Chapter 20

A New Beginning

Bertram de Black came back to Hogwarts. He had no real reason to do so except for the fact that he had no energy left to think of anywhere else to go.

Everywhere was a nightmare in his world. There was nowhere left for him to go.

He had spent the week in Lithuania in the forest of Anyskai. There was only one woman now whom he would entrust with the body of his most beloved wife. Not that he had ever trusted either of Daiva’s sisters. But it was in the end to Dana that he turned.

After having spent one chilly and lonely night under the great oak in Hogwarts grounds, cradling Daiva’s cold body in his arms, he had transported them both to the Vashka mansion. The large house lay buried deep in the ancient forest, which wound its limbs around all, enshrouding and encircling the house, so that it was not visible from any direction – including above. A useful asset that.

Dana had always been the quiet sister. Not bold and beautiful like Daiva, nor purposeful and power crazed like Druscilla. She had settled down, had married, raised a fine family and to all intents and purposes lived a subdued life far from the glitz and glam of her sisters’ world.

But of course it was never that simple. There were three sisters and Dana played her allotted role ably and well.

So Bertram took the body to Dana. The ways of the wood were dark and old, imbued with magic from before the dawn of time. An old magic, a dangerous magic. But Bertram for his Daiva, his wife whom had died to save him, he was prepared to try. And who knows maybe, just maybe one day the impossible might occur.

But in the meantime Bertram was lost. He could not remain in Lithuania with the memories of Daiva so clear before him. He could not return to his parents’ house for the forced sympathy of Charles and Elizabeth de Black would be too much to bear. They had hated her in life. He did not want their sympathy in death.

His daughter, Brooke—taken, kidnapped, gone. By the man who had stolen her mother. By the man whom Bertram hated more than anyone on this earth or in the regions around it.

That was something upon which he could work, however. Daiva he could do nothing for. But Brooke he could. Brooke was alive. Brooke could be found. And Daiva could be avenged.

So it was that Bertram, ex-Auror turned bounty hunter, returned to Hogwarts School.

He stood in the entrance way to the Great Hall expecting to be able to carry out various scientific investigations as to the precise nature of the power of the Black Wand.

He was therefore utterly astonished when various people in the hall began to look at him and clap.

He looked over his shoulder, bewildered. There was no one else there.

How very odd.

Looking up from her copy of the Daily Prophet, Infinity carefully folded the paper upon seeing the newcomer. She’d been reading another article about Hogwarts, where a former faculty member (although, not surprisingly, no name was given), blamed the faculty for the atrocities.

Bertram looked confused about the applause, to say the least. But why? News that the Minister had made him the (temporary) Headmaster had been splashed all over the papers for days.

Rising from her seat at the faculty table, she walked down the Great Hall to greet him. “Hello, Bertram,” she said cordially. “I see you’ve finally returned. The students have been wondering when you’d show your face.”

“Infinity,” he said gravely. He knew her, of course, for long ago they had been at school together. She was only a year below him and he had captained their victorious Quidditch Team as a Beater for several years in succession. Not as successful as his own daughter had been though. Brooke…

He snapped back and found Infinity’s patient watchful gaze upon him. The last time he had seen her, she had much, much less under control than was her usual want. Bertram had known her Auror husband, Mark, well, and the news of his loss had struck a bitter blow to him also.

But she must be able to explain this enigma to him.

“What do you mean they have been wondering when I would show my face? How on earth could they know I was coming back? To be honest I wasn’t sure myself until this morning.”

For a moment, Infinity let her calm mask slip, and a panicked _expression covered her face for a second.

He didn’t know.

Regaining composure, she said, “Just after the Sorting Feast, and before he got terribly drunk and conjured a polka band, Sergius Pratt announced you as the temporary Headmaster.”

Bertram looked startled. It wasn’t like Infinity to joke. But then again, it had been a long time. Perhaps she had changed.

A brief smile lit his sad face.

“But seriously…” he said letting the end of the sentence dangle and waiting to hear the true explanation.

Infinity shook her head slowly. “I am serious. You are currently listed as the interim Headmaster of Hogwarts.” Her mouth quirked into something resembling a smile. “It caused quite a stir with the tabloids, I can tell you.”

Bertram just shook his head.

“There has to be some sort of mistake,” he looked at her closely, curiously. She was telling the truth. But the truth which she was telling was preposterous, ludicrous.

There were a million and one reasons why it could not be true. High amongst them was the fact that he had absolutely no experience in such a role, and indeed had never desired to have. He was trained as an Auror, had never taught a lesson in his life, let alone run a school.

Added to which was the fact that the Ministry, or at least the current Ministry, couldn’t stand him. Not only had they sacked him from his job as a Ministry Auror, but they had actually put him on trial for supposed involvement with the murders for which his Daiva had gone to Azkaban. True, nothing had come of the trial, but they had made their opinion of him more than clear. Distrust and distaste had characterized his relationship with them for the past ten years.

