The first week in August was scorchingly hot. With the air conditioning turned all the way up, Alexandra, Livia, and Claudia were still sweating as they gathered around the fireplace at 207 Sweetmaple Avenue. None of the heat came from the cold bricks; there was no fire. But Livia, sitting in the soft cushioned chair nearest the fireplace, wiped her forehead and sipped iced tea while Claudia and Alexandra stood next to her.
“I hope she arrives soon,” Livia said. “All this tea doesn’t seem to be cooling me off, but it is filling my bladder.”
As if on cue, a cloud of green smoke exploded out of the fireplace, covering the three women in fine, green powder. Livia calmly placed her hand over the top of her glass, to prevent any of the powder from getting in her tea, but her unprotected eyeglasses were coated instantly.
“Oh my!” A feminine voice with a lilting Southern accent spoke from within the billowing cloud. “I can’t see a thing! I do hope I’m in the right place. Alexandra, are you there?”
“Hello, Julia.” Alexandra grinned beneath the layer of green smoke. She stepped forward and grasped the hand materializing out of the cloud.
Livia pulled off her glasses and wiped them against her pants, then stood up and produced her wand.
“Scourgify!” she said, and simultaneously, Julia said, “Tergeo!”
The green dust boiled off all the surfaces in the room, including the women, streaming into the waste basket like miniature cirrus clouds. Some was drawn in a whirling vortex into Julia’s wand. In moments, the room was almost dust-free. Only a little bit of green ash still clung to their hair and eyelashes.
Julia beamed. Her hair bounced in tightly-rolled brown curls, and she had made herself up with what Alexandra thought was excessive elegance, further emphasized by her finely-patterned lavender robes. She pulled Alexandra to her, grasping her younger sister’s hand in one hand while holding her wand in the other.
“Alexandra! You are looking very well. Though I notice you cut your hair again.” She kissed Alexandra on each cheek.
Alexandra smiled. “Long hair’s a pain. I don’t have house-elves.”
Julia arched an eyebrow, then turned to the other two women. There was a pause, filled with tension. They were four sisters coming face-to-face as a group for the first time and taking stock of the sudden reorientation of their relationships.
“Claudia,” Julia said, breaking the brief silence first. Her voice was warm. She released Alexandra’s hand and grabbed Claudia’s shoulders as if to draw her into a hug, and only stopped at the last moment. “I may call you ‘Claudia,’ now, mayn’t I?”
Claudia hesitated. “Yes, of course.” She hadn’t gone into shock at the eruption of Floo powder and Julia’s emergence from the fireplace, having been prepared for it, but she still wore an expression like someone in the presence of a very large and friendly dog who had been bitten by a dog as a child. When Julia embraced her, Claudia’s face rippled with confusion and uncertainty. For a moment, her eyes met Alexandra’s, as if searching for a cue. Then she bent before Julia’s affectionate onslaught, and hugged her younger sister back, if not so fiercely.
As quickly as she’d subjected Claudia to the force of her personality, Julia turned to Livia. She paused, looking the one sister she had not yet met up and down. Livia reciprocated coolly, though her lips quirked. She had watched Julia bring both Alexandra and Claudia into her orbit in a matter of seconds, and seemed ready to see how she would greet the most prodigal of Abraham Thorn’s daughters.
“My goodness, how far along are you?” Julia asked. The way her eyes sparkled as she clasped her hands together in delight took away any sense of indelicacy in her question, and left Livia, too, disarmed.
“Almost five months,” Livia said. “I’m just starting to show.” Her hand went to her belly.
“So it will be a December birth, then. How wonderful!” Julia embraced Livia. “I am so glad to meet you, Livia, dear. I’ve only ever heard about you from Alexandra. There is so much I want to ask you.”
“Yes, well.” Livia smiled, a little bemused. “We do have a lot to catch up on.”
“Thank you for letting me Floo to your home, Claudia,” said Julia. “I’m so grateful to meet my sisters, and to visit, and — oh, I want to meet all your friends and see your town, Alexandra!”
“Remember, no magic,” Claudia said.
“Claudia, I’m seventeen,” Julia said. “In Roanoke Territory, that makes me of age.”
“But it’s eighteen in Central Territory,” Alexandra said. “And you know the Trace Office will use whatever rules screw us the most.”
“Tsk.” Julia shook her head.
“She’s right,” Livia said. “You can get away with that Cleaning Spell because I’m here; if anyone asks you can blame it on me. But don’t use your wand in a Muggle neighborhood if you don’t want yourself and Alexandra getting into trouble.”
