A/N: Wow. Sorry again for the long delay. Moving back to the US, starting school again and having a newly pregnant wife, along with working on my other story, Magical Mars (Which you can get to from my profile page. Please.) delayed me. But it's back! Yay! Please Review.
Oh, and there is about a one year jump forward in time from the end of the battle in the Chamber of Secrets.
War Within A Breath
Albus Dumbledore felt old. He actually was quite old, of that there was no doubt, but there had always been a subtle energy that he could always feel deep inside himself. Now, he was just tired. The year since the fight in the Chamber of Secrets had been one of the most difficult of his life, and there was little to indicate things would improve anytime soon.
Sitting in his office at Hogwarts, Albus tiredly placed a coconut flavored hard candy in his mouth, which he sucked on thoughtfully for a moment before there was a knock at the door.
"Come in, Harry," said Albus.
Harry Potter, now nominally a second year, though some in the wizarding world were aware there was something very different about him from a normal student, limped into his office. His leg was wrapped in a magical bandage that pulsed every few seconds as the healing spell worked its magic. His hair was shorter than it had been in the past, and several new scars adorned his face to compliment the well-known lighting bolt.
"Albus," greeted Harry as he sat down heavily in one of the chairs across from the headmaster.
The two sat silently for a minute, taking advantage of the calm the office provided. Fawkes warbled a short phoenix song from his perch by the window and Harry smiled for a moment before he spoke.
"There's nothing new happening. Riddle is too far away for me to sense anything through our connection." Harry didn't say anymore, but the look on his face made clear to Albus what he was thinking.
"We have discussed this several times. I do not believe it would be wise to antagonize him," said Albus.
Harry shook his head in exasperation. "Albus, he's taking this time to build up his strength. If we badger and harass him, it will throw him off - distract him. Each day he's left alone, he gets stronger and more confident."
"You believe we are ignoring him?" asked Albus.
"Having a few witches and wizards tracking him and spying isn't going to affect the situation one way or the other."
"Perhaps you are correct," admitted Albus with a sigh as he leaned back in his chair and rested his head against the backrest. "I must admit that many, if not most, of your strategies have been extremely successful. I only question the wisdom of seeking a confrontation with Riddle outside of Britain. The island is where our strength lies."
Harry nodded in agreement but continued to argue. "The ministry can't protect all of Europe. It's not right that we're forcing the other ministries to fend for themselves when we're responsible."
"What would you have us do?" asked Albus.
"We need to send a force to attack his strongholds. We need to work with the goblins to cut off his money supply and we need to work with other ministries and other organizations to limit his resources!"
Harry slapped the table in frustration, causing Fawkes to chirp with surprise. He visibly reigned in his temper and breathed deeply several times before meeting Albus' eyes and speaking with short, clipped words.
"We can't sit here and do nothing but wait. We have to act. He's getting stronger every day, Albus. We both know I'm the only one who can end this, but so does he, and things like this," Harry waved towards his bandaged leg, "are going to keep happening until we kill him and his followers."
Albus mentally flinched at Harry's vehemence when he spoke of killing Riddle and his hundreds of new and returned Death Eaters on the continent. When he spoke, it was with measured calm.
"Winter break is coming. You should not leave Hogwarts when class is in session. It would raise far too many questions and possibly alert Tom. If you can wait until then, I will help you organize a force to seek out and destroy one of his headquarters. Will that be acceptable?" asked Albus, though he spoke with a tone of finality.
"I guess it will have to be," said Harry. "Don't mention it to Remus. His health is still pretty off, but he'll still want to come."
"I agree. I will contact Amelia and let her know of our plans and that you wish to speak with Ragnok. They are meeting with the muggle prime minister this afternoon. Perhaps the goblins will be interested in joining you."
Harry's smile reminded Albus of the creatures he had just mentioned. "I would be surprised if they didn't demand to."
"I think I'm starting to understand you, Padfoot."
