Abraham Thorn

Alexandra studied her father, in the moonlight. The moon was shining more brightly on her than on him; she was standing away from the trees that encircled the small clearing, while he was still in the shadows. It allowed him to see her face quite clearly, while she could only see half of his. She could see his eyes twinkling, though, and the pleasure in his voice seemed genuine.

He held his arms out, as if he wanted to embrace her, but she stood where she was, unmoving.

"You've got a lot of explaining to do," she said, "before you get to give me a hug, or expect me to call you 'Dad'."

He hesitated a moment, then let his arms fall to his sides. If he was disappointed, his face didn't show it. "So I do," he replied, in a calm voice. He waved a wand – she hadn't even noticed him drawing it – and suddenly a blue ball of light appeared in mid-air, a couple of yards from her. She could feel heat radiating from it from where she was standing, though it didn't appear to be producing flames. He waved his wand again, and conjured a couple of comfortable chairs, right next to the blue light.

"Let us sit and be comfortable," Abraham Thorn said, "and you may put your questions to me." He walked to the nearest chair and took a seat. When Alexandra hesitated, he gestured at the other chair. "Please, my dear."

She walked slowly over to the chair, and sat down in it, feeling as if everything were a bit surreal. She and her father, sitting in cushioned armchairs, warmed by a magical blue fireball, in the middle of the forest. It was nice not to be standing there in the cold, though.

"Max," she said, as she suddenly remembered that he was standing out there in the cold. She looked around.

Her father waved his hand. "Maximilian will be fine. Don't worry about him, Alexandra. He'll wait until we're done. He knows this time is mine and yours."


In answer, she heard a voice call, "Alexandra!" She looked at the branch where Abraham Thorn's raven was sitting, and saw her own familiar sitting on the same branch, a few feet away.

"There is Charlie, with Hagar. They'll wait for us, too." Her father smiled.

She studied him a little more closely, now that the blue light was illuminating him better. He was a handsome man, with thick dark hair covering his ears and the back of his neck, a full, dark beard and mustache, and eyes that were even darker than Maximilian's. Alexandra knew, from reading Abraham Thorn's biographies, that he was nearly sixty, but he didn't look nearly that old. He had only a few creases in his face, and he seemed strong and sure when he moved.

"You said you wanted to see me again so badly," she said to him at last. "Why now? Why not before?"

"You know that Elias Hucksteen and his minions are watching you," her father replied. "They have been, since you were born. I couldn't simply appear at your house to have a chat."

"But you've managed to talk to your other children." Her voice remained calm, but an accusing tone was creeping into it. "You know the Governor-General is watching me now, but you're here. So you must have some way to keep his Special Inquisitors from knowing. You're saying there's no way you could have arranged a meeting like this in the last twelve years?"

He shook his head. "You're right, I could have. But what would I have told you before now, Alexandra? That your father is a wizard?"

"I've been doing magic since I was little," she replied. "I'm sure you could have convinced me."

He chuckled. "Yes, surely. But explaining Hucksteen, and the Confederation, and why I couldn't be a regular part of your life? How would I have explained that to you, when you were ten? Or eight? Or six?"

Alexandra frowned. "Maybe I wouldn't have understood everything, but you still could have been there. You could have let me know you were alive and that you hadn't just abandoned Mom and me." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Or were you worried that anything you might have told me would help the Governor-General catch you, since you made me your Secret-Keeper? I guess I was more useful to you not knowing anything."

Abraham Thorn's gaze was steady and unflinching, and Alexandra had to fight, every second she held it, not to look away. She could sense the power and steely will in her father's eyes, and began to understand how it was that he was considered such a formidable man, even without seeing any impressive displays of magic.

"I understand your bitterness, Alexandra," he said gently. "I don't hold it against you."

"Oh, that's good," she cut in, and he closed his mouth abruptly at the interruption. For a moment there was a tiny flash of irritation in his eyes, but he let her keep speaking. "I'm glad you don't hold it against me that you abandoned Mom and me and left me to find out everything about you all by myself! I mean, I just found out last month that I have a brother, and sisters!"