“And don’t use it in the house either,” Claudia said. “Especially not around Archie.”
“Oh yes, when do I get to meet my brother-in-law?” Julia turned her wide, guileless eyes on Livia. “Both of them.”
Livia picked up her iced tea again. “I’m sure you’ll get up to Milwaukee one of these days.” She sipped, frowned, and ran a finger along the inside of the glass. It came away with a green film.
“Archie will be home this evening,” Claudia said.
“Didn’t you bring any luggage with you?” Alexandra asked.
“Oh!” Julia exclaimed. She drew her wand. “Why yes, I was told to signal when I was ready for them to send my bags after me. Claudia, I must use my wand for this. We can blame that on Livia too, can’t we?” She winked.
Claudia barely suppressed a wince. Julia drew a line with her wand through the firebox beneath the flue, then made a yanking gesture. With a great cough, the fireplace burst forth another gout of green smoke, this time sending plumes all the way across the living room. Three suitcases, a large bag, a purse, and a folded pink parasol were dumped onto the bricks.
Alexandra was amused if not terribly surprised by the sizable pile of luggage. “You’re only going to be here for a couple of days.”
“But then we’re going to the Ozarks! I brought some clothes for you, too. And some Muggle clothes for myself, but you’re going to have to help me choose suitable outfits. Also those books you asked for, and maybe we’ll do something about your hair.” Julia mentioned Alexandra’s hair with a sigh that conveyed disappointment and anticipation at the same time.
“Did you pack a house-elf in there?” Alexandra asked. Claudia looked alarmed.
Julia laughed, and gave Alexandra another kiss on the cheek. “Certainly not. Though Deezie wanted to come.”
Livia and Claudia exchanged looks, while Julia waved her wand again to levitate the luggage out of the fireplace. “Oh, we shall have such a splendid time! Don’t worry, Claudia — I shan’t do this after Livia leaves or when Archie is around.”
“Alex is on her best behavior,” Claudia said, more to Alexandra than to Julia. “So I hope you won’t tempt her into anything. I’d hate to cancel your trip to Missouri.”
Julia laid a hand over her chest, fingers spread. “I? Tempt Alexandra? Why, my dear sister, she’s the one who tempts me, if you must know.”
“That’s true, actually,” Alexandra said.
“And you wouldn’t be so horrible as to ruin our Ozark trip, Claudia?” Julia continued.
“Oh, she would,” Alexandra said.
Livia smiled in spite of herself.
Completely off her footing, Claudia said, “Why don’t we talk after Alex shows you to your room?”
“Yes, Claudia,” Julia said with perfect humility. Alexandra bit her lip as they went upstairs.
Julia was put in the "guest bedroom” that had never held a guest. It was upstairs next to Alexandra’s room, with a bathroom between them. It reminded Alexandra of the suite she and Anna had shared with Darla and Angelique, and later Sonja and Carol, at Charmbridge.
No sooner had Julia deposited her luggage in the guest room than she wanted to see Alexandra’s room. Charlie greeted her with a caw; the raven was in the fancy cage Livia had given them, but Alexandra had left the door open as usual.
“Why, hello Charlie!” Julia greeted the raven as cheerily as she had greeted her sisters.
“Pretty bird,” said Charlie.
Julia extended a hand and Charlie hopped onto her wrist. Julia beamed with delight. “Pretty bird,” she cooed, pursing her lips to make kissing noises at the raven. “Goodness, Alexandra, I rather expected to find your room would be messy or tomboyish or full of interesting Muggle artifacts, but…” She looked around at the bookshelves, the dresser, the bed. There were very few things, and almost no decoration. Almost everything Alexandra had collected in childhood had burned up in the fire that destroyed her house when she was eleven, and she hadn’t accumulated many possessions since then. She had books and a few photographs and some electronics, but not much to show of her life since entering Charmbridge Academy. No posters on the walls, no games or toys. A bracelet with small raven and snake charms lay on the little stand next to Alexandra’s bed. Julia picked up a small box next to it and opened it. Alexandra didn’t object to her sister’s inquisitiveness. The box contained the two pairs of earrings Alexandra occasionally wore.
“It’s a little… spare, isn’t it?” Julia sighed and turned the magic mirror she’d given Alexandra away from the wall where Alexandra had faced it. Her reflection in the glass was radiant and lovely; everything about Julia was magnified. The reflection looked at Alexandra and winked.
