The tall white-haired man stood silently looking at the run down two-story tenement row house, which had seen its best days a good century before, located in a poor section of East Londonderry.
“Well…” he thought, “…if you wanted to hide from the Wizarding world, then this was as good a way as any. But I’ll be damned if you’re staying here much longer after today.”
A voice spoke up from behind him.
“Sgt-Major? Are you sure this is the right place?”
John Clarke sighed slightly as he gave a last look at the piece of paper in his hand and the address upon it.
“Yeah, Gomez, this is it.”
Corporal Gomez shook his head in bewilderment.
“And I thought I had it bad in the barrio growing up.”
Clarke shot the younger man a look of annoyance.
“She’s got her reasons for this.”
Gomez looked around at the dilapidated building, one of dozens lining both sides of the narrow street and shook his head again.
“Si, she’s loco.”
Clarke raised an eyebrow and then snorted as the rest of the group climbed out of the lorry they’d rented the day before and began to unload its contents.
The six men, Clarke and five Marines from the Belfast Embassy detachment, whom he’d asked to help him with his task, had come on a mission to keep a promise Clarke had made to a friend.
He only hoped that she’d accept the chance.
Inside the run-down building a woman held a small framed picture as she sat crying at the battered table in the living room which looked rather proper in the decrepit old structure she now called home to her and her three-year-old daughter.
It wasn’t much, but it was all she could afford on her meager salary as a stenographer for a local business, after leaving the Wizarding world in order to raise her child away from the stigma of her illegitimacy.
Muggles, as she’d learned, for all their faults, were far less judgmental about the issue than most Wizarding folk.
This Christmas would be the first where her daughter really was aware of what it all meant, and her mother had no idea how she would explain to her soon-to-be heartbroken child that Santa had not come in the night to leave a pretty tree and lots of presents as the little girl kept claiming he would, certain of this because she’d seen the trees and holiday trappings in other houses and shops.
And the worst part was that she couldn’t risk using magic to make it better.
The Irish Ministry, unlike the English one, didn’t keep as tight an oversight of the use of magic among its wizards but it did heavily frown upon what it considered excessive use of magic by wizards living among Muggles.
Lifting her head, the woman glanced around her, took in the state of their present accommodations and knew immediately that the amount of magic it would take to make their home merely more livable, let alone ready for the holidays, would certainly meet the Ministry’s definition of the word excessive.
And the whole point of hiding among Muggles, as she reminded herself yet again, was to avoid attention from the magical world.
Through the tears she looked again the picture in her hands and whispered to the man, her daughter’s father, who smiled back at her, “I wish you were here. You shouldn’t have been the one to die that day, never knowing about our daughter, our little star. Corona misses you, and so do…”
A gentle knock at the front door interrupted her thoughts and sent her reaching for her wand in terror. She was expecting no one tonight, so why was someone at her door?
The knock came again, followed by a polite, and in a clearly American accent, “Hello? Is anyone home?”
Curious, the woman made her way to the door and peered through the security peephole to find an older man dressed in civilian clothes, and wearing, of all things, a Santa hat, waiting expectantly outside.
Puzzled at the sight, and sensing no danger, she slipped her wand into her back pocket and opened the door slowly to see the man and several companions, men in green military uniforms and wearing elf hats, standing on her stoop. All were laden with boxes while one held up a rather large Christmas tree in the back.
Stunned, the woman opened the door wider and looked out cautiously.
“Yes? What do you want?”
The older man in civilian clothes juggled his load with one hand as he doffed his hat with the other and smiled.
“Ma’am, my name is Sgt-Major John Clarke, USMC retired. You may remember me from the warehouse in Diagon Alley four years ago.”
The woman nodded slowly as memories flittered up to the surface of a man in uniform being introduced to her, a man who had strode through the death and confusion of the massacre that day giving hope to all who saw him, a man who…
She shook herself to return to the present and replied very softly, “Yes, I remember meeting you.”
Clarke smiled again.