He was silent a moment, then spoke again, very softly. "You're right, my child. You're right to be angry. You have not been treated fairly. I accept your rebuke. Would you like to go on, or would you like me to attempt to explain myself?"

She frowned, and slumped a little in her seat. Her father's soft-spokenness made her feel like a child throwing a temper tantrum. She had envisioned an angry, shouting confrontation when she finally met her father, and now she didn't even know what she wanted to say to him.

"Go ahead," she muttered.

He clasped his hands, and leaned forward.

"You were born when the hunt for us was most intense. Inquisitors and Hit-Wizards were almost literally breathing down our necks. We – my allies and I – expected to be captured or killed at any moment. I could hardly expose you to that, my child, nor did I want you raised within the Confederation. It wasn't safe for you or for Claudia. So I sent you both away, to hide in the Muggle world. And I did cast a Fidelius Charm to make you the Secret-Keeper for the Thorn Circle, at the same time that I bound all of us in a Circle of Protection to safeguard your life.

"You grew up not knowing who your father was, and for that I am sorry. But understand, it was safer that way, for the Inquisitors to believe you had been abandoned and forgotten by me, for you and Claudia to be left in peace. I did check on you, as often as I could, and saw that you were healthy and happy."

"How do you know I was happy?" she asked sullenly.

He raised his eyebrows. "Weren't you? Have you not been well cared for? Your stepfather... Mr. Green. He has been good to you and Claudia, hasn't he? He hasn't mistreated you?" An edge crept into his voice, and Alexandra saw something a little less kindly in his eyes.

"Archie's all right," she muttered. "But if you have to ask, then you didn't really know, did you?"

"I judged based on what I saw." His eyes shone as he said softly, "I saw a clever, adventurous little girl who is now becoming a strong, intelligent young woman. You are everything I could hope for in a daughter, Alexandra. Of course I am proud of all my children. Every one of you is a joy and a treasure, and I hold you all close in my heart. But you, my dear child, are my youngest, my baby, and unlike all my other children, you had to grow up among Muggles, ignorant of your birthright. That makes you special."

Alexandra screwed her face up in a scowl. She wanted to stay angry at her father. She had twelve years worth of unanswered questions, and now she'd had several months to build up her anger and resentment, and here he was, the most feared wizard in the Confederation, coming to her with a kindly manner and soft words, calling her his "baby." She felt her anger melting, slipping away, even as she tried to hold onto it. But she wasn't prepared to forgive him, or soften her heart. Not yet.

"It wasn't easy for Mom, you know," she told him. "Being a single mother. Nursing school isn't easy, especially when you have a baby."

Her father nodded. "I would never have allowed my daughter to suffer," he replied. "I told you, Alexandra, I have been watching over you, and I would have provided for you both."

"Like you provide for all your other kids?"

He leaned slowly back in his chair. "All of my children are provided for. My ex-wives all come from wealthy wizarding families. They would not go without, even if I were not looking after them."

"That's convenient," Alexandra muttered.

She knew she was just being bitter and sulky now. She could tell by the way her father sat in his chair and looked at her, without replying, that she was probably testing his patience. Archie would have gotten angry at her, if she spoke to him like that, and she suspected her father was putting up with it only because he wanted her to stop being angry at him. But she had good reason to be angry at him!

"Is it true you've been married and divorced three times?" she asked.

He sighed. "I have been many things, Alexandra. A good husband isn't one of them. Do you really want to know about the wives I had before I met your mother? They were all good women. I blame them for nothing."

She frowned. He waited.

"Why didn't you marry my mother? Why did you leave her? How did you wind up having a baby with a Muggle, if the mothers of all your other children are witches? Did she know you're a wizard?"

He smiled. "Now we're getting closer to the matters that truly concern you," he said. "I didn't marry your mother because I was in the process of fomenting rebellion. I left her because I failed. How you came to be – well, I did love your mother very much, and still do."