And now he was to believe that they were entrusting him with one of the highest ranking roles in the Wizardry World? No, it could not be so.

He believed Infinity, but she must be mistaken. The Minister had been drunk and the Prophet, as usual, had got somewhat carried away with the story.

“They hate me,” he said simply, “And even if it were so, I am afraid I have no desire to do it. I have other…things that I must do…that cannot wait,” he said thinking once more of Brooke. The longer she stayed under the influence of that fiend, the worst her situation. How long could she hold out without some of his insidious influence taking hold of her mind?

In addition to which, the letter which had initially brought him to Hogwarts was burning a hole in his heart. The letter Brooke had waited all her life for: the letter from the England Coach with her National Quidditch call up. The letter she had never got to see. He had to help Brooke.

Shrugging, Infinity said, “Don’t shoot the messenger. I am simply repeating the facts. I have nothing to do with this decision.”

She paused momentarily. There was clearly something more than Daiva’s death that was bothering him. She didn’t mention this, however.

“You should speak to the Department of Education,” she told him. “Apparently they’re the ones who decided you were best for the job.” Oh, and here, they left you this. She handed Betram a letter.

It bore the Ministry seal and sign at the top, and was written in flowing official script, from no less a person than the Minister for Magic himself, though Bertram scarcely credited the notion that he had done anything more than dictate it to one of his many minions.

As he walked slowly and pensively towards the faculty table he read it through, barely able to believe what he was reading.

Ministry of Magic
Underneath the telephone box
Westminster
London
UK

Dear Mr. de Black

I believe that you have already been informed of our decision to employ you, on a temporary basis, as Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We recognize that you may be reluctant to take up such a position and we thus find necessary to remind you of your duty to the Wizarding community and moreover to the Wizarding youth who are currently under your care and supervision. On no accounts must you leave the school.

Our reasons for employing you are thus. When your employment as a Ministry Auror was terminated on July 6 nine years ago, it was not intended that you would find further work with us. However, we are now generously prepared to grant you an amnesty on this and to burn all previous records.

The school, although rebuilt to all intents and purposes, is not, as I am sure you are aware, yet secure. The spells and enchantments which bound the place from all harm are not yet back in place and indeed took many, many years to perfect to their previous, unbreakable state. Naturally we have a dedicated team working around the clock on this but until it is done I must reiterate. On no accounts must you leave the school.

Although the circumstances of your estranged wife’s death are uncertain, it seems highly probable by his swift exit from the premises, that Prince believes her to have died for you and that you are not only invulnerable to his powers, but that by attacking you the curse would rebound on himself. You are therefore the best hope for security at this time at Hogwarts School. On no accounts must you leave the school.

We are aware of a certain wish of yours to leave the school and carry out a particular rescue mission. I cannot give further details only to say that as long as you fulfill our wishes we may be able to help you, at a subsequent date, with yours.

We trust that we will hear nothing of leaving. The future of Hogwarts youth rests in your hands. It is a grave responsibility and one which we hope you will carry out in the necessary fashion.

Yours

etc etc”

The tone of parts of the letter made Bertram want to sling it in the fire. The Minister was a pompous ass with his “generously prepared” and what he said of Daiva, of his beloved darling wife, made him long to go down to London and personally shove the letter back down the Minister’s throat.

The problem was that it also made sense. JP did fear him. He had seen the look in his eyes as he weighed up his options before disapparating, and although Betram’s main, perhaps his only priority now, was Brooke, he looked round as he stepped into the Great Hall and saw hundreds of other small faces, all of whom reminded him now of his own daughter. All of whom had parents of their own. And he felt responsible.

Bertram had cleaned himself up, after spending far too long living up a tree in a far flung corner of the grounds, bound up in his own misery and guilt. He was thinner then usual and the recent events had added more lines to his boyish good looks, leaving him looking older and more tired than before. But his floppy brown hair was now devoid of leaves and his royal blue robes were neatly pressed and flowed impressively behind him.

Bertram de Black, at thirty-eight years old, felt himself an unlikely figure for a Headmaster and indeed he had no experience in such a role, but he would just have to try his best.

He went up to the staff table, aware of the looks which were following him and smiled, almost apologetically at the staff members, particularly at Infinity, who was after all, far better qualified for the position than he himself was.

He did not need to ask for silence. It fell. Hundreds of faces looked up at him expectantly. He felt rather overwhelmed. He would far rather be catching dark wizards than speaking to small people. But nevertheless…

“Students of Hogwarts,” he began trying to remember what Headmaster Quiggly had said to him when he was a student at Hogwarts, “I am really sorry for my absence for the beginning of your new school year. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Bertram de Black and I am your new… Headmaster, well for a bit anyway,” he paused. He was sounding far too casual; he bit his bottom lip.

“I mean until the Ministry has the time to interview properly for a suitable candidate. Well…yeah…I am sure you are all doing very well… and…er, if you need me for anything or just to talk, please come and see me at any time. Thanks and carry on enjoying your meal.”

