There was a surprising dearth of books about the Thorn Circle in the library, and Bran and Poe were resisting being helpful as much as they could. The Card Catalog was only able to produce three books that directly mentioned the Thorn Circle, all of them checked out.
"If the Thorn Circle was a bunch of Dark wizards who tried to destroy the Confederation, how could there not be lots of books written about it?" Alexandra demanded. "There's tons of books about Moldymort and the Death Eaters."
The library elves flinched, then Bran said, "Elves doesn't know about such things. Elves just shelve bookses like they is supposed to."
Alexandra glared at the cards fluttering in the air in front of her, as if it were their fault. "Who checked these books out?"
"We doesn't know," Poe said. And added, with a trace of satisfaction, "Only the Librarian can tell you that." Alexandra could hardly ask Mrs. Minder to track down books she shouldn't even know about, much less try to check out.
Alexandra looked at Bran and Poe in irritation. They looked down at the ground, and Alexandra sighed. It was clear she was going to need their help.
"I'm trying to find out who my father is," she said to the elves.
They looked up.
"Alexandra Quick doesn't know who her father is?" Bran asked slowly.
She shook her head. "And all these bad things everyone says I'm not supposed to read about – they happened around the time I was born. Or right before I was born. So... it's possible my father was one of the Thorn Circle."
She leaned forward, using the same earnest persuasiveness she had once used on Brian.
"Won't you please help me find my dad?"
The elves looked at each other. Alexandra saw with a mixture of guilt and satisfaction that they looked close to tears.
"But if Alexandra Quick's father was... was a bad wizard," Bran gulped, wringing his hands and trembling, "Alexandra Quick would do better not to find him, Bran thinks."
"Alexandra Quick is a good girl," Poe said. Alexandra looked at the elf with a raised eyebrow, remembering how many times they had called her "naughty." The elf looked chagrined. "Despite reading things she is not supposed to read and doing things she oughtn't not to do and..."
"Yeah, I got it," Alexandra muttered. "Look, I don't want to become Dark. But I have to know. I just have to." Her voice was almost pleading. Her sincerity was not entirely feigned this time.
The elves' shoulders slumped. "We really can't find out who has these bookses," Bran said. "Only the Librarian can."
"But there is the Interlibrary Loan," said Poe, after a pause.
"You mean we could get books from another library?" Alexandra asked excitedly.
"It needs the Librarian's authorization," said Bran.
Alexandra waited expectantly.
The elves looked at each other again and sighed.
"We knows how to send a book request owl," Bran said.
"We does it for Mrs. Minder all the time," Poe said proudly.
Alexandra swept the two elves into a big hug. They both exhaled with loud squeeing noises. "I knew you could help me!"
"We's going to help get Alexandra Quick in trouble!" Bran gasped, hardly able to breathe.
"No way. How could a few books get me in trouble?"
The library elves told her that it could be days before they'd receive any books back. They'd have to send owls to other libraries that shared books with Charmbridge Academy, and librarians there would have to search for books matching their request ("Some elves in other libraries is not as diligent as us," said Poe), and then they would have to be sent back by owl to Charmbridge.
"And then Bran and Poe has to hide the bookses from the Librarian," Bran said. Both elves groaned, and began butting their heads together repeatedly.
"What are you doing?" Alexandra exclaimed.
"Bran and Poe is supposed to do whatever the Librarian tells us," Bran said tearfully, rubbing his bruised forehead.
"Doing things that's not allowed is naughty," said Poe. "And hiding things from the Librarian is worse."
"Bran and Poe is bad library elves!" And they began smacking their heads together again, loudly enough to make Alexandra jump and wince at the thud each impact made.
"Stop! Stop it!" she cried. She grabbed each elf by a shoulder and pushed them apart. "It's me who's making you do it, so I'm the one who should be punished!"
"Alexandra Quick is already being punished," said Bran. "She's in detention."
Alexandra didn't feel quite as smug about her victory when she left the library that night. She tried to put aside her misgivings, telling herself that Bran and Poe had really wanted to help her, after all. But she couldn't help feeling there was something wrong about the elves feeling a need to punish themselves just for helping her check out a book.
She knew what David would say. She wished she could talk about it with Anna, but after last night, Anna was sulking again and avoiding Alexandra. At least that was how Alexandra saw it. In truth, she was sulking and avoiding Anna because she didn't want to admit that she'd hurt Anna's feelings again.
"She's too sensitive!" was all Alexandra would say to David, when he asked why she and Anna hadn't been speaking at breakfast.
"Seems like I heard that before," he muttered.
Alexandra's attitude was apparent to more than just David and Anna. Darla and Angelique now barely spoke to her, and even Constance and Forbearance seemed to be avoiding her. Mutters and whispers followed her down the hallways, and it wasn't just Larry or the Rashes who were jeering and calling her "sorceress" during P.M.E. class. When Charlie came to visit her in class, Ms. Shirtliffe now appeared immediately and told her that familiars weren't allowed in class and that the raven must be locked in a cage if it wouldn't stay away.