"You fell in love with a Muggle who was like half your age?"

His smile became a little tighter. "Stranger things have happened, my dear."

"How did you meet?"

"Alexandra." He leaned forward. "These are entirely reasonable questions. But surely you've asked Claudia these things?"

"She's never told me anything," Alexandra complained. "I've asked about you all my life, and she's always refused to tell me anything about my father."

"I see." He pressed his lips together thoughtfully.

"You must have really hurt her or something," she said, watching him carefully. His eyes fixed on her, and she felt her mouth go dry, but she resisted the impulse to shrink back in her chair.

"I suppose Claudia has had a rather more difficult life than I would have chosen for her," he replied. "And she must feel abandoned, as you do. I am truly sorry about that."

"She was Obliviated," Alexandra muttered, through clenched teeth. "The Office of Special Inquisitions interrogated her, right after I was born, and then they Obliviated her so she wouldn't remember it."

"I am not surprised." His tone was very flat.

"Is that why she won't tell me anything? Because they took all her memories of you? Did you break Confederation law by getting a Muggle woman pregnant?"

Thorn almost smiled. "No, although there are certainly blood supremacists who would like to make that illegal." He shook his head. "I will answer any questions you have about my actions, Alexandra, but I won't speak for Claudia. I think you need to put some of your questions to her, if you want answers. I doubt very much that they Obliviated all memories of me from her mind." His eyes hardened a little. "They would want her to be able to answer questions about me, after all."

"You didn't tell me how you met, or whether she knows you were a wizard."

He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair he'd conjured, pressed his fingers together, and regarded her silently for a moment. She could hear a slight breeze rustling through the leaves in the forest, and owls and other nocturnal creatures making noises all around them. Normally it would be a rather spooky setting, especially since she knew there were things in this forest besides owls and foxes. But she doubted any beast, magical or otherwise, would approach two people sitting in front of a blazing blue ball of light. And if they did, Charlie and Hagar would give warning.

"What Claudia knows or does not know," he responded at last, "is for her to tell you."

"I thought you said you'd answer all my questions." Frustrated, Alexandra was trying not to sound pouty.

He nodded. "So I shall. But I ask that you speak to her first. She raised you, and lived a difficult life for which I am largely to blame, and I think I owe her the courtesy of letting her speak for herself. Don't you?"

Alexandra frowned and looked at the ground, where her feet were idly kicking leaves and moss around. When he put it like that, it seemed reasonable – except that her mother had never spoken about this at all, and she'd been waiting so long! She was confused.

She looked up at him. "Did you really go to England to meet with Lord Voldemort?"

Behind him, Hagar squawked. Her father looked a little surprised at the sudden change in topic, but he nodded. "Yes, I did."

"To make friends with him?"

"No." He shook his head, and laughed sourly. "Voldemort didn't have friends, or even allies. Only servants. I met him under the pretext of being... interested in his plans. His ambitions extended far beyond Britain, of course, and I wanted to know what his goals were and how likely it was that he would achieve them. I wanted to take his measure, and know just how great a threat he might be to the Confederation."

"The Governor-General said you were a traitor."

"Yes." Thorn's expression darkened. "A nice bit of political maneuvering on his part. I did not meet Voldemort as an official Confederation delegate, but we weren't at war with him, so I violated no laws. Nonetheless..."

"So it was all politics. You going to Britain, you becoming a traitor, and then trying to assassinate the Governor-General?"

"In the end, Alexandra," he said slowly, "everything is politics." He looked at her calmly. "The Confederation is rotten to the core, much as the Ministry of Magic was, even before Voldemort took over. You've only seen a little bit of that. The way the Office of Special Inquisitions interrogates my children, Obliviates people, attempts to impose new and harsher restrictions on wizarding society every year. You're too young to understand –"

"Don't tell me I'm too young to understand!" she snapped. Hagar made a startled cawing sound, and her father narrowed his eyes. For an instant, Alexandra feared she might have finally crossed the line.