“In that case, may we come in? I have some personal and business matters to discuss with you. Also, my men and I are here to deliver some Christmas items, courtesy of the United States Marine Corps.”
Stunned at this statement, the woman hesitated for a second and stepped aside and stared in amazement as the men filed in, arms laden with boxes and only Merlin knew what else, and began to set up the tree and unpack.
Suddenly realizing that all the activity would rouse her daughter, the woman reached behind her, slipped her wand from her back pocket and rapidly cast a series of Silencing Charms so as to prevent her from being awakened.
In amazement, she watched as two men quickly began to set up the nearly seven-foot tree and then add decorations and lights. Looking around, she realized that the other three were carrying in boxes of tinned goods, various household items and appliances such as a telly, complete with some kind of antenna.
One of the men began setting up the telly and antenna, then glanced her way and said with a grin, “My instructor at Communications School showed us how to make a homemade satellite dish that’s also untraceable. I thought your daughter might like to watch Teletubbies or something.”
Absolutely stunned at the sudden turn of events, the woman turned to Clarke, an unspoken request for an explanation upon her face.
Clarke motioned towards the corridor that led to the kitchen area.
“Perhaps we can talk there while the men take care of things out here?”
She nodded and led the way back.
Once through the door, Clarke said with a disarming smile, “My compliments on your going to ground. You, Miss Cassiopeia Maguire, are a hard person to find.”
Miss Maguire didn’t smile back as she whispered, “No one was supposed to be able to find us.”
“True enough and, no, from the Wizarding world probably no one ever would have. However, I made a promise and I intended to keep it.”
“A promise? To whom?”
Clarke took a deep breath to steady his nerves before speaking.
Clarke watched as the blood seemed to vanish from the woman’s face and she dropped into the old wooden chair next to the kitchen table, which he noted in quiet anger was nothing if not more battered that the one in the other room, even though it was covered with a pretty blue table cloth.
Her voice was barely audible as she whispered softly, “Bill? My Bill?”
Clarke knelt in front of her, ignoring the pop of cartilage in his knee as he did so and gently took her small hand in his.
“Yes, dear, your Bill. Bill Weasley.”
The silence hung heavy in the room for a second and Clarke could hear, through the thin kitchen door, the voices of his men as they worked to set up the tree and other goodies they’d brought.
Looking down at Cassiopeia’s pale face, Clarke continued.
“Following the Massacre, I tried to find you, but you had fled England and no one knew where you were. It took some doing, but once I figured out that you had most likely gone into hiding among Muggles, I hired an American wizard who does private investigations to search for you.”
He shook his head slightly and smiled.
“Granted, it took him nearly three years but Hill finally found you after a wild hunch check of the magical birth registry revealed the birth of one Corona Maguire on November 28th, 1998, daughter of Cassiopeia Maguire, location East Londonderry, Ireland.”
Clarke paused and shot her a sly look.
“By the way, that was a nice bit of work getting your friend from the Department of Mysteries to change the records so that Cora appeared to have been born a year earlier. Tied in very well with that seven-month stint you spent on assignment with the Irish Ministry.”
He watched as Cassiopeia eyes narrowed slightly as she simply replied, with just a hint of frost in her tone, “You’re remarkably well informed, Mr. Clarke.”
Clarke could feel his own expression hardened slightly as he replied quietly, “In my line of work, I learned a long time ago to be thorough when it comes to intelligence work, and you’ve seen what happens when someone doesn’t.”
Cassiopeia said nothing, for she knew he was right. Bill, like so many others, had died that day because somebody had failed to verify Hewitt’s story. It was a small thing, but the failure had cost them all so much.
Clarke then added gently,”…and please, call me John.”
She nodded and relaxed a bit.
“All right, John, my friends call me Cassie.”
Clarke nodded in agreement and then reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter addressed to her.
Handing it to her, he said, “In the event of his death, Bill had asked me to give this to you. You’d gone into hiding before I could do so. I believe it may help explain some things.”
