The Dueling Club

All detentions were suspended for Halloween, so for one night, Alexandra pushed grudges, schoolwork, and Time-Turners to the back of her mind and enjoyed the feast with her friends. Even though she'd lost the dueling competition to Larry, classmates who usually didn't talk to her at all congratulated her for taking second place, and Sonja sat with her and Anna once more. Innocence was holding court at the sixth graders' table, having apparently forgiven William and made up with her roommate again.

Popularity and acceptance, Alexandra realized, were not so hard to come by — and equally easy to lose. She suspected she'd be shunned again as soon as her father was blamed for something else.

She returned to her room with Anna, feeling stuffed and contented, though a bit weary. Socializing in middle school, and the attention that had to be paid to the ever-shifting dynamics of friendship, rivalry, and who was angry at whom was proving to be more of an effort than Alexandra had ever imagined. She didn't want to care about such things; they felt like distractions.

By Monday, things were back to normal, and Alexandra's focus was once more on her studies. Not so much for school — she did the bare minimum in class — but the study of death and time, two subjects so vast and overwhelming that she was only just beginning to appreciate what an enormous task she was trying to take on. She had accumulated quite a list of legends, spells, and books to read on the subjects of the afterlife and time travel, but it seemed that the few wizards who had made any progress at all in those fields had been madmen who'd spent their entire lives at it — and never obtained what they wanted in the end.

Anna would tell her there was a lesson in that, which was why Alexandra avoided the subject around her roommate.

It was frustrating. Like flying to the moon, Alexandra remained convinced that it was possible to defeat death, but she could not see how she would ever accomplish it. Especially with the filtered book selection she had available at Charmbridge Academy.

But at the end of the month, she would be returning to Roanoke, a visit that filled her with excitement and dread, and she would not — could not — visit Maximilian's empty tomb and admit that she'd given up, that she was no longer trying to undo what she had done.

No one but Anna noticed Alexandra's obsession. Nearly everyone was looking forward to Thanksgiving and to winter vacation after that, though the holiday season was made somewhat less festive by the rapid approach of midterms and SPAWNs as well. Alexandra did her homework perfunctorily, spent a little time studying with Anna, and whatever free time she had left, she spent in the library. Remembering how happy Bran and Poe were when she visited them, when she finally served her last day of detention, she made a point of saying good-bye to all of the bemused kitchen elves, even sour, squinty-eyed Mister Remy.

The week after her detention ended, Eric Strangeland stopped her after the JROC was dismissed for the afternoon.

"Why haven't you joined the Dueling Club, Quick?" he asked her.

"I've been doing detention for the last two months," she said. "Sir." She hated having to stand at attention while the Mage-Sergeant Major addressed her.

He grinned. "Yeah, I heard. But you're not anymore, right? Think you can stay out of detention for the rest of the school year?"

"I hope so," she replied, thinking, I wouldn't bet on it.

"Well, everyone in JROC who's old enough is also in the Dueling Club. You should ask Colonel Shirtliffe if you can still join."

"Isn't Larry Albo in the Dueling Club, too?"

"Yes, the smug bastard." Eric's mouth twitched. "I'd love to see the look on his face when you show up."

"Er, why? Sir."

"Usually, I'm the only one who can beat him." He coughed. "Of course, he got lucky on Halloween."

"Of course," Alexandra said.

Eric grinned again. "But you almost held your own against him. If we get you trained right, I'll wager he's in trouble next year. We need someone who can kick his arrogant ass, since I'm graduating. What do you say?"

Alexandra had wanted to join the Dueling Club since sixth grade, but now, it hardly seemed to matter. It would take time away from more important things.

But she'd spent the last two months serving detention, and she had done very little that she might consider fun. And dueling was fun. Even when it hurt. She had loved the time spent dueling with her brother — she shook her head, banishing those thoughts. Wouldn't she like to wipe that smirk off of Larry's face?

"I'll ask Colonel Shirtliffe, sir."

