It was mid July, and I’d spent the bulk of the last few weeks decorating the townhouse, and reading. So much reading. I explored my neighborhood more, finding new restaurants to get takeout from, and a tiny, delightful dessert shop with homemade ice cream that I stopped at more times that I wanted to admit. Their cardamom rose pistachio gelato was my new favorite thing in the world.
For the most part, I’d been by myself the last few weeks. Dom had started working full time after getting back from her Paris trip, and though we hung out in the evenings when she was free, we weren’t getting as much time together as we’d hoped. To make up for it- we were planning a two week trip to tour Italy and Spain at the end of August before my schooling began again.
Harper and Lily spent a lot of time at the Potter’s house, and at Diagon Alley. The opposite of what I had with Dom, most of the time I had with my sister was in the morning. We had a new routine of eating breakfast together at the island. She made the coffee, and I made the breakfast. It had been a really good time for me to experiment with new recipes, our current favorite was a mushroom quiche loaded with fresh parsley and carmelized onions.
James was in and out a lot, spending a lot of time training with the Cannons, and preparing for the upcoming season. I both loved and hated our time apart. In a way, it had probably been a good thing for us to keep some distance so we didn’t spend our entire summer bound at the hip, staying in bed all day. I’d end up pregnant at that rate, and that wasn’t something either of us was in any way ready for. Still, I missed him. A lot. He’d been gone more than we’d anticipated.
I’d actually spent a lot of time with Al, which had been nice. I no longer wanted to be alone in my life, and he was a good person to spend time with. We were similar in personality and Al was the only person I was close to that enjoyed going to bookstores and museums as much as I did.
Life had fallen into a routine, which was about to get interrupted. It was almost time to go to Ridgeview and visit Ava, see how she was doing and what the recommendation was about her coming home. I was so anxious about it all, frequently waking up with panic attacks.
I didn’t feel ready to have her come live here, especially given how much James and Dom were gone. Shoving us together after all that had happened felt like it would be too much, which of course made me feel massively guilty, and awful. She was my sister, and though I hadn’t heard much from her since she went to the school, I got simple reports from her teachers. That added to my anxiety, because though I knew for certain that she was sober, she wasn’t very open during therapy sessions.
A big part of me hoped that meant she’d have to stay. I couldn’t help her, that much seemed obvious, and Harper had flat out told me that she wouldn’t work on her broken relationship with Ava if our sister returned this summer. I’d tried to get her to vocalize why she felt so strongly about staying separated, but Harper refused to talk about it. I’d started to think I should make her go to therapy too, but didn’t want to upset the balance we’d found. She and I were closer than ever, and she was opening up to me about a lot of things she’d never bothered to talk to me about before.
We hadn’t talked her possible sexual orientation, because I really didn’t want to bring that up. I hoped that by showing Harper she could count on me, that eventually, when she was ready, she’d talk to me. If indeed there was even anything to talk about.
I looked at the clock, and then to the fireplace. Al was coming over again today, and spending the night. Tomorrow morning, both of us were going to Ridgeview. Part of the few days we’d spend in Colorado would include a bunch of visits with Ava, and I figured she’d be happiest to see her old friend. We were going to travel to Colorado via a special Floo network, starting at the Ministry. From there we’d go to New York, and then to Colorado.
Ginny, who had taken Ava in the first place, had told us to expect a draining journey. Traveling that quickly over such long distances wrecked the body, so on her recommendation, we were arriving in Colorado two days before my meeting at Ridgeview so we could acclimate. I’d gotten us a nice hotel in Boulder, which was the closest large city to the school.
I saw a flash of green, and Al stepped out of the fireplace, a travel bag thrown over his shoulder. He smiled at me, but I saw the dark circles under his eyes. “Thanks for letting me crash here tonight.”
“Of course. I know I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad you’re coming with me. I couldn’t do this alone.”
“James made sure to remind me that I’m to keep you away from American boys.” He said with a chuckle. “He feels bad that he can’t go with you.”
“And he’s slightly worried that I’ll meet someone else?” I responded. “He didn’t tell me any of this.”
