Augusta dropped an envelope on Minerva's bed. 'It's all been arranged,' she told her.
'Thank you.' Minerva spared a glance at the envelope bearing an official Ministry seal.
Augusta sighed and dropped to the foot of Minerva's neatly made bed. 'Minnie, are you quite certain you want to do this?'
'It's dangerous,' Augusta argued.
Minerva set her Transfiguration textbook aside. 'I'm quite aware o' the danger, Gussie,' she said evenly.
'I still don't understand why you feel the need to do something like this.'
Minerva looked down and twisted the silver claddagh ring around her finger. 'I hae my reasons.'
'You could be killed,' Augusta stated, in one last attempt to dissuade Minerva from doing what she felt was foolish.
'Aye.' Minerva's calm voice belied her fear. She reached for the envelope and used her wand to slice it open, tipping the folded parchment into her hand. She scanned the note quickly, and nodded to herself. 'I'm to report as soon as the train arrives in London,' she said quietly. A line appeared between her brows and she frowned. No chance to return to her valley, nor the Devil's Staircase. She wanted so badly to go back, just once, so she could remember. But duty pulled at her, as insistent as the longing to stand on the edge of the rise overlooking Loch Leven, with Lock Linnhe to her left. An errant lock of dark hair tumbled from the combs over her ears, falling into her eyes. She impatiently blew it out of her face.
Augusta watched her intently, waiting for some sort of emotion to cross that stoic façade. 'Minnie…'
Minerva's head shook slightly, and she stared at a point somewhere behind Augusta. 'I canna… I ha' hoped I could stay out o' it. Then he died. I canna pretend it doesna affect me, aye?'
Augusta tried one more tack. 'You don't have to join them,' she said softly. 'There are other ways you can help.'
'No.' Minerva's voice was firm. 'There isna any other way for me to do this.'
Angus McGonagall stood on the platform, arms crossed over his chest. A hulking presence in the shadows – an image only enhanced by the dark cloak he wore and the wild growth of dark beard obscuring the lower half of his face. He waited for the train bearing his daughter and only child. While the chances of Minerva dying during this terrible war were far fewer than Muggles, there was still a chance. Bombs killed magical folk as surely as it killed non-magical folk. The images of the Blitz were still fresh in his mind, even though the Germans had mostly stopped bombing England. He leaned against a pillar, patiently waiting for the younger children to be escorted off the train by Aurors.
At length, Minerva left the train; dragging her trunk behind her and carrying a smaller case in her other hand. Angus unfolded his arms and enveloped her in a rare public embrace. 'Ciamar a tha thu, Minnie?' he asked in his customary greeting.
'Tha mi gle mhath, Da…'
'Truly?' Angus' arms tightened briefly. He remembered the hollow eyed expression she'd worn during the Easter holiday.
'Aye, Da, I am…'
'When do ye hae to report?'
Angus blinked. He cupped his daughter's face in one large hand and brushed a thumb over the arch of her cheekbone. 'I shall worry about ye.'
Angus made to take Minerva's trunk. 'Shall I walk wi' ye to the Ministry, lass?'
Minerva head moved slowly from side to side. 'I want t' do this on my own, aye?' Her jaw clenched stubbornly. 'I hae t' go alone.'
Angus nodded once. 'Ye'll write to me, then,' he pronounced.
'As often as I can.' Minerva's sweaty hand slipped around the handle of her case. Her arm stole around her father's neck and she leaned into Angus, tasting the scent of the Highlands for what seemed like one last time.
The Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform was bulky and slightly itchy. Not to mention an unflattering shade of khaki that reminded her of bogies. Even her school uniform was fitted better. Sighing, Minerva trudged down the street, keeping a wary eye on the skies overhead. She could make alterations to it when she settled into her quarters.
Soon enough, the nondescript brick building loomed in the middle of the street, surrounded by piles of rubble. Minerva raised her hand and knocked soundly on the scarred wooden door. It opened just enough for her to slip through.
Raucous music spilled through. Blaring trumpets and wailing saxophones bounced in a melody that brought to mind packed ballrooms, filled with frenetically dancing couples. Minerva's lips pursed disapprovingly. The music was unseemly. She edged through the door and it closed behind her. A young man leapt to his feet from the sofa where he'd been lounging. 'Hi!' he shouted over the music, jabbing his wand at the wireless. The volume lowered to a less deafening level and he held a hand out toward Minerva. 'Captain John Hashimoto. Sacramento, California.'