He clapped her on the shoulder, much the way her brother had, and didn't notice her sudden frown. "Excellent! Dismissed, Witch-Private."

She tossed him a salute and returned to her room. When she told Anna about her plans to join the Dueling Club, Anna merely nodded. "It sounds like fun."

"You could join, too."

Anna shook her head. "It sounds like fun for you."

Alexandra didn't really expect Anna would want to join the Dueling Club, but she felt a bit melancholy at her friend's flat refusal, and the way they spoke only about homework and cleaning their room. Anna had heard nothing new concerning her father.

When she asked Ms. Shirtliffe about the Dueling Club the next day, the teacher gave her a narrow, jaundiced look.

"You just got off of two months serving detention, and you're still in the JROC as punishment," Shirtliffe said. "I don't allow troublemakers in the Dueling Club."

Alexandra frowned. "You allow Larry."

Shirtliffe stared at her.

"Ma'am," Alexandra added.

After another few moments of staring, the corner of Shirtliffe's mouth turned upward slightly. "There are rules — it's not a free-for-all. It's not like that 'wizard dueling' you were doing with your brother."

"I know that, ma'am."

"Get in any more trouble, and you're out. No one who's serving detention or on academic or disciplinary probation is allowed in the Dueling Club."

Alexandra nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

Alexandra told her friends over dinner that she would be joining the Dueling Club. The lack of enthusiasm from Constance and Forbearance was unsurprising, but Sonja, across the table, became quite excited.

"That's great!" she said. "You know, usually we partner up in Dueling Club with someone our own age, but I'm the only eighth grade girl, so I usually get stuck with Matt or Corey or" — she grimaced — "Torvald Krogstad."

"And?" Alexandra asked dryly.

Sonja's smile faltered. "Well, I thought..." She hesitated. "We could be a team?"

Alexandra glanced at Anna. Anna shrugged, and shook her head.

"Sure," Alexandra said to Sonja.

Sonja smiled again. "Excellent!"

Dueling practice was held three days a week, alternating with JROC drill days. When Alexandra showed up at the large sandpit where the Dueling Club practiced, most of her fellow JROC mages were there; the JROC made up about half the membership of the club.

Eric had been right; Larry's expression, when he saw Alexandra, was angry and disbelieving. Adela was there, too, and she was furious.

"Ms. Shirtliffe, you can't let her join the Dueling Club!" Adela exclaimed, pointing at Alexandra.

Ms. Shirtliffe, who had just joined the students in the sandpit, gave Adela a sharp look. "Excuse me?"

"She's — she's always in trouble! And she's dangerous! And — she has no right to be here!"

The teacher's eyes narrowed. Everyone else had gone very quiet.

"If you want to quit the Dueling Club like you quit the JROC, Iturbide, feel free," Ms. Shirtliffe said, in a quiet, ominous tone. "But the next time you try to tell me what I can and cannot do, you'll be talking to Dean Calvert. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, ma'am," Adela mumbled, looking down.

Adela and Larry were casting venomous looks at Alexandra as Ms. Shirtliffe grouped everyone into same-grade pairs and had them practice bowing and challenging.

"Well, that was kind of awkward, wasn't it?" Sonja said.

Alexandra shrugged. "I'm used to it."

Dueling as a sport was considerably less intense than trading hexes with her brother and his friends, and Ms. Shirtliffe didn't let Alexandra do anything but practice the formalities and rituals. Even Sonja and the other eighth graders were allowed to get up on the platform and take turns dueling each other with Stunners and Disarming Spells, but Alexandra bridled under Ms. Shirtliffe's insistence that she learn the rules properly first.

"I took second place in the dueling competition!" she protested.

"With brute force and recklessness," Shirtliffe replied.

"I'm better than them!" Alexandra pointed at Matt Prester and Corey McCluskey, who were trying to Disarm each other.