“You’re the first girl he’s ever really cared about, and now you’re traveling to another country without him.”
“To check up on my sister that was banished from school because of drug use. I’m nervous, are you?” I asked, changing the topic. It was sweet that James was worried, but it was not what I needed to think about.
“Yeah, I’m nervous about seeing her. I hope she doesn’t mind that I’m coming.”
“She doesn’t, I told her. I think she’d rather see you than me.”
He grunted, dropping his bag by the stairs and walking back into the kitchen. “I’m gonna make tea, would you like some?”
“Sure.” I settled on the chair and waited for the water to boil, pleased that he’d finally made himself comfortable here. “You all ready for our trip across the sea?”
“Got clothes, hiking boots, books, and my camera. I’m all set. Should I bring Ava anything?”
“I’m glad you asked, they said we could bring gifts if we wanted, but they’ll need to clear it first to make sure it’s okay. They run a pretty tight ship there. I was going to make a batch of her favorite cookies, and spell them to stay fresh until I can pass them off. What did you have in mind?”
“Tea. How very British of me, right? I want to remind her of home, and what she can come back to.”
I sighed. “That’s what the meeting is about, if she’s ready to come back. I want her to … but I also don’t want her leaving a controlled environment unless she’s actually ready. I’m an awful sister.”
Al placed a cup of tea in front of me, and I smelled the floral white tea he favorited, that I started stocking here. Everyone in my family had a favorite, and I was amassing quite the collection - black, green, white, and herbal. “You’re not awful Charlotte. She needed help, you did what was right. It’s up to her to come back, to home and to herself. That’s what I worry about most, I feel like she’s still going to be angry.”
“We’ll find out in a few days, won’t we?” I said back.
Colorado was quite stunning, and Boulder was an amazing town to wander around. Ginny had been right- the trip here had been brutal on us physically and we experienced whatever the magical version of jet lag was. Al in particular was quite taken with the mountains, and I could tell that regardless of what happened with Ava, I had a feeling he’d want to come back here and explore more.
It was scalding hot the day of the meeting, and both of us were grateful to be heading into the mountain peaks after breakfast, just to feel cool air again. I hadn’t slept much the night before, giving up on the idea entirely about 4:30, and sat on the deck of my hotel room, looking up at the clear night sky.
Al and I didn’t talk much through breakfast, making it back in time to meet our escort. Apparating required knowing where you were going, and since we’d never seen the school, and Al couldn’t even do it yet- a teacher was coming to meet us, and then he would take us there. We only needed it the first time, the next time we went, Al could hang on to me while I apparated.
When he was nervous, he was still as a statue, so different from James, who fidgeted like crazy. I alternated between bouncing my leg, tapping my fingers on the desk, and forcing myself to still while we waited. A loud pop sounded, and person appeared in the room.
“Charlotte Gray, I assume?” He said, smiling.
I nodded, taking him in. He was very tall, and broad shouldered, with light brown hair and a beard that a lumberjack would be envious of. Pale blue eyes took me in, meeting my stare. “Sorry, yes I’m Charlotte.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Professor Harwing. I’m the outdoors teacher at Ridgeview, which I gather is something you don’t have at Hogwarts?”
“No. The closest we have is Care of Magical Creatures, which takes place outside. Very dangerous stuff.” I said with a smile, turning to Al. “This is our friend Albus. I was told it was alright if he came along to spend time with Ava while I’m meeting your Headmaster?”
“Headmistress, and of course. Whenever you both are ready, we’ll head out.” He held out both arms, his muscles rippling under his shirt. Maybe he was a lumberjack hiding underneath nice clothes. I held tightly onto his forearm, watching Al do the same on the other side, my other hand tightening on my bag.
The hotel room disappeared in a flash, and I felt that familiar pressure on my body as we travelled, arriving a moment later to an open field of wildflowers. I sucked in a breath as we looked around, staring in awe at the sight before me. I thought the school was near the mountain peaks, but it was actually midway down one of the mountains, the property settled on a very large valley, dotted with grassy fields. Horses dotted the landscape, and I spied other farm animals at the edge of small lake. The school itself was on a large ridge overlooking the grassy plains, backing into a flat stone wall. It reminded me of a mountain chalet. Warm wood, with lots of windows, it was two stories tall, boxes of flowers outside every window. At the edge of the field sat small stone cottages that reminded me of Hagrid’s Hut at Hogwarts, on a smaller scale.
