Chapter 31

"Ladies and gentlemen, Germany bids you welcome to this meeting of all those who love freedom and oppose oppression in all its forms."

James didn't raise his eyebrows like he wanted to do, but did blink in his surprise. While the representatives of all the countries present were unified in their opposition to Russia's fear mongering and explicit support of Lord Voldemort, it was still very unusual for a politician to be so blunt in their assessment of other countries in public pronouncements. It wasn't the 'done thing'. Then again, with Voldemort to the west and Russia to the east, Germany and the other western European nations were probably not feeling very secure at the moment. Fear made people desperate. Desperate people were unpredictable.

The German Minister for Magic, Heinrich Stass, continued his very frank speech. "Conflict is looming on the horizon. It is a conflict not of our making, but rather a conflict which is being thrust upon us." James unconsciously agreed, nodding along with many of the other representatives. At his side, Amelia and Hestia were silent.

Gesturing to the British representatives, Stass pointed out, "The Russians and their allies continually bring the attention to the Dark Lord in the United Kingdom as their unifying force, but their actions tell a different story. Their Coalition – their Iron Fist of Freedom – is but a ruse de guerre for aggression and dominance."

"Merde," muttered the French Minister at the table next to James. The Germans in general and Minister Stass in specific had reputations for being direct, but this speech was so atypical of a politician as to be harsh and violent.

Perhaps that was the objective. Resettling in his chair, James silently opined that the Russians were not the only country who were capable of using inflammatory words to incite a group. In fact, Germany had produced one of the greatest orators in the history of western civilization. The fact that Adolph Hitler had been a psychopath didn't diminish his oratory skills. Heinrich Stass was nothing like his sociopathic predecessor, but he was a skilled orator, nonetheless.

Surveying the room, the silver haired German Minister for Magic paused with intent. "It is Germany's goal to build an Alliance against the oppression that threatens us." Once again gesturing to the table occupied by the British delegation, he elaborated, "Our British brethren are merely the first to suffer under the yoke of Dark Magic and dark machinations. Who is next?"

Sweeping his hand about the room, Stass asked, "France? Spain? Italy? Austria? Any of us could be next." With quiet dignity, the wizard finished, "Germany refuses to submit. Germany will not willingly give into this darkness that threatens our nations."

As Stass took his seat, James noted that the silence in the room was louder and more meaningful than the most boisterous and raucous applause.

.oOo.

Bill Weasley was uncomfortable as he sat in the hard hospital chair, Fleur dozing at his side. He couldn't help the little smile that washed over his face as she gave a whistling snore while her head rested on his shoulder. The fidgeting from his mother erased any sign of his joviality.

The Weasley family was gathered in the Magical hospital in Madrid where the severely injured Percy Weasley had been brought after being found on the streets of Birmingham.

They'd been rotating shifts of the family to sit with Percy over the previous days. Fred, George and Ginny had just left while his Dad was due to stop by before work. Arthur had taken a few days off, but really couldn't be spared from the Ministry.

His mother hadn't left Percy since his portkey arrival at the hospital.

Despite Percy's nearly comatose status, Bill could see a definite improvement in his mother's mental health. Her listlessness and apathy were nearly gone. Bill did allow himself to smile as he remembered her grumbling that she couldn't cook for her family while waiting in the hospital. Her minute directions to Ginny on how to cook for the family had been accompanied by eye-rolls of herculean proportions by the teenage witch. Bill knew that Charlie and the twins had done the bulk of the cooking while their mother was with their injured sibling. By her own laughing admission, Ginny couldn't boil an egg.

The door swung open slowly as Ron backed into the room, his arms stacked high with tea and assorted pastries.

"Oh, let me help you, Ron," Molly murmured. Bill was suddenly transported back to the Burrow as he watched his mother scurry across the room to assist her son with his load. There wasn't a trace of strain or worry as she helped Ron place the snacks and tea on the side table. Her smile for her tallest son was warm and genuine before she stretched up on her tiptoes to tenderly kiss him on the cheek. "Thank you, son," she murmured.

All seemed right in the world.

Then she turned back to Percy. The pale, unresponsive son who'd been missing for so long was the realization of all his mother's fears since the first Voldemort war. After a long night where he and Arthur had consumed more than a few firewhiskeys, his father had told Bill that after losing Gideon and Fabian, Molly had never been the same vivacious, confident woman that he'd married. She'd lived in omnipresent fear that Death Eaters or their ilk would once again rip out her heart through her family.

So, her face fell into the worried, fearful expression that had haunted her for the last year or so since Britain fell. Bill sighed for his mother's slight retreat to normalcy, wishing that it could've lasted for a bit longer. She'd improved, but when coming up from the bottom, the top is a long way off.

"Love you, mum," Ron murmured.

The seeming offhand remark brought the smile back to Molly's face as she gave Ron's face a loving caress. The worried expression on Ron's face told Bill that the remark had been far from offhand. The boy he'd been when the war started was replaced by a young man trying to hold his family together. Bill nodded appreciatively to himself.

Fleur sighed, waking from the slight movement. As she blinked awake, she squeezed Bill's arm. "Has there been any change?" she murmured in French.

"None," he replied in the same language.

Another sigh escaped the part Veela, this one of frustration. Standing, she bussed Bill on the cheek before availing herself of the room's attached lavatory. Bill watched her leave, unwilling to be parted from her for even the most mundane reasons.

"You love her."

Bill looked over to his mother who was watching him with an odd expression. Ron was gone; he must have slipped out when Bill was preoccupied. Addressing his mother, he replied to her statement, "With all my heart."

Molly sighed. Taking the seat that Fleur had just vacated, she took Bill's hand in hers. "Does she take good care of you?"

Bill smiled as he remembered the dinner Fleur had cooked for the two of them not even four days ago. She'd put an entire day into surreptitiously shopping for the food and then securing the kitchen to cook the meal. She'd even ordered Indian take-away for everyone else. "I wanted a night for us. Just my Guilliame and me."

"The best, mum. She loves me as much as I love her."

"But she's French…," Molly protested weakly.

Bill chuckled as he wrapped his arm about his mother's too thin shoulders. "Mum," he cajoled.

Smiling wetly, Molly gave in. "She seems to be a good witch. If she takes care of you and loves you as you deserve, I can't ask for anything better."

