Winner of the June 2018 Writing Contest!

 Jul 15, 2018
Winner of the June 2018 Writing Contest!

Our prompt for June was: 

Your character receives a dirty old postcard. Curious, they attempt to wipe off the dirt and suddenly find themselves inside the postcard somehow.

We received some wonderful stories, but Anu Varik's story excelled in making us laugh, feel, and cry. Don't miss this poignant piece below. Great work, Anu!

The winning entry:

Untitled

The card was delivered on a Sunday, which should have been a warning sign.

Principal Wright, however, had been grading papers for sixteen hours straight and had lost the sense of time – as well as his will to live – halfway through. He picked it up absentmindedly and frowned when he saw the dirt. Determined to have some harsh words with whoever confused his mailbox with a greenhouse, he brushed it off and –

"Son of a b-!"

Principal Wright cut the swearing short, regaining his composure.

He took a deep breath, watching it mist before him in the cold, crispy winter air. Feeling less than confident, he snapped his fingers. A little spark appeared, but flickered out quickly in the wind rising around him.

He sniffed. There was some sense of magic currents in the air. Most likely they were the strings keeping the little world together, but it was enough for a little comfort. Calculating between expressing his anger somehow and not freezing his toes off, Principal Wright prioritized and conjured a pair of warm, furry boots.

They appeared on his feet, nice and cozy and pink.

He snorted. No graduating class had a sense of humor above the level of a five-year-old and their pranks had just gotten worse over the years. Sighing, Principal Wright turned the postcard in his hands, trying to determine if it had anything more pressing to threaten him with than hypothermia.

The postcard showed a beautiful little snow-covered field – the one he was standing on – with a dark line of pines and firs in the background. There was a little cottage standing right at the edge of the forest, with a frozen lake to the right. Obviously there was smoke coming from the chimney and light, fluffy snow fell, because clichés were equally important to the graduating classes.

The other side of the card was empty. He tapped against it, but nothing happened.

"Talk," he commanded, in case it was voice-activating.

Nothing.

"Speak up or I'll flunk the lot of you."

The letter finally appeared, in a neat, careful handwriting that spoke of Andrew Harper's involvement. That was... comforting, at least. With the valedictorian in play, the chances of an accident dropped significantly. A few years ago, Mr. Lewis had nearly died when he fell into a literal chasm because someone – they never revealed who – couldn't convert distances between the magical trap and reality properly. With their magic weakened, the faculty had had to resort to physically pulling Mr. Lewis out of the hole, forming some strange human chain to do so. It had actually brought them closer together and begun the tradition of using these magic-less realms for team-building exercises.

Dear Principal Wright, the letter said. Welcome to this year's senior prank. The fact that you're reading this means you fell for it and we're very proud. We hope you'll be joined by many of your colleagues.

The cottage in front of you has some necessary equipment and food. In case a lot of you show up, we suggest you ration it. You're welcome to hunt, of course.

We'll lift the spell on Wednesday. We don't actually expect to be able to hold you off that long, but if we do, we feel like we're entitled to graduate cum laude in corpore.

Best of luck!

Principal Wright stuffed the postcard into one of the pockets of his bathrobe and looked around. The nerve of those little bastards! Cum laude in corpore... Three days... Who did they think they were? The best attempt had lasted eight hours because the prank sprung in the middle of a birthday celebration and most of the teachers were drunk. They'd kept the festivities going for six before seriously starting to look for a way out. The setting, a private tropical island, had helped too.

That class had been quite clever, since they'd obviously counted on the teachers not wanting to leave immediately. And the island had been great. It had taken a lot out of him to not ask for a recipe of that place, but he'd have rather streaked nude through the graduation ceremony.

These ones – these ones were trying to test themselves.

Principal Wright was impressed. The inhospitable environment said they weren't trying to set a record by cheating creatively. Andrew and the rest undoubtedly knew the teachers could break out any minute if they really wanted to, but none of them had ever chosen that route. That would have been admitting defeat.