"Stop arguing with me, Quick." Ms. Shirtliffe stared her down much as she had silenced Adela. In a quieter voice, she said, "You're twice as good as most children your age, and not half as good as you could be. You want to skip straight to the blasting and the hexing; why do you think Albo beat you?"

"Because he's had two more years of practice than me."

Ms. Shirtliffe folded her arms. "Formal dueling isn't just a way to make wizard-duels prettier and less lethal. There are things to learn from the forms we practice. Patience, precision, timing, strategy... I'll bet you couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from more than ten paces away, Quick. Your brother had the same problem." At Alexandra's fierce scowl, the instructor nodded. "Oh yes, he was quite formidable — against other teenagers. Do you just want to be able to beat your classmates?" Shirtliffe gestured at Sonja, who was hopping around and rubbing her hands after being hexed by Torvald.

Alexandra grudgingly returned to the wand drills Shirtliffe was having her do, which were tediously similar to those she'd spent much of her first six months in JROC practicing the previous year. She wasn't sure what the point of learning the 'right' way to draw and hold your wand was, or formal challenges and acceptances, or bowing, approaching, and withdrawing — wasn't a duel just a fight between wizards? Whoever was better at magic won.

It wasn't until the end of her first practice that she realized that for the first time since returning to Charmbridge this year, she had been wholly focused on something other than regret and guilt. She had not been running through scenarios in her head to undo what should never have happened, and she hadn't been thinking about how what she was doing might aid her in accomplishing that.

It was very strange to realize that, and just as strange to realize that she had, in fact, been thinking about Maximilian, Time-Turners, and the Lands Beyond almost constantly for the past few months. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. Didn't she have to keep thinking about what she needed to do? If she forgot, or lost her focus, she might never succeed. She might give up!

She walked back inside, confused and troubled. She all but ignored Sonja and her other classmates, and was so deep in thought that even Anna only received a mumbled response when she returned to her room.

Much, much later that night, as she lay in bed thinking about dueling, and time travel, and raising the dead, and seeing Julia in a few weeks, and how much she missed Max, she finally thought about Ms. Shirtliffe's words, too.

"Do you just want to be able to beat your classmates?"

Well, Alexandra wasn't exactly planning to duel anyone else. Of course she'd like to be great at whatever she did — but she wondered just what Ms. Shirtliffe had meant. Did she think someday Alexandra might compete in the Confederation Wizarding Decathlon or something? Or did she think Alexandra was going to have to duel someone besides other students?

She heard Anna toss and turn in her sleep, and moan something. She wished she could comfort her friend. If she ever spoke to her father again, maybe she could ask him to help Mr. Chu, though she had no idea how.

Her head was filled with entirely too many thoughts, and she forgot most of them by the next morning; they had been banished by dreams that she also mostly didn't remember, except that, as in many of her dreams lately, she had been looking for Maximilian.

It was another week before Ms. Shirtliffe allowed Alexandra to actually duel. At first, she was only allowed to duel other eighth graders. One by one, she knocked everyone else down, with great care and precision.

"You really are good," Sonja said, shuffling over to where Alexandra was watching the ninth graders duel each other. She grimaced. "Did you have to hit me in the chest?"

"Would you have preferred a Stunner to the face?"

Sonja gave her a wary look.

Alexandra watched Torvald beat Adela, and then get beaten by Theo. Tenth graders dueled next, and Larry handily defeated all of his opponents. After juniors and seniors finished dueling each other, the club was dismissed for the day, and Alexandra saw that Innocence was watching from the sidelines.

"I watched you duel, Alex," she said cheerfully. "I wish I could join the Duelin' Club!"

"You'll have to wait until eighth grade, just like I did," Alexandra said.

"You gonna duel that Larry Albo again?" Innocence asked.

"Maybe when we do open challenges on Friday."

"Cool!" Innocence said. "Do you think you'll whup 'm this time?"

"We'll see." Innocence's enthusiasm notwithstanding, Alexandra wasn't as certain as she'd like.

