Chapter 34

The House of Swales

So.

So this was how it felt to be grown up.

She had of course been aspiring to this state for years and indeed it was very hard to think of Agatha Swales as ever having been a child. A mini grown up, yes. A child, no. And perhaps this was truly a pitiable state of affairs, never having known true fun, or games, or childish pursuits. But Agatha required no pity today, or ever.

Today was her day.

Today was her eighteenth birthday.

She scrutinized her fair face in the mirror, turning this way and that, moving gracefully to see all angles. Yes, yes, truly she thought that she could see the difference!

This was her day.

Or let us say more accurately her week.

Events at school that week had been…more than satisfactory let us say. True the plan had not been utterly completed, but it was enough, and perhaps after all better this way. It had been so so hard to contain first her nervous anticipation, oh the agony of those hours of waiting, of not knowing. And then the knowledge, the flooding of different sensations, emotions of joy and more so of pride. Those spells had been very, very difficult. Never had she attempted so much at such a distance. Her charm work was so truly splendid darhling.

And now, now tonight was the night of her soiree and she had much, much more work to do. There was the question of he. For without this question, none of the rest mattered.

Up to now Agatha had played her part. She had kept away. Left the dreadful mudbloods to their all too public grief. It was not her place, and she had shown, she reflected happily, her deep sensitivity and caring nature by staying away.

Now, it was time to visit. Agatha Swales ran one finger over her shining hair and tugged at the belt of her Dolce e Gabbana tartan skirt. It was time. Time to go visit Avery Berke and the half dead worm.

The Saturday after the fateful Quidditch game, the Hospital Wing, previously mostly empty, filled up with many of Vivi’s friends and classmates. The sudden spike in visitation was due in part to the absence of classes and in part to the realization that the day marked a week’s time since Vivi had first entered a coma. She still showed no change.

Agatha quietly, gently, pushed open the door of the Hospital Wing. Despite the fact that it was far from empty, the place still had a hushed, white, sterile atmosphere.

Agatha, an angel of mercy, in a wrap over white Chloe top and white Ugg boots, clutched at a small bouquet of yellow flowers, beautifully tied and arranged.

It was obvious which one was Vivi, although she could not see her yet. Hers was the crowded bedside, the one where a motley variety of people, some of whom she did not recognize, seemed almost to be camped out around.

And he was there too. Of course he was. Where else? He did not see her, he was not looking, his head was in his hands. He was at some distance from the other mourners.

Agatha moved quietly along, her snowy boots silent on the gleaming floor. She got a better look at the people around the bed. The Muggles could only be the Moors themselves and Agatha, social convention queen, felt it safest to address them first.

She laid her beautiful bouquet on the end of Vivi’s bed.

“Mr. and Mrs. Moor,” she murmured respectfully, “I was so sorry to hear about Vivi. I cannot pretend to you we are the best of friends, but I just wanted to tell you how truly sorry I am, but…I shall no longer intrude on your privacy. It was nice to have met you, I wish it could have been in more favorable circumstances.”

Mr. and Mrs. Moor nodded, acknowledging her presence before being distracted by other visitors, and Agatha smiled sorrowfully. It was her longest and certainly the only polite speech she had ever made to Muggle parents of any sort. She felt very proud of herself.

Then she moved away and with a rush of genuine pain she saw what grief had done to him.

She knelt beside him and put one small, reassuring hand tentatively on his knee, to alert him to her presence.

Avery didn’t look up, but he saw a perfectly manicured hand come to rest on his knee and knew immediately who it was. Agatha Swales, the Slytherin who wasn’t human enough to leave him alone, the girl who insisted on rubbing pounds of salt in fresh wounds. He showed no emotion as he knocked the smaller hand off his knee.

“Never touch me again…” he said softly, dangerously.

“Oh Avery,” Agatha said and there was a pain in her chest too as she looked upon him. “Oh, Avery, I am so sorry.” She wanted to hug him, to hold him, to stroke his beautiful hair, to make everything better.

She did none of these things of course.

Instead she waited.