Alexandra shrugged. “Maybe compared to Croatoa. Most of my magical stuff is, um, hidden away.”
Julia lifted Charlie back to the bird cage, then stepped over to the dresser next to Alexandra’s bed. A glass cube sat on it, and Julia leaned forward, then picked up the cube and silently turned it about to watch the pictures that faded in and out on each of its faces.
Maximilian, their older brother, was in each picture. In some, he wore his Junior Regimental Officer Corps uniform; in others, he was dressed in the long overcoat he favored, and in a couple he wore wizarding robes. Some included Alexandra, during her seventh grade year when Maximilian had visited Charmbridge Academy from the Blacksburg Magery Institute. Others showed Max by himself or with his BMI friends.
Julia smiled, through a sheen of tears. “Oh, Martin,” she said, as Maximilian’s best friend tormented Alexandra with a hair-jinx in one picture. “He still writes to me, you know.”
“I got a birthday card from him,” Alexandra said. “And he sent me a picture when he got commissioned into the Florida Regiment.”
Julia smiled. “Me too. So handsome.” She sighed. “I wonder if he has a sweetheart. He wouldn’t tell me that.”
“He, uh, maybe he didn’t want to make you jealous.” Alexandra bit her tongue. She’d blurted it out, trying to make a joke, because she didn’t know how else to respond.
Julia turned toward her slowly, still holding the picture cube. She had the most exquisite way of expressing herself with a raised eyebrow or a twist of the lip, and now Alexandra felt herself pinned by her sister’s sad, amused stare.
“Dear Alexandra. I had a crush on Martin when I was twelve, but I am not a fool. I knew about him and Max. You did too, didn’t you?”
Alexandra gave Charlie a warning look as the raven hopped to the dresser and fixed avaricious eyes on Julia’s glittering earrings. Julia raised a finger and made a tut-tutting noise at the bird.
“I didn’t know you knew,” Alexandra said quietly. “How did you know I knew? I mean —”
“Neither of them would tell us, no.” Julia wiped a tear away with one finger. “But I was Maximilian’s sister. Of course I knew. You knew, because you were also his sister, and you are not a fool either. And you’re too much like him — keeping things to yourself that you don’t need to.”
Alexandra didn’t know what to say. Silence hung between them. Then Julia set the cube down and glided to the doorway. “Now come here and see what I’ve brought from Roanoke, dear sister. I am going to make you pretty before you introduce me to your Brian. And you must tell me if my blue jeans are presentable. I feel almost scandalous at the thought of wearing them in public!”
Livia stayed for dinner that night. Archie Green, who like Alexandra had spent the better part of ten years believing she was his stepdaughter, now had to contend with three sisters-in-law under one roof.
He was a beefy blond man with a red face and a mustache, and Julia was fascinated when he came home in his Larkin Mills Police Department uniform. She wanted him to explain all the badges and gear he wore and the tools he carried. Bemused and no more resistant to her charm than Claudia, he indulged her until she wanted to examine his sidearm. At that point, he assumed the gruff tone Alexandra was more familiar with.
“It’s not a toy.” He paused. “Although… I could take you shooting.”
“What?” Alexandra exclaimed. One of the few rules Archie and Claudia had laid down with such dire threats that even she had never tested it was the prohibition against ever laying hands on Archie’s firearms. That he would now casually offer them up to Julia not only surprised her, but made her feel an odd and unfamiliar sensation: a greenish spark of jealousy. Archie obviously liked Julia. Next he’d be letting her drive his truck!
“I meant you, too,” Archie said. “You’re old enough to learn to shoot.”
Alexandra blinked at him in astonishment.
“I would have taken you a long time ago,” he said, “but you weren’t mature enough. I learned to shoot when I was twelve, but you…”
Alexandra folded her arms. “Now I’m mature enough?” She thought about pointing out that she’d been carrying a weapon as dangerous as a gun since she was eleven, but thought better of it.
“Well,” Julia said, “I would love to learn how to shoot a fire-arm. That would be so kind of you, dear brother-in-law.”
Archie grinned. “I can take all of you to the range tomorrow.”
“No thank you,” Livia said. “I have no desire to shoot, and I have no love of guns.”
“I don’t love them either,” Claudia said.
“But you’re a good shot,” Archie objected.
“You shoot?” Alexandra felt more preconceptions crumbling.
“Archie took me shooting on our second date. He said every woman should know how to handle a gun.” The smile Claudia gave her husband was one Alexandra had never seen before. It was as if the two people who raised her had entire lives that had gone on without her awareness.