Alexandra could shrug off the taunts and rumors, mostly. She hadn't been popular in Larkin Mills, and hadn't cared. She was used to being treated like an outcast because she was different. However, here there were much older kids who were not intimidated by her, and so sometimes she wasn't just teased, but bullied. Alexandra became a frequent target of tripping and fumble-fingered jinxes, and once, the Frizzy-Haired Hex. When she stormed into her room that evening, her hair sticking out stiffly in every direction like a huge black bottle brush, even Charlie made raucous laughing noises until Alexandra threatened to throw the raven's cage out the window.
Anna hadn't laughed. She'd only looked at Alexandra, and then gone back to her studying. It took Alexandra almost an hour in the bathroom, using her wand, to make her hair settle, and strands of it were still prone to sticking up at odd angles for days afterwards.
Alexandra endured all of this without complaint, and even without retaliation. She went to bed each night increasingly angry, and, although she would never have admitted it, increasingly lonely.
In Larkin Mills, at least she'd had Brian, and she remembered acutely how bad she'd felt the last few days before she left, knowing that she had wrecked her only friendship. Now Anna was silent and stand-offish, and Alexandra felt very much alone again. But the only thing that stung her worse than her loneliness was her pride.
She was still friends with David, but he remained very active with ASPEW and other "goblin" causes, and Alexandra's obsession with the Dark Convention and the Thorn Circle absorbed all her attention, so she didn't see him much outside of class and mealtimes.
It was late November, just before the Thanksgiving Feast. Although some students went home for the Thanksgiving holiday, Charmbridge didn't encourage a mass exodus of students, finding it disruptive, and so parents who wanted their children home over the long weekend had to arrange for transportation themselves, which left those with Muggle families, like David and Alexandra, stuck at school.
Alexandra was missing home more than she would have admitted to anyone. Her mother rarely cooked a huge feast; in fact, Claudia, Archie, and Alexandra were more likely to eat a pre-cooked meal purchased at a deli, or else go out to a restaurant. However, Alexandra did associate the holiday with one of the rare times when her mother was warm and affectionate, and even her stepfather made an effort to be kind, if only for her mother's sake.
No books had come back from Bran and Poe's Interlibrary Loan request yet, so Alexandra was spending some time actually doing her homework. It was obvious to her that she had improved rapidly since the beginning of the year, and that she was far superior to her fellow remedial students. It frustrated her that this was not so obvious to her teachers, but she consoled herself with the knowledge that she would be in regular classes next semester. She looked forward to having Anna and Constance and Forbearance in her classes, until she remembered that Anna and Constance and Forbearance were all being stand-offish towards her. (The other girls would have said it was the opposite, but Alexandra couldn't simultaneously feel sorry for herself and blame her predicament on herself.)
Alexandra believed she excelled in Remedial Alchemy, naturally, and that only Mr. Grue's animosity kept him from recognizing this. She'd scored at the top of the class in nearly every test, and now that they were actually being permitted to brew the simplest of potions, she was finishing much more quickly than her classmates.
Grue's response, when Alexandra grew too smug, was, "Being the best of the worst is nothing to be proud of, Miss Quick." This usually wiped the smile off her face and made her angry and resentful – so much so that she didn't notice the impact Grue's words had on the rest of the class. Indeed, she didn't notice that Grue was no kinder to them than he was to her. The other remedial students, however, certainly noticed that Alexandra considered herself better than them, and so "Mudblood" and "sorceress" were whispered behind her back more frequently in Remedial Alchemy than in any other class.
Alexandra reacted in typical fashion, by holding her head up and assuming a cocky attitude. So for their last test before Thanksgiving, she entered the classroom cocky and confident, assured that she had nothing to worry about.
Mr. Grue was now requiring them to conduct a practical demonstration as well as complete a written test, and the students had been permitted to practice for it during P.M.E. class. Under Grue's baleful eye, Alexandra used an Elemental Scale to convert a bronze potion stirrer into iron, and then into bismuth.
"Bronze to iron to lead, Miss Quick," said Grue, marking off a point. Some of the other students had only managed to melt their bronze stirrers into puddles of copper and tin.
"Bismuth is harder," Alexandra said. "And it's used for ingested potions where -"
"Don't you tell me what bismuth is used for!" Grue snapped at her. "I am not giving extra points because you snuck a peek at next year's textbook! In my class you do as instructed, not what you think would be more interesting! If you do not follow instructions to the letter, sooner or later you're going to poison yourself. Or worse, someone else!" He scribbled furiously on his grade sheet. "Pass – barely. Do the next part as instructed, Miss Quick!"
The other students snickered while Alexandra's cheeks glowed. She began brewing her Blister Tincture.
The ingredients were all in the supply closet, which Mr. Grue only unlocked during class. Each of them had a drawer with their name on it, where the alchemical materials they'd purchased at the beginning of the year were stored. Access to alchemical supplies outside of class, unless one joined the Potions Club, was yet another privilege restricted to upper-class students.
Alexandra carried her box of supplies back to her desk. She set the paste base in her cauldron to boiling, and carefully extracted wasp wings and crushed pineapple seeds from her box to stir into the thickening solution. Antimony and a tiny droplet of doxy-venom came next. The concoction smelled awful, but was beginning to turn the pale shade of orange her textbook said it was supposed to at this stage.
