It was arguably the worst party he had ever attended. Not that there was an impressive number of such things to compare it with, granted, but the night was nonetheless fast becoming unbearable.
Around him, his classmates seemed to be having an enjoyable enough time. Slughorn had brought a half-vampire(?) friend of his along, and the novelty of it was amusing to a number of students. Even without such an odd guest, Harry supposed that the general atmosphere, the holidays... the liberally spiked punch – all contributed to an evening well spent.
Which didn't explain why he was up against the back wall, glowering at Cormac McLaggen.
He'd come alone – in the end uncertain over whom he could have asked without causing more of an uproar than he was comfortable with. His abortive attempt to go with Hermione and nip the nonsense in the bud had proven a spectacular failure – compounded by the fact that her 'secret date' was in fact the very person she had only weeks ago called 'vile.' While he didn't seriously entertain becoming romantically involved with Hermione – as if there weren't enough drama on that front – it was nonetheless a shot across the bow of his ego to be turned down by his best friend.
Self-pityingly, he thought back on the only other quasi-dates he had been on, with Parvati and Cho. He sighed... the looks Romilda had given him that day in the library, regardless of her reasons, were something that deserved consideration. It was wrong, sort of... he knew that, but with Ron spending every available moment playing hide-and-seek with Lavender's tongue... why couldn't he have a bit of fun as well?
Idly, he supposed he could have asked Luna – it was a shame he hadn't though of such earlier. She was sweet and friendly, if not entirely there. He wondered if her own special sense of the world might come out in other ways, should the opportunity arise. He shook his head, a little disgusted at going down that particular avenue in a room full of people. He looked at his watch – it had only just gone nine – he had another three hours to kill, perhaps two if he wanted to leave without being singled out.
Dammit, but he was horny – it seemed everywhere he went these days witches he hadn't looked twice at were suddenly blossoming before him – and then throwing themselves on other blokes. Ginny was all over Dean, Lavender was with Ron... and here he was, alone, while Cormac-the-human-squid spent the evening pawing at Hermione. Not that she doesn't deserve it, he thought uncharitably.
He smiled slightly as Cormac's attention was forced away from Hermione, a burly seventh-year Ravenclaw pushing him away, the two suddenly engaged in a silent if clearly heated debate. Hermione, he was pleased to note, looked incredibly relieved, immediately distancing herself from Cormac and his stooge. His schadenfreude was shortly-lived however, as she caught sight of him. As she approached, she hissed, "come here," dragging him behind the billowing drapes that Slughorn had imported specifically for the occasion.
"So, how's McClaggen?" Harry asked, trying to clamp down on the happy spitefulness in his tone. Fortunately, Hermione didn't seem to notice, as she was fiddling with her dress – rearranging it back to it's pre-Cormac position.
"He's wretched!" She groaned. "He's like an octopus – everywhere at once. I don't know why I ever thought this would be a good idea," she finished despairingly.
Harry nodded – he could have told her it was a trainwreck in the making, but she seemed to have gotten there in the end. Still, he supposed he ought to try and help out; she was his best friend after all. "Would you like me to –"
"Hors d'oeuvres?" Neville Longbottom's head materialized from between the curtains, holding a silver platter of round meat balls, that still seemed to be wriggling.
"What is that?" Hermione asked, her expression comically disgusted and yet fascinated with an almost academic interest in the mystery cuisine.
"Dragon tartare," Neville replied with a straight face. At Harry and Hermione's equal looks of disgust, he shuddered slightly, pulling a face as well.
"I don't blame you. They give you horribly bad breath," he responded, earning him new looks of incredulity from the pair as if that were the main issue at hand.
As Neville turned to leave, Hermione called out, "On second thought." She grabbed the entire platter, grimacing as she grabbed a pair of the wriggling meatballs and shoved them into her mouth. "Maybe this will keep Cormac away," she grumbled around the food, before turning a pale green. "It's disgusting."
For the second time in as many minutes, Harry felt no need to clarify he already suspected as much, and Hermione's revelations were neither particularly enlightening nor revolutionary.
