Hermione grumpily took her glorified fly swatter and returned to the table where Cormac was sitting, moodily downing vodka straight from the bottle. When she slumped down in the chair next to him, he handed the bottle over without a word, and she gratefully took a swig. Consumed with their own thoughts, they passed the bottle back and forth in silence. Hermione was just thinking how comfortable and nonirritating the silence was when Cormac's head suddenly banged down loudly on the table, and he started sobbing uncontrollably. This behavior was so totally unexpected from Cormac, that she could only stare at him in shock with her mouth hanging open. As she watched his shoulders shake, it finally occurred to her that she should probably make some sort of effort to comfort him. Not sure what to do, her hand hovered over him uncertainly for a moment until she finally settled on patting his back, with an awkward, "There, there."
"I'm not really their star Keeper," Cormac blurted out, turning his head to face her. "I'm only an alternate."
"Oh. Well, I'm sure you're still very good," she said, trying to sound encouraging. She didn't need him turning her birthday into his own private pity party. She had her own crappy party to deal with. "What about that great save you made against what's his name during that one game against that, uh, other team?" She supposed she should have been paying a little bit better attention before.
Cormac took a shuddering breath. "I lied. I've never even gotten to play. Bloody healthy injury-free Keeper," he muttered.
"That's too bad," murmured Hermione, still patting his back because she didn't know what else to do. "Perhaps he'll take a Bludger to the head soon," she added, trying to sound hopeful.
"I wouldn't be that lucky," Cormac said despondently. "Ever since that botched tryout for the Gryffindor team, I've had a confidence problem. I just don't know what happened that day. Loony was right. I did play like I was Confunded."
"Oh dear," said Hermione, the guilt washing over her. She felt horrible. Her selfish albeit perfectly executed Confundus Charm had completely ruined his life. He was a broken man. She stopped with her insincere patting and started rubbing his back as if to rub away his pain. "I'm so sorry."
"Nothing for you to feel sorry about. Can you rub a little lower? It's not like you had anything to do with it, right?"
Her heart sank and so did her hand as she moved it lower down his back. "Right," she echoed, sounding a little unsure of herself.
Cormac took another drink. "Look at me. I am a complete failure at life. I'm not married. I don't have kids. I don't have any real friends. I have a crappy job. And let's face it, I'm not getting any younger. Kind of like you, really."
Hermione scowled. She couldn't help but be offended by his comment. Unfortunately, she could only find one thing that she could really quarrel with. "I... I do not have a crappy job," she sputtered.
Cormac gave her a look that clearly stated he thought she was in denial. "You basically work for house-elves."
"I happen to like house-elves," she said defiantly.
"And I like Quidditch. It doesn't mean that my job is any less degrading. Can you rub harder and a little more to the right."
"My job is not degrading," she huffed, rubbing his back harder and working out his frustrations as well as some of her own. Then she remembered that she was trying to make him feel better to help ease her guilt, so she added, "And neither is yours. An alternate is a perfectly respectable job."
"I'm Tippy the Tornado," he confessed.
"The mascot?" Hermione asked incredulously, unable to hide her astonishment.
He nodded miserably and then buried his face in his hands again. "They wouldn't pay me just to sit around and do nothing, so I have to prance around in tights and a tornado suit and make a complete fool of myself. I've been doing it for ten years."
"Oh my God. I've seen you," Hermione gasped. Ron was always dragging her to Quidditch matches when they were dating. "When you played the Chudley Cannons. Well, you didn't play them, I suppose, but you danced, and I saw you."
Cormac only started sobbing louder.
Recovering from her shock at having seen Cormac in tights, Hermione tried to think of something positive to say. "You did some, er, excellent pirouettes," she said lamely.
"I can spin like a top," he somehow managed to brag through his tears.
"It must be a really interesting job," she offered.
"If you like bratty kids and getting peed on," he muttered.
"If you hate it so much, why don't you quit? Surely there is something else you can do."
"Quidditch is my life."
"You could always try out for another team. The Cannons don't seem to be that picky." She didn't follow Quidditch that closely but even she knew the Cannons were a crappy team.