In my mind, even though I’d seen pictures, I was imagining something that looked more like a prison. But this … it looked like heaven. It was warm and welcoming, and stunning really. Maybe it needed to be so that it didn’t feel like a prison, because everyone here wasn’t here voluntarily. This was a rehabilitation center.
Al looked awestruck. I couldn’t stop staring either, the mountains rising all above us, the peaks heading into the clouds, still dusted with snow even in July. He broke the silence first. “This is remarkable.”
“It’s never what people imagine, but we’ve found that living in beauty, and privacy, can often help with some of the mental challenges our students face. Come, let’s get you to your meeting.”
“Where’s Ava?” I asked.
He pointed towards a worn wooden fence that were keeping all the horses on the property. “Your sister has taken quite a liking to the horses here. She’s at the edge of the pasture there, by the barn, brushing off Athena. That horse is her favorite, she says it reminds her of something from home but won’t tell me what.”
“My owl is named Athena.” I said, surprised.
Professor Harwing smiled slowly, nodding. Albus looked to me and then walked off. “You’ll get a chance to see her later Charlotte. She was too nervous to meet you in person.”
“I’m her sister though.”
“From what I gather, you two have had a complicated relationship. Being family doesn’t automatically make everything easy, or better. In my experience, it makes it harder. Students here always do better with friends than family. There’s too many expectations in a familial unit.”
“Sounds like you have some experience with that.”
“You may know this, but every teacher here has been where Ava has been. We’ve all been taken in by the darker side of magic, and are here because we know the mental and physical battles these students face. It wouldn’t work otherwise.”
I was a step behind him, heading up the wide steps, onto the even wider deck, and through the double front doors. I noticed the large hand woven rug just past the entrance, a swirling mass of dark and light colors, then I looked up and my jaw dropped again. Outside was pure, rustic countryside with wood and stone. Inside, it was purely contemporary. Lots of brass, and glass, and blonde wood accents. Plants were everywhere, but it wasn’t cold. Brightly colored rugs covered the wood floors, and abstract art covered the walls.
“This place seems like an expensive retreat, not a rehabilitation school for wayward witches and wizards.”
Professor Harwing was interrupted from replying by someone calling my name. “Charlotte Gray, I presume? I’m Headmistress Helem. Welcome to Ridgeview.”
I turned to see a very striking woman at the foot of the stairs. Tall and willowy, with sharp bone structure, she should be terrifying, but she looked like your best friends Mom. The kind of woman that was always baking, that would always listen to you speak, and was always prepared to give a hug.
“It’s nice to meet you Headmistress. Your school is quite lovely, not at all what I was expecting.”
“Let’s go to my office and speak. Thank you Gregory.” She nodded to the teacher next to me, leading me up the stairs, carpeted in an ivory and gray geometric pattern. We turned left at the top of the stairs, and I was led down a long hallway to a set of double doors at the end of the hall. Her name was emblazoned on the door in a silver plaque.
Once I passed her, she shut the doors behind us, walking past me to sit behind her large desk. I settled in one of the comfy chairs across from her, my eyes drifting to the purple orchid on her desk, in full bloom. I’d always loved the delicate flower.
“So, Charlotte, let’s talk about Miss Ava.”
I leaned back in surprise, expecting small talk and pleasantries before getting down to it. “Oh, of course.”
“I don’t mean to sound rude, but I’ve learned that it’s best to not beat around the bush. You aren’t here so I can ask what you think of the weather, or my design choices. You’re here because your sister was sent to us, to help her.”
“How is Ava?” I hated that my voice wobbled, but I felt like a child all of a sudden.
“I know this is a lot for you, you’re only eighteen, right?” When I nodded, she continued. “This is a lot for you, but I’d like to keep this simple, and be a little blunt, if that’s alright with you.”