Seeing a glimpse of the warm, caring woman that raised him, Bill kissed her forehead. "Thanks, mum."

The door to the bathroom swung open to show a refreshed and suspiciously bright eyed French Veela. Molly popped out of the chair. "I'm in your spot," she said cheerfully to Fleur."

Fleur moved to Molly's side before placing a small kiss on the woman's cheek. She murmured something to the red-headed matron that Bill couldn't make out, but it caused Molly to smile as she patted Fleur on the arm.

"I do like your new hairstyle, Fleur," Molly prattled brightly. "The mix of short on the sides but longer on the top is very fetching for you."

"Merci. Susan cut it for me and did a surprisingly professional job."

"Yes. I've always wanted very short hair like that, but never really had the courage to lop all this off," the redhead gestured to the large queue wrapped about in a large design at the nape of her neck."

Bill's mouth fell open as his mother and lover began chatting about hairstyles and whatnot. It was the most normal his family had been since the war started. His eyes settling on his unconscious brother, Bill thought to himself with good humoured affection, Now you just need to wake up, you prat.

.oOo.

"So, what've we learned?" Harry asked as he settled into a chair. At his side, Hermione read her copy of the transcripts from the interrogation of Lucius Malfoy.

"Quite a bit, but not that much," Arthur Weasley replied. Harry frowned - not at the answer, but at Mr Weasley's manner. The balding redheaded father of seven was going out of his way to avoid eye contact as well as fidgeting so much that Harry was afraid the man would worry his shirt cuffs to their component thread before the interview was complete.

Hermione smiled as she read aloud from Lucius Malfoy's interrogation transcript in a mock triumphal tone, "I have been banished from the Dark Lord's presence. My failure to protect his diary and its subsequent destruction in 1993 has incurred his wrath. My role has been of Quartermaster for the Dark Lord." Hermione snorted in amusement, "Poor Mr Malfoy. He's been reduced to funding the Dark Lord's efforts."

Harry nodded as he read further. "Consolidation of British administration under Laurence Nott…Jugson running foreign affairs...London as their working offices."

"Whitehall. Taken over Dover House it seems," Hermione murmured. Flipping the page, she scowled. "Cheeky, that is."

"Here we go," Harry observed. Pointing out the section of the transcript to Hermione, he read aloud, "Overall Death Eater morale fluctuates wildly. At the higher ranks, there is strong confidence due to their successes and the strong Russo-Voldemort alliance, but the bulk of the Death Eater soldiers are fearful and they are beginning to experience mass desertions from the non-marked soldiers." Harry nodded with satisfaction as he saw the proof that Remus' plan to instil fear in the Death Eater rank and file was bearing fruit. The next paragraph showed that their true objective was also being realized.

"Hmm," Hermione murmured as she read further down the transcript while worrying her lip between her teeth. "Voldemort is confining himself to either Balmoral Castle or Buckingham Palace...with no discernible pattern of residence. His visits to the Death Eater homes have ceased for fear of exposure due to incessant raids on Death Eater facilities," she muttered aloud. "Dragon at Balmoral, that's possible. The grounds are extensive…Cockatrice at Buckingham? I find that hard to believe; where would they put it?" Flipping to another page, she frowned while considering the problem. "The Quadrangle would be big enough. Lord help them should they have put it in the ballroom."

Harry snorted, "The Queen would be furious."

Arthur was silent; neither contributing to the analysis nor providing commentary. Both were unusual for the man.

Harry concentrated as he read on, ignoring the odd behaviour of Arthur Weasley. Provisioning outlook, control of mundane armed forces, funds on hand, and sources of revenue were laid out. "The drug trade," Harry harrumphed. Apparently, Malfoy had decided to revive government control of the opium importation, among other drugs, as a source of revenue.

"James and Amelia did take all the Ministry's money," Hermione observed.

"Boo hoo," Harry countered. His compassion for the Voldemort Regime's financial woes was unsurprisingly thin. "Dear Lord," Harry murmured as he read on. "Nearly a billion pounds in the last year." That would keep Voldemort flush for years to come.

The silence was only broken by the occasional flutter of pages as Harry and Hermione read through the transcript. Every so often, one of them would flip back a few pages to confirm a correlation before continuing with their read through.

At the end of their read through, Hermione sighed loudly. Nodding to Arthur, she agreed, "This tells us quite a bit of how they work and what they're doing on a regular basis, but doesn't give us much insight into an attack that we could use as a killing blow. This information is invaluable for a protracted campaign, but not as valuable to us."

Harry nodded as he rubbed his eyes under his glasses. "Dad and mum say we don't have the time to run Voldemort to ground through attrition and embargo." Gesturing to the sheaf of parchment, Harry asked Arthur, "Will you provide this information to Moody and Sheehan to build an targeted attack plan against the Voldemort regime?" What was unsaid was the fear "Should I fail in killing Voldemort?"

Arthur nodded. "Alastor is being given command over all Auror teams in the UK, while Emmeline is replacing him in command of the northern forces. They, along with Terry Sheehan will develop a plan to be submitted to Amelia for approval."

"When will Lestrange's interrogation transcript be ready for correlation?" Hermione asked.

Nodding, Arthur fiddled with a quill on his desk. "The next few days. We interviewed Malfoy first."

Harry leaned back in his chair, as he wondered, "What ever happened to Bellatrix?"

For the first time in the meeting Arthur met Harry's gaze as he replied, "She was executed three months ago."

Harry nodded in satisfaction while Hermione muttered, "Good. We'll need to tell Neville."

There was an uncomfortable silence as the three looked at each other. There was an expectation of friendly chatter that it was evident that Arthur was reluctant to initiate. The three had known each other for many years and now that Harry and Hermione were much older, they were treated more inclusively by adults. A small part of Harry was unwilling to start the expected chatter. The closed expression on the father of their old friend was uninviting.

Nodding absently to himself, Harry stood while extending his hand to Hermione. Handing her out of her chair, he smiled to Arthur, "Let us know when the Lestrange transcript is ready?"

He gave a closed mouth smile, "Of course. Have a good day."

Letting Hermione precede him out the door, Harry let the redheaded man's odd behaviour slip away. There was a far more important question on his mind. "Where is Voldemort?" he asked his partner.

Hermione shook her head in ignorance. "Buckingham or Balmoral would be my best guess. Both are extremely defensible. Both would feed his ego."