She took the letter with trembling hands and opened it slowly, as if afraid of what she might find inside.
Clarke, knowing the contents as he’d read it in his search for any clues to her whereabouts, watched silently as she read the words, tears gently steaming down her cheeks, as she took in the final thoughts of Bill Weasley.
My darling Cassie,
I sit here tonight, watching you sleep, knowing that tonight you’ve given me the greatest gift that I could ever ask for, a family.
Even though it’s only been seven weeks since I first met you, I have come to realize that you are the one I want in my life, the one I want to be with and to grow old with.
You, Cassiopeia Maguire, are the one I want to be my wife.
However, if you are reading this, then that shall never come to pass, for I have died in the fight we going to in the morning.
I wish there was a way I could keep you from this battle but I know that is an impossible dream and so I can only hope and pray that you and the baby have survived the nightmare that our world now faces.
I have asked my friend, John Clarke, a Muggle whom you’ll meet later this morning, to see to your safety and well being. You may trust him with your life as I have come trust him with mine. If any man will survive the struggle tomorrow, I have faith that he will.
Over the years, I have made a number of investments, both magical and Muggle, through Gringotts, with an eye towards providing for the family I knew I would have someday. I love my own family dearly but I have always known that my career is a dangerous one and so I wanted to make sure that my wife and children would not want for support in the event of my death.
To this end, I have provided Gringotts with a separate will, which my family knows nothing about, that places these investments in your hands so that you and our child will hopefully never truly want for anything in life.
Finally, speaking of my family, go to them, Cassie, and be a part of my family as you should be. I know my mum will come to love you as much as I do once she gets to know you and to see the woman I love more than life itself.
Just remember this warning: NEVER accept food from the twins!
The morning light is starting to crack the darkness and so I must finish this letter. You are my love and my life, Cassie, and I know that I shall always be with you in spirit.
Please don’t mourn me, my love. If it was my fate to fall, then so be it. Just know that I gave my life for something more important than myself, insuring that our child will grow up in a world free of a man such as Voldemort.
With more love than you can ever guess,
Your darling Bill Weasley
Cassie sat silent for several seconds, and then she dropped the letter to the table as her head fell into her hands and sobs of grief tore through her body.
Clarke had expected this reaction and was prepared; he reached into his pocket and pulled out several folded handkerchiefs, which he silently passed to Cassie, before turning and making his way out of the kitchen in order to giver her some privacy.
Walking slowly down the short corridor to the living room, Clarke stood and watched as his men worked to decorate the tree and unpack the other items they’d brought.
Lance Corporal Schmidt glanced over at Clarke and asked the question on all the men’s minds.
“Gave her the letter?”
He’d debated about what to tell them before their arrival and had ultimately decided on a version of the truth, that her fiancée had died at his side several years ago and that he, Clarke, was now making good on a promise he’d made to help look after her.
Gomez then asked, “Will… that is… is she going to be all right, Sgt-Major?”
Clarke hesitated for a moment before answering.
“I think so, Manuel. I thought I’d give her some privacy before telling her anymore.”
Another man now spoke up.
“What did happen in this fight? I mean… well…” and he hesitated for a second.
Clarke eyed Sgt. Jefferson closely as he replied, “Go on, Jefferson, spit it out.”
The young black man hesitated a second longer and then said, “Well, it’s just that I was wondering about this fight you and Miss Maguire’s fiancée were in.”
Clarke took a deep breath before answering.
“Can’t tell you, son, it’s covered under the British Official Secrets Act. All you need to know is that it was a frigging disaster.”
“FUBAR doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Gomez let out a soft whistle at this.
Clarke said nothing as he walked slowly over to the window, pulling aside the tattered red curtain so he could look out on the street below, silent and empty on this Christmas Eve.
He stood there for a moment then turned back to Jefferson and the others, let slip a sigh as he reluctantly replied, “I was along as an unofficial observer. It was a trap. We lost almost seventy percent of the strike force – killed, wounded, or missing. All the senior leadership went down and I and the surviving senior noncoms had to organize a defense and evacuation. I was lucky to get away with my life.”
