The last time Paola had had to move across continents, her father had taken her Side-along. She’d been seven years old, and she didn’t remember much of it except that Dad had said, “On the count of three: one, two…” and then Apparated both of them to Tunis before he’d said three. He hadn’t said it once they’d arrived at the embassy, which Paola had felt was the implicit breach of some contract and just wrong. She’d made a point of saying it when they’d next popped over to visit her DeMarco grandparents in Long Island, in case Dad wouldn’t again, and on the return trip, it had turned into a ritual.
Not that there had been many trips back to the States. Dad had gotten promoted a couple years ago and was now the chief economic attaché at the embassy and had gotten much, much busier. And that was fine, until it made him miss dinner regularly. Paola had resigned herself to eating by herself in the compound’s cafeteria while reading, since while there were other kids, they were either older enough that they didn’t want to spend time with an elementary schooler, or younger enough that the only word they had mastered was “No!” However, some of the other embassy workers who lived in the compound had noticed and invited her to join them and listened intently when she talked about school or what she’d been reading. Most of them would answer her questions about their days, if the answer wasn’t classified, and some of their answers were very interesting indeed. Pierre, who ran the compound’s maintenance department, had endless stories of improbable things he and his staff had found in the drains. The embassy’s protocol officer and healer ate with her so often that they became Paola’s unofficial Aunts Tima and Sara.
Dad had been slightly alarmed the first time he’d seen her eating with the two women, although he’d never explained why. The second time, he’d looked relieved and joined them. Afterward, he’d told Paola that it was good that she had some adult women in her life to look up to. Paola had been very relieved, during a certain biological conversation last year, that it was Aunt Sara who was giving her all this information and not Dad. That would have been awkward. It would have been awkward just because Dad was who he was, and it would have been worse if some sort of business had called him away in the middle of it and left everything hanging unfinished. (Although Paola had never been able to figure out what sort of economic business would call Dad out in the middle of the night when it wasn’t Ramadan.) And probably something would have come up, just so Dad could leave the conversation.
And now, this time, it was Paola’s turn to leave. (Mom had left first, so many years ago that Paola only remembered a flash of blonde hair and a breath of some floral perfume which was, thankfully, not any sort of flower she knew from Indonesia or Tunisia.) Dad had left without going away. Paola was going away to the States, her home country which she didn’t know, to Colorado, a state where she had never been, to school, which would be nothing like the American Cooperative School in Tunis. She’d talked with Aunt Sara and Aunt Tima a lot about boarding schools, and then Aunt Sara and Tima had talked to Dad, and Dad had talked to Grandfather, and Paola was now going to the same school that Aunt Sara and Tima had attended. Aunt Sara had described it as a good place to learn a lot of different subjects and Paola would definitely describe herself as someone interested in a lot of different subjects. It’d been hard to tear herself away from some of her textbooks to pack, but she’d managed it in time.
Then it was time for one last dinner at the embassy (Aunt Tima had Apparated in from wherever her boring job of protocol officer had taken her this week just to have dinner with Paola) and a nap, since the Portkey to take her to RMI would activate at one o’clock in the morning in Tunis. Paola found herself awake before her alarm went off, so she dressed quietly in the clothes she hadn’t packed: a green dress that Aunt Tima had brought back from a trip to Marrakesh, chosen to bring out that shade in Paola’s hazel eyes, a new school robe, and brown velvet ballet flats. She spent some of the extra time working the tangles out of her thick, dark hair, and then looked around. Her room was already neat. (Her room was always neat.) She could read, but then she’d already packed all her favorite books; her duffel bag was a hand-me-down from Aunt Sara’s nanay’s youth, fitted with durability and undetectable extension charms for hauling medical supplies into the some of the more remote Philippine islands. Paola had used the extension charm to hold the contents of both of the bookcases in her room. She could wake Dad...but she didn’t want to find out that he wasn’t asleep in his room. But Aunt Sara was on night shift this week; she’d had breakfast foods at dinner time. Paola lifted her bag and padded down to the infirmary, where Aunt Sara was indeed on duty. Although Aunt Sara had her feet up on the desk and was reading a paperback with a bad painting of a spaceship and a woman on its cover and a title beginning with the word “Star” and ending with an exclamation mark. Aunt Sara’s hand obscured the rest of the title, and she closed it and set it down when she saw Paola.
“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked with a lift of her eyebrows. “Not feeling well, or just excited? Finishing some last minute packing? Got your dreamcatcher?”
“Oh no, I’m fine,” Paola answered, hooking the black dreamcatcher out of her pocket to show Sara. “I’m excited but…” She ran a hand through her hair, twirling the end of a strand around her finger as she thought about how to express what she was feeling. “It’ll be weird to have other kids around, who are my age. All the time, I mean. Not just for classes.”
“Who knows, you might make friends with them,” Aunt Sara teased.
“I hope so.” Paola grinned back. “It’s also weird to think about going to the States. Or going back to them, I guess. And then knowing that the school is underground so I won’t really get to see Colorado.”
“That took a little bit of adjusting for me,” Aunt Sara confided. “Although I was eight when I moved there. Did I ever tell you this story?”