She watched the other students idly as her Burn Tincture brewed. Lydia Ragland was nearly in tears because her mixture had turned black and fused to the bottom of her cauldron. Thomas Klaus was still trying to transform his bronze cauldron stirrer. Janet Jackson was frantically trying to stop her cauldron from emitting purple fumes.
Alexandra turned smugly back to her cauldron, and frowned as she noticed it had gone from orange to red, which was not the correct color. She threw in some more antimony, which failed to correct the hue. She looked hastily over at Mr. Grue, who was berating Janet, and drew her wand and murmured, "Explico."
Her cauldron began boiling madly, and Alexandra gasped and took a step backwards as hot bits of paste almost splashed in her face.
"Miss Quick, what are you doing?" demanded Mr. Grue, and then her cauldron erupted in a fireball, spraying the room with burning goo. Alexandra, who was closest, felt searing heat and then the floor hitting the back of her head. She was dimly aware of screams and Mr. Grue roaring something, before she blacked out.
Alexandra had never been in the school's infirmary before, but she knew where she was as soon as she woke up. Her mother was a nurse, so she'd been in many hospitals. Her vision was blurry and her hands and face hurt.
"Good, you're awake," said a kindly voice. A woman who looked old enough to be Dean Grimm's grandmother, but with bright red hair, leaned over her, holding out a glass. "Have some water, dear."
Alexandra took the glass and sipped.
"Was anyone else hurt?" she asked, after she swallowed.
"A few minor burns and blisters, some headaches. You're the only one who needed to be kept here, and I'm only going to have you stay the night – just to be safe." The healer smiled at her. "We'll have dinner brought to you shortly."
"Thank you," Alexandra said.
"Not for you, though. You need to go eat with everyone else." The old woman was talking to someone else now. Alexandra was confused, until she turned her head and saw Anna sitting in a chair next to her bed, with her back to the wall. She was still wearing her school clothes, and had her hands clasped in her lap.
"I'm not hungry, Mrs. Murphy," Anna said quietly.
"Too bad," Mrs. Murphy said firmly, though not unkindly. "I let you stay here until she woke up, but now you're going to have to go. Miss Quick will be out of the infirmary tomorrow morning. Say good-night, now, and run along." The red-headed nurse turned and walked with an unusually spry step along the row of mostly empty beds back to her office.
Alexandra was silent for a moment, feeling a stinging in her eyes worse than when her Blister Tincture had blown up in her face.
"I just wanted to make sure you were okay," said Anna quietly, not meeting Alexandra's eyes. She stood up to leave.
"Anna, I'm sorry!" Alexandra blurted it out without even thinking about it.
Anna turned back, and looked startled.
"Are you in pain?" she asked.
"No," said Alexandra, and then realized she was crying.
Alexandra almost never cried, not since she was very little. She hated crying, and she hated most of all crying in front of anyone else. She didn't even know why she was crying now. It was almost Thanksgiving and she hadn't seen her mother in months, most of the school thought she was an aspiring sorceress, she'd just blown up her remedial alchemy classroom and was probably going to be expelled, and the best friend she'd made here, whom she had ignored and disregarded, had sat quietly by her bedside waiting to make sure she was okay. But other than that, Alexandra couldn't think of any reason to be crying. Furiously, she tried to wipe her eyes, and then she couldn't, because Anna was hugging her, and her hair was pressed against Alexandra's cheek and getting wet with her tears.
"You're such a jerk!" Anna said, her voice muffled against Alexandra's shoulder.
"I know." Alexandra hugged Anna back, a little awkwardly at first, but after a moment she relaxed slightly and no longer felt self-conscious about it.
Anna sat up. Her eyes were moist too. She held onto Alexandra's hands.
"I'm not the only one who was worried about you, you know," she said. "David and Constance and Forbearance all wanted to see you, and even Darla and Angelique looked worried. But Mrs. Murphy would only let me in."
This touched Alexandra more than she could ever admit. She felt a surge of warmth for her friends, and more tears threatened to spill out onto her cheeks.
"Tell them to stop worrying," she said. "I just got a little singed."
"What happened?" Anna asked, lowering her voice.
Alexandra shook her head. "I don't know. I don't understand how my Blister Tincture could have blown up. It was just standard ingredients. I was being careful, Anna, honest. I wasn't messing around." She looked down. "I really might get expelled this time. I'm sure Mr. Grue will say it was all my fault."
Anna was silent. They both heard Mrs. Murphy coughing quietly, standing by the main door to the infirmary. She was allowing the girls a few more moments, but she was obviously serious about sending Anna away.
"I never meant to hurt anyone," Alexandra said.
"You never do."
Anna's tone was casual and matter-of-fact, which made those words sting all the more. Alexandra looked up in shock, and Anna's expression softened.
"The first thing you asked," she said slowly, "was whether anyone else was hurt." She squeezed Alexandra's hands. "You really do have a good heart, Alex. Even Dean Grimm has to know that." She smiled hesitantly. Alexandra didn't point out that Dean Grimm wasn't going to care about what was in her heart.