"Oh, shh! He's coming!" She shoved the entire platter into his hands and before Harry could ask, Hermione had disappeared once more. He turned back to Neville.
Neville was gone. In his stead was Cormac McLaggen himself.
"Hello, Harry!" Cormac said, patting him on the back and giving him a winning smile. "Fancy seeing you here."
"Hi," Harry replied, deadpan.
Cormac took no notice. "Haven't seen Hermione have you? Seems to have disappeared on me, the cheeky minx."
Harry shrugged, clamping down the urge to say something unpleasant. "I think... maybe she went to get a breath of fresh air." He finished quickly, looking for a polite way to escape on his own.
"Ah, that's what she calls it, eh? Likes the thrill of the chase, that one. Good girl image, bet she shags like a Dragon," he chuckled, giving Harry a forceful jab in the ribs. "Just between you and me... what's she like in the sheets? Worth trying to have a go? It's just that Stimpson's been giving me looks all night and I don't want to waste my time if it's not really worth it." He finished with a shit-eating grin.
Harry flushed, outraged. "Hermione's not like that!" he hissed, furious at McLaggen's brashness and insinuations. "And what do you think I'm going to do, help you –" Embarrassed, Harry trailed off, though the meaning wasn't lost. "Get out of here," he finished in a low grumble.
"Hey, hey. Didn't mean it like that," Cormac responded, arms raised in a show of surrender. "I just figured she was available – she came with me didn't she? Didn't know you had called firsties." Cormac nodded, as if acquiescing. "Stimpson it is then."
"First –" Harry spluttered. "I'm not, that is she... We're not."
Harry then noted a rather unnerving gleam in Cormac's eye. "Well it's settled then! Glad we cleared that up. What are those?"
"These?" Harry asked, looking at the still squirming lumps. "Um... dunno – something special the minister sent in. Delicious though."
Cormac nodded absently, grabbing a handful for himself. "Rufus is a capital bloke – going hunting with him in a week's time, I'll send him your regards."
Harry nodded, cheering as Cormac ate first one lump of raw dragon and then another. Hopefully, between him and Hermione the two would kill one another with their breaths. As Cormac indulged in a third helping, Harry turned to leave, bumping into another figure as it came back behind the curtain.
"Hello, Harry," whispered a low, husky voice that immediately caught his entire attention. Stepping towards them was Romilda Vane, wearing a tiny black dress and a pair of black heels that pushed all her assets forward... and what assets they were. She smiled, holding out a flute of a bubbling amber liquid.
"Um... to you to, Romilda. Merry Christmas." Harry winced at the hash he made of it. Not for the first time, he regretted that their first meeting had been so divisive, with her casual degrading of his friends. He knew – as Hermione (hypocrite!) had pointed out that she was only interested in him for being the boy-who-lived. But being completely honest with himself, he wasn't sure his interest in her branched out to such depths as basic conversation.
"I hope you're having a good evening," she said, and Harry snapped back to the conversation, keeping his eyes on her own. "Professor Slughorn mentioned that there's going to be dancing soon – I wanted to let you know so you wouldn't miss it."
Harry's insides turned cold – his one and only experience at the Yule Ball had not made for happy memories, and this was unlikely to be any better. "Thanks, I'll keep that in mind," he replied stonefaced, deciding inside that it was clearly time to leave.
Romilda pouted, before she gave him a final wave and said goodbye. He didn't miss how she flounced when she turned around, or the sway of her hips as she slunk back around the curtain...
"Duuuude! Tell me you're hitting that."
As if it could not get any worse, McLaggen had witnessed the entire thing.
"Are you kidding me! You're Harry Fuckin' Potter. A girl like that threw herself at me, she could polish my wand anytime she liked."
"Polish your... thanks Cormac. I better go, and you probably better go find Hermione – she's probably getting lonely."
Cormac didn't want to let up. "Seriously, what's wrong with you man! She comes in here looking for you, all but begging to see your sphynx, and you send her away like a broken broomstick! I'd stick my bludger so far up her quaffle she'd be out for weeks! And Harry fuckin' Potter just sends her away! You must be getting more tail than you know what to do with, if a girl like that's not even worth your time!"