"I've tried. I keep choking. You don't think it really is Loser's Lurgy, do you?" he asked helplessly.
"No," Hermione replied adamantly. "I can say with complete certainty that it's not that."
"I just wish I knew what happened that day of the Gryffindor tryouts. I think I could move on with my life if I just knew. Do you want to rub my front?"
"No." She was feeling bad but not that bad. Still, she had to do something. The guilt was consuming her. She didn't want to be responsible for the wretched man he had turned into. She couldn't help but miss the cocky boy he used to be. She had to do something to make things right again. Hermione took a deep breath. "Cormac, I have something I need to tell you. I... I..." She was about to confess. She really was, but what came out was, "Harry only gave the Keeper position to Ron because they were friends." Bugger it all. Harry owed her anyway.
"I knew it! I bet Weasley's sister fixed the tryouts too."
"Mmhm," Hermione nodded enthusiastically. "Ginny is a bitch." Well, she was.
"I knew a girl couldn't be that good at Quidditch. Probably used a Performance Enhancing Potion. Am I right?"
Hermione scowled. She was all for throwing Ginny under the bus but not at the expense of all womankind. She was a feminist after all. "Ginny is that good at Quidditch. So are a lot of women. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not females who are buying up all the Performance Enhancing Potions," she said pointedly.
"Touché," said Cormac, smiling at her appreciatively. "You are a feisty one, aren't you?"
Hermione suddenly felt her skin crawl. At first, she thought it was because of Cormac's hand on her thigh. That was enough to make anyone's skin crawl. But then she heard it – a distinct buzzing sound. Her head whipped around frantically looking for the source of the noise. Gripping the gift from Luna tightly in her hand, she slowly stood up and raised the paddle high above her head, ready to strike at any moment.
Cormac looked at her curiously. "Is that a–"
Hermione quickly shushed him. "Be quiet!"
The buzzing sound continued, and Hermione's eyes swept around the room trying to locate her target. When her gaze shifted back toward Cormac, she was surprised to see him face down, spread out on the table. "What are you doing?"
"I've been a bad boy. I'm waiting for my punishment."
Hermione looked up at the Passion Paddle she was holding up high in the air and then looked back at Cormac in alarm. "No! This isn't what it looks like. I mean it is, but..."
"Should I pull down my trousers?"
Hermione would have protested even further, but she finally caught sight of the insect responsible for the buzzing sound. And in a moment of pure panic, she started swinging the paddle wildly about trying to kill it. In her overzealous determination to squash it flat, she went a little crazy, and before she could stop herself, her paddle landed with a resounding whack right on Cormac's waiting rear end. The good news was the buzzing stopped. The bad news was it was replaced by a really awkward silence. The squirm-worthy kind. Now that the immediate, not to mention imaginary, danger was over, she was feeling extremely foolish that she had let the paranoia get to her. Damn Luna and her stupid Love Locusts.
Unable to move or tear her eyes away from him, Hermione just stood there with the paddle frozen guiltily in the air in the place where it had rebounded off of Cormac's backside. Cormac was still sprawled out on the table with his back to her, and she was completely clueless as to what to do next. She had just spanked a grown man. Oddly enough, this was not something she had read about. Hogwart's: A History was really failing her right now. As she stared at Cormac, her heart pounding wildly, she noticed his shoulders start to tremble slightly. Oh, Merlin. She'd made him cry again.
Finally breaking the silence, Cormac let out a giggle. "That was so hot. Do it again."
"No! It was not hot. It was an accident," Hermione tried to explain, now wishing she really had made him cry. Tears were preferable to other bodily fluids.
"Who would have thought Hermione Granger was into sex games?" Cormac mused, still in his submissive position.
"I'm not into sex games!" she protested. "In fact, I'm not into having any kind of sex at all. I haven't had sex in five years!"
"That makes you practically a virgin. This is going to be so awesome!"
"It's not going to be awesome. It's not going to be anything. Because I am not having sex with you!"
"Of course you're not," said Cormac, turning his head to give her a wink. "I haven't been appropriately punished yet."
"Would you please just listen to me?" Hermione begged. "I am not having sex with you. Ever."