"I'll see you tomorrow," Anna said, and then stood up and walked quietly through the door that Mrs. Murphy was holding open. When it closed, the healer walked to Alexandra's bedside and rubbed some more burn tincture on her face and hands, tsking a little at the tear tracks on her cheeks. Alexandra didn't want to explain or defend herself, so she said nothing. Then Mrs. Murphy retired to her office, and Alexandra felt very much alone again.
She'd been staring at the ceiling for a few minutes or maybe for an hour, she didn't know. Then a pair of sharp cracks got her attention, and she looked down to see two familiar elves standing by her bed with a tray of food.
"Bran and Poe has brought Alexandra Quick dinner," said Bran.
Poe looked more worried. "How is Alexandra Quick feeling?" he asked.
"I'm fine," Alexandra said with forced cheerfulness. "Thank you for bringing me dinner." The two elves beamed. "I thought that would be the kitchen elves' job?"
"Bran and Poe said they knows Alexandra Quick so the kitchen elves gave us her dinner to bring to her," said Bran. He made a prodigious hop up onto her bed, still holding the dinner tray, landing with a clatter of plates and dangerous wobbling of glasses that somehow managed not to spill anything. Alexandra laughed delightedly, and then helped the elves set the tray down in her lap.
"Bran and Poe has good news for Alexandra Quick also," said Bran, as she dipped a piece of crusty bread into her soup before popping it into her mouth. She looked at the elf eagerly and tried to swallow the bread all at once.
"The Interlibrary Loan owl came?" she coughed, and hastily downed a big gulp of water.
"Yes!" exclaimed the elf.
"The bookses Alexandra Quick wanted is in the library now," said Poe.
"Can you bring them to me here?" she whispered.
The elves looked at each other and shook their heads. "They has to be properly checked out. Alexandra Quick must come to the library."
Alexandra sighed, and then remembered how much the elves had stuck their necks out for her, and how ungrateful she probably seemed right now.
"Thanks, guys," she said, meaning it. "I'll come get them tomorrow." And then, as the two elves stood there, she said, "You know, you don't have to keep calling me by my full name. My friends just call me Alex."
The elves' eyes went wide and saucer-like. They looked at each other, and back at her, and were almost breathless as they spoke in unison. "Alexandra Quick wants us to call her... Alex?"
"Only if you want to," Alexandra said.
The elves were profoundly affected by this. Bran trembled, Poe quivered, and both their eyes filled up with tears.
"Alexandra Qui – Alex, is one of the nicest naughty children Bran and Poe has ever seen in detention!" Bran declared.
"Bran and Poe has to go now," said Poe in a hushed voice. "But we will wait for... for Miss Alex to come get her bookses from the library. Good-night... Alex."
With a bow and a crack, the two elves both disappeared into thin air.
Alexandra thought about the library elves, and about her friends, and about the accident in alchemy class, for a long time after she finished eating. She also worried a little bit about Charlie, but knew Anna wouldn't let the raven go neglected.
Eventually, she drifted off to sleep. She dreamed that night about Charlie coming to her in the infirmary and standing watch perched at the foot of her bed. However, when Alexandra woke up, she could only remembering holding on tightly to her locket and her bracelet, believing the raven wanted to steal the bright gold artifacts again, and this made her reach for the jacket hanging by her bed to check in the pocket. She found the locket was indeed still there, and her bracelet was still on her wrist, and she relaxed.
Mrs. Murphy examined her before she left the infirmary, and gave her a little container of Blister Tincture to apply to her cheeks and hands that night. Alexandra hurried back to Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall, passing students on the way who were already dressed and going to breakfast. They stared at her and whispered, but it didn't bother her so much now. She ignored them, and arrived at her room, to find Anna already dressed and but waiting for her.
Anna smiled, and Charlie squawked a greeting. "How are you feeling?" Anna asked.
"Better," Alexandra said, sincerely. "But I need to clean up and change clothes now."
"I'll wait," said Anna.
Alexandra didn't have time for a long bath, but she cleaned herself as quickly as she could and then got dressed in a clean set of clothes. She and Anna hurried to breakfast, and Alexandra once again ignored the stares and the muttered comments that followed her all the way to their usual table.
"Hey, Alex, you okay?" David asked, sounding genuinely concerned. Constance and Forbearance were both looking at her with concern, and even Darla and Angelique were polite when Alexandra sat down.
"I'm glad you didn't injure yourself seriously," said Darla.
Alexandra bit back on the retort she was about to offer, and just nodded. "Thanks."
"We was awful worried about you," said Constance.
"We wanted to pay you a visit in the infirmary," said Forbearance.
"It's all right," Alexandra said. "Anna told me. But... thanks. All of you." Her gratitude was heartfelt, and it was evident in her voice. Constance and Forbearance looked at her and smiled, and David grinned.
They all wanted to know what happened, and so Alexandra told them, as simply as she could. She left out only the charm she had cast just before her cauldron blew up.
"I don't see how a Blister Tincture could blow up like that," said Anna. "There are no volatile ingredients."