"I'm not stupid," she added, in a much quieter voice.

Her father stared at her for several long moments, then smiled thinly. "You most certainly are not. Never imagine for a moment that I think so."

"Then don't treat me like a little kid." She was afraid that her voice sounded exactly like that of an indignant little kid.

"I won't. Do you want to talk more about the Confederation, and Governor-General Hucksteen?"

She frowned.

"Read the papers, listen to the Wizard Wireless news, pay attention to what is happening, but be skeptical of everything you hear," he told her. "You are not stupid, Alexandra. You're very, very bright. I think you'll figure out what's going on, if you try."

"Are you in the Dark Convention?" she asked.

He pressed his fingers together again. "No. But they are allies, after a fashion."

"What do you mean, 'after a fashion'?"

"We share goals and objectives. Most members of the Dark Convention are outcasts with no particular ambition. Some have terrible ambitions, and many, ambitious or not, are simply twisted and perverse. What we share is a hatred of the Confederation. With a common enemy, our interests happen to coincide... sometimes."

"So you make friends with them when it's convenient."

He smiled. "Not only bright, but already becoming cynical." He almost sounded proud. "But that's a reasonable assessment."

"Great. You make friends with bad people so you can get rid of other bad people."

His smile looked a little stretched again. "It's not a perfect world, Alexandra. I wish I only worked with honorable, trustworthy men, but I don't. Revolution requires dirtying your hands."

"Revolution." This all sounded over her head, suddenly. She had just told him not to treat her like a little kid, but he was talking about politics and revolution, things that didn't seem to concern her, and she didn't want to admit that none of this really seemed as important to her as him being a non-presence in her life for twelve years. "Does that mean you really are an enemy of the Confederation? What do you want to do, start a war, like the American Revolution? Or like Voldemort did in Britain?"

"I am no Voldemort!" Thorn responded angrily, and Alexandra did shrink back in her chair a little. He sucked in a breath, and spoke more quietly. "Voldemort wanted to rule. I would prefer to govern, and I'm even willing to let someone else do the governing. But not this government, not our corrupt, archaic Confederation, and not Elias Hucksteen!"

His words, when he spoke the Governor-General's name, came out as practically a snarl. Alexandra's eyes were wide. She wasn't sure what her father's real motives were, but she realized with dead certainty that his animosity for Governor-General Hucksteen was, in some way, personal. And though it raised a flood of new questions, she thought better of asking them. His eyes were glittering and harsh in the moonlight, before he looked at her and the way she'd suddenly fallen silent, and his face softened.

"I'm sure you've heard many things about me, my child," he said. "There are countless stories of my villainy. They try to portray me as a Dark Lord. But as you can see –" He spread his hands. "– I am just a man. A wizard, a father..."

"An outlaw."

He lowered his hands, and smiled. "Yes. That, too."

"So none of the stories about you using Dark Arts and cursing your enemies are true?"

He stopped smiling, and regarded her very seriously. "Some of them are," he said evenly. "My enemies have tried to curse me often enough."

"If you do start a revolution, won't that mean a war, with a lot of people dying?"

"You ask serious questions, Alexandra. I hope you appreciate that I am not trying to pretty things up for you. Yes, although I'd prefer a bloodless coup, avoiding bloodshed is unlikely."

"Then why should I believe that you aren't a bad guy? I've met Governor-General Hucksteen, and he's a big, fat, jerk and I don't trust him one little bit, him or the people working for him. But that doesn't mean I trust you, either. Why can't you just duel him and settle this, instead of starting a war?"

Her father stared at her for a few moments, and then his face broke out into a smile. He tilted his head back and laughed. It would have made Alexandra angry, but she sensed he wasn't mocking her. He was genuinely amused.

