Disclaimer: I may not own Harry Potter, but I totally own all these words I use. Yeah, that's right, bucko! Don't you dare steal my words! Make up your own, you lazy bum! The, a, and – they're all mine! Someday, someone's going to sue me thanks to my facetious disclaimers, aren't they?
Introduction: A long time ago in just about the same spot I'm sitting in right now, I began writing this silly little story right here, intending for it to become a short one-shot of no more than 10,000 words. It was once supposed to be a small bonus piece for readers that enjoyed a story of mine called Thresholds, which I published here back in 2013. Yeah. That worked out really well.
At some point I figured that any writer of Harry Potter fanfiction that takes themselves even remotely seriously should have a Yule Ball story in their repertoire. Obviously. It's basically a rite of passage in these circles, right? Am I just making this up? Nah. It's what differentiates the cool kids on the block from the pedestrian dilettantes. It's like reaching that level in Scientology where, after a couple of generous donations to their noble cause, they first reveal to you that their deeply spiritual exercise is based on the writings of a mentally unstable science fiction author. Only less insane and insidious, perhaps, but just as much fun.
So, I really just wanted to cast off the shackles of illusory originality here and write my own alternate version of the whole Yule Ball scenario, completely ignoring the fact that by now this particular part of the Harry Potter microcosm has most likely been done in every possible way in which it could either reasonably or unreasonably be done. I'm fully convinced that by now someone out there has passionately depicted Hagrid and Dobby discovering their eternal love for one another on the Yuletide dance floor while Mr. Filch is going Full Travolta on Professor Sprout. That's not what this story is going for, by the way. How many disappointed readers did I just lose?
Anyway, here we are. I won't lament how this story has basically been over two and a half years in the making because it got super messy and I got super frustrated and nothing really went the way I wanted and I gave up and I came back and eventually I somehow arrived at some sort of conclusion and finally declared the thing done and to hell with it I don't even care anymore I really just wanna write something else at this point so take it or leave it. Because that would be crazy.
Instead, let's jump right in and just see what happens. Don't tell me, though! I hate spoilers.
"To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love."
- Jane Austen
Hearts on Detours
• Chapter I •
The year was 1994. 'Twas December, 'twas the season, and Hogwarts was entirely taken by the festive spirit of Christmas. With Christmas already being quite special an occasion among Muggle-kind in many successfully proselytized places of the world – an annual celebration of everything that is true and good in life, like love and togetherness and altruism, and also dead trees and gluttony and consumerism – it was an opportunity not to be missed to at least once experience its enchanting qualities in the richly decorated and literally magical towers, halls and common rooms of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
This one particular December, however, in this most unusual year, the whole castle was actually less concerned with Christmas itself and brimming instead – and almost palpably so – with the unabashedly youthful excitement at the imminence of another kind of occasion, which measured even by its mere frequency of occurrence already was more extraordinary than the Yuletide itself. And truly, it was far less the tide that all the students' minds were so mindlessly preoccupied with and manifestly more so the ball that was set to coincide with it.
Originally envisaged as a solemn declaration of solidarity between various wizarding societies from around the world whenever they would join together for another iteration of the deeply traditional and equally barbaric Triwizard Tournament, in 1994 – two hundred years after the tournament's not entirely unreasonable discontinuation – the dance was destined to deviate from its decorous medieval roots and become less of a politically relevant exercise in mutually beneficial collaboration and more of an excessive celebration of everything that can sensibly be considered great and wonderful about adolescence – like ill-advised fashion statements, rampant hormonal disarray and unbridled narcissism, as well as a volatile abundance of ethanol.
Accordingly, with Hogwarts furthermore accommodating the delegations of two additional schools from continental Europe, the castle was decidedly busier than anyone of this generation and many before it had ever seen it. The very air was sizzling with anticipation. Abounding molecules of pheromones appeared to freely float about in every corridor and class room, wafting through the air on furtive glances and secret whispers, thievishly infecting every last one of unsuspecting fools. Hopes were high in every wistful heart; doubt and insecurities were torture to minds most innocent and love was a smoke raised with the fume of sighs. It was ubiquitous. It was contagious. It was fundamentally irresistible.