"Not unless Alexandra tampered with it somehow," said Darla.
Alexandra glared at her. "Right, because I wanted to blow myself up."
"Well, of course I'm not saying that!" Darla huffed. "But you could have accidentally done something."
"It would take some major enchantments to get that kind of a reaction," Anna said quickly, fearful of Alexandra's reaction. "I don't think you could do that accidentally."
It occurred to Alexandra that Anna was right. Her accident was no accident!
"You okay?" David asked her, as she was deep in thought as they walked to their remedial charms class.
"Yeah." She nodded. "I'm just thinking."
"Should I be scared?"
She turned to look at him, and David stopped grinning. "I'm just kidding, Alex."
She sighed. "It really is pretty coincidental that my cauldron blew up, don't you think? Unless you really do believe that I invite all this trouble."
"I think you do invite trouble," David said seriously. "But yeah, it's pretty odd. You need to be careful, Alex. Not just because someone may be out to get you, but also because you can't just go around saying Dean Grimm wants to kill you or there's some conspiracy against Muggle-borns."
"I haven't gone around saying that," she whispered, and added pointedly, "I've only said it to my friends."
David looked uncomfortable at that, but nodded, and then they were in the classroom. Mr. Newton surprised them with a pop quiz. Everyone groaned except David and Alexandra, who both found Mr. Newton's quizzes quite easy.
The quiz was interrupted when another Hall Pass came fluttering through the door. Mr. Newton snatched it out of the air and read it, and looked at Alexandra as if to say, "I might have known."
"Miss Quick, you're wanted in the Dean's office."
All eyes were on her once more as she gathered her things.
"Can I make up the quiz later?" she asked.
"No need," sighed the teacher. "I'll give you the same score you got on your last quiz."
"Lucky!" someone whispered, as Alexandra exited the room to head for the Dean's office.
Alexandra felt anything but lucky, sitting on the bench outside the Dean's office once more. Miss Marmsley had given her that disapproving glower again, and told her to wait. While she sat there, she saw Galen come padding around the corner.
"You," said Alexandra, "are a bad cat."
The cat looked at her disdainfully and kept walking, head and tail both in the air. Then the Dean's office door opened, and Galen darted inside, past the legs of the Dean.
"Come in, Miss Quick." Alexandra was surprised to see Ms. Grimm opening the door herself, since usually she made it open with her wand, but she followed the Dean into her office.
Grimm sat down behind her desk, and Galen jumped into her lap. She stroked the cat's head while regarding Alexandra. The door closed behind her.
"I've spoken to Mr. Grue," she said. "He's quite mystified. Although he's certain you must have somehow tampered with the ingredients or the process, he assures me he knows of no way that a Blister Tincture could go so calamitously wrong, short of deliberate sabotage."
Alexandra said nothing. She was watching Galen, who stared back at her.
"Cat got your tongue, Miss Quick?" Grimm asked in a deceptively pleasant tone.
Actually, it had my tail before, Alexandra thought, but she only looked up and shook her head. "Are you saying I made it blow up?" And as the Dean narrowed her eyes, added, "Ms. Grimm?"
The Dean sighed. "Take me step-by-step through what happened. Describe every detail."
So Alexandra repeated everything she had done, every ingredient she had put into her cauldron, everything she noticed in her own cauldron and those of the students around her. The only thing she left out was what she left out when she recounted the incident to her friends: the charm she cast at the end.
Ms. Grimm held up a hand. "So you noticed the color was wrong, added some more antimony, and that did nothing?"
Alexandra nodded. "Yes, Ms. Grimm."
"And then you did... nothing? You merely stood there and watched as your cauldron boiled over and erupted in flames?"
"Yes, Ms. Grimm."
"I see." The Dean regarded Alexandra thoughtfully for a moment. "You know, Miss Quick, I don't think you'd do nothing. You might do something else to try to fix it, you might do something foolish, you might even have the good sense to inform Mr. Grue that there was a problem, but I cannot imagine you standing there helplessly and doing nothing."
Alexandra shifted uncomfortable from one foot to the other.
"I've been very lenient with you, Miss Quick. I've given you more latitude than any other student in my recollection. But I fear you are reckless to the point of endangering other students, and that I cannot allow. Worse, I cannot abide a liar."
It was the last comment that stung the most. Although she feared she was about to be expelled, and although Alexandra was capable of lying without remorse, Ms. Grimm's severe, disappointed stare struck her to the quick, and she thought if she were going to be expelled, there was no point in hiding anything.
"I tried to cast an Undoing Charm."
Grimm arched one eyebrow, just slightly. "An Undoing Charm?"
"Yeah. You know, Explico?"
"I am aware of the incantation for an Undoing Charm, Miss Quick," Grimm said slowly and deliberately. "Where did you learn it? It's not taught in the sixth grade, particularly not in Remedial Charms."
"I read it in a book," Alexandra said quietly. "I was studying a lot earlier this semester, because I wanted to prove I didn't belong in remedial classes. And it looked really useful, so I learned it. And when I saw my Blister Tincture was going bad, I thought I must have made a mistake, and so if I could just undo the last few things I'd done..."