She smiled at me, linking her fingers together, before settling her warm green eyes on mine. “I’m sure you’re wondering, now that Ava is reaching the end of her sixty days, if I’ll recommend her staying or moving on?”
“Yes, I have been wondering. Her letters haven’t filled me on much, so I really can’t say I know how she’s been doing.”
“Academically speaking, Ava is doing remarkable. I had her transcripts from Hogwarts before she arrived, and knew that she was intelligent and somewhat gifted, especially with Transfiguration and Potions. She’s been dedicated in her classes, has done well with her exams. Ava has quite taken to helping with the horses, and other animals, so she’s become quite close with Professor Harwing.”
“So she’s doing well? Does that mean she can come …” I stopped when she held up her hand.
“Part of being at this school is attending private and group sessions. Every student here, most of them are around Ava’s age, have been deposited on our doorstep because of misuse of dangerous magic, drug use, self harm, you name it — we’ve seen it. Really, we have tri-fold of expected behavior here. It’s a requirement to attend academic classes, to assist in the running of this school via chores, and to participate in therapy. Ava has shown great progress academically, and has surprised me with wanting to stay busy helping with chores. However, she has refused to open up during therapy sessions. She has refused to admit to any wrongdoing, and refuses to admit that she has a problem. I take it you’re familiar with that attitude.”
I sighed, slouching with something akin to sad relief. “You could say that. She’s always been very stubborn, and very proud. Both of our parents could be described that way, so I can’t say who she takes after, not that it matters all that much. What does it mean, that she’s not participating?”
She reached across the desk, and laid her hand gently on mine. I got a gentle whiff of her perfume, and even that was warm and welcoming, the scent reminding me of a fuzzy white blanket, or your favorite sweater. Something like white blossoms, figs, and hazelnuts.
“It is my recommendation that Ava remain at this school. How do you feel about that?” She asked bluntly, though her tone was very gentle. It was odd, her entire demeanor was some combination of soft, fluffy puppy and gale force winds. “Please, be honest with me Charlotte.”
I looked at her, and bit my lip to keep from crying. “Honestly, it’s a relief to hear you say that. It’s not that I don’t love Ava, I do, and when she’s ready … when I’m ready honestly, I want her to have a place at my home. Neither of our parents care much about the three of us, so we’re all the other has. I want to help Ava, but I struggle to imagine what I can do to keep her clean and healthy if she leaves here too soon.”
“You’re response is better than most of the parents I’ve talked to. Intelligence must run in your family Charlotte. Ava is a tough cookie, but she’s also very fragile and vulnerable. It’s very clear that your upbringing has dealt a significant amount of damage, which is why she’s here. She doesn’t talk about it much, so we have a hard time piecing together the best ways to help her. But, and I truly believe this, she is finding some healing by being here. Especially with the horses, it’s remarkable. I’ve never seen her happier than she is when she’s riding, or caring for them.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I didn’t know what to expect today.”
“I wish I could tell you I thought Ava could return to England, and spend the rest of summer with her family and friends. We don’t want to keep anyone here. I want her to return to Hogwarts, because she belongs there. However, she also needs help. And distance, from whatever it was that was hurting her.”
“Could I take her out to dinner?” I asked, startling myself with the question. Where had that come from?
“If you’d like. We also have a private wing here that is used for family visits, to provide a sense of normality without leaving the grounds.”
“I’ll let Ava pick.” I muttered, looking down at my lap. “What happens to Hogwarts, in the fall. It’s only about six weeks until term starts, will she be ready then?”
“That’s up to Ava. I’m in touch with your former Headmaster, who is taking my advice into account, much like you, about her future. I do not think she’ll be ready to return to Hogwarts in six weeks.”
“When could she return?”
“I believe they will be happy to let Ava back after Christmas break, provided she has made significant progress here. She could also make a move to another school if that seems a better fit.”
I looked around her office again, staring out the floor to ceiling windows, and to the stunning view of the grassy fields and the lake glinting in the bright, afternoon sunlight. I drew in a deep breath, letting it out in a quick breath. “Is everyone that comes here so … broken? For lack of a better word? I don’t mean to sound like I don’t care, I’m just trying to understand.”
