A Long, Cold DecemberDecember came cold and dark. The skies were frequently overcast, but rarely produced more than a few flurries of snow. The frosty air outside, however, didn't chill Alexandra nearly as much as Anna's coldness.
After their initial argument, Anna never showed any anger. She simply refused to talk about anything other than schoolwork or chores.
"It's all right, Alex," she said, when Alexandra tried yet again to apologize and explain herself. "You don't need to apologize."
Constance and Forbearance, when they heard about the quarrel, tut-tutted and sighed with disapproval.
"So are you going to shun me now, too?" Alexandra asked.
Forbearance gave her a reproachful look. "Alexandra Quick, you ornery knarl, we'uns already swore we wouldn't."
"But it's high time you gave more care 'bout your friends," Constance said.
Alexandra looked down. "What do I do about Anna? I said I was sorry."
Forbearance shook her head. "You're always sorry, Alex. We know you are. But when you hurt someone bad enough, sorry's just a word."
"So what do I do?"
"We'uns can't solve Anna for you," Forbearance said. "If you want her forgiveness, you're gonna have to earn it, not just ask for it."
Alexandra didn't think that was very helpful, but she nodded.
Constance's expression softened. "Anyhow, I oughter not throw stones. Innocence still hain't really forgiven me, and we'uns still can't get her to mind us."
Alexandra sent letters to Julia, Ms. King, and Valeria, with a note to Triss attached to the latter. She wasn't sure which she feared more: the responses, or receiving no responses at all.
Her first reply came from Julia:
I understand why you did what you did. It was foolish and wrong, and you should have known better. I wish you had talked to me about it — we're sisters, dear Alexandra, and you shouldn't have felt like you had to hide such things from me. No doubt you feared I would have disapproved and tried to talk you out of your plan, and of course I would have, but I would have understood!
Who else could understand your feelings better than I do? Yet you couldn't share them with me. That makes me very sad.
I'm sure you feel terrible, and I don't want to make you feel worse. Rest assured, you are still close in my heart, but I cannot pretend that I'm not upset and disappointed.
The one you hurt the most, however, is Valeria. I hope she won't suffer too much for your actions, and I hope she will find it in her heart to forgive you.
Now and always, your sister,
Ms. King's response came two days later. Julia's mother was just as disappointed in her, and more unsparing. She wasn't cruel, but when Alexandra finished reading her letter, she felt even lower than she had after her quarrel with Anna. Thalia King had stern words about how Alexandra had violated her hospitality and hurt Valeria. Alexandra didn't expect any more invitations to Croatoa in the future.
No reply came from Valeria.
She felt the chill in JROC, too. Ms. Shirtliffe scowled at her disapprovingly, and Mage-Sergeant Major Strangeland was angry at her for being kicked out of the Dueling Club. In class, everyone but David and the Pritchards distanced themselves from her. Alexandra's threats had made Darla more sympathetic to her peers. Darla was no longer the sorceress who'd been kicked out of school last year for practicing Dark Arts; now she was the girl who had been attacked by Abraham Thorn's crazy daughter when her familiar went missing. Some kids even suggested that Alexandra was responsible for the cat's disappearance.
Detention was almost a relief. Alexandra was once again assigned to lead Clockworks in chores around the school. At least Clockworks didn't whisper behind her back or give her funny looks.
She cared even less about the year-end SPAWNs than usual. She studied for them mostly because Anna did, and Anna was at least willing to continue studying with her; it made Alexandra feel as if there was still a door open there, to restore their friendship, though she was unsure how.
But deep down, she knew what the problem was. Anna knew that she wasn't really sorry. Perhaps using a Time-Turner had been foolish. Perhaps finding a way to bring back Maximilian really would take her a long, long time. But she hadn't given up.
Anna found her reading The Master of Death one day after class, when she was supposed to be writing an essay for American Wizarding History, and just stared at her for a moment, with a blank expression, before going to her desk to write a letter.