“Still,” Clarke silently mused to himself, “I did have the satisfaction of flipping Riddle off before I did.”
Private Richards now spoke up.
“Is that why you’re going to Buckingham Palace next month?”
Clarke looked up in surprise.
“How’d you know about that, Richards? That investiture isn’t supposed to be public knowledge.”
Richards shrugged slightly.
“Sorry, Sgt-Major. There was a press release sent to the Embassy last month announcing it. I just thought it odd that your name was on it but no listing of the award or why it was being given.”
Clarke swore silently and made a mental note to ask Shacklebolt to look into how the leak occurred.
“No apologies necessary, Richards. You didn’t know and it’s somebody else’s screw up as far as the press leak goes.”
Gomez stoked his chin twice before asking what Clarke knew was the next obvious question.
“So, the award is for this action?”
Clarke shook his head and said quietly, “No. They don’t give awards for surviving a foul up like that.”
“Nope, for that they gave me a clean set of underwear from the Horse Guards Gift Shop and a six pack of warm beer.”
At this admission, the men all laughed quietly, conscious of the sleeping girl upstairs and then Schmidt said, “Then what did they…?
Clarke cut the younger man off before he could complete the question with a wave of his hand.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
At this pronouncement, the five Marines all shot him a look of amusement and said as one, “Try us.”
Clarke smiled as they all chuckled at their unified response, “Would you believe me if I said it was for killing three dragons?”
The five men looked at each other and again chorused, “Nope!”
Jefferson piped up now, “Seriously, Sgt-Major, what’s the award for?”
Clarke eyed them for a second and then said with a grim smile, “It’s for what happened in Round Two.”
Jefferson’s eyebrow went up as he repeated, “Round Two?” and then he stopped and closed his mouth with a soft, “Oh.”
The other men were silent as well. They instinctively understood what Clarke was telling them in that small admission and collectively decided to drop the subject there.
As the others returned to unpacking and setting things up, Clarke welcomed the silence on the subject and turned to look back out the window, his fingers idly toying with a small tin soldier he’s found leaning haphazardly in the corner of the window frame. Idly, he wondered if it was the one Bill had told him about on that long ago day.
Setting the figurine down again in the corner, Clarke stared out again at the slowly falling snow and said softly to himself, “And none died braver than Stephens that day.”
Clarke looked down at the tin soldier in his hand and thought again of their last conversation at the Battle of Hogwarts.
“We’ll hold the line here as long as we can then fall back to the castle doors for our final stand. Take Tonks, Shacklebolt, Lupin and Black with you and head for the hospital wing.”
“Let them deal with the Death Eaters. I’m counting on you to get Ginny and the baby safely out of the castle.”
“Surrender isn’t an option with these people.”
The young Marine grinned before turning to lead his team towards the castle entrance, calling back over his shoulder as they started to run the final yards.
“Good, I wasn’t planning on taking any!”
Clarke remembered the last sight of him charging through the doors and disappearing into Hogwarts, the sword he’d grabbed in Hogsmeade out and at the ready.
Telling his parents that he’d died in an auto accident instead of the truth had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done.
“But,” Clarke silently mused, “Shacklebolt and I did get to tell the truth at Pensic that summer and the Ballad of Sir Martin Stephens will insure his deed will be remembered for generations to come and at least if the Queen asks for the truth, Madame Bones will be there to tell that story.”
And with that thought to comfort him, Clarke spent the next half hour helping Jefferson and Gomez bring the remaining things in from the lorry outside, all the while enduring jokes about his age from the younger men, before deciding it was time to go and check on Cassie.
Entering the kitchen, he found the young woman wiping tears from her face with the last of his handkerchiefs, the others now balls of soaked cloth on the floor.
She glanced up at him and whispered, “You gave us hope that day.”