He pulled the bathrobe tighter around himself and started wading through the snow.

***

"Nice footwear."

He'd expected as much. Mrs. Mason always ended up taking part of the pranks and always arrived first. The former was due to her genuine, keen interest in the particular trap and its workings. She even gave the seniors feedback later. The latter was due to the fact that she barely ever slept. In Principal Wright's mind, there were fading memories of trying to sleep on the couch, listening to her pacing in the library, soft footsteps on the carpet so as not to wake him, turning pages as quietly as she could although she was furious with him...

"They're not mine," he said.

Mrs. Mason chuckled, lowering the book in her hand a little to look at him. She was sitting curled up in a nice, comfy armchair, a white scarf draped over her shoulders. Unlike him, Mrs. Mason was dressed and washed and her hair was done up. And of course she was reading. Principal Wright was certain that she was physically incapable of being without a book for more than an hour.

"I figured," Mrs. Mason said. "What's the excuse for the bathrobe?"

Principal Wright glared at her, stomping his feet to get rid of the snow that had clung to him.

"You gave this to me," he pointed out.

"Yes," Mrs. Mason nodded. "Ten years ago. Why do you still have it?"

Instead of answering, he walked over to the happily crackling fire and let the warmth wash over him. The weather in the postcard really was biting. Wind had picked up as he had walked, now rattling the windows of the cottage.

It wasn't as bad as he'd thought, though. The fire kept the small space cozy enough, striking that perfect balance between freezing and blazing. The room itself was quite lovely, with a wooden floor that smelled like pine and bookshelves lining two entire walls. There was a large table and quite a few chairs, although not nearly enough for all of the teachers. It was going to get crowded.

"Are you the first here?" he asked, walking over to the bookshelves.

"Yes," Mrs. Mason said from her chair. "I trust we won't be alone for too long, though. Mrs. Evans was just telling me the other day that she was definitely not missing this one. It's her class, after all."

Principal Wright nodded, running his fingers over the backs of the books neatly arranged in long lines of black.

Every single one of them was a copy of his dissertation. Or, as Mrs. Mason had called it –

"This really is the most boring book ever written, Richard."

He turned to find Mrs. Mason grinning, refusing to look him in the eye and pretending to read.

"That joke will never get old," he grumbled. "And you need to stop telling people that the reason why we divorced is because I made you read it."

Mrs. Mason laughed.

"It certainly didn't help," she said.

He watched her for a long moment, listening to the wind howling outside and wondering if they should go and look for the others. Some of them were quite old and not exactly the type to take hikes across treacherous terrains.

Principal Wright was also thinking that the best course of action to take with Mrs. Mason was to not say anything stupid, which coincidentally included everything he wanted to say. Naturally, it was the worst of those ideas that manifested.

"You're no longer wearing black," he said after a long moment.

Mrs. Mason's smile disappeared like sunlight behind clouds. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, she lifted her eyes to him.

"No," she replied. "It's been a month since Edward's funeral, after all."

Without waiting for a reply, Mrs. Mason got up. Principal Wright could see that she was tempted to throw his dissertation on the table in frustration, but her respect for books won out. She set it down gently and grabbed a coat that had been hanging on the wall.

"I'll go look for the others," Mrs. Mason said. "See if you can find some clues in the meantime."

"I'm sorry I didn't come."

The door slammed shut a bit harder than it could have, proving that even Mrs. Mason wasn't always perfectly in control of her temper.

Principal Wright dragged the armchair closer to the fire and sat with a sigh. He was feeling ridiculous in his bathrobe and bright boots. Mrs. Mason had a coat. It either meant that she had been prepared for anything or that she'd recognized the trap and got dressed appropriately before springing it.

Either way, she'd done better than him.

Edward Mason had been a nice man. Principal Wright had met him once, maybe twice. He could no longer remember. Mrs. Mason had told him everything she thought he needed to know, all in one go, listing his qualities from best to worst like she was grading him. Principal Wright had appreciated her attempt to be honest and forward with him.