"Oh, my dear child," he said at last. "You are your father's daughter! You will not bend easily, and you ask very pertinent, if somewhat naïve, questions. Of course you're old enough to know that things can't possibly be settled that simply." For a moment, she saw a malevolent gleam return to his eyes. "Though I assure you, nothing would please me more than a chance to duel Elias Hucksteen."

She looked down. "Sure. I can see how destroying a corrupt government would be much more important than your children."

His smile faded, and very slowly, he leaned forward and reached for her hands. She didn't resist or pull away as he took them in his, but she didn't look up at him. Even through his gloves, his hands felt like steel, but they curled gently around her fingers.

"Alexandra." He spoke softly. "Nothing is more important to me than my children. I would die for you. I would do anything for you. I am doing what I'm doing for you, for all of you!"

She bit her lip. She could think of a dozen angry retorts. They all sounded petulant in her mind.

"I am not unrealistic," he went on, in that same soft tone. "I never expected that you would suddenly hug me and call me 'Dad,' as you put it, on our first meeting. I would have liked that, very much..." He paused, but Alexandra kept her eyes fixed on his hands, wrapped around hers. "But I did not expect it. All I can hope for is that your heart is not so hardened against me that you won't allow me to try to soften it. I admit I have made mistakes. I deserve your scorn. I hope someday I will be able to earn your forgiveness... and even your affection."

She raised her head, to look into his eyes. He gazed back at her.

"It's going to take more than one visit every twelve years," she said.

He smiled. "Of course."

They sat there for a moment, as owls hooted around them, and Charlie and Hagar cawed back.

"I'm going to ask Mom," she said firmly. "About everything." When she went home for Christmas this year, she told herself, she was absolutely going to confront her mother for once and for all. "And next time I see you, I'll have more questions."

"I have no doubt."

They sat there for a minute longer, and her father seemed content simply holding her hands. She looked around, and mumbled, "Max is probably getting cold."

"You and Maximilian are becoming close?"

She wrinkled her brow a little. "I... don't know. Sometimes he's kind of a jerk. I hated him, before I found out he was my brother."

Thorn looked amused. "It's to be expected that siblings won't always get along. But he's a remarkable young man. I'm very proud of him... as I am of you. He knows I expect him to look after you."

She snorted. "Don't encourage him. He thinks he's supposed to 'protect' me!"

"Good." Her father smiled, and she rolled her eyes.

He rose slowly from his seat, pulling her to her feet as well. He was still gripping her hands in his.

"I am going to give you a hug, now," he stated. Somehow he made it sound like a request, though it wasn't. Alexandra didn't say anything. She didn't hug him back, but she didn't resist, as he put his arms around her and held her.

"Has Maximilian told you about the Mors Mortis Society?" she murmured, with her face half buried in her father's cloak.

He stepped back and looked at her, with his hands still on her shoulders.

"It's a secret Dark Arts club at school," she continued, lowering her voice, even though she knew Maximilian couldn't hear them. "We were both members, but I quit. He didn't, even though he says he doesn't want to do Dark Arts. And they're all really creepy! He's trying to spy on them, and find out about their ties to the Dark Convention. All so..." She suddenly gagged and clutched her throat. It felt like her tongue was swelling up, sealing off her airway.

Her father let go of her, and swiftly pointed his wand. Suddenly she could breathe, and her tongue felt normal again. She gasped.

"Amateurish curse," he scoffed, scornfully.

She gulped. "You got rid of it?"

"Yes." He regarded her calmly. "I know about the Mors Mortis Society, Alexandra. Maximilian told me all about it."

"Make him stop."

Thorn raised an eyebrow, then smiled and shook his head. "Your brother knows what he's doing. Yes, it is dangerous –"

"He's doing it because he thinks he needs to redeem his family name, because of you!" Alexandra's voice rose again.

"I know." The older man remained calm, in the face of Alexandra's burst of anger, and she subsided, feeling like a little girl losing her temper again. "Do you think he would abandon his mission if I told him to? Do you think I should force him to do so – assuming I could?"

She stared at her father, uncertain how to answer.

