No one tried to stop her. No one even noticed her, as far as she could tell. There were some close calls. She tried to follow the Automagicka, but the Seven-League Boots did not always keep her on the wizarding side of the road, and sometimes she stepped into traffic, literally. Only for a moment, but she saw cars and trucks in the brief instants she stepped onto asphalt. Alexandra left them behind in a flash, and she supposed their drivers might have gotten a brief glimpse of a girl stepping onto the highway before disappearing in a blur.
She hoped she didn't cause any accidents, but she didn't know how to run across the country, stepping from woods to dale to valley, without ever appearing in inhabited areas.
Seven leagues at a step, she had the Great Lakes stretching to her right before she was even tired, and then, minutes later, they were behind her, and she was racing into the heart of Central Territory.
When she came to a halt, it was in a familiar place. Finally breathless, she waited until her head was clear, while listening to the sounds of insects and birds around Old Larkin Pond. The sun had followed her, and was dawning over Larkin Mills.
She walked the rest of the way to her house on Sweetmaple Avenue.
It's not really my house anymore. That brought a pang to her, but she realized it was true — whatever might happen, whatever she discovered in New York, she didn't think she'd ever be able to return to her life in Larkin Mills. This was a visit, not a return.
It was too early for traffic, and even the buses weren't running yet. Brian was probably just getting up for school. The kids at the Pruett day school wouldn't have arrived yet. But when Alexandra walked up the driveway to the rebuilt house she'd grown up in, the door opened and Claudia emerged, fumbling with her keys. Next to her car was Archie's truck.
Claudia froze when she saw Alexandra.
"Hi, Claudia," Alexandra said. She almost called her "Mom."
"Alexandra." Claudia walked slowly forward, and then wrapped Alexandra in a tight embrace. "We've heard so little. You were imprisoned in that… place for so long, and we couldn't do anything!"
Alexandra realized with dismay that Claudia was crying.
"It's okay," Alexandra said, putting her arms around Claudia. Her own throat was hoarse.
Claudia pulled away, and looked around, her eyes suddenly filled with fear. "What if they see you? We should get inside."
"They who?" Alexandra asked, following Claudia back into the house. "Has the Special Inquisition been harassing you?"
Archie was in the living room, buckling his belt over his police uniform. He looked at Alexandra.
"Hi, Archie," Alexandra said.
"Alexandra." The two of them stared at each other for a few moments, Alexandra and her brother-in-law, whom she'd grown up thinking of as her stepfather.
Then Archie said, "What's the Special Inquisition? Is that what they call your… wizard police?"
"There's different kinds of wizard police," Alexandra said. "Have they been bothering you?"
Archie shook his head. "They've got no jurisdiction here. I think Claudia got questioned a few times. She won't talk about it, but I told her I'd deal with anyone else who came around. Don't think they've been back. Have they?"
"No," Claudia said quietly.
Archie nodded, satisfied. Alexandra and Claudia exchanged a look.
Archie walked over to Alexandra. "Are your relations treating you all right?"
"Yes," Alexandra said. "Lucilla and Drucilla have been very good to me, and I'm safe there."
"You'd be safe here," Archie said. "You should come home."
Alexandra smiled wistfully. "I'm just here for a visit."
"How'd you get here?"
"That again." Archie snorted.
Alexandra looked at Claudia. How could Archie see what he saw, know what he knew, and still convince himself it was all some elaborate story, not to be taken seriously? She thought about the lengths to which Brian had gone to avoid believing. Maybe it really was a Muggle thing. Claudia shrugged.
Archie put a hand on Alexandra's shoulder. "I'm going to call in and take a personal day. We'll figure out what to do next."
"You don't have to do that, Archie. I'm leaving soon."
Archie frowned. He and Alexandra had never been close, but he'd never mistreated her, and as undemonstrative as he was, this was nearly as much affection as he'd ever shown her.
"I mean it," he said at last. "You should come home."
Alexandra paused, to let the thickness in her voice dissolve, before she said, "I'd like to. But I don't know when I can. I will come back, though."
"It's sure not the same around here without you. Say, where's that damn bird of yours?"
"Back in New England. Charlie's fine too. You should both go to work. I'm not staying. I just wanted to check on you."