The year was 1994. 'Twas December, 'twas the season, and Hogwarts was entirely taken by the feverish and possibly premature craving for everlasting romantic fulfillment. Well, maybe not quite entirely after all. There was, of course, one most stalwart mind that proudly held its ground in fierce defiance and resolute resistance against any undue exhilaration…
"Disgusting," said one Hermione Granger, all but spitting the venomous syllables into the air as she pushed past a quartet of gossipy girls right in the middle of the hallway just outside of Professor Flitwick's class room. Her two male companions trailed close behind, one of them causing a bout of ill-concealed giggles as he hastily passed the flock of females as well, a fugitive of their attention.
Hermione, well aware of what transpired in her wake, raised both the volume of her voice as well as the vitriol resonating therein as she scornfully added, "Despicable, sickening and loathsome."
"The Malfoys!" Ron exclaimed in the overeager manner of a quiz show contestant, which was all the more worthy of note considering that wizarding families usually did not really know what a quiz show was.
"Those too," she conceded glumly, then continued through gritted teeth, "but they haven't been ceaselessly grating on my nerves for the past two weeks."
The thought did not cross Harry's mind to even consider any alternative course of action besides remaining very, very quiet. His lanky friend on Hermione's opposite flank, meanwhile, had other ideas.
"It's really not that bad," Ron was either courageous or careless enough to argue.
"Not that bad?" came the inevitable riposte, and Harry immediately felt his lips twist into a secret little smile that went unnoticed by his two friends. "It's hardly possible to conduct an orderly class anymore. Everybody has their heads in the clouds all the time, talks and – I dare presume – thinks hardly about anything else and is so obsessed with this utterly vulgar and mendacious frivolity that they completely forget the importance of our education. As if that sadistic tournament wasn't already enough nonsense to interfere with the proper procedure of our term, we also get that hedonistic ritual of a tacky Yule Ball imposed upon us, which merely serves to perpetuate atavistic behavioral patterns and remind us all that we are no more than apes who most impressively have learned to dress up and dance before they mate."
"Wow," Ron soundlessly mouthed at Harry over Hermione's almost visibly fuming head. "Well, I may have understood less than half of what you just said, but the important part is that you luckily don't waste so much as a single thought on the whole affair yourself."
"Oh, zip it, Ronald," Hermione rebuked him caustically, although Harry suspected that part of her annoyance stemmed from the surprisingly apposite remark Ron had just made. "I'm in no mood for your inanities."
"Wait, does that mean there are times when you actually are in the mood for my inanigans?" the admonished redhead asked with imperturbable mirth. "Because I'd really like to get a copy of the schedule for that."
"Ronald Bilius Weas—"
"Okay, World War I erupted for more confusing reasons," Harry quickly intervened at that point. "Could we please remain civil, at least? After all, we're really all sitting in the same boat here, remember?"
"Oh, that's right," Ron gleefully jumped at the chance to switch targets. "Guess nobody is looking forward to it less than you are, huh?"
"What do you mean?" asked Harry, a tinge of apprehension in his voice.
"Well," his dear friend most obligingly went on to explain, "sweet Herms and I are just gonna be two of the many ordinary attendees, right? Nobody will care who we go the ball with, if we can even find anyone willing to. You on the other hand are a Triwizard champion and, of course, also… you know… the hottest celebrity of the wizarding world and all that kerfuffle. You'll actually be one of the eight poor souls to open the dance, and everybody will be watching you and whoever you drag onto the dance floor with you. And that person can't just be anyone now, eh? Gotta be someone real special. I mean, imagine the headlines: 'Harry Potter goes to ball with random lass.' You can't do that to the tabloids, mate. Skeeter will drop dead."
While Hermione merely scoffed at the notion, the whole scenario, so vividly illustrated by his ever helpful friend, had an entirely different effect on Harry, who looked just a tad paler than a moment ago. And not having started on the tan side of the spectrum to begin with, he ended up looking like a not too distant cousin of chalk.