She smiled, and pushed a box of tissues to me. I hadn’t realized I’d been crying, but there was a tear ready to drop down my face, another one behind it. She also pushed forward a carved bowl full of chocolate candies.
“Take one, please. I’ve found that chocolate always helps. To answer your questions, yes, everyone that comes here is broken in a way. But being broken doesn’t make you bad, or unworthy. Most of these kids that come here have been dealt a bad hand and didn’t know how to deal with it in a healthy way, or even in a non-self destructive way. They’re hurting, but they’re not bad. Broken isn’t bad, it just means you fight more battles than anyone realizes. Most of the kids that leave here, they go on to live happier, healthier lives, but they always carry internal scars. It’s the nature of life.”
“Does it help me to think of her as broken?”
“Admitting you think you’re broken is often a good first step to take. Without recognizing what you feel about yourself, you’re never going to fix anything. Ava just needs to open up here, and she’ll find healing. All the magic we possess Charlotte, and we can’t fix these kinds of things. It takes a strong spirit and a drive to want a different life. She doesn’t want a different life yet. So, as I said, I believe she will be best left here. That is, of course, your choice to make. As her official guardian, it is your call, since she’s still underage.”
I stared out the window again, following the line of the fence down to the barn. “I’m over my head here, so if you recommend she stays, I’d like to keep to that recommendation. However, I’m happy to take advice on how to tell her so she doesn’t hate me.”
She looked at me, and I saw pity in her eyes, but understanding as well. “My biggest piece of advice to you dear, remember that you can’t control the reactions of other people. If Ava wants to be angry, she’ll be angry, but I think she’ll be relieved. As much as she misses her sisters, and I promise you she feels that way, she’s not ready to face all that yet. She’s smart enough to know she’s where she should be, she just needs to give in and open up, and that’s our job to figure out. Keep sending her letters, send her gifts, tell her you love her and that whenever the time is right, she has a home with you- as long as that’s the truth- then tell her.”
“You’ve been very helpful, Headmistress Helem. Thank you.” I stood up, feeling like my time with her was over, and holding my hand out. She smiled back, but refused my handshake, instead coming around the desk to hug me. It was a maternal kind of hug, but very different from Ginny’s. When James’s mother hugged me, there was a fierce protectiveness there. When Miss Helem hugged me, it was like being draped with something fresh out of the dryer, warm and instantly comforting, but gentle.
“I’ll keep writing to you of her progress.”
“Thank you.” I repeated, and led myself out of her office, shutting the door quietly behind me. That was that- Ava was staying, and I felt horrid all over again as the relief washed over me. I walked down the stairs, unsure where to go next, until I saw Professor Harwing waiting by the door.
“Albus and Ava are riding the horses in the pastures. I thought we’d go down there and you could see her.”
I nodded, and followed him back into the bright sunshine. “I asked the Headmistress if I could take Ava out to dinner, and she said it was okay, but that there was also a wing here. Should I tell my sister it’s non-negotiable, or should I let her decide if she wants to spend more time with me.”
“I’d let Ava decide, and then follow that.”
“You do like to be blunt around here, don’t you?” I asked, laughing quietly.
“It works better than you’d think.” He stopped to smile at me. “I have other things to attend to, but they’re just down there. If you’d like to come back again before you leave, just send me a fire message.”
He turned and walked away before I could say anything, and I clenched my fists at my side, drawing in a breath of clean, mountain air. It was time to see my sister. I walked down the gravel path to the fence, looking out towards the tree line. Al and Ava were riding towards me, distant figures for a bit until they got closer.
Ava looked — happy. I’d never seen her look like that before and wanted to cry with relief. On top of a dappled Appaloosa, my sister looked relaxed and healthy, laughing with Al. She’d gained weight, and it was only when she got even closer that I realized she’d cut her hair into a bob, the look hidden underneath a black cowboy hat.
Albus nodded in my direction, smiling, looking relaxed himself. That’s when Ava noticed it was me. They rode up, stopping just on the other side of the fence. Ava slid off her horse, tying the reins loosely around the post. Her expression was hard to read when she turned to me.