“Why is it,” Avery said, staring at a crack in the floor, “that you live to make me more miserable? Do you get some sort of sick pleasure out of seeing me depressed?” After a few seconds of silence, he looked up at her, tears streaming freely down his face. He didn’t wipe them away. Voice shaking slightly and barely above a whisper, he asked, “Why are you here?”

Agatha’s heart thudded horribly within her chest. She wondered vaguely if he had any idea of the pain which he, in turn, had caused her, both now and over the course of many years.

She could have almost anybody she chose. Anybody. Yet she chose rejection, pain and humiliation at the hands of Avery Berke. Again. And again. And again.

What was wrong with her?

Yet this could not all be in vain. It could not. Would not. She was prepared for it. But it hurt her just the same.

She looked at him; she returned his bitter glance with eyes which shone true. “Don’t say that Avery,” she said quietly. “I have just brought some flowers for Vivi, that’s all. I know Vivi and I are not friends, and I told her parents as much myself. I am not acting a part, but I was trying to make amends before this happened. Now…” she paused and tried to read his emotions in his well-known and beloved face. “I just wanted to say how sorry I was. To her parents…and…and…to you. I care a lot about you, Avie,” she whispered. “You are not alone, if you ever want to talk or…or a shoulder to cry on…or…or anything, then I am here for you,” she whispered.

She did not dare to push her luck by touching him again, although the urge to do so was almost impossibly strong. She looked down and closed her lips tightly together, suppressing whatever emotions she was feeling.

“You’ve made my life hell…” Avery said softly. He looked down once again at the floor. “You’ve made her life hell. Now she’s as good as dead and you come in here and…a-and…”

He started crying harder, voice choked out as he gasped for air.

He didn’t want to admit it, but he loved both of them. Agatha and Vivi. Those two hated each other more than, possibly, any other two people in the world, and Avery was stuck in the middle because of his history with both.

Over seven years at Hogwarts, Agatha had been the bitch who made him want to kill the world. Vivi had been the annoyingly chipper Huth that had annoyed him when he was angry at the world. Yet despite their extreme differences, he’d managed to love them both.

It confused him too much to think about it.

“Why does life have to be so confusing?” he asked suddenly, voice high and squeaky and broken. “Why can’t it just be simple. Why do the Fates have to screw with everything…?”

He brushed past Agatha and left the Wing, wiping his eyes desperately to get rid of the tears.

Agatha remained kneeling where she was for a moment longer before she permitted herself to rise. She would follow him, naturally, but he also needed time and space to work things through. She could not take him in her arms and into her life with still those tears…not yet. Not yet.

He loved her still. She could not say why she was so sure of this, perhaps merely because to accept anything less would mean the ruination of all her hopes and plans. And yet it was more than this too. In amidst the long years of bitterness and hatred there had been moments–even whilst he was with the sniveler–moments when she had felt his eyes upon her, a feeling that he was watching and wanting an indefinable something.

There was a connection there that neither of them could deny. A bond which no chipper Mudblood girl could ever get close too. It was a bond for life, together or apart; Agatha Swales knew her life was bound to that of Avery Berke.

Quietly, respectfully, she made her way out of the doors which swung noiselessly to in her wake.

He hadn’t gone very far.

Agatha was perhaps more lovely in her concern that she had ever been in her haughtiness.

“You don’t have to do this alone, Avie,” she murmured. “Don’t turn me away. You know I love you.”

Avery didn’t turn around. He stared resolutely at a worn-out tapestry through tear-filled eyes that he refused, on principle alone, to wipe. He focused on breathing, fought shaking, resisted falling to the ground and bawling in a crumpled heap.

He turned slowly, rigidly to face Agatha who, though all the tears, resembled little more than a blond blur.

Rather than sob and whine and moan which even he thought he would do, he started chuckling, softly at first. Agatha looked shocked, clearly confused. First crying, then laughing, then hysteria had overtaken him. His laughter bounced off the walls and carried far down the empty corridor.

“That’s the problem!” he said, voice rising with each word. “You love me, I love you, but it hurts too freaking much!