"He might listen to you," she said. "Obviously you talk."

The wizard didn't miss the bitterness in Alexandra's tone. He sighed.

"We do, but not as often as I would like. And while he fortunately doesn't harbor quite as much anger and resentment towards me as my youngest child, that doesn't mean I can tell him what to do."

She looked down, frowning. Max, she thought, harbored a lot more anger than their father knew.

"You worry about him," he said.

She shrugged.

He squeezed her shoulder. "You are so very precious to me, Alexandra. It pleases me greatly that you and Maximilian are together, now, looking after each other. And we will spend more time together."

She nodded, not really in confirmation, but just to acknowledge what he'd said, while her thoughts stormed about in her head. He sighed, and caressed her cheek before straightening up again.

He waved his wand, and the glowing blue ball of light winked out, and the chairs disappeared. With a shriek, Abraham Thorn's formidable raven glided off the tree branch overhead to land on his shoulder. Alexandra's smaller raven descended silently to land on her shoulder, looking unusually cowed. She imagined that Hagar might be a little intimidating to Charlie.

"You have a fine choice for a familiar," Thorn remarked. Hagar clucked agreement, but Alexandra merely nodded, with a small smile, and Charlie offered only a head tilt in response.

The two of them walked slowly out of the clearing, and found Maximilian standing by a tree, some distance away, rolling his wand back and forth in his hands. He didn't appear to be trying to warm himself magically; gusts of vapor appeared around his mouth and nose as he breathed.

"Thank you for bringing your sister to me, Maximilian," their father said. "See that she gets back to school safely."

He nodded. Alexandra resisted a flash of annoyance. Like I can't walk back through the woods by myself? she thought. But she did want to walk with Max, even if she didn't think she needed him.

Maximilian glanced at Alexandra, as if trying to read her face. She looked noncommittally back at him. He turned to his father, and Abraham and Maximilian Thorn shook hands, then the elder Thorn pulled his son into a brief, one-armed embrace. Alexandra watched while feigning disinterest – she had little experience watching fathers and sons interact.

"Your sister is worried about you," their father told him. Alexandra flushed and looked down.

Her brother smiled slightly. "Little troublemaker should worry about herself."

Alexandra's flush deepened. Abraham Thorn laughed softly. "Take care of each other. I will be thinking of you, often, until we meet again."

And suddenly he and his raven vanished.

Alexandra and Maximilian looked at each other.

"So," her brother asked, after a pause. "Did you get all your questions answered?"

She thought a moment, and shook her head. "Not exactly."

He nodded. "Remember what I said. He knows sooner or later you'll have to tell someone from the Wizard Justice Department about this meeting. Anyway, you can't catch up on twelve years in one night." He squinted at her, and then put a hand on her shoulder. "Let's get back inside. I wouldn't want the Hodag to get you."

She snorted. "Hodags are a myth. And if there really was a Hodag after us, what makes you think it would get me and not you?"

"Because I can run faster."

Her mouth dropped open, and she stared at him. His expression was serious, but his lips were pursed together in amusement. She suppressed a grin of her own. "You are such a jerk."

Charlie made a snickering sound.

No Hodags or other creatures bothered them as they hiked back through the woods. They were nearly back to the lawns surrounding Charmbridge Academy, when some of the trees began to look familiar, and Alexandra realized with a chill that they were not far from the large tree where the wild Boggart had taken residence.

Thinking about the Boggart made her think about her mother, and brought more unpleasant thoughts to mind. Did she really want to confront her mother about how much she really knew about her father? What if Claudia Green already knew everything? What if she just wanted Alexandra to stay at Charmbridge, where the wizarding world, and her freakish, magical daughter, would never bother her?

"Max?" she asked quietly.

"Yes?" He had removed his hand from her shoulder, as they walked through the woods, but he was still close by her side.

"What did you see... when you were alone with the Boggart?"

He stopped walking. She stopped, too, and looked up at him, but now the moon was behind him and all she could see was his profile. He didn't seem to be looking at her.