He sat down swiftly and shrugged. Well, what could they expect. He was not used to this sort of thing. He had done his best.

Francisco strode through the Great Hall, his baggy blue jeans dragging on the ground below. He looked around at the school. Just a few months ago this entire school was still standing, and he was standing in it.

Francisco and Vivi had been the last few students to leave, just before it burnt down. It was hard to believe that if they would have stayed like he wanted, they most likely wouldn’t be here now. Thankfully Vivi insisted on leaving and getting the letter to Hogsmeade.

He looked around at all of the first years staring at the rubble and destruction, their faces dismayed and confused. They had no idea what had caused this, or yet why it had happened. All they knew was that the school was not there anymore.

Even though the school was being rebuilt extremely quickly, it just wasn’t the same. The school would never be what it was just a few months ago. It was destroyed, and the Headmistress was gone. She had betrayed Hogwarts, allowed it to burn like this…

But that was all behind them now. It was a new year, and Francisco had just been announced the new Ravenclaw Quidditch captain. The attack of the first years was coming, and the new school year had begun. Francisco was trying as hard as he could to be happy, but he just kept thinking about the times of the past. How could he not think about them, when he was there and witnessed many deaths? It was a terrible thought.

“Hey ya, Cisco.” Vivi said softly, striding up beside him as though three months had not passed. “How was your summer?” She smiled, though she looked beyond him, scanning the Hall.

Where is she? she wondered frustrated. Aiko was not, it seemed, here, and Vivi had yet to bring herself to the point where she could go view the burnt out commonroom. She had not seen her best friend all summer, though she knew Aiko was alive from the words of a misguided reporter for the Dailey Prophet, which Vivi had a subscription to.

All four of the traitor students lived through the ordeal, probably spared by Prince so that they could join his ranks later….The turning of his daughter has had quite the effect on the foreign ambassador of Japan…

The article had read, before going on about Danuliete and other events, some of which were true, some of which were not. Either way, Aiko was alive, yet for some reason Vivi had not owled her, nor had she received an owl. Everything was all together too mixed up for words.

In fact, Vivi had spent most of her summer trying to forget Hogwarts. This wasn’t because she didn’t love the old castle, but moreso because she did love it. She loved the high towers, the bustling Great Hall, the corridors, and perhaps most of all the Quidditch Pitch. The students had watched as it burned, able to see the glowing flames trace their way across the sky from Hogsmeade. It was both a glorious and horrific sight, one Vivi had yet to forget.

So once at home in Mississippi, Vivi had worked on forgetting. She spent hours outside, resulting in a freckly tan. She had eaten ice cream, visited the pool, and done about everything she would have been doing if she had not been a witch. Though Vivi remained 5’1, she had filled out some so that she was no longer such a stick. She even had a little muscle from playing muggle games with her older cousins. Though they peppered her with pointless questions like, “Do you really fly brooms?” the four were decent company, and a very good distraction.

Towards the end of August the letter had come announcing that Hogwarts would indeed be up and running for the fall term. Vivi packed her trunk with various clothing, her broomstick, and new school supplies (including an owl so that sending letters would be easier) and took a port key back to England. Now here she stood, already wearing her black wizard’s robes, with a wand sticking out of her pocket. She was nearly thirteen and going into her third year. Most importantly however, she was back at Hogwarts. It might be an ugly shell of the former building, but it was still Hogwarts…and that was what mattered.

Francisco frowned. He knew how close Vivi was to Aiko. And he figured she hadn’t seen her yet today. He hoped Aiko was coming back to Hogwarts, he couldn’t imagine what Vivi would do if she didn’t come back.

“Well, I’m doing fine.” Francisco finally said up after a few minutes of silence. “It was a short summer, it seemed like it went by extremely quickly.” He wasn’t really in the talkative mood now. He needed to get back into the swing of being back.

“Yeah. Me too.” Vivi echoed, shoving her hands into her pockets and glancing out the large hole that served as a window. The giant squid was playfully tossing a drunken Satyr up and down in the air as it squealed, “Wee- e-wee-e.”

She shrugged; there wasn’t really all that much to say. The school burned down, summer passed by, and here they were again, end of story. She had just wanted to say hi to Cisco, having thought it appropriate after last year. Grinning a little, she focused back on him.

“Congrats on getting Quidditch Captain, Cisco. Even if you are in Ravenclaw.”

Francisco laughed at Vivi’s comment. Not many Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs got along. They had been arch rivals for years now, and Ravenclaw had always prevailed.

“Well Vivs, we’ll just have to see how it turns out. Ravenclaw versus Hufflepuff this year.” He grinned at her. He loved Vivs to death, but when he was out on the field, just like her, he showed no mercy to anyone. Vivi grinned wider. “Yah, Cisco, we’ll just see,” she quipped, looking up at him. It was a good thing Quidditch was played on brooms, or else she would have been at a big disadvantage. As it was, her position matched her size. Seekers were expected to be light and thin, requirements Vivi fit well…almost too well. If she didn’t keep her mind on the game, a playful gust of wind could shove her off course.

