In the Basement
Alexandra sat quietly on the bench in front of the Dean's office, where Miss Marmsley had curtly bade her to sit. Now that the fight was over and adrenaline was no longer pumping through her, she felt weary. Ms. Grimm probably would expel her this time. She shook her head at the thought, unwilling to allow it to proceed further. There was no point in feeling regret now.
The door that finally opened, however, was not Dean Grimm's, but another one down the hall. A deep male voice called, "Come here, Miss Quick."
Alexandra rose to her feet and walked down the corridor. The sign on the door read: 'Cesar Cervantes, Dean of the Eighth Grade.'
Dean Cervantes was a handsome older man with slick, dark black hair and a full mustache; he obviously spent a great deal of time grooming both. Alexandra remembered his brief introduction during the beginning-of-semester assembly, when Dean Grimm had given the student body the usual announcements and warnings.
The Assistant Dean regarded Alexandra with an unsmiling, vaguely curious expression. Ms. Shirtliffe was standing to one side, a few feet from his desk, with her arms folded across her chest and an angry look in her eyes.
"Well, Miss Quick," the dean said, folding his hands on his desk. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Alexandra glanced at Ms. Shirtliffe, and back at the Assistant Dean. "Where's Ms. Grimm?"
He raised an eyebrow. "You've become used to receiving the personal attention of the Dean, have you? She's a very busy woman, which means your fate is in my hands, now."
Alexandra imagined him cackling and twirling his mustache. Instead, he scratched his chin.
"You are on probation already," he said, "and fighting is a serious offense."
He seemed to be waiting for a response. Alexandra couldn't think of one, so she said nothing.
As if disappointed by her lack of defense or pleading, he sighed. "Is there any reason why I should not suspend you, Miss Quick? Trouble seems to follow you, year after year. When everyone in school knows your name by the start of the eighth grade, that's either a very good thing or a very bad thing."
"What was the cause of the fight, Quick?" Ms. Shirtliffe asked.
Alexandra glanced at her. The other teacher's expression was still stern and disapproving.
She shrugged. "They insulted me."
"You put a transfiguration curse on Mr. Rash because he insulted you?" Dean Cervantes shook his head. "Am I to believe that this was a matter of honor? Because it is my understanding that you have not been raised according to pureblood traditions."
"Oh, so it would be okay if I cursed him for insulting me if I were a pureblood?" Alexandra said. "How about because he called me a Mudblood?"
Cervantes pressed his fingertips together thoughtfully.
"You know," he said, "in my day, Muggle-born and half-blood students weren't allowed at Charmbridge. They had their own schools to go to."
Alexandra's eyes narrowed. Shirtliffe was also frowning, but then Dean Cervantes continued. "But these are different times, aren't they? We do not allow that sort of language anymore. Messers Rash will be dealt with. Also, I am given to understand that one of the young men cast a Conflagration Spell at Miss Quick?" The dean glanced at Ms. Shirtliffe, who nodded. He tsked and shook his head. "That's a dangerous spell to be throwing around in a schoolyard duel... it's remarkably lucky for you, Miss Quick, that Ms. Shirtliffe intervened before those two boys hurt you."
Alexandra started to sputter, then caught Ms. Shirtliffe giving her a warning look, and closed her mouth.
"Notwithstanding the fact that two boys have no excuse for fighting a girl — and a girl who's two years younger than them — your status at this school leaves you with little leeway when it comes to your own behavior, Miss Quick." Dean Cervantes stared at her, as if hoping to impress upon her the seriousness of her situation with the intensity of his gaze. She stared back at him, still biting her tongue.
The dean sighed and leaned back in his chair. "If it were me alone making this decision, I would be inclined to suspend you, pending expulsion by the Dean, but Ms. Shirtliffe, for reasons inexplicable to me, wishes to give you one more chance." Alexandra blinked, as Dean Cervantes suddenly leaned forward again. "Of course, it is still my decision."
"Of course, Dean Cervantes," Ms. Shirtliffe said.
Cervantes seemed to be studying Alexandra, as if trying to discern what it was that Ms. Shirtliffe saw in her. Alexandra was wondering the same thing. Then he said, "Ms. Shirtliffe is willing to accept you into the Junior Regimental Officer Corps again this year, and take responsibility for disciplining you."