"I am so going to explode when we finally do it. You might have to wait for your orgasm for the second or third go around."
"Look, I was trying to be nice, but obviously, I am not getting through to you. It's never happening. We are never going to 'do it'. You repulse me. You are a vile, miserable excuse for a man. I would sooner have sex with a troll than you, and believe me, I am really not fond of trolls."
"You're good," said Cormac, propping himself up on his elbows. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you really didn't like me."
"I don't like you!"
"So, you want to spank me again?" Cormac asked, raising his eyebrows up and down.
"Tie me up?"
Hermione didn't answer right away. She had to think about that one. A gag would certainly make Cormac more tolerable.
Encouraged by her not immediately rejecting the idea, Cormac wiggled his backside and asked, "Now should I pull down my trousers?"
Losing her patience with him, Hermione slammed the paddle on the table next him. " I said no!"
Cormac let out a moan. "I am so turned on right now."
Hermione gritted her teeth. Cormac and her horrible birthday party were pushing her past her limit. She had a good mind to let out her frustrations (and the inner dominatrix she didn't even know she had) and spank the crap out of him. It sickened her to find that she was more than a little turned on by the idea. Fortunately, before she did anything stupid, namely Cormac, she was distracted by a voice calling her name from across the room.
She breathed a sigh of relief. Saved by the Floo. She could kiss whoever it was. "I'm coming," she called back.
"Can I come too?" Cormac asked suggestively. "Or is that not allowed yet?"
"Don't move. I'll be right back."
"I'll be thinking of you. Can I at least touch myself while you're gone?"
"No! Don't move anything!"
"But I am so sexually frustrated right now," Cormac whined.
"Join the club," Hermione muttered bitterly.
"Ooh, I've always been curious about those. Do you have to wear a collar? Or is that optional? And does the leather have to be black? Because I have this awesome pair of red leather trousers that really show off my ass. I call them my 'fuck me' trousers."
Hermione's eyes went wide. "What are you talking about?"
"I was just wondering if sex clubs had some kind of dress code."
"How would I know? I don't belong to a sex club!"
"Then why did you ask me to join?"
"I meant a club for people who are sexually frustrated!"
"There's a club for that?"
"Oh, I get it."
"You're usually the submissive one, aren't you?"
"I thought you seemed a little weak."
"I am not weak!"
"Oh yeah?" he challenged in a husky voice, moving in closer to her until he was leaning over her. "Then dominate me."
Hermione swallowed hard. "I, I..."
"Hermione?" the voice from across the room interrupted again.
"I'm coming!" she quickly yelled.
"Maybe we can come together," Cormac purred, flicking his tongue at her earlobe.
"I don't think so. I have to go," she said, pushing him away. "You stay here."
When Cormac started to follow her anyway, she snapped at him in her most forceful voice. "I said stay!" She pointed to the chair. "Sit."
"If I disobey, will you spank me? Spank me hard?"
Hermione let out an exasperated sigh. "I will only be a minute. Just... keep your pants on."
"Yes, Mistress," Cormac replied cheekily. And then he winked at her.
Hermione felt her hand tighten on the Passion Paddle. Cormac had it coming. Unfortunately, that's probably exactly what would happen if she let loose and really did spank the crap out of him. She quickly let the paddle drop to the table before it led to something kinky that she would later regret like a brand new black leather wardrobe.
Rushing over to the fireplace, she was dismayed to see Neville's head in the Floo. Just his head. Dropping down to her hands and knees so that she could talk to him properly, she said in a somewhat desperate voice, "Neville, please don't tell me you're not coming to my party."
Neville didn't answer right away, and he seemed even more flustered than usual. Embarrassed that his reaction was because her breasts had spilled out of her dress again, she reached up to cover herself but then decided against it. She needed all the help she could get. And if she had to sex Neville up to get at least one more guest to come to her party, then so be it. She was desperate. And desperate times called for sluttier than normal actions. Of course that could be the alcohol talking. Or her shriveling vagina.
"I'm really sorry, Hermione," Neville finally managed to sputter, "but I don't think I'm going to make it tonight. I'm a little tied up at work."