Minerva firmly shook his hand. 'Sub-Leader Minerva McGonagall.' She released the hand. 'It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain.'
He grinned. 'Call me Jack. Only my mom calls me John.'
'If you insist,' Minerva replied stiffly.
Jack Hashimoto slid his hands into his pockets and grinned impudently at Minerva. 'So is Min…? Minnie?'
'Oooooh. So formal,' he murmured, his eyes twinkling with amusement. 'And feisty. I like that.'
Minerva's eyes narrowed. 'I'm here to contribute to the war effort. Not fraternize.'
'Got someone, then?' Jack indicated the ring she wore on her left hand.
She felt her face freeze. 'I did. He died in North Africa. Kasserine.'
Jack's mobile features stilled. 'I'm so sorry.'
Minerva nodded. 'Thank you.' She spared a glance for the claddagh ring that she'd switched to her left hand the day she'd buried Alasdair. They stood in silence for a long moment, then Jack jerked his head toward the back of the house.
'Let me introduce you to the rest of the guys.'
'Oh, yeah. What is it you say? Blokes?'
'I take that to mean I am the only woman here?'
'Sorry about that… There's supposed to be another witch coming from the States next month.'
Minerva blinked. 'Very well.'
Jack turned and beckoned to her. 'Come on, then.' He strode purposefully into another room, occupied by only a few younger men. 'This is Lieutenant Reginald Davis.'
A tall, lanky dark-skinned man rose from his chair. 'Ma'am.' He held out a hand to Minerva. She took it, startled at how his hand enveloped hers.
Reginald burst into deep rumbles of laughter. 'It's Reggie. Not Lieutenant. And only my mama calls me Reginald, and that's when I'm in enough trouble to get hexed into next Tuesday.' He gave Minerva's hand a quick squeeze. 'Hey, Jack… Mama still loves me. Sent cookies in the package we got today.'
'Oh, thank God,' Jack breathed. 'We can save our rations.'
'Ye hae rationin'?' Minerva blurted, shocked.
'Yeah,' Jack said nonchalantly. 'Wouldn't do for us to eat like kings, while the Muggle boys at the front get rations. We're in this together.'
Minerva's mouth snapped shut. 'O' course.'
'You just get outta school?' Reggie asked.
'Two days ago.'
'How old are you?' Jack snorted.
'Age is naught but a number,' Minerva retorted. 'But as a matter o' fact, I am eighteen.'
'Eighteen,' echoed Reggie. 'Good Lord, girl, you're still a baby!' The gaze Minerva turned on him could have created icicles on the noses of an entire Quidditch team. But Reggie was made of sterner stuff. He returned it, his dark, hooded eyes betraying nothing.
Jack's eyes flicked from Minerva to Reggie. He put a hand on Minerva's arm, and drew her back. 'Lieutenant Antonio Lopez,' he told her, gesturing toward another man behind Reggie.
'Call me Tony.'
'Tony…' Minerva inclined her head, unwilling to say more.
Jack ran his hand over his spiky hair, sighing in frustration. 'I'll show you where you'll sleep.' He clamped a hand around Minerva's elbow and steered her up two flights of stairs.
'I'll thank ye to let go o' my arm!' Minerva hissed, attempting to yank her elbow from Jack's grip. He ignored her, and calmly guided her into a small room off the second landing.
'This is your room. Isn't much, but it's better than…' Jack's lips clamped shut, and he flicked his wand at the small camp bed. Linens and a rough blanket spread themselves over it, the ends folding and tucking themselves under the mattress. 'I'm sure it's been a rough couple of days, all kinds of information been thrown at you, and you need time to process it all and settle in. Supper won't be for a couple of hours, so if you want to catch a few winks…'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Get some rest.' Jack spun around and went down the stairs, his footsteps echoing hollowly behind him. Minerva sank to the edge of the camp bed, her icy hands locked together to prevent them from shaking.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Tony, Reggie, and Jack were deep in a discussion of some Muggle sport involving cardinals and Yankees. What sort of sport involved birds and a somewhat derogatory word for Americans? There was even mention of the color of their socks, but Minerva couldn't understand for the life of her why it mattered if the team in Chicago wore white socks and the team in Boston red ones. It made her head ache.
