.s come around."

Ron groaned and slumped even further into his chair this time. "Did you have to remind me?"

Hermione smiled and shook her head ruefully.

Harry examined his own prospects, which were straightforward enough. He was in the same boat as Ron, though he'd qualified for Professor McGonagall's N.E.W.T.-level Transfiguration class and also had renewed appointment with Snape that he still wasn't sure whether to regret or be thankful for. The more he thought, though, the less reason he saw – logically, at least – to do anything but just go ahead and put in for all seven classes. With a resolved nod, he began scribbling down to do just that.

"So which classes are you taking, Hermione?" he asked as he wrote.

"Oh, all of them," she replied matter-of-factly.

Harry smiled. He just couldn't be surprised. "You did hear what Mr. Weasley said about Bill, didn't you?"

"Don't worry, I'll manage," she assured him. "I just can't stand the thought of dropping any of my classes."

"Not planning on picking up another Time Turner, are you?" Ron asked jokingly.

Hermione actually shuddered slightly. "Absolutely not."

The old bartender of the Leaky Cauldron, Tom, walked up with a tray filled with their lunch orders. "Sixth years already, eh?" he said, after glancing at the parchment spread across their table. He looked at Harry. "Seems like only yesterday you were showin' up for the first time in my door, just a wee lad at Hagrid's hip. Not that anyone looks big at Hagrid's hip, o' course," he chuckled.

"Hey, Tom," Ron piped up, his voice curious. "At Gringotts earlier today, we saw a bunch of security goblins, and they were wearing 'IGDL' logos. What's that all about?"

"The goblins have been right cagey the last few months, ever since the…" he looked around fretfully. "Well, you know, the big news. The goblins ain't never trusted wizards any great bit, so they got together to watch their own backs. The IGDL stands for 'Independent Goblin Defense League', yeh see."

"Goblins have formed their own alliance?" said Hermione.

"Aye," Tom nodded, placing a salad in front of the bushy-haired girl. "And between the four o' you and me, they're the best off," he said quietly. He sighed heavily. "The Ministry's been busy, but they ain't really been busy, yeh know what I mean? 'Full o' sound and fury', and all that."

"What do you mean?" Ginny asked. "We saw Minister Fudge just a couple weeks ago, and he certainly looked worried enough."

Tom shook his head as he put down bowls of stew. "He's worried, all right. Too worried to do much, as I hear it. He's afraid, yeh see, has been ever since the bad news broke. Nobody would let him hear the end of it, how the Ministry kept it quiet. And now, all he's doing is lookin' busy, but not really doin' anything. That way, he can't do anything wrong, yeh know?"

"But that's horrible!" Ginny gasped. "How can anyone let that happen?"

Tom smiled sadly as he took their drinks off his tray. "Lass, three times I've had me a busboy here in the Cauldron. Three times I never let five minutes go by without checkin' to make sure they were busy. And three times this bar ain't never been dirtier."

At that, they lapsed into a thoughtful silence.

Tom paused and looked around warily. "Hope'n it's not too much for me to say," he whispered in Harry's ear as he leaned in close to place a platter of bread on the table. "But I need to tell yeh that we're all behind you… and we're all counting on you." His smile was solid, but nervous, as he placed a hand briefly on Harry shoulder before collecting his tray and walking back to the bar.

Harry didn't say much while they ate, or all through the rest of the day for that matter, and when they finished their shopping and stopped by the twins' store for them to take Harry's picture for their advertisements, he hoped his smile didn't look as forced as it felt.

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A/N - I debated for a while, but eventually decided it was better to post this "snippet" chapter rather than flesh it out with superfluous events or make it the precursor to the train ride. The former would make it drag, which is something I've already done too much of in this story. The latter would make it both too great in length and too long in coming. I only hope I haven't exhausted everyone's patience; the plot will pick up from now on, I promise!

Hm... I actually can't think of anything else to say. Which is good, I guess, or else I'd end up with an author's note that really was longer than the chapter it was attached to.

Mark your calendars to remember this momentous event, people, and hope that my loss for words doesn't extend into the fic itself.