It hadn't worked. He'd thrown a complete fit unbecoming of a man his age. They'd nearly burned the school down. Most of the damage was his doing. Afterward, at their hearing, Mrs. Mason had accepted her share of the blame and fought like a lioness when the committee wanted to drive him away.

"He's a danger to the students," one of them had said.

"He is dangerous and he has students," Mrs. Mason had replied. "That is the extent of how those two things are related."

"We really don't feel comfortable–"

"And you shouldn't. I once saw Principal Wright hold back a tsunami with sheer force of will and little else. He stood there like Moses in his prime and I thought the same thing then – what if he wanted to create the wave one day, not tame it? I can you tell what I know now. Magic is wild and uncivilized by nature, but he is not. I think that's important in a principal. The students behave better when they know their lecturer can literally turn them inside out. Won't, but can."

"That's just terrible, Mrs. Wright."

"So is magic. Now let us be done with this nonsense. I let you speak your mind, but this school, after all, belongs to me."

The memory of that day still warmed his heart.

Time, however, was a-wasting. Principal Wright leaned back, closed his eyes and let the magical currents of the world speak to him. It was an odd experience, being in those tiny realms. The natural flow of magic was smooth and seamless. This one was sewn together by human hands and it showed. The real world was silk. The fake one was rough cotton.

And something was wrong. Principal Wright dug deeper.

After ten minutes, he had a hunch of what it was. After twenty, he was sure, and went to look for whiskey.

***

Mrs. Mason came back when he was finishing his second glass. The blizzard raging outside threw the door wide open and the cold swept inside. Mrs. Mason jammed it shut quickly, brushing snow off her coat. Before it melted, the snow glistened in her auburn hair.

The resemblance was uncanny, but Principal Wright knew by then that it wasn't a coincidence. She looked almost exactly like she had twenty three years ago, walking down the aisle on a winter day, a sheepish smile on her lips, blushing. Mrs. Mason was meticulous, but Astrid had been young and untrained. She'd tried to make her hair glossy and overdone it completely.

Cold had put the same kind of red on her cheeks as embarrassment had back then.

"Put the kettle on, will you?" Mrs. Mason said, smiling like nothing had happened before. "The weather out there is quite something. I hope there are more cottages. Maybe our goal is to find each other? They haven't tried that before."

Principal Wright got up and moved over to the tiny kitchen area. The variety of tea in the cupboard came down to one choice, just like the books.

"They only have peppermint."

Mrs. Mason snorted, hanging her coat on the wall and rubbing her hands together.

"I forgot my gloves," she said, adding: "Peppermint is fine. Those damn brats. I think they're trying to rile me up. First your book, now this. It's like I'm stuck in a limbo where everything is tolerable, but irritating."

Principal Wright thought that was a fairly adequate description of the situation. He started looking for cups and found exactly two. Before Mrs. Mason could see, he tapped once against their rims and only then put them on the table.

Mrs. Mason stared.

"Mr Right and Mrs Always Right," she said, rolling her eyes. "Funny. Really funny. But they have a point. We should control out tempers better when we're debating. I let you get the better of me last week with the water transformation issue."

"Agreed," Principal Wright replied. "We need to be professional. I apologize for last week. I was losing, so I provoked you."

"I knew it!" Mrs. Mason said victoriously. "I'm glad you admitted it. Mr. Davies owes me a fiver. Have you checked the fridge?"

"Not yet."

Mrs. Mason went to look. The contents of the fridge made her groan.

"Take a guess," she prompted. "This one is meant for you."

"Tuna salad," Principal Wright said at once.

"Yes. Loads of it."

"Bring it on," he said. "If you can handle peppermint, I can deal with tuna."

They didn't say much while the water boiled and Mrs. Mason set the table. When at last they were both seated and two cups of hot tea were cooling between them, Mrs. Mason spoke up.