"Oh yeah?" asked Sirius warily.
"Yes. Yes, I do. What's wrong with a little bit of firewhiskey for breakfast?" asked an inebriated Remus Lupin.
"It doesn't go very well with eggs."
"But the beans! You can just pour a dollop in them and they are delicious." Remus demonstrated exactly that, though his hand slipped, drowning his breakfast in Odgen's finest, rendering it inedible.
Remus sighed heavily before throwing his plate across the room in a sudden burst of rage, where it shattered against the stone wall. The sleeve of his robes had been pulled up as he raised his arm and didn't slide back, exposing his mutilated and scarred skin. He saw Sirius glance at it and quickly tugged his sleeve back down.
"What in Merlin's name are you looking at?"
"Nothing, Moony. Hand me the bottle?" requested Sirius.
Remus slid the firewhiskey across the table where Sirius took a sniff and popped the cork back into the bottle.
"What are you doing?" demanded Remus.
"No more this morning. I've got class and you have to go see the healers. Bill is going to take you to St. Mungos in a bit," Sirius informed him.
Remus sagged back and rubbed the stump where his right leg used to be, moaning pitifully. "Those useless squibs can't do anything. They just make it hurt worse."
"They're doing the best they can," said Sirius. "I know it's frustrating, but remember what Moody said. It took him almost two years of therapy before they could fit him for a leg that didn't cause him pain with every step."
"I guess I'm not as strong as the Great Mad-Eye Moody, then!" spat Remus.
"Stop. It's too early to listen to you feeling sorry for yourself. You know your transformations set back the treatments, so stop it."
Remus rubbed his leg again and then ran a hand through what was left of his hair. It was thinner than a year ago and almost completely gray. His face was lined with wrinkles and scar tissue and his cheeks were sunken in slightly. Even for a werewolf, he was aging unnaturally fast. The curses Riddle had hit him with, as well as the ensuing year of pain caused by the burns, the accompanying treatment and the aggravation of his injuries from his monthly transformations, had taken a toll on him that Sirius sometimes thought was almost as bad as his own time in Azkaban.
"Alright, Padfoot," Remus said weakly. "Help me to the bed. I want to sleep until Bill gets here if you're not going to let me drink."
The two friends stumbled towards the bedroom together, lost in separate thoughts.
Bill and Arthur Weasley sat in the kitchen at the Burrow, enjoying one of Molly's usual delicious breakfasts. Bill had flooed over, as he did every morning, from his flat in London. His mother had been ecstatic when he announced he was moving back to England permanently, though her joy was tempered by the news that Voldemort had returned and Bill would be on the front lines of the fight against him. When the tears finally stopped flowing and she had released the death grip on her oldest son, Molly had smiled wetly and thanked the gods, the fates and anything else she could think of that her family was still relatively safe and happy.
His father dragged Bill out of his memories. "Is everything ready for the meeting today?"
His oldest son nodded. "Ragnok seemed a bit nervous, actually. Well, as nervous as a goblin can be, I suppose."
Arthur shrugged. "Not half as nervous as Prime Minister Winthrop, I would imagine."
They each spent a few moments chewing before Bill spoke. "Dad, do you think the muggles will be able to work with the goblins?"
"I believe so. The Prime Minister is quite open minded. He's been very interested in the magical world since I met him, and one of his bodyguards, Terrance Burgundy, is actually a squib. I think it will be more difficult for the goblins to work in an environment where they don't have complete control of the economy."
"The way things are going on the continent, they won't have much control in the magical world, either."
Arthur grimaced and nodded in agreement. Father and son sat quietly, lost in their own thoughts. A few minutes later, as Bill was taking their empty dishes to the sink, Ron bounded down the stairs, surprisingly late to breakfast for the usually ravenous boy.