Ravenclaw vs. Hufflepuff would be a little more even, now that Serenity and Brooke had left, yet if Hufflepuff wanted to win, they would have to work hard this year. Last year Gryffindor, of all teams, had beaten them. Though she had to admit, Gryffindor had a stronger team now than they ever had. Either way, it was bound to be an exciting season.

Agatha Swales lifted her hands in the air in horror and motioned for the house elves dutifully following her to halt.

“This is absolutely too much!” she exclaimed. “There is no way, no way in this world that I am going into…that thing. Urgh!” she said.

The little house elves behind her seemed under a lot of strain and wishing she would get a move on, as they were weighed down by ten large Gucci suitcases, several large hat boxes, and shoeboxes too numerous to count. Agatha had been emotionally distraught at the end of the last term by the loss of her precious shoe collection. Even now she felt quite upset about some of her unique items, lost forever. Still, at least some of those stupid people had got what they deserved.

But if they thought that she, Agatha Swales, was going to step inside, let alone live in, a building site, then they were very much mistaken. This was a disgrace, an outrage. There was no way in the world that the school should be functioning like this. She would owl her father immediately to take her away from this degradation. Disgraceful! If they thought her new Prada heels were going to be sullied by rubble, then they were sorely mistaken. Daddy would just have to sign her up for Averland or Marybeau or some other private school now. Right now!

Agatha curled her lip and pulled her little white fur jacket closer to her. It was the end of summer and already this dismal place was chilly. Her blonde hair blew in the breeze and in annoyance she straightened it once more with a quick fix charm.

Yet she seemed in a little bit of a stalemate. She would not go in and yet she had no desire to stay outside. Agatha scowled.

Ras Alhague, a new first year, picked his way neatly over the rocky path to Hogwarts. The smoldering ruin of the school deterred him little; the value of a school is not in its appearance, and Hogwarts was said to have the finest curriculum in the world. He had not quite realized the scale of the destruction, but fortunately he had dressed for a disaster area. He wore his crimson robes cut several inches above the ankles, revealing sturdy boots in a deeper shade of red. His shoulder length black hair was neatly tied back, and he carried only the bare essentials in a pack over his shoulder. Time enough for other things to be sent to him when he had settled in.

As he rounded the final corner, he was surprised by the sight of a young woman in furs, surrounded by laden house elves. She scowled at the tumbled stones as if they had personally offended her. Ras paused a second and studied her, noticing the luggage was expensive and well-kept, the shoes and jacket the very cutting edge of style. The way she had set her feet suggested determination, the way she patted at her hair suggested pride. Another glance at the elves revealed a startling proportion of shoe boxes. Shoes. All right.

He arranged a polite smile on his face and moved forward.

“Excuse me,” he began gently, “I hope you’ll forgive me for addressing you so informally, but you appear to be in some distress. My name is Ras Alhague, and I hoped that I might offer you some assistance. This sharp wind is no place for a delicately nurtured lady to be standing. I notice the floor is very uneven – it would be a shame to scuff such beautiful shoes. Perhaps I could offer you my arm?” He extended his arm courteously and waited for her reply.

Agatha paused for just one moment and surveyed the person whom had made such a gentleman-like offer. A first year presumably, as she did not know his features, yet a most courteous one. Yet Agatha’s breeding would not allow for much hesitation. A formal introduction and an answer was necessary.

“Perhaps so,” she said a little evasively. “Agatha Swales of Slytherin,” she said the words “and pureblood” hung unspoken and yet there, almost visible, in the air.

“And your house is?” she said, hoping for a reply which would allow her to graciously accept this young man’s assistance.

Ras allowed warmth to seep into his courteous expression. An aristocrat, of course. The slight fear she might be some kind of nouveau riche had faded at the sound of her crisp voice.

“Miss Swales, it is indeed an honor to meet a scion of such a respected family. I believe our families are acquainted. I am sure my father, Cor Alhague, has spoken of it. I too have been sorted into Slytherin—which has delighted my father. His family have always been in Slytherin, although my mother’s have more of a studious bent. Many of them have been in Ravenclaw—my mother was House Prefect in her day. I understand they had a wager going as to which house I would be in.” His expression became concerned.

“But I’m chattering away most inconsiderately, when you’re standing out here in the cold. Really, I understand the school is having problems, but they should have made arrangements for the comfort of the ladies. Please, let me escort you to the Slytherin common room where you can sit down and give your orders to the house elves.”

“Then I am most delighted to make your acquaintance,” Agatha responded promptly in her clear ringing tone and decided to enrich the boy with one of her most charming smiles. A Slytherin and a pureblood too. It had admittedly seemed likely, yet one couldn’t be too careful especially around Hogwarts, as she had learned to her great disgust. There were mudbloods everywhere, even in the noble and hallowed halls of Slytherin itself.