“Oh,” said Julia. “Why, how… romantic.” She looked at Alexandra as if seeking confirmation that this was indeed a courtship ritual among Muggles. Alexandra shrugged.
After dinner, Livia refused once more the offer of a fold-away bed and drove to the hotel where she was staying while she supervised the completion of the Regal Royalty warehouse renovation.
Archie kept his promise the next morning. Alexandra found the shooting range considerably less exciting than her younger self would have. She took all of Archie’s instructions seriously, and tried not to become bored when he spent half an hour repeating gun safety rules before even letting her or Julia touch a gun.
The revolver Archie gave her bucked in her hands, reminding her of her uncooperative yew and basswood wands, throwing hexes everywhere but where she pointed them. Only one of her bullets struck the black silhouette.
Archie squinted. “You did a lot better your first time,” he said to Claudia.
“It takes practice,” Claudia said.
I’ll stick to wands, Alexandra thought.
Julia was polite and attentive, but Alexandra could tell she didn’t enjoy the experience either. Archie had to keep telling her not to close her eyes when she pulled the trigger.
After the visit to the shooting range, they met Livia one more time back at the house. They had lunch, and Livia said her good-byes, promising to return to Larkin Mills for the opening of the Pruett School. She kissed Claudia and Alexandra on the cheek, but Julia wouldn’t let her go without a full embrace.
“I will write to you,” Julia said, “and I know we haven’t known each other long, but we can be sisters now, can’t we, Livia? And you will let me visit after your baby is born so he can get to know his Auntie Julia? I warn you, I intend to spoil him rotten. I’m going to compete shamelessly with Alexandra and Claudia for favorite aunt.”
“Not much competition,” Alexandra said.
Livia could not extricate herself from Julia’s embrace until she made vaguely affirmative sounds, then she said, “The spoiling really isn’t necessary. So, do you two want a ride to the mall, before I hit the Automagicka?”
With waves to Claudia, Alexandra and Julia got into Livia’s car.
“I like the dress,” Livia said.
In the back seat, Alexandra slouched. Julia, watching her in the rear view mirror, which she found as fascinating as everything else in Livia’s car, tsked. “I hope you don’t make that face when Brian tells you he likes your dress.”
“I don’t. Wear. Dresses.” Alexandra pulled self-consciously at her skirt. Julia, with her unerring eye, had brought Alexandra several perfectly-fitting outfits from Glinda’s Good Witch Apparel in New Roanoke. The proprietor had helped select appropriate wear for going out in Muggle society, and the yellow sundress with a knee-length skirt was the least appalling thing Julia could induce Alexandra to wear in public.
“Well, I don’t wear pants,” Julia retorted, “yet here I am, and it feels most unnatural, not to say unseemly.”
“It was your idea,” Alexandra pointed out. She still didn’t know how Julia had persuaded her to wear a dress while donning blue jeans herself.
“If you really didn’t want to wear a dress,” said Livia, “then I doubt even Julia could get you into one, persuasive though she is.”
Julia batted her lashes innocently, while Alexandra crossed her arms.
“You can sit there and sulk, but I think there’s a little part of you that wants to see Brian’s reaction,” Livia said. “Enjoy the movie.”
She stopped in front of Larkin Mills Mall, and her two younger sisters got out.
“Thanks for the psychoanalysis,” Alexandra said. “And, um, thanks for everything else.”
“See you in a few weeks,” Livia said. She drove away. Julia’s head craned about to take in the mall that was now Larkin Mills’s main gathering place for the town’s teenagers. To Alexandra, it seemed small and unexceptional now that she had been to Chicago a few times, though it represented a major upscaling for Larkin Mills. Julia, she reminded herself, would find even the most banal chain restaurants and discount clothing stores exotic, much as the Goblin Market had once been an otherworldly walk through a storybook for her.
“Alexandra!” The voice came from the crowd of young people loitering in front of the mall theater. Brian separated himself from a group of teenagers she vaguely recognized as former classmates of theirs, back when they had been in elementary school together. He strode over to the two girls, and stopped short as he took in Alexandra’s dress and the makeup Julia had inflicted on her. He was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, his usual casual outfit for dates, and looked a bit sheepish. After several long moments, he turned to Julia.
“Julia, this is Brian,” Alexandra said. “Brian, this is my other sister, Julia.”
“I’m so pleased to meet you, Brian,” said Julia, holding out her hand.
Brian shook it. “Nice to meet you too. You’re from, uh, North Carolina?”