"Brilliant," he morosely muttered. "Thanks for the pep talk, Ron. I think I'm going to be sick."
Ron gave him an encouraging pat on the back, thereby making all amends required in his mind. "You got your eyes on anyone yet?"
"I haven't really given it much thought," Harry replied evasively, and his thoughts protested vehemently in tumultuous silence.
"Well, you gotta act quickly, though," Ron informed him matter-of-factly, "or all the good ones will be taken."
"Your perception of women is inspiring as always, Ronald," Hermione remarked, her voice imbued with unadulterated sarcasm. "Pray tell, who might be the blessed maiden you will honor with the splendor of your august company?"
"I dunno," he evaded with a shrug even as he wondered what oddly pronounced August could possibly have to do with any of it in mid-December, then looked up at her with one of his ominous brainwaves lighting up his freckled face. "How about you? You're a girl."
"Dear me!" Hermione exhaled theatrically, raising the back of her hand to her forehead in a semblance of dizziness. "I'm undeserving of such ardent adoration!"
"Come on," Ron kept right at it, half pleading and half insisting. "We could spare us a lot of trouble."
"You mean you could spare yourself a lot of trouble," Hermione calmly took his argument apart like a piece of paper, overtly unimpressed. "I don't have to ask anybody. In accordance with age-old tradition I will for once gladly clad myself in feminine passivity."
"And what if nobody's gonna ask you?" Ron snapped at her, and Harry cringed even before his notoriously headless friend had finished his faux pas.
"Then all of us will have what we desire," Hermione declared with an edge, and regarding Ron with a most factitious smile she added with pointed finality, "Thank you very much for your noble offer, Ronald, but I think I shall prefer dignity as my companion. Regardless of our destination."
And with that she turned on her heels and strode off, her bouncing locks of hair and her billowing robes below perfectly accentuating her most apparent indignation.
"Yeah, well, good luck dancing with that!" Ron called out after her, paused and then scoffed. "Dignity," he mumbled disparagingly. Shaking his head he turned to face Harry and was dismayed to find plain disapproval looking back at him. "What?" he asked gruffly, a first hint of guilt creeping onto his barely defiant features. "She's the one who doesn't know what she wants! Why would not being asked out on a date even matter to her if she doesn't want to go anyway?"
"Well," Harry exhaled on a troubled breath, "you know Hermione."
"Oh, that much I do know," Ron said with a decisive nod. "I might be stupid, but I'm not smart."
Laughing despite himself Harry resumed walking along the hallway, shaking his head at his most incorrigible friend. "What about you, though?" he asked after a few steps as Ron caught up with him with even fewer steps. "You'll have to ask somebody, too. Say what you will, but being the first Weasley in known history to not attend a Yule Ball at Hogwarts would leave a blemish on your family line you'd never be able to rectify. You might just end up being disinherited."
"Oh, the riches I'd miss out on," Ron lamented with a thespian hand on his chest. "I'm still weighing my options, though. By that I mean that I'm still trying to figure out who the one girl is that would be either whimsical or desperate enough to say yes. Hey, you could ask someone for me!"
"Right," came Harry's flat reply.
"No, seriously," a freshly enthused Ron insisted. "I'll bet you a hundred Galleons that lots of girls who would laugh at me if I asked them myself would be willing to do it as a favor to you. Harry Potter's Best Mate sounds a lot better than That Weird Weasley Bloke With The More Popular Brothers. Damn, my options just quadrupled from, like, one to four."
"Honestly, Ron. You know that fine line between self-deprecation and self-loathing? You're way past it."
"Hey, I'm just a realist."
"Whoa, don't let Hermione hear that one. You'll give her a heart attack."
"So you won't do it?" Ron asked with tremendous sadness and a corresponding set of puppy eyes. "Not even for me?"
"You know what?" Harry replied as soon as he finished rolling his non-puppy eyes at his friend's best attempt at emotional blackmail. "I will. I will actually do that for you. But only if that one girl whimsical enough to say yes turns out to be whimsical enough to say no when you ask her yourself. After that, I'll walk straight up to Fleur Delacour and tell her to go to the ball with you, because I was an awesome toddler once and everybody has to do as I say."