“Alhague, yes, perhaps,” she said considering it. “I shall enquire further of course, but for now my dear, as you so rightly and justly pointed out, we must,” she grimaced slightly at the prospect, “We must perforce go indoors.”

She looked down again, very doubtfully, at her kitten heels.

“It’s all just so unpleasant,” she said petulantly. “Yet it seems as if for the moment I have no option. My father shall know of this very shortly however. Imagine expecting me…that is us…to live on a building site!”

Nevertheless Agatha took the proffered arm and allowed herself to be led. After all, the Slytherin common room could surely not be as awful as the front entrance. Or could it?

Avery rounded the corner and spotted Agatha and some first year he neither knew, nor cared to know. The boy seemed like a younger, male version of Agatha herself, perhaps combined with a bit of Donal, not his destructive side, only his sickeningly charming side.

Agatha had her many expensive, designer bags with her and it seemed she was unable to carry all of them, even with the aid of her personal House Elves. So that boy was most certainly offering to carry some of her bags, though considering the number of bags, there would still be entirely too many bags for them to properly carry all the way to the Slytherin dungeons.

“Agatha!” Avery called, waving and walking quickly over to the girl. “Wonderful to see you back safely, dear. And…” he gazed over at the boy.

“Who might this be? A friend of yours?” Not waiting for an answer (and hoping he would not loose brownie points with Agatha), he extended his hand. “I’m Avery Berke, Gryffindor fourth year.”

“Indeed, it—” Ras paused at the approach of the other boy, who introduced himself as Avery.

“Ras Alhague, sir. A pleasure to meet you,” Ras said with a smile. Ah, a Gryffindor. Rushing in heroically, no doubt.

“Miss Swales has been granting me the pleasure of her conversation. But I wouldn’t want to intrude on a reunion of old friends. Perhaps you could escort- ah no, how foolish of me. You can’t escort Miss Swales to the Slytherin rooms, can you? Really, I don’t think she should stand here in this cold wind. It’s getting a little cloudy, and we wouldn’t want rain to spoil those cases.” He turned a concerned gaze upon Agatha. “What would you prefer, Miss Swales?”

Agatha—cool, calm, collected Agatha—felt herself blushing and a slight pinkish hue formed on her high cheekbones.

Avery Berke.

Over the holidays she had almost put him out of mind. Almost convinced herself that he was nothing. A nobody. Or certainly nobody worth her while thinking about, talking to. And then suddenly there he was in front of her again, being himself quite charming, although his manners certainly did not match the new boy, who was waiting her decision with impeccable charm. The difference in breeding certainly told, just as it did between Donal and Avery. Yet Agatha had chosen Avery—an inexplicable decision even to herself.

His physical presence took her breath away and made her blush thus. Yet this was not the only reason for it. Embarrassment too played its part. In front of this young and distinguished Slytherin gentleman, Berke was obviously outclassed, a Gryffindor, a mudblood, an outsider to their world.

“Shall we proceed, Mr. Alhague?” Agatha said rhetorically. “You have been most considerate to my needs. Avery and I can catch up another time perhaps,” she said, unable to look him in the eye.

He was looking at her with a rather bewildered _expression and she half wanted to turn, to greet him properly. But pride was a great force within Agatha and she would not allow her reputation to be this sullied.

Avery’s mouth nearly fell open when Agatha decided to proceed to the Slytherin dungeons with the firstie. Honestly, was she that proud that she couldn’t socialize with a mudblood—her own boyfriend—in front of another stuck up Slytherin pureblood? He was beginning to think he was wrong about ever feeling differently about Agatha. She was still the arrogant witch she had always been. Perhaps she would be a good companion for that annoying little brat…

“So, Agatha, not willing to talk to me properly?” he asked, turning away from her. “I see you haven’t really changed. Still too much like a Slytherin I see…” He nodded and began walking away, somehow undaunted by Agatha’s sudden—or not-so-sudden— change of heart.

Ras was careful to allow no hint of triumph on his face as he inclined his head to the Gryffindor.

“So nice to have met you, Mr. Berke,” he said allowing the faintest hint of question around the name. He certainly did not have the air of a pureblood.

“I hope we may converse again sometime.” He firmly turned his back and began carefully assisting Agatha over the uneven ground. He noted in passing her scent was light and pleasant, although he could not place it. She had blushed at the sight of Berke. Some kind of intrigue, perhaps. The boldness of Gryffindors was reputed to impress young women.

“Berke…” he murmured questioningly. “I can’t quite place the name. Ah, do take care on these steps, Miss Swales.” He glanced sideway at her and saw that while the color still lingered in her cheeks, her expression gave nothing away. Definitely Slytherin, he thought, with an inward smile. “Berke… I don’t believe I know the family.”