"Hey Bill, hey dad," he grinned at them as he began scooping food onto his plate. The changes in Ron's personality since Harry's arrival from the future did not translate into any noticeable difference in his eating habits, which caused Hermione no end of consternation when she was present. Harry had taken him aside near the end of first year and explained to Ron about his time-traveling and theory of being in a new universe that was actually an offshoot of his original one. The redhead had squinted at him in mild confusion initially before a light of understanding had lit his eyes.
"Does Hermione know?" he had asked.
"Yeah, but she's the only student who does, other than you, now," Harry explained.
"Alright," said Ron with more calm than Harry had expected. "I'm going to need to talk to her about this."
Stunned for a moment, Harry prevented his mouth from hanging open just barely. "I can show you some of my memories in the headmaster's pensieve if you don't believe me."
Ron had waved away the offer. "Let me talk to Hermione first. She's better at explaining this kind of stuff."
As a incredulous Harry watched his friend from two different universes walk off, he couldn't help but be amazed at the changes in Ron. He was much slower to anger, seemed to think before he spoke (most of the time) and had treated Hermione with more respect and kindness since starting Hogwarts than Harry could remember him displaying until they had graduated in his original time.
He had taken to the knowledge of Harry's time travel better than anyone, except for Hermione, had expected. Even after seeing Ron grow up through Harry's memories, she still only knew the relatively kind and confident twelve year old boy she had met on the Hogwarts Express. Their much healthier relationship always made Harry smile when he watched them together, causing them to blush if they noticed, thanks to their knowledge of what they became in Harry's original universe.
"Are you going to see Harry today?" Ron asked his brother and father.
They shook their heads and he suppressed a frown. The thought of being left out still rankled as much as it would anyone else, but he knew his presence at the meeting between the heads of the magical, muggle and goblin governments would be superfluous. That didn't mean he wasn't curious and somewhat disappointed. His momentary satisfaction that Harry wouldn't be there either left him feeling a bit guilty.
"He should be," he stated with certainty.
"I'll tell him you said so if I see him," said Bill, who slapped his brother on the back before walking out to the back porch to apparate to Gringotts.
Ron noticed his father looking at him with an unreadable expression. A sense of uncertainty was quickly quashed as Arthur spoke.
"I'm very proud of you, son."
Ron blushed, and the smile didn't leave his face until long after his father had apparated to the Ministry of Magic.
Severus Snape sat in his office next to the potions laboratory with a scowl on his face. His desk was covered by parchment with the vapid scrawling of his fourth year potions classes, but he had barely even glanced at them before becoming lost in thought. It was nearing the one year anniversary of the battle in the Chamber, and he couldn't help reflecting on the changes wrought by Harry Potter, formally his most hated student. He thought back to last Halloween, absently wishing he had a pensieve, and the whirlwind of information and actions that had changed everything. He hadn't had the time to absorb the information given to him that night. The idea that Potter was a time-traveler and the Dark Lord not only still existed but was planning on resurrecting himself just below the castle in the legendary Chamber of Secrets was so fantastical that he still had trouble accepting it almost a year later.
Things had taken on a stark clarity at the sight of Neville Longbottom with the voice and mannerisms of Voldemort. Severus shook his head. Riddle, Tom Riddle. Potter infuriatingly never failed to correct anyone who used the pseudonym. Severus had come to terms with the idea that the boy wasn't really a boy at all, and had faced Riddle more than enough times to call him whatever he damn well pleased. He had even managed to form a constructive relationship, though one could barely call it friendly, with the time-traveller.
Potter's desire for a confrontation with Riddle was the centerpiece of Severus' latest distraction. Albus had called him to his office and explained the conversation he'd just concluded with Harry. The idea of getting the Gringotts goblins involved with a war on the continent in conjunction with the ministry would have been absurd at any other point in history. The fact that Harry Potter was the only person able to change the status quo so dramatically was both impressive and annoying to him.
With a sigh, he forced himself to focus on the potions essays in front of him. He'd gotten about halfway through the first one when there was a knock at his door. Feeling a bit relieved that he would be able to put off reading the drivel that he'd assigned, he put the parchment down and spoke.