Alexandra wasn't particularly looking forward to the winter break. She missed Larkin Mills a little, but she saw only a long, cold winter stretching ahead of her. She didn't expect this Christmas to be very cheery, and she had little to look forward to when she returned.
She tried not to be weighted down by gloom, and held her head up as she walked through the woods with the other students taking the Charmbridge bus home.
Anna, for the first time, was not walking with her, but with Tomo Matsuzaka. By now many students had heard about the unrest in the California Territories; the Governors were wavering between trying to placate the angry New Colonials (including the sizable Chinese and Japanese communities) and threatening to use the WODAMND Act against the restive protesters.
Alexandra felt a pang in her heart as she watched Anna conferring with Tomo, without looking back.
Next to her, Constance and Forbearance were fussing over Innocence, who had donned appropriate Ozarker attire for her return home, but was arguing over whether or not she would consent to sit with her sisters and the Rashes on the bus.
"Do you want Ma an' Pa to learn how you been carryin' on?" Constance demanded.
"I hain't been carryin' on, an' they won't find out nothin' you don't tell 'em nohow!" Innocence glared over her shoulder at the Rashes, who were walking with Larry and his Old Colonial friends. "If'n Benjamin an' Mordecai speaks foul 'bout us," she said loudly, "I will tell the whole holler how they got sorted by the daughter of Ab—"
Constance clamped a hand over Innocence's mouth.
Alexandra gave the younger girl a sour look. "Boy, I get scarier every time you repeat that story, don't I?"
She still sympathized with Innocence, but she didn't particularly like being used as a bogey monster.
Forbearance took Alexandra's hands, just before they boarded the bus.
"Alexandra, we'uns know you still hain't back to right," she said.
"Anna'll come 'round," Constance said. "But you got to open your heart more to your friends."
"I'm trying." Alexandra smiled halfheartedly as Constance, and then Forbearance, gave her a hug.
"Try harder," Forbearance whispered in her ear, and then Benjamin was yelling at them:
"Would you'uns stop standin' athwart everyone else with your female foolishness?"
Constance gave him a scathing look, while keeping her hand over Innocence's mouth again. Alexandra, as close to erupting as Innocence, bit her tongue when Forbearance made eye contact with her and shook her head.
Simmering, she boarded the bus, leaving the Pritchards to climb aboard after her, still exchanging words with the Rashes.
Alexandra sat alone at first — David and Angelique sat together in another booth, holding hands across the table and talking nonsense. Alexandra saw Darla pass them by and make a disgusted face before sitting with Lydia and Janet.
In Chicago, both Angelique and Darla got off at the Wizardrail station, and David, after spending so long saying good-bye to Angelique that Mrs. Speaks finally had to snap at them, crossed the aisle to Alexandra's booth.
"Mind company?" he asked.
"If you can wipe that goofy look off your face," she said.
He snorted and sat down. "Don't hate."
She rolled her eyes, and then cleared her throat as Anna and Tomo walked past, from the rear of the bus.
"Anna," she said.
Anna paused and looked at her.
"Have a happy Christmas," Alexandra said.
Anna nodded slightly. "You, too," she mumbled, with the same self-conscious look as Alexandra. They both knew neither of them were really going to have a happy Christmas. "Bye, David."
Tomo gave Alexandra a nervous little nod, and the two girls walked on.
"You two still fighting?" David asked.
"We're not fighting."
"Why can't you ever just admit you screwed up?"
"I have admitted it!" Alexandra snapped.
"Okay." David eyed her skeptically as he leaned back in his seat.
"Look, I don't need any more of this. Sit somewhere else if you're going to lecture me about what a screw-up I am."
"Keep it up, Alex — you trying to drive all your friends away?"
Alexandra scowled at him.
"Big fat jerk!" squawked Charlie.
Alexandra wasn't sure if the raven was referring to her or to David, but he snickered, and she smiled, involuntarily.