Such a question. So delicately framed yet how could Agatha answer it? To mock him would be easy enough, yet did she wish now to play the traitor, to laugh and deride a person for whom she secretly rather cared? Or she could brazen it out, for what cared she of what others thought? Except for the fact that she did. At least those of a like background to her own, as this boy so obviously was.

She decided to take the easy way out. To spin once more the story which she had told to Abbigale Calver in the privacy of the Slytherin common room.

“Berke is a mudblood I am afraid,” she said as lightly as she could. “And last year I actually went out with him…unbelievable I know,” she said hastily seeing the expression on his face.

“Not that it was real, darhling, goodness me no. Just, you know, I thought how diverting it would be when I threw him over. Yes… well…” she trailed off. It sounded rather lame, even to her.

Nevertheless she tried to focus, to concentrate on picking her way though the ruins in which, somehow, she was meant to live. It was even worse inside (if you could call it inside for in several places there was no roof.) Several satyrs were also running around wielding power drills, which seemed foolish to say the least.

Ras was aware of a slight flicker of surprise crossing his face, and quickly schooled his face to polite interest. For purebloods to dally and flirt with the less well-bred was not unusual, but Agatha had struck him as far too sophisticated for such a past-time. She was clearly embarrassed by her lapse, as well, although she held her head high.

“Ah, well, the mudbloods are all very well in their place, I’m sure,” he said. “After all, one cannot help one’s breeding. Mongrels are said to be the most loyal of dogs. I’m sure anyone who is acceptable to you, Miss Swales, must be entirely—” his mind groped for words, “—well-conducted and mannerly.”

That would do, he thought. She looked a touch happier. Time to change the subject a little. “And of course, it’s so much safer. One can barely exchange a courteous word with a lady before one’s parent’s are trying to match make. And at my age! I’m sure a young lady such as you, approaching marriageable age, finds it even more inconvenient.”

Ras spotted a corridor with a tattered green and silver banner hanging over it, and steered towards it, giving a wide berth to the crew of satyrs singing a song about their tools.

Agatha felt on much safer ground with this subject area. She smiled. “Oh no, papa would never force to me marry against my wishes, although naturally,” she gave Ras a knowing glance under her long lashes, “He would not expect my wishes to stray out of, well, certain boundaries of desirability, shall we say. Perhaps you may have been to some of mama’s soirees at our Cannes penthouse?” she was beginning to enquire when, abruptly, she was hailed from behind.

“Agatha!”

A blonde haired girl came up behind the two, house elves carrying her bags. She motioned to them to take her bags up to her dorms and air-kissed Agatha.

“I have missed you all summer Agatha. After I heard about this place father did want to send me off to Italy, but I couldn’t leave you here on your own.”

She smiled and then noticed the first year, she supposed, beside her.

“Ah. Are you going to introduce me?”

Abbigale Calver, although only a second year to Agatha’s lofty fourth, was an acquaintance and useful ally of hers. The Calver family was of good stock. Agatha noted wryly that the younger girl seemed to look up to and copy her to a certain degree, which in anyone else she would have found a tedious bore, if not somewhat insulting. But Abbigale was tolerated, was allowed to exist in Agatha’s realm, to which others had aspired and failed.

“Darhling,” she greeted her. “How divine!” They air-kissed and Agatha began the formal introductions, having noticed the rather excited glint in Abbigale’s eye. Well, Agatha thought appraisingly, why not. It was about time Abbigale found someone suitable after all.

“Mr. Ras Alhague, Miss Abbigale Calver. Miss Abbigale Calver, Mr. Ras Alhague,” said Agatha.

Formal introductions and social obligations on her part fulfilled, she paused graciously and shifted her foot ever so slightly, away from a piece of protruding and jagged metal, hanging at an alarmingly steep angle from the wall. But such introductions were interrupted by someone—a very tall someone—stumbling into their group. There were several crashes as people and suitcases were knocked over.

Had it been either Agatha or Abbigale, Avery might have felt some remorse. But he’d crashed into that little bratty first year, nearly knocking him over.

Assuming Agatha and the brat had long since left for the Slytherin Commons, Avery had turned around to grab a bite to eat before returning to Gryffindor Tower to either sulk or plot against Vivi, Aiko, or Agatha.

But that other Agatha clone, Abbigale, had detained them. So Avery crashed into the brat on his way to the hall. As he was in a rather bad mood, he failed to apologize (not that he would to that for the firstie anyway) and continued to the Great Hall, looking back and sending Agatha a nasty glare.

Agatha was furious. How dare he show her up in such a manner! What was the matter with him this second? For indeed Avery’s temper, although much subdued by her own positive influence on his character development she thought, could not be vouched for.

But that was downright rude. To barge into her new and most charming acquaintance and then to leave without so much as an apology! It was entirely too much.