Archie said stubbornly, "You can't just drop by after being gone for months and tell us you're running away again."
"I'm not running away." Alexandra looked from Archie to Claudia sadly. "Both of you have always been good to me. I know I was a trial and a pain growing up." She laughed a little bitterly. "I guess I still am. But you put up with everything, and even if I seemed ungrateful, I always knew… I knew I was safe, and I always had a home. There's so much I wish I could tell you both. So much that's hard to explain."
"Alex," Archie said. "You're just sixteen. Happy birthday, by the way."
"You're too young to be on your own. If you know you have a home here, then don't be so damn stubborn. Come back. Hell, technically you're a runaway right now."
"I know you want to protect me, Archie, but you can't. Not here. And I have things I have to do." When Archie frowned, and looked prepared to argue, Alexandra said, "If you've ever believed you could take my word for anything, if you've ever believed I was anything but a troublesome little brat, then please believe me now, Archie. You can't keep me here, and I can't stay. Nothing you say will change that. It's not the way I want it to be. It's just the way it is. Claudia knows."
Archie turned to his wife. Claudia nodded slowly. "She's right," she said in a quiet voice.
Archie shook his head. "Whatever trouble you're in…"
"You can't help me," Alexandra said. "I'm sorry, but you can't. There's literally nothing you can do."
Archie's shoulders drooped. Alexandra felt bad for him. He seemed to age years in that moment. She put her arms around him, and allowed him to embrace her as he rarely had when she was a child.
When they separated, he continued looking from Claudia to Alexandra, as if uncertain what to do next.
"You should go to work," Alexandra said.
"Do you need a ride somewhere?" he asked.
She smiled and shook her head. "No."
Archie frowned, and glanced at Claudia again.
"Go ahead, Archie," Claudia said. "It will be all right. Alexandra and I need to talk. I'll explain everything to you later. I promise."
"All right." Archie put his hat on uncertainly. He still seemed reluctant to move. "You two have some girl talk." Slowly, he went out the door.
"Everything? Really?" Alexandra said.
"As much as I can. I've been trying… he's very stubborn and not very imaginative, and none of this makes sense to him." Claudia looked at Alexandra almost blankly. "I always appreciated that about him."
Alexandra didn't know what to say to that. Claudia had run away from the wizarding world, and she'd married a man who seemed constitutionally incapable of believing in it. She supposed that made a certain kind of sense.
"He misses you," Claudia said. "He won't admit it, but he does. You don't give him enough credit. You never did."
Alexandra shrugged uncomfortably. "So are you okay, really?"
"Yes. Lucilla and Drucilla are cool, and I'm learning… well, lots of stuff. You could say they're giving me career training."
"I see." Claudia folded her arms around herself. "You shouldn't have come. Not that I'm sorry you did. I'm happy to see you, Alex. But it's dangerous. We're protected, here in this house, but you know they're out to get you, and you came here, on your birthday, of all days?"
"Tell me about the protection," Alexandra said.
"I don't understand all the magic," Claudia said. "But Abraham put a lot of spells on this house. Wards against Dark magic, curses against anyone who tries to harm us. According to him, it will practically withstand a magical siege."
"But not someone setting it on fire from inside, apparently," Alexandra said.
Claudia smiled wanly. "He told me he wasn't sure how you did that, and he had to recast most of the protective charms when the house was rebuilt. That winter was the first time I spoke to him since the day he handed me the deed, just before we left Chicago. You and me."
Alexandra barely remembered her life before Larkin Mills. An apartment? A car ride? The memories were like dreams — she'd been so young, and Claudia would never talk about it. She wanted to know more, but she realized Claudia probably didn't know how any of the protective spells worked. She just accepted that they were there. And she was right — the longer Alexandra stayed here, the more risk she brought on herself, and her sister.
"I'm sorry, Claudia," Alexandra said. "I'm sorry for everything that happened to you, and all the trouble I've brought on you."
"It's not your fault." Claudia chuckled without much humor. "Well, most of it isn't your fault."
"I just wanted to let you know that I'm all right. And that I forgive you for everything. And I hope you can forgive me too."
"You don't need forgiveness, Alex. Whatever you did, you did as a child."
