It was Christmas Day 2055 and Kivrin scarcely even noticed. To her it was a day just like any other day. Just like every other day since last Christmas, seven hundred years ago.
After returning home from the Middle Ages, Kivrin had sunk very quickly into a severe depression. She'd stopped going to classes, stopped socialising, stopped taking care of herself. Her hair that had been cut short as she had fought off her fever back in the past had grown out again now, but it had grown unevenly, bereft of a stylist's care. She hadn't brushed it for weeks either, and what had started off as tangles were now dense knots that would take hours to shift. In a way, she looked more dishevelled now than she had upon her return.
She had good days and bad days, of course. On her good days, she'd possibly take a shower and get dressed. On the exceptionally good days, maybe she'd even leave the house for a short time. Today was not a good day, though. She hadn't had any good days in about two weeks. Today was a day of never getting out of bed, a day of running the same events through her head over and over again until she was so wrapped up in them that she forgot everything else.
She should have died, she thought, as she lay face down on her pillow. She felt that with absolutely unshakable conviction. She didn't really believe in fate; as an historian she knew too much about the way time worked to be able to entertain that sort of fantasy. Even so, she couldn't shake the feeling that there, in the middle of the Black Death, it had been her time. She should have cared for the sick and the dying before succumbing herself, as Father Roche did. She would have done, too, had it not been for her improved immune system and enhanced T-cells. She'd been too thoroughly exposed to the virus for even the slightest chance that she might not have picked it up.
But she hadn't died. Fate had played one last cruel trick on her by letting her live, and she hadn't a clue what to do with the reprieve she'd been granted. And so it was that she spent her Christmas doing her default activity: absolutely nothing.
It was Christmas Day 2056 and Kivrin wasn't in the mood to celebrate. 2056 had been a better year for her than 2055, certainly, but the thought of ever celebrating Christmas again seemed like a cruel mockery. Instead, she was throwing herself into her work. She'd transferred her main area of study away from the Middle Ages and was now studying the 19th century instead. It didn't have so many painful memories associated with it. She had no intention of ever using the net again, though. She was perfectly content to study the written record and the accounts of other historians who visited the period.
As she read through some papers in a back room of the Bodleian searching for some information about equipment requisitions during the First Boer War, she heard the sound of bells ringing from outside. Rationally, she knew that they were ringing out in celebration of Christmas, but in her head, all she could think was that they were tolling for the dead. For Rosemund. For Roche. For Agnes. For those she had met but never learned their names. For millions of others across Europe.
Let the bells toll, she thought. It seemed only fitting. For her, today was not a day of celebration, but a day of mourning and remembrance.
She put down her work, closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. She remembered them. It was all she could do for them now, and she wasn't going to disrespect them by doing otherwise.
It was Christmas Day 2057 and Kivrin was nervous. One of the things about shutting yourself off from the rest of the human race, she had learned, was how hard it was to open yourself up again afterwards. With a bit of persuasion, she'd agreed to spend this Christmas at Mr. Dunworthy's. It was only going to be a small affair -- five or six people total -- but it was going to be what Mr. Dunworthy had referred to as a "proper Christmas". A tree, presents, roast turkey dinner, the lot. The kind of Christmas she'd not had for four years.
She hadn't wanted to come, but here she was now, standing at the door watching her breath freeze in the air. She knew that she had made the right decision by coming here. The longer she kept up her self-imposed exile, the harder it would grow to bring it to an end. Once she was back into the swing of things, socialising would be easier, but there had to be one social event that was her first one back. This was that event. Knowing didn't make it easier for her, though.
She could feel the adrenaline surging through her body, goading her brain into a fight or flight reaction. Going home now would be so easy. All she'd have to do was turn around and retrace her footprints through the snow. Ten minutes walk and she could be back in bed. How can she explain a refusal to socialise like she'd had? How could she explain that she was ready to start socialising again now? How could she explain that her head still wasn't right, but that it was better than it had been?
Kivrin had no idea how she was going to explain any of this. All she could do was tell herself that she wasn't going to have to. She thought of who was going to be there: Mr Dunworthy, Finch, Ned and Verity, possibly Badri if nothing came up to detain him. These people were veterans of the time travel program, in one way or another. These people carried their own scars; certainly none of them had had to live through what she had done, but they'd all been through their own travails. Most importantly, these people were her friends. They would understand.
She drew up all her courage and rang the doorbell.
It was Christmas Day 2058 and Kivrin was hard at work. It had been slightly over three months since Mr. Dunworthy had told her the news. One of the theoreticians over at Oriel had authored a paper speculating on whether there were any circumstances under which a person could be an historically nonsignificant object and brought back through the net. When she'd heard of this, Lady Schrapnell had decided that it was a marvellous idea and that someone must try it immediately. Or rather, she'd decided that someone must succeed at it immediately. She viewed failure as one of those things that happened to other people.
That was the project that Kivrin was working on, examining the notes and images in front of her and making precise corrections. Getting up and stretching, she decided it was time for a break from what she was doing. She went through to the small kitchen just off the lab she was working in, boiled the kettle and then put a pot of tea on to brew. As she waited for it to steep, she sat down and thought back over the last three months.