"I didn't just go for a walk," she said. "I tried to look for a way out too. I have to say, this one is quite tricky. There's something very strange about it. Like a puzzle where some of the pieces don't match. I can't figure out if they're brilliant or if they've been clumsy."

"It's not them."

Mrs. Mason stared at him.

"What-?" she asked.

"It's not the graduation prank," Principal Wright said, drumming his fingers on the edge of the table. "I don't know whether to be furious or concerned, but it's not the seniors. It's made to look like it's them. Maybe some of them are even involved. But once you reach deeper underneath the facade, you see that this world is held together by much more advanced skills."

Mrs. Mason was frowning, but she closed her eyes and her hands started moving through the air like she was conducting an invisible orchestra. The motions weren't necessary, but Principal Wright knew they helped her concentrate. Between the two of them, they both knew he had the raw talent and strength, while she had the better mind. Mrs. Mason had always thought she had gotten the short stick. She hated that she had to rely on tricks like that to do magic and he hated that she didn't know she would have been fine without them.

For that reason, he didn't raise the question of why she always had to double-check him.

Instead, Principal Wright sat and waited and watched as her eyes eventually snapped open and narrowed dangerously.

"What in the name of... What is going on here?" Mrs. Mason asked, then added: "I can't believe you figured it out before I did."

Principal Wright shrugged.

"I have a much more suspicious mind," he said. "But there were clues."

"What clues?" Mrs. Mason demanded. "Are we in danger, Richard? What do you know?"

"We?" Principal Wright asked, baring his teeth in a wild snarl. "No. Our esteemed colleagues are, once I get my hands on them."

Mrs. Mason shook her head.

"I don't understand," she said angrily. "You know I hate it when you're being vague on purpose. Tell me what's happening."

"For some reason, the entire faculty has joined forces with the seniors to create this place. The others aren't here, because it's meant for just you and me. They're trying to Parent Trap us."

It had been a while since he'd seen Mrs. Mason speechless.

"That's just... absurd," she said after long moments of just gasping for air.

"I agree."

"Are you sure about this?" Mrs. Mason asked. "You have a very active imagination."

"Positive," Principal Wright replied.

He tapped the cups again, removing his spell. Once more, they said Mr Wright and Mrs Always Wright.

Mrs. Mason went through several emotions very fast. First, there was surprise, then fury and finally the same kind of calm that had fallen over him. She took a careful sip of her tea and started on her salad. Principal Wright did the same.

"I've never been so insulted in my life," Mrs. Mason said between two bites, in a maddeningly serene voice. "I can't even say which is more offensive. The fact that they think we're just two pencil pushers they can keep trapped here – or that they think they know what's good for us better than we do."

"I think it's the fact that they thought we could work it all out in three days."

Mrs. Mason chuckled, nodding.

"You're right," she said. "I'm guessing that if we really tried, we'd be able to compile a list of issues by then."

She considered something for a second.

"Do you think we should try to talk some sense into them?"

"I have nothing to say to them," Principal Wright said. "The nerve to do something like this... To poke their noses in our business? Whether or not we would ever consider trying again, it's not their damn choice to make."

Mrs. Mason's fork froze mid-air.

"Richard..."

There was a warning note in her voice. Principal Wright raised his hands placatingly.

"I'm not trying to start anything," he said. "I'm saying whether."

"There is no whether," Mrs. Mason said firmly. "There is no if. Richard, we've been over this. We're getting along. The school is in one piece. Don't ruin it."

He'd expected as much.

"Why?"

The look in Mrs. Mason's eyes went from warning to outright threatening. She put her fork down, leaned back and stared him down, arms crossed over her chest.

"You know why."

"I know the list of reasons is long and quite terrible," Principal Wright said. "I know nothing about it being eternal and unconquerable."

"Stop this," Mrs. Mason said quietly. "Right now. Don't play into this charade."

"What if I-"

"No."

