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As they ate, an idea began to germinate in Nell's mind. Realising that Hilda would strenuously object, however, she was careful to keep it safely hidden there until she had all the details worked out. Finally, as they sat down in Hilda's sitting room after finishing the washing up, she decided it was time.

"Hilda, I have a plan," she began slowly.

Her friend looked at her wrily. "So I'm to hear whatever it is you were thinking about all through lunch?"

"Was it that obvious?"

"It was to me - and I have a feeling I'm not going to like it."

"I suppose it would be too much trouble to hear me out before passing judgment?" Nell inquired sarcastically. "We have so much to do, after all!"

"There's no need to bite my head off, my dear. Of course I'll listen," Hilda replied.

"Neither of us wants to spend Christmas here if it can possibly be avoided, right?"

"Right," Hilda said tentatively.

"Now, I know you objected to my idea of trying to get to Freudesheim earlier - and you were perfectly right," Nell added hastily as Hilda frowned. "Just running out into a blizzard would have been a terrible idea."

"I'm glad you recognize that," Hilda said tartly. "I may not be thrilled with the idea of spending Christmas here, but dying in the snow is far less appealing."

Nell glared at her. "I thought you said you were going to listen to me? I told you, I have a plan. It really isn't very far to Freudesheim, and we have plenty of long, strong ropes in the gym - more than enough to cover the distance. I'll tie one end to myself before I set out, and you can keep hold of the other. If I manage to find my way across, I'll give it a couple of tugs and you can follow me with the rope to guide you; and if I can't get across, I'll still be able to find my way back."

Hilda thought it over carefully. It was still risky, but Nell's idea of using the gym ropes did make it safe enough - just - for her to seriously contemplate the idea. And she had been upset and frustrated by the serious possibility of spending Christmas apart from their honorary family... If she and Nell had planned to spend it by themselves, she'd have been perfectly happy; but they hadn't, and she'd been looking forward to the reunion.

Looking up, she met Nell's expectant gaze. Expectant, and... determined?

"Just out of interest, Nell, what would happen if I refused to consider it?" 

"I'd ask how exactly you intend to stop me?" Her tone was light on the surface, but there was steel beneath. Nell was determined to do this, and she was sure that even if Hilda were to abandon her dignity and attempt to physically stop her, her lover wouldn't be able to overpower her.

However, Hilda did no such thing, having reached the same conclusion about their relative strengths. Instead, she leaned back in her chair and replied calmly, "I'd refuse to have anything at all to do with it."

Nell's quick mind instantly saw what she meant. Hilda would refuse to follow her, knowing that Nell would never leave her alone at the School. It was a good strategy - but Nell wasn't about to give in so easily.

"Really? So you'd let me go and tell the Maynards that Auntie Hilda couldn't be bothered to come to them?" she counterattacked.

"Dragging the children into this," Hilda snapped, "is cheating."

"'Dragging them in'? They're the whole reason I came up with this, because I know how upset you are at not seeing them!"

"Are you claiming that you're not upset by it at all?" Hilda asked, eyebrows raised.

"Of course I am..." Nell sighed. Taking both Hilda's hands in hers, she entreated, "Don't let's quarrel about it, love, and do say you'll help me! It has a fair chance of working, and if it doesn't at least we'll know we did all we could."

Hilda took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Very well, we'll attempt it," she finally replied, a smile coming to her lips at Nell's pleased expression. Raising a hand to stop her thanks, she added in a warning tone, "I'm not having you wandering outside for hours, though! I'll give you ten minutes, then I’ll give the rope a pull to let you know time’s up, and you’ll come back.”

“Ten minutes isn’t anywhere near long enough!” Nell protested. “Give me an hour.”

“Twenty minutes, then, but no more. You’ll catch your death of cold!”

Nell rolled her eyes. “Don’t be absurd, I’ll be well wrapped up - and so will you. Forty?”

“Half an hour. As you say, Freudesheim is very near; that should be more than enough time.”

Realising Hilda wouldn’t be pushed any further, Nell nodded. “Half an hour it is, then. Let’s get ready!”

Jumping to her feet, she pulled Hilda up and, linking their arms together, half dragged her in the direction of the gym.




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