Alexandra stared at Mr. Cervantes, and then at Ms. Shirtliffe.
"The entire year?" Alexandra asked.
"The entire year," Ms. Shirtliffe said.
"That will be in addition to a month's detention, including weekends," said Cervantes.
Alexandra's face clouded over. She had sworn she was never going to wear the Junior Regimental Officer Corps uniform again. She had spent all last year in JROC — initially as punishment, with Anna, and then she had continued because of Maximilian. What had started out as the worst time in her life had become something special — something now gone forever.
"Or, you can go home," the dean said, noting her expression. "JROC or suspension, most likely followed by expulsion. Either way is quite fine with me. You're very lucky to have a choice at all, young lady. You should be on your knees thanking Ms. Shirtliffe."
For a moment, Alexandra felt a wild urge to tell them both off; to say: "The hell with Charmbridge Academy and the wizarding world!" Maybe her mother would be happy to have her back in Larkin Mills, if she left this world behind forever.
But there were no wizard libraries in Larkin Mills. Alexandra didn't think a church was going to tell her what she needed to know about what happened when someone died. She would never learn magical theory in Larkin Mills, and it was very unlikely she'd stumble upon a Time-Turner like foolish Marty the Muggle.
And, a smaller voice murmured in the back of her mind: Your friends aren't in Larkin Mills.
"JROC," she said.
Ms. Shirtliffe didn't smile, but there was a satisfied look in her eyes.
"Very well." Dean Cervantes nodded, and scribbled something on a scroll on his desk. "I give you over to Ms. Shirtliffe. Your detention starts tonight, with Ms. Gale."
Alexandra nodded silently, until Ms. Shirtliffe hissed, "Yes, sir!" at her.
"Yes, sir," Alexandra said sullenly.
She walked out of Dean Cervantes's office, followed by Ms. Shirtliffe. Alexandra thought the teacher would immediately begin lecturing her, but Ms. Shirtliffe walked silently behind her, past the disapproving gaze of Miss Marmsley, until they had left the administrative office and were out of sight of the secretary's portrait. Only then did Ms. Shirtliffe say, "You'd better not disappoint me, Quick."
Alexandra turned around and regarded the older witch. Ms. Shirtliffe had been one of a handful of people who'd known who Alexandra's father was from the moment she'd arrived at Charmbridge. And she had first suggested that Alexandra join JROC at the end of her sixth grade year. Alexandra had always found Shirtliffe a little bit mysterious; fierce, sometimes frightening, and not always nice, but she was one of the few teachers Alexandra respected, deep down.
Right now, though, she was just angry and resentful. "Why do you want me in JROC, anyway?"
Shirtliffe inspected Alexandra, looking down the ridge of her slightly crooked nose.
"You have a lot of potential, Quick. For good or for trouble." She shook her head. "Ozarker boys learn to hex about the time they learn to talk. Those two should have sent you to the infirmary, not the other way around. You shouldn't even know half those spells you used. Where did you learn the Deadweight Jinx and the Porcupine Curse?"
Alexandra looked steadily back at her. "You know where."
Shirtliffe nodded slowly. "Your brother was a really remarkable young man. Enormous talent — I could see that, in the short time I knew him. And also that he was troubled. I wish —"
"It doesn't matter what you wish!" Alexandra snapped. "It won't change anything."
Shirtliffe's expression hardened, while Alexandra looked away, startled and angry that she'd allowed herself such an outburst.
"From now on, I'd better hear a 'ma'am' at the end of anything you say to me, Quick." When Alexandra didn't reply, Shirtliffe's tone softened a little. "You could be a really remarkable witch, Alexandra. Or you could go down another path."
"Maybe I'd be remarkable going down another path, too," Alexandra said. "Ma'am."
Shirtliffe's eyes narrowed, very slightly. "Is that what you want? To be like your father?"
"Is that what you're afraid of? And you're, what, trying to save me, 'cause I'm such a troubled kid?" Alexandra shook her head. "May I go, ma'am?"
"Exercise, Monday morning at six a.m. Don't be late."