"I assume," the Dean said, in a dry, neutral tone now, "that Mr. Grue at some point made it clear to his students that any use of charms, other than those specifically allowed, during a test constitutes cheating?"
Alexandra looked down. "Yes, Ms. Grimm."
"Are you aware, Miss Quick, that Undoing things is a deceptively complicated procedure with a variety of second-order effects that can only be handled by someone with the experience and finesse to anticipate them? And that this is particularly true in an environment as sensitive to variability and precise timing as alchemy?"
Alexandra blinked. "Umm, yes?" In fact, she hadn't followed everything the Dean had just said, but she got the gist of it. She'd screwed up.
She looked down again, and then took a deep breath and looked up at Ms. Grimm.
"So my Undoing Charm made it blow up? I caused the explosion?"
Grimm was silent for a long moment, and then said, "No."
Alexandra almost felt her heart stop. She held her breath, afraid she'd misheard.
"No matter where in the process you might have cast an Undoing Charm, even following your addition of more antimony – which is the correct remediation for a discolored Blister Tincture, by the way – there is nothing in the ingredients you were using that could have resulted in such a reaction."
Alexandra's mouth hung open. She was uncharacteristically speechless.
"Just because you didn't cause this accident doesn't excuse your recklessness. With another potion and a different charm, you very well could have caused an explosion. What am I going to do with you, Miss Quick? Detention doesn't seem to have any impact on you." Then Grimm smiled slowly. "Oh yes, punishing your friends does bother you."
"No!" Alexandra said. The Dean's smile only became more malevolent.
"I think your friends... let's see, Miss Chu, Mr. Washington, Miss Dearborn, Miss Devereaux, and Miss Pritchard and her sister, may enjoy spending Thanksgiving cleaning pots and pans with the kitchen elves, while the rest of the school is enjoying the Thanksgiving feast."
Alexandra swallowed hard. "Please don't. Please." And to her horror, tears began spilling down her face again, though she willed them to stop with all her might. She felt her knees trembling. Her voice was pleading now, and she hated hearing it, but she kept speaking. "I'll do anything you want. You can give me detention until Christmas! Make me stay here over the Christmas holidays. Turn me into a rat again and let Galen chase me around. Make me apologize to the whole school during a special assembly. Just please don't punish my friends. That's not fair. They can't make me not do something. If you want me not to have any friends, then just say so, and I'll stay away from them so you don't have to punish them."
Grimm stared at her for a long time. She let the silence stretch on and on, and in a way, this was the worst punishment of all, because Alexandra couldn't stop crying and she didn't know why. Her shoulders shook, and she tried to suppress her tears, and she couldn't, and she hated herself.
The only movement in the room was Grimm's hand, as her long ring-clad fingers slowly rubbed the fur between Galen's ears, and the only sounds were Alexandra's labored breathing and Galen's purring. All the portraits on the wall behind the Dean were staring at the distraught little girl before them with impassive expressions.
"Well, Miss Quick, I do believe you are sincere. And truly remorseful, even," Grimm said quietly, at last.
Alexandra swallowed and said nothing.
"The problem is," she sighed, as she continued to stroke her cat, "I am not sure your remorse will last five minutes after you leave this room." The portraits on the wall behind her nodded in agreement.
Her eyes seemed to bore into Alexandra, who still said nothing, merely waited.
"Against my better judgment, I am going to suspend the aforementioned punishment," she said finally. "You may say nothing about it to your friends. You may not warn them or try to smooth things over with them ahead of time. Trust me, Miss Quick, if you do tell them, I will know." Her voice held a chilly certainty. "Let the rest of this semester pass with you knowing that one more act of misbehavior – just one more, Miss Quick! – will result in your friends suffering the most demoralizing punishment I can think of. But not you, Miss Quick. Oh no. You will go completely unpunished. Do what you please. Act up, talk back to your teachers, break the rules to your selfish little heart's content. I'll see to it that your friends bear the consequences fully, but there will be no more detentions for you, no more transfiguration curses, no more privileges withheld. You can get away with exactly as much misbehavior as you are willing to let your friends pay the price for. And after the very next time you cross the line, Miss Quick, then you can tell them. Oh yes, everyone will know that Alexandra Quick bears no consequences for her actions. She lets her friends do that."
Alexandra's eyes were wide as Ms. Grimm pronounced her suspended sentence, and she felt as if what little air were left in her lungs were being squeezed out until all that was left was an enormous pressure, constricting her entire body so that it was hard to breathe, hard to speak, hard to even think.
"Do I make myself absolutely clear on this, Miss Quick?"
"Yes, Ms. Grimm," Alexandra choked hoarsely.
"You will, of course, receive a zero on that test, in accordance with the Charmbridge Academy Academic Dishonesty Policy," Ms. Grimm said.
"Yes, Ms. Grimm."
"Now get out."
Alexandra walked out of the Dean's office, with feet that felt like ice. Even Miss Marmsley seemed to sense that Alexandra's spirit had suffered a terrible blow, and said nothing as she walked past the secretary's portrait and returned to class.
