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Humble Beginnings

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"What do you mean no?"

"I won't do it."

"You're afraid to."

"I won't do it!"

"Pansy-arse." Arms folded across her chest, Rita glared at Bella, whose sugar quill had dissolved into a sticky mess in the corners of her pouty lips. How have her teeth not rotted through? Rita found herself wondering for the umpteenth time. She took a moment to scoff at the sight of the formidable witch draped, hosiery-clad, across the edge of the massive swimming pool that was the Prefects' bathtub. Rita wasn't a Prefect, of course, but in being the Quidditch commentator had somehow weaseled her way into holding similar privileges.

At the other end of the tub, Rosmerta scoffed.

"You've got her then, Rita, if that's the most colorful objection she can muster," she said waspishly, shrugging off her robe and slipping into the hot water. She wrinkled her nose. "Speaking of colors, must you always use these pink bubbles? You know I can't stand the smell of roses."

"I prefer the scarlet ones," Bella drawled. Almost tenderly, she trailed a finger across the surface of the water so that its magenta sheen was disturbed. Rosmerta released a sound of abhorrence.

"Those give one the rather morbid impression of bathing in blood." Raising her heavy eyes from a leisurely examination of her own legs, Bella smirked dangerously. A delicate flick of her wrist had violet droplets springing from her fingertips.

"That's why I love them, dearie," she retorted on a croon. Rosmerta's eyelids twitched.

"Ghastly thing."

"You dote on me."

"Of course." Rita didn't bother concealing the roll of her eyes at the instant proclamation of devotion; the recognition of it was needless.

"You two are awfully narcissistic," she commented from her place beside the faucets.

"You don't include yourself? How disappointing." Bella's mock pout was fairly lecherous. Piling her curls atop her head, Rosmerta eyed Rita from beneath her arm.

"Narcissistic? How do you figure that? I was under the impression that I was complimenting a friend." Rita sniggered.

"You two are perfect images of each other; your obsession with one another is fantastically self-absorbed," she elaborated. Twirling a finger through her hair, Rosmerta hummed in agreement.

"You're no better, though," she said decisively. "Only a masochist would relish our company. Speaking of — "

Rita groaned. She had hoped that their easy banter would dispense any lingering thoughts of what she had been asked to do. She should have known better with Rosmerta and Bella; the two of them clung to mischief like flies to a honeypot.

"Don't think you're getting out of this one," Bella warned, waving a slender finger admonishingly. "You've evaded my last three suggestions well, but I'll hear no more excuses."

"But — " Rita tried to protest but halted at the hard look sent her way. "Fine. When?"

"Next weekend during the Hogsmeade visit," Bella responded promptly. "And there's no need to look so grumpy — we all know that you wouldn't have been able to hold your own against us forever." Rita didn't bother to deny it; it would have been foolish to presume that she could have resisted Rosmerta's charms let alone Bella's cunning logic. Admittedly, that logic most often included blackmail, but it managed to be convincing nevertheless.

She took a moment to observe the picture they made lounging across the bench-like seats of the massive tub, damp curls plastered to their necks and eyes glowing subtly in the lilac-suffused mist weighing heavily in the humid air. Here, their edges were softer, rounder, and somehow less menacing though the potency of their persuasion remained undiminished. Their presence took on another tone in this atmosphere, one dyed yellow with effected weariness and muted charms of a more seductive sort.

Rita didn't need to look into one of the full-wall mirrors to know how out of place she appeared beside them. Her heavy features and bony limbs were in stark contrast to her friends' easy and more languorous beauty. Neither of them had ever made any note of it, but she had listened for seven years to whispers slithering through corridors; it didn't take much devotion to the matter to see that others had noticed. Rita wasn't particularly the self-conscious type, but still, she couldn't help but feel that she had something to prove every time a challenge like this came up. She hated feeling as though she were only half-worthy of their company.

"You're doing it again." Ah, perceptive Rosmerta at work once more; she always noticed when Rita's thoughts were out of whack. "You'll grow into your figure, Rita; stop looking so morose."

"But you already have," Rita couldn't help but whining, eyeing the aristocratic arch of Bella's nose though the fuzzy air. If she crossed her eyes, the lines of her own nose in the mirror seemed blurry and distinctly disproportionate.