Alexandra gave her a sardonic salute, and marched off to her dorm.
Anna was waiting in their room, wringing her hands anxiously.
"Detention," Alexandra said wearily, in answer to Anna's unspoken question. "For a month. And I have to join JROC again. For the whole year."
Anna's mouth dropped open. "That's terrible!" she said, after a moment of stunned disbelief.
"At least I didn't get expelled." Alexandra threw herself on her bed, and looked up at the ceiling, while Charlie cawed, "Troublesome!" from the windowsill.
Anna walked over and hesitantly sat down on Alexandra's bed next to her. "I don't know what I'd do if you got expelled," she said.
"Probably get in less trouble."
Anna laughed softly. "Probably. But —"
There was a knock on the door to their bathroom. Before either of them could answer, Sonja opened the door. "Hi." She took one hesitant step inside. "Is it true you got in a fight with Benjamin and Mordecai Rash? And won?"
Alexandra sighed and sat up. "Yeah."
"Wow!" Sonja sounded impressed. Behind her, Carol was standing in the bathroom, but looked afraid to follow her roommate into Alexandra's room. "Do you think you could teach me some of your hexes?"
"Why, are you planning to get in a fight?" Annoyed, Alexandra got up from her bed. "I'm hungry. Let's go eat."
"Maybe we could, you know, be partners in the Dueling Club," Sonja said, as she and Carol followed Alexandra and Anna downstairs.
Alexandra scoffed. "Like Ms. Shirtliffe is going to let me join the Dueling Club now?"
Everyone stared at her when she entered the cafeteria. Word of the fight had obviously gotten around the school. Alexandra heard 'Dark Arts' and 'curses' being whispered, as she stood in line for her meal. She was sure that by Monday morning, the whole school would believe that she'd used the Cruciatus Curse on the Rashes.
Constance and Forbearance were already sitting at the eighth graders' table. After getting her meal of ham and scalloped potatoes, Alexandra walked over and sat down across the table from them. Anna and Sonja followed. Carol reluctantly joined her roommate, as far away from Alexandra as she could.
"I'm sorry," Alexandra said. "I know you wanted me to stay out of it, and I probably made things worse for you, but —"
Constance looked away, and Alexandra sensed that she was holding her tongue. Forbearance sighed, and said, "You're right, Alex, we're prolly in for it now, 'specially if Benjamin an' Mordecai sees us with you again." When Alexandra looked down, Forbearance's voice softened. "But Benjamin oughter not spoken ill of your brother... or used that word."
"What word?" asked Sonja.
"The m-word," Anna said quietly.
Sonja's mouth made a shocked little 'o'.
David entered the cafeteria, accompanied by his roommate and some other boys from Quidditch tryouts. He looked at Alexandra and gave her a thumbs-up, grinning. She rolled her eyes.
"Innocence!" Constance hissed. "Git over here!" Alexandra saw that Innocence had followed the boys into the cafeteria. She bounded over to where her sisters were sitting,
"Would you stop applicatin' David?" Constance said.
"Stay here, Innocence," Forbearance said, taking her younger sister's hand.
Innocence tried to pull her hand away, and turned to Alexandra, still wrestling with Forbearance. "That was some fearsome hexin', Alex! I hain't never seen no one deal a whuppin' like that!"
"It hain't admirable!" Constance snapped, before glancing at Alexandra, and blushing. "I mean..."
"She means don't get in trouble like me," Alexandra said. "I've got detention for a month."
"I got detention tonight, too!" Innocence said. "It's my last night. Maybe we'll have it together! Ms. Gale hain't so bad, an' I got to captain Clockworks..."
"Detention hain't s'pposed to be fun!" Constance said.
Innocence's enthusiasm was undiminished, even when Benjamin and Mordecai walked into the cafeteria, slouching and avoiding eye contact with anyone.
Benjamin's face still looked a little rat-like. The two boys got in line for their meals, never looking in Alexandra's direction. Alexandra expected they would whistle or snap their fingers and beckon the Pritchards over. Clearly Constance and Forbearance were expecting it, too, as they immediately became tense, and looked down at their trays.