On Friday, Alexandra was surprised to find that quite a few spectators had gathered after school to watch the Dueling Club practice. She narrowed her eyes when she saw Innocence sitting between William and Darla. She stalked over to them.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded, staring at Darla.

Darla raised her eyebrows, and tilted her head back in the direction of the athletic fields. "Angelique is watching David play Quidditch."

"We came to watch you duel!" said Innocence. "I told everyone you was gonna whup Larry Albo this time!"

"You what?" Alexandra stared at her.

William smiled encouragingly. Alexandra saw the Rashes walking towards the sandpit, looking smug.

"Good luck," said Darla, sounding just a little bit smug herself.

Annoyed, Alexandra returned to the students waiting to challenge other club members. Corey challenged Sonja, and won with some sort of transfiguration curse. Sonja shrieked as she staggered off the platform; her long red hair had been transformed into branches and twigs that were snapping as she clawed frantically at her head, until Ms. Shirtliffe grabbed her wrists and told her to calm down.

Alexandra was not terribly surprised when Torvald challenged her. The ninth grader grinned at her and winked as he bowed. Alexandra bowed back, and then Disarmed him in a flash. Torvald looked at his empty hand in astonishment, and his wand, lying ten feet away, and back at Alexandra, who was poised to throw another spell.

"Umm, yield," he mumbled. His face fell.

Nearly everyone dueled at least once, and while the Dueling Club members were generally more skilled than the non-members who had participated in the Halloween competition, Alexandra could still see that most of them only knew a small number of spells and an even smaller range of tactics.

Eric Strangeland challenged Larry before Alexandra could. Everyone buzzed excitedly at the rematch; Alexandra knew, from what other club members had said, that Eric did usually beat Larry in practice matches, but Larry had been winning more often lately.

Eric and Larry dueled for nearly twenty seconds — a long duel, at such close range. Larry snuck some sort of jinx beneath Eric's Shield Charm and caused the senior to do a backflip, landing on his stomach, but Eric rolled out of the way of the Stunner with which Larry tried to finish him, caught the younger boy with a Leg-Locker Curse, and then struck Larry's Shield Charm repeatedly until it collapsed, and Larry with it.

The JROC all cheered, as did most of the spectators.

"Too bad you weren't so agile at the tournament," Ms. Shirtliffe said to Eric. "You'd better improve the coverage of your Shield Charm before you join the ROC."

"Yes, ma'am." Eric picked himself up and smiled with satisfaction as Larry stumbled to his feet.

Alexandra noticed that Ms. Shirtliffe was much harder on her JROC mages. She barely criticized Larry at all, whether he won or lost.

As Larry grimaced and lifted one leg and then the other, shaking off any lingering effects from the Leg-Locker Curse, Alexandra stepped up and called out, "I challenge Larry Albo!"

Ms. Shirtliffe scowled. "The Dueling Club isn't for grudge matches, Quick."

Alexandra heard groans of disappointment behind her. It was obvious that the spectators had been hoping to see just that. But Larry, still standing on the dueling platform, brushed himself off and said, "If Quick wants to duel me, Ms. Shirtliffe, I'm willing." When the teacher turned around to look at him, he smiled. "I promise not to hurt her."

Shirtliffe turned back around to regard Alexandra, tapping her fingers against her wand.

"Very well," she said at last, and Innocence cheered. So did the Rashes, and Larry's friends Wade and Ethan, who had also arrived to watch. Alexandra saw Larry winking at Adela, who blew a kiss in his direction. Alexandra rolled her eyes and snorted with disgust.

"Everything I said on Halloween still goes," Shirtliffe warned, as the two duelists took up their positions. "If you two are so eager to bruise egos, fine, but I will not have you doing harm to each other."

Alexandra knew that 'harm' didn't mean the same thing here as in the Muggle world — wizards didn't treat injuries very seriously, as long as they weren't too severe to be healed by magic.