“Thereabouts,” Julia said. “Alexandra talks about you a great deal.”
“She does?” Brian said.
“I do?” Alexandra said.
“Actually, she doesn’t tell me anything interesting. That’s why I wanted to meet you. So how do you like her dress, Brian?”
“Julia!” Alexandra said.
Brian looked at Alexandra and grimaced. “I want to say you look pretty, but I know how you’d react. Your sister must have cast some spell to get you to wear a dress.”
Julia’s eyebrows went up.
“You do look really nice,” Brian said.
“Thanks,” Alexandra said uncertainly. Brian took her hands and gave her a quick kiss, which prompted hoots and cheers from the kids in front of the movie theater.
“Friends of yours?” Julia asked.
“Just from school.” Brian shrugged. “Want to see the movie now?”
It was an action flick. Alexandra enjoyed it more than she expected. Julia, who was neither jaded nor self-conscious, gasped and clapped her hands at the most thrilling moments, and thus expressed all the enjoyment that Alexandra was too self-conscious to allow herself. They all shared a bucket of popcorn, and Brian held her hand.
After the movie, they toured the mall. Alexandra wanted to show Julia everything in the Muggle world, and felt embarrassed that all she had available to show her in Larkin Mills were Gaps and Radio Shacks and pharmacies and a food court with a fountain at the center.
“How do Muggles animate their drawings without magic?” Julia asked, watching a video game demo through a storefront window.
“Those aren’t drawings,” Alexandra said, glancing at Brian. “It’s… technology. It does some things as good as magic.”
Brian whispered in Alexandra’s ear: “Is that what I am? A Muggle?”
She gave him a small smile. “It’s not a bad word.” But she wondered. When she started school at Charmbridge, she had never thought of people as divided into magical and non-magical folk the way wizards did. But now she used the word as easily as Julia did. When had she started thinking of Archie and Brian and everyone else in Larkin Mills as “Muggles”?
When they sat down in the food court and Brian went to get hamburgers and drinks for all of them, Julia turned to Alexandra and said, “He’s a very nice boy.”
“Yes,” Alexandra said. “We’ve been friends forever.”
“And you still treat him like a friend. A friend you share kisses with. But you aren’t mad for him.”
Alexandra shrugged. “I’ve never been mad for anyone. Do I have to be?”
“Of course not. But if I can tell you don’t return his feelings as strongly, he probably can too.”
Alexandra looked across the food court at Brian, who smiled and waved to her from the line. “Livia said I don’t handle boys well.”
“Oh, I think you handle boys fine.”
“I can’t feel something just because someone wants me to. Or even because I want to. I’m not lying to him.”
“No, you’re not. I didn’t mean to imply there’s anything wrong with how you feel, dear Alexandra.” Julia slid her hand across the table to press it over Alexandra’s. “I just hope you don’t withhold your heart for reasons other than, well, not feeling mad about him.”
“What do you mean? What other reasons?” Alexandra stared at her sister. “You don’t mean because he’s a Muggle, do you?”
“Certainly not!” Julia’s eyes searched hers. She seemed about to say something else, but Alexandra caught sight over Julia’s shoulder of Brian approaching their table, and someone else approaching as well.
Brian went sprawling, the hamburgers and cups of soda flying across the tiled food court floor, as a larger boy’s foot tripped him only a few feet from the table where Alexandra and Julia sat. Brian jumped to his feet to face Billy Boggleston, who was accompanied by his friend Gordie Pike. Alexandra looked quickly around to spot Tom Gavin, Billy’s other wingman, but the third member of the bully trio didn’t seem to be present.
“Whoa, man, so sorry!” Billy said, with effusive counterfeit remorse. His broad face was fleshy but not completely given over to fat; beneath his football jersey was a bulky body that owed as much to lifting weights as food court meals. He’d grown rapidly in the past few years, and though he was the same age as Brian and Alexandra, they were both scrawny kids compared to him. Gordie, not quite so brawny, was still much bigger than Brian, who balled his fists up as he faced the two boys with a dripping shirt.
Alexandra stepped forward and reached into the pocket where she carried her wands, before remembering with dismay that she had no pockets; the sundress afforded nowhere to hide a wand, and after being without one for weeks, she had gotten out of the habit of never leaving the house unarmed.
Julia had tried to add a purse to Alexandra’s outfit, and Alexandra now regretted rejecting the suggestion. Mental notes concerning ways to insert magical pockets into a sleeveless dress, or learning Livia’s trick of tucking a wand down her front, cycled through her mind, alongside a plan of action to deal with Billy, before Julia caught her arm and held her back.