Hermione was about to call him out on his lame excuse, at least the others had put some effort into it, but then she saw that he was actually serious. He really was tied up at work. "Are you alright, Neville?" she asked in concern. "Is that Devil's Snare?"
"Yes. Yes, it is," choked out Neville, struggling to untangle the vine that had wrapped around his neck.
"Oh, I know all about Devil's Snare," she exclaimed a little more gleefully than was appropriate for the situation. "Do you know how to produce bluebell flames?"
"Yes. I've tried that already," said Neville, still struggling with the plant. "The flames only seemed to agitate it."
"Well, that's odd. Perhaps you weren't doing it right. I could do it for you if you like. I've been able to do it perfectly since first year," she couldn't help boasting. Old habits died hard.
"I'm sure you have," Neville replied patiently, "but this is a very unique strain of Devil's Snare. I am in the process of performing numerous tests on it, and I am very close to a breakthrough. I have everything perfectly under control," he assured her.
"Yes, I can see that," replied Hermione, unable to hold in the sarcasm.
Neville pulled the Devil's Snare away from his face so that he could glare at her properly. "I'll have you know that I am a highly regarded Herbologist. I specialize in rare and exotic plants. In fact, I was specifically requested to study this new strain of Devil's Snare. I think I know what I'm doing."
"I'm sure you do," Hermione said in a placating tone, "but in addition to the extensive reading I've done on the subject, I also have actual hands-on experience with Devil's Snare. Did I mention that I saved Harry and Ron from it first year?"
"And did I mention that I am a highly regarded Herbologist?" asked Neville, obviously getting annoyed.
"There's nothing wrong with asking for help, Neville," she persisted.
"I don't need your help anymore, Hermione. In case you haven't noticed, I've grown up. I am not that same needy boy you had to coddle in Potions. I am smart and successful and perfectly capable of taking care of myself. And I might add, I'm not that bad to look at anymore either. In fact, I am completely over that whole awkward phase and have been for a while now. You probably can't tell by just my head, but I'm pretty fit. Quite muscular actually. Did you know I was Mr. July in the Fun Guys of Fungi 2008 Calendar?"
"Well, I was. I can get you a copy if you don't believe me."
"So with all that going for me, why is it that people insist on still seeing me as that chubby, pathetic failure destined to go through life hanging by his underpants?"
"I fought against Death Eaters. I led a school-wide revolution. I killed a giant snake. I've won numerous awards for my research and am about to have a book published. What else do I have to do to prove that I am no longer a bumbling idiot?"
"Because I am not an idiot. I too know all about Devil's Snare. I am a frigging Herbologist for Christ's sake. And while I may not have been part of the Golden Trio, I have faced my fair share of dangerous situations and lived to tell about it. I've done loads of brave things without your help. Devil's Snare isn't even the most dangerous thing I've ever had to deal with. Did I mention I killed a giant fucking snake!"
Neville had to stop to take a breath and loosen the vine around his neck, so Hermione finally got out what she had been trying to say. "You should really relax, Neville. It will only kill you faster, you know."
Neville closed his eyes and seemingly counted to ten before he let out a defeated sigh. "Yes, well, I'd better get back to my experiments then. Happy birthday, Hermione."
"No! Wait!" exclaimed Hermione a tad desperately. "I have a great idea. Why don't you bring the Devil's Snare to my party? I could help you with your experiments here. I don't mind, really."
"Thank you, but I think I'd have better luck at my lab. Alone."
"But wouldn't it be more fun to experiment together?" she asked in her sexiest voice. What the hell. Neville really had gotten rather attractive.
"Um, I'm not sure how to respond to that," Neville answered uncomfortably.
Hermione took a deep breath to gather up her courage. She may as well just lay it all out there. She didn't have a lot to lose except her maybe her dignity and hopefully Cormac. "Look, we're both adults here. Why don't we stop beating around the bush? You're desperate. I'm desperate. You're wrapped up in Devil's Snare. And..." she paused a minute before dropping her voice to a loud whisper, "and I think I may have a thing for bondage. So when I say experiment. I really mean... experiment."