Larry bowed, with a smirk. Alexandra bowed back, and then immediately yelled, "Protego!" She barely stopped Larry's first hex, and his second.

He could block, too, and for the next ten seconds, their attacks flashed against one another's Shield Charms — green and red and yellow, fiery jets and crackling sparks and whirling gusts of wind, each of them trying to break through the other's defenses, trying to find a weakness. Alexandra didn't recognize a couple of the hexes that Larry threw at her, and she could see by his expression that he hadn't been expecting her to produce anything he hadn't seen in their first duel.

She remembered her wizard-dueling lessons with her brother, how Maximilian had just flung hex after hex, furiously and fearlessly, hardly even bothering to defend himself. When a blue bolt from Larry's wand struck through her Shield Charm and almost knocked her over, rather than dodging or casting another, she began flicking hexes at him, fast and furious, aiming at his face, his chest, his knees, his fingers — Larry gritted his teeth as he tried to deflect the onslaught, and then he lunged at her yelling, "Caedarus!"

A green ball of light flew directly at Alexandra, struck her in the face, and knocked her off her feet. She hit the hard wooden platform and bounced, painfully.

"Match!" yelled Shirtliffe. "Albo wins."

Alexandra heard the cheers of Larry's friends through the ringing in her ears. She lifted her head, and tasted something salty on her lips. Ms. Shirtliffe was kneeling next to her.

"Nose looks broken," she said. "Go see Mrs. Murphy. And learn to block — in a real duel, that spell could have been lethal and you'd be dead."

"I dow how do block," Alexandra mumbled, with blood filling her nose and garbling her speech.

She glimpsed Larry staring at her for a moment — he looked furious. Then he turned away.

Why is he so pissed off? Alexandra wondered. He won.

Eric and Charlotte helped her to her feet, with Charlotte pressing a cloth to her nose to soak up the blood.

She noticed, just before Eric and Charlotte led her off to the infirmary, that Darla had joined the crowd that was congratulating Larry.

By that evening, everyone at school had heard about the 'rematch.' Larry and his friends were laughing loudly at dinner, and shooting Alexandra triumphant, mocking grins. At the eighth graders' table, Anna shook her head. "Sooner or later, he'll try to hurt you for real."

"Duelin' is just violent an' awful," said Forbearance, looking at the bandage over Alexandra's nose. Mrs. Murphy had performed a Healing Charm and given Alexandra a potion to drink, but it was still sore.

"Speakin' of which, we'd much 'preciate you not encouragin' Innocence," said Constance.

"Excuse me?" Alexandra looked up from her plate of turkey and squash — not her favorite dish — and frowned at Constance.

"She's quite taken with that cursin' and hexin'," Constance said. "Thinks she could be good at it."

"She probably could," Alexandra said.

"Alexandra, duelin' hain't respectable!" Constance said, then quickly amended: "For Ozarker girls."

Alexandra eyed the twins. The very first time she had met them, they had boasted about already knowing how to cast hexes.

And then, she recalled, they had immediately been scolded by the Rashes. She glanced at the older boys' table, where Benjamin and Mordecai were sitting with Larry. Their laughter increased in volume when they noticed Alexandra looking their way.

"I haven't encouraged Innocence to do anything," she grumbled. She got up from the table, feeling aggrieved and irritated. Her throbbing nose didn't help. "Don't blame me because your sister has problems."

"That hain't what we meant," Constance said.

"Innocence don't have problems —" Forbearance protested.

Alexandra stalked out of the cafeteria without listening to the rest. Not wanting to return to her room, no doubt to be scolded by Anna, she went to the library instead.

At first, she was going to sit down and read Why I Came Back, another ghostly autobiography, but she realized she hadn't visited Bran and Poe for a while. Mrs. Minder was gone for the day, so Alexandra walked around to the back room behind the librarian's office where she knew the library elves often worked. She knocked on the door, but there was no response. She paused, and then tried to open it; it was locked.