“You’re a jerk,” Brian said, shaking soda droplets from his fingertips. “You did that on purpose.”
“Prove it,” Billy said. “Whatcha gonna do, cry for help?” He stood in a not precisely threatening posture — fights in the mall got you expelled from the premises and permanently banned — but he had invaded Brian’s space, and his smirk was that of a bully secure in his invincibility. He finally took notice of Alexandra and did a double-take. “Damn. You almost look like a girl, Quick. Nice chicken-legs.”
Brian’s face turned red. He trembled and jerked forward as if about throw himself at the larger boy.
“Brian,” Alexandra said, trying to think of a way to prevent him from getting his ass kicked without humiliating him.
Then Billy’s eyes fell on Julia, and he did another double-take. “Um, hello.”
“And who are you, may I ask?” said Julia, confronting the bigger boy with her hands on her hips.
“Uh, my name’s Billy.” If a person could deflate without the aid of magic, Alexandra was sure Billy would have shrunk visibly in Julia’s presence.
“Do you have a last name, Billy?”
Billy shuffled, his eyes going from Julia to Alexandra, and back to Julia. Alexandra didn’t miss his eyes traveling up and down Julia’s figure. “Boggleston,” he said. “Billy Boggleston.”
“Well, Billy Boggleston,” said Julia, “I think you’re very ill-mannered, and I’ll thank you to look me in the eye.” She snapped her fingers in front of her chest. Billy’s face resembled a beet as his eyes snapped to her face. “Did your mother raise you to be a clumsy-footed, bad-tempered oaf and cast lewd gazes? You are in a public place. Is this how you prefer to be seen conducting yourself? I can’t imagine many girls find that attractive, but I suppose you don’t care about that.”
“I, uh, I, that’s not, what are you, look, it wasn’t…” A jumble of fragmented sentences tumbled out of Billy’s mouth; he couldn’t seem to find an ending to any of them.
“Are you going to apologize or not?” Julia demanded.
“Sorry?” Billy said, as if offering the word for approval.
“To Brian. And to Alexandra.” Julia pointed to each of her companions in turn.
Billy mumbled something inaudible between his teeth, then gathered a scrap of composure. “Uh, who are you?”
“My name is Julia, but it’s ‘Miss King’ to you. I am Alexandra’s sister.” She folded her arms. Billy and Gordie looked back and forth between Alexandra and Julia, mouths hanging open. Brian stood next to Alexandra, dripping and glowering, but as hapless as the other boys before Julia.
Alexandra, impressed in spite of herself but unwilling to let Julia take complete command of the situation, said, “The other clumsy-footed oaf is Billy’s lackey, Gordie Pike. And yes, they are very ill-mannered.”
Gordie and Billy both bristled.
“Well, I’m sure they didn’t mean to be,” said Julia.
“Since when do you have a sister?” Billy blurted out.
“Not like it’s any of your business,” Alexandra snapped.
“Since she was born,” Julia said. “That’s what ‘sister’ means, Billy Boggleston.”
“You’re not from around here,” Billy said.
“Brian, why don’t you go dry off your shirt,” Julia said, dismissing the other two boys merely by utterly disacknowledging their presence, as effectively as if she’d cast a Banishing Spell. “I’ll get us more hamburgers and soda. Look, I have Mug— that is, money.” She reached into her back pocket, which drew Billy and Gordie’s eyes back down to the tight fit of her jeans, and pulled out several folded bills. “Allow me please, Alexandra?”
“Okay,” Alexandra said. Billy and Gordie, rendered into mute bystanders, watched as Brian retreated to the restrooms while Julia entered the fast food line as if practicing for her Apparition License. Alexandra was left standing at the table while an unhappy employee in a polyester uniform, not much older than her, shuffled over with a mop to clean up the mess. Alexandra caught Billy staring at her, and said, “What?”
“Your sister is hot,” said Billy.
“Get lost or I’ll put a curse on you.”
“Yeah, right.” But Billy and Gordie both flinched slightly, and the two of them shambled off — not in the direction of the restrooms, but toward the mall exit, thus allowing Alexandra to sit slowly back down at the table and ponder just who had “won” that encounter, and whether Julia had been trying to save face for Brian or for her.
Their movie-date over, they walked back to Sweetmaple Avenue from the mall. Julia commented on everything while Brian held Alexandra’s hand and occasionally answered a question about Larkin Mills.