"Hah! You got yourself a deal, good sir," Ron declared as he readjusted his shirt, properly chuffed with himself. "You just put your Galleons on a lame Thestral."
With his face instinctively seeking solace in his palm, Harry merely shook his head once more where all words failed.
In the later afternoon hours, when the last class of the day lay behind the positively drained students and many of them were looking forward to some much needed rest and recreation, Harry parted ways with a rather flummoxed Ron at the bottom of the stairs to Professor Trelawney's heavily perfumed realm of immensely important nonsense to make for the library instead, where he had agreed to meet Hermione for an even more needed studying session for their upcoming last test prior to Christmas, courtesy of one Professor Severus Snape.
Strangely enough, Harry was even in too good of a mood to question his decision to choose the library over its numerous appealing alternatives, and thus went his way quite jauntily indeed. The library, at least according to Hermione – who frankly appeared to be the only student outside of Ravenclaw to think of it as a place of reverence – likely was the last refuge from the Yule Ball frenzy the whole castle was rife with like a bad case of the flu, and that seemed like a valid enough point in its favor in Harry's mind.
He was just a few steps away from the entrance when he unexpectedly heard his name being called out, and he stopped in mid-stride and wheeled around to look for its source. Regrettably, that source turned out to be an obnoxiously dashing young man with a constant smile plastered onto his pretty face going by the name of Cormac McLaggen, the only Gryffindor student who addressed Harry with his surname and now approached him far too briskly for his taste.
"Ah, Potter," he said good-naturedly as always, oblivious to whatever flash of annoyance might or might not have flickered over Harry's features at the mere sight of him. "You got a minute?"
"Sure," was Harry's terse reply, half word half sigh, and it was quite the opposite of what in truth he would have very much preferred to say. "What's up?"
"Just need to ask you a quick question is all," Cormac answered with a casual shrug of the shoulder.
Harry hesitated a second and looked at him askance. "As long as you aren't asking me to be your date for the ball, I think I'll be fine."
"Funny," said Cormac, and he flashed his white teeth in a broad grin, which for some reason brought the image of sunglasses to Harry's mind. "You're a funny chap, Potter."
The funny chap faintly heaved a sigh. "I have my moments."
"Well, anyway," Cormac smoothly went right back to business, "It's actually Granger I'm wondering about, you know?"
"She's funny too, yeah," was Harry's most immediate response in the second it took for some proper confusion with both the question and his answer to set in. "Wait, what?"
"I meant regarding the Yule Ball," McLaggen somewhat perplexedly clarified, and when no such clarification seemed to reach the expression on Harry's face he added, "As a date?"
Harry blinked. "For… whom?" he lamely asked, his eyes narrowed, and to his increasing mystification Cormac gave a short guffaw at that.
"For me, obviously," he then declared with an almost condescendingly pitiful look on his face, as if he had to explain a multiplication table to a hopelessly overwhelmed child.
"B-but…" Harry struggled not for numbers but for words, "aren't you usually into… different kinds of girls?"
"Well, it's not like I'm planning on settling down anytime soon," Cormac explained naturally, a complacent smirk never leaving the corners of his lips. "We're still young, after all. Gotta try things out, right? There are all sorts of flavors in the world. Why pass up on any?"
"Right," said Harry with his tongue moving in slow motion even as he almost unnoticeably shook his head a little, feeling annoyingly dazed as his blood seemed to rush through his veins with a little more force for some obscure reason.
"So," Cormac's voice disrupted and in no way mended his inner disarray. "She still available?"
Harry needed a second to find his brain's capacity for coherence. "Why would you ask me that?"
"Come on, Potter," McLaggen prompted him in an overly amicable fashion. "You of all people should understand. There's a certain reputation the likes of us gotta maintain, right? You got yours, I got mine. Mine corresponds mostly with the affairs of the fairer sex, if you take my meaning. I don't get the push from anyone. Ever. Mostly because, you know, I'm me, but sometimes you gotta make sure beforehand. Scout your options. Work some angles." He gave Harry's shoulder a playful bump with his fist. "It's a game, Potter, and you either know how to play or you're out."