“Noooo…” Paola let her voice trail off invitingly and stared earnestly at Aunt Sara, who laughed and began telling how her dad had insisted on renting a Muggle vehicle that he barely knew how to drive to move from California to Colorado.
“Somehow everything worked out,” Aunt Sara finished. “Tatay didn’t drive us off the side of a mountain, I met Tima and we became friends right away, but for a while I was afraid that my only friend was going to be... Wait a minute. I’ll be right back.” She slipped out of the room and down the hallway. Paola knew that Aunt Sara’s apartment was close to the infirmary for emergencies, and it wasn’t very long before she returned carrying a worn stuffed elephant. It was slightly lumpy and loose where the stuffing had gotten squished over the years, and its colors were faded except for a bright floral patch, clearly more recently applied, over one ear.
Aunt Sara solemnly held the elephant out to Paola, who was staring at it in confusion. “This is Gadya,” explained Aunt Sara with a mischievous grin at Paola’s confusion. “Which means ‘elephant,’ in Tagalog. A very exciting name, I know. My first friend, from the age of four, had many grand adventures through the halls of RMI with me and Tima, was probably the most sensible member of the party.”
Gadya’s ancient fabric was very soft under Paola’s hands. The little elephant smelled of rice and coconut and --oh, goodness, was already settling comfortably into Paola’s arms. It was extremely huggable. Aunt Sara added, watching the small smile that was blossoming on Paola’s face, “Take Gadja with you. That way, you know going in that you have a friend.”
“Oh, Aunt Sara!” Teary-eyed, Paola flung her arms around the woman, some part of her brain noticing that she was close to being as tall as her mentor. Gadja got squished in between.
“You’ll do great there,” Aunt Sara reassured her as a timer chimed. “Oh, two minutes left.” She gave Paola a last squeeze and let go. “Better not take me with you, I’ve already spent plenty of time there. Do you trust your balance? Better sit down on your bag. It’ll feel like something’s pulling on your stomach--do you want an anti-nausea potion?”
“I don’t get seasick. Remember?”
“It’s a bit different than that,” Aunt Sara clarified, “but see how you do without it.”
“If I need one for winter break, I’ll let you know. And I’ll write, I promise.”
“I’ll write back, I promise.” Sara checked her timer. “One minute left.” Paola couldn’t help glancing toward the doorway. Would Dad…? Under her breath, Aunt Sara muttered, “I should have sent him a Howler.”
Thirty seconds, and running footsteps in the hallway. Dad burst into the infirmary, still in his pajamas. His face relaxed immeasurably when he saw her still sitting on the duffel bag. “Good, still in time. I’m sorry, Paola. I’m so proud of you, and I love you.”
“Love you tooo---” The portkey activated, and Paola’s awareness was wrenched into, through, and out of her stomach with a jolt. She was glad she had sat down, because she was pretty sure her knees wouldn’t hold her right now and that her stomach was nowhere close to its normal location. She stayed where she was a moment, waiting for her body to adjust, and then when she felt less shaky, took her duffel bag to the stack of luggage forming against the lobby wall. She casually tucked Gadya into the crook of her elbow and found her way to the group of other confused-looking students holding black dreamcatchers. The man corralling them looked vaguely familiar from the pamphlet, but he looked grumpier in person, and Paola couldn’t recall his name. She was pretty sure he was the Deputy Head. But then she noticed the walls and forgot everything else.
Tall brown grass rolled in undulating crests under a star-dusted sky, bordered faintly by distant scrubby trees and craggy mountains glazed silver by the moon. Paola stared at the stars, trying to pick out familiar constellations. It’d been exciting to see all the new stars in Tunis; Jakarta was (barely) in the Southern Hemisphere. Colorado was farther north than Tunis, so she should recognize most of the constellations, if from a different angle. Although if the walls were accurate, there was way less light pollution in Boulder than in Tunis. Excellent.
Cheers and applause distracted her from her study of the walls, and Paola noticed a handful of older students returning from the staff dais. Student leadership? They all had badges pinned to their robes, which glinted in the multi-colored firelight. Paola pulled out her dreamcatcher as instructed for the next stage of the proceedings and watched with quiet pleasure as its black melted to red and gold. She’d thought, based on the descriptions of the four houses, that she’d be a Draco. It was nice to be right. She wasn’t the only new Draco, as it turned out. One of the others was a girl who had an entire giant paperback novel stuck in the side pocket of her pants. (Paola made a mental note to acquire similar pants or other clothes with pockets big enough to hold books as soon as she could.)
And what book was so fascinating that the girl would ignore all the extremely delicious smelling food around them? Paola took a bowl of something that smelled like sambal and craned her neck to try to get a glimpse at the cover.
Paola ate a spoonful of sambal (which was not spicy enough) while she dithered. Should she let the girl read and miss finding out about a possibly interesting book and possibly someone to trade book recommendations with, or should she interrupt and risk the girl becoming upset with her for interrupting?
But when the girl lifted her head after only a few pages--and really, who could read with all the ruckus in here? and asked Paola, "What did you say?" Paola figured this was her chance.
"I didn’t say anything yet, because I didn’t want to interrupt you, but what are you reading?"