Alexandra swallowed past a lump in her throat. Claudia was wrong about her not needing forgiveness, but she just said, "I have to go now. But I'll be back, as soon as I can."
"Be careful." Claudia hesitated. "Are you going to visit Brian?"
Alexandra shook her head. "It's better for him if I don't. But tell him… I don't know. Tell him I'll see him again."
"All right." Claudia's face look aged, too. "Happy birthday, Alex."
Alexandra opened the door and looked outside. There were cars on the street now, but still no kids. No sign of anyone coming out down at the Seaburys' house.
"Goodbye, Claudia." Without waiting or prolonging their farewell further, Alexandra closed the door behind her, and walked rapidly down the street, barely keeping her feet on the ground even without the magic boots. She kept walking until she reached the Interstate and the tunnel beneath it. Then she ran to Old Larkin Pond, and from there, she stepped seven leagues north, reached a Trollbooth where she gave a defiant finger to a startled troll, and hopped over the chain. The troll emerged, roaring in outrage, but an instant later she left it seven leagues behind, and moved along the Automagicka, faster than even the fastest wizard vehicles, heading toward Charmbridge.
It must have been a cold winter in the forests around Charmbridge. Here and there, in shadowed recesses beneath large trees or rock ridges that rarely got sun, Alexandra could still see a few lingering patches of snow, though most of the woods were turning green. She shivered in the cold air. Back in Larkin Mills it had only been chilly, but here, she was grateful for her Warming Charm. Her breath was almost frosty as she exhaled.
Behind her was the Muggle highway she'd ascended and descended so many times, usually in the Charmbridge bus. Before her was the Invisible Bridge. She didn't really know what would happen when she crossed it. As far as she knew, no alarm spells alerted anyone at the school when someone went across the bridge, but she wouldn't be surprised if Dean Grimm did have such a spell keyed to her office. For that matter, she wouldn't be surprised if Lilith Grimm, or someone else, had placed traps and wards across the bridge. Just to be safe, she looked at it closely with her Witch's Sight, and then cast some Revealing Charms. She saw only the bridge itself. Squaring her shoulders, she set foot upon it.
Without using the distance-covering leaps of the Seven-League Boots, she walked the rest of the way to Charmbridge Academy, through the woods and right up to the large double doors. No one was outside. This was unsurprising — it was Thursday, and everyone should be in class.
She entered the school just as students began flowing out of classrooms in the break between periods.
At first no one recognized her. A mob of sixth graders passed her by with the natural deference and averted gazes of younger students. Alexandra stared at them and wondered how it was that she'd come to Charmbridge Academy that small and young.
Then someone gasped, "Alexandra?"
Alexandra turned. Tomo Matsuzaka, a year younger than Alexandra but not much larger than the sixth graders, clutched her books to her chest and stared at her one-time nemesis.
"Hi Tomo." With a smile, Alexandra put a finger to her lips. "Shh." Then she walked on.
A few more students recognized her. Alexandra saw Torvald Krogstad and Stuart Cortlandt and waved to the two pranksters. They waved uncertainly back at her. Adela Iturbide, a Pureblood who'd once been in the JROC with Alexandra, glared at her.
There were teachers in the hallway too, now, and the first one who spotted Alexandra was Mr. Grue.
"Quick!" he growled, pushing his way through the throng of students, physically shoving aside those who didn't clear a path quickly enough. His thick black robes barely seemed to move. "You don't belong here!"
"Yeah, you've been telling me that since sixth grade," Alexandra said.
The Alchemy teacher closed the distance between them and glowered with a familiar, hateful stare. "Don't be flippant, girl," he said. "You have no business being here. You're not a student. Begone!"
"You can't just banish me with a word," Alexandra said. "And I'm not leaving yet."
She turned her back on Mr. Grue and walked on. She heard gasps and murmurs from the students now filling the hallway. She half-expected to feel Mr. Grue's hand clapping her heavily on her shoulder, or worse, a hex in the back, and she wasn't even sure what she would do if her old, least favorite teacher did try to stop her. But he didn't. Probably he was alerting Dean Grimm as Alexandra headed toward her office.