"I think I prefer Quidditch," Harry mused almost a bit obtusely, then actually winced a little when Cormac laughed out loud yet again.
"So funny," he said with another toothy grin, giving Harry an accompanying clap on the back. Things were getting a tad too touchy-feely here. "What about it, then? She got a date or not?"
Something about that gave him pause, though in retrospect Harry couldn't have said what conscious thought may have gone through his head in that peculiar moment, or if any at all.
"As a matter of fact," he then heard himself utter, "she… does."
"She does?" There appeared something akin to disappointment on Cormac's features, although it was diluted with a greater part of surprise and therefore not easily discerned. "Really?"
"Definitely, yah," Harry further reinforced the spontaneous lie, and he had to push it past a considerable lump that had suddenly formed in his throat.
"Damn. Spent too much time weighing my admittedly numerous options, I suppose," said McLaggen, and whatever kind of regret might have lingered on his chiseled features was subsequently – and with instant effect – replaced with another front cover material smile. "That's what you get from having too many, am I right? So who's the lucky bloke?"
"A person," Harry clumsily replied, unable to decide whether he was more confused by Cormac's words or his face, or the astounding rate at which both seemed to completely change directions. His entirely unplanned lie didn't make things any clearer, either. "I don't know," he then spluttered. "She hasn't told me. I wasn't there. So how would I know? I wouldn't. I couldn't. And therefore I don't."
That Cormac McLaggen perked one dubious eyebrow at that could probably be counted in his favor, as little of that as there generally was. "But you're sure?"
"Absolutely," Harry answered thinly, barely able to avoid choking on his own voice. "Sorry."
"Oh, well," Cormac replied with a shrug, then regarded him with another perfect smile, of which he seemed to have a well-nigh infinite supply. "Plenty of squids in the lake, am I right?"
"I'm pretty sure there's just the one, actually."
"Really? Well, forget about the squids then. I'll find me another bird."
If such confusing allusions to animals both metaphorical and literal had been the only baffling part of the encounter, Harry may have been able to shrug it all off without so much as a second thought, yet as Cormac McLaggen left him with a wink taken straight from an aftershave commercial, he remained transfixed to the spot for a suitable moment of general disorientation. Once he finished wondering who, what and where he was, and questionable results notwithstanding, he shook himself back into the realm of self-awareness and finally entered the library, which at the very least he remembered as the destination he had intended to reach before the world had decided to turn topsy-turvy on him.
Finding Hermione, at least to Harry, was like determining the cardinal directions on a cloudless day: no more than a matter of when to look where. Which of course, as could very well be argued, is the very essence of finding anyone at any time. Being in the library, Harry purposefully made his way towards the spot where he had no doubt he would find her, and when he finally reached the alcove at the end of one of the many aisles between the old dark bookshelves that almost reached up to the vaulted ceiling, he unsurprisingly found his expectation fulfilled. Only when he slid down on the cushioned bench across from her did she look up at him for a second, then threw a quick glance at her strikingly un-magical watch before fixating him once again.
"You're late," she declared with almost perfect sternness, yet Harry had no trouble discerning that she was merely teasing him.
"Like two minutes," he pointedly said.
"Punctuality is the virtue of the bored, hm?"
"Or of those who are left alone."
"Who held you up?" Hermione asked. "Groupies?"
"Not quite," Harry more or less subtly answered without actually answering, then swiftly skipped ahead. "So what exactly did you have in mind for today?"
"We could work on that Potions homework first and go from there," she offered pleasantly, and Harry tried to suppress a smile while watching her undisguised eagerness at the prospect of imminent academic joy. "It's all relevant for the test on Thursday, anyway."