Innocence, however, looked smug and unconcerned.
As the girls continued eating, the Rashes carried their trays past their table. Not once did they look in the girls' direction. Constance and Forbearance's heads swiveled to follow them. Benjamin and Mordecai sat down at the end of the table where other tenth graders were seated. A few snickers could be heard from the boys around them.
"I'm surprised they didn't lose it when they saw you sitting with me," Alexandra said.
Constance glanced at her, and back at the Rashes.
"They must've takin' a grievous blow to their pride," Forbearance said.
"They surely will be aggervated with us," Constance said. "We'll catch an earful later."
Alexandra opened her mouth to say something, but Innocence responded first. "No we won't. Them Rashes hain't gonna bother us no more!" She looked extraordinarily pleased with herself, as she stabbed a slice of ham with her fork and shoved it into her mouth.
Constance looked at Innocence suspiciously. Forbearance raised her eyebrows. "Why do you say that, Innocence?"
"Finish chewin', girl!" Constance said, as Innocence started to reply, with her mouth still full. Innocence glared at Constance, and took her time chewing her food and swallowing it, while everyone waited.
"I went an' had a talkin' to with Benjamin an' Mordecai whilst they was in the 'firmary," Innocence said at last. Her smile, for a moment, was almost cat-like. "I told 'em they best leave us be and not try to mind us no more, and not say nothin' aspersin' us to our ma and pa neither."
Her sisters stared at her. Innocence, obviously pleased with being the center of attention, waited, looking like the proverbial cat who'd swallowed a canary.
"An' why would they harken to that?" Constance asked at last.
Innocence grinned. "'Cause I told 'em if they undid us back home we'd tell everyone in the Five Hollers how they both got whupped like a Mudblood stepchild by a girl!"
"You told them what?" Forbearance exclaimed.
"Like a what?" Alexandra demanded, at the same time.
Innocence's grin faltered when she realized that now everyone was scowling at her. "I din't mean that word the way Benjamin an' Mordecai did — I wasn't callin' y'all..." Alexandra and Anna both glowered at her, and she looked down. "S'just a sayin'."
Constance was fuming. "Some sayings oughtn't be said."
Forbearance shook her head. "I plumb can't believe you, Innocence! You told Benjamin and Mordecai we'd slander them?"
"Hain't slander, it's the truth!"
"Well, fine, you jus' go make a liar of me, and they can keep overseein' us an' whistlin' us over like we was dogs!" Innocence shouted. "You'uns just go right ahead!"
Down the table, heads turned in their direction. Constance and Forbearance's mouths dropped open. They turned red, and started to make shushing noises, but Innocence stood up angrily. "I gots to clean my half of the room a'fore detention or Ouida Noel will have kittens." She looked at Alexandra. "See you tonight, Alex." She smiled at her, then gave her shocked sisters a glare, and turned around with her nose in the air and flounced off.
Constance and Forbearance were still sitting there with their mouths open. Alexandra and Anna looked at each other. Sonja's eyes were wide, while Carol was hunched over her tray, as students all around them stared. The Rashes' eyes followed Innocence as she stalked out of the cafeteria, then they looked in the direction of her sisters.
"I don't know what's gotten into that girl!" Forbearance said.
"She kind of has a point," Alexandra said, tearing off a piece of bread.
"Beg pardon?" Constance blinked at her. "Alexandra Quick, we don't need Innocence gettin' any encouragement from —"
The Pritchards turned red. Forbearance stammered, "We'd never say such a thing!"
"Or think it!" said Constance.
Forbearance nodded. "You know that, Alex."
Alexandra shook her head. "I'm sorry if you don't think I'm a good role model. I'll try not to give Innocence any more encouragement."
She rose from the table, leaving the Pritchards flustered.
Anna followed her up to her room. She said nothing as Alexandra straightened up her books and fed Nigel and Charlie. Finally, Alexandra turned to face her silent roommate. "What?"
"You're being kind of a jerk again," Anna said.
Alexandra sighed. "I didn't ask for Innocence to look up to me, and I didn't ask for that fight with the Rashes."
"You were pretty hard on Constance and Forbearance. They're just worried about their sister. And being bullied. Not everyone can just fight back and not worry about the consequences like you do."