Alexandra's friends noticed her change in attitude almost immediately. She was quiet, somber, and serious. She was not defiant or flippant, she did not talk back to her teachers, and she stopped talking about the Dark Convention and plots to kill her.
Anna tried to coax more out of her in their room at night, but Alexandra smiled and assured her that she was fine.
"I just realized, maybe I have been too careless," she said. "If I didn't keep breaking the rules and doing things I'm not supposed to, maybe none of those accidents would have happened."
She didn't really believe this, and Anna didn't believe that Alexandra really believed this. But they had the Thanksgiving Feast to look forward to, and Anna's anticipation cheered Alexandra up a little. Anna's family didn't celebrate Thanksgiving at home, but Anna was far more homesick than Alexandra, so the feast was something to take her mind off of her parents and her home, so far away in San Francisco.
Mr. Grue's alchemy classroom had been tidied up after Alexandra's accident, but she could still see scorch marks on the ceiling. All the other students fell silent when she entered, and there was a visible shift away from her. Wordlessly, she sat down at her table by herself, and endured Grue's constant baleful presence lurking over her shoulder, as if he feared taking an eye off her for a second.
It was much the same in her other classes. Other sixth graders believed Alexandra was Dark and dangerous, more so than ever before, but with her friends talking to her again, it didn't bother her as much, just as her outcast status in Larkin Mills had never bothered her while she had Brian's friendship.
She was still eager to see the books Bran and Poe were keeping hidden in Mrs. Minder's office, but during the final week of classes before Thanksgiving, the library was open late into the evening for the upper-class students to study for their midterms. This meant Mrs. Minder was there as well, so Alexandra had no opportunity to take them out of the library or even sneak a peek at them. If not for the burden of keeping herself out of trouble so as not to make her friends suffer, she would no doubt have tried to find a way, but Ms. Grimm's threat weighed heavily on her and she took it seriously. It was risky enough leaving the books there, and she began to feel increasingly guilty about having involved Bran and Poe in her illicit book-borrowing. She even considered asking the elves to simply send the books back, but curiosity still burned in her, so she bided her time but made no attempt to get her hands on them while under Mrs. Minder's eye.
Darla's parents were having her picked up at the Academy, so she would be going home over the Thanksgiving weekend. She made quite a production out of it, but everyone else among Alexandra's circle of friends was staying.
Thanksgiving was a day of no classes and no detention. It was the first true day off Alexandra had had in months. She scarcely knew what to do with her time, so she played Exploding Snaps and Wizard Chess in the sixth grade lounge with David and Anna, and then the three of them went outside to run around a little in the chilly November day. They found a worn-out, slow-moving training Bludger that the Quidditch team had discarded and batted it back and forth with their bare hands.
By the time they went back inside, they were cold and their hands were red, and Alexandra had a bruise on her shoulder where the Bludger had bounced off her, and Anna was limping a little after having been knocked off her feet, but they were all laughing and leaning against each other. Even when they encountered Larry and the Rash twins in the hallway, they were laughing too hard to even hear the insulting comments that were tossed in their direction. Alexandra just grinned maliciously as she continued forward without hesitation, forcing Larry to back up the stairs behind him so as not to come within range of the transfiguration jinx. She almost felt like herself again.
"Nice ears," Anna said, just loudly enough for Larry to hear. Alexandra wasn't sure, but it did seem as if his ears had become even more pointed and rat-like. She stared at Anna in surprise, and then David snickered and said, "Rat-boy!" out loud, and they all burst into laughter again.
The three older boys cast venomous looks after them, and Benjamin and Mordecai even reached for their wands, but Larry shook his head and grabbed their hands. "Not worth it," he muttered. "She'll get hers soon enough."
The cafeteria that night was transformed. The tables and benches were now made of heavy hand-hewn timber. The walls and ceiling likewise looked as if they were made of logs. The serving lines with their metal counters and relatively modern stoves were draped and out of sight, and hundreds of candles floated magically in the air to illuminate the grand feast. There was one additional large table at the front of the room, where most of the faculty were sitting. Alexandra saw Dean Grimm, the Vice Dean and assistant Deans, Mrs. Minder, and most of her teachers, though Mr. Journey was absent, as was Mr. Grue.
Alexandra sat down between Anna and David. The Pritchard twins were on David's other side, and Angelique sat across from Alexandra. Next to Angelique were some other New Colonial girls. They were all visibly ill at ease being so near Alexandra, and maintained a bare minimum of civility towards her and her friends. Alexandra thought Angelique looked a little lonely without Darla, but they weren't particularly close and Angelique certainly hadn't been very sympathetic while Alexandra was being shunned by most of the school, so she was only minimally courteous in return.
The tables were bare at this point, but delicious smells were wafting through the air, and Alexandra felt her stomach rumbling. Anna giggled, and Alexandra elbowed her, which only made the other girl giggle some more. Angelique and the girls on either side of her frowned.
A hush fell over the cafeteria as the Dean rose to address them. Like the other faculty, she was dressed formally. Alexandra had never seen Ms. Grimm in traditional witches' clothing before. She wore a white gown with silver trim, beneath a robe that was such a dark shade of blue it was almost black. She still wore her silver jewelry, but her long black hair, which usually hung straight and loose around her head, was tied back in an elegant bun with a red and black comb holding it in place.