"Enter," he called out.
Minerva McGonagall stepped through into his office. His relationship with his old transfiguration professor had improved dramatically over the past year as all doubts about his loyalties had been laid to rest.
"Severus, how are you?"
"Disgusted with the writing abilities of the fourth years, but otherwise acceptable," he said.
She smiled slightly, but then changed expression so that he knew there was something else she was there to ask.
"What can I help you with, Minerva?"
She hesitated, causing him to briefly imagine her as a student put on the spot by a professor. "It's about Remus. The healers say they've done everything they can for him, and I was hopeful that you might have a suggestion to further his healing."
Severus grimaced. Lupin and Black were two people he still had little love for, regardless of their recent actions and civil behavior towards him. Some scars ran too deep. He was able to maintain a working relationship with Black, but couldn't bring himself to become truly friendly towards him. Lupin was slightly better, in his opinion, but his injuries had made him more and more bitter over the past year to the point where Black, Potter and Albus were the only people who freely chose to spend any significant amount of time with the crippled werewolf.
He brought his attention back to Minerva's request. Various salves and potions had healed many of the burns, though nothing could be done for his severed leg. The man was still in obvious agony, something that made even Severus cringe with the knowledge that as a werewolf, Lupin had a much higher than normal tolerance for pain. The man's natural propensity for self-doubt certainly didn't help his disposition.
"I don't know what I can do to help, more than I already have," he said, reminding her that much of the initial treatments that had saved Lupin's life had been performed by him immediately following the battle.
"I understand, and Remus knows how much you've done for him, even if he doesn't show much gratitude these days," said Minerva. "Nicolas Flamel has been working on several different solutions, as well, but he's said on multiple occasions he's never been as skilled at potions as he is at alchemy."
Severus sat up a little straighter at that bit of information. The most heralded alchemist of all-time had been unable to find a solution to help someone the centuries old wizard considered a friend. Flamel hadn't been present at Hogwarts very often since Riddle had returned, but he apparently kept in regular contact with Potter and Albus. Interest in the challenge of finding a successful treatment for Lupin began to percolate in his mind despite himself and he nodded to Minerva.
"I'll do some research and see what I can find out. I won't make any promises."
Minerva smiled at him with pride and gratitude that made Severus feel uneasy. "Thank you, Severus. I appreciate it, and so will the others."
"It's a challenge. I am not doing it out of the kindness of my heart," he said.
"Of course," said Minerva as she let herself out.
Prime Minister Samuel Winthrop glanced at his fireplace. Based on his limited knowledge of the history between the muggle and magical governments, he was certain that the fireplace had seen more use over the past two years than in its entire existence prior to the day Amelia Bones had first emerged from it to inform him of the magical world. Since that day, the Prime Minster's office and the Muggle Relations Department of the Ministry of Magic had remained in close contact, mostly through its head, Arthur Weasley. The prime minister was waiting for his redheaded friend now, as a matter of fact, and was slightly concerned at the usually punctual man's tardiness. Just as his concern was about to turn into worry, a flare of green flames put his mind at ease as Arthur Weasley emerged from the fireplace, followed by Amelia Bones, her secretary Michelle Alton and two odd looking creatures the prime minister knew to be goblins, though he had never met one before.
"Prime Minister Winthrop," greeted Amelia. "May I introduce Chief Ragnok of the Goblin Nation."
The goblin, who was just over four feet tall and wearing what looked to be a green leather body suit, walked over to the prime minister and held out a hand that ended with sharp looking claw-like fingers. Doing his best not to appear uncomfortable, Winthrop shook Ragnok's hand and went through the rest of the introductions before inviting the rest of the group to sit at a conference table.
After they had all sat down, Winthrop offered refreshments. The second goblin, who had introduced himself as Rockspear, was the only one to accept, asking for a cup of coffee. The innocuousness of the request made it that much stranger, and Winthrop noticed that the other goblin seemed a bit surprised as well. The other humans didn't seem to find it unusual.