Absently hooking his hand in hers, they meandered down the hall to the front door. The winter sunshine was bright and cheery. The stiff breeze that met them when he opened the door was chilly, but not outright cold. Hermione snuggled up to his side as he wrapped his arm about his shoulders.

Without speaking, they headed for the shoreline. The loaned facilities for the Ministry in Exile were on an old Spanish military base that'd been closed for years. The utilitarian beach had been hardscaped for erosion control rather than watersports. As such, Harry and Hermione stood on the shingle and gravel as they watched the waves roll in from the Mediterranean Sea.

Knowing her as he did, Harry was sure that she too was turning over the problem at hand, How would they find Voldemort?

A soft smile stole over Harry's features as the answer occurred to him. Feeling mischievous, he turned to his lover, "I have an idea."

.oOo.

It was nearly midnight as Sirius pored over the drawings of Balmoral Castle while Bill and Fleur studied the same for Buckingham Castle. With intelligence provided by Malfoy's interrogation – and hopefully correlated by Lestrange – the Pride was now focusing all their energies on killing Voldemort.

Rubbing his face tiredly, Padfoot recalled his wife voicing her fears the night before, "We're on the threshold of a European war that could easily explode into a world war." There wasn't time to be mucking about. While it was wonderful to be in Spain and reunited with loved ones and taking a rest from constant attacks and tension from being in-country, Sirius felt an urgency in this tasking that belied the sun kissed rooms and inviting beaches of the Spanish Riviera.

"What do you have, mate?" a tired Bill Weasley asked.

Before Sirius replied, Fleur interrupted. "First, I'm going for a café for Bill and me, would you like one?"

Sirius smiled. It was a recurring joke between him and Fleur. He replied with the usual, "Coffee is for the Philistine French, I'll have a refined cup of tea. Darjeeling, if you must know." Fleur gave a friendly smirk as she left the room.

The grin fading from his face, Sirius replied to Bill, "What do I have? I have a very difficult facility to assault, that's what I have." Gesturing to the plans, he elaborated, "Extensive grounds that can hide a battalion of troops and possibly a dragon – or both. A bloody castle that is probably warded to hell and back, which has enough rooms and, most likely, internal traps and beasties to slow down an attacking force that would give Voldemort enough time to escape." Shaking his head, Sirius concluded, "To take Balmoral would be far beyond our means. This would have to be a full scale attack. All the Aurors and us. Anti-Apparition wards, Anti-Portkey wards and shut down the Floo while simultaneously dropping the protective wards." Shaking his head, he murmured aloud, "I'm not the expert you are, but my rough calculations indicate that we'd need a team of twenty just to drop the wards. And we still wouldn't have enough people for the assault proper."

Jabbing his forefinger at the forest that surrounded the castle, he ranted, "There could be two hundred Death Eaters in these woods, all of them riding Wyverns and we'd not see them until they were nearly on top of us." The door creaked open behind Sirius as he shook his head in frustration, "This is bigger than anything we've ever contemplated."

Fleur handed him his cup of tea. As he made to thank her, he heard James' voice from behind him, "Focus on what you need, old man. We'll get you what you need." Turning, Sirius saw Amelia Bones flanked by James and Hestia while Harry, Hermione and Lily moved to look at the map.

As Amelia and the others moved across the room, she asked, "How many do you need?"

Turning back to the map, he mused, "I'm not really sure, yet. If the grounds are defended as I fear, we'll need thousands."

Sirius took a sip of his tea as he watched Amelia look to Bill, her question silently repeated.

"More," Bill replied succinctly. "For Buckingham, I'd need a host of wizards just for the muggle distraction efforts in addition to the assault proper."

Amelia frowned in thought as Sirius saw James and Hestia exchange a significant look.

"He's at Balmoral," Hermione muttered as she and Harry reviewed the drawings that Sirius had spread out on his work table.

Frowning, Sirius asked, "Why do you say that?"

There was a pregnant pause as everyone in the room looked expectantly at Hermione. With a slight blush, she replied, "Because Buckingham Palace is open for tours while Balmoral is not. The Queen is supposed to be in residence at Buckingham, while she is only at Balmoral in August and September. They only close down the palaces when Her Majesty is in residence."

There was a moment of quiet as all assembled considered the connection. Sirius frowned again when the obvious question occurred to him. "How do you know which Palaces are open for tours and which are closed?"

Hermione's blush flamed while Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, you see…," she began while desperately looking to her betrothed to answer.

"Yeah…," Harry began. After a deep breath, he took the plunge, "I Apparated us to London. We took the Buckingham tour and didn't trip any of the traps. Balmoral was warded to hell and back. We could feel the magic radiating off the grounds."

Sighing resignedly, Sirius closed his eyes as he gently placed his cup of tea on the table. Silence permeated the room for a long moment while he wrestled with his emotions. Softly, Lily told the teens, "Please don't do that again without telling anyone."

Deciding to ignore the entire affair, Sirius caught Hestia's eye, "How much help can you get us?"

His wife scowled as she tapped her perfectly manicured nails on the table. "Not as many as you'd like. With the Russian 'Iron Fist for Freedom' threatening, Western Europe isn't going to be sending any troops any time soon. They've their own issues to deal with." He watched James and Hestia trade a look, "The Chinese will be the best bet for large scale assistance."

"Which could bring in the Americans," James countered.

"Which could bring in the Americans," Hestia agreed.

"And that would be bad?" Bill asked, puzzled. "Wouldn't more help be better?"

"If the Americans get involved," Amelia explained absently while she studied the map of Balmoral, "The war with Russia starts now. No one will hesitate. The Russians will invade Central Europe; their allies will cross the borders. No one wants two superpowers establishing bases in the UK." She sighed before turning away from the map, "Everyone remembers the 1940's and Operation Overlord far too well."

Even Sirius knew that Overlord had been the invasion of Normandy that began the eventual defeat of Grindlewald's muggle forces. It made sense, from the Russian point of view. They would attack – even if they weren't perfectly ready – before the Americans and Chinese could establish a beachhead, as it were, in the UK so as to pre-emptively destroy the superpowers before they could wield their full might.

Which is why Hestia, James and Amelia were so concerned. One thing led to another and it was all an interconnected and a circular discussion.

In order to prevent an immediate escalation from international tensions to world war, the Americans had to stay out of the UK.