The word was final. Very final. A heavy, tense silence settled over the cottage. Flames crackled in the fireplace, but outside, it sounded like even the storm was holding its breath in anticipation.

Principal Wright broke the staring competition and went back to eating.

"As you wish," he said, his voice softer than before. "The second you want to leave, let me know. I will break this miserable cage in half."

Mrs. Mason reached across the table and touched his hand, forcing him to look up again. Her eyes were wide and every bit of anger had dissipated.

"I'm sorry, Richard," she said gently. "I truly am."

He took her hand and lifted it to his lips. Mrs. Mason smiled sadly.

"Don't be," Principal Wright said, letting her go. "You have nothing to be sorry for. You gave me every chance in the world and I kept throwing them away."

"It wasn't all you, you know," Mrs. Mason said. "I'm just as stubborn. So let's not assign blame."

She reached further along the table and pulled her own postcard closer. On it, the cottage stood peacefully and there was no blizzard. That was clearly meant to keep them cooped up together.

"What are we going to do about this, then?" she asked. "Can you really break us out? Just like that, with brute force?"

"Yes."

Mrs. Mason chuckled again.

"You are the most arrogant man I know. You're only redeemed by the fact that you're mostly able to follow through. Are you sure this time? It's us against all of them."

"I'm sure," Principal Wright said with an ominous grin. "The only question is whether I'll turn their brains to porridge when I go through them."

"I'd rather you didn't," Mrs. Mason said, drinking her tea. "Those people used to be my friends."

"And what are they now?"

"People I work with."

It was Principal Wright's turn to laugh, but the tightening in his chest felt like he was crying. He wasn't the type of man to laugh freely. Other than Mrs. Mason, he could have counted those who'd gotten a chuckle or more out of him on one hand. She achieved that so easily.

"The students will be disappointed, of course," Mrs. Mason said. "When they find out we haven't been giving it our all during these pranks."

"They'll be fine," Principal Wright told her. "The pranks were always puzzles, not wrestling matches. They know they can't keep us locked up if we don't want to be."

Mrs. Mason nodded.

"I suppose that's true," she agreed, pushing her empty bowl to the side and looking around. "It's a pity, you know. I quite like the place. I was excited for this. Surviving in the wild, just us against nature... Such an improvement over that goofy island. I always wanted a house like this for my golden years."

"I know."

Maybe it was the fact that peppermint tea made Mrs. Mason sleepy. Or that it was hard to recognize something she didn't expect. Or maybe she was just having a slow day. Whatever it was, the truth dawned on her at last and this time, the silence dug deep into the roots of the little world. For the first time in ten years, Principal Wright saw her eyes well up. Mrs. Mason swallowed hard and he followed her gaze as it swept across the cottage, taking it in with a whole new perspective.

"This is it, isn't it?" she asked. "This is the house."

Principal Wright hadn't heard Mrs. Mason's voice shake in a long time either.

"Yes."

"The house you kept promising me?"

From her voice to her hands, Mrs. Mason shook with rage. Furious tears were running down her cheeks now. She pushed her chair away from the table and stood, unable to stay still, pacing around the room. Principal Wright wanted to go to her, but he made himself stay seated. Whiskey had helped him through the shock – compared to that, walking was much healthier.

Mrs. Mason reached out and pressed her hand against a wall. Her shoulders were trembling.

"It smells like pine," she whispered. "Everything smells like pine and the armchair is in exactly the right shape and I can hear the forest and... this is cruel. This is so cruel! How dare they!?"

Now Principal Wright got up and went over to her, but Mrs. Mason backed away.

"That is how you knew, isn't it?" she asked, wiping away the tears that just kept coming.

He knew how much she hated being that vulnerable in front of him.

"Yes," he admitted. "From the moment I got here, this place felt familiar. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, because the house never really existed. I only made promises and never got around to it, because there was always more work to be done with the school. I thought that you cared more about that house than this one and by the time I realized I was wrong, it was too late."

Mrs. Mason said nothing as he gestured to the room in general.