It had been Mr. Dunworthy's idea that they might be able to save one of the people Kivrin had met. After all, what could be more historically nonsignificant than a person about to die, surrounded by other people about to die, all of whom would be long-decomposed before anyone else interacted with them? He'd seemed reluctant to suggest the idea to Kivrin, and she understood why. Her experiences over the last few years had given her a new comprehension of his tendency to worry. Even when she thought he was worrying over nothing, she appreciated how much he cared for her.
He was right, of course, that having to relive all the memories would be harrowing. And he was right, of course, that if it ended up not working then it would set her back years. She knew this better than anyone. He'd be wrong, though, if he'd thought that it wasn't worth the pain or the risk. To her it was worth any amount of pain and any amount of risk, no matter how long the odds were. She'd leapt on the idea. She wouldn't have been able to live with herself if she hadn't tried.
She hadn't stopped working ever since. She'd read everything she could find on the subject of bringing items back through the net, researched what had and had not worked, and discussed it in depth with anyone willing to listen. She'd taken lessons in advanced maths so she could do some of the calculations involved herself. She'd been filled with such a monomaniacal enthusiasm for the project that even Lady Schrapnell had trouble keeping up with her.
She hated having to take breaks. Time not spent working always felt like a waste. What if the thing she could have accomplished in those ten minutes turned out to be the single detail that pushed them over the line from failure to success? Even so, she knew that it was for the best. She had to be able to stay focussed and alert, and couldn't risk making sloppy errors by overworking herself. She'd read up on how to structure breaks for optimal efficiency as well.
She went to check on her tea. It wasn't quite ready yet, or at least not as strong as she really liked, but it would do. She poured herself a mug, and added a generous amount of milk to cool it down so she could drink it quicker. Taking a break was one thing, but she wasn't about to take a longer break than she absolutely had to.
The plan was to try to bring Agnes back through the net before she died. The plague may have been deadly back in the fourteenth century, but it was no match for twenty-first century medicine. If they could bring her back alive, the medics were all confident that she could make a full recovery. The difficult part would be bringing her back alive.
Kivrin had seen her die. She knew that whatever the plan was, she was going to have to see her die again. Anything else would create a paradox and the net wouldn't open. After researching various options, they'd decided that the best hope of success would be if they took Agnes a day before she died, and replace her with a synthetic body with a holographic emitter and an audio system. It wouldn't be good enough to fool anyone who was looking closely, but nobody would be looking closely. Everyone had been exhausted or dying or both. The synthetic body would then be buried in Agnes's grave and decompose before anyone could discover the anachronistic technology.
This was the theory anyway. Now that it was only a few days before they made the attempt, Kivrin was far too busy to celebrate Christmas. She finished her tea and went back through to the lab. She'd already double and triple checked most of the details, and now she just had to make absolutely sure that the synthetic Agnes was exactly as it should be. This was the hardest part.
It wasn't difficult for her to know which details were right and which needed changing. The sounds and images of Ages dying were etched in her mind forever, there to be relived whenever she wanted to see them, and sometimes still when she didn't. Seeing the memory laid out in front of her like this, though, was the emotionally hardest thing she'd done since she came back to her home time.
She cried unashamedly as she worked, looking through her tears to make notes on which bruises were slightly off in size or hue, and which bloodstains were marginally out of position.
It was Christmas Day 2059 and Kivrin was happy. As she stirred the porridge for breakfast, she heard movements from upstairs. That would be Agnes waking up and emptying her stocking.
She was still amazed by how quickly and seamlessly Agnes had adapted to life in the twenty-first century. She'd always known that young children were adaptable, but she hadn't known just how adaptable they truly were. Papers would be written about this in the future, she had no doubt. But not yet. There was no way she was letting any researcher near her Agnes just yet.
She sometimes wondered just how much of her old life Agnes really remembered. They talked about it sometimes. Kivrin didn't want to ever have to lie to Agnes about who she was or where she came from. Even so, she wasn't sure whether Agnes viewed it all as a dream, or whether she thought that travelling seven hundred years into the future was the sort of thing that happened to all children.
Kivrin was looking forward to the day ahead more than she'd ever looked forward to any Christmas in her life. She was adamant that Agnes would enjoy her first Christmas in her new time. Her first proper Christmas, as Mr. Dunworthy had said. She couldn't wait for Agnes to open her presents. She knew she'd love all of them from the small telescope to the book of mythology. Most of all, though, she was looking forward to seeing her face light up as she opened the beautiful blue dress she had bought her. The fabric was finer and the dye brighter than even royalty had when Agnes was born, and Agnes knew that and was grateful for it. Kivrin would have her wear the dress this afternoon when they went over to Mr. Dunworthy's for their Christmas dinner. She was also going to put Agnes's hair up and tie it with ribbons. It made her happy beyond measure to be able to offer these simple things that Agnes never could have had otherwise.
Kivrin was broken from her reverie by the sound of her adopted daughter bounding down the stairs.
She bent down to give Agnes a hug and wished her a merry Christmas. The hug she received in return was the best Christmas present she'd ever had.