He was silent a moment, then asked, "Do you want to talk about what you saw?"

She looked down, and shook her head. "Just... how do Boggarts know things? I mean, is what they show you real, or...?"

"Boggarts aren't intelligent, Alex." He finally turned his head to look down at her. "They're Dark creatures, but they're not smart. They pull fears out of your head and give them form, but that's it."

"So... whatever they show you just comes from inside your head? It's not real?"

He was silent again for a moment, and then said, "Just because it's inside your head doesn't mean it's not real."

He didn't speak again until they reached the entrance to Charmbridge Academy. Alexandra was confused by his answer at first – if the Boggart, in the form of her mother, said things her mother had never said, only things she was afraid her mother might say, then it wasn't real, right?

But as they stepped inside, and she raised her hand to wipe at her nose, as the sudden warmth after the cold, dry air outside made it start running, she looked at Maximilian's dark and brooding face, and realized he hadn't been talking about her Boggart at all.

"Better get back to your room, now, and be careful you're not caught, or we're both hexed," Maximilian cautioned.

She nodded. And as he turned away, she caught his sleeve. "Max."

He turned back towards her. She smiled at him. "Thanks," she whispered.

He blinked at her, then smiled. He reached his hand out and mussed up her hair. "Get going, Troublesome."

She slapped his hand away and gave him an unconvincing glare, before running down the corridor towards Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall, shushing Charlie as the raven squawked and flapped while trying to hold onto her shoulder.

Four days later, Charmbridge's magical short bus was carrying Alexandra and her friends to Chicago, minus Constance and Forbearance. The Pritchards were to be taken on a separate trip to their drop-off point in the Ozarks.

Alexandra was a little withdrawn. She was looking forward to seeing their rebuilt house on Sweetmaple Avenue, and not being stuck in an apartment anymore. She missed TV and fast food, too. But the thought of asking her mother about Abraham Thorn still put a tight knot in her stomach. She'd rehearsed a dozen variations of that conversation in her head, over and over, and none of them seemed to end happily in her mind.

Maximilian hadn't talked to her after their meeting with their father. She wasn't sure if he was avoiding her, or if it was just her imagination. The Stormcrows were at the front of the bus now, talking and joking, wearing their BMI uniforms as they always did while traveling. They would be dropped off at the Chicago Wizardrail station, along with Anna. All of them would be heading east, while Anna would take the train west to Northern California.

"You gonna be doing anything over Christmas?" David asked.

She blinked and turned her attention back to him and Anna. "No," she replied, shaking her head. "Not that I know of."

Anna gave her a serious, knowing look. Alexandra had told her about Abraham Thorn's visit, and her plans to confront her mother. It wasn't something she wanted to talk about with David, though. He was her friend, too, but she didn't confide in him the way she did in Anna.

And there were other people on the bus, like Darla and Angelique, sitting at a separate booth. Alexandra had no desire to encourage anyone else to eavesdrop on her.

In the days following Maximilian's 'outing' himself, things had gotten strange for Alexandra at school again. Everyone had been reminded that she was Abraham Thorn's daughter, and now her brother was being shunned and whispered about, much as she had been all last year. On the other hand, there were still girls who weren't deterred by Maximilian's alleged Dark lineage. Alexandra found it somewhat amusing, but mostly annoying, that some of these older girls had suddenly become friendly with her, greeting her by name when they'd never said a word to her previously.

She also thought Constance and Forbearance had been a little distant, and she wasn't sure why. She doubted it was because of her father, so perhaps it was because she hadn't confided in them. Anna was still a little miffed about that, though she'd mostly gotten over it.

The three seventh graders talked about their Christmas plans, and gifts they were hoping for. Alexandra was holding out little hope for a cell phone at this point.

"Why do you want one anyway?" Anna asked, while feeding an owl treat to Jingwei, in her cage. "You can't use it nine months out of the year."