Alexandra thought a moment. If Bran and Poe weren't in the back room, they were probably downstairs, below the librarian's office. She could knock more loudly, though that would disturb other students in the library and perhaps draw their attention. Her eyes fell on the lock.

Mrs. Minder was responsible for the library. She probably put the same locks (magical and otherwise) on the Restricted Collections that she put on the other rooms off-limits to students. So when Alexandra took out her wand, and after a quick look around, succeeded in opening the door with her Unlocking Charm, she smiled.

"Hello?" she called out softly into the dark room on the other side of the door. She stepped inside and closed the door quickly behind herself, before another student saw her.

There was another door in this room, she remembered, and stairs behind it. But just as she raised her wand to murmur "Lumos," she heard metallic rasping sounds, and then cold metal fingers closed around her arms.

"Hey!" she exclaimed. Alarmed, she tried to pull free, but both of her arms were held fast, and when she struggled and kicked, she felt her foot strike something hard and unyielding, with a dull thud.

Her breath caught in her throat as she realized what had grabbed her: Clockworks! It was like before, when they had seized her and dragged her away to throw her into a fire pit — she felt a cold sweat and a panicky hammering in her chest.

She almost started blasting the Clockworks, with her wand still in her hand, but she took a deep breath and thought quickly. There was no fire pit here; where could they take her? She'd only get in big trouble, whether they dragged her outside to a teacher or she blew them apart with hexes.

When she was little — before she had learned about the wizarding world, and before she was given a wand — she had performed magic with made-up nursery rhymes. At Charmbridge, she'd been told that this was 'doggerel verse'; unreliable and not to be used. But it worked.


She chanted:

"Tick, tock, stop the clock,

Clockworks drop me,

Grind and stop."

The Clockworks ground to a halt and stopped moving.

Yes! she thought triumphantly. Once again, what her peers called 'baby magic' had worked. Then she tried to pull free, and realized that the Clockworks, while no longer moving, were frozen in place with their hands still locked around her arms in painfully tight grips. She pulled this way and that, trying to free herself, to no avail. She thought about trying another rhyme, to make them let go, and then her jerking and tugging pulled one of the Clockworks off-balance, and it toppled to the floor, dragging her with it. Landing with the Clockwork didn't hurt, but the other Clockwork falling on top of her did. She cried out in pain as the golems crashed together, with one of her arms and half of her body between them. And they were both still holding her arms, so she was twisted painfully around on the floor.

"Ow!" she hissed, thinking the crash had sounded awfully loud. Then the room was alight, and Alexandra found herself looking up at Bran and Poe.

"Hi, guys." She grimaced. "Umm, can you... help me?"

"What is Alex doing here?" Bran asked.

"I came to visit you." She pulled at her arm, and the elves commanded the Clockworks to let go of her, but the golems only released her arms when the two elves grabbed their hands and pried their fingers apart. They began extricating Alexandra from the grasp of the metal golems, until she was able to roll free.

"Alex should not be here!" Poe whispered.

Alexandra rose to her feet, rubbing her arms. She glared at the Clockwork golems, who were still lying on the floor, unmoving. Bran was tugging at one, and then kicked it peevishly.

Alexandra breathed a sigh of relief, and then saw that Bran and Poe were both looking at her with distinctly accusing expressions. They did not look quite as pleased as usual to see her. She cleared her throat. "Something must be wrong with the Clockworks — they shouldn't have tried to grab me like that."

Bran said, "Mrs. Minder told the Clockworks to catch any childrens they find."

"But we only lets them into the library after it closes," said Poe.

Bran nodded. "Mrs. Minder was worried about childrens sneaking into the library, not her office!"

Alexandra felt herself shrinking a little under their accusing stares. "I'm sorry."

"Bran and Poe is always happy to see Alexandra Quick," said Bran.

"But Miss Alex is still getting herself into trouble," said Poe.