“It was really nice to meet you,” he said to Julia. “It’s cool finding out Alexandra has sisters.”
Alexandra didn’t think “cool” was his initial reaction, but any resentment he felt at the information she had withheld from him seemed to have been melted away by Julia. She would just have to hope the information she was still withholding from him would not also come to light; Brian could not, would not, be told everything.
Julia gave him a kiss on the cheek. “And I was delighted to meet you, Brian Seabury. I will be visiting my sisters again, so I daresay this will not be the last time we meet.”
Alexandra frowned at Julia’s use of the plural. Brian didn’t notice, as he was checking a text on his phone. He groaned. “Great, Bonnie is missing. Again.”
Julia glanced at Alexandra. Alexandra said, “His sister. I thought you might meet her, but…”
“She was already grounded — again — but she left the house while Mom wasn’t looking, and now I’m supposed to find her,” Brian said.
“Oh dear,” said Julia. “Should we help?”
“Do you have a spell that will find her?” Brian asked.
Julia raised her eyebrows. Alexandra said, “Brian…”
“I know, I know. I was kidding.” Alexandra wasn’t sure he was kidding, but he leaned in to give her a kiss. Alexandra kissed him back. “Don’t worry about it. Enjoy your trip to Missouri.”
Alexandra could hear the curiosity in his words, but he kept it off his face. She had been vague about the upcoming trip. He could probably guess it had to do with the wizarding world; he was learning not to ask too many questions.
Alexandra and Julia had scarcely returned to their rooms when Alexandra changed out of her dress and put on pants and a t-shirt. Julia knocked on her door, then entered her room having changed back into a dress.
“Pretty bird,” said Charlie in greeting.
“That was much more exciting than visiting the Muggle village on the island,” Julia said. She wiggled her fingers in front of Charlie and allowed the raven to peck at them affectionately. “Claudia said tomorrow we can visit the hospital, and Archie offered to give us a ride in his police car.”
Alexandra couldn’t help smiling at Julia’s enthusiasm for the mundane. “I think the Ozarks will be a lot more interesting than Larkin Mills.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s true, and I know everything here is quite ordinary to you.” Julia spoke lightly, but she sat down on the edge of the bed with a serious expression Alexandra had come to associate with important matters weighing on her heart. “Alexandra, would you really have drawn your wand on that boy if you’d remembered to bring it?”
Alexandra grimaced. “I’m such an idiot.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Julia said.
“I’ll never leave home without it again.” Alexandra wondered where the best place to hide a sheath beneath a sundress might be. Well, no matter — she didn’t think she was going to wear it again.
Julia’s face fell. “Oh, fie. I was hoping you were chiding yourself for wanting to hex a foolish Muggle, but you have a habit of learning the wrong lessons, dear sister. You do realize how much trouble that would have gotten you into?”
“I wouldn’t really have hexed him,” Alexandra said. “Probably.”
“And how would Brian have felt if you had intervened, with magic or not?” Julia asked.
“Are you saying I should have just let him face Billy because it would hurt his pride for me to intervene?”
“Well, yes. And also that he didn’t need your help.”
“Yes, but I’m older — practically a grown-up — and I’m not his girlfriend. Really, Alexandra, you don’t handle boys well.”
Alexandra frowned. Julia had dated a little, but they shared all their escapades, so Alexandra knew exactly how much experience her older sister had with boys — which was even less than her.
“Never mind that,” Julia said, as if sensing the direction of Alexandra’s thoughts. “It’s not precisely what I wanted to talk about. Tell me, if you do fall madly in love with anyone, what will you do?”
Alexandra was prepared for Julia to ask her almost anything, but she was not prepared for a question like that. “Um, I don’t know. I don’t even know what that would be like. I do really like Brian. And I care about him. I mean, you could say I might kind of love him, maybe?”
“Hmm. Perhaps.” Julia smiled. “But when you look into the future, do you see yourself more than kind of maybe loving someone?”
Alexandra made a strange face. “Why are you asking me this, Julia?”
Julia’s smile faded, and she studied Alexandra for a long, tense moment. Her fingers tapped nervously on the edge of the bed. Charlie hopped onto her shoulder and the bird peered inquisitively at her and then Alexandra.
“I am terrible at subterfuge, aren’t I?” Julia said at last.
“I guess so,” Alexandra said, “since I don’t even know what you’re getting at.”
Julia sighed. “You must promise not to be angry, Alexandra.”