Clarke chuckled ruefully at that statement as he sat back down at the table.
“Well, I’m glad someone had it. I sure as hell didn’t have any.”
Cassie eyes went wide at this as she stammered, “But… I saw you… saw you striding across the field… pulling and kicking others up to fight. I saw you, Bill, and the others rally around that flag of yours… daring the Death Eaters to attack… and at the farm… the way you commanded the defenders. I thought…” and her voice trailed of in confusion.
Clarke reached out and took her hand in his as he replied, “I was the only Muggle on a battlefield full of almost a thousand witches and wizards, all throwing spells right and left. I figured that I wasn’t going to make it.”
Still confused, Cassie’s lips opened and closed several times as she started to say something and stopped, evidently not knowing how to reply to what Clarke had revealed.
Seeing the confusion on her face, Clarke continued with a sigh and wry grin.
“All I knew was that I wasn’t going down alone or without a fight. After that, I just got up and did my job, like any other Marine would have under the circumstances. Nothing more, nothing less.”
He smiled down at the clearly still confused Cassie.
“The Klingons on Star Trek have a good saying. When facing a fight, they say ‘Today is a good day to die’. I knew I was going to die that day and just decided to take as many of the bastards with me as I could.”
Then, reaching into his jacket, Clarke pulled out a sheath of parchment sheets, each bearing the crest of an official document from Gringotts, and a pen.
Handing them over to Cassie, Clarke explained.
“These are the documents pertaining to the investments Bill made and how they’re being handled. In order for control to be transferred from my temporary custody to you, you’ll need to sign the bottom of the last sheet.”
Reaching over and flipping to the third page, Clarke pointed to the middle of the sheet.
“The next several pages detail the actions that Bill took with the monies generated by the investments but it can be summed up fairly simply. There are three funds, each financed by the interest generated by the investments. The first is a general maintenance fund that you may draw on for living expenses and other basic and emergency needs. The second is a trust fund which Cora will come into upon her twenty-fifth birthday.”
Here Clarke paused, which prompted Cassie to ask hesitantly, “And the third?”
“There is also a trust fund established which will provide for Cora’s education when she’s ready to attend Hogwarts.”
Cassie seemed stunned at these revelations and after several seconds, began to look over the papers in detail, flipping from page to page, whispering over and over again, “Oh my.”
Finally, she set them down and glanced over at Clarke and said very quietly, “I never knew.”
Clarke hesitated for a second then said softly, “No one did. Bill did this secretly over several years, in anticipation of having a family. He may have had the reputation of a playboy but, in truth, he was just waiting for the right girl to come along, and you did.”
Clarke watched as a single tear slipped down her cheek at these words and said nothing as she slowly picked up the pen and wrote her name at the bottom of the last page before passing the papers back to Clarke.
Taking them, he folded them up and placed them back inside his jacket pocket, then looked over at Cassie and said, “That takes care of the legal business. Now, may I ask a personal question?”
Cassie seemed to consider his request for an inordinately long period of time then silently nodded.
Knowing he was treading on thin ice, Clarke asked softly, “Why the disappearance? Surely you know Voldemort was defeated and killed when he attacked Hogwarts several weeks later.”
Pointing at the kitchen door and then around them, he added, “There’s no reason for you to continue to hide from everyone or live like this.”
Clarke watched as Cassie seemed to slump slightly in the chair and she was silent for a moment before answering him in a small voice.
“You know what Molly Weasley thinks of loose women. I didn’t want her to think of me as a scarlet woman, trying to take advantage of Bill.”
Clarke nodded in agreement.
“True enough. I was having lunch with Harry the day she caught George making out hot and heavy with a girl in a room at the Leaky Cauldron, but with the letter surely….”
Cassie raised a hand to stop him there as she replied softly.
“You know as well as I do what would have happened had I showed up on their doorstep, pregnant with Cora, or her in tow. I read the Prophet stories about Charlie.”
Clarke winced at this and then nodded in agreement again.