In order to keep the Americans out of the UK, the British needed to convince the Americans that a Chinese presence in the UK didn't threaten, or even dissolve, the 'Special Relationship' between the US and the UK.

The Magical Chinese Empire was able to provide the troop assistance needed to reclaim their homeland.

In order to reclaim their homeland, the Ministry in Exile needed to defeat Lord Voldemort.

In order to defeat Lord Voldemort, the Ministry in Exile had to have a successful attack on Balmoral Castle.

In order for a successful attack on Balmoral Castle, the Ministry in Exile needed the assistance and troop support from the Magical Chinese Empire.

If the Magical Chinese Empire were to assist the Ministry in Exile, the American Department of Magic would insist upon being involved.

Leaning over, Sirius gave Hestia a quick kiss, "I'm so glad that it's you and not me dealing with the politics."

James snorted, "We'd have been in trouble from the beginning. You'd have pranked the Russians into war."

Sirius raised his eyebrows in mock disbelief. Laying a splayed fingered hand on his chest with an air of affronted disbelief, he replied, "Mr Prongs, I do believe you malign me. I am a naïve waif adrift on the sea of innocence."

Smiles bounced about the room. "The only thing you're adrift on is a sea of your own…," Lily muttered

"Moving on!" Sirius exclaimed. When Lily got on a roll, it usually went some very disturbing and, to be frank, disheartening, places.

The laughter settled to a calm silence. "The Chinese?" Harry asked his dad.

James nodded incisively. "The Chinese," he agreed.

.oOo.

"Jesus Fucking Christ."

Terry Sheehan and Emmeline Vance simultaneously rolled their eyes – in the same direction - in response to Alastor Moody's un-subtle protest.

"Don't those snot-nosed twats in Spain know that if the Chinese show up, then the bloody Yanks are going to be knocking the door down and we all know that will just be sunshine and daisys. Oh, sure, the Yanks and Chinese are going to be singing bloody Christmas carols while doing reels and an occasional waltz!"

Emmeline had to suppress laughter as Alastor ranted. Since her husband had been killed, there hadn't been much laughter in her life. In his own backhand way, Alastor was endearing, in an older sibling sort of manner.

"…stupid motherfuckers who leave the mess for us to clean up…,"

Rolling her eyes, she wadded up a spare bit of parchment. In one quick motion, she tossed the parchment while simultaneously casting the Advanced Shield Spell.

Both of Mad-Eye's eyes focused on the inbound bit of parchment as he incinerated it with a deft wand movement followed up by a Stunning spell at Emmeline.

It reflected first off her Shield spell, then off Terry Sheehan's before fizzling out in Alastor's layered Silencing spells. Neither blinked at the onslaught.

Once she was sure that Alastor was done casting, she dropped the shield. Sheathing her wand, Emmeline dryly commented, "Now that that's all done, what thoughts do we have about our new friends?"

Terry calmly tucked his wand into his wrist holster, "It depends on the strength and skillset of their forces. Are they all cursebreakers? What about sappers and front line infantry? It's too soon to tell." He rubbed his hand through his chin whiskers. "If the Chinese do assist, we might consider a multi-pronged attacked staggered in time." This idea caused all three to pause and consider.

Returned to a state that approximated normalcy, Moody commented, "Aye." Tapping the map on the table, he indicated to the top right of the country. "You know where we're going. This will be the primary target."

Emmeline shivered as she felt a goose walk over her grave. "Yes. Given the recent requests to confirm as best as possible the possible residence of the Dark Lord, I think we all know that this might very well be our last fight."

Truer words were never spoken.

.oOo.

"I have to try."

Lily frowned. "Since the time you've come to live with us, Billy, I've come to love you as another son. I have three boys – Harry, Billy and Robbie. I don't want to lose any of them."

His sad smile was bittersweet, but he thanked her nonetheless, "Thank you, Lily. I love you, too." Then his expression hardened, "But I have to do this. Not all those in the Yorkshire pack are monsters. Those that want to live a free life must have that life offered to them." He waved a parchment in between them, "This plan gives them that opportunity."

Taking a deep breath, Lily tried to swallow her anger and fear. "Billy, that's not a plan. It's a series of ideas. What if they turn on you? At best, you're dead."

William paled a bit before nodding. "True. But I must try. They deserve a chance." His scowl grabbed Lily, refusing to let go. "No one else can succeed."

Glancing at her companion, Lily widened her eyes asking for help.

"William," began Alex.

The other two blinked. Alex was intentionally addressing him as William, Prince of Wales thereby placing herself in a subservient position to the young man. Lily frowned; this wasn't how she envisioned convincing Billy to stay safe.

"There is no doubt that you have a duty to your Queen and the subjects of this realm. The residents of the Yorkshire pack who are peace loving are due your attention and condescension."

Lily's disbelief mounted. Alex was supposed to be helping her convince Billy to stay safe.

"The question is whether your survival is threatened by personally going to visit the Yorkshire pack." The blonde healer gestured to Lily, "Her Grace is concerned with your welfare, not the viability of your mission. Is it not likely that the more Voldemort inclined werewolves would either kill you or take you hostage should you enter their enclave?" The pale blue eyes of Alex Lupin bored into the young prince, "How, then, your Highness, would you fulfil your duty to Queen and Country?"

Lily sighed in relief. She'd been taking the emotional, "I love you and don't want to see you hurt" tactic that'd been singularly unsuccessful with Billy. Alex was using cool logic. In her heart, she had to admit that in the end it was William's choice. He'd been given permission by the Queen and he was answerable to no one else save himself. He may have only been fifteen, but it wasn't the years that'd aged him so, it was the mileage. Maybe Alex's approach of appealing to William's duty to the country and Crown would win the day.

Unfortunately it backfired.

"Healer Lupin," William scowled.

Uh-oh, Lily thought to herself. Not good.

"Do not presume to lecture me about my duty to my Queen nor my country."

There was a long silence before William stood. Straightening his trousers, he nodded to both witches. "Good day."

After he cleared the room, Lily flopped back into her chair. Meeting Alex's sheepish expression - which Lily was sure matched her own – the redhead muttered, "That went well. Guess we'd best plan out a trip to Yorkshire."

.oOo.

Harry and Hermione had just finished packing for their trip. Given the very different wizarding culture in America, Both had Apparated to Milan for a quick shopping excursions. Power suits and evening wear had been purchased and tailored at a ridiculous cost. "It helps being ridiculously rich," Harry had replied with a laugh as Hermione groused about the cost.