"I don't want to talk about this," she said. "Do you want to play wizard chess or what?"
"Okay." He nodded, and until they reached Detroit, they didn't speak much, as their chess pieces decimated each other on the board.
When it was time for David to disembark, he said, "You can call me if you want to, all right?"
She nodded. "Thanks."
As David carried his bag and Malcolm's cage to the front exit, Innocence — who had been cajoled into sitting with the other Ozarkers after all — said, "Bye, David! Merry Christmas! We'uns'll miss you, 'specially — ow! Connie!"
Innocence didn't give Alexandra such a cheery farewell when she disembarked in Larkin Mills. Constance and Forbearance said good-bye and merry Christmas, quite deliberately, as the Rash twins looked on, stone-faced, but Innocence only mumbled something when Constance nudged her in the side with an elbow.
Her mother was waiting for her in front of the house. Claudia looked at Alexandra for a moment, taking in the robe she was still wearing, hanging open and loose over her Muggle clothes, and her familiars' cages. She had no other luggage but the backpack on her shoulders.
"Welcome back," her mother said.
"Thanks," Alexandra replied.
Then Claudia gave her a hug, followed by a kiss on the cheek.
"You hardly wrote at all," she said.
"I did miss you, you know." And when Alexandra gave her a skeptical look, Claudia smiled and took Charlie's cage from her. "So did Archie."
Alexandra's expression became even more skeptical at that. She allowed her mother to carry Charlie's cage. As they walked inside, Charlie said, "Miss you terrible."
Claudia stared at the bird, and her mouth twitched a little.
"You, not so much," she said.
Alexandra had brought several more books about ghosts and the afterlife home with her, and she spent most of the week before Christmas reading them. She finished The Master of Death first; it ended with the wizard who styled himself that finally meeting and challenging Death to a duel.
Alexandra was expecting a grand finale; instead, it resulted in a conversation that went on for five more chapters.
Death allowed the wizard to speak to his deceased mother and brother, as well as an imaginary son who'd never been born, and then told him that he could choose immortality, one of his loved ones, or a duel.
In the end, the 'Master of Death' walked away with none of those things, and Alexandra almost threw the book across the room in disgust. There was supposed to be a lesson in wisdom in there, somewhere — she understood that much. The wizard in the story had accepted Death's proper role.
Alexandra thought the story was a stupid cop-out, and she doubted any real wizard in that situation would just walk away from immortality, or the chance to bring back a loved one.
When she was not reading, she went to the mall to shop for her friends. She took particular care trying to find something for Anna — how could she express regret, friendship, and her desire to be forgiven with a gift? She had similar problems searching for something to give Julia. Ultimately, the gifts themselves were just Muggle toys and books and magazines she thought the wizard-raised girls would enjoy (she carefully selected some celebrity magazines with cute but modestly-clothed boys for Constance and Forbearance), and wrote long letters to accompany them.
Usually, her parents worked even over the Christmas holidays. To her surprise, Claudia had the entire week off, which resulted in Alexandra spending more time than she was used to with her mother. Archie was scheduled to work Christmas Eve, but had Christmas Day off, and during one of his other days off that week, all three of them went to the movies.
Alexandra hadn't gone to the cinema once the previous summer; it had been nearly a year since the last time she'd seen a movie, and longer than that since her entire family had done anything like that together. She felt strange — unsettled, conflicted, and a little warm inside, as they went home.
She went up to her room that night, after receiving a kiss good-night from her mother and a hug from Archie — another rarity — wondering why things felt so different. Her eyes fell on her books, sitting by Nigel's cage. A ghost flickered back and forth on the cover of one, beckoning her to open it.
She knew she shouldn't keep things like that out in plain sight, though Claudia and Archie didn't really go into her room. As she slid it into a desk drawer, she felt a surge of anger and guilt.
It was too easy, she thought, to just let go. Worrying about Christmas presents, letting herself be entertained by movies — next she'd be like Angelique, or Julia, mooning over boys and forgetting what she'd sworn to do.