She didn't see any of her friends — not Anna or David, or any of the Pritchards, or Sonja. She figured they must all be in classes in one of the other six wings of the building, and hoped she could track them down before she left Charmbridge, but with word quickly spreading about her arrival, she knew she'd have to confront Dean Grimm immediately, rather than just wandering around to chat with her friends and wait for the Dean to arrive.
In the front office, another familiar face glared at her from the picture frame hanging behind the barrier between the reception area and the usually-empty secretarial desks.
"Miss Quick," said Miss Marmsley, the prudish portrait who served as Dean Grimm's secretary and personal assistant. "You do not have an appointment, nor do you have a Visitor's Pass!"
"No, ma'am," said Alexandra. "But I'd like to see Dean Grimm anyway."
"She's busy!" snapped the portrait.
"Busy like gone from the school busy, or busy like she doesn't want to be bothered by students busy?" Alexandra asked. "Because I'm pretty sure if you tell her I'm here, she'll want to see me."
"I doubt that!" Miss Marmsley retorted. Alexandra just stared at the portrait. Miss Marmsley had never been friendly, but she wasn't usually this acerbic. Perhaps being a non-student allowed the painting to show her true feelings more openly.
Alexandra waited, and after a moment, Miss Marmsley sighed and stepped out of her picture frame. Behind her, there was only the painting of a chair and the reddish-brown oily canvas of her background.
A few seconds later, Miss Marmsley returned. "Go in," she said stiffly.
Alexandra walked down the hallway to Dean Grimm's office. This was a walk she'd taken many times in the past. Usually because she was in trouble. The portraits of prestigious alumni stared solemnly down at her, saying nothing. Alexandra reached Dean Grimm's office, almost knocked on the door, and then simply turned the knob and opened it.
Dean Grimm sat behind her desk, wearing the white suit she favored over witch's robes on most occasions. Her straight black hair was loose, which was unusual, but otherwise she was as made up and composed as Alexandra remembered. Sitting on her desk were all the same wooden in-boxes, small portrait frames, and piles of paper. And sitting on her lap, Galen.
"Hello, Aunt Lilith," Alexandra said.
Her aunt beckoned her in. "Close the door behind you, Alexandra," she said coolly.
Alexandra did so, then approached the Dean's desk, her eyes on the black cat sitting on her lap.
"How did you get here? Surely you didn't Apparate from New England?"
Alexandra shook her head. "I took another route."
Lilith Grimm leaned back in her chair. "Very well, I suppose your evasiveness is to be expected."
"Is it really?" Alexandra had resolved not to show anger or brattiness to her aunt, but found she couldn't keep the resentment from spilling out of her.
The Dean didn't seem surprised or offended. "If you're blaming me for what happened, Alexandra, your anger is misplaced. I certainly didn't want you sent to Eerie Island, but I had nothing to do with that. As for expelling you from Charmbridge, I really had no choice about that and you know it."
Alexandra tried again to control herself, knowing that her aunt was right about her anger being misplaced. "I came to see my mother."
"Of course you did. It's your birthday." Ms. Grimm genuinely sounded sad. She looked down at Galen, purring in her lap. She ran her fingers through the cat's fur. "Do you intend to do this every year?"
"For as long as I live. Or for as long as my mother is a cat."
Ms. Grimm sighed. "Even your father couldn't undo the curse on her memory. Don't think Diana and I didn't try, either. There is no cure, Alexandra. There never will be."
"You told me that before. Even if you're right, that won't stop me from trying. I've been learning a lot. More than I'd learn here." She knew that last part sounded snide, but she was having trouble keeping her anger completely under control.
"Diana said you'd return today."
Alexandra tensed. Ms. Grimm smiled. "You're very foolish to be so predictable, but you needn't worry. She won't come for you."
"Why not?" Alexandra couldn't help asking.
Ms. Grimm ignored the question and rose from her chair. Holding Galenthias, she walked around her desk and set the black cat on the chair next to Alexandra. She stepped back and waved her wand in what seemed to be a lazy series of motions.
The cat stretched and grew, taking human form in moments. Hecate Grimm, the triplet sister of Lilith and Diana Grimm, sat in the chair she'd occupied as a cat, wearing what appeared to be the same white robes Alexandra had seen her in a year ago.