Yet Agatha’s face showed only concern for Ras’s well-being. Her mother had taught her young daughter well. A society hostess is a social being whose true emotions must never reflect upon her facial features. A useful lesson indeed for a young lady entering society. Far better than some subjects in this school anyway, like the dreadful Herbology, where teachers had mistakenly believed at one point in time that she, Agatha Swales would actually get her hands dirty. She had soon put them straight in that little misconception!

“Do excuse me one moment, Ras, Abbigale,” she said as gracefully as she could with a small inclination of her white blond head, and tried to pick her way through the rubble towards Avery. It was extremely difficult in her new Prada heels, but luckily Avery appeared to have come to a standstill a little further along the corridor.

“A word if you please, Mr. Berke,” she said clearly, so the others could hear, and gingerly stepped over a small hole in the floor boards round the corner. Avery followed. Once out of earshot and sight line, Agatha’s expression changed to one of hard, cold anger.

“What was the meaning of that little stunt you just pulled Berke,” she hissed. “Get back there and apologize right now!”

Avery let out a short, sarcastic laugh. “You actually think I’d apologize?” Really, either Agatha was horribly stubborn or horribly slow: probably a combination of both.

“That kid’s a jerk! Just like…” He paused for a moment as if thinking then looked back at her. “…you. Like I said a few minutes ago, you haven’t really changed. Still a stuck-up pureblood, too proud to carry on a civil conversation with a muggleborn in front of a fellow pureblood. And you surely wouldn’t dare walk away from another pureblood to talk to a mudblood. Certainly not.”

Smiling sarcastically, he placed his hand on her shoulder and moved her out of the way. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I would like to get a bite to eat. All this excitement has left me famished!” He smiled once more and brushed past her, rolling his eyes in disgust.

For once in his life he didn’t fly off the handle because someone was being dumb. Probably because he expected something like it to happen. But all the same, it was weird.

Ras recovered his footing swiftly after the Fourth Year rudely barged into him. As Agatha’s expression hardened and she stalked after the Gryffindor, he turned to smile at the younger girl beside him.

How dare Avery! How dare he speak to her like that, treat her like that, brush her to one side like that.

No one put Agatha Swales in a corner. Just who did he think he was?

And she couldn’t quite forget the look he gave her when he had said, “Just like you. That kid’s a jerk…just like you.” Agatha felt terrible, a really short of sharp pain in her stomach. And she had a horrible feeling that the worst humiliation in her life was just around the corner. That Avery Berke, a Gryffindor muggleborn of all things, was about to finish with Agatha Swales of Slytherin. It couldn’t, wouldn’t, mustn’t happen. She had to preempt him. To get in first.

Despite her protestations to herself over the summer that she had never cared for him, she knew it was not true. It was a game, a charade she had to play. A game she knew no other way of playing. One played to win, advantage at any cost, it was that simple.

So it was that Agatha found herself forced to take on the role which she had foretold. Some might say it was no less that she deserved, but Agatha really had to force herself to say the next words.

Brightly she returned and greeted her two former companions. “I apologize, Mr. Alhague. Mr. Berke was out of line,” she said. “But myself and Mr. Berke here were just having a fascinating talk, really quite diverting my dears,” Agatha put on a smile reserved for such occasions when forced gaiety was imperative.

“Can you believe?” she said loudly with an underhand look at Avery. “That this Gryffindor here, actually believed that I wished to go out with him last year? Completely taken in he was, it really was too…too diverting for words. I wish you could have seen it Mr. Alhague, I really do. Abbigale was able to appreciate its finer points with me of course. But honestly,” Agatha continued, hoping it would get easier.

“Just look at him, the great hulking mudblood. As if I could ever, ever fall for such an…such an imbecile as he!”

She knew it was too much. There was perhaps a little too much emotion in her voice. She took a breath, calmed herself, and allowed her face to form once more into a temperate expression, revealing nothing.

“But enough of such frivolity. Come my dears,” she said and taking Ras’s extended arm they went to see what was left of the Slytherin common room.

She dare not turn to see his face. But she wished that she could.

Though he would have rather ignored Agatha, he could not help but overhear what she was saying. She mentioned that she was just messing with him—it seemed logical, her being a stuck up pureblood with a hatred for all muggleborns. But she could just be covering up for yet another one of her screw-ups. He was not sure, nor did he care. Agatha and he were through (if they were ever properly together in the first place), and all Avery could think of was interesting ways to get her back.

He continued walking away, laughing at the slight tremble in Agatha’s voice. She had been loosing her composure as of late, it seemed, and it was quite humorous. The usually composed Agatha Swales was loosing her grip on…whatever she had a grip on…It was priceless, really.

But Avery did not care about Agatha’s discomfort. He was angry (or he passed hurt off as anger) and was plotting against the Slytherin. She would pay…when he got a proper idea that is.

Donal walked into the Gryffindor Common Room, dropping next to his newly arrived bags on the bed, a slight scowl on his face. He had seen a firstie, Ras All-something or other, sucking up to Agatha as he passed by the Great Hall. What a toadying little brat Ras seemed! And of course, Agatha had been sucking it all up, like a leech. Still, at least he and Avery were friends again, after last year’s problems.