It was frustration, she decided, at having to start over. Now that she knew time travel wasn't the way to go, she was back at the beginning, with perhaps years and years of study ahead of her, and no one to help her. She just couldn't let herself be distracted.
She went to sleep that night holding the picture cube Max had given her last Christmas. Her brother smiled at her, standing proudly next to Martin and Beatrice in their BMI uniforms.
Brian knocked on their door the next day. Alexandra's mother opened it, and invited him in before Alexandra could say anything.
"It's nice to see you again, Brian," Claudia said. She looked at Alexandra.
"Thanks, Mrs. Green." Brian had his hands shoved into his pockets. He was wearing a parka and a snow cap — it was actually too cold outside to snow, so his face was turning red now that he was indoors. He looked at Alexandra nervously.
"Umm, my parents and some of the others have organized a caroling group for the neighborhood kids this Christmas Eve," he said. "We thought... maybe Alexandra would like to come."
"No thanks," Alexandra said.
"Alex!" Claudia chided. "Why don't you go? It will be fun."
"He's only inviting me because he has to."
"Alex!" Her mother looked angry now.
"I don't care about Christmas carols or hanging out with a bunch of kids who think I'm a freak." Alexandra watched Brian wince as she said that.
"Fine," Brian mumbled. "If you change your mind, we're meeting on the corner of Sweetmaple and West Lake Avenue at six o'clock on Christmas Eve." He turned around and opened the door before Claudia could open it for him, and trudged out.
"What's wrong with you, Alexandra?" Claudia put her hands on her hips. "Do you not want to have friends here?"
"I've never had friends here, Mom!" Alexandra said angrily. "Didn't you ever notice that? Except for Brian. And I don't need him! I don't need friends —" She stopped herself. "I don't need friends here."
Claudia stared at her. Alexandra folded her arms and looked down, avoiding her mother's gaze.
"I thought I'd do some baking tomorrow," her mother said at last. "Would you like to help?"
"Baking?" Alexandra asked, in disbelief.
"Is that something you don't need to do, now?" Claudia's face looked a little strained. "Do you just... magic your food?"
Alexandra shook her head. "No. You can't make food with magic. Gamp's Law..." She stopped. "Sure. We can... bake."
The next day was Christmas Eve.
Alexandra's mother had never been much of a homemaker, and most of Alexandra's meals growing up had come from cans, boxes, and frozen packages, but Claudia could cook when it suited her. Alexandra had never taken an interest in kitchen skills, and felt a bit like a little girl as she followed her mother's directions in mixing batter and kneading dough. She even wore an apron, at her mother's urging — she was indignant at first, but she had to admit that it served a purpose, once she was covered in flour.
It was in that same flour-covered apron that she answered the door that evening, and found Brian, Bonnie, and half the neighborhood kids standing on their doorstep. Brian stared at her in amazement. Bonnie grinned, and Alexandra heard a few snickers, and then they broke into a chorus of 'Good King Wenceslas.'
Alexandra stood there, turning red, as her mother came up behind her and the two of them listened to the neighborhood carolers sing.
When they were done, Brian asked, "You sure you don't want to join us?"
Alexandra hesitated — for just a moment, she was tempted. These were the faces of the same kids who had taunted her for years, who feared her and whispered about her, but on that Christmas Eve, as snow began drifting down, they looked like a happy bunch of children inviting her to join their revels.
Her heart hardened. She couldn't allow herself to bend and soften. She couldn't forget what she was, and what she was meant to do. Even as her mother nudged her, she shook her head.
"We're in the middle of... making cookies." Her voice trailed off as she turned redder. She could almost hear the whispers: "Alexandra Quick baking cookies!" She would rather have given them more reasons to call her a witch.
"I can finish the cookies without you," Claudia said, but Alexandra shook her head more firmly.
For a moment, she thought Brian looked disappointed. Then she walked away from the door, back into the kitchen.