Harry turned a brilliant crimson.
"You chivalrous mother fucker," Cormac gasped, appalled. "Merlin, Harry, are you blind! Tits like that! I bet she's a screamer too," he whispered conspiratorially. "A regular Banshee between the sheets."
Cormac continued blithely on, apparently forgetting Harry was even there. "If she came up to me practically falling out of her top, I'd make like the Hogwarts Express and railroad the bitch!"
Harry wanted to disappear entirely, just fade away into the curtains. "It's not that simple," he hissed, looking around frantically to make sure nobody was overhearing this mortifying conversation. Seeing nobody, he opened the curtain, eager to escape.
"Ahh... Mr. Potter. There you are lurking in the shadows as always. A word, please."
Harry winced. For a moment he was overcome with temptation to pull out his wand and see if he couldn't just off himself then and there. Snape had no doubt heard every word.
"Yes, Professor," he replied, schooling his face as best he could to survive the coming onslaught.
"The Headmaster will not be seeing you over the break. He has had to travel."
Harry blinked as Snape began to turn away. That was it?
"Why? To where?" Harry cursed himself as his treasonous mouth gave Snape a reason to turn back around, glaring at him as if he were a particularly vile concoction under his boot.
"That is none of your concern, Mr. Potter. If you have any more inappropriate questions..."
Harry didn't, and Snape turned away, his cloak billowing in customary Snape fashion.
"So... maybe you wanna tap that instead?"
"What! You don't think..." Harry felt ill at the notion, his stomach churning at the very idea that he would want anything at all to do with Snape, let alone...
"Whatever," Cormac replied with a nonchalant shrug. "It's just if sex on heels doesn't interest you, I figured maybe you were interested in greasy guys." He patted Harry on the back. "To each his own, and all the more for me, I say."
"I do not want to... anything, with Snape," Harry hissed, fighting down the urge to vomit. "Of course I know Romilda is attractive, but it's complicated, okay?"
"Complicated my balls! She's not attractive, she's smoking like feindfyre. Look – it's simple. You're Harry fuckin' Potter, am I right?"
"Not how I'd say it, but..."
"But nothing, you're Harry fuckin' Potter, Slayer of the Basilisk."
"How did? That is I –"
"Damn right you did! And you took on the Dragon, fucked up You-Know-Who's shit more times than you can count."
Harry took a moment to note the absurdity of saying 'you-know-who' and 'shit' in the same sentence, before nodding slowly.
"Right. So if Harry fuckin' Potter can do all that and then some, then he can get his shit together and get him a piece of ass that's practically begging to be taken. Am I right?"
"I'm right! You better believe I'm right! Handle it Potter, handle it!"
"It's not so-"
Harry closed his eyes, trying to block out the massive humiliation assaulting his senses. There had to be some way to shut McLaggen up. And yet... it would be nice to get the girl – even one who didn't really care about him so much as who she thought he was.
"Whatever, Cormac, fine. What do I do so you'll leave me alone?"
"That's my man!" McLaggen shouted, earning a few looks and giggles from those around, as he pounded on Harry's back once more, sending the smaller boy staggering. Then, before Harry could react, he pushed him forward, sending him tumbling towards the the center of the floor. Catching himself, Harry looked around - Slughorn waved and gave him a beaming smile – everyone for that matter seemed to be looking at him. Harry returned a shaky smile, moving out of the spotlight towards the table in the back – he needed another drink.
Shaking, he poured a glass. He was going to have a drink, say thank you to Slughorn, and then spend the next few hours in the security of his dormitory, plotting a bloody, bloody revenge on Cormac McLaggen. He drank quickly, gulping down the slightly spicy punch as though he were parched. Finishing it, he decided to have one more.
"Pour me one too?" A voice, accompanied by a soft touch on the arm made him turn. Of course – it was Romilda, giving him a doe-eyed look as she held out an empty glass.