Alexandra sat up straight in her chair. She snapped her fingers, and Charlie immediately fluttered off of Julia’s shoulder and landed on hers. “Angry about what?”
“Do promise,” Julia pleaded.
Alexandra’s nose wrinkled in annoyance. It seemed very unfair to her to ask her to promise not to be angry about something before she knew what it was. Of course she couldn’t imagine what Julia could have done to make such a promise necessary, and with all her own transgressions raw in her mind, she couldn’t deny the request. But it took her a few seconds to gather her thoughts and answer.
“Okay, I promise.”
Julia scooted closer to her. “I have been exchanging letters with your friends.”
Alexandra stared at her. “My friends? Who —?” Suddenly suspicion and realization dawned. “Anna?”
“Anna,” echoed Charlie.
“Anna sent me an owl first. Out of love and concern for you, Alexandra. She was terrified — she still is — of your reaction.”
Alexandra’s heart sank as her temper rose. “Oh, no she didn’t.”
Julia clasped her hands before she could pull away. “You promised. You must not be angry with me or with Anna or the rest of the Alexandra Committee.” She put a hand to her mouth, unable to suppress a slight giggle.
Alexandra stared at her mutely. Julia’s expression immediately became more serious.
“I told you, I am not a fool, Alexandra,” she said quietly. “I knew something happened to you after you tried to use Valeria’s Time-Turner to bring back Max. I knew something more than grief and guilt weighed heavily on your dear, brave heart.” She squeezed Alexandra’s hands. “Yes, they told me about your ‘bargain’ with the Generous Ones and the pronouncement of the Stars Above.”
Alexandra’s teeth clenched together. “They had no right.”
“Troublesome vexes, Troublesome woes,” Charlie said mournfully.
“They had no right, but they had every reason,” Julia said. “And if you feel betrayed that for your sake they went to me, your sister, imagine how I feel that you would tell all your friends but not me. Was it because you didn’t trust me, or because you think so little of me that you didn’t think I could be as helpful as a bunch of sophomores?”
“That’s not fair,” Alexandra said.
“Fair! Fie on fair! Oh, let me guess — you didn’t want to ‘hurt’ me.” Now Julia’s eyes lit with unexpected fire. “Anna has alluded to this line of thought; you prefer to carry burdens all by yourself and decide for others what burdens they are fit to carry. Well, Alexandra dear, haven’t Livia and Claudia taught you the harm in carrying secrets?”
“Some secrets should be kept.”
“Some,” Julia agreed. “But the fact that you expect to have only six years to live? Didn’t you think you’d have to share that with me eventually? When did you plan to tell me? After you’ve defeated Death and the Generous Ones and the Stars Above, I suppose?”
Alexandra closed her eyes. Julia sat still, and even Charlie did likewise. After Alexandra didn’t say anything for a time, Julia leaned forward and put her arms around her younger sister.
“So now you’re a member of the Alexandra Committee,” Alexandra muttered.
Julia laughed. “Indeed I am, Alexandra. And we are going to save you.”
Alexandra opened her eyes. “You can’t tell Claudia. Or Livia. Or your mother. Or —”
“What about Father?” Julia asked quietly.
Alexandra shook her head. “Especially not him.”
“Still determined to keep secrets from as many people who’d help you as you can?”
“How could Claudia or Livia help me? Julia, it’s more important than just me.”
She didn’t know everything, Alexandra realized. The Alexandra Committee had kept some secrets… at least, secrets they didn’t trust even to ciphered messages sent by owl.
“What do you know about —” Alexandra hesitated, then slipped out of Julia’s embrace and grabbed a pen and notebook sitting on her desk. She flipped it open to an empty sheet of paper and wrote:
The Deathly Regiment
Julia’s brows knotted together in puzzlement.
Alexandra crumpled up the paper and tore it into tiny pieces, dropping half of them into the wastebasket and keeping the rest clenched in her fist, to be disposed of elsewhere.
“We can’t talk about this here,” she said.
Julia folded her arms and her brow furrowed skeptically.
“When we all meet, in the Ozarks, and we’re allowed to use magic again, we’ll talk about it there,” Alexandra said. “But don’t ask any more questions until then. Okay?”
Julia considered this, then nodded slowly. “Oh-kay,” she drawled.
I’m going to kill them, Alexandra thought, with anger, exasperation, relief, and worry all stewing together. Her promise notwithstanding, she and her friends were going to have words. And she wondered what their father would think of her sharing what she knew with Julia. No doubt he’d have words for her, too.