Her mother was quiet for a long time after the carolers had gone. Alexandra could feel the tension, and resolutely pulled trays out of the oven, refusing to say anything.
Finally, her mother said, "What's wrong with you, Alexandra?"
It didn't sound like an accusation this time. She actually sounded concerned.
Alexandra sighed. "I'm fine."
Claudia stood there, looking worried and indecisive and fearful.
It was the fear that convinced Alexandra to keep her mouth shut. And it wasn't as if she needed to talk about anything from the wizarding world with her mother. But for a moment, she so badly wanted to, it was painful. Months of biting her tongue, keeping things to herself, and telling herself that she was fine bubbled up inside, threatening to overwhelm her —
That was when they heard a noise from the fireplace.
"What?" Claudia's head jerked around, and Alexandra followed her from the kitchen to the living room.
They heard a roaring sound and felt a gust of air suddenly blowing out of the fireplace, as if something was about to come out of it, and for a moment, Alexandra had a ridiculous image in her head of Santa Claus descending down their chimney. Even as she thought that, she reached for her wand. The last time something magical had come out of their fireplace, it had burned down their house.
"Mom," she said, and she grabbed her mother's hand, and then great billowing clouds of greenish smoke belched forth, blinding them.
Claudia screamed and grabbed Alexandra. Alexandra tried to struggle free, so that she could point her wand, and then abruptly, the smoke parted, and she saw two figures standing in their living room, coughing.
"Well," gasped a familiar voice. "Obviously this floo hasn't been used in a long time."
"If I'm not mistaken, it's never been used," said another familiar voice.
Alexandra gaped as Ms. King stepped forward, holding her own wand. "Hello, Alexandra. And you must be Mrs. Green." She smiled. "If you'll give me just a moment, I can clean all this Floo Powder up." She waved her wand, and the smoke began retreating back into the fireplace as if sucked through a straw; the powdery green soot lifted off of the furniture and the carpet and the people, and in moments, there were hardly any traces of it remaining.
Julia was standing next to her mother. She smiled and held her hands out. "Merry Christmas!"
Alexandra stood there, stunned, as Julia embraced her.
"Please forgive the unannounced visit," Ms. King said. "We only just were able to get this connection approved, and for a while I didn't think it would be allowed at all." She held out a hand to Alexandra's mother. "I am Thalia King. This is my daughter, Julia — Alexandra's sister."
"Sister?" Claudia's face had gone white.
Ms. King squeezed her hand. "Apparently Alexandra never told you that. I wish I could say that this surprises me." She looked at the two girls. Julia had draped an arm around Alexandra's shoulders; Alexandra was still standing there in shock.
"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Green," Julia said.
"I —" Claudia stared at her. "You're Abraham's daughter, too?"
"Yes, ma'am." Julia nodded.
"Alexandra, perhaps you could show Julia around?" Ms. King said. She released Claudia's hand and turned to look at her. "Your mother and I need to have a long talk."
That snapped Alexandra out of her daze. "Talk? Wait. No!"
"Oh, show me your room, Alexandra!" Julia said. "And then maybe we can go outside? I've never really walked around in a Muggle neighborhood, except on the island, and field trips to Salem —"
Alexandra pulled away from her. "Ms. King... no. Please. You can't —"
"Yes, Alexandra." Ms. King gave Alexandra a severe look, and then one almost as severe to her mother. "Don't worry, we'll be fine."
"B-But —" Alexandra stammered.
Ms. King held up a hand, and Julia tugged her gently towards the stairs. "There's no use arguing," she whispered. "Mother's mind is made up, and I agree with her — it's for your own good, Alex."
"No!" Alexandra tried to pull away again, but Julia wouldn't let her.
"Shh," Julia said. "Your room is upstairs, yes? Come on... it will be all right." She gave Alexandra a kiss on the cheek, continuing to coax her upstairs, and Alexandra stared at her mother, who looked as stunned as she was, until they reached the stairs. With a groan, she allowed Julia to lead her upstairs.