"Hello," Hecate said uncertainly. She looked from Lilith to Alexandra, and back at Lilith. "Do I know you?"
"I'm Lilith. Your sister." Her voice was as steady as always. Only the tight set of Lilith Grimm's mouth betrayed any feelings.
"I'm Alexandra," Alexandra said. She resisted the impulse to reach out and run a hand through her mother's long, black hair. "I'm your daughter."
"My daughter?" Hecate's eyes widened slightly. "I have a daughter?"
Encouraged by the reaction, Alexandra said, "Yes — me! Look at me. My name is Alexandra. Say it, please!"
Hecate gave her a long, slow look. "Alexandra," she repeated.
Alexandra nodded and took her mother's hands in her own. "Try to hold onto that," she said, pleadingly. "Can you remember it?"
"Remember what?" Hecate asked. Her eyes were flat and confused. She looked down at her hands, clasped in Alexandra's, and then over at Lilith. "I'm sorry, who are you?"
"I'm Lilith. Your sister." Lilith Grimm's expression didn't change.
"My sister?" Hecate raised an eyebrow. For a moment she resembled Lilith to a degree that was almost painful. Then she said, "Who is this girl?"
"Alexandra," Alexandra said, with all conviction draining out of her voice. "I'm your daughter."
"My daughter? I thought perhaps you were her daughter." For a moment, Hecate actually seemed to be studying her. Then she looked at Lilith and said, "Forgive me — where am I, and who are you?"
"Are you satisfied?" Lilith asked Alexandra. "Or would you like to repeat this cycle a few more times?"
"Would I like to repeat what cycle?" Hecate asked.
"You don't have to be such a bitch," Alexandra said bitterly.
There was dead silence in the room for a moment. Then Hecate asked, "Who are you calling a bitch?" There was a slight edge in her voice, but her expression still had that gentle, befuddled dullness.
Lilith flicked her wand at her sister, and Hecate vanished, replaced by Galenthias the cat once again. Galenthias meowed.
"If you ever speak to me like that again," Lilith said icily, "I will turn you into a cat, Alexandra. And please believe me when I say I am not bluffing."
Alexandra blinked and turned her attention away from Galen, to face her aunt. Lilith Grimm's eyes glittered with intensity. Her knuckles were white around her wand. The silver rings on her fingers made a slight sound as they ground together.
"I have been taking care of Hecate for sixteen years," Ms. Grimm said. "Diana and I have done the best we can for her, and exhausted all possible remedies, for as long as you have been alive. You just learned about her last year, and you think you know better than us what is to be done? You're going to conjure up a cure because you're so brilliant, gifted, and special, are you? The most talented of your father's children?"
Alexandra was taken aback. Lilith Grimm's face never lost its icy composure. Galenthias meowed again, almost a yowl, then jumped to the floor and pushed against the office door. It opened and she slipped out into the hallway.
"I don't know if I'm the most talented of my father's children," Alexandra said, trying to keep her voice even. "But —"
"Get out," Lilith said.
"What?" Alexandra was startled by her aunt's cold fury.
"I don't need to protect you or give you special favors anymore," Lilith said. "And I certainly don't need to suffer insults and slights from you while you are trespassing. I allowed you to see your mother. Next year, perhaps I will allow you to repeat this sad, futile ritual. But until then, get out of my school!"
Alexandra opened her mouth. "Can I —"
"No, you may not stay and visit with your friends. Begone!" Lilith raised her wand. "Unless you truly intend to challenge me."
Alexandra swallowed. "No."
She turned and followed Galen out of the office. She walked down the hallway and past Miss Marmsley. The portrait said something which she didn't hear. Out in the main corridor, it seemed as if half the school was milling about, and everyone stopped when she appeared. When she realized her eyes were stinging, she began running. Someone called to her, and she thought she saw Mr. Grue again, but she ignored them and burst out the doors. In the early spring cold, she sprang forward, took a step with her Seven-League Boots, and was at the Invisible Bridge in an instant.
She discovered that she could not cross the bridge except the normal way, one foot in front of the other. But once on the other side, she took seven-league steps that carried her down the hill, away from the valley, and soon, out of Central Territory. Only a Portkey could have beaten her to New England.