"I developed a taste for it in Egypt," Rock explained to his superior's unasked question. Ragnok's expression conveyed immediate understanding and Winthrop had already figured out two things: goblins didn't normally drink coffee, and were apparently quick on the uptake.
The six of them began their meeting after Arthur Weasely, who was well-known to the prime minster's staff, retrieved Rock's coffee along with several bottles of water for the others.
"Before we make any decisions," said Amelia, "I need to inform you of a conversation I had earlier today with Albus Dumbledore."
Winthrop was familiar with the name, though he hadn't met the wizard himself.
"Harry Potter has determined that we need to go after Riddle directly. Albus agrees, though with some provisos, and I do as well."
Ragnok looked thoughtful while Rock grinned widely, showing off some impressive teeth that caused a flutter of nervousness in the prime minster's stomach.
Arthur seemed a bit flustered. "I didn't think the aurors were ready for that yet."
Amelia nodded. "That's true for most of them. However, I believe we can field up to thirty aurors for strategic quick strikes against known Death Eater strongholds. Harry also wanted to make a request of the two of you," she indicated Ragnok and Winthrop.
"Riddle is in a position where potential growth for his goals and organization is almost assured. The magical populations of Europe are not nearly as organized or centralized as in Britain. He has also severely limited his attacks in the areas where he has been recruiting, further limiting any potential resistance as the ministries on the continent feel little threat from a group that has remained mostly underground.
"That said, Riddle has been recruiting in large numbers with the specific goal of taking Britain. His strategy seems to take into account the mobilization of the Ministry of Magic and the Order of the Phoenix. He seems to be unaware, so far, of any goblin involvement. We also believe he is totally unaware of any muggle contacts or relationships the Ministry of Magic currently has.
"That's where the two of you come in. Harry, Albus and I feel that with the assistance of the goblin's financial network and the prime minster's contacts in the muggle governments of the affected countries, we could pinpoint the locations of many of Riddle's strongholds. Any other assistance, while obviously voluntary, would be much appreciated."
The two other leaders sitting at the table paused in thought for a moment. Ragnok was the first to speak. "Minister, the Goblin Nation and the Ministry of Magic have been working together closely over the past year. More closely, I believe, than ever before. The goblin high council does not believe Riddle is aware of this. As you told me during our first meeting, 'We must all hang together, else we shall hang separately'. We are prepared to ally ourselves completely with you until the destruction of Riddle and the Death Eater threat."
Winthrop watched the expressions of the others. Rockspear was hard to read, as he didn't know if expressions on a goblin's face had the same meanings as a human's. Arthur's mouth had formed a small 'o' of surprise for a moment before he had schooled his face into something approximating neutrality, though he could sense his friend desperately wanted to smile. Amelia and her assistant were both grinning, though while Michelle seemed genuinely pleased, Amelia's expression seemed to promise pain to someone. It was oddly similar to the goblins', after he considered it a moment. He decided to weigh in with his decision.
"Her Majesty's Government is willing to assist in any and all ways possible. We are prepared to put our full support, including our military and intelligence services, behind your ministry as well as this Harry Potter I've heard so much about, and hope to meet someday soon."
Amelia smiled at him, while the goblins looked at him with obvious approval. It made him feel oddly proud.
"Thank you for your offer, Prime Minister," said Amelia. "If there's anything I believe you can help us with, I'll let you know. I don't know how well your police forces could do against wizards, though. Perhaps we could assist you in training some of your government to help protect non-magical citizens."
Arthur winced a bit, remembering how only a few years ago he had been equally mis-informed about muggle abilities and technology. His friendship and interaction with the prime minister, along with his position as head of the Muggle Relations Department had rectified that over the past two years. He decided to try and correct his superior as gently as possible before Samuel was offended too badly.
"Minister," he started. "There's a few things about muggle technology you might not be aware of..."