Two years earlier, a woman from Romania had appeared at The Burrow claiming to be pregnant with Charlie’s child.
Molly had been livid, the explosion as she’d literally torn strips from her son’s hide had been audible almost a quarter of mile from the house, where Clarke, Arthur, Harry and the twins had swiftly retreated for safety’s sake.
Charlie had admitted to sleeping with her the night before his return to England and then, to everyone’s surprise, had immediately accepted responsibility and asked the girl to marry him, which she had agreed to, with a big smile.
It wasn’t until the Daily Prophet had reported the impending nuptials that the shite had truly hit the fan.
Rita Skeeter, determined to milk the story for all it was worth, had gone to Romania and tracked down the girl’s parents, whom she’d claimed were dead, for an interview.
It was only then, on the eve of the wedding, that the truth had been revealed.
The girl’s parents told Skeeter that another local man, not Charlie, was the father of the unborn child!
To say that Molly had been furious would have taken top honours as Understatement of the Year and, for a time there, Clarke though the girl might end up as a prime candidate for the Darwin Awards.
In an effort to prevent Molly, who was diligently searching high and low for the girl with a rolling pin in her left hand and her wand in the right, Ginny and Hermione had spirited the wench to one of Puller’s upstairs guest rooms for a “little” chat, as Ginny had politely described it later.
It had taken about an hour, during which the odd noises and thumps heard through the ceiling had raised more than one eyebrow among the patrons below, but in the end, the girl had come clean.
As soon as she had told him of the pregnancy, the real father had promptly abandoned her and left for parts unknown. That night, in desperation, the girl had played up to Charlie in a bar the night before his return to England for a well-deserved holiday.
Getting him too drunk to remember events later, she’d simply slept with him, and then waited for two months before traveling to England and claiming the child was Charlie’s.
An official inquiry was launched by the Ministry which ultimately backed up her story and the girl returned to Romania with a small trust fund, secretly set up by Harry and Clarke, to help her see to the baby’s needs.
Molly had eventually calmed down but Charlie had remained in the hippogriff house for several months before Molly finally forgave him and let him eat at the family table again.
The worst part, however, had been the rumours started by Skeeter alleging that Harry had somehow bought off the investigation to protect the Weasleys and that the child really was Charlie’s, or even Harry’s!
Tests run after the baby had been born had proved otherwise but there were still whispers of collusion and cover-up even now, almost two years later.
Still, and Clarke grinned to himself at the memories, the bitch reporter hadn’t profited much by her snarky actions.
Skeeter had come home one day shortly after the cover-up article to find the freshly severed head of a Manticore sitting in the middle of her bed, a piece of parchment in its mouth suggesting that a long holiday away from England would be very conducive to her continued good health.
To the immense delight of everyone at The Burrow, she’d owled her resignation to the Prophet the next morning from the sunny shores of Madagascar.
And while Harry had adamantly denied it, the gleam in Ron Weasley’s and Ted Granger’s eyes whenever the story of the Manticore head was retold made Clarke very suspicious of the part they might have played in the matter, despite their own claims of innocence.
“I knew I shouldn’t have let Ron watch ‘The Godfather’ after Hermione mentioned the book in front of him,” thought Clarke wryly before heshook his head slightly to refocus and brought himself back to the present.
Looking at Cassie, he said, “I understand your motives, although frankly, I disagree with them. The Weasleys are a good family, hell, Hope calls me Uncle John when I see her, and I know that once they got over the shock of the situation, you’d be welcomed with open arms.”
Cassie shook her head at this.
“Maybe, and then again, maybe not. The problem is that I can’t take the chance.”
This caught Clarke off guard and he shot her a puzzled look.
“Can’t, or won’t?”
Cassie said nothing, instead she rose and walked over to a high shelf were she reached up and removed a slim blue folder tucked away between two cookbooks.
Returning to the table, she handed the folder to Clarke.
Confused, he opened it and read the single piece of parchment contained within.