“What part of you thinks this is easy?” He let out another hysterical, humorless laugh. “When has it ever been easy? For years we’ve done this. Going in and out of love and hate and lust and…”

He stopped flailing his arms about and stared fixatedly at Agatha. As suddenly as he’d started laughing, he stopped. Voice now impossibly soft, he wiped his eyes furiously and said, “It can’t work… Love shouldn’t hurt like this…”

Avery turned away from Agatha and stared once again at the tapestry. It was of a grossly deformed person being force-fed a rather foul looking brown potion. Maybe the brown liquid was to remove the boils and crooked features, but Avery wondered why it was outside the Hospital of all places. Of all things to show, a deformity rather than a healthy person. It gave people no hope. It showed someone being healed, but…

…where was the reason to hope? Why should he think Vivi would pull through?

Avery almost laughed at the irony.

“Why do we even dare to love…?” he asked himself, still staring at the tapestry. “What do we get out of it…?

“Vivi’s dying and…it hurts…” He wiped his eyes again, turned back to Agatha, and shook his head slowly. “It’s like something…ripping at my insides until I split in two because I know she…she…”

He didn’t finish. He coughed a few times to clear his throat and looked down at the ground.

“Why can’t I just walk away? What’s making me…” He paused as tears began rolling down his face and off his chin. He ignored them, deciding not to fight tears that wouldn’t stop.

“…why do I care…?”

He loved her. He loved her. She heard the words over and over again in the agonized accents in which he spoke them. And all else faded. It was enough. He did love her. She was right. And now that the tears flowed freely from his eyes in a ceaseless stream, she could no longer refrain.

“It will be alright Avery. She will survive just you see,” she murmured putting her arms around him and pulling him to her. She cradled his head in her hands and stroked his beautiful black hair. Now was not a time for romance but for comfort, for care, for compassion. “It will be alright,” she whispered into his hair. “It will be alright Avie, it will be all right my love, oh my love, it will, it will.”

He cried and she let him. Her beautiful white Chloe top was wet with tears. And she didn´t mind. Not even one little bit. Time may have stopped for the Moors inside the wing with the shattered remains of their daughter on the bed. But for Agatha, oddly, perversely, this was one of the happiest moments of her life. She held him, held Avery Berke, supported him, loved him, just as she would all the days of her life.

Nothing was real anymore. Nothing mattered. The castle could have crumbled down around them and Avery wouldn’t have noticed. He had barely heard what Agatha had said to him, and even if he had processed it, he couldn’t have responded. Tears were falling too freely to allow for words, and everything that had happened wouldn’t allow for coherent thoughts.

So he just stood with her in the middle of the corridor, head burried in the crook of her neck, arms tight around her shoulders.

It was comfort. Friends, lovers, enemies–he had no idea what they were. She was just comfort. Nothing more, nothing less.

At the moment, it was enough.

It was early evening. An oh-so-perfect crystal evening. Frost patterned the window frames of the Slytherin common room and the air was full and ripe with expectation.

Agatha wandered dreamily through the room, thinking of her too, too superb gown lying in layers upon layers of tissue upstairs. It was a Carolina Herrera, the latest New York season, with delicate layers of Georgette chiffon all in black to add a startling contrast to her white blonde locks, which now cascaded down her back in sleek waves.

This would truly be Agatha’s night. She intended to sparkle. Or shine. Or both.

The Slytherin room itself had been done up in the utmost taste and design, yet minimalistically naturally, in subtle greens and golds. Yes, Agatha was ready for this night. A small smile flickered around her lips. Tonight she would perfect her triumph. Tonight he was hers, hers alone and hers to keep.

While Agatha reflected on the upcoming party, Avery was frantically trying to prepare for it.

He had almost considered not going. It wasn’t so much Agatha–they were speaking again, and very civilly at that–but Vivi. Vivi was comatose, nearly dead, and he was going to his ex’s party. It almost felt like a betrayal.

But Agatha had been there for him in the corridor when he’d broken down. She had held him and let him cry until he couldn’t anymore. He owed it to her to be there on her special day.

He looked in the mirror and straightened his tie, wanting desperately to rip off the offending material. He had never before worn a tie (much less a complete, entirely-too-expensive suit). It was choking him despite there being several centimeters between skin and fabric.