"They got some of it wrong, of course," he continued. "It's built from bits and pieces. From memories of me telling them what I wanted it to be like. You have no idea how strange this is. I told a tale and someone else illustrated it."

"How could think that this is okay!?" Mrs. Mason asked. "Or that this would somehow help? To try to force us to make up in the midst of some sick farce of our broken dreams? And fill it with this damn mockery?"

She had picked up the copy of his dissertation that she'd been reading before.

"They stuffed this place full of these stupid little things we tore each other apart for! Who cares that you don't eat tuna? I didn't have to make it to spite you. What kind of a petty person does that? Who lets a bloody fish become a problem in their marriage? And the tea... How many times did you make me drink it although you knew-"

Mrs. Mason trailed off, breathless.

"I thought it would help you sleep," Principal Wright said.

"I know," Mrs. Mason sighed tiredly, taking deep breaths to calm herself down. "I know, Richard. It did, and it tasted horrible. And for the life of me I can't figure out why I didn't just tell you no or why you kept pushing."

She used her scarf to dry her eyes. Then she looked at him seriously.

"The thing you joked about before?" Mrs. Mason said. "Do it."

"Do what?" he asked.

"Rip through them."

Principal Wright hesitated. The temptation was great, but he'd already missed one warning sign that day. Mrs. Mason urging him to do something irresponsible was an alarm bell louder than the blizzard that was picking up again.

"You don't mean that," he said.

"Yes, I do," Mrs. Mason insisted. "And I know you can. We never told them how strong you actually are. We never told anyone. You can trap them in their bad choices, the arguments over trivialities that pick everything good apart, piece by piece... Let's see how they like it."

"I will not."

It hurt to see her looking at him with disappointment again. It brought memories rushing back, ones that Principal Wright would have preferred to forget.

"I want you to do something, at least," Mrs. Mason said through gritted teeth. "This is utterly unacceptable, it's barbaric, callous..."

"Astrid."

Mrs. Mason's mouth dropped open. Again, the anger disappeared as soon as something pulled her attention away. Principal Wright had known it would work like that. Anger was an alien emotion to her. It came like a virus and stayed only for a visit before being purged from her system.

"You haven't called me that since-"

"I couldn't," Principal Wright said, taking a step closer. "That name was mine. It belonged to someone who was mine. It was easier to think of Mrs. Mason as a wholly different person, with Astrid simply... lost."

Mrs. Mason's chest rose and fell as they looked at each other, standing in the room that never was. Hesitating, she cast her gaze at the table where the postcard was, along with the cups. She walked over there, taking hers and reading the words written on it.

"I feel like Astrid is lost, too."

The blizzard howled with joy. At least that was how it sounded. Principal Wright considered the words tumbling over each other in his head. For the first time in years, he had Mrs. Mason admitting the slightest bit of regret over how things had gone for them. It was a precious thread, fragile like a spider web. It had to be handled with care, not yanked at.

"I think we should stay," he said.

Mrs. Mason cast him a curious look, still half-adrift in some train of thought he couldn't see.

"You mean play along with them? No."

"Absolutely not," Principal Wright agreed. "I mean stay."

As soon as he'd said that, the walls of the cottage started shaking. The storm outside transformed into something completely unnatural. Snow piled up like it was dropped from the sky all at once – it probably was – and the room went dark as it started covering the windows. There were real voices in the wind now, talking over each other. On the table, words appeared on the postcard, written by several different hands. No doubt they were all warning, threatening and cajoling him to be reasonable.

Mrs. Mason hadn't said anything yet. That in itself was proof of how far they'd pushed her.

"They're trying to break in?" she asked.

"Yes," Principal Wright said. "I won't let them."

"I can feel their desperation. Some anger. A few are afraid. I would have thought there would be more sorrow, but all I can sense is self-preservation. They don't want to explain this to the law."

"Well," Principal Wright replied with a grin. "Now you added guilt."

Mrs. Mason nodded.