"It's genetics," Bella explained patiently. She had tilted her neck back so that her head rested against the lip of the tub in a rare show of relaxation. "Some people age more quickly than others. You've got to have good blood, otherwise filth seeps in and you'll be thirty by the time you've lost your baby fat." Rosmerta clucked her tongue, delicately flicking some water at Bella. Bella's eyes had slipped shut.

"I'm related to the Selwyns." Rita was related to someone else every week. Last week it had been the Notts, and the week before that, Slytherin. She wasn't sure why she found the need — Bella didn't boast about her Rosier lineage. She didn't need to; anyone who wasn't a Muggleborn knew the pureblood family trees by heart. Rosmerta too undoubtedly possessed some high-born ancestors, but, like Bella, she saw no need to bring it to attention.

Rita would take all the attention she could get, but it didn't matter here. Bella and Rosmerta paid no mind to the constant altering of her heritage, and far from being offended, Rita found she welcomed the lack of credence given to her fancies. She reveled in embellishment, but sometimes a glint of reality proved equally enjoyable.

"I'm descended from Rowena Ravenclaw, too," she added for good measure. They ignored her. Rosmerta's eyes had also fluttered shut.

"More bubbles, then, Bella?" she drawled.

"I think so, dearie," Bella answered serenely, head lolling on the tile. "Rita?"

Wordlessly, Rita rose to spin the tap that relinquished more fragrant scarlet bubbles. As she leaned over Bella several drops of water were transferred from her arm to a porcelain cheek.

"Thanks, Bugs."

"Shut it."

Rosmerta chuckled lowly.

"You're sure it's not dangerous?" Rita asked for the seventh time, glancing anxiously at her companions. Rosmerta was too heavily wrapped in scarves to respond coherently, but Bella shrugged.

"I told you, I can't be positive," she admitted. "Nothing should go wrong — of course, everything could go wrong and you could be incinerated on contact, but that's doubtful. Most likely the worst that will happen is that you'll get thrown back and shocked into your human form while still twenty feet in the air. Overall, though, there's no reason why you shouldn't make it through unscathed. You should be fine, and Rosmerta did some research for you — didn't you, love?" Behind her balaclava, Rosmerta managed something of a nod. A moment later, she tugged the material down long enough to speak.

"I can't guarantee anything, though," she warned. "I had to dig through three restricted books to find any sort of information about protective wards of the sort they've got up around this place. Obviously, they don't affect animals, and everything I found suggested that an Animagus should react the same way, but there's nothing specific citing that information, so . . . you'll just have to wing it." Eyeing the school's boundary appraisingly, Bella sniggered at the unintentional pun but did not remove her focus from the invisible barrier some twenty feet in front of them.

"And did you have any plans of telling me exactly why I'm risking my life to find out how to break into a school?" Rita couldn't quite keep the snide tone from her voice; this hadn't been her idea. Besides, the mid-February wind was positively freezing.

"No," Bella replied smoothly. "Just — it's for a cause, all right, Rita? And you know how sweetcheeks here loves a good cause." Beside them, Rosmerta made a muffled grunt of agreement, and Rita sighed.

A garbled noise issued from Rosmerta's many scarves.

"It'll be fine," Bella translated, ever the wedge between Rosmerta and the world. "It will," she insisted when Rita shot her an incredulous look. "Listen, in ten minutes you'll either be dead or back inside the castle having a hot bath. Either way, it'll be over and you'll have nothing to worry about." Though she could not keep an eyebrow from twitching upwards, Rita chose not to question the logic. In a way, Bella was right, though her words weren't exactly what one would call comforting.

"I don't have to do this, you know," Rita said in a final half-hearted attempt at a protest. Eyebrows raised, Bella turned to face her.

"But you will." It wasn't a question, and for a moment Rita found herself unable to formulate a reply.

"I didn't agree to this," she said feebly after a moment of struggle.

"Actually, you did," Bella countered.

"You coerced me," Rita shot back. Bella's eyebrows shifted higher.