Avery didn’t own a suit, so Donal had loaned him one of his–an Armani, because Armani was supposed to be good, with a blue and white stripped shirt and a blue stripped tie. (Due to Avery’s being so tall, they’d called a house elf to magically alter the clothes.)

He thought he looked stupid, but Donal, more than once, had reassured him that he looked fine, that Agatha would be pleased, so stop worrying. Avery, of course, didn’t believe him, and was reluctant to leave the dorm and be seen in public. Jeans were more his thing. Collars were fine, but ties were pushing it.

If only Agatha hadn’t said “formal.”

Avery let Donal leave first under the pretense that he needed to, yet again, check his appearance in the mirror (a mirror which was getting increasingly annoyed with him. It had already shouted at him twice.) Donal didn’t argue, but threatened that he’d better not take the suit off and put on other clothes, and that he’d better get his butt down to Slytherin before the party ended.

Thirty minutes after Donal had left, Avery left too. Any longer and Donal (and quite possibly Agatha) would kill him.

Donal’s shoes had also been enlarged, but they still felt uncomfortable and foreign as he walked. He looked down at them and almost collided with a small blond boy who looked very annoyed with him. Avery didn’t apologize, and the boy made a rather offensive hand gesture.

Avery ignored him.

A few minutes later he found himself in front of the Hospital Wing, staring at the doors and debating whether or not to go in.

Am I betraying her, going to Agatha’s party? Going without her?

They’d been planning to go together, though neither had looked forward to it. Vivi had gotten her dress, Donal had assured him he would loan him a suit. Everything had been taken care of.

Then Vivi died, life started sucking, and Avery had to go alone.

He walked forward and placed an open palm on one of the doors, as if to push it open. He stood there for a moment before withdrawing his hand, shoving it in his pocket, and walking down the corridor toward the dungeons.

Sorry, Vivs…don’t hate me.

Avery handed an elf outside the entrance to the common room his invitation. The elf looked it over, nodded, and said the password. Avery brushed past it and into the common room filled with people he barely knew, people he didn’t like, and people he didn’t care existed.

He spotted the bar in the corner and hurried over to it. A third year walked away with what looked like Firewhiskey, so Avery, confident that he could get alcohol, told the elf  “Scotch, neat.”

Yay for alcohol… he thought, downing almost half the glass in one gulp. He rarely drank–his parents didn’t like what alcohol did–but he needed something to ease his nerves.

Something to ease his guilt.

Nothing better than alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.

Three drinks later, he was somewhat tipsy, but felt at peace with the world and with the whole situation. But still he stood alone in a corner, avoiding people, taking an abnormal amount of interest in his empty martini glass and the lonely olive sitting in it.

So very very lonely, he thought, staring at it.

While Avery was absorbed in the martini glass, a change slowly spread across the room. It grew quite and expectant; the hostess was due to arrive any minute now.

Agatha was ready. She exited her dormitory and walked slowly toward the common room, glimmering in the soft evening light.

She paused at the top of the stairs.

The party was lively, the music a mellow jazz track that set the mood and ambience. People, her friends and those whom she had invited merely to create an impression, talked animatedly below, sipping champagne and an array of divine cocktails.

The up-lights caught in her hair and the firelight danced on the walls.

Agatha was a pretty girl, elegant and refined, but tonight she was beautiful. Beauty which money, birth and breeding had done all to augment and perfect.

Her green eyes cast around until they targeted her quarry. Alone, reclusive, drinking in a corner, yet she could not help but smile when she saw that, after all, he had not been able to resist the opportunity to come to her soiree.

At that moment, Avery Berke looked up.

When he saw Agatha, he stood up and took a small step forward.

His eyes were glued to her as she descended slowly, gracefully, perfectly.

The olive went unnoticed and uncared for in the empty glass.

She watched him watching her. From the corner of her eye she felt his glance caress her form as she smiled at the company at large. A solitary diamond glistened at her throat, her sole adornment.

“Darhling,” she said air-kissing Abbigale who sailed up to her looking utterly charming in a Farhi tulle gown. “Fabulous cut,” she murmured, “Perfect shade too sweetie. Having a diverting time?” she said looking archly at Alex Stone ,to whom Abbigale had been talking. He was so suitable. So right. So imperative to get him away from the weepy Puth too.