Jack saw Minerva pick at her meal from the corner of his eye, and he silently gestured toward Minerva with his chin. Reggie looked at him in disbelief, his expression seeming to broadcast his distaste at engaging her in conversation. Tony nudged Reggie with a sharp elbow, and Reggie rolled his eyes. Jack hastily gulped from his water glass to cover the chuckles that threatened to erupt. He merely coughed and spluttered as he choked.
'Are ye quite all right?' Minerva asked quietly.
Jack coughed a few more times, and nodded. 'Yeah.'
Tony leaned forward. 'So, Minerva… Where are you from?'
'Some wee village ye've never heard of. The closest city is Fort William.'
'Where's that?' Jack asked.
'Obviously,' Reggie muttered. 'Could spread that accent on toast…'
'I havena got an accent,' Minerva retorted tartly. 'Ye're the one wi' an accent!'
'What were you planning to do before you joined the war effort?' Jack asked quickly, before Minerva and Reggie could begin landing verbal blows.
'International Magical Law.'
'Wow.' Jack's mouth opened slightly. International Magical Law was considered dreadfully boring in his social circles.
'And the three of ye?' Minerva asked politely.
'Aurors,' Tony said, with a hint of pride. 'We trained together.'
Reggie pushed corned beef around his plate. 'Luckier than my cousins,' he muttered. Minerva glanced questioningly at Jack, but he merely shook his head. Reggie shook himself, rather like a wet and shaggy dog. 'Your folks magic?'
'They were.' Minerva slid her plate aside. 'Are,' she corrected herself. 'My mum died when I was a little girl, and my da still lives in the village where I was born.' Her fingers idly caressed the ring on her finger. 'My fiancé was a Muggle.'
'Was?' Tony's hand stilled over his half-eaten meal.
'Kasserine,' Jack said softly.
'Oh…' Tony's head bowed briefly. Silence enveloped the small table.
Minerva's mouth pressed into a tight line, and her chair scraped against the scarred wooden floor. 'If you'll excuse me…' She fled the table and retreated to the small bedroom under the eaves. The setting sun sparked over the small silver ring and she slid across the camp bed, so her back braced against the wall. Instead of the faded wallpaper, she saw her valley, blanketed with a desolate, frigid mist. Alasdair had no family, but he had, with Minerva's consent, listed her as one who would see to things should he not survive.
She had been the one to make the arrangements when his body had finally completed its final journey from the shores of North Africa back home to Scotland. Professor Dippet had allowed her to leave school for a week, citing her rather unusual situation. Alasdair's things had been waiting in a neat, brown-paper wrapped parcel, set precisely in the middle of her bed. Minerva had buried him near her mother. She didn't think Flora would have minded.
It took the rest of the week for Minerva to work up the courage to unknot the twine and spread the paper to reveal his kilt, plaid, and Muggle photographs of her and the two of them, the edges beginning to fray. It was staggering to realize all of his personal effects could fit in her schoolbag and she would still have room for her Transfiguration books.
And yet, she hadn't shed a single tear. Not that terrible day Dumbledore had called her into his office with the news Alasdair had died. Not the grey morning standing next to a gaping hole in the ground, pelted by heavy sleet that stung her exposed skin. And still not while she sketchily washed and donned her nightdress, then crawled into the narrow camp bed, making sure the blackout curtains were firmly in place, blocking even the dim view of the stars above London
Minerva's fingers wrapped around the handle of her wand at the sound of a heavy tread on the stairs. The door opened with a crash and the odor of stale beer crept into the room. She kept her eyes tightly shut, feigning sleep, curled in a ball, with her back to the door. A body dropped ponderously on the edge of the camp bed and curled around her rigid body. 'Mmmmmm. How you doin'?' the man murmured, pressing a wet, slobbery kiss to the back of Minerva's neck.
Wordlessly, Minerva jabbed her wand over her shoulder and the man went flying across the room and slammed into the wall. 'I am well, thank you,' she said archly.
Jack, Tony, and Reggie appeared on the threshold, wands out and held out in front of them, in varying stages of dress. Jack lowered his wand. 'Frankie…' he sighed. 'Go to bed.'
'Who th' hell is tha'?' Frankie slurred, pointing an accusing finger at Minerva.
'She's the new one I told you about,' Jack sighed, offering his fellow soldier a hand, and pulled him to his feet. 'The one with the Tommies.'