"Then you know how pointless it would be to keep arguing," she said simply, and Rita gave up. Taking a deep breath, she turned her attention to the high wall rising some twenty feet into the air, the rest of the barricade apparently extending upwards as an invisible ward. As another gust of wind ripped through their robes, she shivered; the sun had nearly dropped behind the mountains, and with it had fallen the temperature. Curfew required them to be inside soon, and she would be glad to obey. The thought of the steaming bath awaiting them — one of their traditional evening pastimes, used as a time to unwind and gossip — made her all the more eager to get this little adventure over-with.

"Take your cloak off." For one strange moment of limbo Rita imagined they were readying themselves for the bath already, but another blast of wind woke her to reality, and she stared at Bella in disbelief.

"What?" Rolling her eyes, Bella clicked her fingers impatiently. "Your cloak, smarty; you'll want it in one piece if you make it to the other side alive — and if you don't, incidentally, I want it. You'll let me have it, won't you? Just because you love me?" She fixed Rita with one of her signature pouty-lipped expressions, the false I-want-something-from-you face rather than her actual look of pleading, that being reserved solely for Rosmerta.

"If I'm dead, I don't see that I'll have much of a choice," Rita muttered, and Bella clapped a deceptively strong hand to her shoulder blithely.

"Wonderful," she declared cheerfully. "Now off with it, and off with you before I freeze to death out here in these shoes."

"You didn't have to wear those shoes," Rita grumbled, though she was careful to do so at least partially out of Bella's hearing. In reluctant obedience, she shed her cloak and tossed it to Bella, who caught it with a grin, before turning back around. Shivering, her arms wrapped around her torso, she approached the wall trepidatiously.

Closing her eyes, she forced herself to push aside all thoughts of cold and irritation, her focus narrowing to a single, invisible point, and concentrated on summoning the atoms in the very tips of her fingers, felt them protest like achy joints before altering . . .

Her glittery wings opened automatically just in time to break her free-fall to the snowy ground. Quickly, she tested her new muscles, settling into their familiar feel. The world looked different through eyes this size, not just in terms of proportion but also in clarity; she could see every detail of the stones in front of her. She had been ecstatic last year to find that her eyesight in this form was impeccable.

Diving briefly to avoid a sudden swirl of wind, Rita shook aside the newness of her transformation and re-focused her energy into ascending parallel to the wall. Within several seconds she had reached the top, and, glancing down briefly, saw Bella grinning and motioning her forward. She couldn't inhale deeply through her beetle mouth, but Rita took a moment to settle herself, eyes focused on the distant castle, before allowing the energy in her wings to build up and propel her forward towards the invisible barrier.

Why, for the love of Morgana's impeccable arse, did I ever agree to this nonsense?

She hardly had time to wonder it before, with the suddenness of a lightning bolt, something huge and black swooped out of the dusky sky.

Swerving instinctively away from the barrier, Rita let out a silent shriek as the bat darted past her. Missing her by inches, it shot in the direction of the forest only to backtrack rapidly and come pelting back towards her like a bullet. Moving on autopilot, Rita was forced to execute a complicated maneuver in order to avoid it as it came speeding back. She attempted frantically to regain her bearings, dizzy from somersaulting, and a moment later rolled clumsily out of the way just in time to avoid being swallowed.

She was allowed a slight reprieve as the bat braked to circle back. Desperate now, Rita forced herself to remain steady, and was able to shoot forwards as the creature pursued her once again. As she zigzagged ahead, a strange fuzzy sensation tickled her wings. For one panicked moment, she imagined that she had been caught, but dropping into a swan dive to avoid a fifth attack, she saw that the wall no longer stood between her and the castle; she had made it through the barrier.

All that was left to do now was land. If only she could make it to the ground to transform she would be safe, but the bat was returning for a sixth attempt, and this time she could sense that its aim was true. Desperately, she beat her wings with all her strength, but it was no use; with five feet to go, Rita bore down with her mind and a moment later slammed into the ground, human, in a wild tangle of robes, shrieks, and flapping bat wings.

Once she had caught her breath, Rita blinked away snow to find Bella rolling on the ground amidst gales of laughter. Rosmerta stood above her, scarves off and a gobsmacked expression plastered across her face.

"Shut up," Rita snapped, struggling to her feet as the shocked bat took off into the darkness. Doubled over, Bella continued to wheeze.

"Like a bat out of hell."

Rita scowled.