"Sure," he acceded, and as they got to work between all the scattered tomes and parchments Harry eventually was able to mostly forget about any surreal incidents and Yule-related imbroglio. Working with Hermione naturally demanded a degree of focus and attention that made it virtually impossible to nurture any stray thoughts at all. There were but a few rare moments when Harry caught himself looking at her when her own eyes were fixed on quill and paper, and the strangest touch of guilt and contemplation pushed into his conscience until he shook himself and got back to his reading material.
For quite a while they exchanged nary a word unrelated to the work at hand, barring the occasional jest and good-natured banter. Hermione was strict when it came to studying, for sure, but she wasn't draconian – resembling, perhaps, a younger version of Professor McGonagall. For some inexplicable reason, however, and despite his profound admiration for the Head of House Gryffindor, Harry decided that he preferred not to think of Hermione in that particular way.
At some point, when Harry was busy scribbling away on his parchment and Hermione merely waiting for him to finish a particular set of notes she had asked him to write down, his concentration suddenly got interrupted when he heard her huff in disapproval. Half expecting to find her glowering at him for some mistake he was as yet unaware he had made, he was puzzled to see her looking into an entirely different direction.
"Unbelievable," she muttered under her breath, shaking her head with her brow furrowed deeply with wrinkles of contempt. "Not even the library is safe from this pedestrian charade anymore."
Harry turned his head over his shoulder to follow her icy glare and quickly found a group of laughing and applauding students, a boy and a girl holding hands and beaming from ear to ear in their midst. Another dancing couple set for the ball, it seemed. Harry watched for no more than three seconds, then pursed his lips and turned back to Hermione, who still appeared to be busy trying to wordlessly cast the Killing Curse on the unsuspecting entirety of mankind.
"You really don't like that whole thing, huh?" Harry asked her with some well-measured caution.
"Oh – no, no. You mistake my meaning," Hermione replied and briefly looked at him before switching her attention back to the celebratory scene. "It's not that I don't like it. I completely, utterly despise the very idea of the whole concept with the searing hatred that burns eternally in the deepest pits of my scornful heart."
"Right," Harry remarked with a half-contained chortle. "I'm glad it's nothing to be worried about, then."
Hermione likewise answered with a chuckle of her own and at last averted her eyes from the gradually dispersing group of teenagers with a final shake of the head. As their shared laughter subsided, she ended up scrutinizing him intently with a pensive look on her face, which he was entirely unaware of as he once more perused his notes.
"You don't agree with me, though, do you?" she asked him curiously. "I mean, not with my slightly embellished performance there, obviously, but not even with the underlying sentiment?"
"Well," Harry went straight for the most obvious evasive maneuver in the English language and also scratched the back of his neck with his usual aplomb to properly round it off. "I… I don't know…"
"Wow," Hermione breathed with her eyebrows flicking up to red alert. "This is worse than I thought. You don't agree with me at all!"
"I wouldn't say that," he quickly rectified. "I get where you're coming from – I do. And I seriously doubt that anyone could possibly be more horrified at the prospect of having to dance with another human being right in front of a whole bunch of other human beings than I am."
"Not even Neville?"
"You should see that traitorous bugger," Harry complained quite in earnest, vigorously shaking his head. "He's going all James Bond on us, putting on his ridiculously shiny dancing shoes every night and practicing his steps in the middle of our sodding dorm to Brahms and Tchaikovsky like this is his one true destiny or something."
Hermione puckered her lips in a rather unsuccessful attempt to hide her smile at the mental images his words evoked. "That awkward moment when Neville is suddenly Gryffindor's most suave bachelor."
"Tell me about it," said he. "It's depressing and inspiring at the same time, and since we can't decide which one outweighs the other we haven't kicked him out yet."
She laughed at that, then dared to confess, "I'm afraid I can sympathize with him, though. The variables might be somewhat different, but in my dorm room I'm actually the odd one out, since I am its only inhabitant who doesn't join the sophisticated fashion talks, the in-depth analysis of the school's male specimens and the latest, profoundly intriguing meat market gossip."
"You don't?" Harry dramatically feigned surprise. "I don't even know you anymore!"
She rolled her eyes at him in response and twirled her quill between her fingers as she amusedly waited for him to finish laughing. Eventually he cleared his throat and looked at her expectantly.