Thought lost and gone beyond the veil lie those in stygian darkness for whom hope no longer exists.
Yet, the Child of Hope and the Daughter of Erin, aided by the Man in Black, shall one day bring hope and light to the darkest of places.
And those once lost shall be returned to the world of the living.
Clarke looked up.
Cassie nodded slowly.
“It arrived the day of the Massacre. When I returned to the Department of Mysteries, I saw that it was labeled with the names Hope Potter and Cora Maguire.”
Clarke said nothing, shocked at this revelation.
“I destroyed the Department’s copy and fled the country the next day. I believe this refers to those missing from the fight. If the rumours of the Lestranges having kept the prisoners are true, then this prophecy foretells their downfall and they would stop at nothing to kill Cora, or Hope.”
Clarke’s face became grim.
“And unfortunately, you’re probably correct. I’ve heard rumours of the Lestranges as well, but nothing ever checks out. Every time we get a lead, the bastards are always one step ahead of us.”
The bitter, cold, anger in his words was clearly not lost on Cassie as she nodded.
“So now you know why I’ve been hiding. The question now is, what are you going to do? Will you tell the Weasleys?”
Clarke said nothing as he stood and walked over to the window, which overlooked the small back garden of the building and stared out it for several minutes.
Finally, he sighed, turned and said, “No, I won’t tell the Weasleys, or Harry and Ginny. Much as I disagree with the decision, it’s your choice to make.”
Cassie breathed a sigh of relief as she whispered, “Thank you, John.”
“However, you do realize that Hope and Cora will both be receiving their letters in seven years. What will you do then? They’re bound to meet up and the odds are your secret will be exposed.”
Cassie sighed in resignation of that point.
“I know, and I will just have to deal with that when the time comes and hope that Cora won’t hate me for it.”
Clarke started to say something but was interrupted by a polite knock at the kitchen door.
Looking at it, he said, “Enter.”
It was Gomez who stuck his head inside and said, “We’re ready out here whenever you are, Sgt-Major.”
Looking at Cassie, Clarke gallantly offered an arm as he said, “Shall we?”
Cassie sat for a second and then carefully folded Bill’s letter and placed it in the blue binder, next to the prophecy, and stood.
Taking his arm, she smiled warmly and replied, “Let’s.”
Escorting her down the corridor, Clarke watched her out of the corner of his eye, a little concerned as to what her reaction would be.
In a room once barren there now stood a magnificent Christmas tree, covered in tinsel and ornaments and surrounded by boxes covered in bright holiday paper.
Clarke wasn’t sure which had been more fun for the men the previous day, test-playing with the toys within those boxes or wrapping them while trying to anticipate a little girl’s reaction as they swapped stories of Christmases past from their own childhoods.
He watched as Cassie took in all in, the whole of the scene awash in the soft glow of twinkling tree lights, her hands covering her mouth in astonishment at the wonders before her.
He noted with pleasure that PFC Michaels had taken the time to replace the single-bulb light fixture with the four-bulb unit they’d brought and that the battered table and worn-out sofa had quietly disappeared and been replaced with the chairs, tables, lamps, and love seat they’d acquired that afternoon from the Albanian Furniture Company’s warehouse of unclaimed goods.
He and the men watched with pleasure as Cassie slowly walked around the room, gently running her hand over each piece of furniture as if checking to see if it was truly real.
Michaels now spoke up.
“There’s more in the other room, ma’am. We brought two complete sets of bedroom furnishings, -- one set for you and one for your little girl. There’s also a dining set and kitchen appliances as well as enough canned goods to feed an army for a month.”
They could almost see the sparkle that lit up Cassie’s eyes as she looked around the corner into the other room and took in all the goodies piled there.
Coming back over to Clarke, she silently mouthed, “Thank you,” before her hand came up to her mouth in shock the sight of the small pink bike, complete with stabilizers, partially hidden behind Schmidt’s legs.
Clarke grinned as he reached into his jacket and pulled out a thin white envelope.