They entered her bedroom, which was barely larger than Julia's bathroom back in Croatoa. Julia looked around curiously, and flipped the light switch several times.
"Pretty bird!" Charlie greeted her.
Julia laughed and walked over to the raven's cage. "Hello, Charlie." She pursed her lips and made kissing noises, which the raven imitated.
Alexandra sat down on her bed, and studied her hands. After a moment, the other girl joined her, putting an arm around her.
"You didn't write again," Julia said gently. "We'd been exchanging letters almost every week, before."
"I thought..." Alexandra swallowed.
"You thought what?" Julia cupped Alexandra's face in her hands. "That because you did something horrible and foolish that we'd never speak to you again?"
"Something like that."
Julia let out an exasperated sigh.
"I'm sorry," Alexandra whispered.
"I know." Julia kept looking at her.
"Your mother must be really angry at me."
Julia nodded. "She was. But after I told her how you've been refusing to talk to anyone about Max's death, she was concerned for you."
"She can't tell my mother!" Alexandra said, though she knew it was too late. "My mother won't understand. She doesn't want to know —"
"Maybe that's what you think, but Mother says she needs to know, and she's going to."
Alexandra slumped, and Julia wrapped her arms around her.
"There, there, it's all right," Julia murmured, patting her on the back. "You're such a proud, stubborn girl."
They sat together for quite a while, talking — not so much about Maximilian, or Alexandra's failed attempt to save him, but about school, and Muggles, and Christmas at Croatoa.
Alexandra asked if they'd used the 'Floo Network' to travel all the way from Roanoke to Larkin Mills. Julia laughed and shook her head.
"Most Floos don't even work between cities," she said. "We had to Portkey to Chicago, and get a special connection from there to your house. And it was quite a bumpy ride, I don't mind telling you!"
"Must have been really expensive," Alexandra muttered.
"Shush!" Julia swatted her hand.
When Alexandra took Julia downstairs, their mothers were still talking in the living room. Alexandra dreaded what Ms. King would tell her mother, but Julia distracted her by asking to see the telephone, and the refrigerator, and the microwave oven and blender and computer, and then she wanted to go outside, so they walked up and down the street, with their feet crunching in the newly-fallen snow, while Julia commented on the cars and street lamps and houses. They saw the carolers down the street, and Julia wanted to meet them. She was puzzled and disappointed when Alexandra refused and insisted they go back inside.
They were shivering when they returned to the house, and found Ms. King and Mrs. Green drinking hot cider. Claudia's hands were shaking a little.
Alexandra sat down next to her, while Julia sat next to her mother.
"Mom?" Alexandra asked hesitantly. Her mother gave her a wan small, and brushed snow-dampened hair away from Alexandra's ear.
"We had a nice, long chat," Ms. King said to Alexandra. "You have been holding far too much inside, my dear. You're too young to carry so much on your shoulders by yourself."
Alexandra looked down.
"Well," Ms. King continued. "We have imposed on your hospitality long enough, Mrs. Green."
"You can't stay longer?" Alexandra's voice sounded small in her own ears.
Ms. King smiled gently. "I'm afraid not. And you need to spend some time with your family this Christmas — although I want you to always remember that you are part of our family as well."
The Kings rose to their feet, and Alexandra and Claudia stood as well.
"Thank you, Ms. King," Claudia said. "For... visiting."
Ms. King gave the other woman an indecipherable look for a moment, and then clasped her hands around Claudia's, enfolding her hands and her cup.
"I know this was difficult for you," she said. "But I think we both can agree that it was necessary."
Claudia nodded. "Yes," she said, almost inaudibly.
Ms. King looked at Alexandra and sighed. "You foolish girl," she murmured, and leaned over to kiss the top of her head.
"Do you think Valeria will ever forgive me?" Alexandra mumbled.