"You didn't fully answer my question, though," she then pointed out circumspectly enough. "And granted, I may have contributed to that with my Neville excursion, but I'd still like to hear your thoughts on the matter, if that's okay."
Harry leaned back with a sigh and looked up through the high-arching window that revealed a grayish scenery characterized too much by autumn's persistence and winter's reluctance. Given how this was literally the most magical place in Britain, however, the hope for a White Christmas yet to come perhaps did not exclusively depend on meteorological reliability.
"Well," Harry began once more, "I… again, I understand. I really do. It's just that I probably don't concern myself quite as much with how shallow Pansy Parkinson and Lavender Brown may be, or how obsessed some of these people are with this kind of thing. Mainly because… I'm not. Yes, it's a pretty silly affair, all things considered. But then again, so is Quidditch. And maybe – and please don't kill me in my sleep for saying this – maybe even our education here is a bit silly from a certain perspective. I mean, the only thing that matters is what you as an individual make of any of it, right? Whatever you do, it's yours to make it meaningful and important, even if nobody else cares. And even if there are a thousand ignoble philistines defiling it with their unworthy minds."
Hermione ambiguously scrunched up her face at his best impression of herself, a justified pout on her lips and the smile tucked away therein glinting in her brown irises. He fleetingly regarded her with an impish, lopsided smile of his own, then continued more seriously again.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is… the thing itself is just a stupid dance, right? People getting drunk, awkwardly flailing their limbs about and trying to exchange some bodily fluids. Doesn't seem too enticing when you look at it like that. Well, for some it probably does. Anyway, I'm sure we both know that it's quite safe to assume that somewhere in this place there are at least a couple of people who have someone they genuinely like and that they'd hope to enjoy this slightly trivial yet somewhat uncommon occasion with. And as for me?"
He paused for a moment, avoiding her attentive gaze. "Well, I'm afraid I too could hypothetically imagine circumstances under which it could potentially all become… sufferable, at the very least. Enjoyable, possibly. And maybe even memorable." He paused again, cleared his throat and added, "Hypothetically speaking, of course."
With the sound of his voice subsiding, there passed a couple of seconds of silence between them that were emphasized all the more by the already subdued ambiance of the library and their rather secluded spot therein.
"I see," Hermione finally stated, her voice small as she apparently deemed it necessary to neatly readjust a pile of books on the scuffed and sturdy tabletop. The sudden change in her demeanor, subtle as it was, alarmed Harry a bit.
"Did I say something wrong?" he was quick to inquire. "Should I repeat the part about the philistines?"
Even though she wasn't looking directly at him anymore, he could still make out the hint of a smile playing around the corners of her lips that he was instantly relieved to see.
"No, no. That's okay," she assured him somewhat meekly. "I'm just surprised, that's all."
"Surprised?" Harry asked in a not un-surprised fashion. "What about, exactly?"
"I just didn't know how you felt about this kind of thing," Hermione explained. "And now that I think about it, I realize that's probably because we hardly ever talk about this particular kind of thing."
"Wha—what kind of thing?" he asked her with no sign of comprehension on his face.
"You know. The thing," she replied with an impatient gesture of her hands, though it was hard to tell whether her impatience was solely or even primarily directed at him. "Interpersonal… things. Dates, relationships, Yule Balls. The things we've been talking about for the past five minutes."
"Oh," he mumbled. "Those things."
They both nodded their heads in unison with their lips tightly pressed together, each of them looking anywhere but in the other's general direction, and as the seconds passed with their usual disregard for all transient human affairs, Harry began to feel the contemplative kind of silence that lingered in the air around them slowly but surely change into its socially awkward cousin.
"So who is she?" Hermione suddenly blurted out, therewith turning the arising awkwardness into utter confusion on Harry's part.
"Huh?" he accordingly asked in the manner of someone who is asked what the square root of 4 is after being woken from some vaguely pleasant dream in the middle of the night, the problem not being the square root itself, but the fact that he didn't even comprehend the question as he was still wondering why he wasn't on a spaceship battling Klingons anymore.