"Oh, bother," his beloved complained as she hurried back to the en suite for something or the other. Harry smiled as he watched her shapely derriere. Hermione had grown up to be a stunning young woman. Now that she was of age and Harry right around the corner, musings of a wedding for them cropped up in Harry's thoughts more often. His amused grin softened to what Sirius taunted him as 'lovesick puppy'.

Harry's usual reply was to tell his godfather to go hump the neighbour's cat and leave the adult musings to adults.

Hermione shoved into her bag the whatever it was that she'd needed so badly. "Ready?" he asked.

"Let's go," she replied as she shrunk her bag before handing it to Harry. He placed hers in his pocket next to his own shrunken luggage.

Harry led the way to the veranda where they met William, James, Hestia and Amelia. Susan, Lily, Robbie and Sirius were there as well. Hugs were passed all about as Lily fussed over her eldest son. "I'm proud of you," she whispered to Harry.

So much had happened in the short years since his parents had been returned to him. This was one of the best though. As Harry's heart swelled with his mother's words, he kissed her cheek. "Thanks Mum. Love you."

"Love you, too," she replied as her eyes glistened.

"Everyone ready?" James asked as he held out the Portkey. They were to Portkey to Paris where they would then use the magical portal to take them to Ronald Reagan International Airport near Washington, D.C. They had a very difficult task in front of them. In this task the very survival of the world could balance. One by one, the political team reached out for the length of rope. Once all had a good grasp, James incanted, "Activate."

.oOo.

"So, what's the approach attitude?" Lily asked. Since she couldn't talk William out of his insane goal of neutralizing the effectiveness of the Yorkshire Werewolf pack, she decided that she'd build him a bulletproof plan. With Remus, Alex, Sirius alongside Neville and Susan, they were strategizing the best plans that would accomplish William's goal of helping the Were's who wanted help and Lily's goal of Billy surviving the encounter.

"If we go in, wands-a-blazing, it'll be a bloodbath for both them and us," Sirius drawled as he leaned back in his chair. Tossing a wadded up bit of parchment into the air he caught it with a flourish, "That would be bad."

"Thank you for that illuminating analysis, Sirius," Remus snarked dryly. "Just as true is that if we go in submissive, the pack mentality will override their moderates in Yorkshire and we'll have another bloodbath."

"So, we need to go in as equals or slightly stronger than what they expect?" Alex asked.

"Yes," her husband replied.

There was a long moment of silence before Lily asked the obvious question, "How do you do that?"

"I have absolutely no idea," Remus replied with a sigh.

.oOo.

"I love portals," Harry murmured. James chuckled while Hermione just smiled. "What?" the young Potter Lord exclaimed. "It's the only method of magical travel that doesn't end with me flat on my back."

"Or your arse," James observed.

"Thanks for the assist, Dad."

Amelia rolled her eyes as the others laughed at the familial interplay. She'd heard about James' reputation at school, but so far the illusive 'Prongs' hadn't made a very noticeable appearance since her association with James Potter. While always friendly and amiable, the teasing and humorous man had been mostly supressed. Her smile fading, Amelia noted how sad the entire situation was.

"Where to now?" Amelia asked Hestia.

The group followed the blonde Black through the magical terminal to where they seamlessly merged with the mundane travellers in the large glass enclosed facility. Five minutes later had the group piling into two taxis as they headed north to cross the Potomac River before winding through the labyrinthine one way streets of the District of Columbia as they headed to the Foggy Bottom area. Twenty minutes after leaving Reagan International they stepped out on to C Street NW and the United States Department of State.

Unlike the British Ministry for Magic which was consolidated in one facility, the various functions of the United States Department of Magic was scattered alongside their mundane counterparts and usually collocated with them. The Magical Department of State occupied the charmed ninth, tenth and eleventh floors of the original structure of the Harry S. Truman Building which, at that time, had housed the War Department.

Once again, Hestia led the way through the lobby to the magical lift which would take the team to their meeting. Amelia had to smother a smile as there was more than one double take by Americans who were walking through the hall and noticed Prince William striding next to Harry and Hermione.

All three teens had grown up since the war began back home and had grown to be handsome in their own way. She could feel the magical power bleeding out of Harry and Hermione as it mingled with their personal magnetism. Hermione carried herself as a professional young woman, her confidence and carriage caught the eye, but it was Harry whose mere existence dominated any room he entered. His confidence, power, personality and presence were nearly tangible. Amelia didn't buy into the mythos her sheep-like countrymen bought into about The Boy-Who-Lived, but she did believe in Harry Potter.

.oOo.

Maxwell Johnson was a Yankee in every sense of the word. He grew up in Vermont, his father the editor of their small town's only paper – Freedom News. His father was a throwback man who Max (as he was known to his friends) could easily see standing at a podium shouting, "Give me Liberty or Give me Death!" Max chuckled every time he mused over that little ditty. The fact that Max was a muggleborn wizard only accentuated and sharpened his father's Yankee pride.

After undergraduate education at the Salem Magical institute and his subsequent graduation from Boston College, Max had joined the United States Marine Corps. After completing his service to his country, he returned to school where Max took a law degree from Georgetown University. Corporate law was a lucrative career in the Washington D.C. area and it made Max a very rich man. Soon he was able to pick his clients based on his belief system, which is where the ethos of his father made its appearance. His championing of the rights of the 'common man' had not been as lucrative economically as his earlier specialty, but brought his name to the notice of other venues. Shortly, he became a frequent name found on the first few pages of the Washington Post and occasionally the Washington Times.

In the turbulent Sixties and Seventies, young Maxwell Johnson bumped into Timothy Noonan, a rising Wizard from Boston with whom he'd attended BC years beforehand. Tim was the junior member of the American Magical Burgesses representing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They chatted over a beer (or two) and went on to be the best man in each other's wedding while raising their families in close proximity. Max's wife, Gloria, and Tim's wife, Sally, were bosom friends and devoted to their families.

It was no surprise that as one of the men's career surged forward, he pulled his best friend with him. Therefore, when the day came and the House of Burgesses elected Tim as the next Secretary of Magic, no one blinked when Maxwell Johnson was selected to be the Magical Secretary of State.

As such, it was not only the top councillor of the Secretary of Magic that the British Delegation was visiting, but also his close personal friend.