Left and right Agatha greeted her guests, all of whom she noted with pleasure, were suitably attired. Even the filthy mudbloods seemed to have borrowed something moderately suitable for the occasion.

She let him wait and knew that he would. Finally, as if almost an afterthought, she moved over towards him and fixed him with her cat like eyes.

“Avery,” she smiled softly. “I am so pleased you came.” She kissed him lightly on both cheeks and felt the warmth of his touch and the scent of his body. “Another drink darling?” she asked and summoned one for him. “Scoth, neat am I right?” she asked and knew that she was.

He smiled weakly and took a sip of a new drink, eyes glued to the floor in an attempt to not stare mindlessly at Agatha. She did look wonderful. Any boy with eyes would think so. But things between them were still a little strained, and there was still Vivi, so staring stupidly at her would do nothing but make things more awkward.

But looking down at the ground would make him look spineless and cowardly.

She was complicated. It was hard to figure out what she wanted and what would satisfy her, and lots and lots of alcohol did nothing to ease that confusion.

“Thanks,” he said, looking over at her and smiling, deciding staring was better than cowardice. “Just what I need, more alcohol.”

Two scotches and a martini (which he decided he didn’t like) were quickly affecting him, and a third scotch wouldn’t make things any better.

He offered her his right arm. “So, beautiful,” he joked, smiling widening, “make me socialize. Standing in a corner does nothing to make me…” He trailed off and his smile faltered as what he’d been thinking about came rushing back to him. “It doesn’t distract me. I keep thinking, you know? Help me stop thinking.”

While he hated to forget about Vivi, he wouldn’t enjoy himself if he kept thinking about her. He’d keep drowning his sorrows in scotch and vodka and whiskey and skulk around the common room brooding.

Agatha would kill him for that.

Vivi was dead and Avery was depressed, so he was determined to enjoy himself, if for nothing more than a short distraction from life and all its miseries.

Agatha’s immaculate face clouded over slightly. That, again. Her, again. Would she ever be free of the persecution of the sniveller? Even in near death it seemed she was pursuing her.

It was unforgivable of the Berke to even bring up a reference to that person on this day of all days. Still, in her role of comforting friend she had to be gracious. It was all too, too trying.

But thankfully not for long. Tonight she intended to wipe away the black clouds which hung over Avery Berke for good.

Luckily Amelia Groves chose that moment to join the conversation. Her bright presence was most welcome at this juncture.

“Having fun, dahlings?” Amelia asked.

Having been brought up into a society of fancy soireé’s and evening balls Amelia was well educated in party behaviour. She had carefully selected her outfit so as not to outshine the hostess, although of course when it came down to natural beauty it was hard to outshine Agatha Swales.

“Utterly diverting of course my dear,” Agatha said lightly, favoring Amelia with a flashing smile and air kissing her in greeting. “Fabulous dress sweetie, and oh Manolo Blahniks, mm divine,” she said gazing in approval at her shoes. “You do of course know Mr. Berke,” she asked archly, attempting to draw Avery into more suitable thoughts and acquaintances, and to stop him staring vacantly into the bottom of the tumbler which he appeared to have drained – again.

Agatha sipped lightly on her own champagne cocktail. It was most pleasant but one could not afford to become drunk. One must always remain in control.

“I don’t know if we’ve properly met.” Avery disentangled himself from Agatha for a moment, took Amelia’s offered hand and kissed it lightly, then returned to Agatha’s side.

Her arm found his again, and her presence reminded him of her expectations. It was her party, her special day, and there would be hell to pay should he do anything to embarrass her. Be polite, proper, cordial, yet still Avery. Gush over her, yet pay attention to her friends, and still be genuine. Be funny, yet serious, arm candy, yet not silent.

Brilliantly simple. Thankfully four drinks helped simplify things.

Avery spotted a house elf out of the corner of his eye and beckoned the ugly creature over. Its grotesquely large ears poked out from behind a large silver tray piled high with empty glasses and dirtied plates. Avery wondered how it managed to avoid collisions with the guests and how it managed to not drop all the dishes, yet it found its way through the crowd to where Avery, Agatha, and Amelia stood.