'She hexed me…'
'She didn't hex you,' Tony snickered. 'She should have, rather than just Banish your smelly ass across the room.'
Frankie pursed his lips and blew a kiss to Tony. 'Love ya, Tony…' he wheezed.
Jack handed Frankie off to Reggie. 'Put him to bed,' he ordered.
'Should we leave him something for the hangover?' Tony asked softly.
Jack studied Frankie, emanating more alcohol fumes than a pub at last call. 'No,' he said finally, knowing he was going to hear about it when Frankie sobered up, and quit feeling as if he'd been hit by a train. He waited for Tony and Reggie to drag a protesting Frankie from the small room, then shut the door. 'Could you put something else on?' he asked Minerva, gesturing to her nightdress.
Bemused, Minerva glanced down. The nightdress was not what she would term particularly exotic or even erotic. Made of white flannel with faint blue stripes, it had long sleeves, and fell well past her knees, and was in fact quite shapeless. But she reached for Alasdair's plaid, draped over the straight-backed chair next to the bed, and wrapped it around her shoulders. Satisfied she was decently covered, Jack pointed to the mussed camp bed. 'Sit down,' he ordered.
A hard light in Minerva's eyes flared. 'I dinna hae t' tae orders from ye!' she hissed.
Jack took a step toward her, his face set. 'I am the ranking officer here,' he said levelly. 'And while you are here, you will do what I say.' Their noses hovered scant inches apart. 'Sit. Down.' Minerva's mouth thinned even further, but she sank to the edge of the bed. Jack pulled the chair around and straddled it, folding his arms across the back. 'Banishing Frankie… That's fine. He's been known to take a stroll through every pub that's still open. But he's never gotten into the wrong bed before. I'll make sure he apologizes to you in the morning.' He took a deep breath. 'You have to try and get along with the rest of us, even if you don't like us.'
Minerva glared at Jack with narrowed eyes. 'How old are ye?' she asked. 'Everyone seems to be verra concerned wi' my age, so I'm askin' ye: how old are ye?'
'Young t' be a rankin' officer.' Minerva idly examined her fingernails.
'I finished in the top of my class at Salem,' Jack told her hotly. 'Not just the San Francisco school, either. All of them. Did you hear that? All of them. And I was the best one in my class in the Auror program. I got the best grades on everything. Because I'm good. And I work hard. And I'm damn lucky to be here. My parents are in some hellhole in the middle of nowhere in Utah. And why? Because my grandparents are from Japan. Both my parents were born in Sacramento. My dad doesn't even speak Japanese and my mom only knows the dirty words. My sister and I would rather have fried chicken or burgers than miso soup. But that didn't matter once Pearl Harbor was bombed. I had to leave the training program in New York and go back to California to help my family pack up their things, so the U.S. government could force them out of the home I lived in my whole life, but I still chose to join up.'
'Ye couldna just leave?'
'Could you?' Jack shook his head. 'We're not like you. We're part of the country, not just in it like you over here. We couldn't just defy the government.
'The reason why Frankie drinks like a sailor on leave is that his family hasn't heard from his grandparents, cousins, and several aunts and uncles in over a year. They used to get letters through the Red Cross. Not anymore. They could be alive, dead… He's here to try and find them. We know what's going on in eastern Europe. But we have to work within the confines of what the Army will let us do.
'Tony's family helped found his hometown. They've been there since seventeen eighteen. One of his ancestors died in the Alamo…'
'Get Tony to tell you the story. Either way, the man was a wizard, but there was only one of him, and the opposing army had an advantage of twenty soldiers to their one. The point is, out of all four of us, Tony's family's been there longer than mine, Reggie's, or Frankie's.
'Reggie grew up in North Carolina, and should have gone to the school in Roanoke, Virginia. He wasn't allowed. He had to go all the way to Salem. His mother was the first witch or wizard in his family to be trained in over a hundred years.
'We don't take what we have for granted. That's why we're here.' Jack stood up and pushed the chair back to its place next to the Minerva's bed. 'We know what's at stake if we lose. And I mean we – all of us… Muggle and magic alike.' He strode to the door and laid a hand on the doorknob. 'We have to work together in very close quarters. So we have to learn to live with each other. Now, I happen to like your… spirit… But you have got to take that pole out of your rear end. Or it's going to be hell for the next… Well, however long we're here.' He opened the door and nodded at her. 'Good night, Minerva.'