"And," Bran said, "Bran thinks Alexandra Quick is up to something... again."

Poe nodded slowly. "Poe thinks so, too."

Alexandra looked down at the elves, and her first thought was that perhaps they were going to report her to Mrs. Minder... or worse, the Dean. She thought she could talk them out of it. She was very good at cajoling elves into doing what she wanted. But the twinge of guilt she was already feeling turned into a stab.

"I am," she said. She sank slowly to the floor, sitting in a cross-legged position so she was eye-to-eye with the elves. She met their gazes, and spoke in a level tone.

"I want to bring back my brother."

She wasn't surprised that the elves' initial reaction was astonishment and horror. But she was disappointed that her persuasive powers were unable to bring them around.

Bran shook his head, with his hands pressed to his face. "Alex," he groaned, in a creaky voice, "we knows you is very, very sad about your brother."

"We is very, very sorry," said Poe, who indeed, looked on the verge of tears, after Alexandra had spent nearly half an hour explaining her plan.

She had been enthusiastic at first — actually voicing aloud what she wanted to do was a relief, and her zeal, as she spoke of Time-Turners and saving her brother, left the elves wide-eyed. But they only shook their heads and moaned when she came around to the subject of the Restricted Collections.

"What Alex wants to do is impossible," Bran said.

"How do you know that?" She was becoming argumentative, when the elves proved surprisingly resistant. She tried to soften her tone when she saw them flinch, but she persisted. "You aren't wizards, are you? Do you actually know about time travel and how it works? Or do you just 'know' it's impossible because that's what everyone says?"

Bran and Poe looked at each other.

"No, we is not wizards," Bran sighed.

"But maybe we understands some magic things more than wizard childrens does," Poe said.

"Tell me," she said. "Tell me what you understand about time travel. Tell me how you know what I want to do is impossible!"

The two elves looked at her with large, mournful eyes.

"What we knows," Bran said at last, "is that there is no book in the Restricted Collections that will bring back Alexandra Quick's brother."

Alexandra looked down, biting her lip. She wanted to argue — she didn't expect to just find a Time Traveling Charm, or a Bring Someone Back From the Dead Spell. But she knew the elves knew that.

Her lip started to tremble. If she couldn't even convince Bran and Poe, if not even they would help her, then she was further from her goal than ever, and their sad, solemn expressions were making her feel like a silly little girl with a stupid idea. For months, she'd been chasing this idea, and she'd learned nothing! She might as well have been memorizing Confederation Governor-Generals and studying how to make... whatever their current assignment was in Alchemy. She could feel the sense of futility and wasted effort beginning to overwhelm her, so she stood up.

"Alex," Poe said, in a tiny voice. "We is sorry..."

"No, no, it's okay." She cleared her throat; her own voice sounded entirely too hoarse. "Maybe you're right. And I'm sorry, I shouldn't have come to you, expecting you to just let me into the Restricted Collections..." She saw them wince — even the thought of doing so, she knew, was probably making them twitch with the urge to beat their heads against a book to punish themselves.

"If Alex wants to research Time-Turners," Bran said, "we can help — there is bookses Alex is allowed to read..."

"I've read all the books in the library I'm allowed to read!" Her voice rose in frustration. She lowered it quickly. "I need to know what I don't know — I need to know how wizards learn to do things that aren't just written in a book!"

Bran and Poe blinked.

"That is why Alex is going to Charmbridge Academy, Bran thinks," Bran said. Poe nodded.

Alexandra stared at them, and then burst out laughing, a little bitterly.

"You're right. Maybe I should just study harder in my classes."

The elves' expressions brightened; they missed the sarcasm in her tone.

"That is a good idea, Alex." The elves were nodding with approval, as they walked her back to the door to the main library.

"Poe thinks Alexandra Quick will be a great witch someday," said Poe.

"If she is a good student and does not gets herself into more trouble," Bran said.

Alexandra paused at the door, and looked down at the library elves. She tried to hide her disappointment. "Thanks, guys. I'll just knock harder next time."