“Oh, and one last thing, Merry Christmas.”
Looking as she was about to faint from all the shocks, she took it and asked in a slightly puzzled tone, “What’s this?”
“A letter of introduction. There is an American law firm which is opening an office here in Ireland. One of the partners is a man I knew as a cadet when I did a stint on the ROTC staff at the Virginia Military Institute back in the early 80’s. I wrote him and asked if they could use someone like you on board.”
Cassie’s eyes widened at this.
“But I know nothing about the law.”
“He knows that, but your current boss speaks highly of you and even wrote you a letter of recommendation himself. Steve is willing to hire you as a trainee paralegal and pay for your formal classes. It’s good work, pays well, and he does need an Irish paralegal who can deal with the locals.”
The other men watched as Cassie’s eyes started to tear up as the magnitude of Clarke’s gesture sank home.
She stepped forward and leaned up to kiss him lightly on the cheek as she whispered, “Thank you.”
Clarke simply smiled and replied, “You’re welcome.”
Then Jefferson stepped forward and handed her a small box, explaining as he did so, “Miss Maguire, in my family, it’s a tradition for Mom to place the angel atop the tree. My sister makes them and… well… I thought you might do the honours.”
Cassie opened the box and removed the small, delicate, hand-made angel within.
Glancing up, Cassie said softly, “It’s beautiful. Thank you. Please tell her I will treasure this always.”
Jefferson watched as she stood on a chair and placed the angel atop the tree before giving her a wan smile as he replied, “I wish I could, ma’am, she died of bone cancer three months ago. The angels were her way of trying to leave a piece of her behind.”
Cassie stopped at this and the men could see that she was fighting to keep from losing her composure again, and failing.
Seeing this, Clarke stepped forward and enveloped her in his arms and stood silently as the tears flowed once more and her body was wracked with sobs.
Finally, the shudders subsided and she wiped the last tears from her eyes and shook herself as she regained her composure and she stepped back from Clarke.
Looking around at the scene before her, Cassie said slowly, “I don’t know what to say… I can’t believe that… I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
Clarke held up his hand to stop her words.
“No thanks necessary, dear. My men and I are glad to help”
She looked around and saw the others nodding in agreement.
“Ma’am, I made a promise to Bill to see that you were looked after in the event of his death that day. It’s a matter of faith that the Corps looks after its own.”
Clarke paused and then continued.
“Now, you’ve had a long hard day, so why don’t you go on up to bed and we’ll finish cleaning up and show ourselves out. Remember, you’ve got a little one to help celebrate Christmas with tomorrow.”
Cassie smiled at the thought of her daughter’s reaction in the morning and nodded in agreement.
Not trusting herself to words, she simply gave each man a hug and a kiss on the cheek in gratitude for what they had done and quietly went upstairs to get ready for bed, but not before whispering a soft, “Bless you all,” as she did so.
Motioning for the others to grab their gear, Clarke stood at the door as his men filed out and gave one last critical look over the now redecorated room, awash in the glow of twinkling lights and, spying something amiss on the tree, he stooped and fiddled with the felt pixies so that they all dangled straight and true.
Then, satisfied with the results, he reached for the doorknob and exited the flat, trying to close the door as silently as possible.
But as he pulled the door closed, Clarke heard a soft little voice call out, “Mummy?” and the sound of tiny footsteps on the stairwell.
Clarke grinned to himself as he realized that Cora must have awakened and was looking for her mum.
Motioning for the others to keep still and to be silent, Clarke eagerly waited to hear the girl’s reaction to what she’d find.
It was not long in coming.
Suddenly a squeal of joy rang out and the silent Marines could hear the pounding of footsteps as the girl raced back upstairs yelling, “Mummy! Mummy! Wake up! Wake up! Santa Caus was here! Santa Caus came and left us pwesents and everything! I told you he’d come! I told…”
Clarke waited until she was upstairs, pulled the door closed, and the group quietly made its way down the street, where he gave voice to the thought they all had.