Avery set his empty glass on the wobbling pile, and the elf disappeared with a loud pop, hopefully to relieve itself of its excessive load.

Avery turned his attention back to the girls, satisfied that he had enough alcohol in his system. All his anxieties were gone. Vivi was almost completely forgotten, and Agatha and her friends were no longer intimidating him. And he didn’t feel choked in his suit. That was, perhaps, the best effect of the alcohol.

“Pleasure,” he said to Amelia, maintaining eye contact with her while lightly squeezing Agatha’s arm to show that he hadn’t forgotten her.

Agatha positively beamed! None of the overly polite, forced socialite smiles, but a rapturous glance. Now that was more like it. Avery was behaving admirably, beautifully, as she had always known he could. This now, was the old Avery, the Avery of the days of their youth. Polite, charming, able to mix in the very best of circles. They were all wrong and she was right. She had seen his potential, this could be worked upon! She saw Amelia’s surprise, carefully mirrored of course and the second appraisal of the Gryffindor which she was now taking.

Avery, at nearly eighteen, was a very good looking boy. The two of them looked well together and Agatha was very aware of it. She was tall and elegant enough to look well by his side, which is more than could ever be said for the midget Puth, and his dark complexion brought out the fairness of hers. All he had lacked was finesse and charm. Now, she thought, absentmindedly finishing off the cocktail which she had intended to last a good hour longer and taking another off a passing slave, he is quite, quite perfect.

She looked up at him. Her heart raced wildly and she grinned stupidly.

Avery turned to look at Agatha and flashed a grin to rival her uncharacteristically foolish one. She was beautiful no matter what, but when she smiled, her cold, calm exterior melted away. She seemed almost vulnerable, more human than the manipulative pureblood Avery had grown to hate. Her eyes, once devious and calculating, no longer held the same malice. They were alive, inviting.

Avery had never seen that in her before, but it made his past hatred for her evaporate like the past had. It was gone, forgotten, and it no longer affected him. She was…something yet undefined, his friend, but so much more, yet nothing more. He didn’t know, but that mystery was for another day.

She’d taken away his pain. That’s all that mattered at the moment.

“It was so good meeting you,” Avery said, turning his attention back to Amelia, “but Agatha should get to her other guests.” He took her hand once more and kissed it. “We’ll have to get together one day, the three of us, away from such a ridiculously large crowd. That way, we can actually carry on a proper conversation. Get to know each other. After all, I know none of Agatha’s friends. Best to start soon.”

He smiled at Amelia, inclined his head to her, and steered a still-smiling Agatha back into the crowd. There was something different about her now, something approachable, friendly, kind. Avery found himself thinking of nothing but Agatha, glad he was with her, comfortable and content, and no longer depressed over a half-dead girl in the Hospital.

He looked over at her again and smiled once more. “What?” he asked, letting out a short chuckle. She wouldn’t stop smiling. Avery didn’t mind, but why? What was so wonderful?

Agatha felt the pressure of his arm tight against her skin and she burned at his touch. She smiled up at him. “What?” she answered. “What? What Avie? What?” She giggled. She couldn’t help it. Call it champagne if you like. Call it her birthday. Call it happiness. But she smiled with joy from the inside out.

And suddenly she knew. Knew that this would finally be all right. Knew that what she had hoped. What she had dreamed. What she had nearly killed for would come to pass. He loved her. He wanted her. Her, Agatha. Not the sniveller. The past was irrelevant, her guests were irrelevant. Quietly she guided him through the drunken throng and up the ebony staircase.

As Avery followed Agatha up the staircase, he saw a few people staring at him. They knew as well as he what was going to happen, but frankly he didn’t care about them. About anything for that matter. Vivi was dead and the furthest thing from his mind, those people downstairs could talk all they liked, and Agatha…

…Avery didn’t know what to think. There was no simple answer to it all. So he didn’t think. The alcohol was all he needed. Thoughts of anything, of regret, of pain, of actual love went out the window.

He was here, with her, someone he’d once loved and very well could love again.

That was all that mattered.

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