"Serves them right," she said. "For their severe miscalculation. Although I can see why they'd underestimate you if they didn't know better. I wouldn't want to be beaten by someone in your outfit."

She laughed, presumably at the scowl on his face before sighing deeply.

"While I'm enjoying their humiliation, you can't be serious, Richard," she said. "People have lost their minds in these pop-up worlds. They need to be maintained constantly, that is what your boring dissertation is about. Right now, there are at least thirty people doing that. I can count them, because they're so busy fighting you that they don't have the luxury of hiding. Yes, you bastards, I see you!"

The postcard got talkative again, but neither one of them cared to read what it said.

"If I planned on keeping the "door" open, yes," Principal Wright said. "I might not be able to keep them all away day after day, but I can do this once, properly. I can tear us away from their reality. Just say a word and I can make the right choice at last. Or say no and I'll let them in. I understand that what I'm suggesting is insane, but I feel like I'm home. In that sense, congratulations to them."

Mrs. Mason didn't seem too bothered by the insanity.

"There have been four confirmed cases of someone managing to break away," she said. "Do you really think you're the fifth?"

"Yes," he said.

The presence of the faculty was thundering now. Principal Wright could hear their names being called. He pushed back. Snow started melting behind the windows and the wind died down, so they heard the forest swaying in a breeze.

Mrs. Mason looked at him so sharply that it felt like he was being carved apart.

"We're old," she tried. "This is a child's foolishness."

"I'm not even sixty yet."

"Don't try to joke your way out of this," Mrs. Mason warned him, but he saw the smirk tugging at her lips. "It's not easy to rekindle love."

"Who said anything about that?" Principal Wright asked. "You've suddenly turned into the only person I want to be around. I want to stay, find something better to eat and other herbs you could make into tea and discuss my book with you for an eternity."

"You're almost describing my literal Hell."

"Almost? What's the difference? I'd think being stuck with your ex in a house with no indoor plumbing in the middle of winter would be as bad as it gets."

He'd made the comment as a joke, but Mrs. Mason was looking at him with an odd smile.

"You could lose your magic," she said.

"You'd still have yours."

That seemed to settle something. Mrs. Mason walked over to the window and looked outside. She pulled the scarf tighter around herself.

"It's cold," she stated.

"Keeping the temperature cozy isn't exactly my first priority right now," Principal Wright said. "If they get in, they'll never let us back into one of these again. I can see the binding spells ready in Davies' hand."

Mrs. Mason waved her hand impatiently.

"I meant that it's a cold winter," she said. "Will there be a spring?"

The surprise nearly made him drop his defenses, but Principal Wright recovered quickly.

"Yes."

She turned. The smile on her lips was Astrid's.

"Then do it."

He felt his heart beating faster than on the day he'd asked her.

"Don't intervene, no matter what," he warned. "We'll need your magic."

She nodded, and he trusted her.

Blood vessels burst in his eyes as Principal Wright cut through the roots of the little world. It felt like someone was driving daggers through his skull and he knew it was his loving colleagues trying to break his concentration. He heard their calls, begging him to stop, but he was thinking of building a terrace for Astrid and didn't listen. Thunder roared somewhere above him and his boots caught on fire. Through searing pain, both physical and magical, he could see Astrid calmly pouring water on his feet and staying close by to see if he needed more help.

There wasn't an ounce of doubt in her eyes.

"See that you don't hurt Mrs. Reed," she said calmly. "She's expecting."

Principal Wright could feel the surprise of Mr. Reed very vividly and used their shock to shove both away, gently.

"I'll go put the kettle back on," Astrid said. "Seeing as you're doing all the work today, I'm willing to discuss Chapter 6 with you. But only that."

Principal Wright grinned so widely it hurt. Blood trickled from his mouth. The foundations of the realm ripped with all the subtlety and sweetness of tearing a tendon. So he decided to treat it like a band-aid and just sliced.

It hurt.

Later, they hung the postcards on the wall.

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