"The girl that's on your mind," Hermione tried to help him along, yet when there was no indication of the bedlam written all over his features going anywhere, she further expounded, "With the way you talked about it I can only assume there's someone particular you have in mind, because just a couple of weeks ago I remember you were strongly considering the possibility of leaving the country for good only to evade the looming embarrassment of the Yule Ball. I do not at all recall a heartfelt speech about how special people can make ordinary occasions very memorable."
"I–I didn't say very," Harry most impressively grasped for the proverbial straw. "I said maybe."
The look Hermione gave him made his pitiful straw snap between his fingers before he could even truly hold onto it, which really was a pity since it had seemed like such a nice straw at first.
"Come on," she urged him not unkindly. "You know your secret is safe with me. I generally don't talk to people. Who's the lucky girl Harry Potter has set his sights on?"
"I didn't–there isn't–it's–it's not," Harry helplessly stammered in something akin to Morse code, defensively hunching his shoulders and crossing his arms in front of his chest. Then he looked at her and thought he saw a semblance of disappointment half-hidden in the lines of her face, and fearing to be the cause of it he heaved a heavy sigh and with another shrug of his shoulders uttered… something.
"Cho Chang?" Hermione complemented on the spot, then hastily rattled on, "Well, how many Chos are there here, really? Of course Cho Chang. Peculiar name though, don't you think? I'm pretty sure Cho is actually a Japanese forename, mostly, while Chang is a surname most common in continental Asia, like China and maybe Thailand, I think. Anyway, she seems like a nice person and I'm pretty sure I've seen her giving you the eye on more than one occasion, although that might be said for more than half of the female populace of this school and probably even a boy or two. The same could be said for Gilderoy Lockhart, as I recall, although I really, really hope for different reasons. You think he's still bonkers?"
The rapid blinking of Harry's eyes was the only visible symptom of his brain feeling as if it had been twisted into something with a striking resemblance to a balloon poodle. The audible one came when his lips appeared to move of their own accord and mumbled something that perplexingly enough sounded a lot like, "Japa—japachina?"
"Oh, look how late it's gotten," Hermione exclaimed with a glance at her watch. "You'll be late for that Quidditch scrimmage with Cedric and the lot that you've been looking forward to, if you don't hurry. Go on. It's okay. I'll take care of these."
His eyes followed the motion of her hands as she erratically gestured towards all the books and parchments they had used for studying, and inadvertently emerald green found chocolate brown and the two remained interlocked for one almost everlasting second that came dangerously close to revealing something intangible. They both averted their eyes in the same moment, however, and the unknown was lost once more.
"You… you're sure?" Harry asked her uncertainly.
"Yes, of course," she replied with almost inconspicuous levity. "I'll probably do a little more reading, anyway. You go ahead and get yourself some Quidditch. Merlin knows it's bad enough that you don't get to play a regular season this year."
"Right," said Harry, absently moving his fingers across his forehead. "Okay." He stood up rather abruptly, then fleetingly looked down at what little he could see of her averted face. "I'll, uh… I'll see you later, then. Right?"
He saw her nod with half a simper on her lips as her eyes briefly flickered up towards him without ever fully meeting his. "Have fun," she wished him in a tight voice.
Reluctantly he left the alcove and walked away along the aisle through the shadows of the shelves. Only when he reached its end did he turn around to look back, and he left with the image of Hermione, sitting motionlessly in her place with the knuckles of one hand pressed against her lips and her eyes gazing blankly into nothingness, leaving a lasting imprint on his troubled and conflicted heart.
Citations and sources and such
Jane Austen: The quotation placed ahead of the story stems from the third chapter of Pride & Prejudice.
Sneaky Shakespeare: I snuck a little Romeo into the introductory passage, specifically his "Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs" right from the first scene of the first act. Almost got away with it, didn't I?
Punctuality is the virtue of the bored: This little tidbit is a quotation from English author Evelyn Waugh.
Klingons: With the rekindled popularity of Star Trek, I may not even have to mention it, but this one's a reference to that. It's the one without the lightsabers.