She smiled as she looked around at all the students. Alexandra still thought Grimm's smile was something she forced her mouth to do – it never quite reached her eyes.
"Thanksgiving is a time when we all reflect on what it is we have to be thankful for," she said. "We are blessed, here at Charmbridge Academy, in many ways. I truly believe you are the most gifted young witches and wizards of this generation, and I expect all of you to do great things in the future."
Alexandra was afraid the Dean might continue streaming platitudes all evening, but she stopped there, tightened the muscles in her face that stretched her smile out just a little more, and concluded her speech with a wish for a hearty feast and a relaxing holiday weekend. She sat down, and for a moment Alexandra thought the Dean's gaze fell on her, but then it passed on.
"Short and sweet, now let's eat!" David whispered. Even Angelique laughed a little at that, and as if in response, an enormous roast turkey popped out of thin air and landed with a small thud on a broad silver platter in front of him. There was a huge silver fork and carving knife already embedded in the bird, and as they gasped, more platters materialized on the table.
There was duck and goose and an enormous pink ham, as well as rabbit and deer, and there were bowls of silky white mashed potatoes, savory golden-brown stuffing, boats of gravy and pans full of cornbread and biscuits accompanied by fresh-churned butter. There were platters arrayed with crispy celery and carrot sticks sliced and arranged in decorative displays, there were olives and pickles and radishes, and cooked green beans, peas, pearl onions, squash, yams, fried green tomatoes, swiss chard, and okra. There was a platter piled high with fresh corn-on-the-cob, and another with fresh loaves of bread and great wheels of cheese. Pitchers foaming with butterbeer and fizzypop circulated up and down the table, and there was also pumpkin juice and mushroom tea and ice water to quench their thirst. The turkeys, ducks, hams, and other meats carved themselves, or rather, the knives that appeared with them did the carving, as if guided by invisible hands. Everyone stuffed themselves, trying to sample everything that was good, and even though Alexandra passed on the things that weren't (she especially did not like swiss chard or green beans), she was full even before the desserts began appearing.
Pies in all the varieties she had seen at Goody Pruett's appeared, and someone pushed a slice of humility pie at her. She suspected it had been passed down the table by the Pritchards, so she accepted it and sampled it with good humor. It was crusty with a chewy, slightly bitter filling that went down with difficulty, but did not feel nearly so heavy in her stomach.
All of this was the work of elves, she knew. David realized this too, and she could see that he was not completely untroubled during the feast, but obviously he had abandoned his idea of a hunger strike. Alexandra couldn't blame him; it would take enormous dedication to the cause to pass up a feast like this! And she also suspected that telling the kitchen elves not to cook a Thanksgiving feast would be like telling Bran and Poe not to repair or shelve their precious books. Was it wrong? Alexandra found the question perplexing and abstruse enough at her age that she had no thought of teasing David or the other ASPEWers for their lack of commitment.
Alexandra and Anna plodded back to their room afterwards, with Angelique following them. Alexandra had never felt so stuffed in her life.
"I can't believe I ate so much!" Anna groaned, covering her mouth to stifle a burp.
Alexandra agreed. She'd stuffed some leftovers in her pocket to give to Charlie, and simply dumped them into the raven's cage before washing her face and brushing her teeth. Charlie was gobbling down the treats happily as Alexandra tumbled into bed and pulled the blanket over her with a sigh.
"Alex?" Anna said, after she had also climbed into bed and snuffed the light.
"Yeah?" Alexandra mumbled.
"Did you have a lot of friends back home?"
"Not really," she replied, after a moment. "But it was okay. I didn't mind, not really."
Anna was quiet for a while, and Alexandra thought she had fallen asleep, and was almost asleep herself, when Anna spoke again. "My father wouldn't let me play with Muggle children," she said, "and most of the wizarding families we knew didn't want their children to play with me, because my mother is a Muggle."
Alexandra opened her eyes, and she started to open her mouth, not sure what to say, and then Anna said, very quietly, "You're my best friend, Alex."
Alexandra closed her mouth. She thought about Anna, and also about David and Constance and Forbearance, and even Darla and Angelique. She had more friends here than she'd ever had in Larkin Mills, she realized suddenly. And without a doubt, Anna had been the most steadfast. Her throat constricted, and her stomach fluttered while a wave of warmth suffused her body, and simultaneously, she suddenly thought of Brian and her stomach fluttered even more.
It would have been impossible for her to put into words what she was thinking at that moment, but Anna, as if to say that she didn't need or expect a response, murmured contentedly, "Good night, Alex."
"'Night, Anna," Alexandra murmured back.
From the next room, they heard a shrill, piping voice exclaim, "Goodness gravy, what a fat selfish pig!" Followed by Angelique saying, in a tired voice, "Shut up, Honey." Then there were loud nibbling sounds as the jarvey chewed on something Angelique had brought back from the feast, which apparently satisfied it enough to silence any further outbursts. Alexandra and Anna both laughed silently, and then drifted off to sleep.