Neville's mouth dropped open, and he stared at her wide eyed without moving for such an excruciatingly long time that Hermione was afraid the Devil's Snare might have finished him off. Finally he said rather awkwardly, "Um, no offense, Hermione, but I don't think I can really see myself getting intimate with you. Sorry."
It didn't matter that she had not too long ago thought the exact same thing about him. It still stung. She gave a halfhearted chuckle. "I was just joking. You should have seen your face."
Neville let out a relieved laugh. "You really had me going. Especially with the whole bondage thing."
Hermione cleared her throat. "Yes, well, I was particularly joking about that."
"Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of lifestyle," continued Neville, "but you're Hermione and..."
"And that would be weird, I suppose."
"And creepy," Neville added.
"It's a good thing I was only joking then," said Hermione a little testily.
"Yeah," agreed Neville. "Because the thought of you in black leather..."
"Is weird and creepy. I get it," Hermione snapped. "Don't worry, it's just plain old boring sex for me. In fact, it's no sex for me at all at the moment, but if I was having sex, it would be boring. Because that's me – boring."
"There is nothing wrong with boring. It's who you are. It's who I am too. It's just that together..."
"We would be sleep inducing. The equivalent of a perfectly brewed Draught of Living Death. Or worse."
"Exactly! That's what I was thinking. You're a great girl, Hermione. I know there is someone out there who wants to have sex with you."
Hermione tried not to take that the wrong way. However, her obligatory, "Thanks, Neville," came out a little insincere.
"You know," Neville mused, "I always thought that maybe you and Malfoy would, uh, connect in that way."
Hermione's eyebrow arched. "In the Restricted Section?"
"Unused classroom," Neville answered sheepishly.
"I really don't know what everyone thought they saw between Malfoy and I," Hermione huffed, still angry about that stupid bet that apparently the whole school was involved in.
"Unresolved sexual tension? Just a guess," said Neville hurriedly as soon as he saw her face.
"You know what, Neville? You're right. There is unresolved sexual tension between Malfoy and I. Emphasis on unresolved. And it's never going to be resolved. Because if it was ever going to be resolved, now was time. I'm obviously desperate. I tried to have sex with you, didn't I? If Malfoy wanted to, he could have resolved it several times over. All he had to do was frigging show up. But like everyone else, Malfoy couldn't be bothered to attend my stupid little party even though he was invited, not by me of course, but I didn't uninvite him. And I could have. And I probably would have if he hadn't insinuated that he might like my company, which is obviously not the case because if he really did like my company, he would have come to my party instead of leaving me alone with Cormac "can't keep his frigging hands to himself" McLaggen, who may or may not have pants on at this very moment."
Neville started making little gagging noises, and she wasn't sure if it was from the Devil's Snare that had wrapped around his neck again or from the horrifying thought of Cormac being somewhere nearby without his pants on. Either way, she could hardly blame him. "Well, don't let me keep you. I'm sure you have better things to do. Like breathing."
"Yes, breathing!" exclaimed Neville, jumping on the opportunity to get the hell out of there. "That's a great excuse, er, I mean idea! I should definitely go do that now. Because breathing is a very legitimate thing to be doing. Yes, well, happy birthday, Hermione. Have fun at your party."
"I think I'd have more fun getting strangled by Devil's Snare," she muttered bitterly.
"Okay then," said Neville, obviously ready to leave. "See you later."
Hermione stared at the empty Floo in disbelief. Rejected by Neville Longbottom. Pathetic. She had just thrown herself at the boy who had had a crush on her since first year, and he rejected her. This was the most humiliating thing that had ever happened to her. It was all Ginny's fault. She had been perfectly happy with her life until Ginny had to open her eyes to how lonely she really was. Feeling very sorry for herself, Hermione let her head bang down on the floor quite ready to have her own little pity party. After everything that had happened, and what had happened had been pretty bad, her only consolation was knowing that her birthday could not possibly get any worse. She was able to take comfort in that thought for a whole two minutes before she felt a sharp smack on her bare rear end. Hermione gritted her teeth. She hated it when she was wrong.