"Yes, I think so." Ms. King stepped away from her. "Eventually."
Julia embraced her next. "Merry Christmas, Alex." She kissed her cheek, and Alexandra kissed her back.
"Write!" Julia whispered. "Don't make us come visit you again."
Alexandra smiled slightly. "I kind of liked you visiting me."
Julia raised an eyebrow. "Well, maybe we shall, if you don't visit us again first." She patted Alexandra's cheek, and then stood next to her mother again.
Ms. King took a metal canister out of her robes, poured some powder out of it into Julia's hands, and then shook some into the fireplace.
"Chicago Wizardrail Station!" she said, and stepped into the fireplace. Even though she was much too tall to fit, she abruptly disappeared in a flash of green and yellow flames.
Julia smiled and winked at Alexandra and her mother. She tossed the powder in her hands into the fireplace, and repeated: "Chicago Wizardrail Station!" Then, blowing a kiss, she stepped into the cloud of smoke, and disappeared as well.
Alexandra and her mother stood there, staring silently at the fireplace, for a long time. Then Claudia wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
"Is it safe to light a fire there, now?" she asked.
Alexandra nodded. "Yeah. I think so."
Claudia put logs in the hearth and spent a few minutes getting a fire going with matches.
"I suppose you could start a fire with magic if you wanted to," Claudia said, sitting back down on the couch and brushing her hands off.
Alexandra looked at her, surprised.
"I'm not allowed to use magic while I'm at home," she said. "I'd get a... warning, from the Trace Office."
Claudia nodded slowly.
"Is that why you never wanted to talk about it?" Alexandra asked quietly. "You're afraid of magic?"
"I don't understand," Alexandra said. "Why do you hate magic so much?" She licked her lips. "Why do you hate my father so much?"
Her mother looked directly at her. "Let's talk about you, Alexandra."
Claudia closed her eyes. "It was wrong of me to tell you not to talk about your world. I never thought —" She sighed. "You should have been able to talk to me about Maximilian."
Alexandra folded her arms and huddled in on herself, suddenly no longer feeling talkative.
"It's all right to grieve, Alex," her mother said softly, putting her arms around her. "And it's all right to talk about it."
"I —" Alexandra's breath caught in her throat, and she squeezed her eyes shut very, very tightly, as her mother held her. "I don't want to," she whispered. "Please, don't make me."
"Ms. King says it wasn't your fault."
"Ms. King wasn't there."
Claudia rubbed her daughter's back, and breathed deeply. "I don't know what to do, Alexandra. I can't make you talk about it."
Alexandra didn't say anything. She closed her eyes. She felt acutely uncomfortable, and she was trying to use Occlumency in ways Maximilian had never intended — to hide her feelings behind a mask of calm. It only worked because her mother couldn't see her face, but gradually, she relaxed, and allowed her mother to continue holding her as she drifted off to sleep.
Alexandra woke up on the couch Christmas morning, snuggled up against her mother.
There was a blanket laid over them; that meant that Archie had found them like that when he'd returned home, long after midnight. Alexandra sat up, annoyed and embarrassed. She was almost fourteen — far too old to be falling asleep in her mother's arms like a little girl.
Her mother stirred and yawned and stretched, by which time Alexandra had risen, and was poking at the ashes in the fireplace with the iron poker. The fire had gone out. She couldn't help leaning forward to stick her head into the fireplace, looking around. She knew she wouldn't find anything but the floo leading up the chimney; no magical portals or secret tunnels. But she found herself wishing that she could just step into the fireplace and be transported somewhere else.
"I'll wake up Archie and make breakfast," her mother said. She got up, and ran a hand through Alexandra's hair.
"You're not going to tell him anything, are you?" Alexandra asked.
Claudia paused. "You don't really think he's completely oblivious, do you?"
Claudia sighed. "You can't keep secrets forever."
"Neither can you," Alexandra replied.
Claudia gave her a long look, then nodded, before shuffling off to the master bedroom.