Alexandra paused, as she shrugged off her school robe and put on her coat, and looked at Anna. "Was I wrong?"
"I don't know. Maybe the fight wasn't your fault." Anna shook her head. "But you should be gentler with your friends, Alex. And stay out of trouble."
Alex finished putting on her coat, then gave Anna a quick hug. "I'll try."
"Try harder," Anna whispered, as Alexandra left their room to go to detention.
Alexandra paused at the top of the steps that went down to the basement.
The main basement level was where Ms. Gale's office was located. They stored the school's Clockwork golems in the basement, and Alexandra knew that Charmbridge's elves also lived down there somewhere.
But below the main basement were several deeper basement levels, forbidden to students. They predated Charmbridge Academy, carved in subterranean rock ages ago. It was in May that Alexandra and Maximilian had descended to the deepest basement level, and been transported from there to the Lands Below.
Only Alexandra had come back. She hadn't been down to the basements since.
She stared downwards at the foot of the stairs, dimly lit by the basement lamps, and felt cold air blowing past her. For a moment, she felt a chill much deeper than that caused by the breeze.
But that was stupid. What was she afraid of, ghosts? Angry at herself for hesitating, she clenched her jaw and descended down the steps.
"Yoohoo! Alex! Over here!" She heard Innocence calling out to her as soon as she walked out into the basement corridor. The sixth grader was standing in front of the custodian's office, trying to levitate a push broom with her wand, without success.
Alexandra walked slowly down the corridor to join her.
"I can't move it," Innocence said, frowning. "Mr. Newton says a Levitatin' Charm don't make no nevermind how heavy somethin' is, it oughter move if your wandwork's right."
"Yeah. He's always saying things that you haven't learned to do yet should be easy."
The door to the office opened just then, and the Charmbridge custodian looked down at the two girls, frowning. Ms. Gale was a fat, taciturn woman with rosy cheeks that would have made her look friendly if she ever smiled.
"Stop playing around," she said to Innocence. She squatted to pick up the push broom, then stood up and handed it to the younger girl. "Pritchard, take the Clockworks and finish emptying out those storage rooms. Quick, I have a special job for you."
Warily, Alexandra followed the custodian into her office, and waited while Ms. Gale marched a squad of Clockworks out for Innocence to lead down the corridor. The rotund witch then went to her desk, piled high with odd jars and bottles and something that looked like a helmet, and picked up an enormous pair of goggles with dark green lenses at least six inches in diameter and two inches thick. They were attached to a leather cap and held on with black elastic bands. She held them out to Alexandra, along with a parchment with a map of Charmbridge Academy's several floors.
"Do you know what this is?" she asked.
Alexandra shook her head.
"It's a spectrescope. Ghosts and poltergeists leave spectral residue. Start in the basement — if you pick up anything on the scope, mark the location on the map and let me know."
"What for?" Alexandra asked slowly.
"Annual ghost-sweeping. We don't want any ghosts taking up residence here, or Merlin forbid, a poltergeist."
"You want me to hunt ghosts?" Alexandra was still looking at the goggles in the custodian's hand. "If a ghost wants to stay here, why can't we just let him?"
"It's not allowed." Ms. Gale shrugged. "Dean Grimm says there have been no hauntings at Charmbridge Academy for over twenty years. You don't have a phobia of ghosts, do you?"
"No." Alexandra took the goggles. "What about the lower basement levels?" she asked, with forced casualness.
Ms. Gale peered at her for a moment, blinking slowly. "Those have been sealed off. All the doors are locked and warded and spell-alarmed. Don't try to open them."
Alexandra nodded, and walked out of the office. In the corridor, she grimaced a little as she slipped on the leather cap and tightened the strap around her head. The goggles felt cumbersome and awkward. She began walking down the corridor, and had to light the end of her wand to see, with the thick glass lenses turning everything a murky shade of green.
The Charmbridge basement roughly circumscribed the floor above, in a great underground loop, but there were side corridors and bisecting corridors and a multitude of doors, some leading to storage spaces or lavatories or old abandoned classrooms, and some leading to stairs going up or down. It was maze-like and parts of it were unlit. Alexandra had gotten lost in the basements before — and Ben Journey, Ms. Gale's predecessor, had once tried to kill her down here.