They nodded. "Please come visit us again, Alex."

"We will try to find more bookses about Time-Turners."

Alexandra doubted anything they'd find that wasn't off-limits to her would help, but they were so earnest, she could only give them a small smile. "Thank you."

She looked around a bit furtively as she left the back room, but the door was deliberately located far in the back of the library, near shelves full of untranslated Latin and Greek and Sanskrit texts. Students almost never ventured back here. She thought she would be able to leave the library unnoticed, but as soon as she emerged from the Ancient Languages section, she almost ran into Innocence.

"Hi, Alex." The younger girl looked at her curiously. "I thought I heard a clamorin' back there, and someone said they seen you 'bout."

"You heard a clamoring and figured it had to be me?" Alexandra asked dryly.

Innocence blushed. "That hain't what I —"

"It's all right." Alexandra shook her head, and her eyes fell on the books under Innocence's arm: A Junior Wizard's Guide to Dueling; A History of Hexes; Twenty-One Usually-Legal Curses; and Age-Appropriate Magic for Self-Defense. She raised an eyebrow. "Studying for when you're old enough to join the Dueling Club?"

Innocence grinned.

Alexandra distinctly remembered having been forbidden to check out anything to do with hexing and cursing when she was in sixth grade. One of the titles caught her eye: The Master of Death. She reached out and plucked it away; sure enough, it had a magical sticker on it indicating that it was for eighth graders and up. She knew Bran and Poe had attached those stickers, and she knew from experience that removing them without destroying the book was almost impossible.

"How did you check this out?" she asked. She flipped to the inside back cover, and found the sign-out slip.

The last signature was 'Darla Dearborn.'

"I'm just returnin' that one for Darla," Innocence said.

Alexandra's eyes narrowed. "So Darla's signature isn't on the rest of those books?"

Innocence shuffled her feet and looked down. "You hain't gonna tattle on me, is you?"

A nagging suspicion crystallized as Alexandra studied Innocence, with her glossy, cherry-colored lips and darkened lashes, her bright, sparkling blue eyes, her brilliant yellow hair, and her soft multilayered robes of blue and silver and peach. Alexandra was no fashion maven, but she thought they looked quite expensive, and she knew that the Pritchards were anything but wealthy.

"What are you doing hanging around with Darla?" she asked.

Innocence looked surprised at the question, and a little defensive. "I hain't hangin' 'round with her. She just sometimes... lends me advice, is all."

"And clothes?" Alexandra looked pointedly at Innocence's robes. Innocence's blush deepened. "Innocence, stay away from Darla. She's... not right. She's trouble."

Innocence's expression shifted into a frown. "Well that's a how-do, seein' how folks say the same thing 'bout you!"

"I'm serious. Do you even know all the things she did last year?"

"I know what they say you did."

"We're not the same!" Alexandra snapped.

"Come to think of it, you hain't," Innocence retorted. "Darla don't talk to me like I'm a Muggle chile, unlike certain other girls, 'cludin' some who's my sisters and some who ain't."

"I don't —" Alexandra stopped, and scowled. "Like you're a what?"

Innocence's face was now quite red. "Can I have my book — I mean, Darla's book — back? That one really is hers. I mean, she borrowed it."

Alexandra looked down at it. There was something intriguing about The Master of Death. On the cover, a sinister, cowled figure faced a wand-wielding wizard. "I'll return this one for her."

"Oh, well fine!" Innocence huffed, and turned up her nose as she spun about and flounced off to the basket for book returns. Alexandra watched her go, saying nothing.

She was vaguely disturbed, but she couldn't quite see how lending clothes and makeup was dangerous. Moreover, Innocence's remarks had hit home, and Alexandra was uncomfortably aware of how she'd have reacted in Innocence's place.

Anyway, it wasn't her job to mind either Innocence or Darla.

She shook her head and left the library, carrying the book with her.