"Yeah, but Larkin Mills can be pretty boring the other three months," she replied. When you don't have any friends, she added silently. She watched while Anna's owl accepted the treat, snapping it up with a beak that could easily remove one of Anna's fingers. Alexandra rested her arm on Nigel's cage; she'd thought it prudent to put a cloth over it, after she saw Jingwei looking at the snake hungrily.

Anna smiled at her sympathetically. Alexandra knew Anna also had few friends at home.

When the conversation turned to next semester's electives, Alexandra said little. They were supposed to have turned in a form listing their preferences for the spring semester, before leaving for home. Alexandra had dithered over it, preoccupied by thoughts about her father and her mother, and her brother, and it was now buried somewhere in the bottom of her book bag, still not filled out.

When they reached the Chicago Wizardrail station, Anna got up, and Alexandra and David did, too, to say good-bye. There was an awkward silence as Darla and Angelique both slid past them to get off the bus as well. Alexandra was relieved that at least Angelique was keeping a Silencing Charm on Honey's cage this time; they hadn't heard an outburst from the jarvey all trip.

"Seeya," David said to the other two girls as they passed by. Darla ignored him, but Angelique gave them all a quick, abashed smile and a wave.

"Have a happy New Year, Alex." Anna gave her a hug. "Promise you'll write."

"Of course." Alexandra hugged her friend back. "I'll miss you."

Anna turned to David and gave him a quick hug too. David rolled his eyes, but accepted the hug willingly enough. "You have a good New Year too, David."

"Yeah, you too."

"All right, get off the bus, you're blocking the aisle!" someone barked. Anna jumped and stiffened.

"Quit being a jerk, Max," Alexandra snapped, glaring at her brother, who was now standing behind Anna and towering over her.

"Merry Christmas, Chu," drawled Maximilian sardonically, as the smaller girl squeezed past him, with both arms wrapped around Jingwei's cage. She hurried to the exit at the front of the bus. He turned back to Alexandra, who was shaking her head, with her arms folded across her chest.

Maximilian grinned at her. "I'm sorry you're stuck in Muggle land over the holidays, Alexandra." He ignored David's indignant scowl, and held out a package. "But here's a present for you. Put it under your tree. Muggles have Christmas trees too, right?"

"Yes." Torn between wanting to give her brother a hug, and wanting to hex him, Alexandra took the package. "I'll have to send you your present."

"No need." He smiled at her and waved. "See you in a couple of weeks."

She felt oddly disappointed as she watched his retreating back. He joined Beatrice and Martin and the other Stormcrows, and disembarked.

The bus left Chicago, and rolled through a series of barricades that looked more like iron fortresses than tollbooths, manned by large, ugly trolls collecting gold coins from each passing vehicle. From there they traveled along the Automagicka towards Detroit, surrounded by smaller wizarding vehicles. Some looked much like Muggle automobiles, while others could obviously only be held together by magic. Alexandra and David both stared out the window when something that looked like a giant pumpkin on wagon wheels bounced past at a speed no pumpkin should travel.

When Mrs. Speaks stopped the bus again, after exiting the Automagicka at Detroit, it was in front of a very large Tudor-style brick house on a wide, elm-lined street, in what looked like a rather wealthy neighborhood.

"Take it easy, Alex," said David. They shook hands before he got off. She heard him shouting, "Mom! Dad!" before the iron gates in front of the house swung open. Alexandra had never seen David's parents before; she pressed her hands against the window and watched a beautiful, dark-skinned woman with silky black hair pull him into a hug. The nearly-bald black man next to her was built like a refrigerator. Alexandra was a little surprised at what a big man Mr. Washington was, considering that David was definitely on the scrawny side. Then the bus pulled away, and David's house disappeared from sight.

This left her as the only seventh grader remaining on the bus. Some more kids were dropped off in the Detroit area, and then the bus got on the Automagicka again, and Alexandra sat alone with Charlie, Nigel, and her thoughts until they reached Larkin Mills.