Yet she didn't feel particularly afraid as she proceeded down a long, dark corridor, with only her wand and a small lamp at the other end to guide her.
She saw nothing through the green lenses of the spectrescope, even when she closely examined the doors that she knew led down to the sub-basements. No signs of 'spectral residue,' whatever that might look like. The goggles made it difficult for her to see anything, and they were uncomfortable and dorky-looking, so after shuffling around in the dark for half an hour, Alexandra took them off, and sat down in front of a set of double-doors with a hand-painted wooden sign saying 'Laundry.' She wondered if this was where the Charmbridge elves did students' laundry.
There were so many things Charmbridge students took for granted, she thought. Like clean sheets magically appearing on their beds, and their dirty clothes reappearing clean in their closets and drawers. Like food being served morning, noon, and night with no sign of the cooks. Like books in the library, left scattered on tables, being reshelved each night.
Like the staff making sure no ghosts haunted Charmbridge Academy.
After what she judged to be a sufficient length of time, Alexandra got up and made her way back towards the custodian's office. She found Innocence waving her wand in time to an imaginary band as she shouted dance calls at the Clockworks. Either the golems were not very good dancers, or Innocence wasn't very good at directing them — there was a lot of clanking and crashing as the Clockworks reeled into one another or bounced off of walls. Innocence giggled at the mayhem, then lowered her wand quickly when she saw Alexandra.
"Hi Alex! You done with your chores? What's that?" She let the Clockworks grind to a halt as she gestured at Alexandra's goggles.
"I don't think Ms. Gale will like it if she catches you making them dance instead of clean," Alexandra said.
Innocence snorted. "Ms. Gale just instructs me what to do then goes back to her office 'til detention's over. I hain't never seen her do a lick 'o work."
"Well, it's about time for us to go back to our dorms." Alexandra walked between the now-motionless Clockworks, forcing herself to ignore the slight shiver this gave her, and the memory of being seized by metal hands and carried, struggling and shouting, towards a blazing fire pit — another one of Mr. Journey's covert murder attempts when he had been the head custodian.
Innocence followed along after her. "You hain't still mad at me, are you, Alex?"
Alexandra put the spectrescope back on her head, to avoid looking at Innocence and her earnest, pleading expression. "No. But if I ever hear you use the m-word again, I'll whup you like a Mudblood stepchild."
Innocence winced. "I'm real sorry, Alex. Constance was fit to hex me to yonder and gone for that... I plumb forgot you are a Mudblood stepchil— wait, I din't mean that!" She squeaked and covered her mouth in horror as Alexandra rounded on her.
"You really don't have any filter between your mouth and your brain, do you?" Alexandra said, clenching her wand.
Innocence gulped. "Please don't curse me, Alex!"
Alexandra rolled her eyes, behind the green lenses of the spectrescope, and then paused.
"Alex?" Innocence asked, after Alexandra stood unmoving in front of her for several seconds. Behind Innocence, the Clockworks had clanked to a halt and now stood in two neat columns, equally unmoving.
Over Innocence's shoulder and past the Clockworks was a door they had passed moments ago, before Alexandra had donned the goggles. There was a faint, luminescent green glow around it. Alexandra slowly lifted the goggles from her eyes.
Innocence turned to look where Alexandra was staring. Without the spectrescope, the door looked perfectly ordinary. Alexandra slipped the goggles back on, and saw the green glow reappear.
As she walked towards the door, edging between the motionless Clockworks, Innocence followed.
"You see somethin'?" Innocence whispered. "Is them some kinda special magic goggles?" She sounded excited. Alexandra made a shushing gesture with her hand, and mercifully, Innocence fell silent.
There was something familiar about that door, but all the doors and corridors down here in the basements looked alike. It was only when she was close enough to see through the dirty glass window set in the top panel of the heavy wooden door that Alexandra felt yet another chill, this time of recognition. This was the door that she and Maximilian had taken to go down to the next lowest sub-basement level below Charmbridge.