Alexandra still refused to cry. But it meant more to her than she would ever admit that her mother knew the truth, now. At least a little bit of it.
It was an uneventful, but surprisingly pleasant, Christmas morning.
Her parents gave her a used laptop computer. Alexandra knew she would appreciate it a great deal, come summer — she didn't bother trying to explain to them that she wouldn't be able to use it at school.
David had sent a perfectly innocuous gift — an official hoodie from his father's football team. From the Pritchards, she received a basket of hand-made soap (magical soap, according to the enclosed card).
Anna sent only a card with season's greetings, along with some pictures of San Francisco's Chinatown.
The best gift of all came later that night, when her mother surprised her by knocking on her bedroom door.
"Santa left you one more present," her mother said. "But I wasn't sure how to explain this to Archie, so I kept it out of sight."
"Santa?" Alexandra rolled her eyes.
"Well — it did actually come down the chimney." Claudia's face twitched, as she pulled something from behind her back and handed to Alexandra.
"No way," Alexandra breathed, taking the broom.
"Ms. King told me to give it you on Christmas Day," Claudia said. She eyed the broom suspiciously. "So, that thing actually... flies?"
"Yes." Alexandra nodded. She wanted to demonstrate it then and there, and hated that she couldn't.
She sucked in a breath when she saw the model name and number engraved on the handle.
It was a brand new Twister.
"I assume you won't be flying it around here?" her mother muttered.
"No. Not allowed." Alexandra was still admiring the feel of the broomstick in her hands — she could feel it twitching, ready to launch into the air even without her sitting on it.
"Well... Merry Christmas, Alexandra." Her mother turned away, and Alexandra looked up from the broom.
"Thanks, Mom," she said softly.
"That was from the Kings, not me."
"I didn't mean the broom."
Claudia hesitated, then gave her a kiss on the cheek. "You're still keeping a lot to yourself."
"So are you." Alexandra gazed back at her steadily. There was still so much unsaid between then — how had her mother met her father? Why did she want nothing to do with him now? All the questions that had gone unanswered for her entire childhood.
Claudia looked uncomfortable. "I'm working on it," she murmured.
And that was where things stood a week later, when Alexandra brought her things downstairs to leave once more for Charmbridge Academy. It was the day after New Year's.
Alexandra and her mother had talked a little more. For Alexandra, it was a major step to admit that she grieved.
She had not admitted to her mother that she was still unwilling to accept that Maximilian was gone forever. She had not talked about her failed plan to go back in time — from what she understood, Ms. King had explained in vague terms that Alexandra had been 'suffering from misdirected anger and engaging in inappropriate behavior' because of her grief over her brother's death, but she had not tried explaining Time-Turners and family ghosts to Claudia.
Claudia and Archie were both there to see her off. Charlie and Nigel's cages were sitting by the door, and Archie was eyeing Alexandra's new broom, (which was longer than her Valkyrie had been, and couldn't quite fit inside her magical backpack), when a knock came at the door.
Claudia and Alexandra looked at one another. The bus shouldn't have arrived yet, and Mrs. Speaks never came to the door.
When Claudia opened it, a familiar woman with long, black hair was standing there, wearing a dark coat over a pants suit.
"Dean Grimm!" Claudia exclaimed.
"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Green." Ms. Grimm smiled. "Happy New Year's." She looked over Claudia's shoulder at Alexandra. "Alexandra and I have some things to discuss, so I've notified the Academy that I will be bringing her there myself, directly."
"Really?" Claudia stammered.
"That's quite a drive, isn't it?" Archie said.
"Oh, it's no trouble at all. Are you ready to go, Miss Quick?"
Alexandra stared at the woman, whose smile looked ominously like a warning.
"Yes, Ms. Grimm."
Since Ms. Grimm hadn't corrected her parents, she didn't either. But it wasn't the Dean of Charmbridge Academy who had come to personally take her back to school. It was her sister, Diana.