“Hey Charlie.” She said, quiet.
“Ava.” I replied, smiling. I laid my hand on the horses neck, patting gently. “I hear you’ve become quite fond of the horses. You always did like them as a kid.”
“They’re easy compared to people. They don’t want anything from you but food and love. How’d it go with Miss Helem?” She asked nervously, leaning into her horse. Albus led his horse further down the fence, letting it graze on the tall grass.
“How about we have dinner tonight, in town, or here, and we can talk. Catch up, I want to know how you’ve been doing.”
Her eyes narrowed for a second, and I saw that familiar anger burning back at me. “I’m sober, that’s what you wanted right?”
I took a deep breath before responding. “I wanted you to get better, to find happiness again, and yes, I wanted you to get sober and stick with it so you didn’t throw your future away.”
“So your letters have said. I don’t want to sound mean Charlie, but I don’t really want to do dinner. I don’t want to pretend we’re something we’re not, and you and me, we’re not close. I do believe you care about me, but you’re not what I need right now, so I really hope Miss Helem told you that I can stay. I like it here.”
“This isn’t a resort Ava, and this isn’t meant to be a replacement for Hogwarts. You belong at school, with your friends, with Harper.”
“Harper? The sister that won’t even talk to me because she’s so pissed that I dared to screw up?”
I sighed, again, pinching the bridge of my nose. “That’s not why she’s mad at you! Ava, come on. You can’t be mad at us, we didn’t do anything.”
“That’s kind of the point, you guys never stepped in to help before all of this happened. You just watched and waited, and then dumped me here.”
“Mabye, on some level, you’re right. But Harper, she’s younger than you, and I’m not much older than you. It was never supposed to be our job to keep you from those choices. You made those choices, not us, and it’s not fair for you to blame me, or her, for what you did to yourself.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at me, and all thoughts I’d had about a tentative reunion vanished in that moment. She was never going to let me in, at least not for a while, so there was no point.
“I have things to get back to, so you should probably leave now.”
I glared back at her, unable to stop the anger from showing. I’d wanted to remind her that I loved her, and that I was here for her, but what was the point. I couldn’t do anything if she wouldn’t let go of her anger towards me. “I want you to get better Ava, so that you can live the best version of your life possible. If that won’t include me — fine, but I’ll sleep better at night knowing you’re sober and away from bad people, even if you want to keep hating me for it. This could have been so much worse … this place, it’s your chance to have a better life for yourself Ava. I hope you’re thinking about what will make you happy beyond all this, because at some point, you’re going to have to enter reality and work hard at getting the life you truly want.”
“Words of wisdom from a girl that just last year was a total nobody, and now you’ve bagged one of the most eligible men in the European Wizarding world.”
She was still on the other side of the fence, but I stepped closer, the worn wood pressing into my body as I leaned forward, tapping her near her heart. “You know what Ava? I decided last year that I wanted to change my life, and I did. James didn’t just fall into my lap. I decided I wanted a different life, and I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone more times than I can count in the last twelve months. Literally all I want from you is for you to decide the same thing. What do you want, and more importantly, who do you want to be? Your call.”
I couldn’t leave in anger, and laid my hand on her shoulder, trying to smile through my annoyance. Albus was walking back towards us, looking between us like a referee watching a match. “Ava, you need to get to class, right?”
She finally turned her vicious gaze away from me, her body instantly softening when he touched her. “Yeah. I need to leave. It was good to see you Al, are you going to come up again?”
“I don’t know, but keep writing me, yeah?”
They hugged, and I waited. I had to see what she’d do. She turned to me, and pursed her lips, then grabbed the reigns and walked towards the other horse without so much as a verbal goodbye. She just looked over her shoulder at one point, her shoulders slumped, and her face a mess of tears.
“That was awful.” I said, turning to Al. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah.” He said sadly.
We left Colorado the next morning, two days early. As beautiful as this city was, I couldn’t stay anymore. My words to Ava rang through my mind, I had created a different life for myself, and I wanted to get back to it.
I left hoping that eventually, she would stop hating me.
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