This could be very advantageous, or it could explode in our faces, Harry mused to himself as they were shown into the spacious office suite. The white haired wizard dressed in a three piece suit rose from his desk with a smile. Harry and Hermione waited as Amelia, Hestia, James and William approached the Magical Secretary of State. By his smile and good humour, Johnson seemed to welcome their visit. Scowling, he remembered, He's a politician and a lawyer. Remember that.

"Ah, Mr Secretary, this is my son, Sir Harry Potter and his fiancée, Dame Hermione Granger-Black." Harry blinked as his father's introduction roused him from his musings. Meeting the older man's gaze, he was surprised. Usually, Harry could tell when others were sizing him up for their own ends. Maxwell Johnson had a friendly expression on his face, but instead of the usual underlying calculation, there was a core of steel. Immediately, he knew that one didn't trifle with this man.

"Sir Harry," Johnson greeted with a pronounced Vermont twang alongside a firm, crisp handshake before he turned to Hermione. "Dame Hermione, it's good to meet you both. As I was telling His Grace, your dossier is difficult to believe, even for us magicals." His guffaw conveyed the good natured teasing.

As they moved to sit, tea and coffee was served by Johnson's secretary. While the adults chit-chatted with small talk and news of Johnson's latest grandchild, Harry leaned into Hermione's ear as he handed her a cup of tea. "Do you see those two Disillusioned on either side of the door?" On this visit, they were the bodyguards for Amelia, Hestia, James, and William.

She nodded to Harry while wearing an affected smile at a joke from Prongs. "They came in with the tea. Probably just Diplomatic Security Special Agents for the Secretary's personal protection." She swallowed a sip of tea before glancing at Harry. "I hope."

Harry caught his father's gaze for a quick second. Subtly nodding toward the door, Harry saw James' eyes narrow for a moment as he recognized the slight distortion caused by the two Disillusioned figures. James gave his son a quick nod to show he saw and understood that Harry and Hermione would deal with trouble from that direction – should it arise.

The door shut behind the secretary as she departed causing a lull in the light discussion. Harry took a deep breath as he glanced over to Hermione. Here we go…

She nodded to his unspoken thought, her face passive to those who didn't know her. To Harry who'd grown up with her and knew her better than any other person on the planet, he could see the signs of worry and strain that framed her eyes and mouth.

"How can the government of the United States of America help our British cousins?"

Blinking at the friendly tone in the question from Johnson, Harry swivelled his head to Amelia. In her turn, she was watching James. Nodding to himself, Harry remembered that the idea was to have James speak to the US Secretary of State while Amelia would speak to the Secretary of Magic. Peer to peer and all that.

"Mr Secretary," James began in his smooth, cultured drawl, "we are in the process of planning – what we hope will be – the meeting engagement with Lord Voldemort's forces that will result not only in his defeat, but his demise."

Johnson sat back in his chair, a half-smile on his face as his white eyebrows shot up his forehead. "I knew that your special action teams were beating the Death Eater s like a drum," here his eyes flickered to Harry and Hermione before adding, "But I didn't realize you were close to regaining your homeland. Congratulations."

James nodded, his own half-smile playing on his face, "Thank you. The help we hope to obtain from the United States will be invaluable in settling the Voldemort problem in the most final manner possible. But as we both know, it's not just Voldemort that's being difficult."

"Yes…," Johnson drawled as his eyes narrowed, "Russia and this Iron Fist for Freedom nonsense. That's a bit of a problem."

"Quite. The Queen has authorized her Minister," he nodded to Amelia and William as representatives, "to ask the United States for a favour in recognition of our longstanding Special Relationship."

Based on the man's expression, Harry would never want to play poker with Max Johnson. He must've had ice in his veins for him to remain so still and apparently calm. "And that favour is?"

In a flat tone, James replied, "Keep your forces at home." Johnson's face contorted into a frown causing Harry's heart to sink, just a bit. This wasn't going to be easy.

.oOo.

Lily leaned back in her chair, stretching her back as she stretched. "Ooomph," she moaned. Blinking as the door to her office opened, she smiled as the secretary she and James shared at the ICW brought in a tea tray. "You're a dear, Agatha. This is just what was needed."

The older witch smiled softly, "It's of no account, your Grace. You've been in here since I got in and I've not seen you take a break." The older woman poured a cuppa before adding a dash of cream and a pinch of sugar. Handing the concoction to Lily, she asked, "How's the baby?" She moved to the other side of the desk, deftly picking up and folding Lily's outer robes that had been carelessly flung there earlier in the morning.

Lily smiled at Agatha's fussiness while she stirred her tea. "He's cutting teeth." She shook her head ruefully as Agatha flinched. "It's not a lot of fun," she agreed with Agatha's unspoken commentary, "but to tell the truth, Harry was much fussier than Robbie is."

The older Scotswoman smiled, "My Mary was loud." She shook her head in remembrance. "She'd get to wailing and her mouth would be wide open while her little tongue would just…tremble and vibrate." Both mothers laughed. "A few times, my husband and I thought that she'd damage herself."

Lily shook her head as she smiled, "Right then. Back to work. Any new appointments or meetings?"

"Just the General Assembly meeting tomorrow, but there's nothing on the docket. It will most likely be an affirmation of the minutes from last meeting and a report by the ICW Treasurer before opening the floor to new issues."

"Nothing from Russia or her allies?"

Agatha shook her head. "Nothing at all."

"I don't like it," Lily mused as she frowned. Standing up from her chair for a moment, she smoothed down the exquisitely tailored skirt of her Armani business suit that she wore underneath the traditional outer robes. "They raised such a ruckus for months and months and now that they've loosened the sword in its sheath, there's nothing."

"To rattle a sabre is loud, to draw it is soundless," Agatha paraphrased.

"Quite," Lily agreed softly.

A soft chime sounded, alerting the women that someone had entered the outer office. Agatha turned away after murmuring, "Excuse me. I believe that's the post."

When the disturbing thought occurred to her, she softly called, "Winky."

Her ladies maid and nanny appeared a moment later before she curtseyed, "Your Grace called Winky?"