Innocence walked directly up to it and stood on her tip-toes to look through the window. "Alex!" she said excitedly. "There's stairs goin' down! Did you know there was even more cellars below this one — ?"
"Get away from there!" Alexandra snapped. Innocence jumped and spun around. Alexandra grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her away from the door. "You stay away from any lower basements, or any stairs going down, understand? Don't be innocent and stupid!"
Innocence flinched, and then looked at her feet in a manner very similar to the way Constance and Forbearance hung their heads when the Rashes were admonishing them... or when Alexandra was short with them.
You should be gentler with your friends, Alex, she heard Anna saying.
I didn't choose her as my friend, Alexandra replied silently to herself, but she released her grip on Innocence's wrist. With one last glance over Innocence's shoulder, where a ghostly green aura still illuminated the door to the basement, she pulled the spectrescope up away from her eyes, and looked down at the younger girl. "I mean it. Don't try to go down there. It's... dangerous."
Innocence's eyes were wide with awe and dread. "Is down there where...?" She looked down again. "Constance an' Forbearance is real worried 'bout you," she mumbled. "They reckon you miss your brother somethin' terrible."
Alexandra fought the urge to smack the girl or yell at her. After several seconds, she let out a long breath.
"Yeah, I do. But Constance and Forbearance don't need to worry about me." She turned away, and began walking back the way they had been heading, towards Ms. Gale's office.
Innocence followed, but once more, she could only remain silent for a few paces.
"Constance an' Forbearance say he was right handsome," she said quietly.
Alexandra glanced sidelong at the girl. "Yeah," she said at last. "He was."
"Alex?" Innocence asked, as they continued down the corridor. She gestured with her wand, and the Clockworks resumed following them, with the clanking sound of metal feet on stone. "How do you get boys to notice you?"
Alexandra made a choking sound. "You're asking me?"
"Well, you're friends with boys, an' I only ever knowed my brothers. I hain't never been friends with no other boys an' I hain't met any boys I wanted to be friends with, 'specially not them Rashes."
"I don't blame you."
"So, how do you make friends with boys, 'specially, you know, if'n there's a boy you sorta like..."
"Why don't you ask your sisters this?"
Innocence stared at her. With a perfectly deadpan expression, she said, "You can't be serious."
Alexandra struggled to control the laughter that threatened to erupt from her. It felt raw and painful to want to laugh like that, after she had just been thinking about her brother. "Don't you think you're a little young to be interested in boys?" She gave Innocence another sideways look. "Especially older boys?"
Innocence flushed. "I din't say nothin' 'bout older boys! I'm just wonderin', s'all!"
"Uh huh." Alexandra shook her head. "Look, I'm sorry, but I'm pretty sure you aren't David's type."
Innocence turned redder. "Who said anythin' 'bout —?" She frowned. "What's his type?"
Alexandra couldn't help laughing now. "Gee, I'd say tall, dark, and..." She held up her hands and cupped them in front of her chest, with plenty of room to spare. "Like most boys."
Innocence looked down at her own chest, with a small frown. She mulled that over, until they reached the custodian's office, then asked, "Is that why David likes Angelique 'steader you?"
Alexandra snorted. "David's not my type either."
"What's your type?"
Alexandra turned around slowly to stare at her. "Do you ever have a thought you don't say out loud?"
Innocence was spared from answering by the door opening. Ms. Gale looked down at the two girls, yawning as if she'd just woken up from a nap.
"Are you finished?" she asked the two of them. Alexandra and Innocence nodded.
As the custodian stepped aside to let the Clockworks march in, she asked Alexandra, "Did you find any spectral traces?"
Alexandra handed her the goggles and the map. "No."
Ms. Gale nodded; that seemed to be the answer she wanted to hear. "Well, we'll continue tomorrow."
As she headed back upstairs with Innocence, Alexandra thought about that green glow around the door leading down to the sub-basements. She knew that by 'we,' Ms. Gale meant her — which meant, if she was lucky, that she would have plenty of opportunity to go ghost-hunting without any adults looking over her shoulder. She nodded distractedly in response to Innocence's chatter, but she wasn't really paying attention — she was thinking about the ghost in the basement.