Donal smiled as he remembered some of last year. Avery could pack a punch, that was for certain. He was still amazed that they had never even had house points deducted for their two fights, one in the Great Hall, and one in the Hospital Wing, when they were recovering from the Great Hall!

Coming out of his reverie, Donal looked about the ruins of the common room. This had once been a magnificent and plush room, rich with red and gold paintwork and upholstery on the chairs. Now, there was very little left. He remembered the night of the fire…the panic in the Great Hall, friends dead…he swallowed, and put that scene out of his mind. He, along with most of the others, had escaped into Hogsmeade…

Donal looked around for Avery, wondering where his friend had got to.

Avery perhaps scared a few firsties when he entered. Not that it mattered. The more ominous he looked the better. His unmade hair hung over his eyes and what was still visible of his face was covered with a dark black shadow. At six-foot-two, he was at least twice the height of some of the firsties and cast a shadow on some who were in the right spot. It was great. Of course, he cared little for scaring firsties. He had to get to his room (or what was left of his room) to plot.

Little did he expect to find Talmorra there, but Avery was quite glad he did; the other boy was a master at plotting. Perhaps Donal would help plot against Agatha?

“Donal.” Berke said grimly, still looking down at the floor. “We gotta get Agatha.” His eyes flared red once again, showing up quite distinctly against his black hair.

Donal looked at Avery in surprise. Had he heard right? Avery wanted to get Agatha, after months of being her boyfriend?

Donal suddenly realized as he thought, That’s exactly how I felt when…

His mouth dropped a little. “I’m so sorry Avery. When did she…” he left the words unsaid, it still hurt him a little, well more than a little, to think about it.

And then he realized possibly why, or at least who. “She’s never going out with that snotty little firstie I saw sucking up to her in the Great Hall?” He exclaimed, a little shocked that Agatha would choose someone so much younger than herself.

His mind started ticking over. Avery was right. They needed to plan.

“Lets go up to our dorm, or at least what’s left of it. We have things to plan.” Donal said, leading the way to the blackened stairs.

Thank goodness Donal’s on my side, Avery thought. Any plan would now be brilliant and nearly foolproof.

He followed Donal up the stairs and slammed what remained of the door behind him. Still looking down, Avery shrugged. “No need to be sympathetic. I’m the idiot who didn’t see how horrid she was.” He moaned.

“So anyway, any ideas pop into your head right now? Preferably one that includes that dumb firstie?”

Donal frowned slightly. A lot depended on what Agatha was about to do, and he also needed to talk to Vivs and Aiko. Things were getting complicated.

He sat down on his bed. “I’ve got some vague ideas, but I need a little time to sort through them. I already had something in mind, but this latest turn of events complicates things. Let me think for a day or two while we see more what Agatha is up to. That will give us some better ideas I think.”

Avery nodded. “I would like to start working on something now,” he began, “but I’d rather have a better plan.” He shrugged. “So, in the meantime…”

Avery walked over to his trunk and kicked open the top. “Up for a nice large bonfire?” He pulled out his wand and began grabbing clothes out and piling them on the floor. They were nice, expensive clothes, but Agatha had helped him pick them out. She had wanted him to have a more proper wardrobe. But though they were nice, Avery did not really care for them. He much preferred his jeans.

Pulling off his black pants, Avery tossed them in the pile. “Can’t leave home without them.” he said, motioning towards a pair of faded jeans. “Luckily I forgot them last year when you destroyed my stuff.” He grimaced. Donal had burned all of his cloths while mad at Avery over Agatha.

“Just gotta remember to have Mom send me more clothes. So,” he turned to Donal “up for a burning?”

Donal grinned as Avery pulled out the clothes that Agatha had picked out. Yes, it was just the sort of thing she would do, dressing her boyfriend up to match her style.

But something in the back of his mind thought that they might be useful. Why ? Still, his hunches were not often wrong.

“Wait a second Avery. I’m not sure how, but they still might be useful. And anyway, if we are going to have a fire, why do it in our own dorm, which will smoke the place out? Better somewhere else.” Donal grinned, “How about a greenhouse?” He knew Avery hated plants.

Avery had always known that Donal was a genius. A greenhouse. Perfect. Kill all those dumb, evil plants. It would give him a sort of sadistic satisfaction.

There was one problem. “Erm, Donal…Agatha hates plants too. She wouldn’t care and it’s not getting back at her… But all the same…” Avery trailed off and shrugged. “Well, this’ll tide me over ’til we can get back properly at Agatha….”

His eyes once more flashed a brilliant shade of red and he peered out at Donal from behind his hair. An evil smirk formed on his lips, adding to his murderous look. “Maybe we can burn her precious clothes…in addition to something else.” He let out a short, eerie laugh.

This would be fun. And the great thing, was he had no misgivings about it, even though the school had just recently burned down.

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