'Yes, dear heart," she replied with a smile. She'd absently called the tender hearted elf by the nickname and it'd so touched the creature, that Lily made the effort always to address her so. "I'm very concerned about Lord Robert's safety. I know that the house is behind the wards, but don't take him outside to play on the beach unless his Grace or myself is home." She wouldn't put kidnapping below Sergei Ivanov. He'd intimated to James that he'd no compunction hurting the family to achieve his ends. The house was under the Fidelius charm, so no one could find it, but… Better safe than sorry.

The door opened to reveal that it hadn't been the post man after all. Sergei Ivanov stood in the doorway, leering at her in a most disturbing manner. Uncontrollably, Lily shivered in response to his presence. Sergei Ivanov was not an imposing man physically or magically. Lily knew that she could take him five times out of five. However, there was an insane malice about him that couldn't be supressed or hidden. Something in the way his lip curled at the wrong moment or his eyes shone with a hint of madness.

"Your Grace," he sneered while sketching a half boy before entering Lily's office.

"Mister Ambassador," Lily replied. She didn't rise from her chair. It wasn't much and more than a bit petty, but Lily savoured the little insult. With a careless wave of her hand, she indicated to the chair across from her desk, "Would you care for tea?"

"No. I thank you," he replied brusquely. Her face impassive, Lily smiled inwardly that he'd caught her snub of him and his position.

Lily looked to the doorway where the visibly agitated Agatha watched the two. With a half-smile, the auburn haired witch nodded to her secretary and friend, "That will be all, Agatha. Thank you."

The white haired witch nodded her acquiescence, while her doubt shone on her face. "Of course, your Grace."

After the door closed, all traces of congeniality dropped from Lily's face. "How can I help you, Mister Ambassador?"

Not blinking, Ivanov stared at her for a long moment. His face impassive, he regarded her as a snake does a mouse before it strikes.

Noticeably rolling her eyes at the man, she sipped from her tea, dismissing his pathetic attempts at intimidation. Many people forgot that Lily had faced Lord Voldemort four times and survived.

A bit exasperated, she regarded the Russian for a moment as he sat there unspeaking. "Mister Ambassador, what do you want? I have more forms to review than I desire and have no inclination to allow you to sit there and stare at me all day. I'm a happily married witch."

Now Ivanov rolled his eyes in response to Lily's snark. "You are as delightful as you are beautiful, of course." His sarcasm was so thick, Lily thought she'd need a shovel to escape her office. "I'm merely trying to understand your motivations."

Lily frowned. They'd moved past the posturing and verbal jabs to the substance of the visit. "Oh?"

"You have much to lose, your Grace. Your children. Your husband. Your position." He paused before whispering, "Your life." He brushed away an imagined bit of lint from his sleeve. "Your wards in Valencia are very good. No wards are perfect, though."

The fury was instant and white hot as it burst through Lily. The threats against her family were beyond the pale. She could take care of herself, but the baby, Harry and even James were sacrosanct to her. Standing, she turned away from the Russian ambassador as she forced herself to amble to the window. Control was difficult. Her basic instincts were screaming to attack the threatener in her office, but her higher thought processes intruded, warning her that she needed information from this man.

Parting the curtain, she saw but didn't really take in the beautiful vista of Lake Zurich. Focusing on controlling her breathing, she harnessed the anger, turning it into something far more useful.

"I've had my life threatened more times than I can count," she began in a meandering voice. "Truly, I've lost track." Sighing theatrically, she told the Russian behind her, "Your puny threats are nothing. You are nothing. You think because I'm a witch and a mother that you can scare me? You think that because you're a wizard that I'll cower in fear for my children and husband?"

The aimless, light tone was in direct contrast to her words, but the delivery was calculated. She wanted Ivanov to know that she didn't take him seriously. She wanted to insult and rile him so that he would make a mistake. Turning back to him, her expression was bored. Leaning on the windowsill, Lily offhandedly observed, "I could destroy you without much effort. You are a bug. Was there anything else, or are we done now?"

Again, he stared at her, but this time, that disturbing aura returned to him. Malice, pure unbridled malice surrounded and cloaked the wizard. "Both you and your husband have no concept of respect. Both of you hurl insults as if they were so much paper confetti. You fail to realize that for every action, there is an equal, but opposite, reaction."

"Newton. A muggle. I'm impressed."

"Don't be. He was a worm, but the words are apropos." Tilting his head, he regarded her one last time. "This is your last warning. I'll not be merciful after this."

Lily's eyes narrowed, "To be clear, what is it that you want me to do?"

"Cease this futile uprising in Great Britain. Renounce your positions in the Confederation to allow the rightful government to take its place here."

Annoyed, she snapped, "Really? Do you really think that we'd to that? Fool."

His eyes glittering, he softly replied, "You are a woman and a mudblood. I felt that you should have the opportunity to flee the field for those reasons. You are weak and ignorant."

Now insulted, as well as, protectively incensed, Lily snarled, "If you're still in this office in five seconds, I'm going to kill you."

Tutting softly, Ivanov rose. Without looking at her, he left as he murmured, "No respect at all." There was a beat where the man stood still, his back to her before he sneered, "Mudblood." Two seconds later, Lily was alone in the office.

.oOo.

"That was fun." Hermione smiled at Harry as he groused while lying flat on his back on their bed in the hotel. The group was to have a late dinner with the British Magical Ambassador this evening at his home. The meeting with the Magical Secretary of State had wound up an hour before so all the delegation was decompressing.

To say that Secretary Johnson was concerned about direct Chinese involvement while the United States sat on the side-lines was to be the understatement of the century. James had methodically laid out the train of thought in achieving the two fold goal of defeating Voldemort while neutering the Iron Fist for Freedom and its nascent attack into Western Europe.

Harry had flopped on the bed when they had a taxi drop them at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Harry and Hermione shared a suite that overlooked the Jefferson Memorial and were flanked by James and Hestia on either side. Amelia was across the hall. Hermione had just returned from inspecting the temporary ward scheme that she'd erected based on plans worked through with Bill and Sirius.

Smiling, she tugged Harry's shoes off before starting on his socks. "Come on, you. A quick shower before we head out will restore you."

He smiled at her and crooked an eyebrow mischievously. It was the look that always caused her heart to stutter while she was swamped with emotion for her man. "You going to join me in the shower?"

Laughing delightedly, Hermione turned toward the bathroom as she peeled off her blouse. Tossing it on his head, she purred, "Maybe."