Behind her, a few meters away and also utterly unsurprisingly, was Cormac, making an obscene and unsubtle gesture with his hips, while giving Harry a massive thumbs up.
Damn him if Cormac was going to make him look like a complete idiot in front of everyone.
"Yeah, no problem," he replied, looking back at the girl in question. "Having a fun time?" he asked, feeling lame for asking such a question but not really sure what to do.
Romilda shrugged, the tips of her hair just barely touching her bare shoulders. "It's been alright," she replied, jerking her head towards the group of fourth year girls he'd noted earlier. "But Stevens... he's ever so dull, Harry. Not like you."
Harry fought back a gulp. He'd never said more than ten words to Romilda, and he wasn't so dense as to not catch on to where she was going. "I'm sorry," he replied, at a loss.
She giggled. "It's not your fault. I just was hoping you might like to chat for a bit. It's such a shame we don't interact more outside our own year, even in our house. I think we should do something to change that."
Harry nodded, handing her back her drink. "We had a dueling club back in second year, but it didn't turn out so well. Still, maybe they should try something like that again – or anything really. Just a way to get people to mix more. As it is, you get caught up with your classes."
Romilda beamed at him, as if he had just extolled the next great fount of wisdom. "That's a wonderful idea. You should ask Professor Slughorn about it – he's always telling our class how wonderful you are. A protege, he calls you."
"A..." Harry fought down a blush. "Well, I have been giving it a bit more effort this year," he finished proudly. This isn't so hard.
"He really thinks your amazing, and I've seen you in the common room, working away... not that you don't do anything but work," she amended quickly. "What with quidditch and all. I considered trying out for the team, but I'm afraid I've never really had the opportunity to play much before."
"Ah, that doesn't matter at all," Harry replied cheerily, fully enjoying the swing of the conversation. "I'd never played a day in my life until I came to Hogwarts, and Ginny's brothers never really let her play with them – picked it up herself mostly. If you're good with a broomstick, come out next year and give it a go. I could help you a bit if you like."
"Thank you, Harry," she said, smiling up at him. "I'll take you up on that sometime." Then, suddenly, she frowned. "It's really noisy in here, don't you think? I'd really like to talk to you some more, about... brooms."
Harry paused – the conversation now was clearly not really a conversation. And while years of quidditch had given him a tough skin to the various jokes and innuendos revolving around 'riding the broomstick', Romilda's tone left very little up to the imagination. Nevermind Fred and George's perverse glee in telling Ron (and Harry by proxy) just how embarrassing one's first time could be.
"Not for us," Fred had clarified with exaggerated indignation. "But for lesser wizards," he'd made a show of leering at Ron, "the Patronum occurs before you Expecto, if you catch my drift."
George had simply snickered the entire time.
He might very well have backed off and saved himself any (more) potentially mortifying experiences for one evening, until he once more caught the look from McLaggen. A look that was neither haughty, humorous, nor mocking.
Cormac was looking at him with something that looked suspiciously like pride.
"Um... sure, Romilda. That would be great." Who knows, maybe nothing would happen. Maybe she really did just want to talk, and it would just end up a nice evening.
Not all of him seemed to be pulling in that direction.
"Wonderful," she squealed, grabbing his hands and leading him out of the party. Focus caught between Romilda and whatever was to come, Hermione's apocalyptic glare went completely unnoticed.
"I hope you don't mind, but I thought we might go to the Room of Requirement. I'd like to see it," she said, biting at her lower lip as she looked up at him, eyes wide.
"You know about that?" Harry asked, taken aback slightly.
She laughed softly. "Everyone knows about it now, after how heroic you were last year. So can you show it to me?"
Harry grinned, feeling absurdly proud once more. "Yeah, I can show it to you. It's really neat."
She bounced, giving him a very tight hug in the process.
A short while later, they arrived at the portrait of Barnabas the Barmy, Harry explaining on the way how the room worked. When they arrived, Romilda asked if she could make the room. A surprise, she called it. With no objection, Harry agreed.
Together, they stepped into the room of Romilda's design.