An hour later, they were sitting on the couch, canoodling and reading through the briefing papers for the next day. "You know that, right now, Secretary Johnson is probably meeting with the Secretary of Magic and maybe the President," Harry observed quietly.

She nodded, "I fully expect them to reject the request to stay out of the entire affair. What they counter offer, though, I don't know."

Harry's hand caressed her leg that lay across his lap. They were both wrapped in the opulent hotel's gratis bathrobes while Hermione had her hair wrapped in a towel. Looking away from her briefing papers, she smiled at her fiancée. A quick glance at her left hand showed the beautiful emerald engagement ring that he'd given her when he formally proposed. At her wrist on the same arm lay the gorgeous mithril bracelet that he'd gifted her before their first Christmas together two years before. There were times when she doubted their readiness for the lifelong commitment, but then she looked at him like she was doing right then.

Doubt fled.

With a satisfied hum, she enjoyed the closeness to him which got just a little bit better as he began to absently rub her foot. Almost offhand, she whispered, "Love you."

"Love you, too," he replied softly. After a long moment of reading and enjoying the moment, she looked up when he squeezed her foot to get her attention.

His smile blossomed when she looked up, his green eyes were focused on her. "Hey," he whispered.

A bit puzzled, she smiled nonetheless. "Hey."

He set his briefing folder on the low table in front of the couch. Taking hers, he placed in next to his own. Curious, she folder her hands in her lap while waiting.

Without preamble, Harry asked, "When do you want to get married?"

Without thought, Hermione's face shone with the brightness that she could see in her intended's. Joking, she replied, "Tonight?"

"Ok," he grinned as he made to stand. Laughing, he fell back on the couch when she pinned him there with her legs. While Hermione sniggered at his silliness, he affectionately caressed her leg. "August wedding?"

"Not wanting to wait, are you?" she grinned. "You've already got me in your bed. What's the rush?" HIs smile faded to a half frown. Rolling her eyes, Hermione reassured him, "I'm teasing."

For a long moment, she considered him. Each passing moment seemed to warm her just that much more. She murmured while playing with his hair, "Truth be told, my love," he smiled at the endearment, "I'd marry you tomorrow."

"Do you want a big wedding?"

She shrugged. "Not really. I suppose it depends on when we do it. If the war is still on, then I expect we'll have a quiet ceremony. If the war is over and we're back home, I expect that everyone will want a big to-do. Not only to celebrate Sir Harry and Dame Hermione marrying," he grimaced at their knighthood reference," but also to celebrate life and victory."

He grinned, "I can't imagine Billy and his Granny let it go by unremarked."

She laughed, "No, I can't see that either." Gently, she took his hand. "August?"

"August," he agreed.

.oOo.

"Can I kill him now?" James whined plaintively.

Lily's image in the mirror rolled her eyes in mock exasperation while smiling at her husband. James scowled at the mirror, "Please? There's lots of Russians in the world. No one will notice if Ivanov just disappears."

Lily's chortles surfaced from the mirror as she rolled her eyes again. "No. Now, how'd it go this morning?"

James leaned back in the chair, adjusting the mirror as he did so. "Interesting. Amelia's still closeted with the Secretary of Magic and the President, but I think their idea has merit."

"What about the French and Germans?" Lily asked.

"The idea of the Americans deploying not to Britain to assist in the overthrow of the Voldemort regime but to deny Central Europe to the Russians is a stroke of genius. I can't see either Germany nor France rejecting the offer." Stroking his chin he considered for a moment before adding, "The Italians would throw a party. And it might defuse or delay the Russian advance."

"There are still American mundane forces in Germany from the Cold War," Lily observed.

James nodded in agreement, "And Secretary Johnson tells me that they can deploy a full regiment of magical troops to the Fulda Gap within an hour. Their supplies are pre-positioned in the area."

Lily nodded contemplatively while they watched each other. Knowing her as he did, he waited. Finally, it happened. The contemplation morphed to an active horror. "Dear God, James," she whispered. He watched his wife's hand cover her face for a moment as the image jiggled. "We're talking about positioning troops for a magical war that could easily become the Third World War."

Having had this terrible realization the night before when talking with Amelia and Hestia over after dinner drinks in Hestia's suite, James silently nodded before sighing, "Yes, we are."

The meltdown was of short duration. When Lily visibly collected herself, she asked, "Harry? Hermione?"

Nodding, he replied, "Hermione's here with me, while Harry stayed at the White House with Amelia, Hestia and William. The President was very concerned about the Queen's health. William did his best to reassure him. It was odd," James mused, "Our little Billy was being feted as the Crown Prince of the United Kingdom."

Lily laughed, "Yeah." The baby's cry off the screen distracted her for a minute. Looking back, she told him, "Winky's got him."

Becoming serious, he told her, "I don't want Robbie outside the wards. The Russians know where we live even if they can't get to the house. He's too young to get stir crazy."

She nodded her concurrence. "I agree. He stays inside the wards. You'll be home soon?"

Digging into his pocket, he withdrew his Patek Phillipe pocket watch. "My portal time is in ten minutes. Hermione and I will Apparate from Madrid before she comes back to Washington. I should be home in fifteen minutes." Then he and Lily would turn right around for a meeting with the German, French, Spanish and Italian Foreign Ministers to discuss the American proposal. And I hope to God that this works.

A/N

1. I own nothing. Thanks to all who reviewed the first thirty chapters of Last Casualties. Story status, as always, can be found on my Author's page on this website. I update the status on Mondays. Most of the time.

2. The recommendation for this chapter is Harry Black by notsoancientmariner.

3. The ruins of Whitehall Palace and the central government offices of the United Kingdom are located on Whitehall road. Many of the current facilities of the UK government were former private residences or palaces. Dover House (Headquarter of the Scotland office) is across from Gwydyr House (Wales Office) and was built for Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh, Baronet, MP in 1750. Gwydyr House was built by the father of Peter Burrell, who was created 1st Baron Gwydyr in 1769. The Horse Guards (Palladian style, built on the site of the former tiltyard of Westminster Palace in 1664) and the rest of the buildings up and down Whitehall Road lodge the bulk of the headquarters of the government causing the word "Whitehall" to be synonymous with the government of the UK.

4. I live close enough to Washington D.C. so that I've been lost in the streets many times. Half the time I fell like a slalom skier trying to make my way across the city.

5. Majerus, know you know what the Americans are up to!

Chapter complete 2/6/15